Want to lose weight? Quit smoking? Discipline your children? Get out of debt? Find a spouse? No problem. These days in the United States, there's a book, digital recording, or info-mercial television program to tell you how to do it. And lots of products to show you exactly how to find health and happiness.
But this self-improvement craze is nothing new. There have been self-help guides in America since the Revolutionary War, when the 18th century patriot Benjamin Franklin published some. Later, magazine advertisements and peddlers in wagons convinced people that they could make miraculous changes in their lives by trying their home-cooked elixirs and nostrums, often heavy on the alcohol content. Why, they could make you smart and virile while curing everything from bad breath to baldness, all at the same time!
By the 1950s, self-help products like Mr. Stauffer's Magic Couch were everywhere, teaching people how to shape up. We were told how to become mental supermen, solve our sex problems with self-hypnosis, even learn farming in our own living rooms!
About five years ago, a writer living in Florida started collecting self-help books and published her own book that reproduced the covers with titles like these: Pretty Clothes DO Bring Happiness. 1947's Sex Discoveries Now Revealed! And Hey Little Girl, Comb Your Hair. Fix Your Make-Up.
As you see, many of these self-help programs were terribly paternalistic. A woman's every thought must be directed to the needs and comfort of the man of the family, the king of his castle.
This is less of a problem these days. Men as well as women are told how to tighten their abdominal muscles, read 1,000 percent faster, stop smoking, and play better golf. We don't need elixirs, and we don't need to hypnotize ourselves to do it.