Sunday, February 01, 2009


Dear Sir

Over in the Times of London, a review of a new history of personals ads:

In 1915, while other men fought the battles of Loos and Ypres, a comic novelist called Alfred Barrett, the former editor of Family Circle, spotted a gap in the market for a new magazine... Link specialised in the lonely-hearts column. Personal ads had been around since the late 17th century, but this was the first magazine entirely devoted to the search for marriage and companionship. This idea proved so shocking to early 20th-century public opinion that the title was closed down in 1921, and Barrett was sentenced to two years'hard labour for corrupting public morals.... Police were particularly interested in the number of young men who claimed to be artistic, musical, unconventional, or fans of Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. Officers also had their doubts about women who claimed to be “jolly” or “sporty"...

Once newspapers had been invented in the middle of the 17th century, it didn't take long for personal ads to appear. By the 1750s they were so well established, albeit rather disreputable, that single men in possession of a good fortune would advertise even when they were not, strictly speaking, in want of a wife. An advert from 1750, featured in the book, reads: “Advertisements of this kind are often inserted by Gentlemen for their Diversion. I do therefore declare myself in earnest, and the real foundation of applying in this public way is a Want of Acquaintance in London sufficient to introduce me in a private one.” He was fussy, though: suitable young ladies must have no children, and a fortune of between £8,000 and £10,000.

It's a curious and peculiarly revealing subject -- check out this selection of 1820s personal ad responses that I included a couple years ago in The Believer. The rich history of classifieds has only really just begun to be uncovered.

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