.Feature: Old fashioned love

Before online dating, there was the newspaper personal ad

By Molly Oleson

When Sandy De Long contacted the Pacific Sun offices a few months ago in search of something that she had misplaced, it wasn’t a phone call, or an email or a text message that brought her closer to a copy of the piece of newsprint that had united her and her husband nearly 40 years earlier. It was an in-person inquiry. She had come from Mill Valley to describe the personal ad that a man named Russ had placed in the Classifieds section of the newspaper in 1975. There was the story of how she had seen the ad, the story of how she had replied to it and the story of how, the following year, she had married Russ.

We were intrigued by her words and her memories, and we wondered what it must have been like to meet someone that way, at a time when carefully chosen words to strangers could hold so much power and meaning. How romantic. And in today’s fast-paced world, how foreign. “Call me old fashioned,” she would later say.

The way that she talked about her relationship with her husband reminded me of the way that my grandfather would, after more than 60 years of marriage, still stare at my grandmother as though he were seeing her for the very first time. “Isn’t she something?” he’d ask.

After all of those years, Sandy De Long was looking for a tangible memento from that time—something to remind her of their correspondence.

“I think his ad started out, ‘Does the woman exist who … ’” Sandy recalls recently by phone. “I liked what he was looking for; I liked all of the detail.” She notes that she was just looking at the personals for fun and wasn’t intending to respond. But his ad, full of adjectives—intelligent, independent, sensitive—that described the kind of woman that he hoped to meet, caught her eye.

Sandy wrote Russ a letter on a Thursday, the day the ad appeared in the paper. He received her letter on Saturday, called her on Sunday and they set a date for Monday. Russ received 37 replies to that ad. She says that she replied in a “résumé style,” outlining her likes and dislikes, and providing her IQ score. She added at the end that she had “freckles, glasses and unkempt hair.”

Russ, sharing the land line with his wife, chimes in: “She added it like it was a bad thing, but I happened to love freckles, glasses and unkempt hair.”

Sandy called her mom in San Francisco and told her that she had replied to a man’s personal ad in the paper. “You did what?!” her mother shouted. “It could be an axe murderer!”

“And then this guy in his three-piece suit drives up in his Mercedes to take me out to dinner,” Sandy says with a laugh.

It was very clever, she admits, of Russ to put an ad in the paper, asking for replies by mail. “To have someone write to you rather than a phone call … because you can tell a lot about a person by their letter.”

Following the marriage of Sandy and Russ in October of 1976, the Sun ran an article titled, “Want Ad Romance,” about how the couple had met through the personals. “We’re working on our 40th year,” Sandy says proudly.

A treasure trove of microfilm—going back to the early ’60s—at the Mill Valley Library, revealed the article. It was a glimpse into the dating world of a bygone era—a time when a “Sincere healthy guy” desired the companionship of “an honest, attractive gal.” When a 17-year-old woman, who enjoyed “bike riding, guitar, swimming and real communication” expressed her need for “some moving, learning, open friends.” A time when a “rare woman” was being sought out—a woman who was strongly in need of “a special man who is intense about life, people, nature, justice, loving, sexuality, in short, a man who has a ‘lust for life.’

“If you are a ‘lady at tea,’ a ‘cook in the kitchen’ and a tiger overall—and turn on to the above—run don’t walk to the mail box [sic] with your letter …”

Illustration by Gina Contreras
Illustration by Gina Contreras

At that time, the Sun, along with other Bay Area newspapers, ran a handful of personal ads (for which people would be charged by the word) every week in the Classifieds section. But in the late ’70s, and through the ’80s and ’90s, Sandy says, “It kind of exploded.” Before long, there were “pages and pages” of people “looking.”

“Women looking for men, men looking for women, men looking for men,” Sandy says. “Men looking for ducks … whatever it was, it was in there.”

Rosemary Olson, publisher of both the Bohemian and the Pacific Sun, recalls that heyday at the Bohemian. “I hosted ‘Romance Parties,’” she says, “helping most attendees write their ads, many wanting sunset romantic walks on the beach.”

Olson’s favorite party was at a million-dollar mansion overlooking Hamilton Field in Novato. “We had so many people attend,” she says, noting that most alternative weeklies had a designated ‘Personals Specialist’ who would handle walk-ins, read letters and hand-input the text for print. “The house was packed with happy Sonoma, Napa and Marin singles.”

Linda Xiques, managing editor of the Sun from 1982 to 2006, recalls that in the early days, the paper had a receptionist who was in charge of accepting the ads and advising people how to write them. “We used to say of one such receptionist,” Xiques says, “‘She’s skimming the cream.’ She seemed to show up with a new boyfriend every week or so. Later when the personal ads were really booming, we hired someone to take charge of the ad flow.”

“The revenue,” adds Steve McNamara, former owner, publisher and editor of the Sun (1966-2004), “came from the phone calls that people made on a 900 number to connect with the person who had placed the ad. At its peak, the weekly revenue was about $15,000, although that didn’t last.”

The Pacific Sun also hosted mixers, where people who placed personal ads in the paper could get in for free. “People had a chance to meet each other, even if they didn’t meet anyone,” says Mal Karman, a Pacific Sun contributor who is quick to relay humorous stories of corresponding with “a beauty of Romanian descent” and a “Goldie Hawn Lookalike.”

“You’d hear people on the street talking about the Sun’s wacky, often perverse personal ads,” says Pacific Sun Movie Page Editor Matt Stafford, who has been contributing to the paper for years. “In the ’70s the ads reflected that fun, free, groovy, pre-AIDS, pre-Reagan, pre-tech era when people would hook up with less fear and loathing than they do now. Then it became a happy habit that endured till the turn of the century.”

On April 21, 1995, Match.com—claiming to be “#1 in dates, relationships and marriages”—launched, throwing a wrench in the personal ad business, and opening up a gamut of new possibilities in the world of romance.

According to a Pew Research Center study from last year, in the mid-’90s, only 14 percent of American adults were Internet users. Today, nearly nine in 10 Americans are online, and online dating sites like OkCupid (free) and eHarmony (costly), along with apps like Tinder (where one can find users nearby) continue to grow in popularity. A 2013 Pew study found that attitudes toward online dating have also changed, with 59 percent of Americans agreeing with the statement, “Online dating is a good way to meet people”—compared to 44 percent in 2005.

“I think the personals dwindled in popularity around the same time the Internet came along and more or less doomed the newspaper business,” Stafford says. “This also, of course, coincided with a new proclivity for faceless social media.”

Judy Orsini, a 63-year-old retired campus planner who lives in Mill Valley, remembers using the Pacific Sun personals in 1998—around the time that online dating was gaining steam. She responded to an ad—“the longest and most informative”—by a man named Roy who described himself as “easy on the eyes.” He was looking for someone to bike, ski and travel with—all interests that she shared. After five years of living together, Judy and Roy married.

“I know that when he put the ad up, he had at least half a dozen dates before he met me,” Orsini says. “He told himself he was going to be a gentleman, not a jerk. He wanted to take the time to meet everyone, which I thought was kind of a sweet thing.”

Orsini says that the personal ad was the most efficient way to meet someone. “You know, when you’re working and busy all the time, and you want to meet people? I wasn’t into the bar scene. I’m not extremely outgoing, so it’s not that easy for me to meet someone on the street or in a store and strike up a conversation.”

She didn’t have many single friends at the time. “Not true today!” Most, she says, are looking for love on Match.com. And most of them have had very little luck.

“Everybody thought it was going to be the big solution to finding your mate for life,” Orsini says of online dating. “Of course what I hear all the time is that people lie.”

“Times have changed,” she says, wistfully. “I just don’t think that people are as honest as they used to be.”

Orsini suspects that when it comes to her friends and family dating online, the low success rate also has something to do with the higher number of people “looking” online today, versus the number of people who were “looking” through personal ads at the height of their popularity.

With the kind of technology available at our fingertips, singles have more options than ever before for finding love. Does having a gigantic online pool of hopeful romantics mean that everyone eventually finds exactly what, and who, they’re looking for?

Not necessarily, says 35-year-old Molly Corbett, a finance and operations manager at Stanford who lives in San Francisco.

“[Online dating] is like this endless stream of people,” says Corbett, who first gave it a go in 2007. She’s used it off and on for the past six years. “You just don’t even think of them as people,” she says of the faces that pop up on her device at any given time. “They’re pictures on a screen that you can scroll right through. I think it gives people a license to be flaky.”

Corbett has tried Match.com, OkCupid and apps like Tinder, Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel. What she’s looking for is fairly straightforward: A committed relationship that leads to marriage and children. “Not necessarily a white picket fence in the ’burbs,” she says, “but just something more traditional.”

But what she’s found instead are guys who are not interested in real relationships, and many who “just want to have fun, and not grow up.”

“I think it’s reached like this fever pitch,” Corbett says of online dating. “When it first came out, it had a stigma to it. People were a little weirded out. Now, there’s so much out there. It’s almost like we have to start back at zero, and figure out how to meet people in person. Because it’s just not working.”

With the personals, Orsini says, someone had to put the ad in the paper and someone else had to make the phone call. “So right away, there was voice contact.” The first time she spoke to her future husband, she says, they talked for two hours. “I really got a good, strong sense of who he was. Whereas online, people go back and forth with emails and text messages before they ever even talk to each other.”

That’s one of the most frustrating parts of meeting people online, Corbett says. What if you spend days, weeks or even months sending messages back and forth to someone, only to find out that the person who you finally meet is not who you thought they were at all?

She shares a story about a guy who she met online recently who appealed to her because it sounded as though he too, had become fed up with the online dating environment. “He wrote a whole paragraph about how the online thing was ruining us,” she says. “That it was making people not treat people like actual people. I wrote to him to say, ‘I agree with that. I appreciate you writing that.’ We were trying to set up a time to meet. We picked a day. And then he backed out. He said, ‘I’m sorry—I’m just too skeptical about this whole thing. You really do sound great.’ That’s how he ended it.”

Do you think we could ever return to the age of personal ads, I ask her. A simpler time, when people weren’t overwhelmed by endless options? She pauses to think about it.

“I just don’t even understand how people meet people in real life,” she says, noting that for many singles, checking devices and meeting people online has become ingrained. “Everyone is just buried in their own little world.”

Stafford says that he thinks people in general—especially people under 40—are more fearful of strangers now than they were 20 years ago. “There seems to be a fear of people who aren’t safely contained in a digital device,” he says.

Corbett reconsiders my question about a potential resurgence of personal ads, even in our device-addicted dating culture.

“Maybe,” she says, with a little more hope this time.

Personal ads, she says, seemed to “get to the core” of who people were. You didn’t dismiss someone because you saw a bad picture of them—which is what many people dating online do today. A small flaw, rather than being a reason to swipe or scroll, could be something beautiful.

“Everyone’s being so specific about their criteria,” Orsini says of online dating, “that I guess you’re led to believe that the perfect person is out there if you just keep going through all those people.”

Does Corbett believe that her perfect match is out there? “Ummm … yes,” she replies. “Just because they have to be. Otherwise …you know, I don’t want to give up.”

Perhaps all that remains of the era of newspaper personal ads is what’s left on microfilm, and what’s tucked into photo albums. And the stories, relayed by those who reminisce.

“So much of it is about chemistry,” Orsini says. You don’t really know somebody “until you meet and look into each other’s eyes.” She laughs. “The old fashioned way.”

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