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Lost girls

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The paper I gave at the conference this week was specifically about a particular type of advertisement from the turn of the twentieth century, so it seems appropriate that I should write a blog post about them too – especially as it’s been awhile since I’ve written about any of these, I think. So here are two I ran across this morning. Figured since I’m on a roll with blogging the last few days I should keep it up as long as I can…right?

Attractive brunette (29) desires meeting ideal companion; discreet, cultured gentleman of means. Matrimony, Herald.

B.B. – Will some middle aged gentleman assist financially refined, affectionate young lady (22); cosey home; lonesome; matrimony. Stranger, 216 Herald.

Hint: these young ladies weren’t expecting to get married. I mean, I’m sure if they met someone who wanted to marry them they wouldn’t say nay, but I doubt they really thought they’d be so lucky. But I’m sure you’re all smart enough to figure out what was going on: they were looking for a sugar daddy. (Not that they’d use that phrase back in the day.) Alternately, they may have been prostitutes…but I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem quite the way to go about soliciting clients. They’re angling for something quite specific.

It’s a little sad, honestly. In fact, it’s quite troubling just how many ads like this were in this newspaper every day. Who were these poor women? And I mean poor in both senses of the word: both financially and tragically. How did so many women get desperate that they felt they had no choice but to become mistresses of older, and quite probably married, men?

Well, the “how” isn’t such a very hard question to answer. As I’ve said before, of course, for single women to get jobs that paid well enough to live on in any kind of comfort was really hard. But on the other hand, how come so many women weren’t able to get married? I don’t think marriage should be the be-all, end-all of every woman’s life, but there were SO many women placing these ads. Why so many? How come so many women didn’t have families they could fall back on? Had they run away from home and been cast out by their parents? Whether or not they were really refined and attractive I don’t know, but if they were lying about that they probably couldn’t attract the kind of men they wanted to meet.

I think that some of these women must have been migrants from small towns who thought they could find a better life in the big city and were met instead with the dismal reality that this was often not the case. Maybe they weren’t willing to be domestic servants or factory workers, but becoming some married man’s mistress seems like a much less appealing option to me. Perhaps they’d live more comfortably as a mistress than as a factory worker, but still…not a great life option. And what happened when they got older and these men decided they wanted a younger, prettier companion?

I’ve mentioned it before, but anyone who’s read Sister Carrie should see this as a familiar story. I wonder if Theodore Dreiser saw these ads. He must have done.  The book was written at about the same time they starting become more frequent.  I wonder if, in any way, they might have inspired him. Carrie was never so calculating – which made her much more sympathetic (as well as annoyingly passive) – but her circumstances were certainly exactly the same.

©2011 Pam Epstein


Anonymous March 20, 2011 at 10:58 AM  

Have I mentioned before how much I love this blog?

You mentioning conferences in Texas got me salivating at the prospect that you might also head over to San Antonio for this year's Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference, but alas, I'm not finding you on the program. You should definitely look into that -- you'd be a huge hit.

Pam March 20, 2011 at 5:08 PM  

I think it may have come up once or twice, but you can always tell me again. =)

I went to the SW/TX PCA/ACA a few years ago. I enjoyed myself but thought the cost was outrageously high for a regional conference. It's actually more expensive than the OAH.

norhan November 18, 2019 at 6:00 PM  

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