|Patricia L. Cummings
Sarah Josepha Hale, (1788-1879), called “the Mother of the American Thanksgiving,” is well-known as the Newport, New
Hampshire woman who became editor, or rather "editress," as she preferred to be called, of the popular 19th century
publication known as Godey's Lady's Book. Hale was an influential leader who persuaded President Lincoln to declare an
annual day of Thanksgiving in 1864. Initially, the date of August 6 was set aside the national holiday, by proclamation.
Sarah Josepha Buell Hale
(October 24, 1788 - April 30, 1879)
Hale's first mention of the idea of a national Thanksgiving came in 1842, according to the book, To My Countrywomen: The
Life of Sarah Josepha Hale by Muriel L. Dubois (Bedford, NH: Apprentice Shop Books, 2006). Thereafter, Hale and her
assistant labored intently to see that dream come true. She believed that the country should follow George Washington's lead.
He had selected November 26, 1789, during the 4th week of the month, as a day for the country to engage in prayerful
worship to acknowledge its blessings. Therefore, Hale was dismayed when the August date was declared.
First Thanksgiving One of Fasting
In the book, Sarah Josepha Hale: The Life and Times of a Nineteenth-Century Woman by Norma R. Fryatt (New York:
Hawthorn Books, 1975), the author states that the Puritans, the first to set aside a day of Thanksgiving, fasted and gave
thanks, rather than feasted. This was also true of George Washington's designated day of collective thanksgiving.
In Hale's first novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England, her abolitionist sentiments ring clear when she suggests that 40,000
churches accept donations on a day of Thanksgiving and use the funds to free the slaves so that all of America could truly be
free. To accomplish her goal, she began a vigorous letter writing campaign, and helped by her assistant, they sent out
thousands of handwritten letters to lobby politicians for a national holiday. As a direct result of her letters and especially her
journal editorials, the campaign succeeded.
Sarah Hale's Education and Family
Sarah was initially taught at home by her mother. However, Sarah's brother Horatio Buell, who attended Dartmouth College, is
responsible for her "higher" education. He tutored Sarah in many subjects including Latin, Greek, and Mathematics, while he
learned them himself at school. In spite of having had only one formal year of education, Sarah learned enough from her
brother to start a "dame" school for boys and girls.
Reportedly, this school was the site where the actual incident occurred of a lamb following a child to school. The story is the
basis of her poem, "Mary's Lamb," written in 1830 and later published as the beloved and well-known poem "Mary Had a Little
Lamb," later put to music.
As "editress" of Godey's Lady's Book, Hale encouraged potential contributors to that publication and often recommended
specific textbooks that would help them to become better writers. Many now well-known writers had their start by first being
published in that journal. Louis Godey, the publisher of the journal, paid contributors well, which drew skilled writers to
submit their work.
Sarah's father, Captain Gordon Buell, served in the American Revolutionary War. In 1811, he and his wife, Martha Whittlesay
Buell, settled onto a 400 acre farm in Newport, New Hampshire that had been awarded to him as a land grant. The 1 1/2 story
home where Sarah was born burned to the ground in 1899.
A Home of Her Own
Sarah fell in love with David Hale who had a thriving law practice in Newport, NH. The couple married in 1813. The
ceremony took place at the Rising Star Tavern (which was also an inn), owned by her Captain Buell. The physical building
where tavern was located still stands as a private residence on Main Street in that town.
For nine years of marriage, the couple enjoyed sitting by the fire and sharing their studies on a variety of subjects, especially
Botany, French, Mineralogy, and Geology, according to the book The Lady of Godey's: Sarah Josepha Hale by Ruth E.
Finley (Philadelphia & London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1931). Finley was an early 20th century quilt historian who wrote a
quilt history book in 1929, (the 2nd book of its kind, the first one having been written by Marie Webster). Two evening hours
per night, from 8 p.m. - 10 p.m., were set aside for their intellectual pursuits.
As fate would have it, their relationship was short-lived. After having been caught in a sudden and unexpected September
snow storm while returning from the adjoining town of Guild via horse and carriage, David Hale became seriously ill and died
two weeks later of pneumonia on September 25, 1822.
Five Children to Raise
Sarah's oldest son, David Emerson, born in 1815, was only 7 years old, and she had three other children, too: Horatio (1817),
Frances Ann (1819), and Sarah Josepha (1820). Her yet unborn child, named William George, arrived on October 9, 1822,
just two weeks after his father's death. Sarah Josepha Hale's world suddenly had turned upside-down.
Widow Hale Begins Lifetime Career As Editor
How could she make ends meet to support the children? Sarah Hale opened a millinery shop in town with her sister-in-law.
Funding for the shop set-up had been provided by Masons who were friends of David. The only problem was that Sarah did
not enjoy the work, and at every spare moment, engaged in reading or writing.
An avid writer herself, her works began to attract attention in literary circles. Her first book of poetry was called The Genius
of Oblivion; and Other Original Poems. Sarah wrote her first novel Northwood: A Tale of New England in 1827 which
attracted the attention of Reverend John Blake of Boston. He had planned to launch Ladies Magazine that same year and he
invited Sarah to edit the new publication. She gladly accepted the task and took her two youngest children with her to Boston.
Later, the magazine would become renamed the American Ladies Magazine. Ultimately, the journal would be sold to Louis
Godey of Philadelphia and would become known as Godey's Lady's Book from 1830-1898. Sarah Josepha Hale's dedication as
editress of the publication is apparent when we consider that she did not retire from that position until 1877, just two years
before her own death in 1879,
Of Sarah, the following statement was made by the late quilt historian, Ruth Finley:
Her real contribution lies in the fact that, having the soul of a modern, she understood --and deliberately employed--
Victorianism as a link, a transition, between the lethargic indifference of the eighteenth century, that regarded woman as a
highly prized chattel, and the nineteenth century's dream of woman's destiny --economic and moral freedom.
“The Book,” as it was called, provided readers with much food for thought. They could follow the latest trends in fashion and
they could enjoy essays, short stories and poems written by writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and
Herman Melville, men who would gain national prominence.
Ironically, in spite of the fact that the colorplates of costumes featured in Godey's Lady's Book have become prized among
collectors, at the time of their publication, the editress resented their inclusion, and ran them only at the insistence of Mr.
Hand-painted Colorplate in Godey's Lady's Book Features Fashions of the Day
Sarah Hale was very opinionated and stirred up readers with notions such as the one that women should be accepted into
medical school. At the same time, she seemed to fully ascribe to prevalent Victorian thought including the idea that a woman's
duty was to exemplify virtue by example, leading the family both morally and spiritually. This overall role of women in the
home, during the late nineteenth century is often referred to as the “Cult of Domesticity,” and/or the “Cult of True
Conflict of Interest?
For all of her wishes that women be educated, Sarah Josepha Hale did not believe in a woman's right to vote. Perhaps the
militant attitude and the actions of the Suffragettes seemed too contrary to the idealized notion of women as demure,
subservient and pretty, sitting around embroidering Duster Bags in which to keep a dust rag handy in case of drop-in
company. An item of that type was presented as a pattern in one of the issues of Godey's Lady's Book. Hale was very much a
progressive woman for the times in which she lived, and yet to some degree, she appears to conform to Victorian conventions.
Dedication to Education Legendary
Hale's dedication to education for women resulted in her advocacy for the start of Vassar College, a school just for women.
She strongly suggested to her friend, Michael Vassar, that the teachers hired there should be women. When the school
opened, there were 22 women instructors, and only 8 men.
Hale gave the new school a terrific amount of advance publicity through her editorials of endorsement for it. Yet, it would not
have been true to form had she not shared her opinions. She objected to the chosen name: Vassar's Female College. She
stated that she did not want the name of the college to reflect the animal status of its participants (my paraphrase).
Customarily, she had instructed her readers to cross out the word “female,” whenever they came across it in print and instead
write in "girl" or "woman" etc. She simply hated the word “female.”
Impressive Body of Work
We cannot discuss Sarah Josepha Hale's life without mentioning her nearly 50 volumes of literary works that include prose,
poetry and children's literature.
In an 1868 Godey's Lady's Book, she shared the following poem:
“Our National Thanksgiving”
All the blessings of the fields,
All the stores the garden yields,
All the plenty summer pours,
Autumn's rich, o'erflowing stores,
Peace, prosperity and health,
Private bliss and public wealth,
Knowledge with its gladdening streams,
Pure religion's holier beams:
Lord, for these our souls shall raise
Grateful vows and solemn praise.
Lydia Marie Child's Poem
A contemporary poet of Sarah Joseph Hale was Lydia Maria Child (1802- 1880) whose poem, “The New England Boy's Song
About Thanksgiving Day,” is one that has resonated in my head since childhood perhaps because we had to memorize the first
four stanzas of the lengthy poem to recite in school. In case you are not familiar with this work, let me share the first stanza:
Over the river and through the wood,
To grandfather's house we go:
The horse knows the way,
To carry the sleigh,
Through the white and drifted snow.
For a walk down memory lane, the full poem can be read online at: http://www.potw.org/archive/potw64.html The poem
has also been set to music.
Sarah Josepha Buell Hale
There is much more to Sarah Josepha Hale's life than is included in this short essay. It will behoove the reader to investigate
her involvement in fund raising for the Bunker Hill Monument, her work with the Seaman's Aid Society of Boston, and her
other points of influence during her lengthy career. She began her writing campaign to lobby for a national day of
Thanksgiving when President Taylor was in office (1849-1850) and then wrote to President Fillmore, President Pierce,
President Buchanan (who all ignored her), and finally she contact President Lincoln who liked the idea! The study of Hale's life
reveals her persistence!
Suffice it to say that the beautiful Sarah Josepha Hale, with her trademark long curls, was an inspiration in her time. Her
thoughts are timeless and live on in the hearts of those who still read and enjoy her work. In New Hampshire, we claim her as
one of our own, made of sturdy New England stock, determined to succeed even against the odds. Guided by the Hand of
Providence, succeed she did.
The next time you sit down to a Thanksgiving meal, please think of Sarah Josepha Hale and all of her diligent work to make
her dream of a universal American Thanksgiving celebration come true. She sought the good of all, even after experiencing the
trauma of losing her beloved husband at such an early age. Such a life of hard work, decency and dedication to truth shall
always shine across the ages.
This statue to honor the life of Sarah Josepha Hale stands in a park near the Newport, NH library
Close-up of Sarah Josepha Hale statue, Newport, NH.
Taken by James Cummings on November 29, 2013.
Read more about the "Mother of Thanksgiving" in this WMUR press release:
©Copyright 2006. Updated in November 2013. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, New Hampshire.
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