Matrimony, Inc.

From Personal Ads to Swiping Right: A Story of America Looking for Love

A clever, thoughtful, and funny history that reveals how our the Union of states was built on a much more personal union of people.

What could the relationships of homesteaders in 19th century New England possible have in common with the iphones and millennials today?  At once heartbreaking and heartwarming, Matrimony Inc. reveals the common thread that wends its way through not just marriages and relationships throughout the centuries, but American social history itself: personal ads.

Often dismissed as the realm of desperate lonelyhearts or worse, advertising for relationships, whether for pure love and companionship or the more practical societal elements of marriage, played a surprisingly vital role in early American society. Today, dating apps are essentially technologically evolved personal ads that allow people to match with potential partners even more rapidly and (hopefully) successfully thanks to sophisticated alogirthms. 

And yet, online profiles, like the print ads before them, remain puzzles to be solved.  Decades ago, you would find "Man who likes pasta seeks woman who likes sauce.” What intimate mysteries are held within such a line? 

As early as 1722, marriage ads were popping up in colonial American papers.  Matchmakers and family-arranged marriages were falling out of fashion, and soon "Husband Wanted" or "Seeking Wife" ads would appear from Washington to Wyoming, Kansas to California. 

These ads provided a vital service, particularly for white settlers on the American frontier. The homestead land policies encouraged marriage by making it hugely financially worthwhile. “So anxious are our settlers for wives that they never ask a single lady her age. All they require is teeth,” declared a correspondent for the Dubuque Iowa News in 1838 in a state where men outnumbered women three to one.

Though the dating pools of New York or San Francisco might not be dentally-fixated, Matrimony Inc. will put idly swiping through Tinder into fascinating and vividly fresh historical context.

Francesca Beauman graduated from Cambridge University with a First-Class degree in History. She is the author of five books, including Shapely Ankle Preferr'd and Pineapple: The King of Fruits. She divides her time between London and southern California.