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  • Reconstructing and Gendering the Distribution Networks of Godey's Lady's Book in the Nineteenth Century
  • Amy Sopcak-Joseph (bio)

On July 10, 1843, lawyer John A. Rockwell visited Morgan Safford's store-front on Main Street in Norwich, Connecticut. Safford had become a fixture in the community, having sold newspapers and magazines in eastern Connecticut for more than a decade. Rockwell called on Safford to make a payment on his subscription to Godey's Lady's Book, which his wife, Mary, might have read when she had a spare moment from her duties as a wife and mother of three young boys. Safford fetched a paper slip to record the transaction. He served so many subscribers to women's magazines—in addition to the Lady's Book, there was the Lady's Companion, Ladies' Garland, and Lady's Pearl—that he had pre-printed receipts where he simply filled in the appropriate noun (Figure 1). Rockwell paid $1.50 for six months' worth of issues that he had already received, leaving a balance of $1.50 to be paid at another time. Safford signed the receipt and gave it to his customer. Perhaps Rockwell paid for other periodical subscriptions that day or borrowed a volume from the large circulating library that Safford's office also housed.1

Rockwell's receipt from Safford's news office offers a glimpse at how Americans purchased and received magazines during the 1830s and 1840s. Between the time that the magazine was produced and a reader enjoyed its contents, a corps of middlemen advertised the idea of it, collected orders, and transported the copies. Rockwell sought out a local establishment to connect him to the Philadelphia magazine. He saw Safford's advertisements for his periodical agency in the local newspaper. Safford, not publisher Louis Godey nor his Philadelphia or New York competitors, wrote copy and advertised the availability of magazines for local readers. Safford collected and forwarded payments, as well as received and distributed the Lady's Book to his customers. In short, the work of Morgan Safford and scores of men like him directly contributed to the success of Godey, editor Sarah Josepha Hale, and their magazine. [End Page 161]

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Figure 1.

Morgan Safford pre-printed receipts for magazine and newspaper purchases from his Norwich, CT, office. He evidently created a set of receipts specifically for the burgeoning field of "Lady's" magazines in the early 1840s. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

And they were successful. Godey's Lady's Book was one of the most popular magazines of the nineteenth century. Louis Godey founded the magazine in Philadelphia in 1830, and he served as its first editor. It promised to provide its intended audience of white, middle-class readers with new fiction and poetry every month, along with descriptions of the fashions, a piece of sheet music, and an engraving. Godey purchased the Boston-based American Ladies' Magazine in 1836 and added its well-known editor Hale, to his staff in 1837. Together, Godey and Hale produced the magazine until Godey sold it in 1877.

The Lady's Book's large circulation was as important as its longevity. Godey's business records are not extant, so researchers are dependent on circulation numbers that he reported in editorials and advertisements. He may well have inflated these numbers to impress potential subscribers and to intimidate his competition. However, the relatively gradual increases, and occasional periods reflecting little to no increase in the circulation, suggest that Godey's reported numbers were not completely untethered from reality (see Table 1). Regardless of his accuracy, his editorial commentary on the circulation encouraged Americans to envision the "imagined community" of readers and subscribers increasingly scattered across the republic.2 Godey claimed that circulation climbed from a few thousand in the 1830s to crest at 150,000 monthly subscribers on the eve of the Civil War. Only a dozen periodicals—primarily weekly newspapers, not monthly magazines—topped 100,000 subscribers at mid-century.3

Godey and other antebellum periodical publishers relied on a diverse network of intermediaries like Safford who provided critical labor to entice [End Page 162]

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pp. 161-195
Launched on MUSE
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