The 300-year History of Internet Dating

Almost everyone these days can name a couple they know that met on the Internet, though it wasn't so long ago that skimming the online personals for love was considered strange, even a bit desperate.

Taboo or not, the practice certainly isn't new. Personal ads have a history going back at least 300 years, according to a new book on the subject entitled "Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column" (Random House Books, 2009).

Internet dating is just the modern version of the first "matrimonial" agencies of the 1700s, which helped lonely bachelors search for wives through printed ads, said author H.G. Cocks, a history lecturer at the University of Nottingham, UK. In between, the social acceptance of personals has waxed and waned with the times.

"Advertising for a husband or wife has always attracted criticism and the people who did it were always thought of as failures in some way. However advertising like this has a long and unbroken history, and was used by many people with some success," Cocks said.

From shameful to bohemian and cool

It only took a few decades after the invention of the modern newspaper in 1690 for the new medium to become a way for people to meet in Britain. Matrimonial agencies were big business there by the early 18th century, printing ads on behalf of men who paid the agency to recruit them a good wife. Being single passed the age of 21 was considered almost shameful in that era, and the ads were often a last resort for the men who advertised and the women who read them. If a match resulted, it is unlikely that you boasted the fact to your friends, Cocks said.

"You probably wouldn't talk about it if you were very respectable," he said. The personals sections of those 18th century newspapers were also useful for gay men and women to meet lovers, back when homosexuality was still illegal (it remained so in the UK until 1967).

Personal ads went mainstream in the early 20th century, with expectations at a much lower level than their earlier incarnations. Many of the postings were simply calls for friends or pen pals, becoming especially popular among single servicemen, called "lonely soldiers," during World War I.

"At that time advertising for pals or for lonely soldiers was fashionable and contemporary — something done by those who were, as they put it in their ads, 'bohemian and unconventional,'" Cocks said.

Personals died away again until the 1960s, when ads became part of the growing counterculture in the UK, along with drug experimentation and the Beatles, the author explains. Like the latter, though, it took some time for the personal ad to be accepted by the Mom-and-Pop public.

"In Britain, the personal column was suspected (much like the Internet is now) of harboring all sorts of scams, perversities and dangerous individuals. At least that is what the police tended to think, and they only stopped prosecuting lonely hearts ads in the late 1960s — until then they often thought that they were mainly placed by prostitutes and gay men," Cocks said.

Dating sites now suit the older single

Personal ads became relatively 'acceptable' by the mid to late 1990s, say experts, helped in no small part by the explosion of Internet use. More and more elements of people's lives, including love, have gone online in the last few years, and self-promotion on the Internet in general is now just a fact of life.

"Short self-descriptions aren't only the preserve of Internet daters, they are also the essence of things like Facebook and other social networking sites," said Cocks.

The difference between the personal ads of the previous centuries and today's is the age of those using Internet dating sites, according to statistics. The core demographic of those publicly "looking for love" has been turned on its head, with people settling down and marrying much later (if at all) in Western cultures. Internet sites tend to favor older singles, many of whom turn to the technology after a divorce or traditional forms of courtship have failed, Cocks said.

"Someone from an Irish radio station asked me whether the essence of all Internet dating ads was 'Loser seeks Winner,'" he said, "but I think those opinions are really those of younger people, [such as] those under 30 who see no need for Internet dating. Or of married people."

Heather Whipps is a freelance writer with an anthropology degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Her history column appears regularly on LiveScience. [History Column archive]