Tinder's New, But the Freakout Isn't: Looking for Love in an 1880s Matrimonial Journal 

In Depth

In December 1886, the city of Toronto saw the launch of a new publication exclusively aimed at helping people get hitched—The Anglo-American Matrimonial Journal. In their first dispatch, the editors were confident there were “many people of both sexes desirous of making suitable matrimonial alliances” in the freezing city: farmers, aristocrats, and other men on the prowl, all waiting to be separated by the paper into Upper, Middle, and Lower class.

The social divisions of the time made things easier, as did the nature of finding love. If the 5’8” teetotaler with limited means advertised in the “Middle Class (Masculine)” section wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it was of little concern to the editors, and to the 5’8 teetotaler himself. He only needed one, if she was the right one. The women’s section, also divided into Upper, Middle, and Lower class, featured romantic prospects ranging from a cheerful 68-year old spinster with an income of $20,000 to a healthy 20-year old, looking to bag herself a farmer.

Making acquaintances this way was “hardly the proper thing to do,” women might say. But there were enough people looking in 1886 to make up a hefty inaugural edition: there were 89 entries in all.

The entire front side of the broadsheet was given over to an advice-from-the-editors section, which advised gentlemen to “go and propose to the most sensible girl you know. If she accepts you, tell her how much your income is, and from what source derived and tell her that you will love her with all your heart.” Swoon-worthy words, indeed. But what if one didn’t know any sensible girls of marriageable age? Well, that’s precisely what the Anglo-American Matrimonial Journal was for, charging a friendly $0.03 a word for an “Upper Class” advertisement or a flat rate of $0.25 for advice.

In the “Upper Class” section, the men advertised themselves as being of the highest quality. They were looking for love in a newspaper because they had been traveling, or otherwise occupied. They weren’t hucksters, or ax-murderers, or—worst of all—new money, looking for prey, but gentlemen by birth. The aristocratic-looking French count with an income of $50,000 a year, looking to take home a wife when he left Canada, might have no other occasion to meet the beautiful 24-year-old with the splendid figure who advertised mere inches from him on the page.

A wife “could retain control of her own money,” one romantic gentleman offered, likely driven by the knowledge that sweet words are of great import when seducing a lover in print. Some, particularly young men of the middle and lower classes, having little income to recommend them, opted for the promise of romance as their strategy. “A sweetheart to love and cherish and make a fuss of,” one man requested. Of course, as suggested by the sections, the monetary angle remained prominent. “A highly educated young lady, must move in first class society and have a suitable dowry or large expectations,” another man asked. “An income of not less than $2500 a year,” said yet another. A true and devoted life companion, a charitable, sympathetic partner; all of that matters, sure. But one sentiment ran through the paper that still continues in transactional matchmaking today: paupers, generally, need not apply.

Matrimonial advertisements were common in mainstream newspapers beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, and they had their critics. “A marriage based on such an acquaintance must almost necessarily be a disastrous venture,” wrote an unnamed columnist in an 1894 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The man who would make a desirable husband, like the woman who would prove a loyal wife is not hunting for a companion for life in the personal columns of newspapers.” The columnist insisted that people should stick to their own social circles, rely on their personal charms and qualities and not open themselves up to the risk of encountering blackmailers and bigamists.

But ventures like the AAMJ were only possible because the traditional ways had failed. Some had been waiting for years to encounter a suitable partner within their social circle, under the conventional conditions. Ordinary life, the editors insisted, was no match for the possibilities for partnership that are available through the Journal. And nor was ordinary life what it had once been. People used to meet their partners through proximity, through family and friends, through introductions furnished by social acquaintances. But as the economy changed and both men and women moved away from their families and into urban centres, the means of introduction were removed without the rules of etiquette changing quickly enough to prevent loneliness for this generation. Class and propriety still ruled, so one couldn’t approach a handsome stranger in the street. Lacking a means for introduction, what was a single girl to do? Newspapers like the AAMJ stepped in to act as the intermediary.

In her 2010 PhD thesis for Rutgers, Pamela Epstein supposes the appearance of matrimonial advertisements coincided with the shift in attitudes about marriage by the middle class. No longer merely an economic transaction, men and women alike began to seek a deeper partnership, even love. People looked for this love within their own small social circles, exhausted their options, and instead of settling for any suitable partner as they might have done in the past, they went to their last available resource. People advertised in the papers for domestic help, for jobs, for places to live, so now they were going to the papers in search of love, too. But even so, the economic concerns of days past had not disappeared, and almost every matrimonial advertisement contains reference to the financial situations of the seeker and the sought. And the promise of romance seems removed when all that is asked is “a useful wife with a little money.”

And was it “good for women”? It doesn’t take a PhD to understand that the powerlessness of women navigating the historic matrimonial sphere has, historically, only increased. To be an active participant in the search for a spouse might empower a woman. The AAMJ called their method “safe and effectual.” Epstein reminds her readers that women at that time did almost always have to marry someone capable of providing lifelong security, and if you had limited options for finding a partner, matrimonial ads could be a valuable tool. When a woman can explicitly state that she is 45, looking for a good man around her age who “must be worth as much as the advertiser,” it’s not unlike a man on Tinder who can advertise for a partner who wants to “Netflix and chill,” making it clear that relationship-seekers need not apply. Matrimonial advertisements were good for women in the same way Tinder is great for men. The tool allows the advertiser to lay all of their cards on the table.

But not everyone agreed. The Georgia Weekly Telegraph, Journal and Messenger had plenty to say (besides their overlong name). They called the women placing these ads gold-diggers, ignoring the long history of marriage as a transaction (also ignoring the reality that ads placed by men, as well as women, usually placed an emphasis on a potential mate’s financial means). When a woman is advertising for a “gentleman of independent means or holding a good position,” she’s not gold-digging, she’s ensuring a potential mate has the ability to support her.

Handwringing about matrimonial ads and their propensity to make marriage transactional ignores the fact that marriage was always transactional, just like handwringing about Tinder and its propensity to remove intimacy from casual sex tends to ignore the fact that the point of casual sex is the removal of emotion. Advertising oneself as “fairly good looking and having an income of $1,500 a year,” was not more transactional than the making of a traditional match, it just put the process on display in a way that made some people uncomfortable. Similar to, say, a guy who sleeps with women without intending to have a relationship; Tinder didn’t invent that. But watching that guy at work on his phone, swiping right, that makes some people uncomfortable.

Where’s the Victorian ideal of love in all this? That the ads were transactional does not mean they could not also be romantic. Good for “Ethel, age 18” who would “like a lover who must be handsome,” for expressing her needs beyond the practical. Good for the “expressman, looking to settle down,” who is looking for a girl to whom to “give his whole heart and love her as she would deserve.” He sounds perfect for Ethel.

So did it work? Where was it all headed? Were Toronto residents to live in a world where marriages were arranged for $0.03 a word (a penny a word for the lower class)? A special notice, at the end of the paper, indicated that there were a large number of private clients who were also available, even if they hadn’t posted their desires in the paper. Management would endeavour (presumably for a higher price) to create a prompt and desirable match for these individuals. Management was looking at further expansion vis-à-vis agents who would work for the paper in the surrounding counties, no doubt testing the veracity of claims about circumstance and comeliness. Business looked to be booming.

And yet the only issue of the AAMJ ever recorded is this one from December 1886. It appears that the paper folded after a single issue. Matrimonial advertisements in newspapers stuck around through the beginning of the twentieth century and the idea of women having to marry to ensure their economic well-being stuck around longer than that. Was the AAMJ the marriage apocalypse? No more than Tinder is the dating apocalypse. The technology isn’t changing human relationships; it’s just showing them for what they really are.

Eva Jurczyk is a writer and librarian living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Fiction Advocate, Publisher’s Weekly and others. Find her @msevav.

Photo via Getty. Screencaps from the Anglo-American Matrimonial Journal.

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