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We Used To Have Personal Ads

To celebrate the Flyer’s 25th year, we’ll be using this space each week to look back on stories from past issues.

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There was a time before Match.com and a time before snark. Long ago, people sought love without iThings, and the Flyer was there for them.

Personal ads were a big deal in the 1990s. Before Twitter confined us to 140 characters, classified personal ads — printed in tiny agate type in the back of the paper — were a clearinghouse for people's love needs. Looking back at the summer of 1990, our second year of existence, we found a gamut of seekers from another day. The first thing you encountered were the rules.

"We're not going to tell you how to run your lives," went the opening paragraph of the section. Then we set out some safety tips to keep the reader from ending up in the river. "Tell a friend you are meeting someone. Don't use your last name. ... Should you have any doubts about the person, play it smart by excusing yourself and making a gracious exit." Some of those doubts were well-placed.

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The section had its own alphabet soup of abbreviations due to the pricing policy. We gave the lovelorn a few words for free and charged by the word over the limit. This policy begat a nomenclature all its own: SF, DWF, SWF, BM.

The whole shebang worked on the 900-number system, a relic of the pre-internet age, through which phone companies and awesome publications like the Flyer charged a premium to anyone who called. You placed your personal ad and created a voice message. Anyone who called and entered your box number could hear your spiel and call you up or run away in terror. Some of the entries are remarkably sweet and earnest, others not so much.

Our issue from June 21st ran this one: "Cowboy Scientist seeking big romance with Cowgirl Queen. Must have pets. Nirvana, Mississippi. P.S. Are you handy with a song." Aw.

But there are more like this one: "DWM [mentions driving his Porsche and then sets out what he's looking for] YOU: 32 or less, intelligent, attractive, submissive, passionate, slender, active, feminine, obedient. ... If you find me interesting and are willing to work hard to please a man, then write. Photo nice. #476"

Obedient? Believe it or not based on this entry, "D" means "divorced." Who let that gem of a guy go? Yeesh.

One thing that's apparent in looking back is how the mores of society have changed. Back then, alternative lifestyles were represented in these back pages, where today they are the defining legal issues of the times. The latter entry above is indicative of the male urge in all of its pre-feminist or oblivious-to-feminism plumage. While we now use "bro" as a pejorative term for anything overtly masculine, bros filled the columns with ads.

From spring of that year: "SHOWERMATE NEEDED: White jock, 34, 6'6, 210 lbs., needs WF water lover who enjoys showering with a friend. Approved photo required."

All of these requests fell to a young Flyer staffer, who found herself in the strange position of answering some disturbing calls and playing den mother to the city's pervs.

Some ads were just "Flyer gold." Fly on the Wall can only dream of some of the half-formed ideas found in the personals.

"SWF WANTS NON-ORGANIC SWM." I don't understand.

"WM TRAVELS TO MEMPHIS regularly, interested in meeting female members of Little People of America for discreet, sensual, mutually fulfilling encounters." One small detail left out.

On June 28th, one ad referenced U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Surely that person found love.

Some were just pure Flyer: "Own a 1/6 acre spread near Pink Palace, desire meaningful relationship to share this empire, enjoying walks through nearby woods, dining out, live reggae music and being weird."

We're still weird.


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