Before everything became digital and Tinder-ized, personal ads were a way of telling the world beyond your immediate social group that you were single and looking to mingle or perhaps even settle down. For many years, such ads ran in the back of magazines like New York, where they were collected in a column called "Strictly Personals," written and paid for by folks on the lookout for love. In those analog days, you had to call a 1-900 number to "hear the voice behind the ad," after entering the four-number code at the end of their listing. You could also send a handwritten letter of response (and photo) to a P.O. box; the recipient would decide what to do with you after reading your note and gazing upon your studly/sultry visage. (So many more steps than swiping left or right!)
I scoured a bunch of "Strictly Personals" ads from issues of New York published in 1991 and 1992 (more than 20 years ago, unbelievably; a digital lifetime ago), collecting those that gave the best sense of how we did things back then, and some that I just found hilarious. Note the frequency (and totally un-objective nature) of the word attractive. Also, women go for leggy as a self-descriptor, while men often choose handsome and tall. A lot of people try to be clever, others play it so straight it's a little cringeworthy: just like today, and yet, retro! It seems like men have always been wanting younger women. The more we change, the more we stay the same.
What else can we learn about how we used to promote ourselves in the pursuit of relationships? Below, read some of the most interesting ads I found, presented with commentary.
1. I'm Not Dysfunctional — You're not dysfunctional. The only girls I've been meeting are very beautiful, very depressed, very bulimic and very dysfunctional. If you are from a functional family and are attractive, intelligent, well-read, focused, sarcastic, and not taking Prozac — let's get together and celebrate. I am Jewish, 35, have long hair and unconventional good looks, have owned my own business for the last ten years, and am not the least bit sarcastic. Letter and photo a must. 2526
I don't know about you, but I'm seeing some red flags this one.
2. Lovely, Lively, Literate — Lean, Lollobrigida-like NY lady — longs for love, laughter, languid lunches, lunar libations, with legally-free, long, lean, literate, loquacious non-lunatic, 40s–50s. recent photo, personal note. 2112
3. Moderately Famous — Academic scientist, fireside philosopher — attractive, tall, athletic, Manhattan-based, divorced white male of 52 years, with warmth, wit, convertible, canoe and Upper West Side real estate — seeks outrageously bright, attractive, and largely happy woman under 40, who, in the unlikely event that all should seem right, would be willing to consider marriage and children. Photo please. 2533
This is just an amazing blind item. What divorced fireside philosopher/sort of celeb who was in his 50s and dating in the early '90s in New York City might this possibly be? Also, kind of captivated by "largely happy" and "unlikely event that all should seem right." Hopes: appropriately middling.
4. Horses Can Talk! — Meet our owner. He's 28, sweet, sincere, thin brown hair, green eyes, 5'11", a corporate beach bum! A note and photo from a slim gal, 20s, will get the same! 2117
This would be like if you wrote your online profile from the perspective of your cat.
5. Witty, Warm Woman — Late 40s, attractive, interesting, outdoorsy, degreed, solvent, looking for easygoing Alan Alda/Garrison Keillor type. Should like animals, kids, farms, antiques, comfortable clothes and the company of close friends. Age, looks, riches of little importance, but must be physically affectionate, emotionally open and like a lot of communication. A fondness for gardening, good food and moseying around the neighborhood is a plus, as is an inquisitive mind and exploratory spirit — and enough self-indulgence to enjoy spending rainy days in bed. Lots of flaws accepted, if accompanied by sufficient warmth, humor. Note necessary/photo nice. 7262
The longer you write, the more you have to pay. (In 1992, when this ad ran, that was $33 a line, with a two-line minimum.) So this woman, whose missive goes on for 17 lines, shows that she's very much willing to invest in the right guy ($561!), should he be findable via the personals and her words. (One of the benefits of online profiles: less-stringent word limits, should you be a woman or man who likes a lot of communication.) P.S. I once saw Alan Alda in Soho and it was the best celebrity sighting of my life.
6. I'll Shoot My Dog! — If you don't answer this ad. Beautiful, green-eyed Rutgers grad, 5'5", 120 lbs, seeks tall, Jewish, athletic guy, 34–39, for Fire Island summers, bike trips, jazz music, NY Times, books and best friendship. Note/photo/phone. 4186
Confused about the dog. That seems unfortunate.
7. Bored by Post-Teenbopper Prattle — Articulate, handsome man — attorney, 31 — seeks svelte, sexy, unattached, white professional woman, 35–50, for intelligent conversation, laughter and relationship. Recent photo/note please. 8154
Note that age range! This is one progressive dude, though I'm dismayed by the cavalier dismissal of "post-teenybopper prattle." (I wonder how this fellow is doing today, what with the rise of emoji.)
8. We Shouldn't — Be meeting like this. Sweet, smart, pretty, professional Jewish woman, 30, seeks a wise, whimsical and basically wonderful Jewish man for lasting love. Note/photo/phone. 6413
Ah, the shame of reaching out in this strange newfangled way, in the pages of a magazine! Let's make a joke about it, shall we?
9. Somewhere Over the Rainbow — This Tin Man — a sweet, sincere, leading CEO with sterling character, devilishly handsome, heart of gold, body of steel, young, fit, tall, with multiple facets/degrees/residences/millions, lots of fun — seeks his Dorothy under 37. Photo required. 8666
I love a metaphor but the Tin Man was the guy without the heart, right?
10. Can a Right-to-Lifer — Be a liberal Jewish woman? Single Jewish woman, 32, nonsmoker, social worker, politically aware, unusually compassionate, likes theater, square dance. Seeks responsible, full-time employed man, 28–45, who believes that ultimately the purpose of life is to make the world a better place and is at least a little troubled by the concept of abortion. 6273
Well, this is a bold move, invoking the specters of both abortion and square dance.
11. I Want to Get Married! — Are you a single Jewish woman, 18–27, who is adventurous and a bit daring? Are you voluptuous and pear-shaped? Do you want children and a traditional Jewish family? Then, a life of luxury, sensuality and excitement can be yours with this dynamic, wealthy, 31-year-old, Jewish-Australian business tycoon. 8642
There is both something refreshing and disturbing about this. (I think it's the word sensuality.)
12. Brown-Eyed Girl — Attractive, long-legged Jewish woman, MD, with passion for rock & roll, Szechuan food, romantic comedies and the Stairmaster, seeking handsome professional man who can make me laugh. Must be over 5'10" and know who Neil Young is. Photo/note/phone. 9399
Add points for using "passion" for the Stairmaster to indicate you like to stay in shape without saying something as tawdry as "I like to stay in shape." Subtract points for having "passion" for the Stairmaster. This is like a very specific kind of Joe Versus the Volcano–era of Meg Ryan time capsule, though clearly we should all still know who Neil Young is.
13. For Your Eyes Only — Optometrist — can write prescription for looking at life through rose-colored lenses. Single Jewish male, 29, Cornell grad, muscular, 6', nonsmoker. For RX to happy times, write with snapshot. 8655
Gotta love a theme. (How quaint, too, is "snapshot"?)
14. Single White Male — Of NYC, 44, 5'9", amiable, healthy. Seeks divorced/single white female, 30–41. 9884
When a personal ad lacks specificity to the point that you worry it might be a front for a serial killer. (Note: Single White Female, the movie starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh that changed the phrase "SWF" irreparably for me, came out in August of 1992 — almost a year after this particular ad, which was published in September of '91.)
15. Have It All — Female, 50, professional, seeks male counterpart. 2140
When having it all meant something very different.
Most Viewed Stories
This Conspiracy Theory Will Change How You Feel About the Bachelor Villain
The Ultimate Guide to Preparing for the Women’s March
15 Protest Sign Ideas for the Women’s March on Washington
Sexual Assault in the Amazon
The Sheer Perfection of Donald Trump’s Golden Shower
Things to Keep You Warm and Dry at a Protest
Pakistani Pop Star Stops Concert When He Spots Sexual Harassment
TMZ Reports Trump Will Actually Have Really Cool Inauguration Performers
Your Guide to NYC Inauguration Weekend Protests
Ask Polly: Should I Quit Grad School?
From Our Partners
powered by PubExchange
The Cut’s Latest Love and War FeaturesA Holiday Season Weekend Through London
A good guide for avid The Crown fans.It’s About Time You Learned Tove Lo’s Name
The singer has crafted pop hits you’ve heard a thousand times by now.Marina Abramovic Has Outlasted Her Lovers and, She Hopes, Her Critics
The world's most famous performance artist at 70.The Wing: Do Women Still Need a Space of Their Own?
This exclusive social club for women, is part sorority, part start-up.In Virtual Reality, Women Run the World
A new generation of female artists is making VR the most diverse corner of the male-dominated tech space.The Novelist Disguised As a Housewife
Shirley Jackson wrote 17 books while raising four children — and she couldn't have had a successful career without them.Ava DuVernay on Hollywood Racism, Modern-Day Slavery, and Why She’s Still an Optimist
The director, whose new documentary The 13th chronicles America’s history of racial subjugation, talks to Rebecca Traister about Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the modern criminal-justice system.What No One Tells Couples Trying to Conceive
It helps to be rich.The Hidden Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race
A segregated unit of mathematicians born of desperation during World War II became the secret to NASA’s success.Slut-Shaming Squids Are Everywhere
The “Bermuda Square” comic strip is back.
The collaboration that dreams are made of.Good Morning America Host Amy Robach Apologizes for Saying ‘Colored People’ on Air
She quickly apologized.Unknown NFL Player Tries to Get Attention by Asking Aly Raisman Out in Video
That’s one way to do it.Don’t Mess This Up, Mischa Barton
Marissa Cooper is poised for a comeback ... maybe.California Votes to Remove Time Limit on Prosecuting Rape Cases
In light of the Bill Cosby case.Beyoncé’s Behind-the-Scenes Lemonade Photos Belong in a Museum
She had the "Boycott Beyoncé" sign already in formation on set.The Rise of the Male Celebrity Full-Frontal
An ex-publicist explains.Gabby Douglas Will Be a Miss America Judge
The gold-medal gymnast will help choose the 2017 pageant winner.Camille Becerra’s Photo Diary of Rockaway Beach
An ideal trip to add and cross off your summer bucket list.Sorry Nerds, Ian McKellen Won’t Officiate Your Expensive Lord of the Rings–Themed Wedding
Not even for $1.5 million.