Gee whiz. As we continue the history of dating series, we discuss the 7 characteristics of going steady. The quotes from this article come from Beth Bailey’s book From Front Porch to Back Seat unless otherwise noted.
Money became scarce during the Great Depression. Men became scarce during WWII. “Before the war, when discussions of courtship centered around rating, dating, and popularity, marriage had few cheerleaders.” However, something shifted in the 1950s; people started getting married younger.
Previously, the dating game was about who could date the most people. But, in the 1950s, the popular kids latched onto this idea of commitment. “Playing the field” and “playboy” became negative terms. “At its center was a desire for security–in the form of ‘going steady.'”
We no longer use “going steady” in dating language today, but it was the prevalent form of dating in the 1950s. What were going steady characteristics?
1. Visible token
A guy gave his girlfriend a “‘visible token’ (class ring, letter sweater, etc.) or they exchanged identical tokens, often gold or silver friendship rings worn on the third finger of the left hand” when they were ready to go steady. The purpose was to publicly declare their relationship and commitment.
A couple might carve their initials on a tree. “Other steadies spelled out their names on the bumpers of their boyfriends’ car.” Some girls would wear a “Puppy Love Anklet.” When she wore it on her left ankle, it meant she was committed. When she wore it on her right ankle, she indicated she was single and ready to go steady.
Some of these traditions continue today. A fraternity gentleman might pin his girlfriend. In a pinning ceremony, “a fraternity member gives his fraternity pin to a woman in a sorority, symbolizing that he values his girlfriend more than his house.” This symbolizes a high form of commitment, and some might see it as a pre-engagement gesture.
2. Required Dates
Netflix and Chill wouldn’t make the cut. In steady dating, “the boy had to call the girl a certain number of times a week and take her on a certain number of dates a week.” He might take her to the pizza parlor, a malt shop, the record store, or the drive-in movie theater.
Dates in the 1950s were planned and intentional. It wasn’t appropriate for a guy to ask a girl on the day of the date. He was expected to make plans two or three days in advance.
Commitment was a key component of going steady. “Neither boy nor girl could date anyone else or pay too much attention to anyone of the opposite sex.” It wasn’t appropriate for another guy to hover near a girl’s locker before class or for a guy to sit across from another girl at lunch.
In some sense, going steady was practice for marriage. “Going steady had become a sort of play-marriage, a mimicry of the actual marriage of their slightly older peers.”
“While either could go out with friends of the same sex, each must always know where the other was and what he or she was doing.”
5. Special Events
Whether it was the sock hop, prom, a sorority dance, or a fraternity formal, “going steady meant a guaranteed date for special events…” Sock hops became popular in the 1950s, and arose because these dances would take place on basketball courts. To make sure the floors didn’t get scuffed, everyone would take their shoes off.
Prom mirrored the commitment one might find in marriage. As John C. Spurlock wrote in Youth and Sexuality in the Twentieth Century United States, “…elaborate proms matched the glamor of weddings.”
6. Sharing Money
While the boyfriend was generally expected to pay for dinner dates, going steady also began to mirror commitment found in a marriage. Both guy and girl had a shared concern with finances and money. Prom and formals could be expensive events and “the girl had to be willing to help her boyfriend save up for the event by budgeting ‘their’ money, even if it meant sitting home together.”
If the date didn’t involve “sitting home together,” private time together consisted of parking on a less-trafficked road, the drive-in movie theater, or the overlook. Going steady implied physical intimacy, “either more necking or ‘going further.’
“Necking” and “petting” were two words used to describe physical intimacy in the 1950s. Necking was defined as “caresses above the neck,” and petting as “caresses below.”
Though, physical intimacy increased with couples going steady, it should be noted “virginity was still a virtue in the fifties.”
It was expected a couple ready for sexual intercourse should marry. Our next article, How Younger Marriages Influenced Dating in the 1950s will discuss this further.