Agents, Fraudsters, Subscribers, and Borrowers: Buying and Selling Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1830s–70s

Friday, January 5, 2018: 4:10 PM
Thurgood Marshall East (Marriott Wardman Park)
Amy Sopcak-Joseph, University of Connecticut at Storrs
This paper provides a case study of the strategies for marketing and distributing the popular antebellum periodical Godey’s Lady’s Book from its founding in 1830 through the 1870s. Philadelphia publisher Louis A. Godey depended on a wide circulation and the revenues from subscription fees to keep his business solvent. The long life of the Lady’s Book – Godey published it for 48 years before retiring – and its steadily increasing circulation indicate his success in achieving these goals. But how did Godey expand the audience for his magazine and ensure that subscribers remitted the payment that they were not obligated to pay up front? This paper traces how his approach to cultivating subscribers changed over time and contributed to the enduring popularity of his magazine. Godey initially depended on male traveling agents and postmasters to solicit subscriptions and collect payments. He encountered problems when charlatans posed as agents for his magazine and swindled readers out of money. By the 1850s Godey did away with his traveling agents when postal rates for magazines dropped. Instead he appealed to female readers themselves to seek more subscribers for the Lady’s Book. Women could join subscription clubs – groups of readers who bought in bulk, agreeing to receive multiple copies of the periodical in exchange for a lower price. Godey waged war against borrowers as well, imploring that subscribers not lend out their copies to those who would not purchase a subscription themselves. The Lady’s Book’s circulation rates suggest the success of Godey’s evolving strategies: circulation rose from 40,000 to almost 150,000 during the 1850s. In addition this strategy of having women seek likeminded readers to purchase subscriptions and enjoy a discount transformed them from passive receivers to active participants in the business.