Working at Harper’s Bazar

What was it like for a woman to work at America’s first fashion magazine in the late 1860s? Follow this this blog, and you will find out. In family letters, Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin’s future first female lawyer, provided detailed accounts of her day-to-day responsibilities as assistant editor at Harper’s Bazar and of her relationships with the famous Harper brothers.

When Lavinia started at Harper’s in September 1867, her salary was $624 per year. She was single and 28, so she stayed with her Aunt Mira and Uncle Hill in Green Point, New York, and paid them $3.50 per week for room and board and 40 cents a dozen for washing. The going rate was $5 to $6 per week, so this was a bargain. Her commute to Harper’s offices in Franklin Square required a ferry ride. Here’s how Lavinia described her daily routine to her sister, Maria:

On the ferry boat I generally study German.  A short walk on the other side of the river brings me to Harper’s.  Here I climb a flight of broad iron steps, pass through the sales room, up two short flights of winding iron stairs, through a large hall to my room.  I am usually the first on the ground, arriving there about 9 o’clock, and find my work waiting for me in the shape of several cubic feet of newly arrived papers.  I ring for the boy, who comes in from another room, and pull the wrappers off the papers, and I sort them out, arranging them in such a manner that I can read the most important ones first.  Soon Miss [Ladley] comes.  This is the young lady who translates the German fashion articles, and sits in the room with me, a pretty, talented, interesting girl.  Miss [Mary Booth] comes about ten, she has a room to herself.  Soon Mr. James Harper comes in to see us, gives us some sugar plumbs, cracks a joke, or tells a story, and off again.  Then comes Mr. Fletcher Harper, genial and pleasant always, with a few words of business.

The Harpers building in Franklin Square

As an assistant editor, Lavinia’s job was to scan the news for the magazine’s writers and editors. She explained:

My business consists mainly of looking over newspapers and periodicals that come to the office, in cutting out such scraps as may be useful to the editors, and writers.  I cut out all of the horticultural, biographical, and descriptive pieces, and whatever has a bearing on any of the subjects of which we treat. I preserve in a scrap book all notices of Harper’s publications.  My work requires discrimination and judgment.

When she first started, Lavinia reviewed 270 papers in a day.  To her, that was not enough. She said:  “Shall do better as soon as I become accustomed to my new work.” She also attended to proof sheets and revisions.

Lavinia found her work “very pleasant” and “not as trying as teaching, and less wearing to the nerves.” She liked her office, most of her associates—especially James Harper. She assured her family:

My room is nicely heated by steam, and I have every comfort and convenience.  Mr. Harper is as kind as a father, and I love him dearly.  He is one of those genial, sun shiny natures, it makes me feel better and happier just to look at him.  He is a gentleman from the heart, kind and tender, thoughtful for others; one of my kind of Christians.  I look at him and wonder how he could have been engaged in active business so many years, and mingled with the world, without becoming hardened and corrupted.  There are many interesting characters here that I enjoy studying, one or two exceedingly amusing and entertaining ones.

James Harper

It seems that James good-naturedly tried to find husbands for Lavinia and her associate! She wrote:

Miss L. and I lunch together chatting cozily, after which she returns to her translation and I to my reading.  Our labors are interrupted more or less with callers, writers, or business, or personal friends.  When Mr. Harper introduces us to gentlemen he tells us if they are bachelors or widowers, in their presence, which is rather eccentric, we being spinsters.

Lavinia also felt great affection  and gratitude for Fletcher Harper, the man who hired her:

I enjoy business so much better than to be drifting along aimlessly pleasure seeking with the fashionable world. When I see what a wicked, selfish, treacherous world it is, I deem myself fortunate to have fallen into the hands of Mr. Fletcher Harper. He has been my guardian angel ever since I came here. Too much cannot be said in his praise.

Fletcher Harper

Fletcher proved especially worthy of this praise the day Lavinia asked him to raise her salary to 15 dollars per week. She told her parents:

I found Mr. Harper very kind and considerate and ‘open to conviction,’ and didn’t have to present near all the arguments I had concocted before he surrendered. He is just as kind and good as he can be, and I think ever so much of him.

Who knows? HarperCollins Publishers might be interested in Lavinia’s firsthand accounts of the early days at Harper’s Bazar. If you know anyone who works there, let us know. Hit the “contact us” button in the left side bar, or submit a “comment” below. CB

Sources Consulted: Lavinia Goodell letter to Maria Frost, September 26, 1867; Maria Goodell Frost, Life of Lavinia Goodell (unpublished manuscript); Eugene Exman, The House of Harper: 150 years of publishing (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1967).

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