Sarah Hale, Author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, Was Largely Responsible for the Establishment of the United States’ Thanksgiving Holiday

Sarah HaleToday I found out Sarah Josepha Hale, author of Mary Had a Little Lamb, was largely responsible for the establishment of the United States’ Thanksgiving Holiday.

Hale, one of the great women in American history, campaigned for nearly 20 years to get Thanksgiving made a national holiday.  It previously was only celebrated, as we think of it, in New England; although, some other regions had similar events at differing times of the year and often multiple times a year. Basically, whenever something particularly good happened, it was common to have a day of thanks, usually directed to God, though most of these days little resembled what we think of as Thanksgiving.  Often these were days for fasting and offering prayers of thanks.

During her campaign, which spanned five presidents before she found one that was open to her idea in Abraham Lincoln, she continually lobbied various congressmen; wrote annual editorials on the subject; wrote annual letters to every governor in the United States; and sent a steady stream of letters to the U.S. President of the day as well.

Ultimately, she was able to convince Lincoln that it would be a good idea to help unify the country once the Civil War ended.  Her final letter to Lincoln on the subject was mailed on September 28th, 1863.  After reading it and thinking it over, on October 3rd, 1863, Lincoln decided to declare the last Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving holiday, which it became that same year.  Prior to this, the only national holidays that existed in the U.S. were Independence Day and Washington’s birthday.  From that point on until the point when congress officially set the date of Thanksgiving into U.S. law in 1941, every U.S. President, with the exception of Roosevelt, would annually declare the last Thursday in November as a national holiday for giving thanks.

Roosevelt, as noted yesterday, declared the second to last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving in 1939, 1940, and 1941, in order to extend the shopping season.  Unfortunately, only about half of the states went along with him; most of the rest, excepting Texas, stuck with the tradition of the last Thursday in November.  Texas, on the other hand, decided to take both as a holiday.  This mess ultimately required congress to step in and officially set the date in October of 1941 to go into effect in 1942.  In true congressional form, the date they set was a compromise, being the fourth Thursday, which was sometimes the last and sometimes the second to last.

Hale’s contributions to Thanksgiving didn’t stopped there.  She wrote numerous editorials that were widely circulated outlining various recipes to be used for Thanksgiving dinner.  These included many things that likely would not have been served at the original Thanksgiving, but today are traditional largely thanks to her, such as: turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes.

The Remarkable Sarah Hale

Given that she was a woman born in 1788 to relatively humble beginnings, this was the least of her accomplishments in her lifetime.  This was a time when it was rare for a woman to receive any sort of education, formal or not, let alone go on to become the editor of one of the most successful magazines in the United States, as she did.

She also wrote a very successful book Northwood: Life North and South (in England called: A New England Tale), which was one of the first books that dealt directly with slavery as a central part of the plot and was also one of the few books out there written by a woman, at the time, particularly in America.

Not only is it impressive for her to get the book published at all in that day in age as a woman, but she wrote this book shortly after her husband died leaving her with very little money and five kids to raise.  After his death, she started and ran a millinery business (making hats for women) to support her family; raised the kids; and published a book of poems for extra money called The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems.  This book was initially only marginally successful, but it was enough to allow her to stop having to make hats and to focus on writing a novel.

Her novel Northwood ended up being extremely successful and was eventually read by the Reverend John Blake, headmaster of the Cornhill School for Young Ladies.  He was so impressed by her work that he offered her a position as the editor of a women’s magazine he was starting called The Ladies Magazine.  This made her the first ever female editor of a magazine in the United States. She held this position for eight years before the magazine eventually merged with Godey’s Lady’s Book, which specifically targeted the magazine Hale worked at for acquisition because they wanted her as the editor of their journal.

She held the position of editor for this journal for forty years.   With no significant competitors in the United States and with her writing nearly half the content for each journal in the beginning, both Godey’s Lady’s Book and Hale had a surprising influence in the United States during her time as editor.  Godey’s published on a huge range of topics, not just specifically related to women, but also such random things as housing design, with many of Godey’s architectural house plans being popularly used by builders all over the country.

The reason Hale had to write about half the articles for the journal, in the beginning, was that she wanted to only include American authors in Godey’s and there simply weren’t enough of them at first to fill the pages.  Most publications got around this problem by simply having the vast majority of the articles they published be copies of works by British authors.  Hale wanted to create a magazine that helped support Americans, so made a point of seeking out the most talented American authors to promote them to the very wide audience that subscribed to her magazine.  Because of this, articles by most of the famed American authors of that era can be found in her publication.

Hale’s influence can be seen all throughout the United States during her lifetime having a significant effect on how women dressed; what they cooked; what literature they read; how they conducted themselves morally, etc (sort of the Martha Stewart / Oprah of her day).  She also tirelessly promoted education for women, eventually even helping to found Vassar College.  The idea of a women’s college, at the time, was not looked upon favorably in the United States, as formal education for women was still something frowned upon on the whole.  Also, controversially, she convinced Vassar to hire a female administrator and female teachers, something that was also almost never done at the time.

In her spare time, she helped found the Seaman’s Aid Society in 1833 in Boston which is an organization that helps women obtain useful job skills and also helps to support them by giving them a place to live and food to eat while they attempt to establish themselves.  Originally, this society was started to help those women whose husbands were lost at sea, leaving the surviving women and children typically destitute.

If that isn’t enough, she published nearly fifty volumes outside of what she produced for the journal she was editor for.  These works were comprised of various novels and books of poetry.  One such poetry book, targeted at children, produced the ever popular “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, which was originally just called “Mary’s Lamb”.  On the side, she also edited several issues of popular gift book: The Opal.

Interestingly, much to the chagrin of suffragists, while Hale was a tireless supporter of women’s rights, particularly the right to an education and the right to work outside of the home, she openly did not support the right for women to vote.  Her reasoning was that politics were all about trickery, lying, deceit, and anger.  In her view, women should strive to be above such things, being the moral compass for their families and, combined, for the nation itself.

She felt that it was sufficient for women to influence political outcomes positively through being this moral compass for their husbands.  Thus, staying out of politics directly while still being a “secret, silent influence” indirectly affecting the political arena. Getting directly involved in politics, in her view, would only serve to pollute the women’s morals, which would ultimately hurt the nation when there was no longer anyone who was moral.  Needless to say, this didn’t go over very well with the suffragists who desperately wanted her support because of her very widespread and significant influence in the United States.  Her continual refusal to support their cause and editorials against it, made her extremely disliked by this group.

Bonus Facts:

  • Hale eventually retired in 1877 when Godey’s was sold to Frank Munsey, which coincidentally was the same year Thomas Edison recorded Hale’s children’s poem Mary Had a Little Lamb with his phonograph, making it the first recording.  She died two years later on April 30, 1879 at the 91 years old.
  • During her time as editor, she increased Godey’s Lady’s Book’s subscription rate from 25,000 subscribers to 150,000 subscribers.
  • Hale was a big part of getting the Bunker Hill Monument built.  At one point, construction stalled due to lack of funds.  When this happened, she asked each of her readers to donate one dollar towards the cause.  She also organized a craft fair that lasted a week in Quincy Market.  Through these efforts, she raised $30,000 (about 3/4 of a million dollars today), which ultimately allowed the monument to be finished.  Similar efforts and editorials by her were also used to help get Mount Vernon preserved.
  • Hale’s parents both believed women should be educated and saw to it that Sarah received an education, even though she wasn’t able to actually formerly attend school.  Rather, her parents home-schooled her in the beginning.  Her advanced education was handled by her brother, Haratio.  When Horatio attended Dartmouth, he’d come home and teach her what he’d learned that day and, once he had done so, they’d study together.
  • When her brother Haratio was awarded a diploma from Dartmouth, he awarded Sarah with a diploma from the Horatio Gates Buel College and declared that she had graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in the Arts.
  • Sarah’s love for learning continued throughout her life and was reciprocated by David Hale, a lawyer, whom she eventually married in 1813 at the age of 25 years old.  David Hale died of pneumonia just nine years after they got married (1822), leaving Sarah and their five children to fend for themselves.
  • Interestingly, despite being the queen of fashion in her day, Hale only wore clothes that were black for the vast majority of her life.  This was done as a sign of perpetual mourning over the loss of her husband.  From his death on, for 67 years, she wore only black.
  • Hale heavily campaigned for Elizabeth Blackwell to be able to become a doctor.  At the time, there had never been a female doctor in America.  With the help of Hale and others, Blackwell was ultimately allowed to become a physician.
  • Hale also was a big supporter of people getting plenty of exercise and kids being allowed to play and made to stay in shape. As she stated,  “Physical health and its attendant cheerfulness promote a happy tone of moral feeling, and they are quite indispensable to successful intellectual effort.”

The Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln Declaring Thanksgiving (October 3, 1863):

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”
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