Notable Natives

Sarah Josepha Hale Award

Sarah Josepha Hale (1788—1879)

Newport's most famous native, second of four children of Gordon Buell and Martha Whittlesey, was born in Newport in 1788.  Her father came into town about 1811 and built the Rising Sun Tavern which still stands near South Church.  Sarah was 25 when she married scholar David Hale, a young lawyer.  They studied together and when he died in 1822, Sarah was ready to follow a literary career.  At that time she had five young children.  In 1823 her first book Northwood was published, one of the very first novels written by a woman to be published in America.  The success of this work was so notable that five years later she was appointed Editor of the Ladies Magazine published in Boston.  She lived in Boston until 1841 when she joined the publisher, Lewis Godey, in Philadelphia and resided there the rest of her long life as Editor of Godey's Ladies Book, most famous of the early women's magazines.

According to Sam Edes, Mrs. Hale's achievements were stupendous.  She wrote 30 books and poems, besides her magazine output.  Her chief objective was advancement of the cause of women.  Sarah Hale's fame hangs on her authorship's of a little poem which captures the imaginations of the world in "Mary Had A Little Lamb".

She lived in Newport for the first 35-40 years of her life and during most of the years of her marriage, the family lived in a house on the west side of Main Street on the spot where the Library House was built.  The home of Mrs. Hale now stands on Myrtle Street and is presently owned by Paul and Terri Reamon.

On July 4, 1846 the town held a grand celebration for its its 80th birthday, and the significant guest of this celebration was Sarah Josepha Hale.  She had left Newport soon after her husband's death in 1822, and this visit was her first time back “home” in 22 years.  It is also well known that on that occasion Sarah contributed a poem called Gathering Song.  For some time historians searched for any record of Mrs. Hale's being here in person or of her visiting her birthplace of Newport, at any time after going to Boston.  In a package of some old papers, given by George B. Wheeler to the Newport Historical Society circa 1939, was found a clipping which not only showed that Mrs. Hale made the long trip from her home in Philadelphia to be in Newport for the Great Homecoming, but upon her return, wrote an account of the trip for Godey's Ladies Book.

In an era when woman's place was in the home, Sarah Hale was writing novels.  Her chief objective was advancement of the cause of women.  She published “Poetry for Children” in 1823 which includes Mary Had A Little Lamb.  A copy of this book is in the Boston Library and in the NH Historical Society.  She then published Northwood, a picture of life in the early 19th century.  Responsible for Thanksgiving as a National Holiday, she was also an early champion of elementary education for girls equal to that for boys and also of higher education for women.  She was the first to advocate women as teachers in the public schools.  As the friend of Matthew Vassar, she helped organize Vassar College.  She began the fight for property rights for married women.  She fought for advancement of women's wages, and the reduction of child labor, first to advocate physical training for women, suggested public playgrounds, fund raised to finish Bunker Hill Monument, fought to preserve Mount Vernon as a national memorial, authored some two dozen books and hundreds of poems, and first woman editor in the country as she presided over Godey's Ladies Book for 40 years.  Because Sarah Hale made no comment on the coming of the Civil War, it may have been a blow from which her readers and her prestige never recovered.  She was also approaching 70 years of age as the Civil War approached.  She died at age 91 and is buried in Pennsylvania.

In 1956, the Friends of Richards Free Library established an annual literary award bearing the name of Sarah Josepha Hale and executed a bronze medal with her likeness on it.  Since 1956, the medal is given annually to an author associated with or living in New England who is pre-eminent in literature or the arts.  The person honored is chosen by a nationally known committee and Robert Frost was the first recipient.  A list of all the Hale Award winners is available at Sarah Josepha Hale Awards.