Personals with Personality

Our fabulous collection intern Joanna Hoover has been going through our Civil-War-era newspapers and creating summaries, to be used in our upcoming Civil War 150 web project (coming this fall to a computer near you!). She admitted to me that she wasn’t expecting much from this January 26, 1861 issue of The New York Herald–after all, the front page was merely a list of letters to be picked up at the New York City post office.

New York Herald. New York, 26 January 1861. Gift of The Raab Collection.

But things started to look up when she saw the personals section at the lower right of page 1. As any researcher who works with newspapers knows, sometimes the ads are the best part. This American Life did a great radio show a few years back in which they tracked down stories from the Sunday classifieds. Anyway, this issue of The New York Herald had some really intriguing personals.
and a bit further down the page…

And then this cryptic message, which seems like it could have come straight from a Sherlock Holmes story.

As a fan of Sherlock Holmes, I must point out that Holmesian references to personal ads, which in England were known as the agony column, appear as early as the 1892 Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, in which Holmes admits to Watson” I read nothing but the criminal news and the agony columns.” In the 1911 Adventure of the Red Circle, Holmes describes them as “a chorus of groans, cries, and bleatings! What a rag-bag of singular happenings. But surely the most valuable hunting ground that was ever given to a student of the unusual.” I couldn’t agree more!

Finally, the matrimony section of The New York Herald is separate from the personal section, and it includes this amusingly forthright ad from a man on the make. (Please pardon the skewed photo.)

So thank you, Joanna, for brightening my day with these fascinating tidbits of the past.