As Ken Myers says in , from the late 1930s on, young people knew, down to the percentage point, what their peers throughout the country thought and did.
They knew what was “normal.” Prior to the 20th century, “normal” was determined within families and local communities, but now a “higher authority,” with wide-spread circulation and readership, began to form a national consciousness. With the onset of the sexual revolution the question arose, “Why would a man court and woo a woman when he could gain a chief benefit of marriage, namely sexual gratification, for free with no commitment?
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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 , prior to the early 20th century, courtship involved one man and one woman spending intentional time together 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.
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 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, .
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.
What was courtship and marriage like for our distant ancestors?