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The secret history of the personal ad

Cover illustration from HG Cocks's Classified

Love and marriage may have changed over the past 100 years, but has the way we find it?

Changes to our habits, proclivities and the law have been mirrored in the personal, or classified ad - an enduringly popular way to find romance.

A new book, Classified, charts the history from the 'lonely' soldiers of the First World War, looking for lady friends to send them food packages, to young middle class women looking for love in the 1920s, through to the swingers of the 1960s and the social networking sites of today.

Author HG Cocks unearths the hidden stories of the advertisers and their correspondents.


Advertisement for Phyllis Monkman from Pearson's Weekly, 1916
Actress Phyllis Monkman came up with a plan to cheer the troops

During World War I, a series of papers sought to comfort the thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting across Europe and the Empire - and fuelled a boom in the so-called 'lonely soldier' correspondence.

Packages, gifts and letters were sent in enormous numbers to the troops and by the end of 1914, these men were also advertising in the press for correspondents and perhaps more. Lonely soldiers were an almost unending source of pen-pals and potential husbands.

However when the War Office realised that hundreds of thousands of letters were being exchanged between complete strangers and military personnel, it was seen as a threat to national security - let alone stretching the resources of the Army postal system.

Lonely young officer, up to his neck in Flanders mud, would like to correspond with young lady (age 18-20), cheery and good looking

T.P.'s Weekly, 12 February 1916

The War Office cautioned that "the greatest care must be taken to avoid giving information of military value" and "playing into the hands of the enemy spy system".

In the summer of 1916, Pearson's Weekly ran a competition in which the prize was a series of dates with actress and pin-up Phyllis Monkman, who claimed to be looking for her ideal man, perhaps even a husband.

First, applicants had to fill in a form describing themselves. Then the actress would pick 50 to correspond with, of whom six would be chosen for a personal introduction. Then Miss Monkman would select the man closest to her ideal.

What are you saying?
WLTM Would Like To Meet
LDR Long Distance Relationship
GSOH Good Sense of Humour
WAA Will Answer All

Thousands of competition entries poured in and Miss Monkman replied to them in her weekly column.

However the military authorities ended the competition before she was able to find her ideal. That same summer of 1916, four papers were warned off publishing lonely soldier ads or running similar competitions.


Classified ads from the early days of Time Out

By the late 1960s the classified listings in underground news sheets like Alternative London and Time Out (then a poster-sized ad sheet) were promising sources of personal freedom and access to the counterculture of the time.

The small ads also continued to play a key role in the formation of the gay scene. Since 1921, the police had clamped down on any publication suspected of carrying ads for prostitutes or homosexuals.

By 1967, male homosexuality between consenting adults had been legalised but advertising for same-sex partners still carried some danger, as the editors of Exit and Way Out magazines discovered in 1968, when police decided their publications were obscene.

They and their advertisers were eventually found guilty of conspiring to corrupt public morals.

Torbay area. Sincere couple 38/28 interested in absolutely everything erotic wish to meet others similar for anything goes - hurry we are so bored down here
Personal ad from Correspondent, 1969

By 1971, Time Out had assumed its familiar magazine format and began to print a few lonely hearts ads where swingers, hippies and alternative types all rubbed shoulders.

And it was not long before underground classifieds and lonely hearts, both gay and straight, became commonplace in mainstream journalism.

Today the proliferation of online dating sites has brought speed and immediacy to the world of the lonely hearts, and gone some way to transform our social and romantic lives.

HG Cocks notes that while the early users of the personal column often hid behind elaborate codes, ("artistic", "musical" and "unconventional" all acted as indications of homosexual interest during the Edwardian period), today self-revelation seems to be key.

Classified is published by Random House Books

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