More than a century before people with shared concerns could connect in cyberspace, they could communicate through daily newspapers. Appearing under different names over the years, the column that became "Confidential Chat" was a regular and popular feature of The Boston Globe practically since the newspaper's inception.
Composed entirely of letters written by readers to other readers, "Confidential Chat" evolved from a way to share recipes and housekeeping tips to "a forum for Globe readers to exchange ideas, advice, or helpful information of any subject." It was, in the words of one reporter, "the biggest backyard fence in the world."
When The Boston Globe debuted in 1872, it faced an uphill battle to win readers away from the city's many other newspapers. The editors decided to expand their readership by including stories they thought would appeal to women, a growing market in Victorian-era publishing. In May of 1884, the first "Housekeeper's Column" appeared with menu suggestions and fashion tips written by staff. At the same time, the Globe introduced "Everybody's Column," where readers could send anonymous letters, signed with pen names, expressing their views on the issues of the day. Both columns were instant hits.
In 1894 the Globe hired Estelle Hatch to expand the "Housekeeper's Column" into the first regular column focusing on women's affairs in any American newspaper. Hatch also printed letters from readers who used pseudonyms such as "Dorchester Dottie," "Fireman's Wife," and "Chere Julie." The early ones offered recipes and housekeeping suggestions but soon Hatch was receiving and printing requests for guidance on domestic concerns ranging from child rearing to gardening to handcrafts. The column soon covered an entire page of the Sunday paper.
The "Housekeeper's Column" eventually merged with "Everybody's Column," and in 1922 "Confidential Chat" became its official title. While most contributors sent in questions and advice on domestic topics, they also used the column to express their ideas on local issues and current events. In a 1955 promotional brochure that captures perfectly the expectations of middle class women Betty Freidan called "the feminine mystique," the Globe claimed that "Chat" discussed "everything of interest to women: food, housekeeping, clothes, children, in-laws, babies, gardens, love, marriage, interior decorating, and a thousand and one other subjects which intrigue the female mind and occupy the female time."
Because the "Confidential Chat" archive represents over a century's worth of letters written by ordinary women, the column is a rich source for social historians. Early in the century, the column carried letters debating women's right to vote and the threat bicycle riding posed to American womanhood. Not surprisingly, letter writers in the 1930s expressed the anguish of unemployment and poverty; in the 1940s they shared ideas on how women at home could help with the war effort. With the growth of suburbia and consumer culture in the 1950s, letters focused on the new ideals of family life and femininity.
The unrest and social protest of the 1960s affected the content of "Confidential Chat." The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King caused many readers to ask each other what they could do to change people's attitudes. By the 1970s and 1980s, "Confidential Chat" covered topics as varied as the technological revolution, new sexual mores, and non-traditional families.
In 1984 when the column celebrated its 100th anniversary, one "Chat" staffer noted that her years of reading "Chat" letters made her feel like a well-informed sociologist. "The mail has increased in the last 15 years on marital problems, broken homes, sex and all the other current questions. The older topics, like plants, birds, pests, stains . . . [have] dropped off in favor of the wider issues. So the topics change with the times. We give the readers what they give us." Another trend began in the 1990s. Occasional letters from men began to appear in the column, as men and women alike sought and gave advice on subjects such as lead paint, energy conservation, and school loans.
Each letter was opened, read, and, if it was a response to a previous writer, copied and forwarded to the intended recipient. (The Globe keeps a confidential record of real names and addresses for each pseudonym to ensure that mail intended for a specific writer reaches her.) One" staff person devoted part of each day to filling requests for items from the voluminous "Chat" recipe file.
While the loyalty of "Chat" readers remained strong, the popularity of the feature waned. In the mid-1960s, the Globe received about 2,000 letters to "Confidential Chat" a month. By the early 2000s, the number rarely exceeded 100 a week. The volume of letters fell off steeply when medical questions were dropped in 2001, and there was another significant decrease in 2004 when the column was moved from Sundays to Thursdays.
In December 2005 the Globe announced that it would no longer publish "Confidential Chat" after January 12, 2006. "In its heyday," a Globe editor acknowledged, "it was an innovative feature, a precursor to the kind of communication people now take for granted on the Internet," but the paper, she explained, wants to "offer new ways of sharing information and helping people connect." Ombudsman Richard Chacon wrote that he understood "Chat" readers' "sadness and frustration at the sudden loss of an old friend," but he observed that "in this age of electronic message boards, chat rooms, and instant messaging, 'Confidential Chat' may have finally reached its sad but inevitable end."
The Boston Globe, May 11, 1984 and January 1, 2006.
Newspaper Story: One Hundred Years of the Boston Globe, by Louis M. Lyons (Belknap Press, 1971).