WAKEUp and Live.

Life Begins At Forty. You Must Relax. How to Win Friends and Influence People. With titles like that, you wouldn't be surprised to find any of these books filed under self-help in your local bookshop, nestled in among hundreds of other optimistic volumes whose covers boast smiling gurus promising to help you have a happier, thinner, more fulfilled . . . and more sex-filled . . . life in 30 days.

After all, this is the era of the self-help book, right?

Right . . . and wrong. We may think of the selfhelp market as a quintessentially 21st-century phenomenon, but in fact its history goes way back. As far as the 1930s, in fact, when the aforementioned titles appeared on US bestseller lists alongside Marjorie Hillis's Live Alone and Like It, the witty and opinionated guide that has won a whole new generation of fans since its reissue this year. In it, she advises single women on the importance of pleasant living quarters, the cultivation of hobbies, and breakfast in bed on plumped-up pillows, as ways to enhance solitary life (although even the most cursory reading will reveal that the ultimate aim, ironically, is to enhance your chances of ending that solitary state).

Hillis's writing springs off the page with its verve and humour, but tantalisingly little is known about the writer except that she lived in New York, wrote for Vogue and, by the sounds of it, mixed a damn fine Martini. But while readers may be surprised at her modern-sounding tone, perhaps what's more surprising is to realise that she was far from the only one of her era to dispense advice to befuddled readers . . . men as well as women . . . in bestselling volumes. Turning to self-help books for advice on our nagging questions regarding relationships, etiquette and how to improve ourselves appears, after all, to be a constant throughout the decades.

For anyone wanting a taste of what self-help books were like in days when readers' concerns centred on the etiquette of hemlines rather than the etiquette of text messages, an utterly charming resource currently exists online in the form of Miss Abigail's Time Warp Advice (www. missabigail. com). The brainchild of Abbie Grotke, a librarian in the US Library of Congress, it consists of real-life problem letters from readers, with advice dispensed from Grotke's extensive collection of vintage self-improvement, etiquette and household advice books. Confused about mixed signals from a male? Try consulting the chapter entitled 'The Boy You Like' from the 1939 book A Girl Grows Up. Don't know how to pop the question? Check out the 1880 tome Decorum. Worried your socks are letting you down? There's a whole chapter devoted to them in The Magic Power of Grooming in a Man's World (1965).

Such advice books offer a fascinating insight into the minds of their readers, the issues that were worrying them, and how these concerns morphed over time, from heavy 19th century tomes with such weighty concerns as etiquette and household management, to the 1960s and 1970s, when sex rocketed to the top of the agenda. During the 1930s, other titles by Marjorie Hillis hinted at the impact of the Depression: Orchids On Your Budget (1937) and Corned Beef and Caviar (1938).

But while America has always been the land of the free-to-self-improve, it's not just in recent years that the phenomenon has taken off on this side of the Atlantic. Consider, for example, the case of the Englishwoman Mrs Humphry, popularly known as 'Madge of Truth', whose 1897 books Manners for Women and Manners for Menwarned of the danger of being cast out of society for smoking (ladies) or wearing the wrong hat (men). And while direct advice on dating and sex seems to have been slightly less forthcoming until the 1970s, the English actress Viola Tree did dedicate a chapter to the all-important subject of 'Love Affairs' in her 1937 celebrity advice book Can I Help You?

Whether through agony-aunt columns in newspapers or entire books dedicated to selfimprovement, says Grotke, seeking advice from self-appointed experts is a perennial concern . . . no matter how much we're given, we always want more. "We're starved for advice and want someone to always tell us what to do and confirm that our decisions were the right ones."

Advice for the unloved throughout the ages 1840: Keep up appearances Foul yellow teeth covered with tartar are not only frightful to the sight, but communicate foetid effluvia to the breath, which is absolutely disgusting. Of all the antidotes to love, a foul breath is the most effectual; for, under the enchantment of a gracious smile, lies a mortifying and insuperable repulse.

'Female Beauty' by Mrs A Walker (1840) 1936: Stop moping Everybody feels sorry for herself. . . every now and then. But anyone who pities herself for more than a month on end is a weak sister and likely to become a public nuisance besides.

'Live Alone and Like It' by Marjorie Hillis (1936) 1963: Emigrate A thorough investigation of the census is very rewarding. One should be acquainted with the figures on cities both near and far, including those of foreign lands. A girl with vision may see the wisdom of forsaking not only her state, but her country, and even the temperate zone, in order to relocate where the sex ration is most favorable to her.

'Every Girl is Entitled to A Husband' by Nina Farewell (1963)