A Brief History of Vintage Matchmaking


We are an obsessed culture, and there are few things we tend to fixate on more than finding love. Over 41 million people in the United States have attempted to find a partner through online dating — a billion-dollar industry that banks on our desire for a connection. But services like OkCupid, Tinder, and Match.com weren’t the first computer-based dating platforms — or the first matchmakers. We spotted eight vintage matchmaking devices and services that demonstrate how dating was done before the age of the Internet.

In 1955, a small German town was blinded by science when they experimented with a mechanical matchmaking device, dubbed a “slot machine for sweethearts.” Due to a shortage of men (gasp), the machine promised to simplify dating with a few gears and the help of a “love-agent.” The automat contained photos of potential male suitors, accompanied by a detailed description of his life and likes. The women would take that to a company liaison who revealed more information and helped arrange a date. The whole process cost 50 cents. We’re tickled that the below photo of the “love-agent” resembles a James Bond supervillain.

The main component of most Internet dating sites is the questionnaire. Users answer a series of questions based on desire or preference, and the raw data is matched with users who share common traits. A 25-year-old accountant from the Bronx and a computer programmer for IBM banked on this template in 1965 when they created Project TACT (Technical Automated Compatibility Testing) for young New Yorkers living on the Upper East Side. Many of the questions were cringe-worthy, but it’s fascinating to see how early computers were put to use when it came to online romance.

Each client paid five dollars and answered more than a hundred multiple-choice questions. One section asked subjects to choose from a list of “dislikes”: “1. Affected people. 2. Birth control. 3. Foreigners. 4. Free love. 5. Homosexuals. 6. Interracial marriage,” and so on. Another question, in a section called “Philosophy of Life Values,” read, “Had I the ability I would most like to do the work of (choose two): (1) Schweitzer. (2) Einstein. (3) Picasso.” Some of the questions were gender-specific. Men were asked to rank drawings of women’s hair styles: a back-combed updo, a Patty Duke bob. Women were asked to look at a trio of sketches of men in various settings, and to say where they’d prefer to find their ideal man: in camp chopping wood, in a studio painting a canvas, or in a garage working a pillar drill. Tact transferred the answers onto a computer punch card and fed the card into an I.B.M. 1400 Series computer, which then spit out your matches: five blue cards, if you were a woman, or five pink ones, if you were a man.

The awkwardness. The bad video production. The hair, the fashion. The guy who wants to give you a bath. The guy who does fashion photography and is probably the original hipster. The guy reciting William Blake who is probably a Silence of the Lambs character. The “feminist” creep in denim with fingerless gloves and a freaking rose. The dude who brags about subscribing to Playboy and The New Yorker. The jerk who doesn’t want fatties or… hamsters. The cat lover, the nerd who cries at television commercials, and the weirdo with a viking helmet. This is video dating from the 1980s.

In the mid 1960s, a group of undergrads from Harvard invented a computerized dating service called Operation Match — the original (unofficial) Match.com. For three dollars, clients could fill out a 110-item “provocative computer questionnaire” that matched them with a compatible suitor. The answers were processed through an Avco 1790 computer, which produced a list of names. Many of the clients met and mingled at singles events, like the one advertised above. Over one million people used Operation Match during its heyday (until 1968). For the nitty-gritty, read this article on Operation Match by now famous film critic, the mustachioed Gene Shalit.

Single Londoners visited the city’s Marriage Bureau in the 1930s to find the perfect mate and hopefully get hitched. Employees slaved over a typewriter daily, printing index cards filled with their clients stats, likes, and dislikes, keeping an eye open for potential matches. Meetings between men and women were arranged in-office. “Will he be a fat man who talks with a lisp?” the video narrator hilariously ponders aloud.

The South Bay Club singles-only apartment complex brought matchmaking to the front door of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes in 1965. For every three men, there were two women at the SBC, all unmarried professionals between the ages of 21 and 35. Residents were screened and had to be “reasonably attractive. “The girls are here, really, because eventually they want to get married; the fellows just want to party and have a good time. Somewhere in between is where the fun starts,” one male resident said when interviewed. “It’s exciting for a girl with all those men around. There’s some student atmosphere — only much sexier than any college’s,” a female resident shared. The building managers also ran a multi-city singles party called the Never-on-Friday Club, which you can read about more here.

At New York City’s Wash House, you can grab a coffee or beer and get your laundry done at the same time. “We want to cater to up-and-coming young professionals who are working so hard trying to build whatever business they’re building that they don’t have time to go meet people,” co-owner Veronica Kerzner told Time. The laundry bistro is actually a throwback to the singles “washaterias” from the 1960s. Hangouts like Chicago’s Whitehouse Cleaners played matchmaker by allowing eligible men and women a place to do their laundry, chat each other up, and pour money into the jukebox while trying to keep their cool. It was the G-rated, daytime equivalent of singles nightclubs.

Scientists and researchers were excited by new possibilities in the 1920s, creating new inventions that had an impact on the public’s quality of life. If scientists could create residential air conditioning systems, surely they could teach us about our love lives. A 1924 article in Science and Invention magazine debuted an article by inventor Hugo Gernsback, who believed there were scientific ways to match partners and determine if their relationship was ripe for marriage. Gernsback created four different tests for couples that measured things like physical attraction (a quickening pulse and heavy breathing were aces), but also strange factors like body odor. That test involved smelling your partner through a hose while locked inside a chamber (as seen in the above photo). Fun fact: Science and Invention (previously the Electrical Experimenter) was known for its science fiction stories, printed side-by-side with journalistic science articles. Nikola Tesla published his studies there. It should also be noted that Gernsback was married three times.