Personal Ads from the Past

Nineteenth century singles hungered for love just as much as they do now. Personal ads – sometimes known as “lonely hearts” ads – flourished in Britain in the late 17th century when an entrepreneurial pamphleteer realized that love would likely sell just as any other commodity. American editors, too, seized on the possibilities of love, advertised.

Slate’s history blog Vault recently posted a selection of vegetarian personal ads from The Water-Cure Journal, the primary voice of the hydropathy, or water cure, movement, one of the most popular 19th century irregular healing systems. Hydropaths believed in the healing power of cold, pure water, and prescribed an intense regimen of bathing, showering, soaking, wrapping, and drinking (of water, of course) to heal disease. Patients received treatment either through a stay at a residential water cure or by following the instructions in any number of DIY water cure manuals.

Americans of all kinds were drawn to take the healing waters, though most were of a reforming bent. Hydropathy was often only one of a panoply of reforms and causes its followers championed. And they looked for the same in a mate.


Personal ads under the heading “Matrimony” appeared in many back pages of The Water-Cure Journal. 

Jennie, a resident of the country, is twenty-four years of age, 5 feet 2 Inches in height, has dark hair and eyes, rather dark complexion. Is a thorough reformer, in every sense of the word ; detests tea and coffee, and will never marry a man who uses tobacco. Is a firm believer in Hydropathy, and practices as well as preaches it. (July 1855)

Jennie wasn’t alone in her distaste for stimulating hot beverages. Many followers of irregular healing, including hydropaths and homeopaths, believed that coffee and tea interfered with healing and in some cases, might even make you sicker.

Gertrude was quite the catch:

Am 28 years of age, neither handsome or a “singing angel;” but understand the music of the pudding-slice. Am in no hurry about marrying; but think I should like to find my partner as soon as 31. Am 5 feet 4 inches in height, and must be mated phrenologically and spiritually, or not at all. Should wish one who could do without tea, coffee, pork, beef, mutton, and feather-beds; a practical anti-slavery man, anti-tobacco, and I care not if anti-razor – in short, one who acts upon principle rather than policy. Age anywhere between my own and 40. (March 1855)

Phrenology’s appearance in Gertrude’s ad is far from surprising. The journal’s publisher, Fowler and Wells, were well known advocates and practitioners of phrenology and also published the main phrenological journal. Phrenology posited that character could be scientifically read on the bumps of your head. Brothers Orson and Lorenzo Fowler believed that the answers to nearly all life’s questions could be found in phrenology, from career paths to marriage prospects. Lorenzo had himself determined the suitability of his own wife Lydia Folger through an early courtship head reading.

Like Jennie, Gertrude, too, prefers a man who doesn’t drink tea or coffee, though I’m not sure what she has against feather-beds. It may suggest a type of luxury thought immoral to the pious reforming type.

She’s also willing to date a man with a beard – “I care not if anti-razor.” Beards had not yet reached the hairy, be-mutton-chopped heights of the Civil War. For much of early American history, a beard marked a man as an unconventional rebel or outsider. Though facial hair was generally unpopular, Gertrude was willing to look past it for love.



“Neuro” hype and 21st Century Phrenology


Is the brain the hottest organ in the body? That’s the argument made in a recent Slate story “The End of Neuro-Nonsense” that argues that brain hype reached its peak in 2008 and is now on the decline for a variety of reasons. Quoting from the new book Brainwashed that details the perils of brain-centrism: “Naïve media, slick neuroentrepreneurs, and even an occasional overzealous neuroscientist exaggerate the capacity of scans to reveal the contents of our minds, exalt brain physiology as inherently the most valuable level of explanation for understanding behavior, and rush to apply underdeveloped, if dazzling, science for commercial and forensic use.”

Maybe so.

But I’d argue that we’ve been living a “neurocentric,” to quote the term used in the article for our brain obsession, world for nearly 200 years. We just had a different name for it in the past: phrenology.

Phrenologists posited that the brain was made up of individual organs with specific functions and attributes. The size and shape of these organs, as read on the skull, revealed our character. Many argued that these organs – and thus our personalities – were changeable, improvable. With a little exercise, we could make ourselves better by strengthening positive traits and weakening others. With phrenology, doctors could easily determine not only how but why someone thought, felt, and coped with life in a particular way. It provided comfort and insight into our seemingly unknowable depths, a way to understand behavior and personality with seemingly scientific precision. Who wouldn’t like that?

Like the 19th century, many of us hope today, as the phrenologists did, that mapping the brain will reveal the secrets of our natures. And once known, this information will allow us to manipulate and transform ourselves into something better. We just call it “neuro” this and “neuro” that now, from neuromarketing to neuroeconomics, a transmutation of language strikingly similar to what occurred in the 19th century as phrenological terms (high brow, low brow, shrink, well rounded) passed from the lab to daily conversation. Colorful fMRI images of the brain on TV encourage us to think of almost everything through its effect on the brain, the modern equivalent of the phrenological charts that adorned the walls of pharmacies and general stores and were featured in the pages of magazines and books. Just as in the past, popular neuroscience suggests that the way to make us smarter, happier, and even more beautiful is through concentrated efforts to improve the brain regardless of how little we actually know about how the brain works. It seems to me that popular brain science is the phrenology of the 21st century, and we’re just as ravenous for that knowledge today as they were in the 19th century.

So maybe 2008 marks the most recent crest of a brain obsession with more than two centuries of history behind it that seems bound and determined to rise again.