Part 1: A Brief History of Dating and Courtship in America Let's turn our attention now to "dating" and the "date" itself. How did it become such an important part of our courtship system? According to cultural historian Beth Bailey, the word was probably originally used as a lower-class slang word for booking an appointment with a prostitute.However, by the turn of the 20th century we find the word being used to describe lower-class men and women going out socially to public dances, parties and other meeting places, primarily in urban centers where women had to share small apartments and did not have spacious front parlors in their homes to which to invite men to call.
When one tries to understand how dating has changed over time, and most importantly, how we arrived at the system of courtship and dating we have today, one must realize the monumental cultural shift that occurred during the 1940s, primarily due to World War II.One example of this impression management comes from a 1938 article in where a Smith College senior advised incoming freshmen on how to cultivate an "image of popularity." She wrote, "During your first term, get home talent to ply you with letters, telegrams and invitations.College men will think, ." She also suggested that you get your mom back home to send you flowers from time to time, again, to give the impression of popularity.The article went on to say that if, for some reason, you did not have a date on a particular night, you should keep the lights off in your dorm room so no one would know you were home.In 1937, sociologist Willard Waller published a study in the .His study of Penn State undergraduates detailed a "dating and rating" system based on very clear standards of popularity.
Men's popularity needed outward material signs: automobile, clothing, fraternity membership, money, etc.
Women's popularity depended on building and maintaining a reputation of popularity: be seen with popular men in the "right" places, turn down requests for dates made at the last minute and cultivate the impression that you are greatly in demand.
The courtship experience and ideals of those who grew up before World War II were profoundly different from those of teenagers in the postwar years, and the differences created much intergenerational conflict.
Beth Bailey and Ken Myers explain in the Mars Hill Audio Report, , demonstrated through the number and variety of dates a young adult could command, sometimes even on the same night.
In the late 1940s, Margaret Mead, in describing this pre-war dating system, argued that dating was not about sex or marriage.
Instead, it was a "competitive game," a way for girls and boys to demonstrate their popularity.