The First Time a Local Newspaper Outraged Cincinnati With “Nasty, Obscene” Personal Ads

How The Cincinnati Enquirer helped men and women hook up in the 1880s.

In 1885, Archbishop William Henry Elder erupted in righteous wrath, according to The Cincinnati Post [October 6]:

“We have right here in this city a daily newspaper unfit to be read by any human being, much less a Christian. Every day it is filled with reading matter that is filthy, nasty, obscene and abominable. The amount of injury that paper is doing right in our midst is incalculable. I beg you, fathers and mothers, who have the welfare of your children at heart, do not let their young minds be polluted by allowing them to read that vile sheet.”

The publication in question? None other than The Cincinnati Enquirer. The offending material? A “personals” column in the classified advertising section.

A Cincinnati Post editorial cartoon portrays an irate father vigilantly expelling a “masher” from his house as the young man attempts to deliver a letter to the resident daughter. In the second frame, the same father negligently allows his daughter to read the Enquirer where she finds a personal ad placed by the insolent masher.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

In 1885, there may have been fewer than a dozen telephones in town, almost all connected to businesses. Although the Post Office delivered mail three or four times a day, fathers of young ladies monitored the mailbox. How could young people set up a date? Welcome to the 1880s version of Tinder, Bumble, or Hinge: the personal ad. Here are some typical examples [September 12, 1885]:

“Meet me at same place as usual tomorrow night. M.”

“Fred of Covington. Would like to see you Saturday night at half-past eight o’clock at Fifth and Walnut sts. Kitty”

“Friendship: Let me know when and where I can see you. C.N.”

“Jack, if you are in the city now, come down tomorrow night. Alice”

“Lady acquaintance wanted. Address FUN, Enquirer Office.”

“Wanted, acquaintance of lady dressed in yellow who noticed gent on Vine above Sixth and then at Walnut and Sixth. Address ADMIRER, Enquirer Office.”

Rather than sending a postcard to a prospective love interest’s home, personals readers dropped their replies at The Enquirer, where each personal ad had an associated letterbox. This was a time when a young man, for instance, needed to ask permission of a young lady’s parents before speaking to her. Dropping by the house unannounced or leaving a calling card without permission was scandalous behavior. At the very least, such an offense would get the young swain banned from the premises. It might even lead to a well-deserved thrashing.

Naturally, the other newspapers in town proclaimed their own piety and condemned The Enquirer’s pandering. At the time, there were seven daily newspapers in Cincinnati, and that’s only those written in English. Another five were in German. The Commercial Tribune tried to organize a boycott of The Enquirer at the height of the personals scandal. The Post ran editorial after editorial bewailing the sorrowful morals of the day, such as [August 11, 1885]:

“The Personal column of The Enquirer, which is designedly maintained as a mere assignation column, is a crime against society. It is not only a daily proclamation that Cincinnati swarms with women of loose morals, and with men of lascivious desires, but it furnished the medium through which inexperienced girls are in the first instance enticed from their homes, and taught to underrate parental advice and set parental authority at defiance.”

The term “assignation” was employed deliberately. A “house of assignation” was what we might call today a “No-Tell Motel,” a house where rooms were rented by the hour. Houses of assignation were occupied by common streetwalkers and by married people having affairs. The Post was essentially calling women who read the personals column prostitutes.

In a city with its own designated “red-light” district in the West End, it was hardly necessary for prostitutes to advertise through the personals, although there were reports of women looking for a “sugar daddy” using those columns. Far more frequently, the personal advertisements allowed young couples to rendezvous away from Mom and Dad. (There is some evidence the ads were also employed by Dad or Mom to connect with an illicit love interest on the side.)

In addition, the personals provided a way for the madams who ran the brothels to recruit new talent. The Oberlin (Ohio) Weekly News [January 18, 1877] reported on a young girl who answered an advertisement for a companion, allegedly by an affluent and proper lady. On arriving in Cincinnati, the young innocent was spirited away to a brothel in which she was confined for some months before escaping.

The Enquirer’s shameful behavior inspired denunciation far beyond Cincinnati. James Parton, among the best-selling authors of the day and a resident of Massachusetts, in an essay on “Newspapers Gone to Seed” for a nationally distributed magazine, The Forum [March 1886] described “that amazing assignation column in a journal of Cincinnati, which is a blot upon the whole Mississippi valley.”

Ironically, The Enquirer itself had railed against personal classified advertisements as early as 1866 and again in 1871. At that time, the paper was struggling and owned by Washington McLean, father of John Roll McLean, who assumed ownership in 1881. Apparently the younger McLean lacked the scruples of his father.

After a couple of years of editorial huffing and puffing, the other Cincinnati daily papers either found other issues to flog or began publishing their own personals columns, especially the long-lost Cincinnati Telegram, described by one minister as a “noxious and unscrupulous sheet.”

Whether Jack and Alice ever connected is hidden in the mists of history.

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