The 1950s was a decade of commitment and love. Perhaps WWII made people cherish their loved ones even more, but people found security in relationships after a time of uncertainty. As we continue the history of dating series, we’ll discuss how younger marriages influenced dating in the 1950s and how baby-making defined this era.
Towards the late 1940s, marriage rates, most notably in America, reached peak levels. People started getting married younger. As author Beth Bailey notes in her book From Front Porch to Back Seat,
“…the average age at marriage plummeted. In 1890, the average age at marriage had been 26.1 for men, 22 for women; by 1951 men were marrying at an average age of 22.6, women at 20.4.”
Couples often married before finishing college. As we’ll soon discuss, practices such as pinning signified a commitment to get married. Whereas people felt pressure to date as many people as possible in the 1930s, people felt pressure to settle down and marry in the ’50s.
Marrying young was like getting to a sale on the first day,” author Mary Cantwell wrote. “God knows what, if anything, would be left if you waited until you were twenty-five or -six.”
While we live in the Information Age, couples in the 1950s didn’t have many resources to help marriages succeed. The growth of American psychology came about in this era. Advice and counseling were not as readily available. “The marriage prescriptions of the 1950s could be summed up in one sentence: It was mainly a woman’s job to foster a happy marriage and steer it away from divorce.”
‘Engaged to be Engaged’: Dating Commitment
Earlier marriages led to teenage dating. “By the mid-1950s, one in ten middle school students would go steady at least once before her or she turned eleven,” writes Moira Weigel in her book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating. “Rather than a step toward marriage, going steady became an important coming-of-age ritual in itself.”
As we previously discussed in 7 Characteristics of Going Steady, the 1950s marked a shift in dating culture. Whereas a competitive dating system dominated the 1930s as we previously mentioned, ’50s youth opted to date one person. In some sense, it mirrored the marriage craze of the time. “Going steady had become a sort of play-marriage, a mimicry of the actual marriage of their slightly older peers,” wrote Beth Bailey.
“One boy, in a letter to the dating column in Senior Scholastic, complained that everyone in his high school went steady, and that he was called a ‘playboy’ if he tried to date more than one girl.”
Some of the ways going steady mimicked marriage included giving a girl a class ring and the practice of pinning. When a young fraternity gentleman pinned a girl, it meant serious commitment. As author John C. Spurlock writes in his book Youth and Sexuality in the Twentieth-Century United States, getting pinned “means ‘engaged to be engaged’ or perhaps even ‘engaged’ preparatory to getting a ring, securing parents approval, and clearing up other details.”
Along with a peak in marriages, came a swell of baby making. The large Baby Boomer generation came out of this era, with “more than 4 million were born every year from 1954 until 1964, when the boom finally tapered off.”
Teen birth reached a high in 1957 as well. While some out-of-wedlock births happened, the average woman married around 19-20. “In those days, a man had to marry a woman in order to have sexual access. And most women danced to that tune too. Hormones often won the day so there were a number of out-of-wedlock births then but not nearly as many as there are today.”
Having sex outside of marriage was improper. “When two people are ready for sexual intercourse at the fully human level they are ready for marriage–and they should marry,” an article in Woman’s Home Companion stated. “Not to do so is moral cowardice. And society has no right to stand in their way.”
The 1950s was an era of birthing. It was the birthed children, modern psychology, and even rock and roll. Take a moment a get lost in the ’50s for a moment.