Agony Aunts: A Brief History of a Unique Profession

Posted on February 7, 2023

by Anastasia Hastings

Novelist Anastasia Hastings, author of the recently released mystery Of Manners and Murder, delves into the history of Agony Aunts, a unique profession dating back to the 17th century. Read more below.

In America, we call them advice columnists, but in Britain, they’re known as Agony Aunts, those journalists who answer letters from readers inquiring about everything from what to wear to a party, to what to do about a lost love.

The unique profession originated back in the late 17th century when John Dunton published the “Athenian Mercury” and in it, answered “all the most nice and curious questions.” What sorts of issues concerned readers in 1690? Love problems, health complaints, but also questions about history, science (“Do fleas have stings?”), and philosophy (“Who are the most happy in the world, wise men or fools?”) A lady was troubled by corns and wanted to know the reason for them. Dunton’s answer? “Perhaps her hard heart has infected her toes.” This from a man who once advised a lonely woman to go down to the docks when the fleet was in and find herself a sailor!

Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame, once wrote such a column. In spite of his usual praise for “the Sex,” he used his Advice from the Scandal Club to condemn women for their love of fashion, their use of cosmetics, their lack of modesty, and their “admiration of self.” 

In 1709, Della Manley followed on the heels of these Agony Uncles and became the first Agony Aunt when she started a magazine called the Female Tatler and included her own advice column in it. By the 1740s, Agony Aunts were far more popular than Agony Uncles. Their columns appeared in numerous publications and advances in publishing and distribution garnered them large audiences.

By the dawn of the Victorian age, the Aunts took on a more authoritative air. “You have foolishly lent yourself to a clandestine courtship and must withdraw promptly,” one Aunt wrote in 1857. And in 1860, when asked at what age a girl should marry, an Aunt told her, “When she has had enough of flirting, knows how to make a decent dinner and has made up her mind to accept the trials as well as the pleasures of her new relations, whatever they may be, with that fortitude a good woman always manages to muster.”

By the end of the 19th century, Agony Aunts became bolder and discussed topics like contraception. In the US, the first advice columnist was Dorothy Dix in 1896. She championed women’s rights and addressed the often-sensitive topics of mental health, marriage, and sexuality. White outlets weren’t the only ones that featured advice columns. Princess Mysteria was a popular column in Chicago’s Black newspaper, The Defender, in the 1920s. 

Dear Abby, Ann Landers, Miss Manners—famous columnists from the 50s, the 60s, and beyond—have made way these days to TV advice givers and online Aunts who deal with the trials and tribulations of modern life, many of them not so different from the troubles of the 17th century.

Well, except maybe for the fleas.

Anastasia Hastings is a penname for Connie Laux who has, over a thirty-year career, published 65 novels in a number of different genres and under a number of names. She is a Sherlock Holmes devotee, a Victorian England aficionado, and she enjoys learning about history as it applies to the everyday lives of the people who lived it. Connie learned to love mysteries at an early age thanks to her dad who was a Cleveland Police detective. Connie lives outside of Cleveland with her husband, David, and her Airedale, Eliot Ness, who is a ribbon-winning show dog when he’s outside and a couch potato when he’s home.

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