A Brief History of American Dating Culture

By Ally A.L. ’23

Dating these days has become pretty casual. Over 32 million Americans are present on online dating apps, texting to ask someone out is common, and Netflix and fast food have become date staples. But this has not always been the case— just as our country has evolved since the colonial era, so have its conceptions, ideas, and practices surrounding romance. So what was dating like around the time of our country’s founding? It didn’t exist.

In our modern era, dating is treated as a precursor to marriage. In colonial America, such an antecedent did not exist. For those with social prominence in the early days of our country, the institution of marriage existed solely as a transaction to procure, consolidate and retain power and wealth. Love was rarely a factor in these arrangements— it was usually reserved for extramarital affairs. For this reason, getting to know someone and gradually falling in love with them, or what we now call dating, was unnecessary— men and women were often just introduced at parties and then gathered in public a few times before walking down the aisle. In this era, remaining abstinent until marriage was strictly emphasized, and romances were only legally permitted between two members of the opposite sex who were of of the same race. In contrast to our modern culture, when colonial families considered potential marriages, there was generally no importance placed on the couple being in love. Furthermore, unlike today, people could not choose their partner freely among the spectrum of gender, racial and socioeconomic identities.

The usage of the term “date” in relation to romance first emerged in the late nineteenth century. A man writing a newspaper column in 1896 lamented that his girlfriend had too many “dates” with other people, as in, booked dates on her calendar. This term, which was defined as a time specifically reserved for a romantic engagement, was an accurate one to describe the types of romantic events that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. If a man in these days was interested in a woman, he visited her home in hopes of being invited in, where he could then engage in conversation with her and her family in a setting such as their living room or parlor. If he made a good impression, he would be permitted to return and call upon her in the future, but always under supervision. Generally, the act of courtship in this first decade of the 1900s was a familial affair conducted in the privacy of one’s home, yet with an audience, overall preventing the establishment of intimacy and genuine, individual connections. 

In the 1910s and ‘20s, the introduction of two amendments to the United States Constitution shattered prior dating norms. The eighteenth amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol, caused illegal bars and nightclubs called Speakeasies to emerge into the nightlife scene. With the subsequent passing of the nineteenth amendment, which granted women the right to vote, the female population was afforded more societal freedom and became popular fixtures at such clubs. Their presence at these establishments redefined the narrative of a date— instead of being conducted in a private setting with an audience, it now occurred one on one and in public. Another aid in the movement towards unchaperoned, public dates was the boom in the automobile industry, which made car ownership much more commonplace and provided a new, easy transportation option to a date setting of one’s choice. The late twenties and early thirties also saw an emergence of a more tolerant environment for homosexuals with the arrival of the Pansy Craze. During this era, drag performers and underground gay clubs experienced a surge of popularity, kickstarting LGBTQ+ nightlife.

In the 1940s, World War II was yet another reset for romance culture. Nearly 250,000 American men died, went missing, or otherwise didn’t return home at the war’s end, and consequently, women greatly outnumbered men. This shortage of available spouses served as a reminder for single women that finding a husband was the end goal of dating, and as a result many began to settle down at very young ages. As marriage rates increased, the average age of marriage plummeted, signifying an extreme desire for younger couples to tie the knot as quickly as possible.

The 1950s saw a shift away from that mentality. Many new terms regarding youth dating culture popped up in this decade, with the most popular one being the concept of “going steady”. This involved a couple declaring their intentions to date only each other and enter a committed relationship. To commemorate their new status, the man would usually give his partner an accessory of his, such as his letterman jacket, a class ring, or a pin, which was referred to as “getting pinned”. Unlike pre-war commitments, these terms were now used more loosely and without the end goal of marriage in mind, although the status and security the relationships provided did cause them to be viewed as a sort of practice for the real thing. Entering into these relationships was a way to increase popularity, stand out among one’s peers, and was also a stepping stone to becoming more intimate and publicly affectionate in the relationship. As a result of this, touching, hugging and kissing became normalized in public settings. Exploring one’s sexuality outside of marriage also became more common during this time period, yet was still heavily shamed by society. 

The 1960s and ‘70s revolutionized and radicalized dating culture yet again. Rallying around an overarching theme of claiming romantic liberties and “free love”, the hippie generation questioned traditional dating structures and formerly taboo topics. Youth explored and acted on their feelings and rebelled against society’s strict preaching of abstinence. As civil rights and LGBTQ+ movements gained traction in politics, a newer, liberal generation sought to prioritize their own happiness, freedom, and enjoyment over conforming to the rigidity of prior societal expectations. An important victory in these decades came in the passage of Loving vs. Virginia in 1967, which permitted marriage between interracial couples (same-sex marriage would be legalized in 2015). This developing tolerance and acceptance of a new status quo continued into the 1980s and ‘90s. Technological advances allowed the introduction of online dating to general society and further encouraged a casual dating and hookup culture, which has continued into present day. 

As prior mentioned, current dating culture is casual and has an unprecedented ease. Restaurants, movie theaters, parks, and bars have all become common locales for dates, which can be arranged through clicks on a screen. The average age to enter the dating spectrum has dropped drastically as well— it’s not uncommon for middle schoolers to claim a relationship status. Freedoms wise, much has arguably improved over the last centuries in our popular dating culture. In most scenarios, the relaxed nature of dating today allows for the development of deeper connections due to the more private, intimate nature of relationships, social media provides opportunities for easy connection and communication, we emphasize developing genuine love as the foundation of relationships, and social norms are less rigid than in earlier eras, allowing for more expression, diversity, and differentiation. In general, dating in our current era depends much more upon each individual and individual pair’s values, preferences, and desires rather than society’s, making each relationship unique and allowing it to be solely defined by the parties involved.

But with these benefits come downsides. One Crystal sophomore shared, “I don’t like all the technology now because I feel like it interferes with face to face interactions, such as having the courage to go up to someone on a personal level and ask them out.” The presence of social media has certainly made connecting on a genuine level more difficult, as communicating through a screen makes interactions easier and quicker, yet less emotional and invested. The common convention of sharing relationships on social media can also lead to unhealthy comparisons, obsessions, and oversharing, and can create additional difficulties after breakups, which have become all too easy to conduct impersonally. 

With these factors in mind, ultimately, although dating in America has evolved to allow for much more individual freedom and variety, the addition of technology to the picture has unquestionably hindered certain aspects of the practice. However, the gained rights and freedoms over the past several centuries, particularly for women, minority racial groups, and the LGBTQ+ community, signify that despite its current flaws, American dating culture has progressed, and will continue to progress, for the better.

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