What was the 19th century equivalent of the Ladies Home Journal?

I’m in trouble. There’s an antique store right down the street from my house and already I’ve found two big thick books, one dated 1866 and the other, 1878. The bug of collecting antique books is beginning to take hold!

As I read more and more about Louisa May Alcott, her family and her works, I have become increasingly interested in what made the typical 19th century woman tick.

Of course, there are many versions of “typical.” You have:

  • wealthy women of the Gilded Age (much like the Shaws of
    An Old-Fashioned Girl)
  • poorer women (like Polly of An Old-Fashioned Girl and the March sisters of Little Women)
  • immigrant women
  • black women
  • European women . . .

It’s hard to nail down the “typical” woman. Yet there were publications that depicted the ideal woman and taught women how to emulate that model. And there were how-to books on how to achieve perfect womanhood.

I found two very different books which tackled this issue. They are Godey’s Lady’s Book for 1866 and The Mirror of Womanhood (second edition 1878) by Rev. Bernard O’Reilly. One book addresses the image of the perfect woman through fashion and culture while the other through religion (in this case, Catholicism).

As I deepen my knowledge of Louisa’s work and life, I look forward also to deepening my understanding of 19th century women.

Godey’s Lady’s Book 1866

Godey’s Lady’s Book was probably the Ladies Home Journal of its day (or perhaps all those types of magazines combined). Wikipedia describes it in this way:

The magazine was published by Louis A. Godey from Philadelphia for 48 years (1830–1878). Godey intended to take advantage of the popularity of gift books, many of which were marketed specifically to women.[1] Each issue contained poetry, articles, and engravings created by prominent writers and other artists of the time. Sarah Josepha Hale (author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) was its editor from 1837 until 1877 and only published original, American manuscripts. Although the magazine contained work by both men and women, Hale published three special issues which only included work done by women.

At its zenith, the publication boasted having 150,000 subscribers. It was the most popular journal in its day, even at a pricey $3 per issue.

Godey’s Lady’s Book refused to get involved in any way with politics and thus made the mistake of totally ignoring the Civil War. This decision cost the journal one third of its subscribers.

Godey's Fashions for January, 1866

Gorgeous fashions

What immediately struck me as I flipped through the book was the beauty of the illustrations – gorgeous full color foldout fashion plates protected by onion skin paper, and detailed black and white engravings. It is a treasure trove of lovely artwork with exquisite detail, showing off the beauty of the fashions of the day. It made me wonder what our legacy will be, what with emails, photographs and videos replacing these carefully drawn illustrations.

It will be interesting to thumb through the various articles, poems and music that Godey’s offers. At some point Louisa and her sisters probably thumbed through these journals, desiring the dresses, bonnets and jackets (we know that Meg desired finery). Louisa made no secret of the fact that she appreciated fashion, often window shopping when she was in Boston.

I think of Louisa using Godey’s to describe the fashions worn by the Shaws and all the ladies of privilege in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

The Mirror of True Womanhood gilded cover

The Mirror of True Womanhood

I often read that Beth in Little Women was the quintessential 19th century Victorian woman, a model of moral perfection. Amy, of course, worked so hard at becoming a true lady, exhibiting grace, taste and little kindnesses towards others.

The Mirror of True Womanhood - beginning of the Table of Contents

Religious themes

This made me want to find out more about what made the perfect woman. It was with that thought that I picked up The Mirror of True Womanhood, published in 1878. I didn’t realize at the time when I purchased it that it was actually geared towards Irish Catholic women and therefore would have a lot of religious overtones (of which I am familiar with, being Catholic).

Hard to be different

But undoubtedly there are universal themes in this book that would apply to the idea of perfect womanhood, the kind that Beth and Amy epitomized. Louisa exhibited ambivalence towards this model, especially in the character of Jo March. She herself grappled much with being a working spinster, sometimes reveling in the independence, while at other times feeling left out and lonely.

Models from the past, and present

At any rate, reading sources from the day about what makes the perfect woman should prove interesting. I shall keep in mind what today’s magazines and media offer as images of the perfect woman. While women have certainly come a long way from the 19th century, I have a feeling I will find many similarities with regards to attitudes about fashion and appearance. We shall see.

In the meantime, enjoy the slide show of the fashion plates and contents of these books.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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15 Replies to “What was the 19th century equivalent of the Ladies Home Journal?”

  1. Susan, this is fascinating! How I wish I’d had Godey’s book to hand while writing The Little Women Letters – I’d have raided it shamelessly. But I’m also greatly intrigued by the other book, which was written at the time when my compatriots were being so thoroughly scorned by the likes of the Alcotts – I know, I know what you’re going to say, the Alcotts were very kind to the Irish … but, being of their time and place, in no way did they regard them as anything but hopelessly socially inferior. This seems to be a sort of manual for an Irishwoman who had aspirations to lead a more elegant sort of life than she was accustomed to, and I’d love to have a chance to read between those lines! Hum. I feel a book quest coming on …

    1. Wish I could do it with you . . . I’ve seen various Godey books on Ebay and such, not too expensive. And The Mirror of True Womanhood is available in its totality online (though it’s more fun to read a real copy). Real copies are available on Ebay as well. Your perspective regarding the Irish and their lowly station in our country at that time gives the book an added dimension . . . I’d love to hear more about that.

      You all have been so enthusiastic about these types of posts that I will now have to include hunting for antique books and collectibles among my “tasks” for this blog. Yet another excuse to indulge. 🙂

  2. Nineteenth-century Americans believed that women had a particular propensity for religion. The modern young woman of the 1820s and 1830s was thought of as a new Eve working with God to bring the world out of sin through her suffering, through her pure, and passionless love.

  3. Thank you for the post on these books. I am really excited to take a look at Godey’s Lady’s Book. Above, you ask the question what was the Ladies Home Journal of the 19th century, and in fact, it was Ladies’ Home Journal! The magazine was first published in 1883! If you are interested in the period, they are still a great read!

  4. I’d love to find Godey’s Lady’s book for only $18. I’ve seen transcripts and fashion plates online. The University of Michigan has an archive of scanned periodicals. You can find more advice in other periodicals. Keep in mind that the ideal American woman was Anglo-Saxon, American born and Protestant. During this time there was hysterical fear of immigrants, especially poor immigrants and Catholics. Sarah Josepha Hale pretty much invented Thanksgiving as an American holiday in an attempt to teach immigrants what it meant to be American. She was a big proponent of domesticity as well though she worked for a living!

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