PROBLEM SKIN?? TRY SPERMACETI!

When the English Woman’s Journal debuted in 1858, there were already many British periodicals aimed at women, from the long-running Lady’s Magazine to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and the Lady’s Monthly Museum (and many more that managed to make their audience known without using the word “woman” or “lady” in the title). It was a crowded market! The English Woman’s Journal claims, explicitly and implicitly, that it is different from the crowd of women’s magazines. With its social-science methodology and laser-focus on issues of female employment, it represents itself as far removed from the province of recipes, sewing patterns, and advice columns.

But WAIT, it DOES have an advice column, LAAADIESSS! It’s called Open Council, appears in every issue except the first, and contains between one and twelve letters (but usually three or four). As I’ll explain, Open Council strives to present itself as SERIOUS BUSINESS, just like the rest of the periodical. I’d like to start by reprinting some chunks from a truly excellent meta-letter that skewers advice columns from within one. It appears in October 1861, from the pen of “a Polite Letter-Writer.” Bear with me, because it’s worth reading. Our correspondent begins by deploring the state of the correspondence column of any “extremely second-rate magazine,” which include letters so dull and similar that they must be “fictitious.” She throws a LOT of shade at these terribly dull columns. This is how INCREDULOUS she is about them:

Is Mary Jane really bent on the perpetual inquiry, how cold cream may best be made? And is she for ever receiving a bona fide answer that it is composed of “almond wax, one pound; rose water, one pound; (sic;) white wax, one ounce; spermaceti, one ounce; and otto of roses, half a drachm?” Does Richard truly want to know how he and Susan can get married before a registrar? and does the editor constantly inform him of the legal particulars, throwing in a strong injunction to consult the clergyman as well? Is there an agriculturist always seeking to know when mangel-wurzel was first introduced into the United Kingdom? and a mother inquiring at what age her daughter Lavinia ought to begin to learn her scales ?

I mean, I don’t think these are exactly boring-sounding problems. These women are being told to rub spermaceti (which comes from the inside of a whale’s head) ON THEIR FACES. And like WHERE DID THE MANGEL-WURZEL COME FROM? (Answer: unknown, but they make terrifying jack-o-lanterns.)

But whatever my interest level, the writer of this article is plainly frustrated by the stunning mundaneness of most advice-column queries. She goes on to list other irritating recurring topics:

Chloe wants to know if Damon “means anything,” and the editor always replies oracularly that he possibly may, but probably does not, so as not to commit himself either way;…Then Lucy dreamt she saw the date of her own death on a tombstone, only luckily it was for a certain day in last year; and Robert cannot sleep in his bed till he knows whether Helen of Troy has an authentic tomb; and Politico inquires where he can get a complete edition of Louis Blanc’s works; and Theologicus wants to be sure where the Bishop of Oxford was born, and when. An Anxious Inquirer is told that it’s no use going to law about a lapsed life insurance policy; and Heliogabalus is warned that it is unsafe to eat oysters unless there is a letter r in the name of the month.

Again, who DOESN’T need a helpful mnemonic about mollusk safety (a shellfish question if ever I read one)? Perhaps thrown into doubt by her own hilarious list of examples, the author of this screed finally confesses that she and her “highly intellectual lady friend[s]” derive great enjoyment from advice columns:

…there is something in the simple homely life thus revealed in the popular whim of correspondence which I cannot help sympathising with, and that I have often bought a penny periodical at the door of a railway carriage, that I might see exactly what Richard and Mary Jane were about, whether the cold cream had got any recommendable new ingredient, or poor little Lavinia was permitted to be free of her scales for a year or two longer.

Reading advice columns is a guilty pleasure for her! I should know, because I buy Us magazine every single time I’m in an airport (along with Twizzlers, obviously). What’s great about the idea of the advice column is that it presents gossip without malice (unlike Us). We get to hear about the love lives of Richard and Mary Jane (or Richard and Susan—that Richard really gets around!) without causing any harm to real people and their very real reputations. In a way the letters’ suspect veracity actually makes them better and more fun. If they’re not real, who are we hurting by reading about them and trading gossip with fellow readers?

Another pleasant element of unreality in advice columns comes from the use of generic names. In the example above, some are classical references: “Chloe” and “Damon,” figures from Ancient Greek literature, or Heliogabalus, a decadent Roman emperor. Others are thematic, like “Politico” and “Theologicus.” Generic titles like “Anxious Inquirer” are the category most recognizable to readers today. I’m an avid reader of Slate’s Dear Prudence column, now written by Mallory Ortberg. Recent columns include letters from “Literally Nauseated,” “Old Wounds, New Hope,” and “Perfectly Balanced.”

EWJ readers continued the tradition of using generic names when writing into its advice column, Open Council. Signatures include: “An Italian,” “One of the Propserous,” “A Voice from the Work Room,” “Papianus,” “A Constant Reader,” “Country Resident,” “A Gray-haired Londoner,” “A Practical Mistress of a Household,” and “A Ball Goer, Who can unfasten her gown for herself.” (Dirty.)

But EWJ letter-writers also did something different—they actually discussed real issues. Open Council served as a forum where people asked advice on where women might be trained as printers, clockmakers, or doctors. They also wrote in to notify other readers of opportunities for work. In the May 1859 column alone: one writer recommends avenues for charity work; one suggests educating girls in the workhouse to be servants and “ladies” to be hairdressers; and three debate the dangers of wet-nursing.

In the same month’s column, a frequent contributor, the reformer Jessie Boucherett, writes in asking for confirmation about the abuse of female pottery painters. Apparently, male pottery painters, becoming concerned that skilled women would take their jobs, decided that women should not be allowed to use a maul-stick, a tool that helps stabilize the wrist while painting. As a result “the women’s painting has been reduced to mediocrity, and the men still enjoy the highest wages in happy security from rivalship.” Boucherett asks readers to write in if they have any knowledge of this practice, so that she can publish it. “Although I had it upon what appears to be good authority,” she writes, “it yet seems hardly credible that so lawless an act of oppression should be permitted in the nineteenth century.”

It kind of breaks my heart to read that qualifier “in the nineteenth century,” as if it is unthinkable that labor conditions can be so oppressive in such a modern age. The optimism of these reformers is unbounded and sometimes blinding. Jessie Boucherett lived a long life and made it into the twentieth century, dying in 1905. Oh Jessie, WHAT would you have to say about the twenty-first century’s lawless acts of oppression?

But I digress. I hope it’s clear even from a brief summary that the EWJ took the personal format of the correspondence column and tuned it into something professional. In Open Council, readers showed that they were continuing debates off the page, talking about issues of women’s professional employment in a domestic space, the home. In another meta-letter, one reader even asked if the “valuable hints” from Open Council could be compiled and indexed, since “so much information is given on various topics, and that information so scattered among the numbers, that great difficulty is experienced in finding out passages or referring to previous notices.” (47.357) Her letter shows that at least some readers saw Open Council as a practical aid, something worth preserving—a place to speak and be heard.

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