The Leap Day Bachelor List of 1888
Working at a library, the expression "There is nothing new under the sun" often comes to mind. Things we consider indelibly modern—graphic novels, logos, even the Internet—often have a prototype in an earlier era. Recently I chanced upon a particularly funny example.
This Monday marks Leap Day, for most of us a curiosity without much significance or tradition. But this was not always the case: Leap Day, or Bissextile as it was also known, was once recognized as a day where women could propose marriage to men, a Sadie-Hawkins-esque holiday of conventional gender role reversal. In an attempt to find historical evidence of this, I searched the library's extensive collection of digitized newspapers. I was chagrined to find, not tales of moxie and empowerment, but rather jokes and satirical reportage of women whose proposals were, well, indecent, or mockingly refused. It was, therefore, a breath of fresh air when I uncovered the January 1, 1888 edition of Chicago's Daily Inter-Ocean, and their "bachelor list."
Starting four years earlier in late December 1883, the editors of the Inter-Ocean decided that women could make better use of their quadrennial opportunity if they had a better lay of the marriageable land. So, the newspaper published an annotated list of eligible Chicago bachelors. The response was immediate:
Not surprisingly, the Inter-Ocean maintained the tradition of the bachelor list four years later, and on January 1, 1888 it published a new, updated edition. "Leap year is here again," the paper proclaimed, "and so the eligible bachelors are reviewed...a goodly list yet remaining from which young ladies may make selections." To prove the efficacy of its work, the Inter-Ocean also listed "those...exempt from the list this year by reason of having surrendered to the silken fetters of matrimony" within the intervening four years, as well as any offspring that had resulted from their unions.
But the star of the show is the list itself, which describes each bachelor in a few brief sentences, and for me, instantly calls to mind the modern-day dating profile. We see the qualities valued by our nineteenth century forbears: looks, money, and (a distant third) personality are still in demand; membership in various social clubs is also repeatedly highlighted. Intrepid online daters, laboring over ways to describe and hype themselves in increasingly fewer words, can take these ads as inspiration. Consider them a ready reference for ways to say "attractive" and "financially stable" in as many ways as possible. And, of course, to find your Gilded Age dream date.
I've collected some of my favorite bachelors here; share yours in the comments! And remember, when researching a particular person, place, topic, or historical event, our collection of digitized newspapers is a great resource. You can browse our historical newspaper databases here. Good starting points include ProQuest Historical Newspapers, America's Historical Newspapers, and Chronicling America. If you are researching a specific time period or location, our database descriptions will help you find the right database to search.
To read the 1888 bachelor list in full, visit Gale's Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers database. You can access this database from outside the library, too—just log in with your library barcode and PIN. If you are at an NYPL library, you can also view the article in America's Historical Newspapers.