Century-old personal ads reveal how single people in the 1900s tried to find love — decades before dating apps like Tinder and Bumble made it possible for men and women to seek a partner in just one swipe.
Before the age of digital dating, many people used local newspaper ads, which could be placed anonymously in by singles hoping to find love, companionship, or even marriage.
While the first printed personal ads appeared in newspapers as far back as the 1700s and were still common in the 1990s, a new collection of them curated by MyHeritage.com shows just what singletons were looking at the turn of the twentieth century, and revealing that, surprisingly, not a whole lot has changed.
Pre-Tinder days: Decades before online dating apps were launched, singles could post personal ads in newspapers to find love (stock image from 1890)
Flashback: MyHeritage has unearthed several of these old ads, including this sentimental one from a widow with her ‘own home’ that ran in the St. Louis Post-Despatch in 1989
Seeking matches: Posting in the Atlanta Constitution in 1898, one wealthy 30-year-old woman said she ‘sacrificed her youth’ but was now looking for a ‘husband and true companion’
Much like Tinder and Bumble profiles, these personal ads often included a bit of pertinent information about the poster, like their age, job, and desires for potential partners. They did not, however, include photos.
Interested parties could either send mail to an address provided, or get in touch with the newspaper for more information.
Ultimately, in the late 1800 and early 1900s, these ad-posters were looking for marriage.
Some ads were flowery and romantic.
‘MATRIMONY,’ reads one add placed by a woman in the St. Louis Post-Despatch in 1899. ‘Widow, 44, Southerner, stranger, own home, West End, would like the hearthstone of her heart swept, and the cobwebs brushed away; matrimony.’
Others were a bit more practical.
A New York City woman placed this ad in the Atlanta Constitution in 1898: ‘Am 30, wealthy, lost mother, for whom I sacrificed youth, dread a lonely future, seek husband and true companion. Orphan.’
Meanwhile, the July 17, 1921 issue of The Pittsburgh Press included this ad: ‘Brunette lady, 38, desires hear from good natured gentleman owning automobile; object matrimony.’
Must have a car! The July 17, 1921 issue of The Pittsburgh Press included this ad: ‘Brunette lady, 38, desires hear from good natured gentleman owning automobile; object matrimony’
Jilted: In 1904, a man posted this ad in the The Minneapolis Tribune after he returned from the mines and discovered that his ‘old sweetheart’ had married someone else
What a catch! A 27-year-old government employee promised to make ‘some poor working girl … a good husband’ in The Pittsburgh Press in 1921
Men placed ads too, and theirs appear to have run the gamut from practical to demanding.
‘An old bachelor returning from the mines finds his old sweetheart married and old acquaintances scattered, desires lady acquaintance; object, marriage,’ read one ad in the The Minneapolis Tribune on January 31, 1904.
Another, which ran in The Pittsburgh Press on September 11, 1921, included a few more specifications.
‘I am 27, employed by the government, have small but reasonable salary, will make some poor working girl, from 18 to 25, a good husband and a happy home; must be Protestant; no dancers, flirts, or streetwalkers need answer, object matrimony,’ it read.
One especially particular man spared no expense on his ad in The Pittsburgh Press on September 11, 1921, going on for several lines explaining exactly what he desired in a wife — and, apparently, an assistant.
‘A business gentleman, true American, industrious and of ambition, age 47, height 5’9″, weight 150 lbs, Christian, believes in God, of good health and clean habits, lover of home, good character, business and college education, of some means and refinement,’ he wrote.
‘Desires to meet a single or widow lady of some means and of refinement and Christian, age 33 to 43, weight 125 to 145 lbs, height 5’4″ to 5’7″, stylish and of neat appearance but plain.’
Oh, is that all? A particularly demanding bachelor who had cash enough to pay for this length ad asked for a woman with a specific age, height, and weight — who could also be his secretary
That’s not all. He went on: ‘Loves music and can play a little, who knows something about the essentials of home making enough for two, to whom has had experience in business routine, stenographer and typist and bookkeeper, good [unintelligible] in general insurance and brokerage business preferred, to form a home in near future where happiness and love is bound to reign; object matrimony: triflers ignored.’
While it was popular for individuals to place ads, they might also seek the help of a marriage agency — who, in turn, might place an ad for several of their clients.
One, in a July 17, 1904 edition of the Anaconda Standard, read: ‘We seek husband for maiden lady, age 23, worth $8,500; bachelor girl, age 31, worth $28,000; widow, age 42, no children, worth $90,000, and for many others.’
Of course, people could also meet in more organic ways, like through family or friends — but just like today, that didn’t always result in a match.
MyHeritage researcher Elisabeth Zetland told DailyMail.com that personal ads could be particularly helpful for newly-arrived immigrants, or Americans who had moved within the US who didn’t have established social circles.
As the ads above show, they could also open up more options for older singles, widows, and widowers.
They might also be used by farmers in rural areas who wanted to find husbands for their daughters, as well as aristocratic gentlemen looking for similarly ‘high-class’ brides.
A little help: Marriage agencies also placed ads likes this 1904 one for multiple clients — which even included how much money the women had
‘What we discovered when uncovering these adverts in the MyHeritage records collection is that they were popular among a wide spectrum of the population and across different classes and groups,’ Zetland said.
‘Particularly interesting is the use of these “Tinder” adverts among immigrant communities, arriving to the “land of opportunity” to live the American dream,’ she added.
Unfortunately, another newspaper clip reveals that sometimes, singles fell victim to fraudsters looking to exploit their vulnerability.
A story that ran in the Meriden Daily Journal on October 22, 1901 reported that a New York man named Christian Gloesner and his wife had conducted a ‘matrimonial swindle’ of 300 people.
‘[The] scheme was to clip matrimonial papers and answer them. BY the means of handsome pictures they allured the man who wanted a “blonde” or “brunette” wife,’ the story read.
‘They asked for railroad fare that they might come to Nebraska, or wherever the man wished a wife or the woman husband.’
One victim said he’d sent $40 to a fictional ‘Mrs. Steadman’ so she could meet him in Nebraska, but he got no reply.
Swindled! Some scammers used personal ads to target lonely people, from whom they’d request ‘travel expenses’ to come see them
While these examples are all from the turn of the twentieth century, personal ads in the United States can be traced all the way back to the mid-1700s.
According to Francesca Beauman’s 2020 book Matrimony Inc., one of the earliest documented personal ads in the US ran in the Boston Evening Post in 1759. The ad asked for ‘any young lady, between the age of 18 and 23, of middling stature; brown hair; regular features, and with a lively brisk eye.’
They were still quite rare when a A.B., a 22-year-old, placed his own ad in New York’s Impartial Gazetteer in July of 1778, describing himself as ‘a young gentleman of fame and fortune, not above two and twenty, tall, stout and esteemed in his person.’
He wrote that he was seeking a ‘maid or widow … under 40, not deformed, and in possession of at least one thousand pounds.’
Ads grew more commonplace in the 1800s, with entire newspaper sections dedicated to them.
Some ad-posters found success. According to the New York Daily News, Sara Baines, 22, placed an ad for a husband in an 1869 newspaper and spent a year receiving letters.
The Louisiana native eventually traveled to meet Jay Hemsley, 46, in Wyoming, and the couple married the next day — and stayed married for 51 years.
Meanwhile, a a 43-year-old Norwegian immigrant named Ole Ruud found a wife after placing his own ad in 1892, which was answered by Swedish immigrant Augusta Larson, 28.
Over time, ads seeking marriage were joined by those seeking ‘fun.’
The existence of personal ads continued into the twentieth century, and they saw a surge in popularity in the 1960s and ’70s — though by that point, some were just plainly seeking sex.
Ads continued to run into the new millennium, spilling over onto sites like Craigslist before largely being replaced by online dating and then dating apps.