If you’re looking for love these days, you might spend time trying to discern the level of truthfulness on dating site profiles or swiping left on photos of those who don’t meet your standards. But in the analog world of the early 20th century, lonely people were employing a different technology: the newspaper personal ad. In “Love at Last Sight: Dating, Intimacy, and Risk in Turn-of-the-Century Berlin,” Tyler Carrington, an Iowa City native who is an assistant professor of German studies and history at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, examines the evolving landscape of love and those who attempted to navigate it. At the heart of his story is a young woman whose quest for connection ended in her violent death.
In this e-interview, Carrington discusses his extensive research, the woman around whom the book is built, and the ways in which modern dating resembles — and differs from — the search for love more than 100 years ago.
Q: Tell me the origin of this book. What led to your interest in questions about dating and intimacy in Berlin at the beginning of the 20th century? And what can you tell me about your research for “Love at Last Sight?”
A: The short answer is that this started out as my PhD dissertation at the University of Illinois. I did the research for all of this back in 2011-12 while living in Berlin for a year. It took me about nine months of research in Berlin and then about six months of processing the research back in the U.S. I then spent about six months writing the dissertation. After I left Illinois with my PhD in hand in 2014, I pitched it to Oxford and worked with them from 2015 until publication in January 2019 on shaping what once was a dissertation into a book that lots of people would want to read. This wasn’t terribly difficult, as the dissertation was really more book than dry academic dissertation; but working with my Oxford editor really helped me distill a larger dissertation into what I think is a fascinating historical study and, if I do say so myself, a riveting dating/murder narrative.
As to the topic itself, the project began really when I had hit some dead-ends in the Berlin archives and started browsing through the old Berlin newspapers from around 1900. What caught my eye were pages and pages of personal ads — there must have been 500 to 1000 per day in just one newspaper. The closer I looked, I saw people advertising all sorts of things — jobs, apartments, stuff for sale, various midwife and other services — and I imagined that there might be some fascinating stories behind some of those ads (especially the ones where you see people addressing others, making public apologies, claiming this or that item — or person — had been lost, etc.). The most interesting ads, of course, were the ones where men and women were looking for love, intimacy, marriage, companionship, maybe all at once.
So I wanted to do a study of the marriage ads, and my mentor at Illinois suggested that the ads might better be thought of as one of many types of evidence about the search for love and intimacy in the modern metropolis. And indeed, as I began looking in the archives for evidence of dating and love, more generally, I found just tons and tons of stories and documents that I then wove together into the narrative of the book. Love, dating, and marriage were really hot topics at the turn of the century, and it became clear that there was a real story to tell here.
But this is, of course, glossing over the trickiest part of the research, as actually finding materials related to love was just extremely tedious. Unlike a biography or a study of some organization or political party or war or whatever, what I was researching was a theme — love — and a concept (dating) that people didn’t really describe explicitly or at all back then. So anything and everything was a possible source, and unlike now where most documents and books and newspapers (not to mention websites and Twitter and social media — a treasure trove that would be utterly fascinating but would also present its own logistical and research quandaries) are full-text searchable, I had to get creative for how I would actually locate enough sources to tell a good story. My mentor, Peter Fritzsche, suggested starting in the daily newspapers.
Q: You use a specific life experience — that of Frieda Kliem — to frame your broader consideration of the quest for love in Berlin. What was it about Kliem’s story that stood out to you?
A: What stood out about this woman’s story — Frieda’s story — was that her life, as I gradually pieced it together from dozens and dozens of other sources (and this was not easy, either; there was no biography or cv of Frieda’s life, no place where someone wrote down “this is how it all happened” or “this is how Frieda grew up, came to Berlin, etc.”; I had to work like the police and try to piece together her life), was a fascinating microcosm of this moment in Berlin at the turn of the century, the moment where single men and women were trying to make romantic connections in the new big city but were frustrated by their failures and by all of the intimate dead-ends, and where they turned then to new technologies and approaches to try to find success and intimacy and connection.
It became clear that Frieda, who had started her own business, who had taken up a variety of activities and tried out a variety of somewhat (for the time) scandalous or at best frowned-upon relationships (with a work colleague; via bicycle riding; with casual, even live-in boyfriends; and eventually via personal ads) in the hopes of finding connection, was typical in many ways of how Berliners more generally were approaching dating and love at the turn of the century. Of course the fact that she was violently murdered was not at all typical (though there was a lot of romantic violence, to be sure), but this part of her life accentuated what I began to understand as the tremendous risk associated with this kind of romantic entrepreneurialism — being adventurous, pushing the envelope, trying out new technologies in the search for romance. “Risk” is in the title of the book because it was so pervasive for people experimenting with dating and new dating technologies at the time — people like Frieda.
Q: As the folks who have blurbed the book point out, it’s impossible to read “Love at Last Sight” without thinking about changes to the dating scene and the nature or understanding of intimacy that has been driven by the internet in the early part of this century. Beyond the notion that history often seems cyclical, what would you say are the big picture similarities and differences between Berlin in the early 1900s and the contemporary quest for love in America and around the world?
A: I think the big similarities are certainly the new technologies that are born out of a frustration with the existing methods that haven’t worked for people for a variety of reasons. Frieda was in her late 30s when she started using personal ads — by this age, most single women had given up finding love and were sort of shamed and/or forced into becoming spinsters, old maids, “aunts” (as the saying went). I write in the book about how Berliners who were legally prevented from dating and romancing in public — most notably gay Berliners — took to the new technologies of dating because they offered a chance at connection that was otherwise so difficult to pin down.
Online dating, online matchmaking, dating apps, etc. — these all offered a certain convenience, sure; but they also promised a better way of finding love; and they offered an alternate path, a way around some of the obstacles to making connection that people in the 1990s and early 2000s felt, whether this was a prejudice against same-sex love; a lack of acquaintances in a post-university, isolating work atmosphere; intimidating body and beauty expectations; or a lack of time and money for exhausting, expensive dating. These are essentially the precise reasons why Berliners a hundred years ago took to these new technologies. The similarities are really fascinating.
But the differences are also instructive, and this is where placing the lasting (and I think permanent) success of online/digital dating against the story of newspaper ad dating (which never really caught on, even though people continued to use newspaper ads through the 1970s and ’80s and even ’90s, both in Germany and in the U.S.) can be useful. Whereas the “how we met” story for relationships formed through the newspaper was always told — somewhat guardedly, even defensively, apologetically — with an acknowledgment of the (newspaper) technology itself, it seems that with digital dating we have moved beyond the method of meeting and are more interested in the quality of the relationships that are born out of digital dating.
Indeed, where “well, we actually met online” was once (like newspaper dating) something that one perhaps tried to avoid sharing, it is now merely a fun anecdote, something that perhaps even adds to the appeal of the story. This is a good thing, as the happiness and connection people feel in relationships is certainly more important than the method of how they met. But I don’t think all relationships and pathways to them are yet afforded this level of understanding and lack of prejudice, and we should probably be wary of attempts to delegitimize them under the guise of respectability and hegemonic middle-class virtue (as happened to Frieda Kliem and many others in the book).
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Q: What’s the next project in your study and teaching of — and writing about — German history?
A: I had great fun writing “Love at Last Sight,” and one of my favorite parts to narrate was the courtroom drama in Chapter 5. Perhaps it’s all of those John Grisham books I read as a kid — or the fact that I’m married to a lawyer and have a father, brother, and two brothers-in-law who are all lawyers — but I love the idea of making the past more understandable and relatable through fascinating criminal and civil cases from German history. So for my next project I am on the hunt for interesting and illuminating disputes, crimes, and legal battles that are not only fun to tell but also illustrative of some of the larger and most important issues and mentalities of the past.