By Diane Cooke
Ever since the beginning of time Man has been looking for love. Adam met Eve and the rest is history.
But finding the perfect mate, or even an imperfect one for that matter, is not an easy thing. Before the Internet, there were personal ads, and before that, lonely shepherds carved detailed works of art into tree bark to communicate their longing for human contact. No wonder relationships lasted longer in those days.
The modern newspaper was invented in 1690, and the first personals followed soon after. According to history professor H.G. Cocks personal ads began as a way to help British bachelors find eligible wives.
One of the earliest personals ever placed was by a 30-year-old man, with “a very good estate’, announcing he was in search of ‘some good young gentlewoman that has a fortune of £3,000 or thereabouts'. £3,000 is equivalent to roughly £300,000 today. Talk about gold digging!
In 1727, Englishwoman Helen Morrison became the first woman to place an ad in a Lonely Hearts column. She convinced the editor of the Manchester Weekly Journal to place a small ad stating she was “seeking someone nice to spend her life with.”
A man responded to Helen, but it was not the man she was hoping for. It was the mayor, who had her committed to an insane asylum for four weeks.
Society was clearly not ready for such an autonomous practice, especially on the part of a woman. But personal ads quickly became an institution. Heinrich von Kleist’s celebrated novella The Marquise of O, first published in 1810 (and said by Kleist to be “based on a true incident”) opens on the newspaper ad placed by “a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-brought-up children,” to the effect “that she had, without knowledge of the cause, come to find herself in a certain situation; that she would like the father of the child she was expecting to disclose his identity to her; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.”
In the 1700s homosexuality was illegal, so newspaper ads were the main way to meet someone. Gay men would use code words to avoid being persecuted or even executed, according to a PBS infographic on the history of love and technology. In addition, whenever gay men wanted to meet up, they would go to what was called a Molly House, where they could drink, dance, and have sex.
In the late 1800s, The Matrimonial News in San Francisco became the first newspaper exclusively for singles — where they could read stories about the latest romantic goings-on and post ads for a mate. This was free for women to do, while men had to pay a quarter.
For many single ladies and gentlemen of the 19th century, placing a matrimonial advertisement in a local newspaper was considered a viable alternative to traditional courtship.
It was especially popular with those who were new to an area or those who had no family or social groups through which they might otherwise obtain an introduction to a suitable partner. Naturally, there were those traditionalists who frowned upon this method of acquiring a spouse. It was viewed as undignified, indelicate, and dangerous. Even so, matrimonial advertisements were utilised by men and women of every age and every class throughout the Regency and Victorian eras.
In the past few decades, dating has become more of a process which has eventually led to one type of service that caters to all types of daters, the Internet dating service. The first online dating service (www.Match.com) was created in 1995.
And lonely hearts have been swiping in one way or another ever since.