A Brief History Of Dating In The United States

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Tim Foster / Unsplash

“I s’pose the other boy’s fillin’ all my dates?” 

That’s Artie, a character in “Stories of the Streets and Town,” from 1896. That was the first time the word, ‘date’ was used in print, as we understand it today. Someone today might ask, “I guess you’re dating other guys?”

But why are women “filling in dates” in the first place? 

Well, at the turn of the 20th century, a lot of single women in the United States (all kinds of women – both local and immigrant) were moving out of their family homes where they had been living under the watchful eyes of their mothers and working for the benefit of the family. They were moving to industrializing cities to work for cash – in factories, laundries, department stores, and such. (Three-quarters of the white female labor force in 1890 and 1900 were single.)

Women were paid only a fraction of what men were. And this was by design.

Early in the 20th century, the minimum wage for women was literally defined in relation to the “family wage,” (the amount of money needed to support a family) and the “living wage” (the amount necessary to support the American standard of living).

Employers paid women much less than the living wage because it was assumed that a husband or a father supported them. Women’s wages were thought to be earned at the expense of family, not for the benefit of family.

According to a U.S. News and World Reports article comparing income in 1915 and 2015, “back in 1915 . . . you were doing about average if you were making $687 a year, according to the Census. That is, if you were a man. If you were a woman, cut that number by about half.”

 So, single women in the cities needed men to pay for the activities. And they obviously had to keep track of who they were meeting when.

In a 1915 report by a New York social worker (which you can find in The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader edited by Jennifer Scanlon) we are told that, “The acceptance on the part of the girl of almost any invitation needs little explanation, when one realizes that she often goes pleasureless unless she accepts ‘free treats.’”

 So, with industrialization, courtship had suddenly changed. It had gone from “calling” to “dating.” And men’s money was now at the center of the interaction. Dating had become transactional.

The new rules of courtship – dating – were published in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Ladies’ Home Journal. They were the mouthpieces of the tribal council. The rules of dating included the invitation “always” having to come from the man because he was the one “responsible for the expense.”

Helen Gurley Brown, author of Sex and the Single Girl, impressed upon female office workers the importance of not leaving “any facet of you unpolished,” lest an eligible colleague who glances your way fails to keep glancing.

As the 1950s rolled around, the anthropologist Margaret Mead characterized college dating as “a competitive game” rather than a proper courtship ritual. And she observed that dating encourages men and women to define heterosexual relationships as situational, rather than ongoing.

Then one Tuesday Mark Zuckerberg was drunk at 10 p.m. and decided to write some software that allowed guys to compare two female students’ pictures side-by-side and decide who was hot and who was not. It was called Facemash. (A few websites later, we had Facebook.)

Now we have a bunch of dating apps where we can order merchandise and present ourselves to the dating marketplace.

 Since the industrial revolution, men have had to purchase access to women. Women have had to provide beauty, charming companionship, and sex at the appropriate time – depending upon what they want from the man.

Dating, something that we ostensibly do for fun and to ensure our future happiness, can make us miserable. Stressful, time-consuming, emotionally taxing, frequently disappointing: It can feel like work.

How would you like to experience something different? No following dating rules, no feeling like a piece of merchandise, no anxiety before meeting a new person? TC mark

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