It was the summer of 1778, and 22-year-old A.B. had just moved to Manhattan. New York was bustling — business was booming and debates were raging over whether the state should ratify the new nation’s constitution. But A.B. was terribly lonely. He had few acquaintances in the city and found that it was very hard to meet ladies.
So he marched to the downtown offices of the Impartial Gazetteer, the city’s only weekly paper at the time, and placed an ad for a wife.
“A young gentleman of fame and fortune,” it began, “not above two and twenty, tall, stout and esteemed in his person” sought a “maid or widow … under 40, not deformed, and in possession of at least one thousand pounds.” (A.B. wasn’t terribly picky.) He asked interested parties to leave their letters at the newspaper’s printing office, promising that he would “punctually” answer all replies.
It was a bold move. Advertising for a partner was, in 1778, pretty radical. But according to historian Francesca Beauman’s book, “Matrimony Inc.” (Pegasus Books), out Tuesday, it wouldn’t be long before men and women from all over the new country would embrace this unconventional, optimistic and deeply American way of finding a mate. After all, she writes, as fresh arrivals sought their fortune in crowded cities — or, later, the sparsely populated frontier — “it became clear that many needed or wanted to advertise for love to help them along the road to marriage.”
More than two centuries later, and despite cultural shifts, technological breakthroughs and changing attitudes toward marriage, people are still putting themselves out there in the hopes of finding love — and selling themselves in much the same way as they were when America was brand new.
The nation’s first known marriage ad appeared in 1759, in the Boston Evening Post, looking for “any young lady, between the age of 18 and 23, of middling stature; brown hair; regular features, and with a lively brisk eye.”
At the time, writes Beauman, Boston was “the most civilized, sophisticated, and modern city” in the British Colonies, with three weekly newspapers that locals devoured at coffeehouses and taverns. These publications ran items advertising rooms to rent, horses for sale and the “arrival of tea from the Indies.” Why shouldn’t an eligible bachelor put himself on the market, too?
It was very difficult to meet someone of the opposite sex in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston were full of recent transplants who couldn’t rely on meeting a potential partner the old-fashioned way, through friends and family. Yet society dictated that “respectable” women avoid public places aside from church. If a man happened to run into a lady at the theater or tavern, he assumed she was a prostitute.
Things were even more dire out West. During California’s Gold Rush, in the 1840s and ’50s, men outnumbered women 200 to 1. One bride, who lived in the mining town of Nevada City, Calif., claimed, “The feminine portion of the population was so small that I have had men come 40 miles over the mountains just to look at me.” (By her own admission, she wasn’t much to look at, either.)
The only respectable way to get a woman’s attention — particularly a woman in another city or state — was to advertise oneself far and wide, in newspapers all over the country.
Early personal ads did not ask for much. Most aspiring husbands wanted a “respectable,” sometimes “amiable” wife of child-bearing age who could do the household chores. Those in further-flung locales settled for whoever they could get. One journalist in 1830s Iowa commented: “So anxious are our settlers for wives that they never ask a single lady her age. All they require is teeth.”
By the mid-1800s, however, men in more-settled areas became increasingly demanding.
Take Peter Cowler. In 1860, the 40-year-old Massachusetts farmer placed an ad looking for a woman with “dark flowing hair, a little mite curly, dimples on her cheeks, mild, gentle, slow, with pleasant eyes looking out of her head.” He added, “I don’t want a glass-eyed or lantern-jawed woman, one that is as cross as blazes and gads about, gossiping and making mischief all over town.”
Another ad, from 1861, had these exacting requirements for a wife: “Weight, between 100 and 135 pounds; height, between five feet and five feet six inches; teeth regular, perfect and genuine … black hair and eyes preferred, though blue eyes and auburn hair might be acceptable.”
One man in 1840s Philadelphia, meanwhile, insisted his future wife know how to sing his favorite songs, “Home Sweet Home” and “Share My Cottage,” but “must not allow her voice to reach as high as ‘Marble Halls.’?”
As for why women would ever respond to these insufferable-sounding blokes? Their options were severely limited. Often the only way to get any kind of money — and independence from their parents — was through marriage.
And ladies placed ads looking for husbands, as well. One lady looking for a spouse wrote that the successful candidate should “above all have a love of a mustache.” Another said she preferred an “elderly” gentleman because she would “rather be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave.” One free spirit wanted “a practical anti-slavery man” who wouldn’t mind that she wore bloomers.
The goal of these ads was, traditionally, matrimony. But that began to change in the 1870s. Soon, phrases such as “object: fun” began appearing at the end of advertisements. These more casual, sometimes racy write-ups didn’t mention marriage at all, like the one from a 20-year-old woman looking for “a nice middle-aged man of means; object, pleasure during the summer months”; or one penned by a “gay and festive young lady, a stranger in the city” who wished “to make the acquaintance of the handsomest young gentleman in Cincinnati.”
Entire publications devoted to nothing but marriage ads sprouted in the 1860s and ’70s, including Matrimonial News, Matrimonial Reporter and the Matrimonial Advocate. As settlers moved west, they began advertising for wives in publications across the country, hoping to entice bored, restless young girls out East to head to the frontier in search of adventure and romance.
‘I don’t want a glass-eyed or lantern-jawed woman, one that is as cross as blazes and gads about, gossiping and making mischief all over town.’
– Personal ad from Peter Cowler, a 40-year-old Massachusetts farmer seeking a mate in 1860
Out in Arizona, six black miners’ wives placed ads in African-American newspapers across the Eastern seaboard, “hoping to persuade others to join them and increase the racial diversity on the frontier.” (Aside from this example, there are not a lot of personal ads from minority groups, likely, writes Beauman, due to “lack of money, lack of time, and, of course, lack of actual freedom for African-Americans prior to the emancipation in 1865.”)
Of course, not all marriage ads ended happily ever after.
In 1915, Nellie Blattenburg married William Wepsala, the widow she had met through a personal ad just two months before. Though her middle-aged suitor had bragged that he had a 320-acre farm and described himself as “ambitious,” after their wedding, he kept “borrowing” money from his bride, and she began to suspect that he wasn’t going to pay her back. The union barely lasted a year.
Blattenburg was lucky. In 1898, Texas authorities arrested Lulu Raines, whose fraudulent ads, placed in newspapers throughout the state, swindled men out of a collective $7,000 in cash and $3,000 in jewelry in just six months. Around the same time, the so-called One-Arm Bigamist, as the papers dubbed him, answered ads from lonely widows and absconded with their life savings.
And then there was Belle Gunness, America’s most prolific female serial killer, who murdered nearly 40 men by luring them to her Indiana farmhouse with personal ads in newspapers throughout the Midwest. The bodies were discovered in 1908, after Gunness’ home burned down; she was never found.
The spate of personal-ads-gone-wrong coincided with a change in courtship rituals at the turn of the 20th century. Suddenly, young men and women had a lot more opportunities to socialize unchaperoned — thanks to movie theaters, dance halls, cars and a growing number of students attending college. By 1927, the majority of colleges were co-ed, “making [them] a great place to meet your future husband and wife,” writes Beauman.
By the 1930s and into the ’50s, only the men’s Saturday Review and “a few pornographic magazines” carried personal ads.
One would think that the sexual revolution of the 1960s would have killed personal ads once and for all. The pill, “the widespread deferment of marriage, the increased number of women in the workforce and the expansion of gay rights” all “contributed to the merry collapse of many of the conventions of matchmaking,” writes Beauman. But these developments actually drove those looking for a romantic or sexual partner back to the advertisements, either because people began seeking out more niche, alternative arrangements or felt overwhelmed by choice.
The Village Voice began running personals in the 1960s, while the New York Review of Books launched their personals column in 1968. Swingers could find advertisements for “broad-minded couples” in the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as other, more niche publications. Ads for men seeking men — or women seeking women — began popping up in gay publications and pamphlets.
The first computer dating site, Operation Match, launched in 1965, with Internet dating sites appearing 30 years later, relying on algorithms and other methods to filter and sort potential paramours. Then came Tinder, a location-based dating app that allows users to make rapid judgements on suitors based entirely on looks. “A whole world of single men and women is now easily accessible from the dinky device in your back pocket,” writes Beauman.
The smartphone has revolutionized matchmaking — to a point. While advertising for love is easier, faster, more foolproof and more democratic than ever before, so much of it remains the same. As Beauman writes: “People still lie, claiming they earn more than they do, weigh less than they do, or are younger than they are. People still seek access to the lonely and the vulnerable in order to commit crimes.”
And “people still fall back on many of the same broad criteria when picking a long-term heterosexual partner.”
In other words: Despite all our changing attitudes about marriage, gender and sexuality, most men want a woman who is young and hot and fertile while most women want a man who is rugged and financially stable. It is why, statistically, a gal who posts a photo of herself doing yoga on the beach will receive more matches than one who poses with a drink in hand; or why a man who poses for his profile pic with a dog increases his chance for success.
In this light, A.B.’s 250-year-old plea for a lady “under 40, not deformed, and in possession of at least one thousand pounds” doesn’t seem so funny or weird after all. It’s just an antiquated way of saying “20-something, slim and ambitious.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.