Selling Love: The Commercialization of Intimacy in America, 1860s-1900s

This dissertation uses nineteenth-century personal advertisements to analyze how people created connections in an era of rapid urbanization and commercialization. It analyzes the effect of the market economy, urban growth on intimate relationships, as well as the integration of personal lives into broader society. It centers around the idea of "public intimacy"; that is, the process through which certain Americans -- mostly the urban middle class -- forged private relationships within the public eye. Doing so allows insight on nineteenth- and early-twentieth century attitudes toward love, marriage, and sexuality in an increasingly anonymous, urban world. Personal columns at first held the promise of an almost utopian space, in which strangers could experiment with creating new personas, determining their own value, and forming and maintaining relationships. The ads offered freedom, but at the same time, forced users to perform their lives in front of an eager and engaged newspaper audience. The ads gave insight into the lives of neighbors, helping people better understand and adapt to large, anonymous cities. After the turn of the century, however, personals were co-opted by entrepreneurs who used the ads for their own gain. Ads from fraudulent matrimonial agencies offered easy wealth through marriage, while at the same time brothels and prostitutes began using the columns, cloaking their ads under the guise of massage parlors and matrimonials. Personals fell victim to commercialization; what had been a place that catered to individuals seeking connections in the market became a venue for people selling love, money, and sex. Until now, personal advertisements have been an entirely unexplored set of sources. This dissertation draws upon thousands of ads from papers all over the country, especially in New York City. In addition, it uses case studies in Chicago and New York to analyze the themes in this project more closely. In the process, it has traced some of the evolutions in American beliefs about the divide between public and private, the institution of marriage, and how the growing market economy affected these ideas. Finally, it moves forward to compare the early history of personals to the growth of online dating today.