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Got Problems? The Fascinating World of Advice Columnists

Updated on March 28, 2011

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.

The Athenian Mercury
The Athenian Mercury

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.

Esther (Ann Landers) Friedman Lederer
Esther (Ann Landers) Friedman Lederer
Pauline (Dear Abby) Friedman Phillips
Pauline (Dear Abby) Friedman Phillips
Twin sisters, Dear Abby and Ann Landers
Twin sisters, Dear Abby and Ann Landers

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.

Dan Savage
Dan Savage

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.

Amy Dickinson "Ask Amy"
Amy Dickinson "Ask Amy"

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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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Thank you for some other informative website. Where else may just I am getting that kind of info written in such an ideal means? I've a venture that I am just now working on, and I have been on the glance out for such info. dkbfkagddecf

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      dahoglund~ great example of not knowing who is on the other side answering people's very personal questions. Thanks for stopping by!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I remember back in the 1950's or '60's Peter Lawford played in a sitcom where he was writing an advice column under a female name.

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Thanks John for a wonderful comment!

    • profile image

      John Orton 

      8 years ago

      Thia is one of the most interesting stuff i have ever read. Thumbs up for it :)

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Deborah Demander~ THank you so much for the nice comment.

      Very wise, wisecracker Harvey!

      PK2010~thanks for reading. It's alsp interesting to realize many of the things that troubled people hundred years ago, are still prominent today.

      daisy~ I would love to have that job too and I'm amazed at how advice columns are still so popular.

    • daisyf1305 profile image

      Daisy Fabelo 

      8 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I've always thought that being an advice columnist was just a super neat job to have, thanks for writing this hub it was great read.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      nice post. i read it with interesting.

    • PK2010 profile image

      Anthea Kwaw 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      Lots of information there. That's why I love hubpages. You don't have to travel far to learn something new! I never knew advice columns dated as far back as the 1700s! That's amazing. Agony Aunt columns make a great read. They give an insight into some of the social issues plaguing our society. Its also a good way for people to seek advice without the fear of being ridiculed, gaped at or stigmatised. I must add though that if you have a grandpa like yours to soak up buckets from wisdom from, then why not?

      Great hub. Really enjoyed it.

    • Harvey Stelman profile image

      Harvey Stelman 

      8 years ago from Illinois

      To All, I can solve most problems, and so can you. H

    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 

      8 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      This is a great hub. It is well written and entertaining. I have always enjoyed advice columns, hoping always to see that someone else's problems are worse than mine.


    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Jeanine~ interesting to think of it as the only self-diagnosis that leads to surgery in the U.S. I never thought about that. You bring up a good point about it being hard to give advice unless you've lived it.

      Heather~ Everybody has advice- I do believe this and few are actualy solutions. I know that columnists are told to keep advice general (to apply it to others as well) and to be entertaining. Seems to me, people with problems are last on the list for benefitting from writing in.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I have realized that you and and all children are perfect in what they do any way... it's only my short sightedness that brings me to say... do it this way or that way... I do wish I could tell my entire tribe... "try not to try to hard" but we being men at one time... no one will stop and ask for directions... the only self diagnosis that leads to surgery in America...I do know this... any advice form anyone who doesn't know or who hasn't had to live within this trans circle... can be dangerous advice... it's bah bah black sheep.... and it comes with three bags full... or more...

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      SJK~ I like to read the responses back to people to see if it compares to advice I would have given- it's fun!

      Jeanine~ My dad was/is so attentive, part of that OCD, but as much as he gives, he expects to be perfect from me as well. I also wonder what the private response would have been.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Izetti... very interesting that she would give that advice... me being me... I would love to think that her private response would be the same...simply because I believe my own family has saved me from so much heartache... the one thing I'm sure of with trans is.. we are maybe the most impulsive people on earth... then with a great big helping of OCD.... we plunge head on into SRS... believing we will all be better... there will be a day... I know... when we all talk about these days of medical malpractice... I have been a good father and love my children so very much... reality is so much better than fantasy in my case... and you can imagine I have quite a repretoire in my fantasy library... lol... thanks so much for the advice you have given... I alway enjoy you so much...

    • SJKSJK profile image


      8 years ago from delray beach, florida

      Love reading that stuff. Mostly don't take the advice, but love reading it

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Jeanine~ themanwithnopants is a good buddy of mine- funny guy.

      You may be interested to know, in the late 80's my mom wrote in to a Dear Abby in the Seattle Times about my dad, if he might be a bad influence on me because of the situation with him. THe response was that men "like him" are great fathers and for my mom to stick with him. Well my mom did not stick with him, but he was a good father my early years. I'm sure my mom got a public answer because of the "uniqueness" her situation.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      A very fun read... I love what...TheManWithNoPants said...very funny guy...

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      thank you so much for stopping by Barry.

    • barryrutherford profile image

      Barry Rutherford 

      8 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Great story about advice columns which are everywhere. Thanks for this expose of them ! voted ^

    • Harvey Stelman profile image

      Harvey Stelman 

      8 years ago from Illinois

      iz, How did you get your name? I would like to exchange e-mail address with you, becaue you don't have a contact... on your profile. I have a couple of questions I would like to ask you. Don't worry, nothing perverted, I'm married and I'm too old for you anyway. I don't want to date anyone that calls me, daddy.

      My address is

      I hope you'll trust me, I'm a wus. H

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Harvey~ great comment. I always wanted to be an advice columnist and in some of my "deeper" hub it feels I get in that position. I went to school for being a counselor but I'd feel like a fraud unless I have my own life together, which I have in the past but life always throws me a curve ball and I have to start all over again. I suspect even the major adivce columnists have personal issues. I like your advice the best. I feel like I know me the best so who better to solve my dilemmas?

    • Harvey Stelman profile image

      Harvey Stelman 

      8 years ago from Illinois

      iz, Hi! I met both ladies at a couple of family functions. Get them away from"MATTERS OF THE HEART," and they weren't very informed.

      Do it the old way.

      1- Got a problem.

      2- Talk to a friend.

      3- If that advice didn't work, try another.

      Otherwise most sit on a couch talking to a stranger. The stranger always says, I think we should talk twice a week. It may take a year or two.

      People have no idea how to solve a problem. My way of solving a problem was to think. H

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      thougtforce~ we dismiss "old" information from the older generations and want the most current and new info.Thanks so much for stopping by and glad you enjoyed it.

    • thougtforce profile image

      Christina Lornemark 

      8 years ago from Sweden

      Maybe there are no, or few, grandpa’s around younger families nowadays due to the way we live, or maybe the older isn’t always considered to be the wisest any more? It is a shame because many older people have so much knowledge to share if we let them. But the columnist seems to be immensely popular through time and also very needed.

      As always a very interesting and good hub from you!


    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      drbj~ very strange and very true. There is intrigue with others managing their problems. It's easier to listen to others' problems rather than fix our own. Great to see and glad you stopped by.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      Advice columnists will always thrive and prosper because we like to read the stories of people who seem so much more stupid than we are, yet seem to have many of the same problems we have. Strange, isn't it?

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Carol apple~ maybe people want a truly neutral input- someone not close to them to give them advice. Plus the publicity part doesn't hurt. TV and radio certainly have their fair share of advice givers too. Oh I'm sure the internet has increased the number of people seeking advice, BUT you can find advice so easily without asking a columnist. Advice is everywhere in the internet. That's an interesting question you bring up- thanks for the comment.

      The Frog Prince~ i scratch my head all the time about people's problems. Playboy has some good column sometimes. Thanks for the comment.

      Jim tmwnp~ could you elaborate on "love pillows"- ha, just kidding please don't. Sounds like you have pent up energy and frustrations with your current president. You need to start a project like The Housefire Project (laughing).

      graceomalley~ I've enjoyed them for a while too. THanks for the comment.

      sueroy333~ I could totally see you in a humor column. Some of your hubs crack me up. Glad you enjoye this one.

      Sharyn's Slant~ Glad i could inspire you. I had fun learning more about this topic. Best of luck!

      Gus~ themanwithnopants has given me a fair share of laughs since we've been bussies on hubpages- he's a breed of his own. Thanks so much for stopping by Gus.

      schoolmarm~ thank you!

      triciajean~ My grandpa was so great! I thought no one wiser than him. Glad you enjoyed my hub. I have a lot of respect for your hubbing. it ws fun putting it together- some new stuff I found out.

    • triciajean profile image

      Patricia Lapidus 

      8 years ago from Bantam, CT

      Ah. I posted that comment while not signed in. This is a test to see whether my picture appears when I AM signed in.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Yes, thanks for this well-researched stroll down through the agony columns. I had never heard them called that before. It's sad that so many people have no one to turn to closer to home. I love the way you started with your grandfather and returned to him. Smile.

    • schoolmarm profile image


      8 years ago from Florida

      I always loved the Dear Abby and Ann Landers columns. Nice hub!

    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 

      8 years ago from USA

      "Dear izettl" - this was a fun article, no doubt about that. Lots of good biographical history and more. Thanks.

      Thanks also to "TheManWithNoPants," whose comment, above, you no doubt enjoyed reading as much as I did.

      Gus :-)))

    • Sharyn's Slant profile image

      Sharon Smith 

      8 years ago from Northeast Ohio USA

      This is a GREAT piece!!! So well put together. Love the title, research, history and facts put into it. Great work like this is inspiring for me as a "newbie." Thanks so much!


    • TheManWithNoPants profile image


      8 years ago from Tucson, Az.

      Dr. Laura,

      Both my dog and my wife try to bite me every time I beat them. While I admit to having a small drinking problem, I want you to know, I've never missed a day's work, and they get plenty to eat. I work down at the stock yards, and hitting cows in the head with a base ball bat all day is hard work. Things just fester up. You'd think they'd understand my need to unwind ever once in a while. They both used to take a whuppin real good, but now days it ain't so. Why, the other day I was whuppin the dog, and out of no where, my wife ran up and latched on to me by my arm pit, biting me so hard it required four stiches and one stapple. Anyway, I couldn't shake her off my arm, then before I knew it, the dog got a hold of groin area, barely missin my little love pillows. Thank goodness the neighbors called the athorities! I've been taken into protective custody, and them? Why, they don't seem to miss me one bit. I've got a small military pension which seems to make her and the dog very happy. After all these years, they don't seem to miss me one bit. Things won't never be the same. Even if we DO get back, I'll be having to look over my shoulder ever time I give one of them a whuppin ..

      Any advise Dr. Laura?

      signed, bitten

    • sueroy333 profile image

      Susan Mills 

      8 years ago from Indiana

      This was awesome... and I voted it so.

      I love reading columns of all kinds ... I was even a reporter and humor columnist at one time for a weekly newspaper. I can't imagine the pressure of having to come up with something every single day... or reading and answering over 300 e-mails a day! That is amazing!

      This was interesting and so much fun to read!


    • graceomalley profile image


      8 years ago

      I always thought Dear Abby was worth the price of the paper.

    • The Frog Prince profile image

      The Frog Prince 

      8 years ago from Arlington, TX

      For entertainment sometimes I read the Playboy Forum. Sometimes I also scratch my head and wonder if there are really people out there with those hangups and afflictions.

      Well done.

      The Frog

    • carolapple profile image


      8 years ago from Suffolk Virginia

      This was fun to read and interesting. I wonder if the internet and social networking in particular has affected the number of people who write to advice columnists. You wondered why people just don't talk to someone they know, like your grandpa. There must be something satisfying about having a public figure address your personal issues in public....think of Dr. Laura on the radio and for that matter, talk shows like Montel Williams.

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      HattieMattieMae~ THanks for reading!

      Pamela~ something intrigues us to want to know what and if people have worse problems than us.

      Will Starr~ THanks for reading. I remember that about the Halloween candy and I always wondered where that came from. I know that people stopped baking and making treats to give out because nobody eats the homemade stuff anymore. Don't trust it. Sad, but true.

    • WillStarr profile image


      8 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      The tale of tampered Halloween candy was a myth. It never happened.

      Great hub izettl!

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 

      8 years ago from Oklahoma

      I love Ann Landers and Dear Abby. I enjoy reading to see what kind of problems people have.

    • HattieMattieMae profile image


      8 years ago from Europe

      fascinating! Always enjoyed reading that stuff! lol


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