Old Classified & Personal Ads Reveal Our Ancestors’ Love Lives

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega shows a surprising source of family history information: marriage ads placed by our ancestors in their local newspapers. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

Are you married? Dating your partner for years? How did you meet your lover? That’s a question most people ask of couples who’ve been together a long time. Some couples meet through work, school or friends, others may take a perceived modern route. In today’s world there are all kinds of ways to meet a prospective mate; some are more traditional and others are truly a sign of the times – like online dating.

It might surprise you to know that those looking for love have always found answers in the newspaper. While today you may go to an online forum such as Craig’s List to scan the personals, advertising for a partner is not a new idea; our 19th and 20th century ancestors used the Personals in their local newspapers to facilitate long-term love matches.

a personal ad containing a love poem, San Jose Mercury News newspaper advertisement 4 September 1915
San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 4 September 1915, page 10

Marry for Money or Love?

It’s that age-old marriage question: Do you marry for love or money? While passionate arguments could ensue over the benefits of either marital choice, the newspaper classifieds of yesteryear make it fairly clear which was more often preferred.

This old newspaper advertisement in the Business Personals section of an Ohio newspaper initially seems out of place and sounds, appropriately, more like a business proposition. Interestingly enough the gentleman placing the advertisement is casting a fairly large net looking for his love connections, advertising in Ohio when he’s living in New York.

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personal ad from D. Rengaw, Plain Dealer newspaper article 4 July 1911
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 July 1911, page 14

Scrolling down the same page, we find another personal ad from a businessman who is interested in a marriage partner “with some money.”

personal ad from Frank Felman, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 4 July 1911
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 July 1911, page 14

In some cases, a dowry may have been what was required to meet with some potential suitors. At times, advertisers for potential marriage partners laid all their proverbial cards on the table, stating their assets and asking for specific goods (money, a home, etc.) that the potential bride had to bring in return. What may appear as a desirable commodity – a successful business man or farmer who owned his farm or home – meant requesting that the woman have cash to add to the assets, such as in this advertisement request from a Pennsylvania newspaper.

personal ad, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper advertisement 8 April 1900
Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 8 April 1900, page 10

Situations Wanted

Sometimes I read the classifieds and wonder if the advertisements are a thinly disguised effort to secure a job and a marriage partner. Consider these old want ads found in a California newspaper. In the first advertisement a “refined lady” is looking for a housekeeping job with an older gentleman or an invalid. Another advertisement is placed by a mother who wants a housekeeping job working with men. Not sure who could turn down such a request that ends with the words “work cheap.”

personal ad, San Jose Mercury News newspaper advertisement 4 September 1915
San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 4 September 1915, page 10
personal ad, San Jose Mercury News newspaper advertisement 4 September 1915
San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 4 September 1915, page 10

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Individuals were not the only ones placing these advertisements; sometimes a love matchmaking service was trying to attract clients. Consider this example that promises “…lovely women and honorable men. Many rich.” For a small investment of only 2 cents (about 58 cents in today’s money), you could obtain a “big list” of names. I’m sure having a large catalog of potential mates would sound potentially promising.

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ad from a matchmaking service, Omaha World Herald newspaper advertisement 14 January 1900
Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 14 January 1900, page 10

Love in the Wild West

Requests for partners started popping up in newspaper advertisements as more single men traveled west looking for adventure or to try their hand at homesteading, and women found they were widowed or unable to find a mate after the Civil War. By 1898, the federal government even got in the act by publishing a chart showing where eligible men and women could be found. This demographic information was printed in the newspaper for those readers curious about which state likely held a potential marriage partner.

In this personal ad, a woman is seeking her love out west. I like how she encourages both rich and poor to write, but makes it clear that she is not wealthy.

personal ad, Omaha World Herald newspaper advertisement 14 January 1900
Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 14 January 1900, page 10

Need a Spouse? Try Advertising in the Newspaper!

Using online dating services may seem like a new idea – but even our ancestors used the technology of the day looking for someone to love. Not all men married the girl next door, and while traditional opportunities to meet someone outside of your community may have been limited, there were alternative love-seeking options including placing an ad in the newspaper. As you research your family tree and wonder where your great-great grandparents met, don’t neglect to search the newspaper for a possible answer.

Genealogy Tip: Remember that when searching for your ancestors in newspaper ads, try variations of their name including just their initials and surname. Advertisements may have required payment per word – as well as each time they ran – so they needed to be brief and to the point.

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