Nympho seeks nuptials

Jonathan Sale looks back on three centuries of romantic ads

A Gentleman about 30 Years of Age, that says he has a Very Good Estate, would willingly Match Himself to some young Gentlewoman that has a fortune of pounds 3000 or thereabouts. And he will make Settlement to Content.

- Matrimonial small ad, 19 July 1695

"Nymphomaniac blonde, short, fat, slut, aged 33, 55-45-55, wishes to marry titled aristocrat," was how Lindi St Claire, alias Miss Whiplash, promoted her charms. "Spike Milligan would like to meet a rich, well-insured widow - intention: murder," was another classic of the lonely-hearts ads in Private Eye. "He got 15 replies," recalls Cecilia Boggis, the magazine's classified ads manager.

Nuptial notices have come a long way in the 300 years since the blunt announcement at the top of this column, in a publication with the far from romantic title of Collection for the Improvement of Husbandry and Trade ("husbandry" as in "careful farming", not as in "husband"). Spinsters reading these lines, and between them, must have wondered about the precise age of the "about-30-year-old" farmer. Readers of small ads have gone on wondering ever since. "People lie," explains Mary Balfour of Drawing Down the Moon, the smart introduction agency at the apposite address of Adam & Eve Mews, Kensington. "If you say you're `young-looking', that means over 45. If you say you're `young at heart', that means over 65."

It is also a matter of what you omit. One large lady received 10 times as many replies to her ads if she left out the fact that she was a size 18.

So spare a thought for the young maidens in 1760 who read the ad by a "young gentleman" claiming to be "tall in Stature [with] a delicate Head of Hair, white Hand, a large Calf, strong Back, broad Shoulders". Let's hope they weren't faced with a dead ringer for the Hunchback of Notre Dame leading a small cow on a rope.

The small ads became big business for magazines of the 1800s such as Matrimonial Journal, Marriage Gazette and - the title said it all - Nuptials. The publishers seem to have accepted even complete no-hopers, to judge by an 1838 call to matrimony from "A Jentleamman near the senter of Gloucestershire" who was looking for "wedlocks with any woman of his eakles [equal?]". A shared interest in remedial spelling would clearly have helped, too.

Yet although gentlemen (not to mention jentleammen) could make charlies of themselves with impunity, there was public outrage in 1727 when a woman was immodest enough to advertise for a husband, as a Miss Helen Morison did in the Manchester Weekly Journal. The poor woman was locked in a lunatic asylum for a month to cool down.

Same-sex ads have only recently been allowed to come out in print. They can be just as soppy as the conventional type: "For weeks I wait for even one reply - does nobody care if I sit and cry?" rhymed one lonely heart in Gay Times.

Yet the real villains of those hanging out their smalls have been straight men - two men in particular. The French mass murderer Henri Landrau was guillotined in 1922 for killing at least 10 women lured by his request for "a widow with a view to matrimony". In 1906, Johann Hoch advertised for "widows without children" and killed six of his 13 wives. (In mitigation, it could be said that left seven he hadn't done away with.)

The lonely hearts club band of 300 years ago didn't know what it was starting. Even more incomprehensible would have been the idea of "voice personals". These ads are recorded, and listened to, over the phone. Ideally they are tied in with a newspaper classified section. You read the ad, you dial the number, and, if the advertiser tickles your fancy, you leave a message.

The next advance in hi-tech mating will have to wait until we all have videophones at home. Respondents to a romantic small-ad will be able to dial up a short video clip to check the truth of expressions such as "young- looking" or, in the case of Miss Whiplash, "55-45-55".

They will also be able to leave not only a spoken response to the ad but also a few seconds of their own smiling faces. Or, in the case of Miss Whiplash, some other portion of their anatomyn

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