Looking for Love in the Newspapers of 19th Century New York

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Marriage ads reached their apogee in mid–19th century New York. Prominent champions of the genre included the New York Herald and, later, the New York Times, which came to dedicate an entire column to these “parti-colored, broken and incoherent phrases of human passion,” as one journalist described them. Not only was this section of the newspaper wildly entertaining, it also offered New Yorkers a much-needed matchmaking service. Ads themselves evolved, too, demonstrating an increasingly complex and creative lexicon and beginning to reflect specifically Victorian attitudes toward love and marriage.

The continuing increase in the number of personal ads editors chose to include in their papers was in part a result of the fierce rivalry between New York’s penny presses. The New York Sun printed its first edition in 1833, followed in 1835 by the New York Herald and in 1841 by the New York Tribune. To be profitable, a penny press needed to attract readers from all sections of society. Aiming the content at both sexes, unlike the more male-orientated commercial press, was one way to do this; another was the inclusion of titillating personal ads. Take this one, which appeared in the Sun in 1840:

MATRIMONY.—The advertiser (lately arrived from the South,) being unconnected with society here, is induced to seek a matrimonial engagement through the medium of a public journal. As the advertiser is in earnest, so will he be brief in explaining his wishes—his age is 27, of a good family, moderate income, musical, fond of literature, and considered by his acquaintance of engaging manners and appearance, early habits have induced moral rectitude and religious observance. Any lady possessing accomplishments calculated to render the advertiser happy... is sought for. Money is no farther an object than as it conduces to domestic happiness. All communications will be considered strictly confidential.

The advertiser is in his mid-twenties, new in town, lacking contacts, and has sensibly decided to go public in his search for a wife. In short, he possesses many of the same attributes as other advertisers of the period not only in Philadelphia and Boston, but also across the Atlantic in London and Liverpool.

By the mid-1840s, marriage ads were a semi-regular feature of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, too. 1845 saw an ad from “a gentleman about 30 years of age, possessing a moderate fortune, [who] is desirous of connecting himself in matrimony with some respectable lady who is willing to undertake the charge of a small household.” In other words, he is after an unpaid housekeeper.

But it was the New York Herald (later the New York Herald Tribune) that deserved the most credit for popularizing the modern personal ad.

The Herald’s founder, James Gordon Bennett Sr., believed the role of a newspaper was “not to instruct but to startle and amuse.” Established in 1835, it made its name with sensationalist coverage of the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett. Bennett was also among the first to spot the entertainment value of ads, a significant turning point in the history of advertising.

His newspaper’s earliest marriage ad, from “Maria,” appeared on October 29, 1835, just days after American settlers in Texas, at the time governed by Mexico, fired their first shots asserting their independence.

HUSBAND WANTED.—A young lady about 21 years of age—pleasing manners and accomplished—is anxious to change her condition and would like to have a husband sometime before the 1st of January next. She has a little fortune—not much—is well connected—and has every requisite to make any gentleman of congenial habits happy in the married state. She would prefer a husband not over thirty-five—but would not refuse even forty. Fortune is not so much of an object. A letter addressed to Maria and left at the Herald office will be noticed.

A couple of weeks later, Bennett received a mysterious wedding invitation, which he eventually worked out was from the “Maria” in the ad and her speedily gained fiancé as a way of thanking him for helping facilitate their romance.

Within ten years of launching, the New York Herald was the most popular daily in America. By 1853, it boasted a readership of about 53,000, and by 1860 personal ads appeared in it every day. Most of the men who advertised were educated and middle-class—that is, the sort of men who described themselves as “a gentleman, aged 26, of fair personal appearance and unexceptionable posi- tion, who neither drinks, smokes nor chews.” They advertised for many of the same reasons they did in New York in the 1780s, or Philadelphia in the 1840s, or on Tinder today, most commonly because they are “strangers in the city” or even “a stranger in [their] native city,” so fast was the pace of change. They have traveled from every corner of the nation: from San Francisco, from Richmond, from New Orleans—the latter being “detained North on business, and no lady acquaintances”—as well as a “gentleman of 30, college graduate and practical mining engineer, who has spent the last ten years in the Western territories . . .”

Illustration for article titled Looking for Love in the Newspapers of 19th Century New York
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The ads offer a vivid glimpse into the loneliness experienced by many New Yorkers. “A young gentleman” writes that he is “wearied of hotels and boarding houses,” as does a “lonely widower” who is “weary of solitary rooms.” An eighteen-year-old-girl agreed, saying she was “wearied of a life of single blessedness,” while a “widowed lady” is “tired of living alone.” As one young buck explained in his ad, “New York, though so large, is, as to sociability, a desert to a great many; and it often renders single life exceedingly heavy, and marriages difficult, for the frequent mutual unfitness of limited chance acquaintances.” Many others shared the sentiment but expressed it in a different literary form. “For eight weary months, I have met in the crowded streets but two faces I have ever seen before,” observed Lydia Maria Child, concluding that in the city, “the loneliness of the soul is deeper, and far more restless, than in the solitude of the mighty forest.”

What did the male population of New York look for in a wife? A “young lady not over 24, possessing some wealth, refinement, intelligence and an amiable disposition” is a standard request. Others sought “a lively, goodhearted, romping, skating and loveable young lady” or a “kind-hearted wife, a friend, a companion for life.” This new-found emphasis on being “loveable” or a “companion” is evidence of an increasing belief in the importance of romantic feeling in making a marriage work. Some, meanwhile, continued to be open about the transactional nature of marriage, for example the gentleman looking for “a lady with some capital to form a business and matrimonial partnership. Being interested in a lucrative old established business, he wants to buy it out. Rare chance to acquire happiness and fortune honestly.”

The language of personal ads evolved considerably during this period. There was a new enthusiasm for quoting from a famous book or poem, perhaps as a way of asserting identity. One advertiser paraphrased Dante’s La Vita Nuova: “Romance will never see its end, nor a noble heart half its treasure. So says the poet.” Another referenced Shakespeare’s Richard III, seeking a woman “who will make the winter of his discontent glorious summer.” Ads were becoming wittier and more creative; as the genre became familiar to readers, it was easier to have some fun with it.

One Thursday morning in 1861, a woman named Ethel placed an ad for a husband in the New York Herald. She explained that she was “compelled to adopt this mode of opening a correspondence owing to the strict surveillance under which she is placed at home.” The successful candidate needed to be under twenty-five and “possess a fine intellectual countenance, be of an agreeable disposition, and above all have a love of a mustache.” Anyone interested was asked to write to her immediately, care of the Brooklyn post office.

Most of the women who advertised in the New York Herald were, like Ethel, openly seeking some kind of practical help, in particular financial support. There was the “widow lady of respectability and agreeable manners [who] desires to meet with a gentleman of good standing and means to support a wife,” as well as the “stranger in the city, alone and friendless” looking for “a gentleman . . . to whom she could look for protection, with a view to matrimony at some future time” who was “willing to give her immediate assistance.” Some are more specific in their demands. One young woman sought an “elderly” gentleman because she would “rather be ‘an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave.’” A twenty-year-old confessed “she has been directed by her spirit friends to take this method of procuring a suitable companion for life.” Another was looking not just for a sea captain, but for a sea captain who supported slavery.

Meanwhile, in 1857 “Miss Fannie De F. Le S.” of Poughkeepsie, New York, “disgusted with fortune hunters and insincere friends,” announced to readers of the Herald her desire to meet any “gentleman matrimonially inclined” who was willing to “give her a true, manly Heart in exchange for a fortune and a wife.” As the American middle classes evolved, placing a personal ad was one way to assert one’s position within the social strata.

In light of the paucity of options available to women like Fannie, it is no wonder that contemporary novels often depicted them suffering from a kind of sickness. The sickness was boredom; the response, rage. As Charlotte Chesebro, one of the most innovative women writers of the period, put it in The Children of Light, her 1853 novel about two women who find themselves disappointed by the limitations of love:

I feel like rushing out . . . But here I am, only a woman—a house- keeper . . . to be kept in my “proper sphere” and “place,” and never to stir an inch out of it in any direction, for fear that all creation would turn against me, and hunt me down, as they would a wild beast!

No wonder some chose to rebel, refusing to be passive onlookers in their own lives, preferring instead to strike out alone to find a partner and build a life for themselves.

By 1855, a census of New York City put the population at just under 630,000, and rising fast. As the nation’s leading port and manufacturing center, migrants flocked there from all over the world in search of a new life. But there was a significant gender imbalance. Up until 1830, the ratio of women to men had been about even, but within a decade there averaged 125 women of marrying age for every 100 men. Although a lot of young men arrived in the city as trans- atlantic immigrants, the nature of the urban labor market meant that even more left again in search of employment on farms and elsewhere; for young women, employment opportunities were mostly local and the prospects outside New York limited.

Eliciting a marriage proposal could therefore be tricky. Contemporary conduct literature such as Marriage and the Duties of the Marriage Relations by G. W. Quinby (1852) and The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility by Emily Thornwell (1857) stipulated that the ideal age for a woman to marry was between twenty and twenty-five, so is it any wonder that even those only just out of their teens sometimes harbored a fear of spinsterhood?

On the plus side, the expansion of respectable wage work for New York women beyond domestic service into fields like retail and teaching offered many the opportunity to liberate themselves from their parents. This meant they could merrily flout some of the social conventions that had previously restricted their behavior, including the way they found a husband.

By 1861, the popularity of the New York Herald’s personals lay at the very heart of its continuing success, and the paper published a prominent editorial singing their praises:

Who is there who does not read the “Personals” of the Herald, and who can read them without having his mind directed into channels of romance? . . . this column of the daily newspaper contains within itself a most curious phantasmagoria of city life, and those who have a taste for real romance need go no farther to gratify it.

The ads offered nosy New Yorkers a glimpse into their neighbors’ private lives, and in this way were a little like a hundred-word version of best-selling sentimental novels of the period such as Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter (1854), the story of an orphan rescued from her abusive guardian by a lamp- lighter, which sold 20,000 copies in its first twenty days. Except that the ads were real.

From 1866 onward, as the number of subscribers to the New York Herald topped 80,000, personal ads started to be printed on its front page, where they remained until the 20th century. As it was the most widely read newspaper in the nation, the impact on the American cultural consciousness was significant.

Personal ads had become so popular in New York that they started to appear in even the most niche publications. Take the Water-Cure Journal, aimed at those keen on hydrotherapy and other forms of alternative medicine, which by mid-century claimed an astonishing circulation of 50,000. Part of its appeal were the personal ads from people in search of a vegetarian partner, and many felt distinctly modern for the period, for example the one from a woman who “wears the Bloomers when she can” and is looking for “a practical anti-slavery man, anti-tobacco, and I care not if anti-razor.”

Excerpted from Matrimony, Inc.: From Personal Ads to Swiping Right, A Story of America Looking for Love by Francesca Beauman. Published by Pegasus Books. © Francesca Beauman. Reprinted with permission.

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Fascinating stuff. This makes me think about how popular online dating sites would have been even a couple of centuries ago. Notwithstanding literacy rates, I wonder how these would have fared in pre-Victorian eras.