Looking for Love in Classified Places

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Why you should care

Because all’s fair in love, war and sexy classifieds.

Video by Melanie Ruiz

It gets harder and harder to remember the time before. When you try to recall life before the Internet, things can get a skosh fuzzy. But our present has a guide to the recent past when one considers the time-honored tradition of hooking up and getting about the business of perpetuating the species. You see, there’s a bright through-line to be drawn from Tinder, Grindr and Match.com right back to the back pages of what was once the damned-near ubiquitous newspaper.

Used to wrap fish in, sleep under, read and burn, newspapers in pre-Internet times were the go-to solution for people looking to sell a bike, buy a bed, or find someone to use the bed with. And in that late 1970s portion of the pre-Internet era that was also pre-HIV, the practice was virtually codified in the hit song “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” by Rupert Holmes. Holmes sang about a couple in the late stage of their relationship who end up (re)discovering each other via the classifieds.

I didn’t think about my lady, I know that sounds kind of mean

But me and my old lady had fallen into the same old dull routine

So I wrote to the paper, took out a personal ad

And though I’m nobody’s poet, I thought it wasn’t half bad.

The song’s upshot? On the singer’s first philandering date, none other than his “old lady” shows up — and instead of being angry, the lovebirds realize they were meant to be. Awwws all around. The song had the distinct honor of being the last American No. 1 song of the 1970s, cheesy as it was, and its broad popularity signaled that the classifieds weren’t just for losers and lunatics anymore.

“You need to know that back then, the choices were many for meeting folks,” said former New York Post journalist Ed Newton, recalling the surfeit of discos and singles bars in New York City. “Classifieds provided a welcome place for ‘specialists’ to go. Folks with fetishes and so on. And they were regularly used by folks who prized erudition and discretion.” Very precisely what bars did not supply.

For a fee and a price per individual letter, you tried to pack as much power as you could into locking down a like-minded love interest — in not many more words than you might use on Twitter today. In her 2005 book Strange Red Cow: and Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past, author Sara Bader tracked classifieds as far back as 1704, and argues that they provide a wholly idiosyncratic window on our shared histories. “That our collective ancestors forgot their books in carriages, left their capes on battlefields, and dropped their keys and their cash,” wrote Bader, “is oddly reassuring.” (Perhaps less reassuring were the Civil War classifieds in which jilted lovers stated their intention to go fight and die in response to love denied.)

The business of classified ads is still booming: to the tune of $92.1 billion worldwide in 2014.

But while the traditional venues for hosting classifieds, newspapers and weeklies, saw years of revenue decline alongside the power of print, the business of classified ads is still booming: to the tune of $92.1 billion worldwide in 2014, according to the Classified Intelligence Report. Not just from the lovelorn, but people selling bikes, beds and probably even red cows.

The persistence of classified ads isn’t surprising since, Newton said, little can stop people from pursuing this form of unmediated communication. Which comes in pretty damned handy when you need a new couch and someone to make love to on it. So while 2015’s hyper-algorithmed, targeted dating apps might get you precisely the lover you think you need, the act of picking up a paper, reading the right ad on the right day and summoning up all of the hope, kismet and serendipity that played a part in old-fashioned dating? That’s romance.

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