As the American conception of intimacy evolves, so does society’s approach to dating. A society’s prescribed method of courtship is incredibly illuminating: As we trace the timeline of dating rituals, we can get a better sense of how Americans throughout time understood love and, by extension, the world. With the advent of new technologies (cell phones, social media, Tinder, etc.) and the changing definitions of traditional dating and families, modern dating is a more fluid and self-interpreted concept, very different from the relational context of the past. It is important to note that historically many of these mainstream rituals were strictly confined to heterosexual dating. In the early days of dating, many LGBTQ+ couples had to keep their relationships a secret for fear of suffering from stigmas and prosecution. For this reason, the history of dating tends to be quite different for the LGBTQ+ population.1
Table of Contents
Romance in early 18th century America was all social capital, decorum, and familial oversight. Dating did not yet exist in the modern sense; society instead favored a courtship model which almost entirely consisted of one long, parentally-controlled audition for marriage. Marriage during this time was less a public declaration of mutual affection and more an essential means of legally exchanging property between families. Courtship was the ritual that would allow the families to evaluate potential matches and determine if the arrangement would be advantageous.2 The courting script was usually contained to “calling,” in which the man was invited into the woman’s parlor for conversations over tea and involved a large degree of supervision. Reputation was also an essential form of social currency that required intimate guarding. A woman suspected of dabbling with too many suitors was in danger of becoming publicly regarded as a “coquette,” which essentially socially branded her as a flirt, a disparaging designation in a society that so highly esteemed chastity.2
A marriage built solely on the forces of emotion and mutual affection was scorned and perceived as irresponsible. Rather, love was regarded as the product of a constructed arrangement, eventually achieved by couples with aligned resources and values. This tradition of parental oversight was legitimized by the law, which held that guardians were permitted and expected to organize the transition of their child into a legal marriage.3
1800s & Early 1900s
The “calling” style of courtship remained in fashion for the remainder of the century, but strict parental supervision lost favor and was replaced by autonomy, and ultimately, love. By the early 19th century, romance had rapidly become the desired method of courtship. Art and philosophy began to reflect a new world view in which love was prescribed as the ideal foundation for a marriage, even taking precedent over considerations of property. This new romantic character of courtship plainly took form in the forsaking of traditional highly formalized love letters in favor of letters with a more endearing and poetic tone. But despite this move towards emotionally based relationships, the compatibility of matches was still strongly emphasized. During the courtship process, it was typical for the intended couples to divulge their perceived character flaws to ensure that a long-term commitment would be logical and feasible.4 This ritual may seem overly cautious, but in a society in which the Catholic Church was an incredibly powerful institution that prescribed marriage as an integral part of God’s plan, this was not a decision that could be made lightly. Additionally, the many legal and social barriers surrounding divorce increased the pressure to ensure that a match was suitable. Separation was often only granted on grounds of bigamy, impotence, or adultery. Women especially were impeded by the law, which still did not acknowledge them as capable of claiming possession of property or monetary assets.4
As the 20th century progressed, technological advances, such as the increasing prevalence of the automobile, provided youth with the opportunity for liberation from their parlors. In 1914, The Ladies’ Home Journal, an authority on American propriety, printed an issue about “dating,” a novel term referencing a novel concept.5 This courtship style was originally associated with less affluent youth without access to the resources or attractive homes needed to entertain. Due to this connection with the lower class, the practice was initially mistrusted by parents, but dating quickly replaced calling as the favored model of romance. In the years preceding World War II, a popularity-based system that sociologists refer to as the “dating and rating complex” developed.5 This consisted of men and women attempting to construct the appearance of desirability, a feat which was accomplished by different means based on gender: Males’ reputations depended on their ability to create an impression of wealth, while the reputation of females was based on the ability to secure the interest of popular men. A woman had to secure a large number of dates with attractive men; if she was unable to, or if she chose to exclusively date one man, her social “ratings” would suffer. In this system, dating and marriage were viewed as two very separate entities, with marriage marking the graduation from youth into adulthood.6
World War II initiated a paradigm shift that deeply impacted the way American society approached dating. No longer was quantity emphasized, but rather the stress fell on finding a loyal partner. This change was partially catalyzed by the scarcity of young males in the United States, as nearly all able-bodied men between 18 and 26 were engaged in the war effort across seas.
5 Women became less concerned with a man’s status and more interested in his likelihood of survival. Marriage also experienced a revival and was subsequently reabsorbed into youth culture: Marriage rates rose and average ages of married couples declined. The committed, monogamous label of “going steady” emerged as the ideal relationship, and dating returned to its traditional role as a marital trial. Despite increased emphasis on a single relationship, “going steady” was still a very social label. Men in the relationship would make their arrangement visible to outsiders by gifting his date a letterman jacket or a class ring, and the girl expected to be called and taken out on dates a certain number of times each week. Consequently, a new concern arose for parents: as young people grew more secure in their committed dating relationships, they became more likely to engage in premarital sexual behaviors.5
Around the mid-1960s and in conjunction with the Women’s Movement and the emergence of the birth control pill, a sexual revolution began. This movement ushered in another paradigm shift; youth rejected the prescribed dating model in favor of a more liberal approach to love and sexuality, and “hookup culture” was born, a shift that emphasizes physical pleasure rather than emotional intimacy. The Women’s Movement led to more women obtaining higher education and becoming integrated into the workforce, and more women began delaying marriage to first establish their careers. This, combined with the increasing availability of birth control, led to a relaxation in attitudes toward premarital sex. Birth control gave women power over their fertility for the first time, empowering female sexuality due to liberation from the constant risk of unwanted pregnancy.6 This new technology’s impacts compounded with social forces to produce more change. For instance, there was a rebellion against collegiate gender segregation in the 1960s resulted in the advent of unisex dormitories, allowing young men and women more unmediated access to one another.7 The loosening of stern regulations governing the interaction of men and women led to the loss of a uniformly prescribed cultural dating procedure in favor of more individually determined definitions of romance.
The 21st century and its radical technological advances further transformed the societal approach to dating. Beginning in the 1990s, dating websites revolutionized the process in unprecedented ways, removing logistical boundaries of geography and time commitments. Fundamentally, the system subverted the traditional approach to romance. Dating in the past was based on initial impression, an assessment made upon first interaction with an individual that determined whether your relationship would continue and what form it would take. In this customary method, information about the individual was learned slowly as the interactions progressed. Online dating presented this exchange in reverse, with the facts offered immediately and the decision to have an in-person interaction coming after. The dating website presented suggestions for romantic partners based on similarities in the data each person provided, the compatibility of which was computed mathematically.3 This presented a stark change from early propriety or even the free-love model of the 1960s and 1970s, a move which became further pronounced with the development of the dating app Tinder. Although apps such as Tinder have renewed emphasis on geographical closeness, the swipe-based approach has perhaps removed both the assessment of chemistry in initial reactions and the immediate access to personal information. On a Tinder screen, a user sees a potential partner’s age, photograph, location, and short self-written description before making the decision to “like” or “dislike” the individual. Although this might seem suspiciously superficial, some researchers suggest that the decision to accept or reject goes beyond mere physical attraction, claiming that users are actually picking up thousands of nonverbal signals contained within each profile that indicate compatibility.9
Regardless of whether the technological advances of the present have produced advancements or regressions in the realm of dating, it is clear that romance has undergone a variety of changes which reflect the dominant social forces at work in each stage of history.
- Morris, Bonnie J. “History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements.”American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association.
- “Courtship in Early America.” Digital History.
- “Friend of My Heart: Courtship and Marriage in Early America.” VMFA.
- Finkel, Eli J., et al. “Online Dating.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 13, no. 1, 2012, pp. 3–66.
- Bailey, Beth. “From Front Porch to Back Seat: A History of the Date.” JSTOR , July 2004.
- Walsh, Kenneth. “The 1960s: A Decade of Change for Women.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 12 Mar. 2010.
- “The Evolution of the College Dorm – Photo Essays.” Time, Time Inc.
- Bilton, Nick. “Tinder, the Fast-Growing Dating App, Taps an Age-Old Truth.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Oct. 2014.
Last Updated: 23 March 2018.