Got Problems? The Fascinating World of Advice Columnists
Cracker Jack boxes and fortune cookies
I was just a kid when my mom gushed over seeing her words in a newspaper under the headline: 'Dear Abby'. My mom had written Dear Abby and received a public response. At the time I thought my grandpa knew everything and who else could possibly top him for words to live by? Thousands, maybe millions, of people wrote in to someone like Dear Abby to receive advice. Astonishing. Didn't they have a grandpa like mine?
Eventually I grew up and realized the need and popularity of advice columnists. While my grandpa's wise words still ring clear in my ears long after his passing, the game has changed and life is so much more complicated than when I was 9.
I began reading advice columns in newspapers and magazines during my breaks when I was a waitress and bartender. Some were remarkable and just short of life-changing, many others were ridiculous and generic. People would have been better off seeking answers out of a Cracker Jack box or a fortune cookie. But all had one thing in common- they gave hope.
History of hope
Women began dishing out advice in women's publicaitons as early as the 1700's. The Lady’s Monthly Museum was one of the foremost periodicals for women from 1798-1828. Female columnists, later known as agony aunts, answered anonymous letters that posed questions about personal problems and gave advice according to the latest etiquette and social standards. The responses were modest and discreet, hardly detailed, and reflective of times in which marriage and relationships must always be salvaged without a hint of disruption to the household.
More History: Men were the first to need help
Advice columns were not solely for women, but also for men beginning with The Athenian Mercury, a publication printed towards the end of the 17th century (the first 'agony' column in history). An example of a response in this publication was regarding a man inquiring about the right time to get married and the response was, "Marriage is no foot ball play. Few men till some years above twenty know either how to govern themselves, choose a wife, or set a true value upon money." The advice states it is best for men to wait until at least 25 to marry. In the times of apprenticeship and indenture, the average age for men to marry was 27. The wealthier married younger on average, as money probably played a significant role.
While the advice has changed immensely, reflective of social changes and values throughout history, the problems and inquiries of the past strongly resemble those of today; work, love, family. "What should I do?" These problems, for men, today get answered in popular magazines such as Esquire and Playboy.
Syndicated sister act
Remember the identical twins, Esther and Pauline Friedman? Maybe not. How about Dear Abby and Ann Landers? Yeah, I thought that might ring a bell. The sisters got their start collaborating on a gossip column in a school newspaper during their college years in Sioux City, Iowa.
They later went their separate ways. Esther became Ann Landers in 1955 of the Chicago Sun-Times, but not the original Ann Landers- Ruth Crowley had passed away. The column became a success and rejuvenated the struggling newspaper. The other sister, Pauline, began writing for The San Fransisco Chronicles in 1956, under the pen name Abigail Van Buren- "Dear Abby". This column also became widely successful. In 1974, "Dear Abby" began at the Chicago Tribune, intensifying a sibling rivalry between the sisters and competition between the newspapers.
Dear Abby columns have sprouted up in newspapers across the nation like the column where my mom's question appeared in The Seattle Times. The true Dear Abby is presently written by Jeanne Phillips, daughter of Pauline. Ann Landers column ceased after her death in 2002. Esther was Ann Landers for 47 years.
Bet you didn't know...
- Ann Landers (Esther "Eppie") repeatedly, and publicly, favored the legalization of prostitution.
- A 1995 "Ann Landers" column said, "In recent years, there have been reports of people with twisted minds putting razor blades and poison in taffy apples and Halloween candy. It is no longer safe to let your child eat treats that come from strangers." This warning created a short-lived national fear of trick-or-treating on Halloween.
- In 1964, Dear Abby was the subject of a pop song with the same title, sung by The Hearts.
- Ann Landers made a public insult regarding the Pope John Paul II stating he was a Polack and anti-women. Polish-Americans responded with outrage.
- The current Dear Abby column has a client list of 1,400 newspapers worldwide and a daily readership of more than 110 million people, receiving 10,000 letters and emails per week.
Advice columnists today: "Savage Love" sign of the times
Savage Love by Dan Savage is one of the most unique columns I've ever read. Recently interviewed and featured in the Nightline news show, Dan talked about his life as a sex columnist, radio host, and author. His advice style is that of getting tough love advice from a really good friend- he may joke and be quite blunt.
Dan's Column began in 1991 in Seattle's newspaper, The Stranger. It now appears in hundreds of newspapers across the world. His column, Savage Love, is a sign of our times as he offers detailed and frank advice on sex and relationship problems. In 2002 he purchased Ann Landers desk (after her death) and refers to himself as a gay Ann Landers. Dan has been the source of controversy because of his anti-conservative atheist views and politics within the gay community. However, he has various views both conservative (family values- his partner is a stay-at-home dad with their adopted son) and religiously as he claims to be culturally Catholic.
Advice columnists Today: Another Ann Landers "Ask Amy"
Amy Dickinson took over the Ann Landers advice column in The Chicago Tribune in 2003 after Esther's death. The column was renamed after Amy, "Ask Amy". Amy draws upon her faith in God and tough life as a single mother, from homemaker to her husband leaving her suddenly with an 18 month old. She was lucky enough to get the job as an advice columnist and now reads and answers 300 emails a day with no assistants as many other advice columnists have had, including Ann Landers.
She reports almost all questions she receives are about relationships. She loves questions about faith and says, " “Sometimes my faith means that I am able to recommend that others consider their faith, reconnect with their faith or connect with faith as a way to sort of dig deep.” She mixes her column responses with kindness and truthfulness, but not too brutally honest.
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