Must Be Worth One-Quarter of a Million

19th Century Personal Ad

If, like me, you’re sick of dating sites, or of reading about dating sites, or of hearing about your friends’ endless disastrous dating stories, here’s a refreshing change: some matchmaking stories of old.

I went to watch the very original Replytopobox49 at Battersea Mess and Music Hall last weekend. It’s a temporary exhibition-come-performance charting the history of the lonely hearts ad.

Not quite sit-down theatre, but not nearly as formal as a walk-around exhibition with boring, wordy information boards, guests are guided around intertwining rooms, each representing different eras, by actors in period costumes acting various love scenes, and with a fair bit of participation encouraged, too. Don’t get in the way of the aggressive ad salesman pitching for his lucrative lonely hearts column! Then there was the forlorn poet offering to pen your personal ad for you, and the café owner collecting all the written replies to a paper’s adverts from a deposit box.

The performance guided the audience through the first-ever personals ad of 1695, to the onset of UK internet dating in 1995, to the diversity of niche Internet dating sites today.

If it weren’t for a 17th century pamphlet editor called John Houghton thinking that perhaps love could be as profitable a commodity as anything else, we may not have the normalised attitude to online dating as we do today. Launching the first service for personals ads, he assured his readers “tis probable such advertisements may prove very useful” and promised that their anonymity would be protected.

The first person to take up Houghton’s offer was a “Gentleman about 30 years of age” who was seeking “some good Gentlewoman that has a fortune of 3000L or thereabout”. That’s more than £250,000 in today’s terms!

This particularly made me smile – the man dictating the wealth of his female partner. Who says the financially independent woman is a modern phenomenon of today? Judging by this young gentleman’s pickiness (and perhaps unrealistic expectations) and comparing that to the profiles on Internet dating websites today, it would seem that financially supportive men are in more demand today than they were in 1695.

For my book, Sugar Daddy Diaries, I spent three years on so-called sugar daddy dating sites. The (ahem) daddy of them all, sugardaddie.com, which aims to match affluent men with classy and desirable women, works on exactly this model. There’s even a drop down box for members to specify their net worth and annual income. I’m sure if today’s database technology was available to that pamphlet editor in 1965, he would be offering his lonely hearts advertisers the same tools as sugardaddie.com does to allow its members to demonstrate their wealth.

Matchmaking services of the 17th century were much more sugardaddie.com than match.com. As the exhibition showed, three hundred years ago, those looking for love placed success, wealth and looks top of their wish list in a potential suitor. Plus ça change! It’s just that we’re not allowed to admit we’re looking for these qualities today. A GSOH is supposed to be important now.

There were wonderful vignettes showing adverts, profiles and dating faux pas of old and new. There was the formidable singleton in 1787 who insisted that their date “must never drink more than two bottles of claret, or one of port, at a sitting” and the more recent American mother who started the site “Date My Single Kid” for her no-doubt horrified 31-year-old son.

The producers of the event, Screen Deep and Curious Dave, hopefully have lots more part-theatre-part-exhibitions up their sleeve. Curious Dave is so-named because it aims to cover topics which you might end up discussing in the pub (with someone no doubt called Dave, or perhaps with a daring date called Dave?!).