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City of Sin

Saturday, December 4, 2010

An author in the 1860s, who thought that the Personals column was like the best thing evah, argued that if the Greeks and Romans had had personals, historians could learn more from them than from any other remaining artifacts.   Obviously I agree that the personals are revealing, or else I wouldn't have written my dissertation on them, but if I thought that they were true representations of 19th-century American cities (in this case, New York), I would think people back then were pretty deprived indeed!  What else can you conclude when on just one day, ads like these appear?

A gentleman (30) of good family, owner of property and doing profitable business (ready to prove all) desires the acquaintance of an attractive, respectable lady (20); no money required; object, company; guaranteed no annoyance and inviolable secrecy.  Address H. Forrest, box 147 Herald office.

This ad is pretty typical of many others I've featured (I'm too lazy to link).  H. Forrest doesn't want to get married -perhaps he's already married! - he just wants a girl on the side.  It's interesting, though, how focused he is on respectability.  I mean, you're trying to engage in something disreputable but it's written like a matrimonial.  I'm also interested in the "no annoyance" bit.  Generally, I might infer that this means he's not going for a physical relationship, but that seems absurd given the rest of the ad (the secrecy part especially).  Perhaps by "no annoyance" he means NSA, since they didn't say "no strings attached" back then.  Whatever the case, at that time, a pre- or extra-marital relationship was definitely not okay.

I ---- Please see me; please help me to get away from the city; for God's sake, do! M.

So much drama!  This sounds dreadful!  Here's my theory: M. and I. were having an affair.  M. gets pregnant; I. disappears.  Men.  Anyway, M. now obviously has to figure out what to do next, and the obvious solution is to go find some place to lie low until the baby arrives so she's not tarnished for life.  But I. is a cruel deceiver who apparently abandoning M. to her fate.  She will be disowned from her family and cast into the net of some heartless madam who will enslave M. in her house of assignation. 
Obviously.  What else could this ad possibly mean?

The lady who advertised two weeks ago for financial assistance in educating her daughter, aged 15, can hear of a gentleman of culture and means who will aid her or any other young girl between 14 and 16, by addressing Benevolence, box 142 Herald office.

Gross!  I am not even trying to find the original to which this one refers, so don't ask.  That is way too much to sift through.  I don't know, maybe this guy was a genuine philanthropist, but any "gentleman" who says he wants to pay for the education of a 14- to 16-year-old girl is shifty at best.  Why a young teenage girl?  Why not boys?  Why at all?  The man has to have some motivation beyond charity for offering to pay for some girl's education.  What does he want in return?  I ask you! 

Anyway, there's obviously a lot of love and beauty in these ads as well, but when I see a little collection like this, I'm glad that there are other historical sources about New York because the personals definitely do tell a one-sided story - the seedy one!

©2010 Pam Epstein


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