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Old-Fashioned Love

Before Tinder or Match.com, there was the newspaper personal ad

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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?

DREAMBOAT This handsome guy not only lived on a boat, he made his own personal ad.
  • DREAMBOAT This handsome guy not only lived on a boat, he made his own personal ad.

She shares a story about a guy 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, to 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. "Until you meet and look into each other's eyes . . . " She laughs: "The old-fashioned way."

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