The History of Courtship & Dating: Fascinating Facts

The History of Courtship & Dating: Fascinating Facts

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Throughout history, individuals around the world have sought out lasting relationships, many of which were made official through the institution of marriage. In centuries past, the courtship process was far different than it is today. “Dating” as we now know it has only existed since the late 1800s.


How did courtship and dating evolve over the past centuries and decades? Here are a few interesting facts that you might not have known!


Courtship in Past Centuries


Before the advent of modern dating, marriages were traditionally viewed as transactional bonds arranged for the sake of procreation. In ancient times, men often raided nearby villages, capturing young women and marrying them. Warriors and their new brides would often have to hide in order to escape from members of rival villages, who often sought the return of the captured women.


In later centuries, marriages were generally arranged by parents and older family members. Political and economic factors often played major roles in the matchmaking process. According to the book The Art of Courtly Love, published around the year 1190, “True love can have no place between husband and wife.” Even so, the medieval era’s emphasis on chivalry led to many of the dating customs we still know today. Wooing a woman through poetry and music, for instance, was viewed as a noble way to court a prospective partner.


One unusual courtship ritual known as “bundling” was popular throughout parts of Europe and the colonial United States during the 16th and 17th centuries. With the approval of their parents, two teenagers were allowed to sleep together in the same bed. The young pair, however, were both bundled in chastity bags, sometimes up to their necks, with a “bundling board” placed between them. The custom was meant to allow young couples to talk and get to know one another during the night, without the risk of sexual intercourse. Despite the many physical barriers used, church leaders often condemned the practice.


In general, marriages were ultimately viewed as non-romantic alliances. This view was held in most parts of the world until the 1700s, when the Age of Enlightenment led to a greater focus on individual liberties. This later paved the way for greater freedoms in the world of courtship and marriage.


Courtship in the Victorian Era


During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), courtship customs once again became highly rigid. Etiquette books were published for young adults, advising them of the many “dos” and “don’ts” of courtship. Young ladies were advised against accepting gifts from young men, as it could be seen as encouraging them, or even viewed as a form of prostitution. Only engaged lovers, according to one book, could exchange tokens of affection such as “portraits, presents, and locks of hair.” One etiquette book encouraged young gentlemen to avoid visiting “the haunts of disreputable women” and were told to “engage in every manly exercise” to become “thoroughly manly men.” Rigid gender roles were firmly enforced during this era.


One 1893 book informs men and women that dancing at balls does not necessarily permit them to talk freely with one another. Conversation is only polite, it states, once the hostess has formally introduced the dancers to one another. Before this time, the dancing partners should simply acknowledge one another by “lifting their hats in passing”. 

Men are also advised not to deceive those they are dating by flirting non-committally. According to one 1855 etiquette book, a man who has tricked a woman into believing he cares for her will likely suffer one of two possible fates; either he will feel “compelled to marry her, or will be disgraced, possibly [whipped] or shot.”


As the 20th century began, Victorian courtship ultimately disappeared. The less formal dating process we know today gradually began to take its place.


20th Century Dating


At the beginning of the 20th century, gentlemen usually continued to “call” on young ladies, visiting their family homes and being welcomed into their parlors. Here, young couples could get to know one another under the supervision of the young woman’s parents.


In the 1920s and 30s, formal courtship fell by the wayside. Instead, young couples began going out on “dates,” likely so named as a result of these get-togethers filling up all of the dates on young lovers’ calendars. Being able to go out to public dances, parties, and entertainment venues allowed young couples to spend unsupervised time together, radically transforming the courting process.


According to a sociological study of American university students during the 1930s, dating became increasingly competitive, with status symbols, materialism, and appearances all beginning to play greater roles in the dating process. Young men were often judged upon their financial standing, clothing, cars, and participation in sports and clubs. In 1938, one young female undergraduate reported that it was highly important to maintain the illusion of popularity. Receiving lots of letters, telegrams, and invitations to parties were important ways to appear desirable. Having multiple suitors was crucial to success in the dating world.

Interestingly enough, the 1950s saw the return of more serious courtship. World War II led to a decrease in available bachelors, ultimately leading to a more competitive dating field. “Going steady” once again became popular, with young teens entering into serious relationships and the average age of first marriages dropping to just 18 for women and 20 for men. Committed young couples often exchanged garments with one another, such as sweaters and rings, to symbolize their commitment to one another.


The social unrest of the 1960s, coupled with the development of birth control and the spread of recreational drug use, ultimately led to the “free love” era that created the more open world of dating that we know today. With the risk of pregnancy drastically reduced, women gained the opportunity to have sex before marriage. Today’s casual dating and “hook-up” culture is ultimately a result of the changes that began in the 1960s and 70s.


Today’s dating scene continues to change with the times. Many adults now participate in online dating, for instance. Dating and hook-up apps are increasingly popular ways to meet other singles, too.

Will the dating world become more lax in the coming decades, or will we live to see the return of more formal courtship? Only time will tell!


Photo: © anibal

Editor, 03/28/2019