OPINION | OLD NEWS: Tough as nails ‘sob sister’ gave Advice to Girls in 1922 Arkansas Democrat

"Sob sister" reporter Winifred Sweet Black Bonfils (1863-1936) wrote the Advice to Girls column published by the Arkansas Democrat in the early 20th century. (Democrat-Gazette illustration/Celia Storey)

Spend any time reading antique newspapers and you'll pick up all kinds of advice.

For instance, in 1922, the women of France were famous menders.

"They frequently use a strand of human hair in the work when they fail to find thread or floss fine enough," according to one Wanda Barton, author of Home-Making Helps, a syndicated column that appeared in the Arkansas Democrat 100 years ago.

Mending, Barton wrote, was a revived art in 1922. No longer was it true that "a hole is an accident of a day, but a patch is premeditated poverty" — because women and girls could study patching and darning in their women's schools.

Mending was the type of topic then covered by "women's pages." From a smattering of social notes about visitors coming to town, parties and engagements, woman's pages burgeoned in the late 19th century as editors noticed wives did family shopping. Topics expanded to include club news, suffrage work, cooking and sewing tips and advice to the lovelorn (see arkansasonline.com/1226page).

The Democrat bought the rights to publish Home-Making Helps from Newspaper Feature Service, one of the 92 syndicates identified by Editor & Publisher in 1925 as supplying about 1,000 such features to the nation's journals (see arkansasonline.com/1226list).

Another Newspaper Feature Service column the Democrat picked up was Advice to Girls, written by one "Annie Laurie." It's remarkable mostly because its author was anything but the proper chaperone type that title suggested.

The name came from a 19th-century Scottish song — one that Arkansas singers performed often in the early 20th century (see arkansasonline.com/1226annie). In this song, Annie Laurie is a lovely, loving woman and her man sings about how he would lie down and die for her. The song inspired at least two movies in the 1920s.

And so the name conveyed a goodness and womanly wisdom when Winifred Bonfils of San Francisco selected it as her pen name. She didn't want to use her already famous byline, "Winifred

Black," because that lady was very well known as one of America's pioneering "sob sister" reporters: a courageous member of the working press who was famous for going undercover in seedy and dangerous situations.


Winifred Sweet Black Bonfils (1863-1936) was born in a log cabin in Wisconsin, but through her lawyer father she grew up knowing the likes of James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant and Brigham Young and attending national Republican nominating conventions.

She attended private schools in Chicago and Massachusetts; moved to San Francisco; married Orlow Black, a fellow reporter. Their son drowned in childhood. They divorced, and she moved to Denver. She married Charles A. Bonfils, with whom she had two children, a boy and a girl; their son also died young.

A versatile writer, she was most known for uncovering injustices for William Randolph Hearst's newspapers (see arkansasonline.com/1226bio). She produced long, empathetic, emotionally charged exposes of suffering and scandal. Her stories provoked social change.

In one early case, she dressed in rags and pretended to faint in the street. She then endured degrading treatment by unkind police and lewd hospital attendants. Her vivid first-hand account, published 36 hours after she left the hospital, caused an uproar that led to creation of San Francisco's first real ambulance service.

But Advice to Girls was very different in tone.

The Democrat published it on its daily women's pages beginning in 1913. By 1922, her column was so old hat that layout man hacked and amputated its Q&A and crammed the remnant into whatever shape blankness remained at the foot of a page packed by local society notes and other syndicated matter.


These columns tend to throw light on how much mores have and haven't changed in 100 years. Here are samples of her advice from 1922:

Dear Annie Laurie: When do you consider a girl old enough to go out with young men? — Little Girl

It is best to rely on your parents' judgment, my dear, to decide this question for you.

Dear Annie Laurie: I am a young man 22 years of age, and I am in love with a very beautiful girl. I have only known her a very short time. It was a case of love at first sight on my part, but she is always giving me the cold shoulder. Please let me have your advice. — A Broken-Hearted Sailor Boy

There is nothing you can do, my friend, except to be as courteous and pleasant as possible and hope to win her favor.

Dear Annie Laurie: I am a girl in my teens and I'm in love with a young man four years my senior. Do you think he could be true after we were married if he is a flirt now? He is a flirt first of all, and I have often heard of his going out with other girls, but that he denies. Do you think it is mannerly for him to always tell me about other girls that are good looking? — Lonesome

Unless you are engaged to this young man, my dear, you have no right to ask him to go about with you alone. Besides, you are rather young to be seriously considering marriage. You should be enjoying the company of your young men friends.

Dear Annie Laurie: We are two girls of the same age, and we are the best of friends. For the last three months both of us have been going with the same young man. We are both devoted to him. But when he is with one alone he acts as if he likes her best. We are too good friends to try to get him away from each other. Please advise us what to do. — Faithful Friends

Keep on being friends, my dears, and enjoy the society of this young man without taking him too seriously.

Dear Annie Laurie: I am a girl of 16 and I have been in love with a man for two years. My parents do not approve of him. We want to get married and want to know whether we should elope or wait until my parents consent to our marriage. — Question Box

You're much too young, my dear, to think of getting married. Your parents are by far the best judges of your welfare, and you should always respect their wishes. Do not think of attempting to take so important a step without their consent.

Dear Annie Laurie: I am a married woman 20 years old. My husband was very kind and loving before the baby was born, but since then he has changed. He doesn't care for us anymore at all. He wants to be away all the time. There is another young man who loves me. Please advise me what to do. — Raine

Forget all about this other man, my dear. Concentrate all your thoughts and affection on your husband, and he will soon be as kind as he was when you married him.

Dear Annie Laurie: I am a girl in my teens. I am considered very attractive and popular. I am in love — at least I think it is love — with a young man four years my senior. I have known this young man for over a year. When he came up to see me last time he told me he had met a girl and that he went to see her every night. He claims that is all there is to do in the town where he is now living.

How can I, without being rude or forward, make this certain young man like me more than anyone else? I am not of a jealous nature in the least, but I sincerely wish you could help me to attract his attentions. Do you think he still loves me?

I do not care to go out with other young men, although I get many invitations. If I do go out, I keep constantly wishing my friend were near me. I think about him all the time and know deep in my heart that I care for him more than anyone else. — Teddy

You have no right to object to your friend going to see another girl, because you are not engaged to him. It would be well for you to accept invitations from other young men, too. Try to make yourself so attractive and the young man's visit so pleasant that he will prefer you to the other girl. This is all you can do.

Dear Annie Laurie: We are two girl chums, 17 and 18 years old. One of us has a friend 19 years old whom she dearly loves, but he does not seem to care much for her. He takes her out sometimes, but does not seem to be much in love. What can she do to find out whether he loves her?

For myself, I went with a man for seven months. He is 21 years old. Now he is away and although he seemed to be greatly in love with me, he does not even write to me, but inquires of some of his friends about me.

Please tell me how to proceed to win his love back. Should I write to him and ask why he does not write or come to see me? — Bobby and Blue Eyes

There is nothing you can do to find out whether the young men love you, my dears. You will just have to wait for them to make the advances. If you wrote or asked them why they are not more interested, you would appear forward.

Dear Annie Laurie: I am a girl of 17 and am going with a young man of 23. He never takes me to a theater or dance except once a month. He is studying to be a doctor and working his way. But he always seems to have money.

Don't you think that if he really loves me, he would show me a better time?

He tells me to have all the dates I want, but is it right for me to go with other men when I love only one? Is not that a further proof that he does not care for me? — Anxious

Your friend is a very sensible, generous young man, my dear, to want you to have other friends. You are not engaged to him, and it would be selfish for him to restrict you, no matter how fond he is of you.

Perhaps he cannot afford to spend more money. You should appreciate the attentions he does pay you, for you don't know how even that expenditure may hamper him in his fine effort to educate himself.

Dear Annie Laurie: I am a girl 21 years old. I went with a young man two years my senior for over two years.

I was engaged to be married to him. I had a nice ring, and he told me I was the only girl he loved. But he would tell me I went with other young men, and this was a lie.

He would ask other people if I was out when I was not out with him. This made me angry, so I told him we would stop going together, and I heard from good friends of mine that they had seen him with other girls. He told a girl friend that he was going steadily with another girl besides me, and that he was only kidding me. Give me your advice. — A Broken-Hearted Girl

You gave up your right to ask this man not to go with other girls. If you are sorry for your action, you should write him a note of apology. If he still loves you he will return to you. Perhaps you have lost his love and in that case must give him up, my dear, and try to forget him.

Dear Annie Laurie: I sincerely love a dear man. He is 38 years old and very handsome, but not a bit vain. He has been married before but was unhappy. He is very generous and is respected by everyone and is kind and considerate to me in every way, has been in the same employment for four years, and says he loves me very much and is anxious that we should be married.

I am 23 years old and have been married before but also unhappily and have one little boy three years old, of which my friend is very fond.

I can honestly say I love him and we'd be glad of your advice as to what answer I should give him. — Little Lady Lonesome

What in the world do you want advice about? The man loves you and you love him. He's a good man respected by those who know him and is able to marry you. Who's going to tell you what to do about it if you don't know yourself? Think that thing all over. Make up your own mind and stick to it. It's your life and your little boy's life, your happiness and the man's happiness. How can you expect a perfect stranger to know more about it than you do yourself?

Email: cstorey@adgnewsroom.com