meaning and origin of the phrase ‘Punch’s advice—don’t’

The witticism advice to persons about to marry—don’t [cf. note] was coined in Punch’s Almanack for 1845, and Pictorial Chronology for 1844, published on 24th December 1844 by the satirical magazine Punch, or the London Charivari. According to the British art critic Marion Harry Spielmann (1858-1948) in The History of “Punch” (New York: The Cassell Publishing Co., 1895), this quip

is undoubtedly the most successful (that is to say, the most popular) mot of its kind that was ever made in the English language.
It appeared in the Almanac for 1845 under “January,” and, based upon the ingenious wording of an advertisement widely put forth by Eamonson & Co., well-known house furnishers of the day, ran as follows:—


It is doubtful whether any line from any author is so often quoted as “Punch’s advice.” It crops continually, almost continuously, though not exactly when least to be expected, as experience teaches us to expect it always; and I may assert from my own observation that it appears in one or other of the papers of the kingdom on an average twice or thrice a week.

I have not found what the “advertisement widely put forth by Eamonson & Co.” was, but the following, from an article published in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts (London: William and Robert Chambers) of 12th October 1861, indicates that to persons about to furnish was used in advertising—additionally, at the end of this article, the author puns on the phrase coined in Punch’s Almanack for 1845:

To Persons about to Furnish

The above heading will be familiar to many readers as having met their eye in the shops of ironmongers, upholsterers, and carpet-warehousemen; and they that are bachelors, or who live in furnished lodgings, have doubtless been struck by the apparent solemnity of the address. It is indeed calculated to arrest the attention, and give pause to the most careless and unreflecting. It has a strong family resemblance to the title-page of a tract. It awakens thoughts upon ways and means, and the desirableness of settling in life, in all those who will soon be going down that hill of which we read in the ballad of John Anderson—for ‘settling,’ as on board ship, not uncommonly precedes but by a very little our ‘going down.’ But, with whatever serious images the expression ‘To Persons about to Furnish’ supplies the fancy, they must fall far short of the seriousness of Furnishing itself. The man who has had no practical experience of this matter is as yet imperfectly developed. He has not shared the common lot, he is not a man like his fellows, if he dies unfurnished. The same, too, may be said, although in a less degree, of one who furnishes, being unmarried.
[…] Oh! ye that are yet bachelors, look before you leap into the gulf of matrimony, look narrowly for a woman that has got a furnished house—it is better than much fine gold. And you, ye married men, who live in lodgings, and are inclined to find fault because the furniture is a little dirty or rickety, beware—beware, and rather suffer those small ills ye have, than fly to others that ye know not of. Better is a horse-hair sofa and a full-length attitude, than much damask and anti-macassars therewith. Your curtain may be indifferent, but then they will stand tobacco-smoke. 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.’

The bon mot became known as Punch’s advice to persons about to marry, generally followed by don’t, with variants such as Punch’s advice to those about to marry and Punch’s advice to those contemplating matrimony. The following for example is from an article about teetotalism, published in the Gloucester Journal (Gloucester, Gloucestershire, England) of 16th October 1858:

To tell a man never 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—“Don’t!” and we cannot wonder that so many a Drunkard laughs at such advice, or smiles at those who vaunt it as their grand specific.

And the following is from the account of a lecture that one Lieutenant G. Verney delivered on Queensland, Australia, at Claydon Park School—account published in the Buckingham Express (Buckingham, Buckinghamshire, England) of 2nd December 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 matrimonyDon’t.”

The phrase came to be used in commercial advertisements, such as this one, for Page Woodcock’s Wind Pills, published in many British newspapers in 1899 and 1900—for example in The Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of 20th June 1899:

to those about to marry. We all remember reading in that Prince of satirical papers, called “Punch,” serious advice to young people about to marry, and the advice in large characters was—“DON’T.” Many marriages have taken place since then in spite of old Punch’s Dictum, and many more will follow, to the end of time. The old, old story will still be told and listened to, as if Jack and Jill were the first lovers who ever loved, and loved as lovers never loved, or would ever love again. “’Tis love that makes the world go round,” so our advice would not be Punch’s “DON’T,” but other things being equal, “DO.” Rightly mated there’s no joys like marital joys, given Good Health;—now we can help you. Good health, forsooth, why Page Woodcock’s Wind Pills, the finest remedy in the world for the cure of Indigestion, Wind on the Stomach, Liver Complaints, Costiveness, Sick Headache, Nervous Debility, Palpitation of the Heart, Biliousness, &c., are the best helpers here.

The phrase Punch’s advice to persons about to marry—don’t came in turn to be shortened to Punch’s advice—don’t, which was applied to any situation in which someone is advised not to do something—as in the following passage from How I lost the Princess; or, A Day in Arcadia!, a short story published in The Eastern Daily Press (Norwich, Norfolk, England) of 24th December 1872:

I heard a cheery voice exclaim, “Heigho! you in the boat there!”
Upon that I deliberately got overend, and stretching myself to the extent of five feet six, I asked, “Do you allude to me, sir?”
My visitor most politely intimated that he did, and proceeded to inform me that he was the pilot of the vulgar into Arcadia, and that in thinking he was asleep in his boat I had fallen into a serious error. I did not dispute the remarks of this noble savage, who kindly got us our oars, and paddling by our side commanded us to follow him. This we did with the utmost bravery, I merely observing to the soi-disant pilot that if he contemplated interfering with the personal comfort of either myself or coolie, he had better take Punch’s advice, andDon’t.”

This shortened form was used in commercial advertisements, such as this one, published in The Evening Chronicle (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England) of 23rd January 1901:

'take Punch's advice and don't' - The Evening Chronicle (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England) - 23 January 1901

Are You Desponding?
Roberts Sinclair’s Tobacco
And one of their Celebrated Briars, from 1s. upwards; go home, and before the first pipe-full is consumed you will again be

The shorter form of the phrase occurred in a letter published in The Stage (London, England) of 27th April 1995:

Why are the best always the first to go?
What is the matter with British theatre boards? Why do they always sack brilliant artistic directors? (‘Staff hit out at Kaut-Howson’, The Stage, front page, April 20).
Lord Olivier* – to whom this happened not once, but twice – put it down to jealousy. So what, apart from “don’t” can be Mr Punch’s advice to anyone who is contemplating running a theatre, dance or opera company?
Affect mediocrity?
Stewart Trotter
Lanhill Road

(* the English actor and director Laurence Kerr Olivier (1907-1989))

The longer form occurred very recently in the column Bobby Wolff on Bridge, published in the Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York, USA) of 11th March 2018:

My advice regarding singleton honors and no-trump openers coincides with Punch’s advice to men considering marriage: “Don’t!”


Other phrases coined in, or popularised by, Punch, or the London Charivari:
curate’s egg
to have straws in one’s hair
feed the brute
to drop the pilot
to write to The Times about it


Note: Incidentally, on 18th December 1869, Punch, or the London Charivari gave a different piece of advice on the same subject:

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.

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