Shapely Ankle Preferr’d - A History of the Lonely Hearts Ad 1695-2010
Chatto & Windus, £12.99
NOTHING is romanticised quite like romance. Convention has it that the best matches are fated, assisted only by chance encounters so unlikely that Cupid himself must be behind the scenes subtly manoeuvring the would-be lovers into place.
Grubby pick-up joints, stop-watched speed-dating parties and anonymous internet introductions have no place in this fairytale. Or so the delusion goes.
In reality, finding a mate is often far from an organic experience and those in search of love, marriage or simply a legal union with no heartstrings attached have long turned for help with this most personal of problems to an unlikely intermediary — the very public press.
Where exactly the term ‘lonely hearts ad’ comes from isn’t clear but historian Francesca Beauman has traced the concept back more than 300 years to the London periodical with the decidedly unromantic title, A Collection for Improvement of Husbandry and Trade.
There, alongside ads for vacant positions and animals for sale, were two notices, one from “a gentleman about 30 years of age” with a “very good estate” who was willing to match himself to “some good young gentlewoman that has a fortune of £3000 or thereabouts”.
The other was from a young man “about 25 years of age” who had no money himself but was in line for a legacy when his father died. He too would “willingly embrace a suitable match”. He was, he declared, “a sober man”.
Readers concerned purely with the improvement of husbandry were left aghast and intrigued in equal measure. It wasn’t the fact that gentleman number one was seeking a hefty dowry or that number two was clearly impatient for the demise of his poor dad that got their attention — it was the very idea that anyone would advertise for a wife. It was brilliant and appalling at the same time.
And it caught on. London’s population at the time was half a million and growing all the time as people migrated from the countryside, leaving behind the family, friends, church gatherings and social dances normally relied upon for help in finding a spouse.
Deprived of, or perhaps liberated from, such a network (Beauman allows for both perspectives) people had to become more inventive in seeking out a mate. Taking a few column inches between the pigs for sale and carpenters for hire probably seemed as good a way as any.
Beauman’s journey through the lonely hearts column works both as a revealing social history and an engagingly whimsical jaunt.
As time went by, she notes, the requests became more specific and a contributor to the Daily Advertiser of 1750 sought a wife with “good teeth, soft lips, sweet breath … her bosom full, plump, firm and white” while a later example stipulated suggestively, “shapely ankle preferr’d”.
But size also mattered — both of personality and bank balance. When it came to the former, the rule was the smaller the better, with the men almost always seeking a mild-mannered creature, intelligent enough to be engaging in conversation but never so much as to dominate a discussion.
As for the latter, big was definitely beautiful for this was a time when fathers paid to have daughters taken off their hands and a woman without a dowry had only pity and spinsterhood to look forward to.
The migration of many young men to Britain’s growing collection of colonies also conspired against normal mating rituals but those circumstances could prove salvation for a woman without a dowry, a widow without protection or even a wanton hussy without a father for her child as some men declared themselves willing to lower their standards rather than become a lonely old bachelor without an heir.
A 1776 ad revealed the plight of a 50-something MP whose estate would be lost if he did not have an heir. He had “no objection to marry any widow or single lady, provided the party be of genteel birth, polite manners and five, six, seven or eight months into her pregnancy.”
Others were even more blunt in their approach. For instance, the charmer who placed an ad in the Morning Post in 1779 seeking a man to take a “considerable sum of money” in return for speedily marrying the mistress he was about to dump.
He wasn’t the only one to use the ads to cynical effect as the columns had their fair share of hoaxers looking for a laugh, prostitutes looking for business and sex fiends looking to prey on vulnerable young ladies.
Several court cases followed lucky escapes by young ladies who believed they were to be married when all their correspondents wanted was their wicked way.
There was little sympathy among the establishment for victims, however, and The Times newspaper, commenting on the case of one conman, declared he had “turned the heads of 98 indiscreet spinsters, silly boarding-school girls, or wanton widows”.
But despite the chances of encountering a cad or gold-digger, the popularity of the medium soared and by 1900 there were 20 weekly or monthly newspapers in Britain made up entirely of lonely hearts ads.
The early decades of the 20th century provided new reasons to sustain the medium as war again displaced people and left many a young man returning from the front in need of comfort, and many a young lady mourning her betrothed.
Its popularity waned in the 1950s and 1960s as society liberalised but it enjoyed a revival in the 1970s among gay men seeking partners and people of all sexual orientation and tastes unashamedly seeking fun and frolics rather a trip up the aisle.
Then came the internet and a whole new surge of interest in using the personal ad to seek out prospective partners for the night or a lifetime.
Beauman contends that even now, it’s hard to find a couple who’ll admit they found each other online, the preference being for a story that involves sunsets, flowers and string quartets.
Romance may have taken a beating during the industrial revolution but it seems not even the technological revolution can kill it.