Hinge. OKCupid. Tinder. Bumble. Before you could meet your soulmate with a swipe, you had to be way more creative. Enter: the personal ad, a short private message placed in newspapers, often by someone in search of romance.
"Matchmakers in some form have always existed, but today everyone has access to matchmakers with websites and apps," explains Rhonda Evans, the Electronic Resources Librarian at the New York Public Library and the woman behind the NYPL's recent blog post about personal ads. "These tools are obviously successful, because so many couples have met this way, but with the detailed questionnaires and stylized photos, a lot of the fun and mystery has been taken out of this process."
But before there were apps and websites designed specifically for matchmaking, lonely hearts had to find another way to connect. "Personal ads in newspapers and magazines gave people a small physical space and limited word count to express who they are and what they want, which allows for some intriguing and often humorous reading," Evans says.
Humorous? You could say that again. The personal ads Evans discovered — some of which are 125 years old — in the Women's Magazine Archive and Newspapers.com, both accessible with a NYPL library card, are a window into the dating scenes of the past,
A Lonely Hearts ad in a 1928 issue of the Oakland Tribune written by two sisters show what some women were looking for at the tail end of the Roaring Twenties. According to Daisy and Moll, the authors of the ad, being a catch meant being "a young society man who can make shadows, do card tricks, operate magic-lantern and read aloud from Police Gazette and Iron Age." Of course, anyone interesting in responding "must look neat in straw hats," because who wants a man that doesn't?
Another listing in a 1977 issue of The San Bernardino County Sun made clear the fact the ad's author, a Juan J. Arellano, would not be picking up the check, or their date's debt.
In a particularly hilarious personal ad from a 1892 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, one woman decided to use her space for giving personal dating advice, rather than looking for love for herself. She urged pretty young women to restrain themselves around men. "You may be prettier than the girl he loves; don't try and make him conscious of that; you may be brighter and wittier and able to make him feel more at ease, but never for an instant let him dream of this," she wrote.
If you had no idea that gems such as these personal ads could be found at the library, you aren't alone. "People think, ‘I can just Google it’, but there is so much information that is not on the Internet and we can help people think outside of the box in terms of places to find information," Evans says. "I will take resources like historical newspapers and find old personal ads, really weird old recipes, or find examples of “fake news” to show how the term has been used throughout history."
An example: If you thought sharing selfies was a 21-century trend, you would be wrong, and the resources at the library can prove it. The author of a personal ad in the April 1895 issue of Ladies' Home Journal made it clear that she would not swap photos with a man she has never met, "a gentleman whom I only knew as the brother of my friend."
Evans's personal favorite is an ad from a 1928 issue of the Oakland Tribune, placed by a 38-year-old woman named Cynthia, a woman with "one gold tooth." Why exactly? "[It] appears that she is confident in who she is and knows exactly what she wants. 'A rollicking outdoor girl with red hair…' is such a vivid description," Evans says. "Also, it was important enough to her that her partner understand taxidermy to use up her limited word count. I truly hope she found happiness because of this ad."
You might not be able to learn the fates of these Lonely Hearts, but you can certainly read more ads like these by visiting the New York Public Library or using your library card from home to browse through their incredible archives.