Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reading Sarah Josepha Hale on Thanksgiving

This week I've been reading some of the works of Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who made Thanksgiving an official U.S. holiday.

(Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale by James Reid Lambdin, 1831.)

She was the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, which was a wildly popular Victorian magazine featuring stories, poems, plays, recipes, household tips, and wonderful fashion spreads. Through her magazine, Hale became a huge influence on American society. She promoted U.S. authors, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edgar Allen Poe. She was an arbiter of taste and an advocate for abolition and women’s education. After the Civil War, she started campaigning to make Thanksgiving an official holiday that could unify the country.

(This is the letter Hale wrote to Abraham Lincoln asking him to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. You can read the whole thing at the Library of Congress website.)

Hale’s 1839 book on household management, The Good Housekeeper, is a fascinating read. (You can read it online here.) It’s an instruction manual on how to be the perfect Victorian woman: in control of her household, maintaining her family’s health, improving the morality of her husband and her community.

Hale was also a novelist, and at the end of The Good Housekeeper she provides some novelistic scenes of domestic life:

“Be particular that the dinner is in the very best style, Ruth; and pray see yourself that the ducks’ feet are crimped. I would not, for the universe, this should be forgotten, to-day. The feet are Mr. B____’s tit-bit,” said Mrs. B. to a girl who acted as an upper domestic or sort of housekeeper. Mrs. B. strove, as much as possible, to imitate European customs. … The truth was, Mrs. B. had been invited to a very select party of the fashionables; she wished to outshine all the ladies, and a new dress and set of pearl ornaments were to be the price of the dinner in general, and the ducks’ feet in particular.”

Mrs. B. has been neglecting her husband’s digestion, though, so he isn’t impressed by her fancy dinner. He doesn’t touch his crimped ducks’ feet (I still don’t know what exactly crimped ducks' feet are), and he doesn’t buy his wife a set of pearl ornaments. The Good Housekeeper is there to make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen. It’s there, as the dedication says, to teach every woman how to “promote the health, comfort, and prosperity of her family.”

(Victorian Thanksgiving cards are all about the domesticity of women.)

Does that scenario with Mr. and Mrs. B. sound familiar to you? It did to me, and it’s not because I like to serve my husband crimped ducks’ feet. It’s because it’s the same kind of moral lesson that you get in a Louisa May Alcott book. The Good Housekeeper kept reminding me of different scenes from Alcott books: the girls who go to too many fancy parties and eat too much cake in An Old-Fashioned Girl, the mothers who neglect their children’s diet and education in Little Men, Rose’s cooking lessons in Eight Cousins

Hale and Alcott seem to share a lot of the same ideas about food, too. Like hot bread, which Rose is forbidden to eat in Eight Cousins. Hale seems to be a little obsessed with how bad hot bread is for you, returning to the topic over and over again: “But it is the hot bread, lying undigested, and of course hard and heavy in the stomach, which prostrates the system, and thus makes the mental fatigue injurious.” Hale wants everyone to eat cold whole-wheat bread, which she calls, unappetizingly, “dyspepsia bread.” She says that bread-baking is the finest accomplishment of a lady, a sentiment which is echoed in Eight Cousins by Uncle Alec, who tells Rose, “When you bring me a handsome, wholesome loaf, entirely made by yourself, I shall be more pleased than if you offered me a pair of slippers embroidered in the very latest style.”

There is more to The Good Housekeeper than nutritional diatribes. It's a reference book filled with all kinds of information, from how to manage your servants to how to get ink out of your mahogany furniture. It’s filled with recipes, some of which I really want to try, like squash pie (flavored with rose water and nutmeg) and rice snowballs (whole cooked apples inside balls of rice pudding). This book is also packed with strange and intriguing bits of trivia, like the frightening tale of the lady who washed her face with rum:

“A lady, in consequence of a nervous affection in her jaw, had used rum for fourteen years to wash in – not a drop of water had touched her face and neck during that time. She was not very old, but her skin looked as dry and shriveled as a baked sweet apple – you could scarcely put down a pin’s point without touching a wrinkle.”

(I imagine fashionable ladies, like these from an 1855 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, being horrified by this story, which is meant to show the evils of alcohol.)

The Good Housekeeper is an excellent book to read on a busy day like the one before Thanksgiving. You don’t have to make a major time commitment to it; it’s the kind of book you can just dip into when you have a spare moment and want something entertaining. And it's a perfect companion to the other thing I'm reading for Thanksgiving -- Louisa May Alcott's story "An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving." More about that story tomorrow.


  1. I knew of Godey's Lady's Book from Laura Ingalls Wilder, long before I ever learned about Sarah Josepha Hale (and in fact the image of the bread plate reminded me of the one rescued from the fire in The First Four Years). At a friend's house recently I discovered a couple of bound volumes of the Lady's Book, and it was the closest I've come to book theft in years. The variety of information in them is so fascinating - there were house designs! I'll keep an eye out for The Good Housekeeper. And I had to laugh at the condemnation of hot bread - I found the same thing in the letters of Abelard and Heloise in the 1100s! Happy Thanksgiving.

    1. Oh, I forgot about Godey's Lady's Book being in the Little House books! It was such a cool magazine; I love the house designs too.