A Brief History of Courtship and Dating in America, Part 2

Mar 08, 2007 |Skip Burzumato

Struggling to understand modern dating conventions? Maybe it's because those before us have given us more than one dating system to draw from.

Part 1: A Brief History of Dating and Courtship in America

Let's turn our attention now to "dating" and the "date" itself. Where did it come from? How did it become such an important part of our courtship system? And where are we today?

According to cultural historian Beth Bailey, the word date was probably originally used as a lower-class slang word for booking an appointment with a prostitute. However, by the turn of the 20th century we find the word being used to describe lower-class men and women going out socially to public dances, parties and other meeting places, primarily in urban centers where women had to share small apartments and did not have spacious front parlors in their homes to which to invite men to call.

With the rise of the entertainment culture, with its movie houses and dance halls and their universal appeal across class lines, dating quickly moved up the socio-economic ladder to include middle- and upper-class men and women, as well as the new urbanites.

When one tries to understand how dating has changed over time, and most importantly, how we arrived at the system of courtship and dating we have today, one must realize the monumental cultural shift that occurred during the 1940s, primarily due to World War II. The courtship experience and ideals of those who grew up before World War II were profoundly different from those of teenagers in the postwar years, and the differences created much intergenerational conflict.

Beth Bailey and Ken Myers explain in the Mars Hill Audio Report, Wandering Toward the Altar: The Decline of American Courtship, before World War II, American youth prized what Bailey calls a promiscuous popularity, demonstrated through the number and variety of dates a young adult could command, sometimes even on the same night.

In the late 1940s, Margaret Mead, in describing this pre-war dating system, argued that dating was not about sex or marriage. Instead, it was a "competitive game," a way for girls and boys to demonstrate their popularity. In 1937, sociologist Willard Waller published a study in the American Sociology Review in which he gives this competitive dating system a name, which he argued had been in place since the early 1920s: The Campus Rating Complex. His study of Penn State undergraduates detailed a "dating and rating" system based on very clear standards of popularity. Men's popularity needed outward material signs: automobile, clothing, fraternity membership, money, etc. Women's popularity depended on building and maintaining a reputation of popularity: be seen with popular men in the "right" places, turn down requests for dates made at the last minute and cultivate the impression that you are greatly in demand.

One example of this impression management comes from a 1938 article in Mademoiselle Magazine where a Smith College senior advised incoming freshmen on how to cultivate an "image of popularity." She wrote, "During your first term, get home talent to ply you with letters, telegrams and invitations. College men will think, She must be attractive if she can rate all that attention." She also suggested that you get your mom back home to send you flowers from time to time, again, to give the impression of popularity. The article went on to say that if, for some reason, you did not have a date on a particular night, you should keep the lights off in your dorm room so no one would know you were home.

Beth Bailey comments, "Popularity was clearly the key — and popularity defined in a very specific way. It was not earned directly through talent, looks, personality or importance and involvement in organizations, but by the way these attributes translated into the number and frequency of dates. These dates had to be highly visible, and with many different people, or they didn't count." Ken Myers summarizes this system, "Rating, dating, popularity, and competition: catchwords hammered home, reinforced from all sides until they became the natural vocabulary. You had to rate in order to date, to date in order to rate. By successfully maintaining this cycle, you became popular. To stay popular, you competed. There was no end: popularity was a deceptive goal."

So, that is the system in place prior to World War II. After World War II the norms within the dating system began to change. By the late 1940s and early 1950s demographic realities began to sink in: There was a shortage of men.

After World War II, due in part to the fact that 250,000 men never came home, for the first time in the United States, women outnumbered men. In June 1945, New York Times Magazine predicted 750,000 women who wanted to marry would have to live alone. Around the same time Good Housekeeping captioned a photo of a bride and groom descending church steps with: "She got a man, but 6 to 8 million women won't. We're short 1 million bachelors!" Around this same time a half-serious article was published in Esquire magazine discussing the possibility of instituting a polygamous marriage system in the United States.

Due primarily to this scarcity of men, two things happened in the United States after World War II pertaining to marriage: Marriage rates climbed, and the average age of those marrying went down. However, the most striking change in postwar courtship and dating was the ever-earlier age at which children and teenagers entered the courtship and dating system. If the average age of first marriages was dropping (around age 18 for women and 20 for men) then the preparation for marriage — the shopping around, if you will — had to begin much earlier than that. One sociologist wrote in a July 1953 New York Times Magazine article that each boy and girl ideally should date 25 to 50 eligible marriage partners before making his or her final decision.

At the center of this 1950s youth dating culture was the act of "going steady," according to Beth Bailey. Going steady (or "going out" in modern language) was not a new custom, but an old custom with a new meaning. In her book, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America, Bailey says that,

[I]n earlier days going steady had been more like the old-fashioned 'keeping steady company.' It was a step along the path to marriage, even if many steady couples parted company before they reached the altar. By the early 1950s, going steady had acquired a totally different meaning. It was no longer the way a marriageable couple signaled their deepening intentions. Instead, going steady was something twelve-year-olds could do, and something most fifteen-year-olds did do. Few steady couples expected to marry each other, but for the duration of the relationship, acted as if they were married. Going steady had become a sort of play-marriage, a mimicry of actual marriage. (p. 49)

So, during the 1950s, going steady (or going out) had completely supplanted the former dating system based on popularity. And this new system had its own set of rules and customs.

For instance, there had to be some visible token (class ring, letterman's sweater or jacket) given to the one with whom you were going out. Additionally, the relationships were exclusive: Neither boy nor girl could date or pay much attention to anyone of the opposite sex. Obviously, most of these steady relationships did not result in marriage, oftentimes not lasting more than a few days or a few weeks.

Many cultural commentators have argued that this going steady system has greatly contributed to our modern culture of divorce. Every time a steady couple "breaks up," something like a mini divorce occurs, complete with a divorce settlement and custody dispute — a dividing up of the assets, property and other persons involved. Each party must return (or negotiate custody of) jackets, T-shirts, jewelry, CDs, etc. bought for each other or together. And what about friends? Who would get "custody" of mutual friends? I have known college couples, and even high school couples, to buy a pet together — goldfish, hamsters, etc., which leads to a dispute over the care-giving of a living creature.

So where are we today? Do we have a dating/rating system that values the number of dates, and has popularity as its goal, or do we have a going steady system that values what is called "serial monogamy" — a succession of exclusive and serious relationships, as a practice for marriage? Or do we have a combination of the two?

I think the answer is, "yes," "no" and "I don't know." It appears that the "script" that has developed in the closing decades of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st is, "anything goes." And, although for many years this was sold under the heading of freedom, I believe young adults over the past decade have discovered that, in fact, it has caused cultural and relational vertigo — not knowing for certain which way is up or down, and not knowing in which direction to move. Do I date one person at a time or several people? How do I know when I'm going out with a person (meaning, dating them exclusively)? How do I talk to the other person about our relationship — in modern language? When do we have the DTR (defining the relationship) talk? And what about sex? What qualifies as sex anymore — only intercourse? How about oral sex — does that "count?" For many it's utter confusion.

Out of necessity, this cultural confusion has forced Christians to re-evaluate from where we are taking our cues — from the secular culture at-large or from a wise contemporary application of what is taught in Scripture. In many Christian communities there seems to be movement toward rediscovering, or creating anew, some sort of script that conforms itself to the way God created man and woman to relate to each other. New types of courtship systems where family, friends and church communities are involved in the relationship provide support and godly counsel to individuals in a relationship.

Realizing how spiritually, psychologically and physically destructive sexual relations are outside of the bond and vow of marriage, many teens and young adults, both men and women, are committing (or re-committing) themselves to chastity. These are all encouraging signs.

It was my aim in these articles briefly to explain from where our modern courtship and dating practices have come. I hope this historical review has helped you to understand the courtship practices you have inherited, and can assist you in living more wisely, which is the goal of all Christians.

* * *

Note: If this discussion has piqued your interest and you would like to delve further into the history of courtship and dating, I recommend any of the works by Ken Myers, Beth Bailey, Alan Carlson or Leon Kass cited throughout the article. Perhaps a good place to start would be with the Mars Hill Audio Report, Wandering Toward the Altar: The Decline of American Courtship. Ordering information can be found on the web at marshillaudio.org.

Copyright 2007 Skip Burzumato. All rights reserved.

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