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Performative Morality: Godey's Match Plates, Nineteenth-Century Stage Practice, and Social/Political/Economic Commentary in America's Popular Ladies’ Magazine

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 February 2014


Recirculating the assertion of magazine historian Frank Luther Mott, subsequent generations of scholars maintained that Godey's Lady's Magazine eschewed content treating the social, political, and economic issues of the day. This article challenges that nearly universal reading of Godey's by arguing for the importance of a close reading of the “match plates” commissioned by Godey for his magazine. Appearing between 1840 and 1860, these plates, many engraved from pendant paintings created expressly for Godey, draw on the popularity of stage melodrama, dramatic tableau, and tableaux vivants to enact a performative morality addressing major social, economic, and political issues. Early match plates contrast virtue and vice, capitalizing on the enormous popularity of William Hogarth's engraving series Industry and Idleness. Match plates appear also in the popular fashion plates of the magazine – echoing the city mystery novels, plays, and prints first popularized by Eugene Sue – in Christmas for the Rich/Christmas for the Poor and Dress the Maker/Dress the Wearer. By 1860, even the magazine's “useful” contents, such as the pattern work prized by Godey's readers, echo the popularity of match plates: hence Fruit for Working/Flowers for Working. Closer attention to Godey's engravings calls for a reassessment of Mott's assertion.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1 Mott, Frank Luther, A History of American Magazines 1741–1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957)Google Scholar, 589. A recent exception to this reading of Godey's can be found in Sommers, Joseph Michael, “‘Godey's Lady's Book’: Sarah Hale and the Construction of Sentimental Nationalism,” College Literature, 37 , 3 (Summer 2010), 4361CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Godey, Louis, “Political Editors,” Godey's Lady's Book, Dec. 1850, 385–86Google Scholar.

3 The title of the magazine varied during the two decades in question here, from Godey's Lady's Book and Ladies’ American Magazine (1840–43) to Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book (1844–48) to Godey's Lady's Book (1848–54) to Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine (1854–82). For simplicity's sake, I will refer to the publication simply as Godey's throughout this article.

4 For more on the moral-reform melodramas see McConachie, Bruce A., Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820–1870 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the connection between temperance reform and moral reform melodramas also see Frick, John W., Theatre, Culture and Temperance Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)Google Scholar. Frick points out that Cruikshank's The Bottle series became popular as a kind of tableaux vivants performed on the Broadway stage. For a different take on Godey's illustrations and the tableaux vivants see Elbert, Monika M., “Striking a Historical Pose: Antebellum Tableaux Vivants, ‘Godey's’ Illustrations, and Margaret Fuller's Heroines,” New England Quarterly, 75, 2 (2002), 235–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Elbert's article includes images of “Evil Counsel/Good Counsel,” and other fashion plates and steel engravings, connecting them to the tableaux vivants. However, Elbert attributes the selection of engravings and fashion plates to Godey's editor, Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale, in fact, had nothing to do with either the fashion plates or the steel engravings and their textual “illustrations” – publisher Louis Godey arranged for all artwork in the magazine, and assigned the textual material accompanying the fashion plates to a series of fashion editresses. For more on Godey's role as publisher and art promoter see Patterson, Cynthia Lee, Art for the Middle Classes: America's Illustrated Magazines of the 1840s (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 “New Publications,” Christian Secretary, 17 Oct. 1851, 2.

6 On the rise of American melodrama see McConachie, especially the “Introduction” and chapter 1. On the introduction of tableaux vivants to the American stage see McCullough, Jack W., Living Pictures on the New York Stage (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981), 813Google Scholar. For the influence of serial paintings and engravings on the use of tableaux vivants on the English stage in the late 1820s see Hill, Jonathan E., “Cruikshank, Ainsworth, and Tableau Illustration,” Victorian Studies, 23, 4 (Summer 1980), 429–59Google Scholar. For the influence of the serial engravings of William Hogarth and George Cruikshank on American temperance reform theater and the staging of dramatic tableau see Frick, especially chapter 3.

7 Meisel, Martin, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983)Google Scholar, 45.

8 Ibid., 47.

9 See van Eck, Caroline, ed., Theatricality in Early Modern Art and Architecture, (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Holmstrom, Kirsten Gram, Monodrama, Attitudes, Tableaux Vivants: Studies on Some Trends of Theatrical Fashion 1770–1815 (Stockholm: Almquvist & Wiksell, 1967)Google Scholar.

10 Holmstrom, 215. See also McCullough, 6; Meisel, 47; and Faulk, Barry J., Music Hall & Modernity: The Late-Victorian Discovery of Popular Culture (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004), 147–48Google Scholar.

11 “City Articles, Number Two: The Chatham,” The Knickerbocker, Aug. 1846, 105. A note on variant spellings: articles published in the antebellum press contain an assortment of spellings: tableaux vivans, tableaux vivant, tableau vivants, and so on. I capture the spelling from the original when using a direct quote; elsewhere I have regularized the spelling to tableau vivant (singular) and tableaux vivants (plural).

12 Admission ran around 25 cents at most theaters. See McCullough, 36.

13 See McConachie, especially chapters 3 through 6.

14 Ibid., 164.

15 Ibid., 175.

16 Ibid., 41.

17 For an extended discussion of Godey's patronage of the arts, see Patterson, Art for the Middle Classes, chapter 6.

18 “Publisher's Department,” Godey's, Dec. 1851, 375.

19 For example, The Eclectic featured in 1849 match plates engraved by well-respected Philadelphia mezzotint engraver John Sartain, drawing on European models of the “progress of love.” These included The Pardon Refused (April 1849) and The Reconciliation (May 1849). Peterson's featured in February 1851 Low Life and High Life, match plate engravings featuring dog characters, based on famous paintings by the English artist Edwin Landseer. The Ladies Repository featured a series of plates based on Swiss-born painter Jean Gabriel Scheffer's ten-tableaux series Conjugating the Verb to Love – at least three appeared: They Love (May 1851); She Will Love (Dec. 1851); and I Have Loved (July 1852).

20 Lilley, Ed, “Lost Works of Art: The Problem and a Case Study,” Art History, 23, 3 (2000), 396416, 409CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 I cannot endorse Elbert's reading that Godey's is “subversively anti-domestic in its celebration of woman's body” (Elbert, “Striking a Historical Pose,” 249). Louis Godey vehemently resisted publishing images of women designed to titillate or even “celebrate” the female body. In fact, he criticized his contemporaries John Sartain (Sartain's Union Magazine) and Charles Peterson (Peterson's Magazine) for publishing what Godey referred to as “vulgar ‘artist model’ engravings” (“Prospectus,” Godey's Lady's Book, 1850). For more on this controversy see Patterson, chapter 7.

22 Bohleke, Karin J., “Americanizing French Fashion Plates: Godey's and Peterson's Cultural and Socio-economic Translation of Les Modes Parisiennes,” American Periodicals, 20, 2 (2010), 120–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Sommers, , “‘Godey's Lady's Book’”, 45.

24 Lilley, 409–10.

25 Adams, Henry, “A New Interpretation of Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri,” Art Bulletin, 65, 4 (Dec. 1983), 675–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Gaehtgens, Thomas W., “Love Fleeing Slavery: A Sketch in the Princeton University Art Museum,” Record of the Art Museum (Princeton University), 65 (2006), 1221Google Scholar.

27 I examined and catalogued in a searchable EndNote database copies of Godey's Lady's Book from five different libraries: the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Winterthur Library, the American Antiquarian Society, the New York Public Library, and the University of South Florida Libraries Special Collections. Specifically, I catalogued every monthly issue from January 1839 to December 1860 found in each library. Frequently, plates that can be found in one library's copy of a specific volume are missing from another – presumably torn out by readers, since these plates were specifically designed and marketed by Godey for pulling out and framing. It is possible that Godey published match plates before 1842: if so, they did not survive in the volumes I examined and catalogued.

28 See Patterson, chapter 5: “ ‘Illustration of a Picture’: American Authors and the Magazine Embellishments.”

29 See Meisel, Realizations, chapter 7: “From Hogarth to Cruikshank.”

30 Painting provenance and description can be found at

31 See Lueck, Dean, “The Economic Nature of Wildlife Law,” Journal of Legal Studies, 18, 2 (June 1989), 291324CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 See Hay, Douglas, “Crime and Justice in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England,” Crime and Justice, 2 (1980), 4584CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 It should be noted that Prentis was a pupil of B. R. Haydon, who opened his school in opposition to the training provided by the British Royal Academy Schools. Specifically, Haydon sought to elevate historical painting over portraiture, and accepted only students committed to infusing their art with the Christian principles Haydon espoused. For more on Haydon's school see Cummings, Frederick, “B. R. Haydon and His School,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 26, 3–4 (1963), 367–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 For more on Godey's audience, real and imagined, see Patterson, chapter 6, “‘Engravings from Original Pictures: Competing for Audiences and Original Art.”

35 Frick, Theatre, Culture and Temperance Reform, 128–31.

36 Osborn, Matthew Warner, “A Detestable Shrine: Alcohol Abuse in Antebellum Philadelphia,” Journal of the Early Republic, 29, 1 (Spring 2009), 101–32, 128Google Scholar.

37 Frick, 32–33.

38 Cassiday, Julie A., “Of Dandies, Flirts and Cockatoos: Shakhovskoi's Antitheatrical Lesson to Coquettes, Russian Review, 65, 3 (July 2006), 393416CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 On Mary Davys's novel see Saje, Natasha, “‘The Assurance to Write, the Vanity of Expecting to be Read’: Deception and Reform in Mary Davys's The Reform'd Coquet,” Essays in Literature, 23, 2 (Fall 1996), 165–77Google Scholar. On the real-life origins of Foster's The Coquette see Waterman, Bryan, “Coquetry and Correspondence in Revolutionary-Era Connecticut,” Early American Literature, 46, 3 (Nov. 2011), 541–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a fascinating and nuanced analysis of the figure of the coquette in Britain see Braunschneider, Theresa, Our Coquettes: Capacious Desire in the Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

40 King, Shelley and Schlick, Yael, “Introduction: Refiguring the Coquette,” in King, Shelley and Schlick, Yael, eds., Refiguring the Coquette: Essays on Culture and Coquetry (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2008), 13–38, 13Google Scholar.

41 See Braunschneider, chapter 2, “The People That Things Make: Coquettes and Consumer Culture.” On the shift in signification of the coquette into the nineteenth century see Tamara Wagner, “The Decaying Coquette: Refashioning Highlife in Early Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing, 1801–1831,” in King and Schlick, 83–102.

42 See, for example, Graham's Magazine, Jan. 1843, with a mezzotint The Coquette engraved by John Sartain from a painting by English artist Edwin Landseer.

43 For more on the complex relationship between an engraving and the textual material accompanying the engraving see Patterson, Cynthia, “‘Illustration of a Picture’: Nineteenth-Century Writers and the Philadelphia Pictorials,” American Periodicals, 19, 2 (2009), 136–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 See DeBrava, Valerie, “Alice B. Neal Haven,” in Ljungquist, Kent P., ed., Antebellum Writers in New York, Second Series (Detroit: Gale Group, 2002)Google Scholar. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume CCL, Web, accessed 4 Dec. 2012.

45 See Meisel, Realizations, chapter 11: “Napoleon, or History as Spectacle,” 201–28.

46 “Literary,” New York Observer and Chronicle, 20 Nov. 1851, 374.

47 Frick, Theatre, Culture and Temperance Reform, 55.

48 See ibid., 55–56. On the popularity of similar melodramas, such as The Poor of Liverpool and The Streets of London, see McConachie, Melodramatic Formations, 211.

49 McConachie, 211.

50 In referring to the “fashion editress,” I use the term preferred by Louis A. Godey, and used repeatedly in the publisher's columns of the magazine. Godey frequently reminded readers that Mrs. Hale was not in charge of the fashions. For example, in the June 1856 column can be found this notice: “We again respectfully state that Mrs. Hale is not the fashion editress. Address ‘Fashion Editress, care of L. A. Godey’.” By 1860, a regular column appeared in the closing pages of the magazine, entitled “Some Hints” (for addressing queries to the magazine). As part of this standard message appeared the assertion “Mrs. Hale is not the Fashion Editress.” However, during the era under study here, 1840–60, I could find no column in which Louis Godey revealed the identity of the fashion editress.

51 McConachie, 180–84.

52 Meisel, chapter 10, “Perils of the Deep,” especially 189–92.

53 I found evidence of this practice as early as December 1854. By 1860, the list of items available by purchase through the “Fashion Editress” extended to hair ornaments, jewelry, and small articles of clothing, among other items. In essence, it appears that the “Fashion Editress” also performed duties that today we might associate with a personal shopping consultant.

54 See Gordon, Beverly, “Victorian Fancy Good: Another Reappraisal of Shaker Material Culture,” Winterthur Portfolio, 25, 2–3 (Summer–Autumn 1990), 111–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Bercaw, Nancy Dunlap, “Solid Objects/Mutable Meanings: Fancywork and the Construction of Bourgeois Culture, 1840–1880,” Winterthur Portfolio, 26, 4 (Winter 1991), 231–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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