A Brief History of The World’s First Dating Agency

On this day, the 29th September, in 1650, exactly 372 years ago, a man by the name of Henry Robinson opened The Office of Addresses and Encounters in Threadneedle Street, London. It was the world’s first dating agency. 

Robinson was a writer on politics, religion, abolishment of censorship and freedom of consciousness. His office was a secretive place, operating when Britain was mostly Puritan. He could in no way, shape, or form, explicitly advertise that he offered services as a dating agency, so he hid the licentious side of his office amongst legal interactions and citizens advice. This advice, which he did actually offer to peasants for free, is cited as potentially beginning the Citizens Advice Bureau. 

Despite so much ingenuity, The Office of Addresses and Encounters was a short-lived business. There is an unfortunately small amount of available documentation on the activities that Robinson undertook; which, I think, is a great testimony to Robinson’s discretion – albeit a great irritation to me.

London in 1650

Belonging to the same era as the Gunpowder Plot, the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London; I think the most commendable thing about Robinson was his capacity for thinking ahead of the curve. In the 1600s, most marriages were found through one’s own immediate circle, that is, one’s church community, neighbours, or even family. Robinson certainly didn’t invent matchmaking or marriage brokering – community elders, astrologers and priests all had their involvement in joining prospective matches together for millennia – but he was the first to refine it into a method.

Matchmakers were professional busybodies. They’d sniffle around for news and maintain up to date information on the affairs of the community. The most proficient description of this sub-section of the human species can be found in The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, where he describes the matchmaker, Miss Itani, as ‘an inveterate gossip whose profession lends itself to the exciting game of arranging marriages.’ Robinson would have spared punters the interaction with these characters in his much more effective model for dating and broadened their options.

Once a match was found courtship could begin in earnest. A man could send a woman gloves; if she wore them to church the following Sunday that meant she was interested in courting. Or one could carve a love spoon, with artwork whittled in, to send a woman a message. The early days of courtship would have involved the presence of a chaperone. After a few successful meetings, maybe the man would be invited into the woman’s room, where they could talk, share a moment, and later find themselves taking part in the incredibly bizarre yet hilarious encounter known as bundling…

A man could send a woman gloves; if she wore them to church the following Sunday that meant she was interested in courting.

Bundling

In the 1600s, bundling, or tarrying, was becoming all the rage. Parents would want to test the intentions of a man before he could marry their daughter, and this was their best tool for finding out the truth. The newly loved up couple, still pre-marriage, would be bundled into sacks – much like a pillowcase – with an additional level of protection in the form of a bundling board, slotted between them for their first nights sharing a bed. 

If they wriggled free, had sex, or accomplished some sort of handsy foolery, their intentions would be unholy. If they remained entombed in their bundling bag and didn’t cross the bundling board? Holy. Furthermore, bundling was meant to encourage chivalrous courtship between the couple. They could talk to their hearts content in the safety of the woman’s room, whilst the rest of the family listened on, or slept in the same bed in some cases.

The dreaded bundling board

If they wriggled free, had sex, or accomplished some sort of handsy foolery, their intentions would be unholy.

After this test of good intent was passed, gifts would be exchanged publicly, and the last final agreements made so the couple could marry; that is, if they hadn’t suffered a nervous breakdown whilst coddled in the chastity blanket first. Here, a new household would be formed, and the man would own anything the woman previously had before. Hopefully, all would turn out happily ever after. But if it didn’t, the woman mostly had her way out by dying young in childbirth.

Knowing more about how courtship worked in the 17th century makes Robinson’s secret revolution all the more astounding. In the midst of lovers been bundled into bags, flirted with by spoon and wooed with offerings of gloves, he saw a moment to make his mission for freedom known. Whether he had an aversion to getting stuffed into a sack, thought the established normalities were a bit strange, or set out to reinvent a whole facet of human engagement, he not only achieved his mission, but made it accessible to everyone at the same time. It’s hard to imagine where we might be without Henry Robinson… other than worryingly single and stuffed in a bundling bag.

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