Before Everyone Resolved to Lose Weight: Meaningful Resolutions of Yore

New York City Mayor Ed Koch tests the Big Apple Ball in 1981. (AP/Lederhandler)

"Did you make any New Year's resolution? Of course you did! Who doesn't? There is something irresistibly magnetic about the first day of the New Year — something that compels a new channel of thought ... One looks back with regret for the things that might have been done, and deplores things that have been done, and forthwith makes a resolution to remedy the omissions this year."

So wrote a reporter, who seems to have been getting paid by the word, for the British Exeter and Plymouth Gazette on January 4, 1913.

Wikimedia Commons

This year, most Americans will resolve forthwith to do some permutation of "getting fit" or "losing weight."

But New Year's resolutions predate our modern-day weight concerns by centuries.

So, what did people resolve before we had the scourge of cellulite and the temptation of McRib to stir us to action?

The answer: just to be a better person, apparently. Resolutions from the early 20th century ranged from swearing less, to having a more cheerful disposition, to recommitting to God.

New Year's postcards from the early 1900s, for example, reveal a touchier, feelier time for goal-setting, encouraging their recipients to dedicate themselves to living a "sincere and serene life" and "repelling promptly every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity, and self-seeking." Others said to smile when you "fall down and out" or to simply keep a diary.

Swearing off vices such as foul language and flirting might also have been popular, judging from the cartoonist Walter McDougall's “Old Mr. Profanity Makes a New Year's Resolution," from 1903, as well as a 1911 cigarette ad suggesting men "Stop kissing other peoples' girls."

The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum 

In 1927, the professor and author John Erskine published an essay in The Century Magazine resolving to vote in upcoming elections for "the candidate who insults the other fellow least," to stop supporting biased newspapers, to "work for the peace of the world," and to "teach nothing that I do not believe." That last one, he mentioned, "should be a fairly easy ideal to reach."

The journalist and social reformer Ida Wells made a renewed commitment to God and Christian living her New Year's resolution in 1887. "I am so overwhelmed with the little I have done for the one who has done so much for me & I resolve to ... work for the master," she wrote in her diary at the time. She apparently stuck with it, too, teaching Sunday school in her hometown of Memphis for much of her life.

It was also not uncommon to, uh, strongly suggest resolutions for other people to take up.

In January 1936, Chester Washington, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, asked the local YMCA to "resolve" to allow supervised dancing after basketball games so that "young folks would get clean recreation."

In 1920, the National Cash Register company did what any beneficent employer would: It suggested resolutions for its own district managers.

American Stationer and Office Outfitter, 1920

The intentions ranged from practical:

"I will analyze my territory and find out its possibilities."

"I will use up-to-date selling methods"

...to existential: "I will give more attention to the future and stop living in the past."

In a 1919 newspaper comic strip, a wife persuades her husband to swear off smoking. ("Everybudy swears off somethin' fer New Years!") And it works ... until the man rigs up some pipes that run behind the sofa and force smoke up the chimney.

Cliff Sterrett/Library of Congress

The Nottingham (U.K.) Evening Post created a list in 1889 of suggested resolutions for politicians of the day. For Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, they recommended, "to be more cautious in my expressions, to be more temperate in my judgements, and generally more reticent all around" — perhaps because Salisbury had recently caused a stir by suggesting that a non-white Briton would never be elected to Parliament.

To be fair, the fact that the goals seemed more virtuous back then didn't seem to make them any easier to keep. As the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette concluded in its article on resolutions, "The mischief is that this fascination doesn't as a rule last longer than the first twenty-four hours! ... Frail is human nature!"

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.


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