Francesca Beauman – Shapely Ankle Preferr’d

At Random Reads, we’re unabashed romantics and love the Valentine’s Day. Here, to get you in the mood for love, is a selection from Shapely Ankle Preferr’d, a history of the unforgettable lonely hearts ads…

Nine Days Wonder and Laughter

THE GOLDEN FLEECE pub in the heart of the City of London was an unlikely place for romance to blossom. Standing on the corner of Gracechurch Street and Eastcheap Street, it was a dirty, smoky, disreputable establishment, the scene of fist-fights more often than love trysts. Yet it was here, on 19 July 1695, that the world’s first Lonely Hearts ad (at least, the first of which there is still evidence) was published. On page three of one of the many weekly pamphlets for sale on the streets of the capital, surrounded by advertisements for a cobbler’s apprentice, an Arabian stallion and a second-hand bed, was this brave plea:

A Gentleman about 30 Years of Age, that says he had a Very Good Estate, would willingly Match himself to some Good Young Gentlewoman that has a Fortune of 3000l. or thereabouts, and he will make Settlement to Content.

A few lines further down, a second bachelor in search of a wife revealed himself:

A Young Man about 25 Years of Age, in a very good Trade, and whose Father will make him worth 1000l. would willingly embrace a suitable Match. He has been brought up a Dissenter, with his Parents, and is a sober Man.

Brief and to the point as these ads were, they were still enough to cause the streets of London to echo with excited chatter all the way through the long, hot, smelly summer months.

Who were these young men? It is possible to catch a glimpse of them at least. The first offers the rather vague boast that he has ‘a Very Good Estate’, and is aged about thirty. Since the average age at which men got married in this period was twenty-seven and a half, he was just at the stage when his parents would be beginning to pester him about settling down. His criteria in a prospective wife are that she should be ‘good’, ‘young’ and rich. The second advertiser has been raised as a Dissenter (that is, Protestant, but outside the Church of England), and a sober one at that. He also claims that he is due to inherit the by-no-means-shabby sum of £1,000, the equivalent of about £100,000 in today’s money.

These ads encapsulate a central tenet of human mate choice: men want a partner who is young. Next most important on the list are looks, domestic prowess and resources, or ‘Comeliness, Prudence and 5 or 600l. in Money, Land or Joynture . . .’ as an ad in the same publication the following month phrased it. These criteria occur again and again, not only throughout the history of Lonely Hearts ads, but throughout the history of human courtship generally, according to contemporary studies of the subject.

Many no doubt bought a copy of the pamphlet solely for the voyeuristic pleasure of trying to work out the identity of the would-be suitors. Was it a friend? A neighbour? Were they in earnest? While some might have pretended to be shocked by the innovation, others probably secretly thought that advertising for a wife was rather a clever idea. The publisher of the pamphlet in which the ads appeared, A Collection for Improvement of Husbandry and Trade, was a popular local figure named John Houghton. After graduating from Cambridge, Houghton had set himself up as an apothecary and also as dealer in tea, coffee and chocolate. He is better remembered, however, for being one of the first people to appreciate the possibilities of the advertising game, and hence the first to make proper money out of it. The pages of his Collection advertised all kinds of merchandise; so why not men and women? It was not really such a leap. With all the ads composed in the third person, Houghton, as editor, ensured that he positioned himself as the instigator. Furthermore, following the lapsing of the Licensing Act eight weeks earlier, which in effect established a free press, he no longer had the censor to fear in his decisions over what to print.

By commercialising matchmaking, Houghton brought marriage into line with situations vacant, rooms to rent, the arrival of a consignment of tea from the Indies – it was the provision of just another service that urban dwellers (and Londoners especially) needed. Even so, in a note next to the Lonely Hearts ads, he felt the need to assert that they were ‘honourable’ in every respect, as well as to reassure potential suitors that ‘no body shall know any thing of the matter, but where I shall reasonably believe they are in good earnest’. So unconventional was this method of finding a mate that the stigma that accompanied it was inevitable, and secrecy a top priority. It was the price Houghton paid for publicly positioning himself as the creator of the Lonely Hearts industry.

Houghton was keenly aware of the ads’ novelty value: ‘When it shall appear that I am Candid, and no[t] otherwise concerned than in bringing two Elderly Persons to a Treaty; and the Nine Days Wonder and Laughter (usually attending new things) are over . . . then ’tis probable such Advertisements may prove useful.’ From the start, then, Lonely Hearts ads were a source of entertainment, with many reading them simply to laugh at them. Indeed, the hope that they might boost sales was probably one reason for publishing them in the first place, and the reason they were set in a much larger, bolder font than the other ‘Accounts of News from the little World’ that surrounded them. Houghton, a shrewd businessman, doubtless had an instinct that they were a sure-fire way to attract readers; he may even have made up the ads himself with this very aim in mind, even though the following fortnight, when the ads appeared once more, he rebuffed the suggestion – ‘These Proposals for Matches are real,’ he protested.

Extracted from Chapter One of SHAPELY ANKLE PREFERR’D: A History of the Lonely Hearts Ad 1695 – 2010, by Francesca Beauman. Published by Chatto & Windus on 3rd February 2011. Copyright © Francesca Beauman 2011.

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