Strictly personal... behind the lines with a history of lonely hearts

"BACHELOR girl, well-educated, loves books, sunshine, laughter, cinemas, detests Mrs Grundy, orthodoxy and human cabbages, wants 'really, truly' men chums, unconventional, alive...'"

In many ways, little has changed in the world of the personal ad, and it's to be hoped that this lively, interesting and feisty lass received a sack full of mail and found her man back in 1919, the year she placed her ad in the magazine Link. The mag was subsequently closed down and its owner jailed for corrupting public morals with ads that the judiciary decided were encouraging sexual laxity and homosexuality.

Today, people are perhaps a little more transparent in the language they use to describe themselves in personal ads. But, just as "bohemian", "sporty" and "adventurous" in a woman and "artistic" in a man could be loaded with meaning a century ago, today's more mainstream lonely hearts ads can still require a full glossary of euphemisms, from "sorted" (no weirdos, no baggage) to "creative" (possibly "willing to experiment" or simply "not boring").

Everyone advertising says they have and seems to want GSOH (good sense of humour, but it can also means "not set in his/her ways" or "good sexual chemistry"). And the word "solvent" is one which particularly vexes women advertisers, a hangover from as far back as the personal ads of the 18th century, when newspapers did a roaring trade in matrimonial ads.

In his entertaining and compelling book Classified, Nottingham University history lecturer Harry Cocks follows the history of the personal ad and how this method of finding love or friendship has reflected society's habits and attitudes. From Edwardian women looking for freedom from the restrictions suffered by their bustled and corseted mothers, to lonely First World War soldiers pining for correspondence/parcels/romance, to 1960s "swingers" and today's internet networkers, advertisers down the ages have sought to express needs, albeit in different ways. Cocks's curiosity about life behind the personal ads was aroused by a chance find while doing other research at the National Archive. He came across papers relating to the protracted Link magazine trial, which brought moral conservatives up against what they saw as morally ambiguous and dubious advertisements which, they said, were the tools of gay men and lurking lotharios.

"In the 18th-century, personal ads were highly fashionable then fell out of vogue," says Cocks. "In the Victorian era of strict morality they were there but fell further from fashion.

"But in the early years of the 20th century came the emergence of the companionship ad, in what HG Wells called 'the age of friendship' when the sexes were destined to become comfortable with each other as friends, rather than only viewing each other as potential matrimonial partners."

In the early years of the 20th-century, a modern woman might have described herself as "sporty, jolly" but she would also mitigate the inferences drawn from these words by also popping "refined and respectable" into the same sentence. "Lonely" and "sincere" were also warm human traits used to offset the effects of appearing to be too liberated and lively.

Use of lonely hearts ads or matrimonial agencies was generally a secretive activity. It wasn't until after the Second World War that finding a relationship through the back pages of a newspaper or magazine became more mainstream.

Today, the social networking once engendered by small ads is simply accelerated by modern technology. To people under a certain age, the whole world is their "friend" (in a totally superficial sense), and anyone who isn't kitted out with a Facebook account, a blog and a Second Life might as well not exist.

A new YouGov survey of 490 British singletons, conducted on behalf of the social networking site Craiglist, reveals that the biggest turn-off phrase to men is "...prove to me that not all men/women are pigs/dogs..." The most depressing finding, though, is that the three little words which men respond to most positively are "no strings attached". The same phrase was the one women found most repellent.

But, for all the casual proliferation of friendship networks on the net and the candid, calculating language often used in approaching potential partners contacted there, romance isn't entirely dead. Surveys show that internet dating does yield many longish relationships, and even if you think you know someone via intense email exchanges before meeting, that vital kissing of a few frogs still has to take place.

Classified – The secret history of the personal column by HG Cocks is published by Random House, 14.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call 0800 0153232 or visit Post and packing is 2.75.