Shapely Ankle Preferr'd: A History of the Lonely Hearts Ad, 1695-2010
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What do women look for in a man? And what do men look for in a woman? And how and why has this changed over the centuries? Every week thousands of people advertise for love either in newspapers, magazines or online. But if you think this is a modern phenomenon, think again - the ads have been running for over three hundred years. From the first ad in 1695 from a young gentleman who 'would willingly Match himself to some Good Young Gentlewoman, that has a Fortune of GBP3000 or thereabouts' to the GSOH, WLTM and online dating of more recent years, each ad is a snapshot of its age. The result is a startling history of sex, marriage and society over three centuries - hilarious and heartbreaking by turn.
very England,’ to quote Robert Southey again. ‘[I]mposture’ by means of a Lonely Hearts ad was the principal plot device of many a well-attended Drury Lane farce. In Winning a Husband by George Macfarren (1819), a mischievous maid sets up a series of meetings with Sir Roderick Strangeways in response to his newspaper ad, each of which she attends disguised as a different stock comic character. Increased social mobility as a result of the Industrial Revolution meant that an individual’s identity
was more fluid than ever before. If plays like Winning a Husband functioned as a ‘public negotiation of the meanings of marriage’, then one of these meanings was that those brave or foolish enough to take their quest for a spouse into the public domain left themselves open to the possibility of identity fraud. And so it was that the city laughed at precisely what it feared. Wanted: a wife by W.T. Moncrieff (1819) centres upon a case of genuine mistaken identity: an ad is placed looking for a
sharing his life with a woman more suitable to his rank: four years later, he tried again, placing a similar ad in the newspapers of Europe. This too failed to have the desired effect, and eventually, in 1837, he and Adelaide were married. The real significance of Lord Lucan’s antics was that they fuelled some women’s hopes that the personal columns were populated by genuine aristocrats for whom it was more important that a wife was pretty than rich, thus contributing to the myth that social
together until 1927, when Jack sadly died of pneumonia at the age of sixty. The most surprising aspect of Jack and Gertie’s life story is not that they met through a Lonely Hearts ad, but rather that they told their family about it. (It was their granddaughter, Kath Boothman, who then kindly told me about it, in response to an ad that I placed in a local paper.) One searches and searches for similar couples, but to no avail. The evidence simply is not there. Advertising for love was a taboo
nurse named Theresa in Bristol who explains how: ‘In 1914 I was engaged to a soldier and when he was killed thought I should never want anyone else, not have I until lately’; as well as one from a ‘young widowed lady (Scotch), newly arrived in London, seeks matrimony for the third time, having lost first husband in the war and second husband in aeroplane accident . . .’ This is a vivid account of a life blighted by grief, summed up in a single sentence. Women like Theresa faced a difficult