Why Thanksgiving Day is Perennial – A Quilt Expert Tells the Story of Sarah Hale
By Florence Yoder Wilson
An interviewer has to be adaptable. Able to change at the slightest breath. For instance, take the visit made to Ruth E Finley, of quilt fame. I went to find out about quilts and came back with a Thanksgiving story that was so good that it became THE story, and both Mrs. Finley and the quilts and her lovely home all have to take a back seat this November whilst Sarah Josepha Hale, for fifty years editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, proudly marches through these pages and receives from each reader’s heart the applause long due her for putting Thanksgiving Day on the map, or more strictly speaking, in the calendar.
True I shall not neglect Mrs. Finley, either on persona, quilt, or Sara Josepha scores. For it is she and no other who held me fascinated that torrid August day in Hempstead, Long Island, she who is responsible for the best book on quilts to be had, namely, “Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them,” and she who, in the course of her research on coverlids, met, and fell in love with Sarah Josepha Hale.
That love was no flash and disappear affair. It developed into an absorbing passion, burned steadily for several years, and at last has blazed forth into another book by Mrs. Finley entitled “The Lady of Godey’s, Sarah Josepha Hale” (published by J.B. Lippincott Co, Philadelphia, PA), which is just in print this winter.
Mrs. Finley found Mrs. Hale while she was looking up quilt patterns for her quilt book, in the old files of Godey’s Lady’s Book. Everyone whose grandparents, or even mothers and fathers, were born in this country must have at least a memory of this first woman’s magazine.
Reproductions of Godey’s colored plates of ladies’ fashions appear everywhere now, pasted on lamps, books, toilet boxes, match boxes and what not. The age of hoops, and flounces, and delicate fainting females, is not likely to be forgotten, especially at the present time. The little Eugenie hats, so popular this winter, are of that very precious period. But whether you know Godey’s or not here’s Sarah Hale’s story, retold in my words, as Mrs. Finley told it to me.
Sarah Josepha Hale is to be reckoned as one of America’s foremost women for many reasons, but just at this time, her distinction as being the person responsible for Thanksgiving Day as we celebrate it, in unison, as a nation, is by far the most appropriate matter to discuss.
For thirty years, this indefatigable woman wrote to different presidents, the governors of states and territories, and to men and women in public life urging them to consider the value of a national Thanksgiving Day, proclaimed yearly a holiday by the government.
In the beginning as we all know, the first proclamation for a Day of Thanks was made by General Washington in 1789. It is not so well known, however, that, following this time, there was no special date set for such a demonstration of gratitude to God for His mercies. Each year, at variable dates, it was the habit for people to meet and keep a Day of Thanks. Certain localities observed the custom regularly especially in the New England states, but all over the south and west, this occasion was sometimes celebrated, and sometimes not. In any event the dates varied greatly, and there was no national celebration of any kind.
Sarah Hale had an idea that a national holiday would unify the country, and draw it together in common bonds of prayer and gratitude. It is hard for us to realize today, what this far-flung nation was before the Civil War. Gravest doubts as to our ever being able to act as a unit assailed the most patriotic. This state was like a European sovereignty, that state was tied up with two or three others, and seemed to have no identity; the west was divided into territories, and the far west was at best a grave hazard, against which the hardy forty-niners had thrown themselves, said some, in vain.
The deepest instincts of patriotism stirred Mrs. Hale to her thirty years’ endeavor. But for her, Thanksgiving would have disappeared, or become merely a sectional holiday indulged in by a few New England states.
In 1863 Abraham Lincoln, acceding to Mrs. Hale’s earnest solicitations issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, and in the administrations following the custom has never been dropped. Who was this Sarah Hale? Oh, just one of our early school teachers, to begin with. The kind that brushed the rattlesnakes off the front stoop before they went into the little red schoolhouse, and at lunch with the smallest children for fear the mountain lions would make their lunch of them.
School-teaching lasted seven years, and then came marriage, to David Hale, at twenty-five, and life began at Newport, New Hampshire. Four children were born to the Hales and two weeks before the fifth child was born, Mr. Hale died, leaving his wife destitute – with five children to support and educate.
That word destitute has the same spelling it had back in 1826, but it hasn’t the same application and meaning. Destitute in those days was destitute. Sarah Josepha Hale had nothing, and no prospects. Women did practically no public work in those days. She tried millinery, and failed.
She wrote a book of poems, which was published. Then she wrote a book called “Northwood,” which was also published. Mrs. Finley says it is the first American novel by a woman, with something of the atmosphere of “Wuthering Heights” about it and that it has never been given its just due. (Incidentally, I have never read it. Will anyone owning a copy of “Northwood” by Sarah Josepha Hale, please communicate with me at once?) And “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – Everybody knows that poem. Well, Sarah Hale is the author of that, too.
In January 1828, Mrs. Hale was made editor of the first real woman’s magazine ever published in this country. The American Lady’s Magazine. In 1837 Louis G Godey who had started a magazine of his own, tried to lure Sarah Josepha from her job, to be editor of his publication. But she would have none of him, and so he bought the American Lady’s Magazine and consolidated it with Godey’s Lady’s Book, thereby automatically falling heir to Sarah Josepha.
Even Mr. Godey knew a real person when he saw one. If you want to meet the lady more intimately, look for her in Ruth Finley’s new book, “The Lady of Godey’s.” For fifty years Sarah Josepha Hale, was an editor and blazed more than one trail down which hundreds of American women walk to this day.