Desperately Seeking Someone: The Classified Ad in Scotland 1860-1940

In 2013 there are a multitude of platforms through which Scottish men and women can seek romantic possibilities. The internet is awash with dating agencies which aim to find your perfect mate for the price of a monthly subscription. These social tools allow us to search for potential matches based on a vast assortment of preferences, from preferred height and weight to hair colour, outside interests and occupations. We can interact socially through social media tools such as Twitter or Facebook and keep in constant contact with friends, lovers and family through email, Skype and instant messaging. The world has never been smaller.

This does make us wonder just how men and women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought romance and the perfect mate and, indeed, what they looked for in a perfect mate. Traditional patterns of courtship faced challenges by the end of the 19th century and fears existed that the rapid changes that had occurred during the period had impacted negatively on those traditional patterns of courtship. As Harry Cocks has detailed, modern workers were finding more of their time occupied by regulated hours of work, and displacement in the nation’s larger towns and cities meant that traditional communities and their ties were being broken. Indeed, the urban environment also provided further threats to the morality of the young urban worker (prostitution, drugs, drink) and therefore any attempt to ensure proper patterns of courtship were maintained, although updated, were cautiously welcomed. [1]

It was during this period that we see the emergence of personal advertisements in the Scottish printed media, which were initially focussed on matrimonial matters.  More and more column inches in national newspapers were being given over to lonely lads and lassies searching for romantic companionship. Whereas in England there appears to have been a plethora of publications catering for lonely men and women seeking companionship and romance were such options available to Scots lads and lassies?

A small number of Scottish newspapers began to permit ‘matrimonial ads’ in the mid to late 19th century. The Scotsman newspaper was one such publication. A search of this newspaper demonstrates that by the late 19th century matrimonial ads were becoming commonplace, but what sort of men and women were seeking partners via this system?

A typical early matrimonial advertisement (1863) was brief and to the point:

Classified Ad 21 Nov 1863


The inclusion of a specific income seems a rather curious decision, but appears to have been relatively common during this period.  After all, a genteel lady of modest means would require assurance that any potential suitor would be able to support them both. Whereas the majority of personal ads during this period were pretty precise and perfunctory, some were written with humour and the slightest hint of euphemism (1868).



What is notable about this ad is that matrimony is not mentioned and ‘mutual condolence’ and ‘comfort’ might be mistaken for something a bit saucier. The personal ad appears to have offered other possibilities outside of mere romantic attachments. Some men used these as an opportunity to attract not only matrimony but much needed financial investment. These adverts from 1909, 1868 & 1937 are pretty straight to the point:







Undoubtedly, some of these adverts were genuine, if ill advised, but by the late 19th century there had been a number of criminal cases related to hoax matrimonial advertisements. In other cases hopeful men in receipt of responses from supposedly eligible females arrived at the pre-arranged meeting point to find themselves pelted with eggs and flour by groups of mischievous rascals.



While some adverts flirted with criminality and bad taste others hinted at clandestine meetings (1867-1869).


Classified dearestjack









There is, of course, no way of finding out who these advertisers were and why they had resorted to communicating via anonymous advertisements, but as Cocks had demonstrated the personal ad appealed to a wide variety of men and women who required anonymity. What is apparent is that many continued their discussions through the medium of the newspaper. Some resorted to extreme measures to ensure that their conversations remained secret and anonymous (1867).





While it is difficult to tell if these 19th-century ads related to same-sex desire, other contemporary conventions were challenged through the personal ad. Cross-class liaisons would undoubtedly have been frowned upon but some advertisers were quite specific in the type of romantic partner they required (1896):




Perhaps the spinster’s desire for a tradesman partner had a very practical basis.  As we can see, financial and economic considerations were  given a high priority in these adverts.

The perils of the personal ad were not limited to devious men (and women) seeking to line their pockets through promises of romance. The possibility of rejection also loomed large; perhaps related to disappointment on meeting that fair-haired, handsome bachelor, who didn’t quite meet expectation, as this ‘Judy’ cartoon suggests.



There could also be be tears (1896, 1868). And bitterness (1868).











Not only had this gent’s efforts to communicate with the lady from Torquay been seemingly fruitless, she had failed to return his photograph!

We’ve all seen those sections in free newspapers where you might have been spotted by an interested party on the number 4 bus, but who was too shy or too slow to make contact. Apparently, the very same happened in Edinburgh in the late 19th century:





While the majority of personal ads seemed to relate to the desire to meet that special someone, others were cryptic and their true meanings will forever be lost:





What these examples from the 19th- and early 20th-century Scottish newspapers demonstrate is the resourcefulness of Scottish men and women in their efforts to find that special someone with whom to begin a romantic liaison. They also offer us examples of the flexibility of the classifieds in that they often used for purposes that we can only speculate upon; clandestine meetings, secret liaisons, petty criminality and so on. There are also hints of transgressive behaviour, and suggestions of public flirtations enacted under a cloak of anonymity. Perhaps we have become less flexible, less resourceful with all the technological platforms at our disposal.  You may never look at those sepia-toned photographs of your great, great grandparents in the same way again.

[1] H. G. Cocks, Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column (London; Random House, 2009)