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The Strange, True History and Evolution of the Personal Ad

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Contrary to popular belief, the personal ad is not yet another invention of the internet. It’s been around for centuries, continuing to evolve with each generation’s needs, desires, and fetishistic frenzies—from the earnest days of ‘matrimony papers’ to today’s user-friendly searches on websites such as Craigslist.

  Shop American!

By the late 18th century, personal ads had become a staple in American newspapers—largely following the established norm of ‘man seeks proper wife’. They had also evolved into their own publication by this point, conveniently called “matrimonial papers”. These periodicals were sent through the mail, containing pages of hopeful brides and grooms with precisely detailed information—including bank account statements. Examples of these “matrimonial papers” include The Wedding Bell and The Correspondent.

After the Civil War, America’s industrial age exploded. The rise of great metropolises and the steady influx of immigrants had contributed to create a more diverse populace; however, it also served to break up families and leave more singles trying to get through their urbanized lives. As such, use of the personal ad had become more than a paean for marriage; it had developed into a means for immigrant families to track each other down in America—i.e., the agony column.

Which isn’t to say that people weren’t looking to hook up with one another’s ‘particulars’:

“A middle-sized Genteel gentleman, supposed to be of the age of twenty-five or thereabouts, of a handsome, cheerful countenance, a widish mouth with very fine teeth, looked like a clergyman and was chiefly in company with a very young officer at Ranelagh on Friday. If the said gentleman is really of the Church of England, and is a single man, and has no objection to an agreeable companion for life of a pious and virtuous disposition, not much turned of thirty, and who is in possession of a very handsome jointure, by directing a line to M.A. at Jack’s Coffee House, may hear of further particulars.”
—December 10, 1868; Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The modern-day personal ad became more widespread in the early 20th century. Marriage was not the end-all be-all of this incarnation of the personal; many advertised simply for ‘friendship’, or ‘pen-pals’. Soldiers fighting overseas during World War I placed many of these ‘pen-pal’ ads, garnering the moniker ‘lonely soldiers’.

Of course, there was still a superfluity of brow-raised opportunism:

“Lady whose car ticket was refused by conductor on S. Meridian car, Friday, June 20 at 7 a.m. wishes to communicate with gentleman who witnessed the refusal. DRexel 5056.
—June 26, 1924; Indianapolis Star


We like to think of the 1950s as a sidereally sexless decade—between Eisenhower, McCarthy, and Beatniks, it was a decade popularly thought of as existing in black-and-white, as if it had taken place sometime between the Big Bang and the Paleolithic Era.

The truth of the matter is that there was a fuck of a lot of fucking going on (see baby boom, the)—and not only were people not getting enough; there weren’t enough ways to get their collective freak on, it seems. This was a golden (in glorious black and white) age for personal ads, when the personals got kinky. Some of them were published clandestinely, in closed-circle swinger’s mags, gay publications, and fetish ‘zines (then known as SM—the ‘BD’ prefix hadn’t been invented yet). But the vast majority of them were placed conveniently out of sight in plain view—fitness magazines, cheesecake magazines—and of course the rise of the nudist mags. These publications, known as ‘contact magazines’, granted an under-the-table popularity to nudism, swinging, homosexuality, and the aforementioned SM (all of which would spike in mainstream popularity in subsequent decades).

Which is just a fancy way of saying that sex had not only infiltrated the suburbs, it had taken root.

And if the ’50s’ take on the personal ad redefined the employ of the personal ad, then the 1960s took it ten steps forward. The snarling, pot-smoking byproduct of the baby boom—the baby boomers themselves—were ready to lead their own sexual revolution—out of the suburbs and out in plain sight—in person, and in print. While the sexual niche market had seen a definitive uptick in the ’50s, the baby boomers made good on the ‘boom’ part of their collective moniker. Counterculture magazines were brimming with ads from nubile young sexual revolutionaries, seeking self-actualization, cheap weed, sex of every conceivable permutation, and, ultimately, penicillin.

  Personal and in the Village

The sexual revolution carried on well into the 1970s, only now super-fueled by nuclear quantities of cocaine and disco. By the middle of the decade, swinging had emerged from the shuttered blinds of the ’50s suburbs and into the mainstream. Swingers clubs were popping up across the country with greater frequency than, well, herpes (though it was a close race). Pulling the swingers’ scene out into the middle of the road created a partner-chasm—and the now-augustine personal ad was there to catch the runoff.

The venerable New York City publication Village Voice led the way, becoming somewhat infamous for its ‘freewheeling sexual revelations’. Oddly enough, this was something of a radical about-face—the Voice, in its earlier years was known for having a decidedly anti-sex, anti-gay bent, going so far as to refer to the Stonewall Riots of ’69 as “The Great Faggot Rebellion”. But, you know what they say—money talks and sexual experimentation walks—and the Voice’s personals section—particularly its Anything Goes department—raked in more cash than a porn-Hydra comprised of Al Goldstein and Bob Guccione. Granted, it’s still debated to this day as to just what percentage of those ads were fabricated by some combination of drugs, liquor, and deadline-pressed interns—but in the end, it didn’t really matter: the Voice’s personals were just as big an attraction as the magazine’s actual articles.

And then came the 1980s.

  The Keystroke is Mightier than the Pen and the Sword

Back to debunking popularly-held belief: the internet was not created by a voodoo couplet of Al Gore and Steve Jobs pouring holy water and invoking Lovecraftian incantations unto a stack of moldy Robert Heinlein novels. Yet still the internet was born—and yea, nerds everywhere rejoice—even if they hadn’t yet realized its awesome carnal potentiality.

The first indication of this cybersexual revolution came in 1982, when the internet’s first online personals match is made via CompuServe between Chris Dunn and Pam Jensen—who are still happily married to this day. At the time, it was a trivial occurrence—the sort of thing that made the back pages of Parade magazine. No one (except maybe then-Senator Gore) had any idea what lay ahead.

And after a few more years of voodoo economics, VHS pornography (ask your parents; we’re not making this up), and cock-rock, the 1990s came—and boy, did they come. The internet went from being an inert blurb in the nerd-read periodicals; it exploded into a full-blown phenomenon. Services like America Online made the internet widely accessible—now it was really possible to reach out and touch someone.

It was during this online upsurge, ruefully known today as the ‘dot com boom’, that the personal ad once again reconstituted itself from a back-page curiosity to a surefire business model. The first wave alone brought us,, Spring in tandem with sites such as,, and others), all the way up to the big kahuna of them all—eHarmony.

Thus a new sexual revolution had metastasized itself—and this revolution was not televised: it was streamed live, cam-to-cam. The personal ad led the way, as seemingly everyone (regardless of relationship status) found themselves looking for something new. The fetish scene exploded exponentially, with the ‘BD’ finally annexed onto ‘SM’ for good—and enough BDSM-themed personals websites to populate a hundred thousand arks.

  Web Two-Point-Oh!

If the ’90s came with a belligerently begurgled ‘yeaaaahhhh’, then the Aughts came with perhaps not a more refined sense of sexuality, but certainly a more broadly-defined and user-friendly interface. Yes, we’re talking about Web 2.0, hatched simultaneously as both marketing slogan and can-do philosophy. Well, maybe not can do—more like am doing, and here’s the jpeg, custom t-shirt, mp3, blog entry and Twitter-tweet to prove it. Web 2.0 has given new attitude to the business of conducting one’s sexual and/or romantic affairs online—practical, economical (re: largely free, so long as you don’t mind the corporate-sponsored ads), and the DIY-inspired permutation to the personal ad.

Craigslist, a start-up out of San Francisco, began in 1995 as a simple e-mail servlist—by the mid-Aughts, it had infiltrated nearly every mid-to-major-sized city in the U.S. and beyond, offering everything from a place to dump your old couch to a means of posting/groveling for sex.

But Craigslist is just the tip of the iceberg. Part of the allure of Web 2.0 is the rate at which information can be entered and absorbed. The traditional personal ad was an art form of abbreviation—just how much of your être could you squeeze into that half-inch diameter? Now, one no longer has to abridge or annotate one’s goals, dreams, sexual curiosa, or round-the-clock navel-gazing—one just puts it on Facebook, or updates their Twitter stream.

The concept of the personal ad, when mashed-up against the auto-tuner of Web 2.0, is all about sex and love on the go—fucked in 60 seconds.



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