“Peterson’s Magazine” and Women’s Periodicals in the 19th Century

The 1881 collected editions of “Peterson’s Magazine”

A recent gift to the Wylie House Museum, the 1881 collected edition of Peterson’s Magazine allows us to peer into the writing desks and wardrobes of 19th century women. The beautifully bound book features each issue of the magazine throughout the year of 1881. Originally published as Ladies’ National Magazine in 1842 by Saturday Evening Post partners, Charles Jacobs Peterson and George Rex Graham, the periodical emerged as a cheaper alternative within the hugely popular market of women’s magazines. The publication continued as Peterson’s Ladies’ National Magazine, and then simply Peterson’s Magazine, until 1892. With a focus on the domestic and consumer lives of middle-class white women, the pages of Peterson’s featured fashion, embroidery patterns, sheet music, engravings, poetry, short stories, serialized fiction, recipes, remedies, housekeeping advice, puzzles, and more. While the content of the women’s magazine emphasized the woman’s role as centered on her family, as a wife, mother, and keeper of the household, the publication of Peterson’s, and other women’s magazines, created professional opportunities outside the home for women writers and editors. In this sense, the Wylie House’s newly acquired artifact not only provides insight on historic fashions and fictions, but also mirrors the complex experiences and expectations of 19th century women.

French fashion plate featured in “Peterson’s Magazine”

The increasing popularity of women’s magazines throughout the 1800s, as well as periodical publishing, in general, developed simultaneously with an emerging mass consumer culture, as well as rapidly advancing printing technologies and expanding services of the federal post office. Especially within the latter half of the 1880s and 1890s, magazine publication and circulation became less expensive and more accessible. The Wylie House’s Peterson’s predates many of these advancements, including lowered postage for second class mailing (1885), the invention of the linotype machine (1884), photoengraving (1886), monotype (1886), photographic film (1888), large-scale color printing (1893), and free postal delivery in rural areas (1897).

Illustration of a Linotype machine
Illustration of a monotype machine

Because of these breakthroughs, thousands of magazines publications were in circulation by the turn of the 20th century. As women’s magazine publication circuits expanded, so did advertising revenues and marketing strategies. These strategies, geared toward the middle class, domestic woman, recognized her as the primary purchaser of household goods. Within the museum’s Peterson’s, examples of publication efforts to emphasize clothing, cosmetic, and household products reveal this emerging shift in content. At the conclusion of each monthly issue, a section was devoted to the contact information of the magazine’s purchasing agent, so that women readers could send for patterns featured in the fashion sections, or a variety of other goods featured in the housekeeping sections. Each month new fashion advice and illustrations of dresses, coats, and accessories decorated the pages of Peterson’s. As the popularity of fashion periodicals, paper patterns, and home dress-making grew, the constant flow of new styles and fashionable silhouettes quickened.  Much like today, the constant stream of new, in-trend fashions prompted women to regularly reimagine their wardrobes and reopen their pocketbooks. In this way, the goods marketed toward women in the magazines of the 19th century reveal the tastes, values, and desires of the readership, while also revealing the ways in which an emerging mass consumer culture was constructing and reconstructing these tastes, values, and desires on a monthly basis.

Section of “Peterson’s Magazine” with the purchasing agent contact information

French fashion trends especially influenced the garments of American women. Like many other popular American woman’s fashion magazines, Peterson’s featured bound-in, colored French fashion plates. These beautiful works of art are noteworthy inclusions of the magazine, displaying the 19th century feminine ideal. Despite the impracticality of many of these designs for the varying lifestyles of women, Peterson’s French fashion plates, as well as the other garment illustrations in the magazine, are reflective of the styles worn by the women of the 1880s. During this time, the popular silhouette was one that emphasized the “natural” figure. The more tightly fitted skirts of the “princess line” dress required longer corsets that extended to the stomach. Just as women’s and men’s sphere became further defined a separate, the popular woman’s fashions of the era became increasingly restrictive.

French fashion plate featured in “Peterson’s Magazine”
Dresses featured in “Peterson’s Magazine”
19th century bathing suits featured in “Peterson’s Magazine”

While the content of most, primarily, sought to define women as the consumer and keeper of the household, the women’s magazine also opened opportunities for women, outside of the home. Furthermore, the popularity of these publications reflected the increased literacy and educational opportunities for women in the United States during the 19th century, largely due to the expansion of public support of education. By the end of the 19th century, many women were even seeking higher education. Not surprisingly, this came with substantial pushback that attempted to redefine women’s education as distinctively domestic. Still, many women did pursue professional work. Women’s magazines provided socially acceptable professional opportunities as writers and publishers, allowing women to actively influence and even control the content in publications like Peterson’s. Though these women often reinforced stereotypical gender roles and expectations in their writing, their careers exemplified the increasing autonomy of women within their changing worlds.

Portion of “The American Countess” by Ann S. Stephens, a serial novel featured in “Peterson’s Magazine”

While the moralistic messages of the fiction and non-fiction of women’s magazines supported an ideology of separate spheres, the female staff members of these publications were far from constricted to the home.  Highly successful female editors like Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book, and Louisa Knapp Curtis, editor of The Ladies Home Journal, contributed significantly to the development of popular literature, literary change, and the presence of the female perspective within writing. Peterson’s employed many women writers, including Ann S. Stephens, who also served as an editor for the magazine. Stephen is best known for popularizing the dime novel and wrote over twenty-five novels, first printed in serial form and then in full-length volume.

Historic women’s magazines, like Peterson’s, embody an array of domestic and professional female experiences of the 19th century. Some women’s magazines even eventually provided a platform for writings on temperance and woman’s suffrage. Through the popularization of publications for women and, sometimes, by women, the desires and aspirations of women became increasingly culturally influential. An exciting addition to the Wylie House Museum, the 1881 Peterson’s Magazine book allow insights into the experiences of 19th century women and the dynamic medium of the women’s magazine.

Sheet music featured in “Peterson’s Magazine”

This post was written by Mary Figueroa, January 30th, 2018


Hartman, D. W. (n.d.). Lives of Women. Retrieved from Conner Prairie: http://www.connerprairie.org/education-research/indiana-history-1860-1900/lives-of-women

Jolliffe, L. (1994). Women's Magazine's in the 19th Century. The Journal of Popular Culture, 125-140.

MacLean, M. (2012, May 31). Ann Stephens. Retrieved from Civil War Women: https://www.civilwarwomenblog.com/ann-stephens/

Straus, D. (2014, September 25). Fashion, The High Life, and "The Duties of Married Females": 19th Century Fashion-Plate Magazines. Retrieved from New York Public Library: Fashion, The High Life, and "The Duties of Married Females": 19th Century Fashion-Plate Magazines

Women's History Blog. (2014). First Women Magazine Editors. Retrieved from History of American Women: http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2014/08/first-women-magazine-editors.html

Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite – A Myth Debunked

Written by Rebecca Karstensen, Wylie House Museum Assistant and Docent

Edited by Jean Graves, Associate Instructor and PhD candidate, Indiana University and Carey Beam, Director, Wylie House Museum

Feature photo from nameberry.com

Here at the Wylie House Museum and at other house museum across the country, we docents love to share old stories and sayings that we’ve learned and acquired over the years. One of my personal favorite stories is the history of the saying “sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite”. The typical presentation of the story follows along these lines:

In the 1800s and early 1900s, mattresses were held on bed frames using a woven rope design. These ropes needed frequent tightening to ensure a taut, firm mattress for a good night’s sleep. Hence, the phrase “sleep tight” was born. The mattresses were often stuffed using straw, shredded corn husks, or down feathers. These materials attracted bed begs, and so over time it became a common phrase to say “sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

A typical rope bed frame. From pinterest.com

Stories and myths like this one are very common among house museums. We love to leave visitors with new, exciting information that they can share with the rest of the world, and so it’s quite easy for false information to spread rapidly across the house museum community.

Such is the case with the story of sleeping tight.

To begin, I would like to confirm that rope beds did, in fact, need tightening, so my intention here is not to disprove this part of our story. If you’d like to learn more about the roping process, I would suggest this video or this article.

Rope beds were invented in the 16th century and fell out of fashion quickly after the invention of the coil spring mattress in 1865. Gary Martin’s research for The Phrase Finder has revealed that the first recorded use of the phrase “sleep tight” wasn’t until 1866 in Susan Bradford Eppes’s journal entitled Through Some Eventful Years. She writes on May 2, “Goodbye little Diary. ‘Sleep tight and wake bright,’ for I will need you when I return.” Therefore, the late use of this phrase in comparison to the invention of rope beds signals that it must have some other origin.

But, what could that origin be? Let’s take a look into the etymology (i.e. the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history) of the word ‘tight’. According to the Oxford dictionary, the closely related adverb ‘tightly’ can also mean ‘safely’ or ‘soundly’. Since it sounds a bit catchier and poetic to say two one-syllable words as “sleep tight” instead of the awkward 3-syllable “sleep tightly,” that might explain why the suffix –ly was dropped from the word.

In today’s culture, we have several other uses of the word ‘tight’ that support this new hypothesis of the history of ‘sleep tight’. For example, in American slang we say that we are ‘tight’ with someone to indicate that we are familiar with them or close with them. ‘Tight’ can also be synonymous with ‘snug’, such as when your pants are too tight after eating one too many gooey fudge brownies. When we settle in to bed each night, many people enjoy wrapping themselves up in the covers to experience this snuggly feeling that seems oppressive when referring to our jeans but cozy when it’s bedtime.

We like to feel safe and cozy during sleep (after all, we can’t control what happens in the world around us as we dream), so sleeping ‘tight’ probably relates more to those connotations of snugness and safety, especially in reference to security from bedbugs or other nighttime creatures. This idea seems more reasonable than the fact that the ropes on early beds needed to be tight to ensure a good fit. This argument also helps to explain why people used the phrase long after rope beds fell out of use.

The best part about historic house museums is that we get to continually learn and explore these new topics and share them with our guests! Do you have any other theories? Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, or email us at libwylie@indiana.edu. We would love to hear what you have to say.