Astrology is either an ancient and valuable system of understanding the natural world and our place in it with roots in early Mesopotamia, China, Egypt and Greece, or complete rubbish, depending on whom you ask.
But newspaper and magazine horoscopes? The ones advising you to not “fight against changes” today, or to “go with the flow”, whatever that means, or to “keep things light and breezy with that new hottie today”? They get even less respect, from both skeptics and true believers. So it’s a bit surprising, then, that they remain so popular with everyone in between.
The first real newspaper horoscope column is widely credited to R.H. Naylor, a prominent British astrologer of the first half of the 20th century. Naylor was an assistant to high-society neo-shaman, Cheiro (born William Warner, a decidedly less shamanistic name), who’d read the palms of Mark Twain, Grover Cleveland, and Winston Churchill, and who was routinely tapped to do celebrity star charts. Cheiro, however, wasn’t available in August 1930 to do the Chinese horoscope for the recently born Princess Margaret, so Britain’s Sunday Express newspaper asked Naylor.
Like most astrologers of the day, Naylor used what’s called a natal star chart. Astrology posits that the natural world and we human beings in it are affected by the movements of the sun, moon and stars through the heavens, and that who we are is shaped by the exact position of these celestial bodies at the time of our birth. A natal star chart, therefore, presents the sky on the date and exact time of birth, from which the astrologer extrapolates character traits and predictions.
On August 24, 1930, three days after the Princess’s birth, Naylor’s published report predicted that her life would be “eventful”, an accurate if not entirely inspired forecast given that she was, after all, a princess (he didn’t, it appears, foresee the Princess’s later star-crossed romances and lifelong love affair with alcohol and cigarettes). He also noted that “events of tremendous importance to the Royal Family and the nation will come about near her seventh year”, a prediction that was somewhat more precise – and seemed to ring true right around the time that her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to her father.
Celebrity natal star charts weren’t a particularly novel idea; American and British newspapers routinely trotted astrologers out to find out what the stars had in store for society pagers like Helen Gould and “Baby Astor’s Half Brother”. Even the venerable New York Times wasn’t above consulting the stars: In 1908, a headline declared that President Theodore Roosevelt, a Sagittarius, “might have been different with another birthday”, according to “expert astrologer” Mme. Humphrey.
But though it wasn’t the first of its kind, Naylor’s article was a tipping point for the popular consumption of horoscopes. Following the interest the public showed in the Princess Margaret horoscope, the paper decided to run several more forecasts from Naylor. One of his next articles included a prediction that “a British aircraft will be in danger” between October 8 and 15. When British airship R101 crashed outside Paris on October 5, killing 48 of the 54 people on board, the tragedy was taken as eerie evidence of Naylor’s predictive skill. Suddenly, a lot more people were paying attention to the star column. The then-editor of the paper offered Naylor a weekly column – on the caveat that he make it a bit less dry and bit more the kind of thing that lots of people would want to read – and “What the Stars Foretell”, the first real newspaper horoscope column, was born.
The column offered advice to people whose birthdays fell that the week, but within a few years, Naylor (or a clever editor) determined that he needed to come up with something that could apply to larger volumes of readers. By 1937, he’d hit upon the idea using “star signs”, also known as “sun signs”, the familiar zodiac signs that we see today. “Sun sign” refers to the period of the year when the sun is passing through one of 12 30-degree celestial zones as visible from earth and named after nearby constellations; for example, if you’re born in the period when the sun is passing through the constellation Capricornus (the “horned goat”, often represented as a half-fish, half-goat), roughly December 22 to January 19, then that makes your sun sign Capricorn.
“The only phenomenon in astrology allowing you make a wild generalizations about everybody born in this period to that period every year without fail is the sun sign,” explained Jonathan Cainer, prominent astrologer who writes one of Britain’s most-read horoscope columns for The Daily Mail.
“[The column] was embraced by an enthusiastic public with open arms and it spawned a thousand imitations. Before we knew it tabloid astrology was born… this vast over-simplification of a noble, ancient art,” Cainer says. Cainer pointed out that even as newspaper and magazine horoscope writing became more and more popular – which it did and quickly, on both sides of the Atlantic – the practice was largely disregarded by the “proper” astrological community. The accusation, he says, was bolstered by the fact that historically, a lot of horoscope columns weren’t written by actual astrologers, but by writers told to read a book on astrology and get cracking.