Advertising for Love

Funny, strange, and poignant personal ads from the 19th century.

Pam Epstein

Pam Epstein
June 14
I'm a PhD graduate from Rutgers University, where I wrote my dissertation on the transformation of love and marriage in 19th-century America. I started this blog to share the funny, poignant, interesting, and just plain bizarre personal ads I've been researching for my work.


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OCTOBER 2, 2009 7:50AM

Mail-order bride

Rate: 9 Flag
It's funny; there's another ad from the same day this one is from that is so amusing - I'll post it eventually - that I never even noticed this matrimonial before. But it's interesting, so I thought I'd post it:

Matrimonial. - A gentleman of 35, a resident of California, and possessing a fair income from his business there, desires to marry a warm-hearted and amiable young lady of about 25. She must be presentably good looking, neat, and a good housewife. The subscriber is of a sociable and affectionate disposition, has no bad habits, and is told by his friends that he will make a good husband. The lady must be prepared to go out per steamer of April 11, and may depend that this advertisement is written in honorable sincerity. Address, during the present week, San Francisco, Broadway Post office.

There's something about this man that I like. He seems pragmatic and yet - to put it in 19th century terms - very amiable. I wonder a little about someone who says he wants a woman who can jump on a boat with him by April 11, which is four months after the ad was posted. That's not such a long time these days; back then it was certainly a short courtship, but not unheard of. Still - it's asking quite a lot from a woman to move across country - it's not like she could fly home to visit her family every few months - based on a relationship of only a few months.

It may seem a little sketchy why a man from California is looking for a wife in New York (I was skeptical about the guy in Hungary) but of course at the time there were no women in California. The male-to-female ratio was massively skewed because of the 1849 Gold Rush. At its worst, it was 40-1; that number was somewhat smaller by the time of this ad, but it was still not good. So it makes sense that if a single man from California was out in New York for a few months, he might take that opportunity to find a wife.

Luckily for him, his odds were good because this ad was posted during the Civil War. Since all the men in the East were off at war and dying, a woman might well be tempted to try her luck out West. Callous, but true. In any event, there were "mail-order brides" from East to West (though not in the literal sense of the phrase!); I don't see many ads like this, but there were plenty of efforts to bring women out to California, Oregon, and Washington. Most people have heard of this trend amongst Chinese immigrants, but it was true among white, native-born Americans as well.

In any event, the next two weeks are going to be pretty crazy for me, to say the least. So I will try to continue updating four days a week as I have been - but entries may be a bit shorter and lack the usual vim, vigor, and belly-clutching hilarity that you're used to (or whatever). However, I'll do the best I can!

Having trouble reading the ads? Click one to enlarge!

©2009 Pam Epstein

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I enjoy stepping back over centuries in your ads. Great snapshots.
You had me until I read "Civil War" -- oh, it would have been so much fun if it had been a contemporary ad and you were role-playing ... in your mind, of course!
A front page EP for the weekend! Excellent!
Thanks all - glad you're enjoying the blog!
And shaggylocks - seriously! I love EP!!
And shaggylocks - seriously! I love EP!!
I love these ads! They are such wonderful snapshots into another era of what could be considered "online" or public, dating. If I saw one of these on "" or whatever, I'd be tempted to respond if only to find out what a man like this is like. It takes courage to ask a world of strangers to make a commitment like this!

And it's a sweet thought to see that the need for companionship is universal and perpetual.
"It may seem a little sketchy why a man from California is looking for a wife in New York"

I read this as a local ad placed in a SF newspaper. FYI there is a Broadway in SF - perhaps that caused some confusion. It seemed to me that the couple would travel together by steamer back to the East from SF.
in_awe - no, this ad was in a New York newspaper, so he was definitely looking for a wife there.

devdickens - thanks! I love the continuity as well.
Actually, this happened fairly frequently, with bachelors out West looking for mail-order brides. The male-female imbalance was every bit as skewed as your numbers suggest in a lot of places.
There was even one of Seattle's founding fathers who proposed to bring out a whole boatload of brides from New England, which formed the basis of a TV show "Here Come the Brides" some few decades ago. (One of the reasons that the real-life entrepreneur thought of that, was that so many New England towns had lost so many young men as casualties in the Civil War, leaving an abundance of young women whose only shot at honorable matrimony was as a mail-order bride.)
Sgt. Mom - yes indeed, Asa Mercer was the Seattle entrepreneur. I almost wrote about his exploits in my dissertation, as they were quite amusing, but it got to be too much to do. See my comment about the Civil War above.
I've only read a couple of your blog posts on old marriage ads, and find them fascinating! We either do not know or have forgotten quite a lot about marriage before our present era, and this points an unusual and interesting glimpse into real people's lives in the past.

I am a veteran of personal ads, back in the 90s, when they were indeed just like this -- in newspapers or the back of magazines -- and had to be responded to by letter (or sometimes phone calls). In other words, before the internet totally changed things. So this type of personal ad was in use from at least the mid-19th century (if not earlier) to as late as the mid-1990s! and with surprisingly little change in content or tone (though in the 90s, you wouldn't get someone advertising for "a wife" but just a dating partner and hoping for that elusive "LTR").

I did indeed find men who were looking for a partner but who lived out of town -- sometimes way out of town. Like the gentleman in your sample, they lived in places where there were few women, or few women of their ethnic/religious background so they placed ads in my hometown to locate same. It was awkward to say the least! I can really sympathize with these lonely gals, driven to take rather desperate chances on total strangers -- even marriage! -- because they otherwise faced a lonely life of spinsterhood and childlessness.

To understand that, you need to realize that a single woman in the 19th century was utterly unlike a modern single woman -- she had little chance of any sort of job, and probably ended up living with relatives as a sort of unpaid servant.

Anyways, this is a really interesting and unusual subject, and I'd love it if you eventually wrote a whole book on the subject.
Laurel962 - Thanks - I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. I too hope that one day it will be a book!! I have written a little more extensively about the need for women to marry whomever they could for the exact reasons you mention. See