As soon as they arrived at Mt. Repose, Margaret and her mother had excused themselves and disappeared up a grand winding staircase while the men sat to talk in the Websters’ drawing room. Henry’s father had just opened Robert’s gift, a bottle of the best whisky from the Henderson family distillery, when Henry’s ginger-haired sister reappeared. She swept into the room, embraced her father and planted a kiss on Henry’s brow. She had changed from gray cap and cape to a sparkling emerald evening dress that flattered every curve of her figure and matched her eyes. Her hair, unloosed, swept provocatively over one shoulder. As they stood, Henry intoned, “And this, my friend, as you now know, is the irrepressible Maggie.”
Maggie greeted Robert’s dumbstruck gaze with laughter. “Did Henry tell you I’m plain? He tells all the single male visitors that. His obsessive need for full disclosure, I suppose.”
—excerpt from Soldier’s Heart
What were they wearing? On that question, imagination can’t take the novelist too far. Nor do writers have a relevant corner clothier to visit. Happily, the same mysterious chest I found that yielded the characters inspiring Soldier’s Heart, also provided artifacts to help authentically dress them.
Civil War era women’s magazines. I’ve got portions of three of them. And they are stunning. Maggie Henderson likely saved them. They feature beautiful hand-tinted color illustrations. That’s right, hand-tinted.
We don’t realize what an amazing time the mid-1800s was for magazine publishing, for women editors, writers, and illustrators, and publications for, and by them.
Lady’s Book, aka Godey’s Lady’s Book or Godey’s Magazine, was published in Philadelphia from 1830 to 1878 by Louis A. Godey. He hired Sarah Hale as editor. She remained for 40 years, indelibly shaping American lifestyle and culture, from women’s education and professional working roles, to the popularity of white wedding gowns, Christmas trees, and Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
According to Albert H. Smythe (The Philadelphia Magazines and their Contributors) Lady’s Book “was the chief financial success among the Philadelphia magazines, and, after the Port Folio, enlisted the services of the greatest number of the best writers [including Longfellow, Holmes, Poe, and Harriet Beecher Stowe]. The circulation, largely due to its popular colored fashion plates, increased to 150,000 a month.”
Check out the 1842 “improved fashion plate” labeled #1 (The Library of Congress has this image and incorrectly labeled it “21”). It is unusual for its specific Philadelphia background details: note the building signage “Periodicals Publishers Hall Lady’s Book” and the “Sanderson’s” sign on the side of the tallest building (possibly a hotel named Sanderson’s, N. Philadelphia, although perhaps a literary reference to John Sanderson, a founder and contributor to the earlier literary publication, the Port Folio. This appeared in December, hence the focus on outer garments. Our fictional Maggie, by the way, changed out of gray outer garments typically worn by Quaker women.
Tell me what you think of these pre-war looks. In future posts you’ll have a chance to compare these with fashions from the war and post-war years (including the emerald gown that inspired the description, above), as we consider the business, art and personal power they represent.
Next post: Studying an illustration from Lady’s Friend Magazine