Love, American Style

Tracing the history of courtship in 20th century America highlights the changing relationship between the sexes
“The history of women is always one step forward, half a step back,” Virginia Drachman says. Photo: Alonso Nichols
February 11, 2011

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In 1901, a young man who was smitten with a girl would wait for an invitation to come calling at her home. They would likely meet in the parlor, within earshot of a watchful mother or father.

By 1921, a young man would no longer have to play the role of gentleman caller; he could ask the woman out on a date and foot the bill for an evening of dining and dancing. By 1951, a young couple might be “going steady.” In 1971, they might be living together. Today they might simply “hook up” for the night.

American courtship, with its accompanying rituals, delights and heartaches, has changed considerably over the last century. And the ways in which men and women—or men and men, or women and women—have sought each other out and captured each others’ fancies is an engaging way to study social history, says Virginia Drachman, the Arthur and Lenore Stern Professor of American History in the School of Arts and Sciences.

This semester, Drachman is teaching a research seminar called “Courtship in America.” Among historians, she notes, there is a small but growing collection of scholarship on courtship and dating.

“I watched my two daughters go through their 20s,” says Drachman, whose research focus as a historian is on American women. “My mother, who is 90, would say, ‘That’s not the way we used to do things back in the ’30s.’ And I would say, ‘That’s not the way we used to do things back in the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s, either.’ So I thought it would be fun to historicize dating—to take something the students are involved in as part of their life and have them explore its history.”

This is the second time Drachman has offered her seminar on 20th-century romantic rituals in the U.S. The course draws heavily on primary materials from the Tufts archives. Ads and articles from campus newspapers, scrapbooks and dance cards from Jackson College co-eds and minutes from dorm meetings offer a snapshot of the evolving relationships between college-age men and women.

I'm Calling for a Date

Drachman’s course begins by focusing on the early conventions of courtship. A holdover from the 19th century, “calling” entailed a young man coming to the woman’s house at her invitation; she would entertain or meet with him in a public room. “We talk about why that occurred in that era, when women didn’t really have broad and easy access to the public sphere—home was their arena,” she says. “So the courtship took place in the woman’s sphere—the woman had some autonomy and power.”

Watch this 1950 film, What to Do on a Date, for a slice of life in mid-century America.

As the century progressed, however, calling began to give way to the more modern system of dating—and the balance of power began to shift. “Young men would invite women into the public sphere, their sphere,” Drachman says. This was a time when women in America were venturing beyond their usual public boundaries: they were voting, working, going to college. “They are not going to be limited by the conventions of calling. Dating is the moment when it becomes possible for young women to have more choices.”

In many ways, it was a sign of progress for women, who escaped the watchful eye of family. But it didn’t come without a cost. Now women had to wait to be invited, dependent on their date’s initiative. “And dating became a system of exchange,” says Drachman. “The young man invited the woman out, paid for dinner and a movie, and in return expected some kind of exchange, some kind of intimate favor.”

In the era of the “new woman,” as women were claiming more equality, “they could begin to explore their sexuality,” she says. “But the reality is that there is a sexual double standard, so they really couldn’t explore their sexuality in the same way as men.”

Nothing is all one-sided, of course. “The history of women is always one step forward, half a step back,” Drachman says. “Women gained something in the public sphere, and lost something in the private sphere.”

By the 1950s, the convention of “going steady” emerged as “a way for girls, or young women, to have sexual experiences and not lose their reputation,” Drachman says. But nothing rocked the dating world and shifted the social dynamics between men and women like the arrival in 1960 of the birth control pill and the emergence of the so-called sexual revolution.

“While going steady was an adaptation of the system of dating, the sexual revolution really was a change,” Drachman says. It paved the way for today’s sexual culture, the one in which current undergraduates are conducting their love lives. “Today, many young girls embrace the idea of engaging in sexual behavior the same as men or boys, although I think this co-exists alongside a desire for love and romance,” Drachman says. Still, the sexual double standard persists. “It is a tenacious, tenacious thing. I’m always curious to hear what my students have to say about that.”

And while social mores have evolved over the years, one constant has been the celebration—or at least the marketing—of Valentine’s Day; in fact, the custom of exchanging paper valentines goes back to at least the 1840s in the U.S.

“I think it’s about the persistence of romance,” Drachman says. “The fact is, girls still want to get something from somebody, although girls sometimes now will just send things to their friends. Clearly, Valentine’s Day is very marketed and commercial, but who cannot get through the day without having some feeling about it?”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.