The first personals column appeared in England in the 1690s, just 50 years after the birth of the newspaper, according to English historian (no joke) H. G. Cocks.
In the 1890s, a British socialist magazine called Adult ran “lonely hearts” listings, hoping to encourage people to meet partners outside their social class.
In 1915, the former editor of Family Circle and Christian World launched a publication devoted to personals, which often included veiled references to homosexual liaisons: “Oxonian 26,” seeking a male pal, “brilliant, courteous, humorous, [a] poet, future novelist, in love with beauty despite cosmic insignificance [and] masculine”; “Bachelor Girl (London, W) well-educated, loves books, sunshine, laughter, cinemas, detests Mrs Grundy, orthodoxy, and human cabbages, wants ‘really truly’ men chums, unconventional, alive.”
Telephone party lines begin popping up across the country in the eighties, and services facilitating real-life adult encounters soon followed. In 1987, a man, who would later go on to launch the website Manhunt, founded a Boston-based party line for gay men. “Guys called when they were home alone and horny,” says Jonathan Crutchley, now a co-owner (who also co-founded Manhunt). “After chatting for a while, they’d ask: ‘Your place or mine?’ ”
In 1996, a Lutheran with an engineering Ph.D. launched FriendFinder to connect like-minded adults. But users quickly flooded the service with calls for sex and their own naked selfies. Soon, the offshoot AdultFriendFinder was offering advice on issues like the best way to brew artificial ejaculate to use in your profile picture.
On the U.K. website Gaydar, founded in 1999 by a pair of South African lovers, users could locate horny men within a mile radius of a given place, filtering profiles according to very precise requirements, from eye color to penis size to preferred position.
Craigslist’s “Casual Encounters” appeared in 2000, followed by sites like Ashley Madison, which paired horny spouses with other cheaters. To attract female users, it was named for two of the most popular baby names of 2001.
The GPS-enabled gay-hookup app Grindr is the seminal location-based smartphone hookup plug-in, though it wasn’t the first—Skout, Dating DNA, and Dodgeball had come earlier. But Grindr got a big boost when Stephen Fry mentioned it during an episode of the hypermasculine car show Top Gear. The client base increased by 50 percent overnight.
Grindr’s straight sister, Blendr, was announced in March 2011, developed in response to requests from straight women who were jealous of their gay friends.
Tinder launched in October 2012 and was initially popular on college campuses. The average user is young, and the app is reported to have made more than 100 million “matches” since its launch, with 1.5 million new introductions each day. Earlier this month, former Miss USA Nana Meriwether admitted that she uses the application, though male users often think she’s an impostor: “The guys I’ve said yes to have all been like, ‘Are you real?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ Even pageant-title-holders get lonely.”