The Wild West of Yester-Year

The Frontier Woman's Ally
Living on the frontier could be an isolating experience.

Your nearest neighbors might live too far away to visit easily or often. Or they might speak a different language than you. Your family might live nearby, but more likely, they lived “back East.” News from more settled places traveled slowly to the frontier, even after the telegraph arrived. And news about less masculine interests like current fashions, recipes, and household decorating styles did not spread via telegraph at all. Frontier women had one ally in their efforts to remain informed of current everyday affairs: the Godey’s Lady’s Book. From 1830 to 1898, this magazine united women across the nation by sharing recipes, dress patterns, fiction, poetry, popular music, household hints, and more. If you’ve ever read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you may recall Ma Ingalls mentioned getting new dress patterns from the Lady’s Book, which is where I first heard of it. 

Louis Antoine Godey of Philadelphia started Godey’s Lady’s Book, later called Godey’s Magazine, in 1830. Unlike the other magazines for women produced in that era, she aimed the Lady’s Book at women all across the nation, not those of one particular region. Godey wanted his magazine to contain things of interest for all literate American women, things to inform and amuse them. His insistence on variety helped make the Lady’s Book widely popular, eventually reaching 150,000 subscribers. In fact, it was the most financially lucrative periodical printed in Philadelphia. 

Because women all across the nation read it, the Lady’s Book helped frontier women feel united with their friends and family back home. They read the same stories and poems, learned the same songs, studied the same fashions, and tried out the same new recipes, whether they lived in the wilds of the Dakotas or the heart of old Virginia. Issues generally included sheet music for a popular new song, written for the piano, but helpful for anyone who could read music. Besides recipes, the magazine had medicinal remedies and articles about health and hygiene. And its colored fashion plates were always wildly popular. Louis Godey wanted his magazine to be taken seriously for its high-quality literature too. It boasted early works by writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allan Poe, Frances Osgood, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Godey was the first magazine editor to copyright his text to prevent others from copying the articles, fiction, and poetry it contained without permission.  

In 1836, Godey purchased a similar magazine, Boston’s American Ladies’ Magazine, which he merged with his own publication. He also hired Sarah Hale (author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) as the editor. Hale authored several books of her own and devoted herself to enabling American women to educate and inform themselves. Under her supervision, Godey’s Lady’s Book became one of the most highly respected magazines in the country, and it remained popular until it ended in the late 1870s. 

Even if it took weeks or months to reach her over the rough trails and brand-new train tracks that led from Philadelphia to the far corners of the frontier, Godey’s Lady’s Book provided pioneer women with a tangible link to the outside world. Without it, she was one lone woman in a world dominated by men. But with it, she felt tied to her fellow womankind and knew others just like her were improving their minds and lives with the same articles and pictures and recipes. Today, you can visit and see recipes, etiquette tips, and patterns for sewing, crocheting, and knitting that were all featured in the magazine years ago and helped American women of the West and East alike.