Title/Author: Matrimony, Inc by Francesca Beauman
Publisher: Pegasus Books
In a nutshell (Publisher):
A clever, thoughtful, and funny history that reveals how the Union of states was built on a much more personal union of people.
Have you ever used a dating app or website? Then you have more in common than you know with lonely homesteaders in 18th century New England. At once heartwarming and heartbreaking, Matrimony, Inc. reveals the unifying thread that weaves its way through not just marriage and relationships over the centuries, but American social history itself: advertising for love.
Amazingly, America’s first personal ad appeared in the Boston Evening Post as early as 1759. A “person who flatters himself that he shall not be thought disagreeable” was in search of a “young lady, between the age of eighteen and twenty-three, of a middling stature, brown hair, of good Morals…” As family-arranged marriages fell out of fashion, “Husband Wanted” or “Seeking Wife” ads were soon to be found in every state in the nation.
From the woman in a Wisconsin newspaper who wanted “no brainless dandy or foppish fool” to the man with a glass eye who placed an ad in the New York Times hoping to meet a woman with a glass eye, the many hundreds of personal ads that author Francesca Beauman has uncovered offer an extraordinary glimpse into the history of our hearts’ desires, as well as a unique insight into American life as the frontier was settled and the cities grew. Personal ads played a surprisingly vital role in the West: couple by couple, shy smile by shy smile, letter by letter from a dusty, exhausted miner in California to a bored, frustrated seamstress in Ohio. Get ready for a new perspective on the making of modern America, a hundred words of typesetter’s blurry black ink at a time.
“So anxious are our settlers for wives that they never ask a single lady her age. All they require is teeth,” declared the Dubuque Iowa News in 1838 in a state where men outnumbered women three to one. While the dating pools of 21st century New York, Chicago or San Francisco might not be quite so dentally-fixated, Matrimony Inc. will put idly swiping right on Tinder into fascinating and vividly fresh historical context. What do women look for in a man? What do men look for in a woman? And how has this changed over the past 250 years?
My verdict: An entertaining, funny and fascinating read with some eye-brow raising moments!
‘In the Intelligencer in 1861, there appeared an ad from a gentleman “anxious to retire from ‘bachelor’ ranks” with a very specific idea of what he wanted in a wife: “Weight, between 100 and 135 pounds; height, between five feet and five feet six inches; teeth regular, perfect and genuine, without exception; black hair and eyes preferred, though blue eyes and auburn hair might be acceptable. A good English education is necessary. Wealth is not required, but those possessing it will state the amount. A good supply of temper is very much admired.”’Matrimony, Inc by Francesca Beauman
That was one of the many personal ads featured in this book, Matrimony, Inc by historian Francesca Beauman. Here are other requirements men looked for in their spouses, published in some personal ads in the 1800s: “sweet temper”, “spend little”, and “she shall prefer historical, geographical and biographical reading to light and frivolous novels” (Oh WOW! No comment! LOL).
One in 1834: An ad for “any young, respectable, and intelligent Colored Woman” to marry a white man and able to “endure the insults and reproaches” for marrying a white and another one in 1915 which was quite the opposite, “living man’s widow and colored women keep hands off”.
I was looking for a lighter read, so this book couldn’t have come at a better time. The book was divided into 12 short chapters, each chapter delving into some of the personal ads that appeared across America from the 1700s to the year 2020, simultaneously looking at the economical and political changes that took place in the US throughout the years.
Did you know America’s first personal ad went as far back as 1759, in Boston Evening Post, and 1695 in England? How did personal ads become so popular during those days?
Well, there were many reasons and it changed according to the times and needs. In the beginning when it all started in the 1700s, it was due to reasons such as work demands, restrictions in public spaces on women, and in places such as Philadelphia where there was a population explosion, that made matchmaking almost impossible.
There was also a time, using personal ads, women would openly sought-out men to avoid destitution and prostitution, avoid relying on the generosity of relatives or escape from parental control. For most women, husband equals financial security. The first newspaper in the nation which regularly featured “Husband Wanted” ads was Public Ledger in Philadelphia.
In 1840, a woman who went by the initials ‘“S.J.K” “desirous of changing single blessedness for matrimony,” described herself as “A few years above the teens.”’ The average age for a women to wed during this period was twenty two, ‘“so there is an implicit concern here about ending up a spinster (which was originally a term for a woman who spun yarn (I didn’t know this!), but gradually acquired negative connotations for any unmarried female).’
There was also patriotic reason. In the chapter “His Drooping Spirits: The Civil War, 1861 – 1865”, Beauman wrote about how soldiers also used personal ads, some not for matrimonial reasons but for correspondence, “to spread cheer and remedy homesickness” and “to help relieve the tedium of camp life.” Those looking for matrimony were pretty straightforward in their descriptions. One in Sunday Mercury in 1862 made a plea to “patriotic unmarried ladies” from “a soldier, just returned from the wars. Have lost a leg but expect to get a cork one; have a useless arm, but will be called brave for it; was good-looking, but am now scarred all over.” Awwww… I wonder how many responses he got!
Men in the mining communities found personal ads very useful resources to help them find women who were willing to be part of their hardscrabble lives. You might be surprised, but some women did respond. According to Louise Clappe, who wrote to her sister, “I like this wild and barbarous life,” and that “everybody out to go to the mines, just to see how little it takes to make people comfortable in the world.”
Just like today, there were also people who took advantage of personal ads with sinister or selfish motives. In 1894, a forty-something man named Horace Knapp, who was already married then, married a sixteen-year-old girl, Annie. She was told later via a letter that he married her “get whatever money you had.”
And there was a whole chapter dedicated to a lady by the name of Belle Gunness. My, oh my, evil ran in her blood. People around her or associated to her seemed to disappear or die mysteriously. In 1950, she began to place marriage ads in some Chicago newspapers. It went:
“Comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.”
She reminded me of one of Stephen King’s characters in one of his books. Can’t remember which! Saw it in a movie. Gunness is thought to have killed at least fourteen people, and suspected to be involved in as many as forty murders!
The final chapter was titled ‘Looking for Love in Modern America: 1908 – 2020’, where Beauman showed how methods of advertising for love changed in modern times. As personal ads began “to falter from the 1930s to the 1950s, (mostly “carried only by the Saturday Review and a few pornographic magazines.” (OMG)), the concept of “date” gained popularity. Students started attending colleges, and by 1927, the majority of colleges were coed, and students were able to mingle more freely. There were other means of meeting a mate and therefore less turned to the papers.
Today, with almost everything done with speed and via the internet, we have online dating like Match.com, eHarmony, OkCupid, and of recent, dating apps such as Tinder, who by the summer of 2018 had over 3.7 million paid subscribers. There are also others like Bumble, Hinge and Happn, and ‘when analyzed together, they reveal all sorts of fascinating new information about human mate choice: a man poses for his profile picture with a dog will receive far more matches than anyone else, as will a woman in a yoga pose on a beach.’ (What about a man/woman reading a book????)
It was interesting to see America through the lens of personal ads – from the times of poverty, war, immigration and today. Despite all that, our requirements when searching for THE ONE haven’t changed much. This book did also make me think about ‘The Promise: Love and Loss in Modern Times China’ by Xinran, where I got to take a peek into China during the Mao Revolution through the eyes of the Han family and their quest for love. Then, any form of expression of love was prohibited, and the media was controlled by the government. How different things can be from one country to another!
Thank you Wunderkind PR and Pegasus Books for gifting me this book and bringing it to my attention. This was quite an interesting read! I’d definitely be flipping through some of the amusing ads again, and this time, read them to my husband for some laughs or eyebrow-raising reactions!
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thoughts!