Punch’s advice – DON’T
There was a time when the weekly magazine Punch, or to give it its alternative title, The London Chiavari, was influential in the drawing rooms of England. Founded in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and the wood-engraver, Ebenezer Landells, it helped coin the term cartoon to denote a humorous illustration. To modern eyes, many of its jokes were rather lame but it lasted over a century, peaking in popularity in the 1940s, before closing for good in 2002. Doctors’ waiting rooms have never been the same since.
As well as cartoon, it promulgated a phrase which first appeared in its Almanack for 1845 under the month of January, namely, “advice to persons about to marry – don’t”. Sound advice, no doubt, although quite what prompted the organ to pour metaphorical cold water over the marital aspirations of a young man is not clear. One commentator thought it was a spoof on an advert going the rounds at the time. That might well be the case, although no such advert seems to have survived.
Of course, there is no point in looking for consistency in a humorous rag. To prove the point, when discussing the subject of clerical celibacy amongst Catholic clergy, Punch wrote on December 18, 1869, “one of the subjects likely to be debated in St Peter’s is, How to deal with priests who wish to marry. Mr Punch’s advice on this point would be very concise, only two words – let ‘em”.
Mr Punch’s advice on matrimony other than concerning Catholic priests, though, found a ready audience and cropped up in pieces where people wished to make a forceful point in a jocular style. It was used in a piece about furnishing which appeared in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts in its edition of October 12, 1861; “what has been viciously observed by Mr Punch in reference to matrimony, that I repeat, in all benevolence, with respect to this matter: To persons about to furnish. Don’t”.
Other examples appeared in an article about teetotalism in the Gloucester Journal of October 16, 1858 – “to tell a man not to drink, and then he will be cured of Drunkenness, is little better than a re-production of Punch’s advice to persons about to marry” – and in an account of a lecture given by a Lieutenant Verney on Queensland at Claydon Park School, as reported by the Buckingham Express on December 2, 1871; “the lecturer concluded by giving as the result of his experience, advice to those contemplating emigration, similar to Punch’s advice to those contemplating matrimony – Don’t”. For the school children it was a case of two aspirations being killed by one stone.
Punch’s advice had not only been applied to situations beyond matrimony but had also been abbreviated to rid it of the encumbrance of matrimony. It was used in any circumstance where the recipient of the warning was advised not to do something. It appeared in this sense in a short story published in the Eastern Daily Press on December 24, 1872; “if he contemplated interfering with the personal comfort of either myself or coolie, he had better take Punch’s advice, and Don’t”. It also cropped up in its abbreviated form in an advert in the Evening Chronicle of January 23, 1901; “Are you desponding? Take Punch’s advice and DON’T”. As well as following Punch’s advice, the proprietors of Roberts Sinclair’s Tobacco recommended an ounce of their baccy and one of their celebrated briars, a snip at a bob, to smoke it in as a cure for the blues, advice that may well be sniffed at now.
Our phrase is still used today, although the demise of the magazine may well see it fall into some obscurity. The Stage, the newspaper of thespians, printed a letter on April 27, 1995 in which any aspiring impresario was warned, “so what, apart from don’t can be Mr Punch’s advice to anyone who is contemplating running a theatre, dance or opera company?” Fortunately, there are some who still do.