CIVILIZING THE WEST WITH GODEY’S
Award-winning and best-selling author Tracie Peterson lends insight and intrigue to a time when pioneer women used their limited resources to create warm, inviting homes with the help of one treasured magazine.
It is often said that women were the key to civilizing the West—representations of family and comfort, stability and order. Through my research, it became evident that the two most powerful tools used to civilize the West were the Bible and Godey’s Lady’s Book. Both were wielded with exacting skill by women for the purpose of creating a better world for all.
The average woman who went west left behind the comforts of home. She had heard the horror stories of sickness, wild animals, and unfriendly natives, not to mention the lack of mercantiles that could provide the essentials of daily living. She was often required to leave behind her lovely wedding gifts and precious family heirlooms—so God help the man who suggested there was no room for her Godey’s.
Godey’s Lady’s Book was the thread that connected many a pioneer woman to the civilization she’d left behind. The magazine provided stories and poetry along with how-to articles in sewing, cooking, arts and crafts, and medical needs. A woman sitting in her dirt floor soddy in Kansas could flip through the pages to learn how to make her house a home, she could teach her daughters how to style their hair in the latest fashion or how to make the perfect apple butter.
Just prior to the Civil War, Godey’s Lady’s Book had a subscription base of more than 150,000, and many of those were mailed west to women in remote parts of the country. Many credit editor Sarah Josepha Hale, a widowed mother of five, for the magazine’s success. She saw the need to create a work that would speak to the heart of women—no matter their station. Women from all walks of life clamored for this magazine, even forming clubs to share the expense. Issues were pored over, memorized, and utilized for keeping up with the times and connecting with their sisters across the country. Proof of how precious this work was can be found in that even today there are numerous original copies bound and passed down through generations of women. Perhaps we might even consider Godey’s to be the great-grandmother of publications such as Southern Lady.
As a writer, I’ve found Godey’s is one of the best sources for research and insight into that time period. The magazine gives a taste of the interests of women in that day, and a peek into their deepest desires. And, even while many a pioneer woman would never host a dinner party for twenty or wear one of the delicate evening gowns featured, she would dream on those things via Godey’s. In reading and researching through those issues, we can better understand the heart of our foremothers, who did their best to civilize the West using God and Godey’s.