Dating through the decades: A look back

Illustrator: Nicole Rifkin

Dating has changed significantly over the years. From dowries to lovers’ lanes, the accoutrements of courtship have evolved as society has shifted. During the Middle Ages, courtship and marriage served primarily for social advancement, while the 20th century saw a significant rise in casual dating.

So what might your dating life in the 1500s, 1800s, or the 1950s have looked like? Let’s travel back through time to find out.

Let’s go on a date in the…1500s: I now pronounce you husband-and-wife, you may now meet the bride.

While modern marriage is based on love and the notion of spending the rest of your life together, marriages have historically been treated simply as just another business deal. Many cultures and countries have some history of a dowry—where the family of the bride transfers a lump sum of cold, hard cash in exchange for the marriage to take place. 

During the 16th century, arranged marriages by way of the dowry system were the standard way of operating. In fact, well into the 1800s in Europe, these types of exchanges (trading wealth for a bride) took place. 

When a family’s economic circumstances meant they couldn’t marry off their daughters, those women had to find a different path. In some cases, this meant becoming the courtesan of a nobleman who could afford two families or becoming a concubine. The 1998 film Dangerous Beauty does a steamy job of telling the story of Veronica Franco, who became a courtesan to avoid poverty in 16th century Venice.

Your first date in the 1500s—if you could call it that—could have very possibly been your wedding day. Romance would be unlikely because the consummation of the marriage on your wedding night would have been accompanied by an official bedding ceremony during which a collection of family friends would watch you and your partner have sex. 

Let’s go on a date in the…1800s: Table for three, please.

Modern dating is challenging. Pandemic restrictions aside, choosing whether you want to spend two hours sitting silently beside your date watching characters make out on screen or trying to avoid getting pasta sauce on your shirt at the local Italian joint is not easy. But imagine if you had to do it all with Grandma playing the role of third wheel? 

Welcome to dating in the 19th century, where chaperones were all the rage. 

By the mid-to-late 1800s, women were less likely to be exchanged for monetary or social gain and more likely free to marry at will. In his 1887 book How To Behave: A Pocket Manual Of Republican Etiquette And Guide To Correct Personal Habits, author Samuel R. Wells writes, “If [a woman] is of age, she has a legal as well as a moral right to bestow her love and her hand upon whom she pleases.” He notes that things like asking for a father’s approval for the marriage were “mere form.” 

But that doesn’t mean women had free reign over their dating lives. Chaperones were commonplace both when receiving and entertaining men (think Bridgerton’s receiving room) and heading out on the town with them. Typically the chaperone was an older, married woman in the family—aunt, sister, mother, grandmother—but household staff could double for impromptu chaperones in the case of an unexpected gentleman caller.

While they didn’t offer absolute protection, chaperones played a wingwoman-like role in fending off less-than-savory suitors. No one wanted their daughter married to a questionable character, so chaperones were responsible for ending undesirable interactions before attraction took hold. 

In the context of dating, ungentlemanly behavior included “questionable” intentions such as wanting to be alone with a woman. (If streaming services were a thing in 1890, an evening of “Netflix and chill” would have been decidedly off the table.) 

Your first date in the 1800s would have most likely been something akin to a walk in the park or a trip to the theatre—if you could afford it—accompanied by any married female family member free to accompany you.

Let’s go on a date in the…1950s: Goin’ steady

Dating began to modernize in the 1920s and ‘30s when women started to leave the house for work. But the 1950s saw a big leap from short weeklong courtships (like the one depicted in Rebecca, in which the lead character meets and marries Maxime de Winter in the space of a week), to the more carefree times of summer romance, playing the field, and going steady.    

By the 1950s, teen dating was a real thing in America. Young adults were now encouraged to play the field before settling down to start a family. This Going Steady video (circa 1951) shows the shift toward an acceptance of dating for longer periods of time While earlier centuries saw short courting times and marriages solely for monetary and social status gains, 1950s-era parents began to caution their kids against settling down too soon.

Yet while teenagers in the 1950s didn’t have to bring their Aunt Margie to their movie date, societal rules remained in place. The “innocence” of a woman was still very much cherished, but physical interaction increased with the popularization of the goodnight kiss and lovers’ lanes. (Some semblance of the “lovers’ lane” concept has existed since at least the 1850s, but more likely as a place that forbidden lovers could meet up and canoodle.)

But a first date probably wouldn’t have involved visiting the lovers’ lane, unless your boo had a car. Instead, you’d probably end up at the local diner drinking milkshakes, packing the car full of your closest friends, and heading to the drive-in or the Friday night sock hop.

While all of these eras were a far cry from the Zoom dates and app swipes of today’s dating landscape, one thing remains the same: Love always finds a way.

Which decades and eras most pique your curiosity around dating? What are your favorite movies, books, and TV shows that depict dating through the decades? Drop us a line at community@lovekeepler.com and let us know!

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