Brief History of Personal Ads

First Lonely Heart Ads

Surprisingly, personal ads are nothing new.They began appearing in newspapers about 300 years ago. It’s thought the first personal ad was a matrimonial advertisement appearing in a British publication July 19, 1695. In the 18th century, most personal ads were placed by men in their mid-twenties with an emphasis on youth and money.

On April 23, 1722, the New England Courant in Boston carried this ad: “Any young Gentlewoman that is minded to dispose of herself in Marriage to a well-accomplished young Widower, and has five or six hundred pounds to secture to him by Deed of Gift, she may repair to the Sign of the Glass-Lanthorn in Steeple-Square, to find all the encouragement she can reasonably desire.” The author was a 16-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who composed it as a joke. So even as early as 1720, personal ads were familiar enough to poke fun at.

In 1727, lonely English spinster Helen Morrison became the first woman to place an ad in a Lonely Hearts column. She was desperate enough to talk the editor of the Manchester Weekly Journal into placing a small ad stating she was seeking someone nice to spend her life with. She immediately received a response. The mayor had her committed to an insane asylum for four weeks. It really happened, according to the People Almanac. Times have certainly changed.

In the beginning, most ads were by men simply looking for a spouse and didn’t want family and friends, well meaning as they might be, meddling in their intimate affairs. In that era a farmer living in a rural area could get mighty lonely trying to court what few ladies were available. It’s not hard to understand they would use almost any means available to find a suitable wife. A short advertisement in a newspaper often produced spectacular results.

Reading some of the old personals printed in yesteryear, the language appears odd and sometimes even ridiculous. For example, this one printed around 1800 in a small English paper reads, ''Seven wives wanted. Ladies of respectability, desirous of entering into the Matrimonial State, may hear of seven gentlemen, who are desirous of enjoying true Connubial Bliss.'' It was by no means the first of its kind.

It was the Victorian era and ads about matrimony just had to at least sound dignified and respectable. This ad, which appeared in an 1851 publication of The Manchester Guardian,sparked some interest from more than one female. ''A Gentleman, about 27 years of age, kind and amiable in disposition, is desirous of meeting with a Partner for Life. The advertiser is engaged in a prosperous business; and trusts that this mode may be the means of bringing him into communication with one of the fair sex similarly disposed, and of respectable family.''

However, no matter how well worded and dignified a personal ad might have sounded the practice of meeting a partner in this fashion was not considered respectable at the time. But then, as now, there were always gold diggers searching for a rich sap. But, what if one had no wealth and lacked physical attractiveness? Then, it became a matter of sincere honesty as this ad from an 1859 copy of the New York Times points out. ''Without beauty to attract the world's crowd, or gold to allure the fortune hunter, I am, I believe, a truehearted, refined, educated woman, young, frank, and mirthful, with the birthright entrée of cultured circles…” and so on.

The upper crust of European society had a long history of using these “Lonely Heart” columns seeking a proper wife. In the early 1800s, one aristocrat placed an ad which read in part…''capable from her rank and talents of supporting the dignity and titles which an alliance so honorable would confer to her.'' It also mentioned he was well off financially, thus generating several responses. Apparently, they didn’t care about the title.

Many of these aristocrats had reached their golden years. And were, by today’s standards, “robbing the cradle” as an 1841 ad in The Journal of Munich by a 70 year old Baron showed. He was seeking a woman between 16 and 20 having good teeth and little feet.

Up until the mid-1800's, the use of personal ads hadn’t really caught on with the general public and consisted mainly of those seeking matrimony. But after that there was an unprecedented surge. Magazines and periodicals such as The Wedding Bell in the US and The Correspondent, Matrimonial Herald and Marriage Gazette in Britain began hitting the newsstands.

With the turn of the century, many of these magazines remained popular places to put personal ads but many mainstream newspapers seemed to stop printing them overnight. The scam was born…something newspapers were happy to report on, but not too keen about being the cause of.

For example, in 1897, there was an ad by a young lady claiming to be a widow interested in marriage. She made no secret she was wealthy. Several men began corresponding with her. Each sent money for travel expenses. She took their money, headed for Europe and continued luring men into her web of deceit.

Losing money to such a con is one thing, but the tale of Reuben Lane is quite sad. Reuben walked on crutches from Pennsylvania to Kansas to marry 27 year old widower Eliza Parker. When the 36-day journey was completed Eliza callously changed her mind and sent poor Reuben hobbling back to Pennsylvania.

The modern era of the personal ad began in the 1960s with the “free love” movement and people were becoming less inhibited with their sexuality. In the 80s marriage began falling out of style and the nature of ads changed to reflect the times. People were looking for dates and flings. Gays came out of the closet, but were still shy about publicly announcing their orientation, so code phrases such as “extremely masculine” were developed.

Today, dating and matchmaking services for virtually any category have saturated the internet. It’s a lucrative market selling the same age old product and service…love and an end to loneliness.

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Comments 4 comments

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 4 years ago from Upstate New York

I think there still is an element of desperation in placing or responding to a personal ad. That hasn't changed over time, has it? (Please forgive me, all those who've placed or responded to a personal ad out of boredom or curiosity or for some other reason.)


JY3502 profile image

JY3502 4 years ago from Florence, South Carolina Author

I don't know. Never placed one. ;-)


justgrace1776 profile image

justgrace1776 4 years ago

Hi JY3502 - Did you find any other titles of publications with personal ads for romance? I'm researching these. Thank you.


JY3502 profile image

JY3502 4 years ago from Florence, South Carolina Author

Sorry, I didn't. I felt the ones mentioned were enough for this article. But, they shouldn't be hard to find as they were popular.

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