Gentleman seeks lady of soft lips and full bosom…From the hilarious, the heartbreaking, the surprising history of lonely hearts ads
Aged 40, a frustrated bachelor living in Bristol decided to try his luck with a lonely hearts ad. His intentions, unlike those of some advertisers, were entirely honourable.
One of the responses clearly quickened his pulse, because he agreed to the lady’s suggestion to wait for her under a certain lamppost one evening, holding a black walking stick in one hand and gloves in another.
And so, in 1837, they met: he in his best frock coat and she wearing a smart gown.
At first, conversation was somewhat forced — but he was much impressed when his blind date revealed that she lived with a Lady Courtly.
‘As her friend?’ he asked.
‘Not exactly,’ she said, and changed the subject.
Six dates later, he decided to marry her — and it was only then that he learned she was merely Lady Courtly’s servant. Appalled, he immediately ended the relationship.
That was the trouble with lonely hearts ads: by meeting someone entirely out of context, there was no way of knowing that anyone was who they said they were.
Horrors — they might even be maids.
Certainly, the lonely hearts columns fuelled many a maiden’s hopes that her good looks might make up for her lack of fortune. Few, however, were likely to be servants, as most working-class women of that time were illiterate.
In addition, placing an ad was eye-wateringly expensive (up to three shillings — almost two weeks’ wages for a housemaid), which meant that until the late 19th century, they were overwhelmingly placed by the middle classes.
Nevertheless, lonely heart ads had been flourishing in Britain since 1695, when a shrewd pamphlet editor concluded that love could be sold just as easily as other merchandise.
The first to appear was by a 30-year-old man, with ‘a very good estate’, announcing he was in search of ‘some good young gentlewoman that has a fortune of £3,000 or thereabouts’. Most reading it would have gasped at his ambition, as £3,000 is equivalent to roughly £300,000 today.
Proving that the commercialising of matchmaking was well-suited to the mercenary business of 17th-century marriage, a slew of ads quickly followed. Almost all were posted by men wanting to hear from a young, rich woman.
But over the ensuing decades, the qualities that people desired in a husband or wife began to change. In the second half of the 18th century, it was clear that as well as money, men particularly prized domestic virtues and ‘delicacy’ — a word that constantly recurred.
In 1750, one gentleman went much further in describing his ideal: ‘Good teeth, soft lips, sweet breath, with eyes no matter what colour so they are but expressive; of a healthy complexion, rather inclin’d to fair than brown; neat in her person, her bosom full, plump, firm and white; a good understanding, without being a wit, but cheerful and lively in conversation, polite and delicate of speech, her temper humane and tender, and to look as if she could feel delight where she wishes to give it.’
Most men, though, didn’t allude to a woman’s appearance. ‘No bodily deformity,’ ventures one ad in 1772. Another, who wrote ‘shapely ankle preferr’d’, was being positively risqué.
Lonely heart ads had been flourishing in Britain since 1695, when a shrewd pamphlet editor concluded that love could be sold just as easily as other merchandise
The most striking element of ads placed by women in this period is the sense of desperation.
There’s the ‘young lady, who has lost her husband’ (1777); another who’s ‘desirous of freeing herself from the control of a cruel and capricious guardian’ (1781); and one who was ‘compelled by loss of Friends and severe Misfortunes to solicit Protection from the most poignant sufferings’.
The vast majority of these women describe themselves as widows; hardly surprising when life expectancy for men was less than 40 years old. One histrionic advert from a widow in her 20s ‘very candidly acknowledges that without a husband she cannot be happy; her evenings are spent in contemplations dictated by nature, which reason cannot obliterate, and her nights are passed in sighs and lamentations’.
Perhaps aware it was a buyers’ market, most women were modest in their demands.
In 1787, however, one brave soul bucked the trend by setting out a veritable shopping list of the qualities she desired in her future husband.
‘He must never drink above two bottles of claret, or one of port, at a sitting, and that but three times a week. His education must be liberal, and his address captivating.
‘In company he must pay a constant attention to his spouse, and not ogle, or intrigue, by squints and looks, with pert misses, who constantly give men encouragement, by made-up leers, and manufactured sight.
‘No bodily deformity,’ ventures one ad in 1772. Another, who wrote ‘shapely ankle preferr’d’, was being positively risqué
Only he has promised to do so in the sight of heaven. He must never get up after twelve, or rise before nine o’clock; in a word, he must be the very man he ought to be.’
Of course, there were always a few who made no pretence of their wish for a different sort of relationship. The following ad, placed in The Gazetteer in 1768, could almost have come from one of the ‘high-fliers’ who feature in the novels of Georgette Heyer.
‘A lady, whose accomplishments hath acquired the esteem of the beau monde, having lately lost a secret friend, is desirous of putting herself under the protection of any person of rank and fortune.’
The biggest clue that the advertiser is, in fact, a high-class courtesan comes in the word ‘protection’. Could she, perhaps, have been the same mistress — now, alas, no longer required — that a ‘gentleman of fortune’ advertised in the Morning Post 11 years later?
Family reasons, he wrote, obliged him ‘to drop a connection which has for some time subsisted between him and an agreeable young lady’. He was willing to ‘give a considerable sum of money with her to any gentleman, or person in genteel business, who has good sense and resolution to despise the censures of the world, and will enter with her into the holy state of matrimony’.
Ads like these only contributed to the perception that personal columns were a hotbed of intrigue.
Jokes at the expense of advertisers became popular. In one case, in 1825, a group of young men from Harrow School inserted an ad — purporting to be from a rich and beautiful lady — that gleaned 50 replies.
They then inserted a second ad, asking for the man who’d answered to be at Drury Lane Theatre on a certain night, then to stand up at the end and apply a monocle to his right eye.
When the time came, 50 men duly stood up. As they caught sight of each other through their monocle, they gradually became aware that they’d all been had.
In 1828, no fewer than 53 respectable ladies replied to an advert from 24-year-old William Corder saying he was in need of a respectable wife to provide him with property and domestic comforts.
In truth, Corder was a small, ferrety man with a stoop who’d recently killed his last partner, Maria. Not by accident, either: he’d shot her in the head, knifed her through the heart and strangled her with her own handkerchief.
Fortunately, Corder never got round to picking up their replies. He was dead himself a few months later — hanged for what became known as the Red Barn murder.
Unusually, though, the letters of the 53 ladies survive. What they show is that the country was swarming with socially and sexually unfulfilled middle-class women, ready to grab the first man available.
The majority of the writers are aged 22 or 23 and genteel women — among them widows, orphans, a teacher and two daughters of tradesmen. The majority replied to Corder out of a desperation to escape an unhappy home life. Of all the letters, none is sadder than the one from a 22-year-old former governess with ‘not the least pretension to beauty’ who was scrabbling a living for herself and an illegitimate daughter through needlework.
Her pregnancy, she explained, was the result of ‘deviation from rectitude, which was occasioned by the too easily listening to the flattery of one whose vows I foolishly believed to be true’.
Women who got pregnant out of wedlock had good reason to scan the lonely hearts ads.
In 1776, an ad appeared in The Public Advertiser from an MP who ‘lives in great splendour, and from whom a considerable estate must pass if he dies without issue.
[He] hath 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 gone in her pregnancy.’
From around 1820, an ever-intensifying focus on family values meant middle-class women stopped placing ads for several decades. Meanwhile, men’s requirements were changing again. With the invention of photography, advertisers started to demand pictures. And for the first time, the idea that shared interests — such as a love of music or reading — might contribute to a marriage was also reflected in their ads.
Now, as they became more specific, it appeared that there was something in the personal columns to suit almost every taste. In 1863, the Shoreditch Observer took this trend further than most with an ad that announced: ‘Marriage. The advertiser wishes to meet with a woman who has but one leg.’
Between 1870 and 1900, 20 weekly or monthly newspapers were launched that were made up entirely of lonely hearts ads. The impetus behind this surge was middle-class women aware that they needed to marry by 25 or risk lifelong spinsterhood.
The fear of this was profound: ‘Lilian, Gladys and Rosalie, daughters of a deceased officer, have good incomes, ages 22, 20 and 18, don’t wish to die old maids. Ride and drive as only Irish ladies can.’
With the outbreak of World War I, there emerged a new phenomenon: the lonely soldier ad — many of which appeared in the Daily Mail.
A typical example was: ‘Lonely young officer, up to his neck in Flanders, would like to correspond with young lady (age 18-20), cheery and good looking.’
And in 1915, one woman placed a heartbreaking ad that read: ‘Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the War.’
The war, moreover, marked a change in how women viewed themselves. No longer hidden away at home, they asserted their right to smoke cigarettes, go to dance halls and wear lipstick. A few also started brazenly advertising for dates rather than marriage.
Demand petered out and the last of the papers dedicated to matrimonial ads ceased publication in 1961. It took another decade for lonely hearts ads to multiply again — in the likes of Private Eye and the New Statesman. But it wasn’t until the advent of the internet that their volume returned to late-19th century levels.
Today, more women place ads than men, youth is less important than it was and both sexes are far more precise about exactly what they desire. But what hasn’t changed, despite the sexual revolution, is that the majority of advertisers are still looking for a serious relationship.
Just as in 1695, lonely hearts ads remain an expression of hope — be it for love, escape, security or marriage. We may express these hopes in a different way, but little has fundamentally changed.
Adapted from Shapely Ankle Preferr’d: A History Of The Lonely Hearts Ad 1695-2010 by Francesca Beauman, published by Chatto & Windus on February 3, price £12.
For an updated report of running a lonley hearts ad click here