Sarah Josepha Hale, 1788-1879

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Woman Category: Activism & Feminism and Literature & PoetryWoman Tags: Author, Editor, Greater Boston Women, and Poet

  • HerStory

    A writer, a poet, an editor, and a women’s rights advocate. Known for authoring the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for campaigning for making Thanksgiving a national holiday.

    Sarah Josepha Hale was born and raised in Newport, New Hampshire. Her parents were advocates for equal education, and in her home-school classes, her mother, and later by herself with the books of her Dartmouth student brother, she learned everything she could, from Latin and geography to philosophy and literature. As a young adult, she worked for a few years as a schoolteacher until she married David Hale at 23. Her husband supported her motivation to learn and encouraged her to publish her writings in local newspapers.
    In 1822, her husband died, and at 34, Hale published her first poetry collection, “The Genius of Oblivion,” to earn money to support her five children. Five years later, her first novel, Northwood, was published both in the US and the UK – making her one of the first American woman novelists as well as one of the first novelists to write about anti-slavery. The novel was a success, and not long after, Hale became the editor of the Ladies’ Magazine in Boston. In 1833, while working at the magazine, she published another poetry collection titled ‘Poems for Our Children’ that included the timeless nursery rhyme ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’
    As a daughter of a Revolutionary War veteran, Hale was patriotic from birth, supporting patriotic and humanitarian organizations. She was an active member of the Boston Ladies’ Peace Society, and in 1833 she founded the Seaman’s Aid Society, an organization that employed wives of sailors who died at sea. The organization later expanded into a Mariners House that included a sailors’ boarding house as well as a day nursery and a school for seamen’s daughters.
    At 49, Hale started editing the Godey’s Lady’s Book journal, located in Philadelphia. During the 40 years she served in this position, she became one of the most influential voices of her time. More than 150,000 subscribers throughout the country have read her columns, essays, and poems. The vast range of topics she covered included clothes, interior design, cooking, literary criticisms, abolishing slavery, and child welfare. Hale used her platform to promote causes she believed in, especially women’s education, employment for women, the rights of women as property owners, and the acceptance of women physicians. As an editor, she supported American writers and insisted on publishing works of emerging authors and poets, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allan Poe, Emma Willard, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
    Since 1846, Hale wrote to every president, proposing to them the idea of celebrating Thanksgiving as a unifying national event. In 1863, after 17 years of promoting the holiday, President Lincoln accepted her initiation and declared that the fourth Thursday of November would be “A National Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”
    Hale died in her home in Philadelphia when she 91 years old.

    “… rights are liable to be perverted to wrongs when we are incapable of rightly exercising them.”

    “… rights are liable to be perverted to wrongs when we are incapable of rightly exercising them.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She promoted the preservation of George Washington’s home as a historic site and for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument, for which she raised $30,000 by encouraging her readers to donate money and organizing a week-long fair that all its earning went to the obelisk’s constructions.
    • Since her husband died in 1822, she wore only black as a sign of perpetual mourning.
    • She preferred to be called ‘editress’ rather than ‘editor.’
    • The poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was originally titled “Mary’s Lamb.”.
    • “Mary’s Lamb” was the first speech ever recorded on Thomas Edison’s newly invented phonograph in 1877.
    • She published a women’s encyclopedia titled “Woman’s Record; or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women from the Creation to A.D. 1854.”
    • She was nicknamed the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”
    • Though she advocated for women’s rights in education and employment, she did not support women’s suffrage, stating that politics is a men’s sphere and that women’s influence is at home.
    • She helped found Vassar College.
    • Throughout her life, she published 36 volumes of essays, poetry, fiction, drama, gift books, and cookbooks.
    • A Historical Marker is located at 922 Spruce St. Philadelphia PA, next to the house she once lived.
    • Liberty Ship #1538 was named in Hale’s honor.
    • The Sarah Josepha Hale Award for literary is named for her.
    • She is featured on a New Hampshire historical marker along New Hampshire Route 103 in Newport.
    • April 30 is her feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA).
    • She is commemorated on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * Awarded a medal from Baltimore Female College “for distinguished services in the cause of female education”

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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • A portrait of Sarah Hale from 1831 by James Reid Lambdin. Photo credit - Wikipedia

  • Citations and Additional References:
    Boston Women's Heritage Trail website.
    Britannica website.