Monday, January 9, 2017


Sometimes, when you start an article like this, you don't end up where you expected.  This is one such example.

 Young couple, 1910s or 1920s by appearance of clothing.

Lex Anteinternet: 11 Skills Your Great-Grandparents H...:  Here's another entry from with some interesting items: 11 Skills Your Great-Grandparents Had That You Don’t.  I started to run through some of these awhile back and post on the, and then frankly some of them got incorporated into other thread.  Here's one that I flat out haven't posted on, but perhaps I should.  "Courting".

The Ancestry item stated the following:
1. Courting
While your parents and grandparents didn’t have the option to ask someone out on a date via text message, it’s highly likely that your great-grandparents didn’t have the option of dating at all. Until well into the 1920s, modern dating didn’t really exist. A gentleman would court a young lady by asking her or her parents for permission to call on the family. The potential couple would have a formal visit — with at least one parent chaperone present — and the man would leave a calling card. If the parents and young lady were impressed, he’d be invited back again and that would be the start of their romance.
This may seem trivial, but if you think of it, it truly isn't.  Wars come and go, political movements rise and fall, but the interaction between men and women, in spite of the confusion some such as Justice Kennedy may have about it, is truly eternal and crosses all cultures at all time.

Which means that changes in the culture regarding this are huge in implication, but which also likely means that some things change less than we might at first suppose.  Let's take a look at this (and please add comments if you have any), and let's focus in the era that the blog supposedly focuses on and which we've been focusing on to some degree recently.  It'll be interesting to see what changes there have been, what the norm was and is, and what that means (maybe).

And let's start with average marriage age:


Males Females
1890 26.1 22.0
1900 25.9 21.9
1910 25.1 21.6
1920 24.6 21.2
1930 24.3 21.3
1940 24.3 21.5
1950 22.8 20.3
1960 22.8 20.3
1970 23.2 20.8
1980 24.7 22.0
1990 26.1 23.9
1993 26.5 24.5
1994 26.7 24.5
1995 26.9 24.5
1996 27.1 24.8
1997 26.8 25.0
1998 26.7 25.0
1999 26.9 25.1
2000 26.8 25.1
2001 26.9 25.1
2002 26.9 25.3
2003 27.1 25.3
2005 27.0 25.5
2006 27.5 25.9
2007 27.7 26.0
2008 27.6 25.9
2009 28.1 25.9
2010 28.2 26.1

Hmmm. . . not quite as big of change as you might have supposed, I'm guessing. Correct?

Indeed, I'm betting you were thinking that the average marriage age in 1890, when this table started, was probably in the teens for girls/women and just above that for men.  Well, not so much.  It was 22 years of age for women, and in 2010 it it was 26.1.  An an increase of four years, which is significant I'll admit.  For men it was 26.1 and now its 28.2.  An increase of only two years (but which is telling in other ways).  For 1920, the year closest to 1916 and 1917, which we've been focusing on, the average male age for marriage was 24.6 (a slight depression from what it had been in 1910) and it was 21.2 for women, a drop in age 1890 and from 1910, for that matter, although only slightly.  Something was going on there.

Why are we starting here, by the way?  Well, that's telling because that's the direction that courting or dating, or whatever, leads.  Or, as the school ground rhyme in common circulation for generations goes:

[Name] and [Name]
sitting in a tree,
First comes love,
then comes marriage,
then comes baby
in a baby carriage

Or, if you prefer Sinatra, the barely altered lyrics from the playground The Kissing Song to Love and Marriage.

Love and marriage, love and marriage
They go together like a horse and carriage
This I tell you, brother
You can't have one without the other.

Love and marriage, love and marriage
It's an institute you can't disparage
Ask the local gentry
And they will say it's elementary
Try, try, try to separate them
It's an illusion
Try, try, try, and you will only come
To this conclusion.

Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage
Dad was told by mother
You can't have one, you can´t have none
You can't have one without the other
Try, try, try to separate them
It's an illusion
Try, try, try, and you will only come
To this conclusion

Love and marriage, love and marriage
They go together like the horse and carriage
Dad was told by mother
You can't have one, you can´t have none
You can't have one without the other
No sir.

A lot of pop sociology would have you believe that a century ago everyone was on their way to being married by 18, if not younger.  Well, whatever the process was, that clearly wasn't the result.  Indeed, for reasons that we'll get into below, while there were undoubtedly some young marriages, the upper limit for marriage was likely quite a bit older, especially in some demographics, than generally supposed.

Well, that's marriage, let's get back to how those men and women got married.  Let's discuss courting.

And we'll do that by first discussing dating.

Now, I know that sounds counter-intuitive, based on what we started off with above, but it isn't, as that's the process we're actually generally familiar with.  If there's a change, we need to start with what we know to know what the change was from.  It's evolved a great deal over the years but not so much that its not fairly recognizable throughout its history, which gets back to the fact that the close attention to this sort of thing tends to overemphasize changes to some degree.

Dating is a process by which, in very general terms, young men and young women self identify somebody they are interested in and "ask them out".  The process is generally under the control of the actor, rather than somebody else, but this may be less the case than people sometimes suggest, depending upon the circumstances.  Certainly in the case of young people on their own, or largely on their own, they act relatively independently in making these actions.  Usually (although not always) a young man identifies an young woman he's interested in, and approaches her and asks if she'd like to go do something. Attend a movie, go to lunch, whatever.  That's pretty much what the initiation of dating is like.  Some sociologists, or perhaps pop sociologists, will claim that the young no longer date, but that's bunkus.  Learned or allegedly learned people who maintain that do so as they have an odd view that dating was defined in reality by the 1970s series Happy Days. Apparently they never saw The Best Years of Our Lives, which would be a more instructive cinematic portrayal.

Dating, as an institution (if it is one) or as social behavior, had its common spread, as noted, in the 1920s and not largely before (although its dangerous to take that too far).  The reason that it came into play at that time had to do with the increase in education, and not just at the college level, although that played a big part of that.  Starting in the 1920s there was a notable increase, although nothing like that after World War Two, of young people, male and female, attending college and university.  Indeed, the joke about young women going to college for their "Mrs Degree" probably originates at about that time and was even barely hanging on, albeit barely, when I went to university in the 1980s.  Anyhow, as universities were remote from where people grew up, usually, that meant that you had a population ranging from the late teens to the early 20s that was living away from home and therefore the traditional Courting, which we will get to in a moment, didn't quite make sense and they had to act, somehow, on their own.  More on that later.

I'd note before we go on, however, that this same era saw an increase in people going all the way through high school. We're so used to this now that we just assume it always was, but that is very much not the case.  Even in the 1940s somewhat less than half of all Americans did not graduate from high school   Sticking it out through high school is really a post World War Two phenomenon.  However, attending high school had become common by the early 20th Century, which isn't necessarily the case for earlier eras and with each passing year more people stuck it out.  This tends to be missed in the stories about Dating and Courting but that plays a real role in the story.  Prior to this being common, young women were part of their households quite  early, but not out in public the way that they were in school. The same is true for young men.

And, added to that, as we will shortly see in this month's late month's post, employment of the young in industry of all types, male and female, was seeing a big increase in this era as well. That had a similar impact on this story to school.  Again, in a rural, and perhaps even agrarian, society people didn't move around much, and tended to know the people they knew, whom their parents also knew.  But if you were working in Boston as a teenager in an office. . . well.

Teenage worker, about 15.  She'll appear again later this month.  Probably in her case she's an Irish immigrant and school is over for her.

Teenage office boy, a very common employment for smart young men who were not attending school.  I'm not saying that the young man here and the young woman above were dating, but I am saying that young men in this situation and young girls in the photograph above were meeting each other in a context outside of being residents of neighboring farms.  Again, this young man will appear again later this month.

Added to that, it was also the case that the American population has always been a lot more mobile than people tend to recall now.  People like to imagine that up until some time recent, say the 60s or 70s, everyone grew up in the same town and always stayed there.  In truth, in the United States, there was always a significant element of the population for whom that wasn't true.

For example, in the American West the population tended to be all immigrants, if only internal immigrants by majority, well into the 20th Century and Wyoming remains peculiarly prone to this as 55% of the state's population came in from somewhere else.  In 1916 it would have probably been something like 70% or higher.  In the 1890s almost everyone, save for the Indians, had come in from somewhere else. Some of these, to be sure, were entire families that moved in, but an awful lot of these people were young men and young women (far more men than women) that had immigrated to this region.  The traditional concept of courting, which we haven't really gotten into yet, obviously wasn't going to work for these people and rather what they did to meet each other was much more akin to what we'd call dating.

By way of a personal example of this, my paternal grandfather was from Dyersville Iowa but left there at age 13.  When he married he was living in Denver, Colorado.  I'm not sure of the details of how he met my paternal grandfather, but I know that it wasn't through a process exactly like that mentioned above.  Rather, I suspect he met my grandmother at Mass and the relationship started there, but his parents would have had no role in that and its likely his parents never met her parents, ever.

Likewise, in big cities there were huge populations of immigrants, and they were often young without their parents. Again, by way of a personal example, my father's grandmother came from Ireland at age 3, with her sister who was 19.  The family could only afford to send two people out of Ireland, so t hey sent the youngest and the oldest, figuring that was giving the youngest a good chance at life and that her 19 year old sister was older enough to take care of her, which she did.  Both married in the United States.  I have no idea how they ended up in Denver, but again, their parents not only didn't play a role in their "courtship", they never saw their parents again. . . ever.

All of which might go to suggest that the traditional concept of "courtship" and "courting" might be off the mark to some degree, as well as that as a revolutionary change to "dating".  While there was definitely a change, and we don't dispute that, the basis for that change was not only much broader than generally claimed but it also went back quite a bit further than people imagine.  That is, it's nice, or repressive, depending upon your view and whether you are a sociologist, to imagine a world which, prior to the 1920s, every young introduction was arranged by the family according to a rigid set of rules, but it just isn't true.  Something did change, but the degree to which you'd recognize it would depend a lot on your place in society and where you lived.  If you were living in Cheyenne  or Denver, for example, it might not have been that much of a change, although there definitely was one, than you would have noticed in Crab Apple Cove, Maine. 

Well, having defined dating, a bit, what is courting?  According to, and we'll repeat the definition, its as follows:
A gentleman would court a young lady by asking her or her parents for permission to call on the family. The potential couple would have a formal visit — with at least one parent chaperone present — and the man would leave a calling card. If the parents and young lady were impressed, he’d be invited back again and that would be the start of their romance.
That's probably a fairly accurate, general, definition of courting.

It's also not really the idea that people have now when they hear the word. No, they tend to think of something like out of the Duggar's television show.  That sort of relationship is defined by something like this:
Courtship is a relationship between a man and a woman in which they seek to determine if it is God’s will for them to marry each other. Under the protection, guidance, and blessing of parents or mentors, the couple concentrates on developing a deep friendship that could lead to marriage, as they discern their readiness for marriage and God’s timing for their marriage. (See Proverbs 3:5–7.)
That definition comes from a Fundamentalist Christian website which likely has a Duggar like view of courting.  The emphasis in the text is from the original.  Is that courting? Well, maybe of a type, but its relationship with traditional courting might be relatively strained.  Indeed, to take the Duggar example, that sort of "courting", which many people have in mind when they hear the word, is actually somewhat closer to being an Arranged Marriage.  When people hear of "arranged marriages" they tend to think of something that happens in India today, or that they imagine to have been common in distinct social groups of the pat, but that's actually quite a bit closer to what we see described above.  That's evidenced by the fact that its not that uncommon to find examples of brides in particular refusing arranged marriages.  That is, in that "courtship" phase they made up their minds that Billy Bob, or whomever, was a dud and they rejected the counsel of their parents and prospective in-laws, often to upset their feelings, but nonetheless.  Anyhow, we shouldn't really assume that the Duggar's or those of like mind are "courting" but rather what they're really doing is testing the waters, barely, on an arranged marriage.

Match, one of those on line dating, or whatever, sites defines it, on the other hand, defines courting like this:
"Courtship" is a rather outdated word used to describe the activities that occur when a couple is past the dating stage and in a more serious stage of their relationship. It happens before the couple becomes engaged or married and is usually meant to describe when a man is attempting to woo a woman, with marriage as the end goal. Dating has a more informal connotation and implies that the couple is not necessarily exclusive.
That's likely more accurate, quite frankly, than the one with the bold text cited just above but it isn't exactly accurate in a historical sense either.  Rather, what that describes is a stage of dating that often had no defined term that applied to it, and still tends not to have one.  In high school terminology that term used to be "going steady" and that seems to have crept down from the use of the term in the 30s and 40s by people in their 20s and 30s, but by and large it tends to have no real term and courting isn't really it.

Not that this matters. What we're seeking to do is to look at the practice that preceded dating.  If we've diverted a bit in regards to the definition of "courting" its to try to disrupt the preconceived notions of what that is. So, if you have in mind something like one of the many Duggar's and whatever they are doing, push it out of your mind.  If you have in mind something like what Match is stating, push that out too.

So what was it.

Well, basically defines it, but as we've already noted from our discussion above, that couldn't have been as widely applicable in society pre 1920, or at least as strictly defined, as people might believe. And we have to look at by culture and economic status.

The question when we do a thing like this is how far back to we actually go?  A person can keep going back and back until their analysis becomes completely useless.  If we go back, for example, to tribal societies we're not going to be really learning anything as their conditions of life are different and, of course, we're outside of the era that we're trying to focus on even though we would, quite frankly, learn some things.

 Tinglit couple.

So we'll start with the Medieval era.

Already, no doubt, people are rolling their eyes thinking that nothing that far back can be relevant.  Well, we just saw a post, we should keep in mind, in which erudite pundit George F. Will stated that in the mid 19th Century Americans lived in a world "more Medieval than modern", and while I disputed that and still do, there's something to that.

People were, of course, getting married and giving in marriage in the Medieval era and, in spite of what some now imagine, all the common problems and vices that exist in the current world existed then as well, and certainly did in regards to human interactions.  When we think of marriages in the Medieval Era we most often think of the marriages of monarchs which are, quite frankly, a really hideous example.  Most people were not monarchs.  Marriages of royalty had a power broking quality to them as long as monarchs amounted to a hill  of beans and, quite frankly, they're still rather strange in some ways.  So we shouldn't look to them except to note that they were often arranged for political reasons.

For common people, however, none of this is true.  They chose their own spouses and men and women had the freedom to find and contract a marriage.  That's actually much like today, other than that their world was very immediate.  Is that courting?

It probably is, given the context of the world in which they lived.

In that world most people knew everyone they were ever going to know from birth on.  People moved very little, as a rule, and classes that did move, were suspect.  Given that, for most people, their spouse was somebody that they knew very early on and therefore they knew their characters very early on.  When they were "of an age to marry" something like courting occurred, but in a highly natural and informal way.   You don't really need to be introduced to the parents of your future spouse if you've known them for two decades, in other words.

Now, no doubt, some formal interaction between families occurred in this context, but probably much less than people typically imagine.  Indeed, contracting a marriage itself was blisteringly informal, contrary to what people now imagine.  At least up until the 1050s all of Europe was Catholic which gives people the concept that all marriages were formalized in a Mass like Catholic weddings today but in fact that's not true and indeed it doesn't reflect the Catholic, or Orthodox, concept of marriage today.  Marriages are actually preformed by the couple themselves and that's exactly how they were in the Early Medieval period.  A couple that decided to marry simply determined that they would and exchanged their promise to be spouses.  "Church marriages", as we now have them, came about slightly later for most people (they were a feature of the marriages of nobles already, but for another reason) which was in large part because the Church was seeking to protect the rights of women.  It was too easy for men to disavow a hastily contract marriage free of any obligation which was bad for obvious reasons so the  Church, as a matter of Canon law, started requiring all marriages to be in Church in order that both the solemn nature of the obligation was obvious and so that their were witnesses.  Piers Plowman, in other words, couldn't disavow his marriage to Edyth Weaver by simply saying "nope, didn't happen".

Going forward, the conditions described above were the conditions for the great mass of people up until at least t he industrial revolution.  In the later phases of this, as we enter the Renaissance and on into the  Age of Enlightenment, we did get a courtly class, or rather one of minor nobility, that while not rich was rich in comparison to most people and that is where we get much of our current romantic nature of courtship for those who have that image in mind when they think of "courting".

If you are so inclined you can find about a million Georgian era paintings of courtship in this context.  Think of every courtship described by Jane Austen and you are there.  The romance between all the male and female characters in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility defines this type of courtship and the descriptions, while highly romantic, are fairly accurate.  Fairly accurate, of course, for that class.

Indeed, while providing an historical record of courtship was not their intent, the two fairly recent movies made out of those Jane Austen films provide, as do the books themselves, a nice depiction of courting behavior amongst the English landed class, and indeed amongst the European landed class (it occurs to me that I need to add those films to our Movies In History series).  I'm cautious about mentioning movies in the context of historical analysis, but in some instances they portray it very well and the books noted and the films based on it do a nice job of this.  I suspect the book Emma does as well, although I haven't read it, but the film based on it and set in contemporary Los Angeles, Clueless, has an odd courtly feel to it in spite of its setting, which might say something about the nature of courting and dating that we will get to later.  Another book that excellently portrays the same thing, in the same class, but in a different setting, is War and Peace, although in my view War and Peace has never been successfully made into a decent film.

Anyhow, if you want to get the classic romantic portray of courting these texts give really good examples of it.  Generally, the young female characters identify suitors and hope to secure their attention in a public venue of some sort, and then its up to the suitor to make his introduction in some fashion, usually in a relatively formal way.  Pride and Prejudice provides good examples of successful and unsuccessful attempts of this type. The activities that are depicted tend towards gatherings and sometimes outdoor venues and activities of some sort.

In all these texts you can get hints that things didn't quite work the same way for lower classes, but only hints.  For the most part, as they lived in a smaller world, their conduct in these regards remained much as it had always been except, perhaps, in urban areas where underclass communities were obtaining a reputation for lawlessness and immorality which, while exaggerated, wasn't wholly undeserved.  In any event, if Jane Austen's novels remain popular it isn't because they describe something fully alien to us, although they certainly do in part, but rather because the opposite is true.

Young couple, at the races. 1910.

Across the Atlantic, where there were fewer people to engage in courtly behavior and where there was a large class of yeomanry well into the 19th, and even 20th, Century we could skip much of what's depicted in these novels and just get to the rule, which was that bay and large people tended, outside the Frontier, to meet somebody in a very local circumstance and much of what was described in the introductory paragraph was correct, although it would have been much less alien than described.  For people, for example, growing up in a farming community in the Midwest chances are high that they all attended the same community events and attended the same churches, so they met each other routinely well before they were "courting".  Courting probably actually reflected, in that context, that they were moving on to the "steady" aspect of what was described for dating, and that's why the families took it seriously and began to interact with each other differently.

 Two young couples.  Migrant farm workers in Louisiana and their children, 1939.  Probably none of these people met by "dating", and maybe not by "courting".  Off topic, note nice example of newsboy cap on man in center.

This is also why some period literature strikes us as more odd than Austen's novels.  If we read, for example Giants In The Earth's sequel Peder Victorious we are presented with the shocking proposition that young Peder marries an Irish girl from the farming community.  Now this wouldn't seem that weird, but if we take into account that communities were very tight knit religiously and ethnically, it would have been.

We have to modify all of this to take into account ethnicities, in fact, which impact all of this, as well as geography.  Some ethnicities had very distinct courting customs that persevered in North America at least for awhile, while others died out but still left a bit of an impact.  In Ireland, for example, a custom existed requiring the introduction of a male suitor to the family by way of a Babhdóir, who acted both as a matchmaker and as a chaperon in the early stages of the relationship.  This process involved such things as rides in "dog carts" and the like and if it progressed, when it became serious, involved the woman's family touring the home of the male suitor, to see if it was suitable for their daughter if they married.  This sort of process is depicted in the film The Quiet Man, although at a point at which it had no doubt largely waned (a better depiction of 20th Century customs is given in the novel and the film Durango).  The Irish do not seem to have imported the custom to the United States, but well into the mid 20th Century the majority of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans met their spouses at church or in Catholic schools.  My parents, I'd note, met just that way (church) and I'm fairly certain that my father's parents (she was an Irish American, he was a German American) met that way also.  At least one of my cousin's met her spouse that way as well, so this does keep on keeping on.

A remotely similar custom existed in Jewish communities in some, but not all, regions of Europe and in the United States in that initial meetings between couples were made by a Shadchan, a matchmaker. There's a common idea that all such individuals were professionals but that's erroneous.  The role was simply that played by a person making the introduction.  Unlike other matchmaking traditions, this one actually lives on in Orthodox Jewish communities due the strict criteria that exist for the entire courting process in those communities, that process serving a singular purpose.

A really good depiction of southern European courting is given to us by the move The Godfather in which the highly formalized tradition in Italy is depicted.  That tradition did somewhat carry on in the form of a big meeting of the parents event, although that's common to courting and even dating in general.  The recently film Brooklyn depicts such an event, in the context of dating.
All that's well and good, as noted, but once we get out of rural areas it broke down.  Marriages certainly took place but the meetings were obviously much less formal and look a lot more like dating, quite often.  And hence, the problem, as we will see, in actually distinguishing if this tradition is real or simply something similar to a larger process.

Anyhow, in the rural West a lot of unattached young men simply met young women, somewhere.  Typically, for men part of a cultural community such as a religion or ethnicity, they met them there. The idea that all young men were cowboys who met barmaids or soiled doves is erroneous.  Of course, meetings weren't limited to churches, but men grossly outnumbered women and the presence of an unattached young woman drew attention fairly readily.  Invitations to dances,and the like, drew suitors, but suitors whose families were often quite remote.  As homesteading advanced, ranching families tended to know each other but it wouldn't be correct that the courting that subsequently developed was of the really formal type discussed above.  Some of it would resemble that, but not much.

Women were so small in numbers in some communities that crossing big cultural boundaries was quite common.  It's well known that Frontiersmen routinely married Indians and quite often those marriages were successful in spite of a huge cultural gap between the spouses. This continued on into the 20th Century and its not uncommon to find men with rural occupations marrying into nearby Indian Tribes or, further south, into preexisting Hispanic communities.  Like the French, Hispanic communities were broad in their views towards other cultures and did not object to intermarriage at all, as long as the Catholic religious views of the Catholic spouse were respected.

As the Frontier populated with men, some men became sufficiently lonely that they simply skipped courting entirely, which of course required a like minded women to do the same.  This resulted in the "mail order bride" and something that might be called speed courting, which again was surprisingly common.  A newstory from 1916 gives us an example of this:
Chicago Girls Want Husbands
CHICAGO:  So many Chicago girls want to go back to North Dakota as wives of bachelor farmers who were here on special train for the stock and horse show, that an official cupid committee  has been announced.  It is announced that a committee will take charge of all love letters and see that the right girl gets tho right man.
The author of that article seemed somewhat skeptical of the phenomenon, and I have to say that I am as well.  But it is true that unattached young women, and not always single immigrants as often depicted in film and in story, did sometimes arrange to travel by train to meet a fiance in the West that they knew not at all, thereby really taking their chances.

Well, what of all of this?

Starting off on all of this I noted that I didn't end up in this article where I thought I would. And the reason is that I'm not really convinced that things have changed as radically as people suppose here and that our grandparents therefore had some special skill that younger generations lack, although I think there is a little to it, as I'll note below.

The reason that my view changed in these regards is that I think that dating and courting, as we've defined them above, are actually just basically two sides to the same coin and not as different as we might suppose.

Dating, as we have noted, came in during the 1920s, or so we're told. But as we have also noted, ti seems fairly clear that something like dating existed in some places, for much of the same reasons it later would, quite a bit earlier.  If Joe Smith, cowhand who is filing for a small homestead, rides into town and asks Mable Jones outside of the Methodist Church on Sunday morning if she'd like to attend the ranch dance at the Goose Egg next Saturday, are they courting, or dating?  Smith's parents probably live in Arkansas, and Jones in Maine.  No family introductions will be occurring.  I think that's dating.

For that matter, if Otto Ungs asks Gertrude Meis if she would like to attend the St. Patrick's Day picnic that the Irish at Holy Ghost are putting on next Thursday in downtown Denver, are they dating or courting, even if Meis' parents like in Denver and will be there?  Hard to say, but it crosses some line a bit.

And I think what we've really seen, to a large degree, is that there's been some societal evolution that's confused us a bit on what we've seen.  We can see that in the history of dating, actually.

Much is made of the "went to college" aspect of dating vs. courting. And there's something to that.  But unless we are prepared to accept the idea that the relatively few people who attended college in the 20s and 30s had a massive influence on the behavior of the many who did not, younger than them, we have a bit of a problem here. And I've already suggested that the spread of "dating" was due to wider reasons than the increase of the college aged population after World War One.

 Cinema exploiting the exotic nature of college, to most Americans, and single couples in a movie being made at Columbia University in 1927.  Films inform our concept of things and movies like this probably continue to influence our concept of this story today.

Well I doubt that.

And if we look at dating over time, I think the doubt is born out.

We've already explored the somewhat fluid nature of society and of this entire process above. But what I didn't emphasize there is that society itself was generally more balkanized, if you will, than it now is.  Indeed, it was by quite some measure.

Let's start with the college example, to which so many people routinely cite.  Yes, young people did attend alone, as noted, but who attended?  Well, mostly white Protestants attended.

Indeed, depending upon the school, being a Protestant and of means was practically necessary.  So, if a person was going to Princeton or Yale, they were Protestants and of sufficient means to attend.  Most of the Ivy League schools, in fact, had chapel requirements until well after World War Two.  So, for those dating young people at these schools, they were dating very much within their classes.  It wouldn't be very likely for much wide mixing to occur in this context and if it did, it was likely to be withing Protestant confessions.  Not that this couldn't be a problem, it could be, but it wasn't likely at all, for example, for Jewish or Catholic college students to be anywhere in this mix.

This gets more blurred, however, when you start considering state colleges, which were already well up and running.  They had wider diversity than the Ivy League, but there were still wide demographics that did not attend them.  So, for them, you might get a sort of wider mixing portrayed well (but still somewhat out of the context we're describing) by the movie A River Runs Through It, in which we see a young college educated Presbyterian man meet a young woman, who has dropped out of college, who is a Methodist, back in their Montana home town.

 Sharecroppers dance, 1939, Oklahoma.

Otherwise the demographic factors already discussed were in operation.  People met their spouses within the group of which they were part, which is still the case today, but the groups are larger.  Many people met at church.  People certainly met at school, but schools were generally local.  In areas with distinct ethnicities the schools reflected that.  In areas where there were sufficient numbers of Catholics there were Catholic schools (and still are) and Catholic students met each other there.  In large enough cities this was sufficiently the case that such schools might even reflect distinct ethnicities.  Denver had, and still has,  Polish Catholic school, where students learn Polish.  Salt Lake City has an excellent Greek Orthodox school.  There are Jewish schools in some areas, and even where there are not where there are large Jewish communities Jewish children will often attend "Hebrew School" to learn aspects of their faith.  Mormon students even today attend an institution which Mormons refer to as "seminary" although its distinctly different than what that means in the typical context.

Continuing out, even public schools reflected this.  Prior to really good school transportation all the students in a rural school were from the immediate area.  Black students were, in areas with large black populations, subject to segregation.  And so on.

And, in many ares of the country, communities themselves were very much made up of people who were like each other.  This is still true, of course, but was more so at the time.  Taking another movie example, albeit one that was depicting its own era, the film Marty does a good job of depicting dating at the time it was filmed in the 1950s.  Notable in it is that it depicts a romance and conditions all amongst people who are of the same basic class, background and religion.  Another, more recent and fairly accurate depiction is given by the film Brooklyn.

 Dancing young couple, San Angelo Fat Stock Show, San Angelo Texas, 1940s.

If this doesn't quite reflect dating today, that's because society has become more fluid and societal lines with it.  Busing and the end of segregation has ended some of the sharp ethnic lines that once existed.  Affirmative action programs, which followed in the wake of the huge expansion of the college population following World War Two, have changed the mix in college.  The concept that careers are the end all and be all of existence has caused college graduates to often delay their marriages which means that many now find spouses in their professional lives.  The end of the Protestant nature of universities, and for that matter the end of the Catholic nature of Catholic universities, has meant that the former divisions that existed in private higher education are largely gone.  So, in essence, there is a wider pool

Also, and it can't be denied, the destruction of standards brought about by the 1960s and the unrestrained adoption of views hostile by nature by the political left and its adherents has brought about a lot of confusion in the entire are of male female relationships and relationships in general, and that's done damage to dating and marriage in general.  Not that its destroyed them, but it's definitely done damage.

Which,  suppose, brings me to my concluding point.  Its easy to take a romanticized view of the past, but it's also easy to dismiss claims that the past, in some ways, was better, at some things, than the present. And here we have to give pause.  Nobody but a hopeless romantic would suggest that the world should adopt something like what we see in portrays of Georgian courting as a standard, and for most people, that was never the standard anyway.  And frankly the "courting" rituals depicted in the Duggar's, or rather the arranged marriages we see there, are frightening.  But something has been lost by the destruction of standards brought about in the wake of the 60s and 70s, but which only came into full fruition in this century.  Part of that is simply based on the emphasis on the wrong, and indeed, quite trivial influences we now see, both societal, career and economic.  Taking something out of the past, while maybe not possible, should at least be done by influence.  The close nature of prior behavior within closer communities produced, it would seem, fairly good results based on things that were more solid than career and checkbook.

Rural African American couple in the 1920s.

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