Finding that special someone has always been difficult. So difficult, in fact, that individuals frequently resort to creative means to help them secure a future husband or wife.
In the 19th century, many brave souls placed independent advertisements in local newspapers at the potential detriment of their social standing. Often these suitors would be over the respectable marriage age, widows, or individuals looking for a wealthy partner who possessed a peculiar set of characteristics. Young people often sought to meet members of the opposite sex without parental interference.
In his article “The cost of marriage and the matrimonial agency in late Victorian Britain,” Harry Cocks writes that these postings became so popular that matchmaking turned into a profitable industry. Following a trend in Victorian England, matrimonial agencies appeared in the United States. They were typically concentrated in urban centers, with fewer located in rural areas where probable matches were highly visible. Cocks states, the matrimonial agency was frequently seen as the “antidote to middle-class formality,” because the actors were independent instead of being instruments of their families or future husbands. However, traditionalists believed the practice was a disgrace to the institution of marriage.
Individuals frequently felt some shame at their unmarried status, and they feared further disgrace if others learned that they had turned to a matrimonial agency. Consequently, the businesses marketed themselves as being discrete in collecting correspondence from hopeful men and women and relaying them to prospective matches. They allowed women a certain degree of relative respectability and safety, something that was increasingly difficult in the modern city.
Although many of these agencies had their own publications with hundreds of ads, they also posted personal ads in local newspapers on behalf of their clients such as the one mentioned in an 1880 issue of the Charlotte Democrat.
There were frequently unsatisfied customers and tales of jilted respondents. The statistics reported in matrimonial advertisements were unverified, self-reported, and frequently overblown. The success of these businesses relied on people believing the false claim that “a man who advertises extensively must be wealthy, and whatever appears in print must be true.”
North Carolina newspaper editors and publishers discovered that horror stories about matrimonial agencies made good copy. The papers were filled with horror stories from those clients who they claimed had been duped. This article from an 1857 issue of the Western Democrat provides some commonly held ideas about the “transactions” conducted within matrimonial agencies, stating, “the grossest deception is…frequently practiced, and the principle of the whole business is undoubtedly, essentially corrupt.”Others compared matrimonial agencies to bogus loan offices financed by “the fees of the foolish.”
Many papers called for the abolition of such services, and published articles like this one from The Henderson Gold Leaf claiming that these agencies prayed on the weak, naive and desperate.
This 1906 article from the Semi-Weekly Messenger tells a familiar horror story of a fraudulent matrimonial agency. The agency’s beautiful widow with a $100,000 sugar plantation (roughly $2 million today) was searching for a husband. According to the article countless eager bachelors paid the $5.00 fee to secure an introduction with the woman who didn’t exist.
Although dishonesty was prevalent, there were surely some success stories, right?