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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

Abstract

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.

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Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-american-studies
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