In March of 1912 a lovelorn young woman wrote into the Rock Island Argus with a problem. At 20 years old she found that her boyfriend of 2 years was starting to hint that he was interested in marriage. Overcome with doubt, she wrote a letter to Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, the Rock Island Argus’ resident advice columnist. After explaining the situation, she ended her letter with one simple question: Am I too young? The answer she received was quick and straight to the point: “No”. This short and straight to the point style of answering questions seemed to be Mrs. Thompson’s specialty. Another woman in the same issue asked for advice on what to wear to an upcoming masquerade and was told curtly to dress as a French maid. Mrs. Thompson’s knowledge base was expansive and she seemed to be able to answer questions over a broad array of topics from skincare to food to fashion. She also dealt with much heavier topics, telling people, women in particular, how to survive and provide for their children when they had nowhere else to turn.
While Mrs. Thompson’s advice was not always quite at as short, it was always very definitive giving the reader the impression that, though she may not know you, she knows how to handle each and every situation with ease. It isn’t clear how long she held this position, or how effective her advice truly was. The first occurrence of her article, that I was able to find, was on September 26, 1911. She held this position for at least 4 years.
Mrs. Thompson, or perhaps more accurately the writer that used Mrs. Thompson as their pen name, was part of a larger tradition of advice columnists. While it isn’t immediately clear where advice columns first originated, some place the origin in 1690 in the Athenian Mercury. According to David Gudelunas, the author of Confidential to America: Newspaper Advice Columns and Sexual Education, early readers of advice columns often wanted to reach, not only the columnist themselves, but all other readers. Advice columns of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often dealt with matters like medicine, philosophy, and government. At this time these columns were often handled by editors or other higher ups in the newsroom. As advice columns began to appear in women’s sections of newspapers, late 1880’s to the early 1900’s, they often dealt primarily with domestic work, such as questions about sewing and recipes.
The advice columns that we know today, which tend to focus heavily on relationships and social obligations, may have found their start with a woman named Beatrice Fairfax. Fairfax, as it would happen, was actually a pseudonym for the 26 year old New York Evening Post writer Marie Manning. After the paper received several letters asking for personal advice, Manning floated the idea of establishing a special column dedicated to answering reader’s personal questions. The column was a quick success, resulting in the newspaper receiving thousands of letters asking for Beatrice’s advice. Manning readily jumped to the challenge and began answering letters in her direct and to the point manner.
Though many associate advice columns with old newspapers, they are alive and well today. The genre has been actively expanding online and through podcasts. The demographic makeup of advice columnists is also becoming increasingly diverse, though white people remain the majority of writers.
Gudelunas, David. Confidential to America: Newspaper Advice Columns and Sexual Education. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2008.
Mansky, Jackie. “What makes the advice column uniquely American.” Smithsonian. April 18, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/advice-columns-shaped-americans-180968820/.
Olson, L. 2019. “Dear-Beatrice-Fairfax + Manning,Marie, Alias Fairfax,Beatrice, Writer of America First Advice Column.” American Heritage 43 (3): 90–987. Accessed May 7.
Thompson, Elizabeth. “Heart and Home Problems by Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson.” The Rock Island Argus. (Rock Island, IL), March 14, 1912.
Thompson, Elizabeth. “Heart and Home Problems.” The Rock Island Argus. (Rock Island, IL), November 2, 1911.
Thompson, Elizabeth. “Heart and Home Problems.” The Rock Island Argus. (Rock Island, IL), September 26, 1911.
Thompson, Elizabeth. “Heart and Home Problems by Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson.” The Rock Island Argus. (Rock Island, IL), August 6, 1912.