A Brief History of Courtship and Dating in America

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A Brief History of Courtship and Dating in America, Part 1 [pic]by The Rev'd Skip Burzumato [pic] Whenever possible, I love to use the word "courtship" in everyday conversation with young and old alike. It's one of those words with which most people are familiar, but have vastly differing opinions of what it means. For many, courtship is an old-fashioned word. It summons visions of men wooing women with small tokens of affection and asking their hand in marriage on bended knee. For social scientists, studies of courtship usually look at the process of "mate selection." (Social scientists, among whom I number myself from time to time, will never be accused of being romantics.) For the purpose of this article the preparation for and proposal of marriage is what makes the act qualify as courtship. As cultural historians Alan Carlson and Beth Bailey put it in the Mars Hill Audio Report, Wandering Toward the Altar: The Decline of American Courtship, prior to the early 20th century, courtship involved one man and one woman spending intentional time together in order to get to know each other with the expressed purpose of evaluating the other as a potential husband or wife. The man and the woman usually were members of the same community, and the courting usually was done in the woman's home in the presence (and under the watchful eye) of her family, most often Mom and brothers. However, between the late 1800s and the first few decades of the 1900s the new system of "dating" added new stages to courtship. One of the most obvious changes was that it multiplied the number of partners (from serious to casual) an individual was likely to have before marriage. So, one important point to understand right up front (and about which many inside and outside the church are confused) is that we have not moved from a courtship system to a dating system, but instead, we have added a dating system into our courtship system. Since most young adults will marry, the process employed in finding a husband and wife is still considered courtship. However, an extra layer, what we call "dating," has been added to the process of courting. If you are familiar with computer programming terminology, you can liken dating to a sub-routine that has been added to the system of courtship. Over the course of this two-part article, I would like to trace how this change occurred, especially concentrating on the origin of this dating "subroutine." Let me begin by briefly suggesting four cultural forces that assisted in moving mate selection from, as Alan Carlson puts it, the more predictable cultural script that existed for several centuries, to the multi-layered system and (I think most would agree) the more ambiguous courtship system that includes "the date." The first, and probably most important change we find in courtship practices in the West occurred in the early 20th century when courtship moved from public acts conducted in private spaces (for instance, the family porch or parlor) to private or individual acts conducted in public spaces, located primarily in the entertainment world, as Beth Bailey argues in her book, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America. Bailey observes that by the 1930s and 40s, with the advent of the "date" (which we will look at more fully in the next installment) courtship increasingly took place in public spaces such as movie theaters and dance halls, removed by distance and by anonymity from the sheltering and controlling contexts of the home and local community. Keeping company in the family parlor was replaced by dining and dancing, movies, and "parking." A second cultural force that influenced the older courtship system was the rise of "public advice" literature as well as the rise of an "expert" class of advisers — psychologists, sociologists, statisticians, etc. At the same time that the public entertainment culture was on the rise in the early 20th century, a proliferation of magazine articles and...
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