In the late 17th century, English bookseller John Dunton had a problem — an affair, to be specific. He wasn’t unsure how to juggle his non-monogamy and didn’t have anyone to turn to for advice on such an indiscretion, at which point Dunton had a marvelous idea. What if puzzled gents like himself could jot down whatever was ailing them, send it off to a group of experts and receive a solution in return? Who knows what Dunton ultimately did about his philandering; what mattered, though probably not so much to his mistress, is that he staked his place in publishing history with the invention of the advice column.
Along with a trio of friends, Dunton formed a salon of sorts that would meet up at a coffeehouse to read and answer the early problem letters, which he solicited in a local newspaper. The twice-weekly publication’s title? “The Athenian Gazette: Or Casuistical Mercury, Resolving all the most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious of Either Sex.” One can only imagine the difficulty of designing promotional materials for the pamphlete; even the acronym — TAGOCMRATMNACQPBTIOES — would’ve been a nightmare to fit on a bumper sticker.
Unwieldy masthead aside, the first edition, hot off the presses in 1691, posed questions you might encounter today in Dear Abbey (RIP) or even Dan Savage. One guy wants to know what a “friend’s” wife cries after sex, and another seeks out moral guidance on shacking up before marriage. But my favorite question from history’s first advice column deals with something I’d never considered before, even though I’ve researched and written about the geometry of wombat poop.
Q: Why a horse with a round fundament emits a square excrement?
A: The cells of the Colon form the feces into oblong cakes, and protrude them into the rectum, from whence they are exonerated by sphincter ani, which does not form them in the extrusion, the orifice being big enough to exonerate several of them at once. They are formed quadrangularly in the rectum, by protension and compression upon one another, as any other round or oblong substances which are soft would be, if they were thrust together. But yet some of them are not square on all sides, from this reason, they being discharged several of them at once, through a round fundament, the whole lump is round, the extremity and outward parts of it receiving their form agreeable to the thing forming, when at the same time the middle parts must needs be square, from the reason above. A Wide purse will admit several sorts of coin at the same time.
(source: The Awl)
The Athenian Mercury was an immediate sensation that prompted copycats and attracted more people (mostly men at the beginning) to the advice-writing form. Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Franklin, for instance, both published successful advice columns as well. In its six-year run from 1691 to 1697, the Athenian Mercury delved into myriad matters of the heart, mind, body and digestive system, such as the source of gout, lucid dreams and what on earth love really is. In other words, many of those first questions posed centuries ago are the same ones that, despite the existence of Google, we continue asking again and again to advice columnists, agony aunts and how-to experts.