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A Brief History of Matchmaking

In 2022, in the age of dating apps, there's one word that is heavily associated with matchmaking: "swipe." One swipe to the right and you may have met your match.

Dating and finding a mate has never been more accessible, but matchmaking is a practice that dates back centuries. And before the dawn of Tinder, people relied on other methods to find love, including lotteries, heading to bed as a couple while wrapped tightly in bags, and harvesting kale. Take a look at how matchmaking has evolved, from traditional matchmakers to more scientific methods.

Early Forms of Matchmaking Around the World

Kiyomizu-dera Temple and cherry blossoms during spring time in Kyoto, Japan.
Credit: f11photo/ Shutterstock

Engaging the services of a matchmaker has long been a popular way to arrange matches. In ancient Greece, a promnestria was a female matchmaker who conveyed marriage proposals, as well as negotiated the details of the match.

Marriages have been arranged in India since the fourth century. And by the 12th century, Jewish communities in Europe began turning to a shadchan, who would look at background and personalities to set up matches. In return, they were usually paid a percentage of the dowry.

Japan is another country where matchmakers set up meetings between potential mates, known as “omiai.” Omiai began in the aristocracy in the 12th to 14th centuries and spread to the general public in the Edo period (1603 to 1868). Although in the early days, saying "no" during omiai was frowned upon, these meetings remained the go-to way to find a spouse for centuries. In 1930, 69% of Japanese couples had omiai to thank for their marriage.

England's Queen Victoria, who ruled from 1837 to 1901, was also a matchmaker. She attempted to direct Europe's destiny via arranged marriages for her children and grandchildren. However, matchmaking wasn't reserved just for royalty in the U.K. — Lisdoonvarna, Ireland, saw upper-class visitors arranging matches for their children, too. By the 19th century, the town was known for making matches, and farmers began to take the train there after their harvests were in, so they could benefit from Lisdoonvarna's matchmaking talent and find wives.

Unconventional Matchmaking Traditions

View of Roman forums.
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Though turning to a matchmaker is a reliable method, it’s not the only way people went about finding a mate. During the feast of Lupercalia in ancient Rome, a matchmaking lottery was held. Women's names were placed in a jar, and men were paired with the women whose names they selected. The matches lasted for at least as long as the festival, though successful ones could be continued.

Bundling is a matchmaking tradition from rural areas of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland around the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. When a potential couple wanted to get to know each other, bundling meant they could head to bed together while courting. To make sure nothing untoward took place, the girl would be wrapped up, or perhaps placed into a bundling bag. Her legs might also be tied together. The boy might have his own bundling bag as well. In bed, a bundling board would be placed between the two. The tradition disappeared during the Victorian era.

Halloween Was Once Considered a Matchmaking Holiday

Red and yellow apples in a pail of water.
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Before Halloween focused on candy and kids, the holiday played a role in matchmaking. In Scotland, and later in America, people who were old enough to be married would be blindfolded and taken to a garden. There, they pulled up stalks of kale that supposedly foretold the traits of their future spouse. For instance, the condition of the leaves could be analyzed for any resemblance to potential matches. If there was no dirt on a stalk, it meant no dowry or money in the future. Those who sought certain matches would try to direct participants to a particular stalk in the hopes of providing kale-based evidence for this desired partnership.

Another Halloween pastime, bobbing for apples, was connected to matchmaking, too. Winning the game on the first try was said to augur true love. The game also served as a way for players to cozy up to potential mates.

Other Halloween matchmaking activities were about prognostication. One called for placing two chestnuts in a fire, each representing one-half of a couple. If the two nuts lasted without cracking, it was a sign the match would endure.

Scientific Methods of Matchmaking

Red pencil on paper with check boxes.
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As years passed, science began to gain sway in the field of matchmaking. In the 1920s, Science and Invention magazine proposed "scientific" ways to see if a couple was meant to be. One test involved assessing if men and women could handle a mate's body odor. Physical attraction was measured via electrodes that recorded pulse rates. In another test, at least one partner had to remain calm even when surprised by something like a gunshot.

The power of computers was harnessed for matchmaking, too, long before Hinge, Bumble, and Tinder began suggesting matches. Starting in the 1960s, people seeking to be paired off would pay a few dollars for the opportunity to answer a questionnaire on paper. Their answers were then transferred to punch cards that could be read by mainframe computers, which tabulated the results to find matches.

Matchmaking Today

Man and woman holding hands with engagement ring.
Credit: Syda Productions/ Shutterstock

Many of the traditions used throughout history still take place today but have evolved with the times. Though omiai became less popular in Japan after World War II, the practice continues: In proxy omiai, parents get together with other parents seeking partners for their children. If the parents agree, the potential couple can have their own omiai.

An estimated 90% of marriages in India continue to be arranged through family or third-party matchmakers. Present-day brides and grooms usually have the opportunity to meet before their wedding, or at least talk and exchange photos. And although not in wide use, a shadchan still serves Jewish communities.

Lisdoonvarna, Ireland, also continues to draw on its matchmaking fame. Every year, a Matchmaking Festival is held for people searching for mates. The rest of the year, Lisdoonvarna's matchmaker uses the mail and telephone calls to set up matches.

In addition to companies that offer matchmaking services, friends often become matchmakers. It was a friend who set up Vice President Kamala Harris with now-husband Doug Emhoff, for example. And a mutual friend introduced Meghan Markle to Prince Harry. So if no other matchmaking method appeals to you, consider consulting your social circle for assistance.