Sarah Josepha Hale Biography

Editor, Poet, Writer(1788–1879)
Sarah Josepha Hale was a renowned 19th-century writer and editor who pushed for girls’ education reform and the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Synopsis

Sarah J. Hale was born in 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire, going on to work in publishing after the death of her husband in 1822. In addition to writing the children’s classic poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Hale was a novelist and magazine editor, helming Godey’s Lady’s Book for decades. She was also an ardent supporter of girls receiving an education and became known as the Mother of Thanksgiving for her push to make the celebration a national holiday. She died on April 30, 1879. 

Background and Early Writing

Sarah Josepha Buell was born on October 24, 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire. She received private tutoring from her brothers growing up and later became a teacher herself at a school in her hometown. She married lawyer David Hale in 1813, and the couple went to have five children. David died of a stroke in 1822, and, after working in the millinery trade for a short time, Sarah embarked on a career as a writer and editor to support her family. She went on to anonymously pen the 1823 book The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems, and a few years later released the novel Northwood: A Tale of New England (1827).

Famed Publishing Career and Poetry

Towards the end of the decade, Hale took on a position as editor of Ladies’ Magazine, later called American Ladies’ Magazine. She did a bulk of the writing for the publication while also relying on other contributors for original content, though in 1837 the magazine was acquired by Louis Godey. It eventually became known as Godey’s Lady’s Book, and Hale continued to work for the magazine for 40 years, relocating to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and focusing on what was seen as feminine etiquette of the day. The publication would eventually have a circulation of 150,000 and published the work of prominent scribes like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Hale had also worked with childhood educators and penned Poems for Our Children (1830), which included the poem “Mary’s Lamb,” later becoming widely known as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Over the forthcoming decades, Hale continued to release works from a variety of genres, including Three Hours; or, The Vigil of Love: and Other Poems (1848) and Women’s Record; or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from “The Beginning” till A.D. 1850, which had multiple editions and is credited as the first work to honor female writers.

Girls' Education and Thanksgiving 

Hale was a staunch proponent of education for girls and women, pushing for entrance into professions like teaching and eventually medicine. She helped establish the Troy Female Seminary and finance Vassar College and campaigned for women to join the institution’s faculty. But Hale did not support suffrage and the feminist call for equal access to a wide range of work and did not take up abolitionist causes with other women reformers, though she took an anti-slavery stance in Northwood.

Hale has also been called by some the Mother or Godmother of Thanksgiving as she ardently pushed for some time to have the day recognized as a national holiday. Thanksgiving was regularly celebrated by different parts of the country, but not in a particularly unified way. During the Civil War, Hale wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward in 1863 calling upon the leaders to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. The president followed suit, ultimately leading to a fixed time of annual celebration over the years.

Sarah J. Hale retired at the age of 89 from the editorial and writing work that came to define and enrich her life. She died on April 30, 1879 in Philadelphia.

Sarah Josepha Hale

(Portrait painted by James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889) [Public domain], via WikiCommons)

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