Claim to fame: Founder of St. Nicholas, probably the most influential and beloved children’s magazine ever. She also wrote the children's book “Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates.”
Quote: “The child’s magazine must not be a milk-and-water variety of the adult’s periodical.”
Observation: “[T]he more ‘new life’ there is in a magazine, the less there is left in its editor.”
Life in 400 words or less: Mary Elizabeth Mapes was born into the magazine business. Her father, James Jay Mapes, founded one called Working Farmer and later owned another called United States Journal. Married at 20 and widowed at 27, with two children, the now-Mrs. Dodge supported her family as a writer and editor until 1873 when Scribner’s hired her to start a new children’s magazine. She named it “St. Nicholas” and went on to edit it for the next 32 years.
“St. Nicholas” was a children’s magazine like nothing before it. Dodge saw it as a sanctuary for schoolchildren who were “strained and taxed with the day’s lessons.” In an essay, she wrote that, children “want to have their own way over their own magazine. They want to enter the one place where they may come and go as they please, where they are not obliged to mind, or say ‘yes, ma’m’ and ‘yes, sir,’--where, in short, they can live a brand-new, free life of their own for a little while…”
Dodge ran children’s letters, answered their questions in an advice column, and published their writing and artwork. Readers could join the St. Nicholas League, which sponsored contests and bestowed much-coveted gold and silver badges on the winners.
Among the writers who received some of their earliest encouragement from the League: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rachel Carson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Eudora Welty.
E.B.White, himself a member, wrote in a 1934 essay, “There is no doubt about it, the fierce desire to write and paint that burns in our land today, the incredible amount of writing and painting that still goes on in the face of heavy odds, are directly traceable to the St. Nicholas Magazine.” The magazine historian Theodore Peterson observed that, “St. Nicholas seems to have inspired a loyalty bordering on fanaticism in its young readers.”
After Dodge’s death in 1905, St. Nicholas continued under other editors and owners into the 1940s, by which time the magic was gone.
For more: A biography is “Mary Mapes Dodge,” by Susan R. Gannon and Ruth Anne Thompson (Twayne Publishers, 1992). Some early issues of St. Nicholas are online here. -- Greg Daugherty, 10/08