Victorian England’s “Dating Apps”

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Dating apps are an increasingly common place to start for people looking for long-term, committed relationships. Yet some couples are reluctant to acknowledge that this is how they met, due to the lingering stigma. As literary scholar Jennifer Phegley writes, couples from Victorian England might have faced a similar problem.

“Marriage ads became very popular and the women who dared to use them were themselves considered crazy,” writes Phegley.

At the start of the Victorian era, in 1837, marital arrangements based on negotiation between parents were blurring. Instead, courtship advice books increasingly promoted marriages based on love and mutual affection. But the freedom to choose a spouse was also a burden for young people. Popular culture has warned that a bad decision can ruin a life. And there was no guarantee of finding a good potential partner at the local pub or church.

Marriage ads promised an effective way to find matches in terms of both personal and economic compatibility. Phegley writes that the ads emerged from the “Notices to Correspondents” sections of family magazines, such as the London Journal, in which people new to city life wrote to ask questions about navigating the city environment in a practical and social way. From 1850 these began to include letters from readers looking for spouses. They quickly gained popularity. When a publisher removed them in 1857, his magazine’s circulation plummeted and he was forced to resign.

Both men and women wrote, often with frank financial and personal disclosures. In an 1866 issue that Phegley quotes, “Pollie H.” writes that she “doesn’t think she is very pretty; but she has £ 300 a year ”and hopes to find a“ reasonable and good-natured husband ”who“ likes to laugh and have fun ”.

According to Phegley, the ads offered women like Pollie a chance to take the lead in the courtship.

Not everyone approved. The magazine Bow Bells advocated working-class and lower-middle-class courtship rituals that were modeled on upper-middle-class standards. In 1856, the editors of the magazine wrote that they would never publish marriage announcements, which they judged “useless with regard to pure and well-disposed people and can only be useful to men of dissolute character”.

However, in its ladies’ pages, Bow Bells recognized that dishonesty could also be an issue in traditional courtship rituals. Both men and women can be wrong about their financial situation, and women can use makeup or corsets to deceptively alter their appearance.

Some members of the upper classes also apparently found the socially acceptable forms of courtship unsatisfactory, as marriage advertisements spread up the status ladder. Better-off singles generally did not put out advertisements in the London Journal, but between the 1870s and 1890s a number of publications appeared specifically dedicated to marriage announcements for this readership – the Marriage news, the Marriage post, etc.

“What seemed to many a form of courtship was a harbinger of what was to come at the dawn of the new century, when women became equal partners in courtship and marriage as well as in life.” , writes Phegley.


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By: JENNIFER PHEGLEY

Victorian Review, Vol. 39, n ° 2, SPECIAL ISSUE: ENLARGING FAMILIES (Fall 2013), pp. 129-146

Johns Hopkins University Press

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