As Kristen and I get ready for a Gatsby-themed house party tonight, I’m reminded of how the Roaring ’20s birthed modern dating as we know it. The invention of dating replaced “calling,” as we discussed in A Dating Tradition Worth Bringing Back?
Dating started with urban, working, lower classes, but quickly spread to public acceptance. As opposed to “calling” which was centered on courtship for the purpose of marriage, dating was much more casual and centered around entertainment (i.e. going out in public).
Dating arose due to many factors. Here are but a few:
- The economically challenged didn’t have the income or large parlor rooms to entertain at home.
- Mass production of the car gave way to increased public entertainment (jazz and dancing).
- Women’s suffrage started a movement that rebelled against traditional domestic roles of women.
- Young men and women began moving to the city which led to less parental oversight.
Men Paying for Dates & Gold Diggers
If you think the “who pays for the date” issue is a more recent debate, think again. When the courting system shifted from calling to dating, courtship moved from the woman’s domain (her home) to the man’s sphere as author Beth Bailey describes in From Front Porch to Back Seat. The man now chose when and where the date would occur.
Under the calling system, the woman took the initiative, gave permission to a guy to come to her home, and would then decide if she wanted to meet with him. The cost was on her or the family. Men were received by invitation. It wasn’t proper for a man to come by uninvited, much like today.
With dating, men did the inviting and became the hosts. It was now acceptable to take a woman out in public. Money responsibility quickly shifted. Some have suggested men paid for dates because women didn’t have jobs, but that’s not really the case. In the ’20s women were liberated to vote, became part of an emerging work force (although they were paid half the wages of men), and attended college.
While etiquette states, “Whoever hosts, pays,” in 1925, we find men complaining about the money and dating issue. In Collier’s, one man wrote “Why Women Won’t Marry”:
Get married! Why, I can’t even afford to go with any of the sort of girls with whom I would like to associate.
An anonymous writer declared in American Magazine, a ‘one man buyer’s strike’ due to the large amount he’d spent on dating.
Some women took advantage of the new system. “Gold digger” appeared to be used for the first time in the ’20s, referring to “small-town women who came to the big city in search of a rich husband.” Some conservatives strongly opposed this new concept of men paying for a woman’s meal. “In the eyes of the authorities,” author Moira Weigel writes in her book, Labor of Love, “women who let men buy them food and drinks or gifts and entrance tickets looked like whores, and making a date seemed the same as turning a trick.”
Dating & Cars
In 1908, Henry Ford began mass production of the Model T. Over 15 million Fords drove on American soil by 1927.
Cars became standard among the middle and working class. “Whereas the car had been the plaything of the wealthy in the first two decades of the 20th century, in the 1920s it became widely available to the general population. More modest pricing and improved roads and highways systems launched the automobile into the daily lives of Americans.”
The automobile changed the landscape of dating. “Now with their own modes of transportation and much more freedom, young people began going out to restaurants or to the cinema to have fun, instead of having lengthy discussions with the woman’s parents.” Before, during the calling era, parents had strong involvement in the initial courting process and would be present during the first meeting. “Going out” originated with the guy coming to pick up the girl from home in his vehicle to take her out in public.
Women, especially those who took part in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, played a strong role in Prohibition, outlawing alcohol the entire decade of the Jazz Age. But, an anti-traditional urban woman arose. Flappers “redefined acceptable social behaviors through their dress, new approaches to courting, and their fascination with public drinking.”
Just a decade earlier, it would be uncommon to see a lady anywhere in public drinking. “Before the 1920s [a] woman found in a traditional saloon could safely be called a prostitute. However, during Prohibition ‘most men no longer associated women’s presence in a bar or club with prostitution.’ Prohibition marked an era where men and women were able to interact and drink publicly.”
The Prohibition era helped usher in the new courting system called dating. Before, it wasn’t acceptable to take a lady out on the town. Public drinking was a rebellious act of the newly emerged woman found in the flapper, and so was public dating.
Urbanization and Dating
When the automobile became easier to purchase, young people began moving to the city. In the late 1800s, only 1 in 4 people lived in a city. The 1920s marked the first decade where more people lived in urban areas vs rural areas.
Urbanization had a profound affect on dating. “By the dawn of the decade, anywhere between one-quarter and one-third of urban woman workers lived alone in private apartments or boardinghouses, free from the watchful eyes of their parents, and as early as 1896, newspaper columnist George Ade used the term ‘date’ to describe a new convention by which boys and girls paired off to frolic at dance halls, amusement parks, and other public spaces, free from adult supervision.” WWI ushered in economic growth with a need for a larger work force. This, in turn, led to more economic and social freedom for women and for youth.
“Blind date” was terminology first published in 1926. Before, a woman knew a good sum about the man she was meeting. She generally knew about his family, income, where he lived, perhaps which church he attended. “Calling” commonly paired a couple based on family incomes. Urbanization led to more income class intermingling. Couples would meet and fall in love without prior knowledge of the other person’s family background.
The 1920s was a time of economic and social freedom and quickly advanced dating. In part 3 (The Game of Love: Competitive Dating in the 1930s) of this series, we’ll discuss the competitive nature dating evoked.