Sarah Hale, the subject of my upcoming children’s book, is credited as the very first female magazine editor in America (though she preferred the title “editress”). Her Ladies’ Magazine, founded in 1828, was dedicated to patriotism, charitable causes, and – most significantly – educational opportunities for women. The publication was an instant hit, but readers still wanted a little something more. Letters soon began trickling into the editress’ office urging Sarah to print illustrations of what the modern European ladies were wearing this season.
Sarah was not amused. Here she was, trying to use her magazine to forward the fortunes of women across the nation, and her readers only wanted to look at pretty dresses. Hale resisted the requests as best she could, but an editress does have to keep her subscribers happy – if she wishes to have subscribers.
Hand-colored fashion plates began to appear in Ladies’ Magazine in 1830, but Hale wasn’t going to print this fluff without first having her say. In an editorial, Hale made clear that fashion plates had no practical purpose. Each woman should not be a slave to what others are wearing; she should choose tasteful designs that suit her body type and colors that complement her skin tone. “This may be easily accomplished,” Hale scolded, “if our countrywomen would only think for themselves. At present American ladies, as regards to the fashion of their attire, rarely think more than did the ape when he put a red cap on his head because he saw such a one worn by the sailor.”
In short, Ladies’ Magazine readers would get pictures of women dressed up only after Hale gave them all a dressing down.