Before they went mainstream, personals were a way for same-sex couples to discreetly connect.
Has the Internet really revolutionized dating? Or is hijacking tech for love and sex just what humans do?
* * * * *Hardly a week goes by without another new think piece about online dating either revolutionizing society or completely ruining our ability to have real relationships. But these hyperbolic pronouncements miss a deeper fact:
At its core, “online dating” isn’t something we just started doing 5, 10 or even 20 years ago. Before the Internet, there were personal ads, and before that, lonely shepherds carved detailed works of art into tree bark to communicate their longing for human contact.
Since the earliest days of mass media and technology, people have been finding ways to broadcast their desires and find connections that might have otherwise eluded them. I mean, one could argue that even Voyager 1’s Golden Record is kind of a massive, interstellar personal ad (complete with the recorded sound of a kiss!) out to the universe. It’s as if humanity decided to document all our best features and send them into space with this message:
Lonely humans seek extraterrestrial lifeforms in Milky Way or nearby. Open to all body types.
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1695: The First Personal Ads
According to history professor H.G. Cocks (seriously —The Best Name Ever for an academic) personal ads began as a way to help British bachelors find eligible wives. One of the earliest personals ever placed 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.” (£3,000 is equivalent to roughly £300,000 today. #ShamelesslySeekingSugarMomma…)
1700s: Personal Ads for Homosexual Safety
Personal ads were one of the only ways for the gay and lesbian communities to meet discreetly and safely at this time. Less-Than-Fun fact: homosexuality was outlawed and punishable by death in the UK by wife-murderer Henry VIII and continued to be illegal until 1967. During this time, gathering sites for gay men known as Molly Houses were subject to regular raids by law enforcement. (Meanwhile in the future U.S.A., anyone accused of being a “sodomite” doing “buggery” was also legally sentenced to death as of 1776.) Coded words, female names and other signals in personals were channels to privately expressing vulnerability and find companionship that society forbade…
1920s: Lonely WWI Soldiers Seek Pen Pals
Personal ads went mainstream again in the early 20th century, when social pressures to get married by 21 (and thus, expectations for relationships) were much lower, thankfully than their earlier incarnations. Many of the postings were simply calls for friends or pen pals. These kinds of ads were especially fashionable among lonely soldiers during World War I…
2010 – Today
By 2010, different dating sites existed for virtually every city, sexual orientation, religion, race and almost every hobby, making it easier to find exactly what we’re looking for and harder to stumble on someone who exists outside our pre-defined bubbles of identity.
In 2002, Wired Magazine predicted, “Twenty years from now, the idea that someone looking for love won’t look for it online will be silly, akin to skipping the card catalog to instead wander the stacks because ‘the right books are found only by accident.’”
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