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Booth, Mary Louiselocked

(19 April 1831–05 March 1889)
  • Maurine H. Beasley

Booth, Mary Louise (19 April 1831–05 March 1889), magazine editor and translator, was born in Millville (later Yaphank), Long Island, New York, the oldest child of William Chatfield Booth, a schoolteacher, and Nancy Monsell. Booth attended local schools at Yaphank and at Williamsburgh, which became part of Brooklyn, where the family moved in 1844 when her father became principal of a public school. Mainly, however, she was self-taught, reading the entire Bible at age five and Racine in the original French at seven. Although her father thought teaching the only suitable career for a woman, and she taught in his school briefly (about 1845–1846), she aspired to a literary career.

Booth moved to Manhattan when she was about eighteen to work as a vest maker by day and to study and write at night. She wrote articles without pay for educational and literary journals and newspapers to gain experience, eventually being hired on a piece-work basis by the New York Times to cover educational and women’s topics. She also began to translate French works at a time when relatively few were engaged in this work. Beginning with The Marble-Workers’ Manual in 1856, she translated about forty books, chiefly on literary and historical subjects. At the same time she produced her major book, the History of the City of New York (1859), the first comprehensive account of the city’s founding. Acclaimed by historians, it went through four editions. To earn a regular salary, however, she became secretary to a New York physician in 1860.

Booth also established herself as a reformer. A friend of Susan B. Anthony, she served as a secretary at the women’s rights’ conventions in Saratoga, New York, in 1855 and New York City in 1860. An antislavery advocate, she translated a variety of pro-Union French works during the Civil War, completing in only one week Gasparin’s The Uprising of a Great People: The United States in 1861 (1862). She had to work rapidly because the New York publisher feared that the war would be over before the book could be sold. Her efforts won praise from Abraham Lincoln and other government leaders.

Because she was widely known for her literary pursuits, Fletcher Harper asked Booth in 1867 to become editor of his new Harper’s Bazar, a weekly fashion and family magazine that included up-to-the-minute European dress patterns. This was an important feature because other magazines often ran fashion plates redrawn from French publications a year or more after they had appeared. Laboring at her desk daily from nine to four, she combined a shrewd sense of business with Victorian decorum.

Aiming at a conventional, churchgoing audience, Booth provided quality fiction by such writers as Wilkie Collins, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and illustrations by Winslow Homer. She had no intention of advocating woman suffrage, despite her personal views. Writing in 1884 to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, author of the Bazar’s popular “Women and Men” column, she stated that “It has always been thought inexpedient to advocate woman suffrage therein, either explicitly or implicitly. It has been a cardinal principle with the Bazar, as a home journal, conservedly to abstain from the discussion of vexed questions of religion, politics, and kindred topics.”

Booth was proud of her ability to gauge public sentiment and the publication’s financial success. Within ten years it had 80,000 subscribers. She ultimately drew a salary of $4,000 annually, which made her one of the highest paid editors of her day. Personally reading every line of manuscript and proof and scrutinizing every illustration, she took total command of the publication, causing Fletcher Harper and his brothers, owners of one of the nation’s strongest publishing firms, to treat her with great respect.

Although in Venice in 1887 she became engaged to a suitor she earlier had rejected, Booth never married. She shared a Central Park home with a widow, Annie Wright, a childhood friend. Invariably businesslike in her office, at home she wore ornate gowns and enjoyed entertaining literary lights and other notables. She died in New York City of fibroid phthisis and degeneration of the heart.

Her importance lay in the fact that she built up a magazine that continued to endure more than a century after her death (the spelling was changed to Bazaar in 1929) by gathering talented contributors and accurately sensing her audience’s attitudes. She personified a new type of career woman. On the one hand, she understood middle-class Victorian women, identifying with their dreams and recognizing their inclination to avoid controversial causes. On the other hand, she proved herself quite capable of wielding power in the male world of publishing. Her contribution to women’s advancement lay in the example she provided of a woman who worked with men yet nonetheless personified feminine values of gentility and refinement.

Bibliography

Letters by Booth are in the New York Public Library. Among her important translations was Henri Martin, A Popular History of France from the First Revolution to the Present Time (3 vols., 1877–1882). An interview with her appeared in Charles F. Wingate, ed., Views and Interviews on Journalism (1875). A chapter on her life was included in Harriet Prescott Spofford, A Little Book of Friends (1916). Another major biographical source is Sarah Knowles Bolton, Successful Women (1888). An obituary by Marie E. Zakrzewska ran in the Woman’s Journal, 6 Apr. 1889.