Today friendship, even love, can be just one click away and there’s a growing army of couples who met and married thanks to internet dating. From its dubious beginnings four centuries ago the personal column has become big business and an acceptable way of finding that perfect partner.
Dr Harry Cocks, a lecturer in the School of History at The University of Nottingham, has just published a book telling the story of how we finally learned to love the personal ad.
Classified — The Secret History of the Personal Column unearths the hidden history of the modern personal ad and the internet profile — from the ‘lonely soldiers’ of the First World War, to the single typists looking for love in the 1920s, through to the swingers of the 1960s and the social networking sites and chat rooms of the 21st century.
Dr Cocks, whose main interest is in the social and cultural history of Britain since the 18th century, fell for the subject while musing over some long-neglected research. He said: “It struck me that the personal ad has come a long way. Once regarded as a slightly suspect way of finding the ideal partner, even as an admission of personal failure — it now seems to be an everyday fact of life”.
By 2007 the major internet dating sites collectively claimed more than 45 million members in nearly 250 countries — more than 26 million of those were in Britain alone. This doesn’t include the social networking sites of Face book, Bebo and MySpace. It isn’t for everyone but the idea certainly isn’t new.
It all began around the 1690s, about 50 years after the invention of the modern newspaper. By the early 18th century the matrimonial advertising business was booming. The personal column became a vital resource not only for making friends and meeting lovers but also for forging a community when homosexuality was still illegal, when being single past the age of 21 was seen as embarrassingly shameful and when the difficulty of obtaining a divorce could make marriage seem like a terrible constraint.
But if we’ve learned to stop worrying and love the personal ad, when did we overcome our fear and disdain for this eminently practical approach to love and life? And have we really overcome it?
The tone may have changed, the content might have become more blatant, but the message is much the same.
This book not only tells an oblique history of British morals in the 20th century but also plots the long road to respectability taken by the lonely heart.
Dr Cocks is the author of Nameless Offences, a history of Victorian homosexuality and co-editor of The Modern History of Sexuality.