Did Your Great-Great-Grandparents Date Through the Newspaper?

Family History
22 December 2014

Great great grandparents
[Photo from the Library of Congress]
Online dating is a popular way of meeting a significant other these days, but it’s possible that your own ancestors courted in a similar way — through newspaper ads!

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It’s surprising how long people have been advertising to find a significant other. Modern newspapers began in the late 17th century, and in the early 18th century, “matrimonial agencies” were already placing ads in English newspapers for men seeking wives — though any resulting couples probably didn’t speak openly about how they met.

Still, the trend continued. In the 1800s, it was not uncommon for pioneers settling the lonely West to advertise for wives in Midwestern and Eastern U.S. newspapers. Women looking to get away from their current circumstances, or perhaps just curious and seeking adventure, responded with letters and sometimes a photo. Whole courtships were sometimes conducted by post. Some culminated in the woman agreeing to marriage and traveling to join a fiancé she’d not yet met in person.

Patricia MacLachlan’s historical children’s novel Sarah, Plain and Tall explored this topic. Sarah went from her seaside home in Maine to Kansas to help a widower with his farm and children and to see if they were a good match. She could make up her own mind, and — spoiler alert — ultimately she chose to stay, and they married.

Lonely hearts ads continued into the 19th and 20th centuries. For a time, in the 19th century, it was shameful to be single much past one’s early twenties — a concept hard to relate to these days. Back then, such an ad might advertise a man’s prospects and lay out what he was looking for in some detail, like this gentleman, whose ad from the New York Times on April 15, 1862, you can find on Ancestry:

A gentleman of the first respectability would like to open a correspondence with a lady of the same character, with a view to matrimony. She must be intelligent and refined, and of prepossessing appearance; age not over twenty-one. Any lady answering the above requirements will confer a favor on the undersigned by addressing him in sincerity. Address LESTER, Box No. 160 Times Office.

Some bachelors and spinsters went through “matrimonial bureaus,” which advertised for them for a fee. From the Cincinnati Enquirer on April 23, 1899:

  • A little widow 33, worth $38,000, would marry; also widow 45, worth $20,000. Description sent for stamp. Largest Matrimonial Bureau in existence. Wellman, 304 W. 27th St., New York.
  • A widower of 30, wife dead, of good family, good looking, temperate, kind, affectionate disposition, educated, would marry lady with means. Address F 30, Enquirer.
  • Pretty young working girl, good housekeeper and some money, wants to marry nice, industrious man; age no difference. Address K 28, Enquirer.

And in the July 20, 1913, San Francisco Chronicle:

  • A gentleman with good salary, alone, healthy, middle-aged, Christian, would like to meet a moral, Christian lady that can help in office, typewrite, shorthand and be generally useful in meeting refined people; matrimony if congenial. Box 256, Chronicle branch, Oakland.
  • A young Scandinavian woman in good business wishes acquaintance of clean, steady man between 30-35; give full particulars in answer; of means preferred; if suited, matrimony. Box 1698, Chronicle.
  • Bachelor, American, middle-aged, well off, with highest business and social position, refined, traveled, will correspond in strictest confidence, with view to matrimony, with maiden or widow about 30; absolutely essential unexceptional family and equal position; attractive personality. Box 1759, Chronicle.

In the Internet era, newspaper ads have morphed, or maybe “exploded” is a better word, into almost countless online matchmaking sites. The concept has evolved, and along the way it’s become completely mainstream.

We may never know if our ancestors met by answering an ad. It’s more likely that our current family members may have, or may still.

And if they did, it’s more likely they will be much more open about it than Great-great-grandma and Great-great-grandpa would have been.

—Leslie Lang

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