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cover of the book has a stylized S in Success
Success and its Achievers illustrated by William Makepeace Thayer, 1891

Self-help, Motivation, & Success: From the Beginning

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You may think that motivational speakers, self-help guides, and career counseling are products of the late 20th century, but their history actually goes back further.

Some of the history of the motivational and self-help “industry” can trace it roots back to those who looked to religious principles for guidance. Many of them were concerned with developing character traits like duty and honor, etc. Another trend in the early 19th century was the development of Mutual Improvement Societies. One early name connected to an improvement society was Samuel Smiles, a Scottish author and government reformer. He wrote several books, including the popular titles Self-Help and The Art of Living, as well as Duty, Character, and Thrift. Self-help, his most popular book first published in 1884, brought him celebrity status in his lifetime and beyond, as it was republished as recently as 2002.

Over time people began to develop their own programs or systems. Another early self-help advocate was Emile Coué a French psychologist and pharmacist. In the 1920’s he published Self Mastery through Conscious Autosuggestion, which was a method whereby a person repeated a positive mantra over and over in order to make the mantra become part of the unconscious.

Not long after Coué wrote his book, Napoleon Hill got his start by writing a series of articles on famous and successful men, such as Andrew Carnegie. He wrote two very successful books that have continued to be popular and have been reprinted many times – The Law of Success forst published in 1928 and Think and Grow Rich published in 1937. The Law of Success was inspired by and dedicated to Andrew Carnegie and its intent was to enable readers to become more capable in their chosen field of work by offering a series of lessons and exercises. Think and Grow Rich, on the other hand, provided 13 steps for money-making that were inspired by Andrew Carnegie. Hill wrote many other books and even edited the short lived Napoleon Hill’s magazine; a golden rule.

image shows a sign above the door says Washington Self-Help Exchange and a prospective client wearing work clotes and a hat moving up the steps at the self-help exchange
Prospective arriving at the Washington Self-Help Exchange, Jan. 1942. Part of the: U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.
client in work clothes and hat looking at a suit with a shelf of shoes nearby
Client buying a suite at the Washington Self-Help Exchange, Jan. 1942. Part of the U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.
image shows a sign above the door says Washington Self-Help Exchange and a man stands on the steps at the door wearing a nice new coat and had looking like a professional office worker
Client leaving the Washington, Self-help exchange, Jan. 1942. Part of the U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.

In 1936 Dale Carnegie wrote How to Win Friends & Influence People. This book was so influential that the Library of Congress included it on its list of Books That Shaped America along with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Unsafe at Any Speed, and others. Just before Carnegie’s book was published, Norman Vince Peale began his radio show the Art of Living which he parlayed into his very successful book The Power of Positive Thinking published in 1952. Since then there have been many books published but two in particular stand out – Steven Covey’s 1989 book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which was a business themed self-help book, and Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese?, a fable about “Sniff” and “Scurry” and “Hem” and “Haw” who lived in a maze looking for cheese.

The genre wasn’t limited to books only – there were also journals. One called Success was edited by another author of inspirational literature, Dr. Orison Swett Marden. It featured articles like “What is Your Best Asset” and “Why Can’t I Do It?” as well as profiles on the famous and successful and advertisements from those selling their books or systems. Another, Successward, was published by the Success League whose motto was “Don’t wait for your opportunity; MAKE IT!” This publication was generally news on and information for, Success League members, although it did include short items like “Why girls should form success clubs.”

book cover has a large dollar sign superimposed over the titles and four distinct scenes: clockwise colonial dress clerk working seated at a desk; cleark standing behind some crates talking ot a man in a top hat; three men facing each other one times their top hat; two men seated talking with a candle in the back and a crate in the front
On the Road to Riches; hints for clerks and young business men on buying and selling goods; business correspondence; selling goods on the road; drumming; duties of clerks; partners; etc., by William H. Maher, 1876.

Over time the genres began to change and sometimes the lines blurred. Books on career counseling borrowed from those on self-improvement, and books offering advice on job success borrowed from those that were motivational. Motivational and self-improvement books branched out and became more focused – how to start in a career, how to make money, what to do (or not do) in business. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich is a good early example. An even earlier example is the On the Road To Riches, written in 1878 by William H. Maher, which was intended as helpful hints for clerks and young businessmen. There is a chapter on choosing a city to live in and other personal issues like expenses, but also includes chapters on selling goods, traveling sales, and growing rich. Another example is John Maclean’s Winning the Front Place which was published in 1908 that was “A book of ideals and illustrations from real life on working for the best, and winning the first places in the world.” It had eye-catching chapters like “The man who might have done better,” “Up the back stairs,” “Hustle and wait,” “Shut your mouth,” and the “Discipline of Drudgery.”

Many decades after Maher and Maclean wrote their books, Elizabeth Gregg MacGibbon wrote Fitting Yourself for Business in 1941. By this time books about careers and self-help in business had become more practical guidance and MacGibbon’s title reflects this. It begins with “Planning your business life” and spends a few chapters on types of jobs for beginners and what businesses want – not dissimilar to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. It moves on to getting interviews, preparing for interviews, how to act during an interview, and how to behave and act once the job was secured.

book cover features a gold embossed laurel wreat with the word success in the centure with hands reaching toward it
Winning the Front Place by John MacLean, 1908.

One that got my attention was The Do’s and Don’ts for Business Women. It was written in 1922 and is filled with short bits on various topics that might be of use to the many women who were entering the workforce. Some could be useful to anyone – being a self-starter, knowing your business tools, would you hire yourself?, etc. Then there are those which may seem odd for modern sensibilities – “Don’t be colorless,” “Don’t be a misfit,” “Don’t be loud,” “Don’t be moody,” and “Don’t talk too much.” But it was the “Don’t be mannish” topic that really caught my attention because it reminded me of a discussion that came up again in the 1980’s:

Business girls, don’t lose your femininity in your business life. You don’t have to become a successful business woman. Don’t be mannish. The most distorted and ugliest piece of humanity is a mannish woman. Men abhor her and women ridicule her.

Don’t dress mannishly. Fortunately the days are over when a striped blouse, a stiff mannish collar, four-in-hand ties, and a homely, serviceable, rainy-day skirt were considered the only proper outfit for the business woman. Good, plain, practical clothes are admirable and best suited to business, but don’t be an extremist in choosing them. Avoid furbelows and too many frills in your business clothes, but keep always your femininity of appearance.

Don’t try to acquire a mannish stride. It is most ungainly, ungraceful, and unattractive, and invariably will lower you in the estimation of your employer. (p. 186-187)

While there were stylistic differences and some issues that were different depending on when a book was written, many of the themes, advice, and topics were universal and are even echoed in contemporary literature.

The three series photos above feature the Washington Self-Help Exchange, which, according to an article in a 1941 Monthly Labor Review, was started in 1937 to assist the unemployed find jobs. It included laundry and barbering services that helped those coming to the Exchange find appropriate clothing for job interviews and look presentable during their job search.

Comments (2)

  1. I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

  2. Just finding what the self-help and motivation industry look like. I think this article is just one of the introductions I need to gain clarity about the industry.

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