Godey's THE BOOK of the 19th Century

After working on Makin’ Music last week, I was researching a completely unrelated subject when, guess what – I fell into another historical entertainment subject.  Reading.

Okay, reading is a very current – actually timeless – mode of entertainment.  And surely, those of you who would want to read this blog would undoubtedly be prolific readers.  Did you ever wonder what folks read in years past?  Sure, we have lots of books written over the last two hundred years that have been re-printed and we are still enjoying them.  But what about the time we spend reading magazines and newspapers?  How was that different in years past?

Until very recently, newspapers were a primary source of news and information in our country.  Even in our digital age, we still have newspapers printing every day in every major city and most small towns in the country.  We know that historically news was disseminated via periodicals that were read and re-read.  My grandmother tells of a neighbor’s home that was papered in newsprint and she was so starved for reading material that she would stand and read the walls when visiting there. 

Certainly, libraries have long maintained vast collections of historical periodicals but now we have a growing online collection as well.  Project Gutenberg exists “to encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks” (http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:Project_Gutenberg_Mission_Statement_by_Michael_Hart).

It is thanks to Project Gutenberg that I was able to read an entire issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1851 and I’ve got to tell you, I was fascinated!  First of all, a word about the Lady’s Book – it was a premiere lady’s magazine published between 1830 and 1896 with a peak subscription of 150,000.  (The U.S. population in 1860 was 31 million, so that’s a readership of ½ percent of the population.  If that doesn’t sound like much, the top women’s magazine today is Better Homes and Gardens with a readership of just 2% - and the literacy rate in the U.S. is now 99% compared to 75% in the mid-nineteenth century.)  Whew, that sounded like a statistics report – suffice it to say that Godey’s was big in its day.  Of course, the selection of magazines was very different; in 1900 the country had 3,500 magazines compared to almost 7,400 today.

I must confess I’m not a big magazine reader.  So after reading this 1851 issue, I took a look at a couple of current, women’s magazines and was pretty shocked by the comparison.  Some of the differences are certainly to be expected from a basic understanding of the technological differences.  I do not have any idea how a big magazine is really printed, but since I can print beautiful color pages on my cheap little home printer, I can just imagine the power of commercial printing equipment.  And we can certainly see the product in glossy, full-color pages.  In fact, as I flip through the pages of today’s periodicals, they seem to be nothing but pictures.  The advertisements are pictures – and advertisements seem to occupy the lion’s share of the book.  The text of the magazine consists of blocks wrapping around images of fashion, cosmetics, furnishings and clothes. 

One of the magazines I reviewed was a Christmas edition and it is stunningly beautiful as decorations have been assembled in everything from cottages to mansions - in fact, one article was titled Merry Mansions. 

Compare all of this to Godey’s whose printing was largely limited to black-and-white and very heavy on text.  In fact, there are no less than three novels included in part within the issue.  The Gutenberg Project did not include page numbers in the digital rendering but the editor refers to the large size of the publication.  One the current magazines I used for comparison had one hundred ninety-three pages and only one page was predominately text, there were no fictional stories and certainly no poetry. 

Godey’s included numerous poems, a house plan and a description of proper fashion for the opera versus a party or informal dinner party.  I guess I was a little surprised that there weren’t more recipes and articles on homemaking.   However, there were several articles with directions for chenille work, making a head-dress and undersleeves.  Also, there was “A New Receipt for a Washing Mixture” which details a means of washing that require very little hand rubbing and I’m sure would have been most welcome by any homemaker of the 1850’s.

Rarely do I find modern writing that presents a value system and directly says, ‘this is what you ought to believe or how you should act’.  Certainly, most authors endeavor to persuade their readers in some point.  However, the editor’s page in 1851 pulled no punches on the “special gifts of God to men” and women’s unique talents.  This is in no way a religious publication, but she directly asserts that “these Bible truths will be the rule of faith and of conduct with every American wife and mother”.  Surely there is a social commentary there on the focus of Americans and the American media of that day.

Finally, a note on advertisements – and I include this in the end because that is where Godey’s placed their ads.  Instead of the colorful pictures of products, Godey’s listed numerous businesses complete with address and a word about their merchandise or services.  So small is this section that I could scarcely find it for reference.  Perhaps the publisher relied less on advertising dollars than we do today for it seems a subscription would cost ten dollars for ten years, a price vast enough in its day that groups of ladies pooled their money and shared each issue.