Personal Ads: Who needs Cupid?

Picture of By Rita Alves

By Rita Alves

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”48″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I[/mks_dropcap]t’s that time of year again -the time when the world divides itself into lovers, haters, people with better things to do. And of course, those empowered edgy-hearted humans who need to scream into the void all their thoughts about how capitalism is destroying love. That’s right, ladies and gents, it’s Valentines’ day!  What better way to celebrate such a meaningful and not-at-all-consumeristic ‘holiday’ (guess which type of Valentine’s day person I am…) than to explore the way humanity has taken control over Cupid’s job in the name of speeding up the finding-the-one thing?

Welcome to the (brief) over 300-year-old history of personal ads.

Find me somebody to Love

Personal ads are short passages, initially found in newspapers, which allowed literally anyone to request what type of life partner they desired. One of the first ones can be traced back to 1685 when a 30-year-old man took it to a British agriculture journal to find himself a “good young gentlewoman that has a fortune of £3000, or thereabout”. 

The first personal ads were, as a result of their time, mostly focused on finding a partner of adequate social and economic status, rather than a Shakespearean-esque type of love. Through-out time, however, the content of newspapers’ personals developed to cover a range of other requirements. As seen in 1841, when a 70-year-old German baron searched for a wife with “handsome teeth and a charming little foot”, not to mention being “16 to 20 years of age.”

That’s the power of love

It took some time for the need to utilize personal ads not to be seen as desperate and an indication of social failure. However, once the general media caught on to the lucrative side of love, more publications focused solemnly on “lonely hearts” were created, and slowly normalized the personals.

In 1870, one of the first newspapers for singles, The Matrimonial News, was developed in San Francisco. For the small price of $0.25 or $4.50 nowadays, men could place an ad to hope to find a wife, while women could do the same for free. 

Similarly, 1897 saw the creation of the Wedding Ring circle.  With a membership to this type of social network, one could receive photographs of other members, correspond anonymously, as well as discuss topics of interest in the monthly magazine. Shakespeare could never.

The increasing popularity of personal ads not only empowered singles in general but also served as a platform for non-straight people to meet, using coded messages to avoid any criminal and legal problems (2020 really isn’t so bad). Unfortunately, the latter was not always a success, as various publications were shut down, for what the 1920s called “gross indecency.” 

You’ve got mail

As so famously demonstrated by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, the internet changed the entire dating scene and hence, personal ads as well.

Towards the late 20th century, various websites allowed personal ads to achieve a wider reach, and often for free, such as Craigslist. Although the personals section was later taken down due to the risk of the website being misused by people involved in prostitution and sex trafficking.

Websites geared towards the business of love were so popular that the original intention of YouTube was actually to be a dating site. One could post videos about themselves and find videos of others whom they found interesting, or as their original slogan said: “Tune in, Hook up.” After a failure of public adherence to this platform, the idea was scrapped. And the YouTube we now know was born.

Nonetheless, finding a partner has remained a lucrative business, something easily evident in the endless dating apps. Ranging from your average Tinder to Sizzl, an app that specifically targets bacon lovers. Yes, I know.

Only Fools rush in: The tales of the lovesick

Personals ads, whether in newspapers or online, don’t always have stories of success.

In 1727, Helen Morrison became one of the first women to place a personal ad in the Manchester Weekly Journal, where she asked for a “kind, gentle partner.” The mayor of Manchester readily responded by committing her to an insane asylum for four weeks, as the ad seemed to be an indication that she wasn’t a well-adjusted member of society. Logically.

A slightly less tragic, yet heart-breaking story is the 1897’s tale of Reuben Lane, who is said to have walked for 36 days to meet a widow who had published a personal ad, only to be harshly rejected by her.

Catfishing is an additional roadblock in the path of finding love. There are numerous stories of false identities online nowadays. However, this even occurred in the 18th century. Some fake personals had malicious intents, while others were simply parodies of the lonely heart sections. A popular case is that of 16-year-old Benjamin Franklin. Yes, THAT Franklin, who is said to have written several personal ads for the New England Courant under a synonym, with the intention to mock and unmask the transactional purposes of the ads. 

All’s fair…

The possibilities are endless nowadays when it comes to taking the path of finding love into our own hands. Although dating sites or apps can seem a bit impersonal and synthetic, it can be comforting to know that the idea of personal ads has been around for centuries, and hence,  our current society’s love ways are maybe just a development which preserves a key human tradition.

Happy consumerism day. 


Cover: YLanite

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