The Strangest Suggestions From Old Advice Columns 

  • Advice column, 1943
Advice column, 1943
Credit: Picture Post via Getty Images

Websites such as Reddit, Quora, and JustAnswer have ushered in what The New Yorker recently called the “age of peak advice.” But people have long had a fondness for the old-fashioned advice column. The anonymity of the forum allows answer-seekers to sidestep embarrassment and participate in a virtual confessional. The advice column gained popularity in the U.S. in the late 1890s, catering mainly to women with a focus on social interactions, matters of the heart, and childcare. Marie Manning’s 1889 “Advice to the Lovelorn” column in the New York Evening Journal set the standard, incorporating the tone of conduct books for young women, which were popular in Britain in the 18th century, into its responses.

The majority of advice columns were written by women, but the publishing apparatus was controlled by men, leading to questions and replies that often reflected the sexist views of a patriarchal society. Countless columns reinforced the need for women to assume traditional gender roles such as marriage, homemaking, and child-rearing, while topics such as sexual orientation and adultery were rarely viewed with empathy or nuance.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, women known by the pen names Dorothy Dix, Abigail Van Buren (of “Dear Abby” fame), and Ann Landers (Van Buren’s twin sister!) became the most well-known and trusted advice-givers in America. Of course, social attitudes and customs have changed significantly over the decades, as has our understanding of science, and thus some of the advice that writers doled out seems pretty strange today. Here are five questionable tips from advice columns of yesteryear.

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Too Much Excitement Causes Baldness

Although modern medicine has identified some of the root causes (pun intended) of baldness, the science behind hair loss was much more nebulous in the mid-20th century. Letter writer “B.C.D.” asked in a 1959 issue of The London Weekly Magazine why more men than women seemed to go bald. The response was a little thin: “The hair of men more commonly falls off than that of women as they become bald from the greater excitement which their pursuits occasion.” Tell that to professional football player Mack Hollins.

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