Origin of Everything

S3 E8 | FULL EPISODE

Where did Advice Columns Come From?

Writing to a complete stranger about your most pressing, personal issues seems a bit odd. But that's exactly what the advice column is! From their origin as the Google of the 1600s to the booming renaissance of today, Danielle examines the strange history of advice columns.

AIRED: April 10, 2020 | 0:08:05
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TRANSCRIPT

Oh, hello there! You’ll have to excuse me, I was just reading some fanmail and this one

here is really interesting. Dear Origin of Everything, it says. I need your help. I was

thinking about advice columns earlier, and I realized I have no idea where they come

from. Why do they exist, and how did they even become a thing in the first place? Signed,

an Inquiring Mind.

Well, you’re in luck, Inquiring Mind, because the origin of the advice column is exactly

what we’re going to be focusing on today. Because looking at the advice column’s colorful

past isn’t just an interesting history lesson. It can also tell us a lot about how this centuries

old form has maintained its popularity through the decades, even adapting their form and

function to fit new mediums and technologies. So, dear reader, let’s take a closer look.

So sending a complete stranger a letter about your most intimate problems might sound a

little bit odd and cringy. But today, the advice column has never been more popular.

A brief look around the internet will show you many, many flavors of the concept: there

are advice columns focused on office problems, like Ask a Manager by Alison Green. There’s

a regular column about childcare on Slate called Care and Feeding, as well as one about

sex called How to Do It (oh my!). There’s one on LGBTQ issues like ¡Hola Papi! By John

Paul Brammer, and so many more, like Ask Polly by Heather Havrilesky.

You get the idea. This kind of content is absolutely everywhere right now. And not only

that, but they are serious drivers of traffic for their respective websites. Slate, which

houses four advice columns, attributed an 85 percent bump in annual unique viewers in

their advice category last year to the success of their agony aunts and uncles. It’s no

wonder there’s a space for such a wide variety of topics and subcategories. The advice column

is doing numbers.

But regardless of who the columnist is or what problem is being discussed, the formula

is pretty much universally the same. You probably already get the gist, even if you haven’t

written in yourself. A reader writes a letter asking for help, and the columnist reaches

into their deep well of knowledge to address it.

Of course, it’s done publicly and usually as a means of entertainment, but the idea

is that someone walks away at least a little enriched. Sounds fun, but where did the concept

come from?

While the advice column might primarily be seen as a vehicle for entertainment today,

it actually has more practical roots. Let’s take a look at one of the earliest examples

there is, a sort of prototypical advice column that came out in the 1690s with The Athenian

Mercury, a British periodical.

Some of the letters people sent in might look familiar in spirit, if not in content. For

example on letter reading “Whether it be proper for Women to be Learned?”, harkens

back to a time where women were more restricted in society, but it represents a common conundrum

presented to advice columnists: What is the proper decorum here? But I’m just going

to dip my toes into the advice columnists waters and answer this one by saying: yes,

women should be learned. Learned women are good.

Other questions, like “what’s love,” were more on the philosophical and sentimental

side. But perhaps the most dramatic departure from how we see advice columns today were

questions like this, presented to The Athenian Mercury. Ahem: “What is the causes of winds,

and whence do they come, and whither do they go.” Which seems like an excessively trippy

philosophical question to ask a stranger through the newspaper.

But, in a time where education was a rare thing, advice columnists really were bastions

of knowledge that everyday people could tap into. It was sort of like Google in a time

where, across the pond, America’s very first colonial newspaper had only recently been

published.

And who were these early oracles? Well, they were people like The Athenian Mercury’s

Editor-in-Chief John Dunton and Richard Sault, an English mathematician who joined what Dunton

named The Athenian Society. This was a sort of brain trust that answered people’s letters.

Women were also hugely invested in the periodical, spawning a spin-off called The Ladies’ Mercury

that, while only running for four weeks, was the first periodical aimed specifically at

women.

That monumental accomplishment is a good example of how advice columns weren’t just a public

resource. They very quickly became shapers and creators of culture themselves. These

columnists were educated, interested in politics, mostly progressive, and, perhaps most importantly,

completely anonymous. That meant they were allowed to speak their minds, and speak their

minds they did, like supporting feminist causes as early as the 19th century.

In an article detailing the history of the advice column, Lucy Mangan wrote in The Guardian:

“The pre-Victorian agony aunts and uncles (a term for advice columnists) could be surprisingly

liberal and outspoken... [Some] campaigned for better rights for deserted wives and other

mistreated women.”

It wasn’t long before the “agony aunt,” or “sob sister” as they came to be known

in America, shifted to a more feminine duty. But why? Well, with rising literacy rates

and education becoming more accessible, people stopped seeing groups like The Athenian Society

as gatekeepers of institutional knowledge and started wanting advice from people they

knew, people they could consider part of the family.

This dovetailed with the common perception that women were meant to take on tasks of

emotional labor. One prominent example is Dorothy Dix. In the 1890s, America’s “mother-confessor”

as she was often called, rose to prominence as a popular advice columnist in New Orleans’

Daily Picayune. At its peak, her column, Dorothy Dix Talks, was drawing in 60 million readers

and over 100,000 letters a year.

Author and journalist Jessica Weisberg, summarizes it well: “What you see is a transition from

wanting advice from someone who is scholarly and an expert in their field like the Athenian

Society, a community of intellect, to wanting advice from more of a friend or a peer figure

who resembles you. I think it has to do with a general shift in society toward distrusting

elites.”

Dorothy Dix crystallized how we tend to see advice columns today. Run by a woman, immensely

popular with devoted readers around the world, and swimming in letters from fans seeking

wisdom. But there’s another key shift she represents, one that can tell us a lot about

media then and now.

We happen to live in a time where people are more distrustful of authority figures than

ever, and the media is no exception. A Columbia Journalism Review poll in 2019 found that

60% of people think journalists get paid by their sources. Mainstream news outlets like

CNN and The New York Times are frequent targets of ire.

Interestingly, this distrust doesn’t seem to be slowing down the success of advice columns,

which might sound odd given that “trust” is probably a key ingredient to make the advice

column / reader relationship happen.

But the resonance of advice columns in our paranoid present is baked right into its DNA.

The advice column is meant to feel like you’re talking to a friend, like someone you know

and trust is giving you a hand.

In an era when the news is often depressing, confusing, and delivered impersonally, advice

columnists occupy an important niche of personality. They offer moral clarity where a straight-forward

report probably wouldn’t.

And in a way, people haven’t changed. They still want solid information from the news,

but they also want a relationship from it, a face, a voice, and a sense of community.

Advice columnists are still doing that, and the craze doesn’t show signs of stopping.

Media ebbs and flows with the times just like the changing winds and is perhaps more married

to the “right now” than other industries, and right now, if the advice column renaissance

is any indication, people want their media to align with their values, for better or

worse. Plus, we hope that asking an advice columnist for guidance is slightly more reliable

than shaking a magic eight ball which just keeps telling me... "my reply is no."

Anyway, people also want to move through society the right way, to know what the proper decorum

is, to make sure their values are in the right spot. But a lot has changed, too. I mean,

an advice column has been sent out internationally through Grindr, a dating app. Because if you’re

looking for dates, it might be best to get some well meaning advice before braving that

first awkward hello. Advice columns are sent out through newsletters from media outlets,

and the accessibility the internet provides means just about anyone could be an advice

columnist if they wanted to. Maybe you. Heck maybe me! Maybe not magic eight ball…

As we get more connected, and yet more alienated, will there be more agony aunts and uncles

than ever before in our future? "Reply hazy. Try Again." Well, I guess only time will tell.

But be sure to join us next time! This is Origin of Everything, signing off.

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