10 Fascinating Facts About the Evolution of Dating and Courtship
The rituals of courtship have evolved over time, and what is considered romantic today would have been scandalous, if not criminal, less than 100 years ago. As revealed in Moira Weigel's Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, a remarkable history of the subject, here are 10 things you might not know about dating and courtship over the years.
1. IT WASN'T ALWAYS CALLED "DATING."
According to Weigel, “date,” in the context of relationships, reaches back to 1896. It was first used in a newspaper column in which a young man laments that his girlfriend is seeing other people—that they are "fillin' all my dates," as in "the dates on her calendar."
2. IN 1900, DATING COULD BE A FELONY.
At the turn of last century, dating was still a new concept and law enforcement wasn't sure what to make of it—but they were sure something sordid was going on. A young man and woman meeting in public, him buying her food, drink, and gifts: well, it was veritable prostitution in the eyes of authorities, and women could be arrested for it.
3. DATING INTRODUCED PRIVACY TO THE PROCESS OF COURTSHIP.
Ironically, a man and a woman meeting in public was the best way to have some privacy. Before dating, courtship involved suitors calling on prospective partners in the family home. And since McMansions were not yet a thing, it meant the parlor or kitchen, where there were always eyes and ears close by.
4. DATING QUICKLY BECAME A BIG BUSINESS.
Before dating came into the picture, "courtship" and "calling" were conducted with the express goal of marriage. It was a family affair, as callers meant heirs, property, and happiness. The newly established dating industry, however, had other goals in mind. Marriage would hurt business. "For the first time in human history," writes Weigel, "dating made it necessary to buy things in order to get face time with a prospective partner. This remains true today."
5. CONSUMER GOODS WEREN'T ALWAYS PART OF COURTSHIP.
Whereas before, the compatibility of prospective couples was determined by land, status, and wealth, with the onset of industrialization and the rise of the middle class, consumer goods became a go-to method for determining compatibility with a potential partner (e.g., comparing phones or favorite albums.) "Taste" would become a central element of courtship, and is still used to telegraph status today, however subtly.
6. DEPARTMENT STORES CHANGED EVERYTHING.
Department stores brought those of humble means into contact with those of wealth. The shopgirl selling fashion learned to imitate her buyers, and labels would come along that could let anyone look rich. "Driven by anxiety, as well as romantic ambition," writes Weigel, "the shopgirl drove a kind of arms race. The more effectively she sold fashion and beauty culture to her clients, the more mandatory participation in that culture became. It was just what the economy needed."
7. WEARING MAKEUP HAS ITS ROOTS IN DATING.
Before the 1900s, the only women who wore "painted faces" were actresses and prostitutes. (Previously, a natural look, it was said, demonstrated "clean living.") To make their product mainstream, the cosmetics industry renamed their goods "makeup," with the lofty, admirable goal of "making oneself up" to express femininity.
8. EVEN 18TH-CENTURY PARENTS ALLOWED SERIOUS COUPLES TO FOOL AROUND.
Societal mores before the 20th century weren't so rigid as you might think. According to Weigel, "In the United States, a long tradition gave courting couples tacit permission to engage in sexual behavior so long as they stopped short of intercourse." Young couples could sleep in the same bed, provided they were each "tarried," or sewn into cloth sacks. "Benjamin Franklin reminisces about how the parents of his first marriage prospect encouraged him to fool around with their daughter. They would invite him over and leave the two of them in the parlor alone. Versions of this wink-winking permissiveness toward serious couples persisted up through the Calling Era."
9. HIPPIES WERE LATE TO THE FREE LOVE GAME.
With the rise of Marxism and feminism in the 1800s came the belief by some activists that marriage was itself "sexual slavery." Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, described herself as a "free lover" with the inalienable right to love whomever she chose, whenever she chose, for however long she chose, "and with that right," she said, "neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
10. THE "BIOLOGICAL CLOCK" PANIC WAS BASED ON BAD NUMBERS.
Warnings of the so-called "biological clock" first appeared in the 1970s and quickly gained traction as a major source of anxiety for women in the workforce and an impediment to career advancement. (A direct sexism came with this; the male biological clock was ignored completely, giving men all the time in the world to "play the field.") But heavily quoted "clock" statistics were tragically flawed, drawn from French birth records from 1670 to 1830. As one journalist explained, "millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment."