The pleasure of the advice column is at odds with its premise. It makes no practical sense to write to a newspaper for advice on an urgent problem, given the days and weeks that will elapse between the questioner sending a letter and the columnist publishing a response. But the draw of the advice column is not really about the questioner getting a timely answer; it’s about readers’ voyeurism and moral theorizing. Unlike self-help books or therapy sessions, the advice column is a public conversation. It invites readers to empathize, judge, mock, and learn. Its history is the history of social change — how secular authorities take over from religious ones, or how an unspeakable scandal like divorce becomes an unremarkable norm.
The roots of the advice column lie in the rambunctious, masculine world of London’s early publishing industry. As Jessica Weisberg details in her smart and breezy history of advice givers and gurus, Asking for a Friend, it all began in 1691, when a quixotic writer, publisher, and entrepreneur named John Dunton wrangled a group of male friends to answer readers’ questions in his new magazine, the Athenian Mercury. The enquiries ran the gamut from earthly to spiritual, from the shape of animal poop to the afterlife of the soul. The magazine’s “querists” wanted to know whether the pope was evil (a hot-button question at that time in England, which had just ousted its Catholic king) and, still more abstractly, “What is Time?” To which the Athenians offered the downright trippy response, “A continued flux or Chain of Nows.” But they also raised perennial questions of sexual morality, such as “Whether it is lawful for two unmarried Persons, each consenting, to cohabit, etc. since marriage was a thing set up by Man?” The Athenians conceded, “in the Law of God we find not the least footstep of any ceremonial nuptials,” but declared the laws of human society binding nonetheless, given that “No Man is born for himself.”
Dunton pretended his advisers were members of an illustrious group called the Athenian Society — their name implied that they were the intellectual heirs of Socrates and Plato, unconcerned with Christian orthodoxy. In reality, the question responders were Dunton, his two brothers-in-law, and “a man who may or may not have been a doctor.” While they weren’t especially distinguished writers or adventurous moral thinkers, they seem to have exhibited the other essential quality of a hit advice columnist — they were good at picking the letters, balancing the serious with the silly, and letting readers feel challenged, superior, or sympathetic in turn. Like many future advice givers, they answered anonymously.
Their questioners and readers were both male and female. An attempt to segregate the advice by gender (and, presumably, double the magazine’s profits) led to the launch of The Ladies’ Mercury in 1693, but it folded after four issues. The main paper lasted until 1697 — a decent showing for the turbulent press at the time. Ironically, given its stance of masculine authority, the magazine died with Dunton’s wife, Elizabeth, who “bankrolled the project.”
The most important qualifications for a successful advice columnist were stamina and the emotional resilience to avoid being overwhelmed by the suffering of others.
The emerging press culture in London at the turn of the 18th century was unscrupulous, opinionated, and locked in competition for cash and eyeballs. By contrast, the Athenians offered something that felt original, authentic, and authoritative in a rapidly changing, often confusing world. Their success inspired a host of parodies — and copycats.
Despite these masculine beginnings, the modern advice column came to take on the hallmark subjects of the failed Ladies’ Mercury — love and relationships. Common nicknames for advice columnists — “agony aunt” in Britain, “sob sister” in America — suggested that the dispensers of advice were part of the family, engaged in the traditional emotional labor of women. Dorothy Dix, the most widely read syndicated advice columnist of the first half of the 20th century, was known as America’s “mother-confessor,” casting her as both a nurturer and a dispenser of absolution.
At Dix’s peak, in the 1930s and during World War II, her column appeared in 273 newspapers nationwide and reached an estimated 60 million readers. The name was the pseudonym of Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, who was born in Tennessee in 1861 and married in her early twenties. But marriage did not spell support and security, as women of her class were led to expect. Her husband suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness and was unable to hold down a job, and the couple had no children. After a chance meeting with the owner of the New Orleans Picayune, Elizabeth secured a job that would support them both, and before long, the editors made their hardworking lady reporter into a columnist. In 1895, they gave her the alliterative nickname by which she would be known for more than half a century.
Dix was both conservative and pragmatic about women’s place in the world. In 1913, she advised a man who had fallen in love with his stenographer that a “business girl” could indeed make a good wife, becoming a “real helpmeet and not a parlor ornament.” Tensions between working women and wives were a regular theme of “Dorothy Dix Talks.” In 1942, one Mrs. G railed at length against the “glamorous” office girls who were “charter members of the Home-Wrecking Crews” and begged to know what wives could do to protect their marriages. Dix defended the thousands of young women who just wanted an honest wage and laid the blame for any office flirtation squarely at the door of the male boss.
No doubt informed by her own marital disappointments, Dix cautioned against romantic fantasies. While she believed men and women ought to marry for love, she encouraged them to get to know one another first. Dix believed that “everything in the world had been written about women and for women, except the truth” — her goal was to be that newly honest voice.
The advice column took on its modern form as a female-dominated forum for the exchange of advice and sympathy during a period of dramatic change in women’s lives. In the first decades of the 20th century, women increasingly entered the workforce and won the right to vote. As they moved away from home to take advantage of new opportunities in booming cities, the structure, pace, and place of women’s lives changed. The “New Woman” — educated, independent, outspoken, pleasure seeking — was the archetypal figure of this period and a lightning rod for discussions about social change. Much like the millennial a century later, she was a moving target for pundits and advertisers alike.
As women’s lives changed, so too did the attitudes of newspapers toward their audiences. Having previously been backed by political parties, newspapers in the consumer era came to rely on advertisers for their financial survival. Specialized sections about sports and cars began to appear in their pages to more closely match niche readers to advertisers. But for the vast majority of products — everything from soap to clothing to household appliances — there was only one section, and one audience, that really mattered: women.
The rapid expansion of women’s pages in the early 20th century presented many new opportunities for women journalists. According to historian Julie Golia, these influential segments tended to be disparaged and overlooked by second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan, who wrote them off as stiflingly conservative and gender-conformist. Yet Golia’s research suggests that there was considerable variety within them, both in content and attitude, including serialized fiction, housekeeping and parenting columns, opinion pieces, recipes, makeup and fashion, and all manner of advice.
In the new advice columns, the reader’s dilemma was just the beginning, and the expert in charge, like Dorothy Dix, just one voice in a chorus of advisers. In many newspapers, Golia writes, the advice columns were truly “interactive,” operating more like an internet chat room. The “Corner Column” in the Chicago Daily News offered a supportive virtual community, especially to those who were forging a new kind of life in an often confusing and alienating city. In the Boston Globe’s “Confidential Chat,” which ran from 1922 until 2006, strangers would ask questions, tell their own stories, and share recipes and advice that ran the gamut from stain removal to marital problems. Writing under pseudonyms like “Dorchester Dottie,” many contributors wrote regularly for the page, answered each other’s queries, and helped create what one reporter called “the biggest backyard fence in the world.” For the newspapers, these forums were a powerful way to prove to advertisers that readers were not just glancing at their pages, but were truly attentive and deeply engaged.
For Dix and her contemporaries, who answered many thousands of letters in columns that ran several times a week, it seems the most important qualifications for a successful advice columnist were stamina and the emotional resilience to avoid being overwhelmed by the suffering of others. Expertise or qualifications were not really the point — like the Athenian Society before her, the woman’s page columnist brought her authority into being by declaring it. Women’s pages often ran syndicated advice columns by men on health and childrearing, which drew on medical and psychological — as well as masculine — authority. But matters of the heart, hovering between etiquette and emotion, could not be learned in a laboratory. And for most of the 20th century, the advice column was a rare arena in which women publicly called the shots, issued the verdicts, and controlled the conversation.
One notable exception: Paul Popenoe, a eugenicist convinced of the power of selective breeding, became the leading proponent of marriage counseling in the United States in the 1950s. His column, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” was one of the most popular features in Ladies’ Home Journal through the 1950s. The answer, almost invariably, regardless of adultery, alcoholism, alienation, or abuse, was yes.
The therapeutic act of framing a dilemma, of sharing a problem, keeps the advice seekers writing — and the rubberneckers reading.
When ordinary people felt helpless in the face of expert authority, they turned to the advice column with a renewed urgency. After 1950, when Dorothy Dix retired, the mantle of America’s advice queen passed to a pair of identical twins: Esther Pauline (“Eppie”) and Pauline Esther (“Popo”) Friedman, better known by their pseudonyms, Ann Landers and “Dear Abby.” A pseudonym lets a reader know that the author both is and is not who she says she is; it alerts us to the gap between the writer and the self. In the case of the twins, inseparable as children, it created space that they desperately needed, between the compromise they preached and the bitter rivalry they practiced. Despite or because of their furious competition, the sisters’ columns flourished, eventually eclipsing even Dix in circulation, readership, and impact, appearing in 1,600 newspapers at their height.
Ann and Abby were guardians and guarantors of what was “normal” in families, communities, and society at large. While Dorothy Dix generally saw marriage as an inevitability for women, she rarely romanticized it or suggested it had a larger social significance. But during the 1950s, American private lives gained a political edge. “Normal” was a value with an outsized resonance, even though its most potent avatar — the white, middle-class suburban family of male breadwinner, female homemaker, and apple-cheeked kids — depended on the systemic exclusion of those who didn’t fit the pattern. Dear Abby wrote in the early 1960s that she thought it “unwise” for a married woman to hold a full-time job: “She’s already got one in her home!” She argued against divorce and claimed “there are no two people in the world who cannot live together in reasonable harmony if they really try” — this to a woman whose husband had given her two black eyes. Her sister agreed that “marriage is forever” and that divorce was a last resort, though living apart might be allowable if a husband was truly abusive.
But as the 1960s began to shake up that picture, Ann and Abby were on hand to reassure readers that social change need not be terrifying. Together, they responded to the seismic cultural shifts of the era that were reverberating in ordinary American homes. Their columns became public forums for people to share their experiences with interracial or interfaith relationships, long-haired sons and short-haired daughters, war protests and political disagreements within families. Abby was especially progressive on gay rights, encouraging parents who were worried about a lesbian daughter to “accept her as she is and let her know it,” and curtly advising nosy neighbors who were worried about their property values after a gay couple arrived in the house across the street to move. Despite regular barrages of hate mail, Abby never wavered from her position that, as she wrote in 1971, “The most burdensome problem the homosexuals must bear is the stigma placed upon him by an unenlightened and intolerant society. Their sexual bent is as natural and normal for them as ours is for us.”
Where Abby was known for her witty one-liners (Q: “What’s the difference between a wife and a mistress? A: “Night and Day”), Ann Landers was often more reflective, inviting experts to weigh in on issues of widespread concern or turning a single response into a longer essay — as she did in 1982, turning a letter about teaching boys to shoot into a full-throated call for stronger federal gun laws.
In 1975, Eppie Lederer temporarily cast aside her Ann Landers persona to share with readers the shocking news that her husband, whom she’d recently praised in a column marking their 30th wedding anniversary, had asked for a divorce. “The lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one,” she wrote, and went on to pose the unanswerable question, “How did it happen that something so good for so long didn’t last forever?” She didn’t mention that her husband had met another woman, choosing to mourn rather than blame. At the end of the column, she left four inches of blank space as a “memorial to one of the world’s best marriages that didn’t make it to the finish line.” By breaking through the barrier of her pseudonym, Lederer made it clear to her readers that even a woman who had built a long and lucrative career telling others how to live could be blindsided by chance, fate, God, or whatever was really in charge. Far from undermining her authority, the gesture encouraged her community to rally round, sending her some 30,000 letters of condolence.
People defer to expertise, but they crave empathy. If there’s any single reason for the tenacious survival of the advice column, it’s that there’s no obligation to follow or act on the advice. There’s no priest or parent keeping watch, no doctor or therapist scheduling a follow-up. The therapeutic act of framing a dilemma, of sharing a problem, keeps the advice seekers writing — and the rubberneckers reading. Even if we’re not looking for answers ourselves, advice columns offer a fascinating glimpse of human behavior that may be comic, tragic, or simply bizarre and that help us calibrate our values in a bewildering world. We’re free to observe and judge without consequences. These are not our friends and loved ones; the outcome of their marriage, their fight, their grief, will not reach us, yet our responses help us decide what kind of person we want to be — and how we want to behave in our own moment of crisis.