In 1727, a lady named Helen Morrison placed a personal advertisement in the Manchester Weekly Journal. It was possibly the first time a newspaper was ever used for such a purpose. As it happens, Morrison was committed to an asylum for a month. Society was clearly not ready for such an autonomous practice, especially on the part of a woman. But personal ads quickly became an institution. Heinrich von Kleist’s celebrated novella The Marquise of O, first published in 1810 (and said by Kleist to be “based on a true incident”) opens on the newspaper ad placed by “a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-brought-up children,” to the effect “that she had, without knowledge of the cause, come to find herself in a certain situation; that she would like the father of the child she was expecting to disclose his identity to her; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.”
With anonymous ads, the press could serve not only women “in a certain situation” but also newly isolated individuals—the widowed, the divorcees, or those who were simply miserable and lonely within their marriages—in large, expanding, rapidly industrializing cities like Manchester or London. The earliest ads were announcements of an intention to marry, and could be seen as an aid to the necessary pursuit of a socially and economically appropriate partner. But by their very nature, and in spite of their often lofty tone, ads hovered on the edge of respectability because they were public, and could be seen by all and sundry. An ad that ran in the General Advertiser in March 1748 concerned a “lady, genteely dressed,” seen leading “a string of beautiful stone horses through Edmonton, Tottenham, and Newington” (now outer boroughs of London): “This is to acquaint her, that if she is disengaged and inclinable to marry, a gentleman who was on that occasion is desirous of making honorable proposals to her; in which state if he be not so happy as to please, he will readily purchase the whole string for her satisfaction.” We will never know whether the lady in question responded or even saw the ad that concerned her. Perhaps she did and was charmed; perhaps a heady romance ensued. Or perhaps the gentleman found himself condemned to purchasing the stone horses. At any rate, he would hardly have wanted to publicize his placing such an ad, which was, and therefore had best remain, anonymous. One might have “very accomplished manners,” earn a fair annual income, speak three languages, and play instruments—all desirable characteristics in a proper female person of marriageable age—but if one advertised those qualities anonymously, as did one such “young lady” in the pages of the New York Times in 1858, one was opening the door to fantasy, romance, Eros, possibly elopement. One might, in fact, be improper.
Proper or not, however, lonely hearts could now have an outlet, a place in which to dream of a better life, to take a step beyond the strictures of imposed order. To place an ad was to reveal an individual need or hunger for erotic love—the greatest force for disorder when unleashed beyond social boundaries, just as it was a centrifugal force for order when bound by social conventions. It was because of the potential disorder triggered by Eros, fantasy, and emotion—uneasily coexisting with the need to forge family alliances and keep accepted orders tidy—that the business of creating appropriate couples had always been of paramount importance in most societies. Appropriateness involved issues of family, clan, property, territory, region, state, kingdom, or empire; it had nothing to do with the secondary matter of romance. Some degree of intimacy at least was expected, especially since one of the chief goals of consecrated unions was the production of heirs, and love could well arise once the appropriate choice had been made. But in many places and for a long time, romantic love was not a necessary criterion for conjugal happiness.
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