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Gentleman Seeketh Matrimony

A brief history of personal ads

by Alexis Abb on February 9, 2012

A worthy plump, fresh, free and willing Widdow . . . is in great distresse for want of a Lancktaradiddledino, and would accept of any man that is Able to labour in her Corporation. . . . If any man want a wife and come to this pure piece of iniquity, let him present the true picture of his Tool there’s no question but he may find favour, and commit Poultry without Matrimony.

Printed in Mercurius Fumigosus, May 16, 1660

It is unknown whether this ad is a mockery of early lonely-hearts ads or just a sarcastic political response. After years of Puritan repression, England was looking for a little relief and found its escape in humorous and sexually suggestive write-ups like this. On the same day this ad was printed, the Houses of Parliament sent Charles II a delegation to return as king.

In July 1695, John Houghton, publisher of the weekly pamphlet A Collection for Improvement of Husbandry and Trade, which advertised the trade and sale of goods, apprenticeships, and other commodities, left a space on its pages for a different kind of ad. At a table in a smoky, unsavory London pub called the Golden Fleece, the first (known) lonely-hearts ad was placed: “A Gentleman about 30 Years of Age, that says he had a Very Good Estate, would willingly Match himself to some Good Young Gentlewoman that has a Fortune of £3,000.”

Placing brief marriage proposals like this one quickly became a profitable business for newspapers. By 1710, all 53 papers in England made room for a similar column. Francesca Beauman, author of Shapely Ankle Preferr’d, writes that in the first few decades, ads consisted solely of men looking for a respectable and financially endowed woman. Little was said in regard to physical appearance. “Matrimonial. I think I need a wife; one educated well, and rich to, but not very, for I am a lawyer and somewhat of a politician, and she must maintain the station. For myself, I spurn the “social lie” which thinks and says the Press is no fit medium of introduction. ‘If their hearts be right it matters little how they met.’ Address Charles V. Barrington.”

According to The People’s Almanac, the first personal ad placed by a woman was in 1727. Helen Morrison, “a lonely spinster,” paid for a few words in her search for love. Publishers tried to assure everyone this was an honorable way to meet suitors, but some did not agree. After reading the notice in the Manchester Weekly Journal, the mayor had Morrison sent to an insane asylum for four weeks.

The rise in personals came as the popularity of novels increased. These columns created a new avenue for courtship and entertained readers like the books Robinson Crusoe (1719), Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), and Joseph Andrews (1741), which were considered risqué for their time. Both shared “a new-found focus on the individual” and enabled the reader “to peer into their private lives to find out what it is they want, need, crave,” Beauman writes.

In Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column, H.G. Cocks says that society has always criticized the idea of selling yourself in an ad for a spouse or companion. “However advertising like this has a long and unbroken history, and was used by many people with some success,” he said in an interview with Live Science. For most of the 19th century, the ads continued with ladies and gentlemen seeking a spouse. Unease over matrimonial advertising arose in 1828 when William Corder, a young farmer from Suffolk, was arrested for strangling his pregnant wife. After disposing of her body, he placed a marriage ad in a national newspaper attracting more than 100 responses. One bachelorette had actually married him by the time he was arrested, tried and executed, unbeknownst to her.

With the population shifting from rural to urban, laborers in England spent much of their time at work and commuted long distances to get home, leaving little time for social interaction. As the nation entered World War I, publishers realized they could make money advertising for “casual companionship” as well.

A single woman could now place an ad for “really truly men chums” who were “unconventional.” Some went a step further with descriptions like “Bohemian girl” who was “interested in most things” or an “intensely musical” male looking for a suitor that was a “manly Hercules.” According to Cocks, London society in the 1920s was still skeptical of such ads. A police investigation into a magazine called The Link, run by Alfred Barrett, resulted in a court case accusing him of “promoting loose living, homosexuality, prostitution, and white slavery.”

By the mid-20th century, with the idea of personal ads becoming more acceptable, a unique niche appreared: the literary personal. For literary folk, romance is easy to read, but may not be easy to find in life (what with sitting at home reading books all the time!). The New York Review of Books began publishing personal ads only a few years after it was founded in 1963 to create a public space for like-minded, well-read people to meet.

“MY NEW YEAR’S WISH: to have my soul flow with an exuberant male spirit who yearns for a pretty, compassionate, creative, older (65) woman. Maine resident with a parachute poised to land almost anywhere.”

Personals also became a way for gay men and women to find a relationship. Until 1967, homosexual dating was illegal in the United Kingdom, so the “lonely hearts” would turn to the ads to put themselves out there. Coded words like “masculine features,” “passion for theater and dance,” or “male roommate” were used for discretion and safety. Still, many people, especially those in authority, found them appalling.

“MID 50s. Jewish bisexual Mensch. I’m intellectual, kind, funny, cute, world-travelled, Ivy-educated. I’ve been married monogamously for many years. I’m now looking for a gay male friend (preferably with benefits) to help [me] explore my dormant gay self.” Perhaps more so than any other group, the GLBTQ community has made exceptional use of the Internet to satisfy their desires.

A doctoral student who asked to remain anonymous prefers the immediacy of sites like Manhunt.com and Adam4Adam.com. These sites include profiles, photos, measurements, and preferences, making meeting someone for dinner or casual sex no more than a click away. “There’s no restriction to what you can see or post. It could be a guy’s face or his asshole. The sites allow for a variety of sexual tastes [like] bears, twinks, power bottoms . . .” he explains.

Nowadays, almost any companionship or odd sexual preference probably exists in the Internet world of lonely hearts. Just about any interest or group can be found today in personal ads, in print or or online—and most of their pitches are a far cry from men “desirous of marriage” to respectable wealthy wives.