Where Did Dating Come From? The History Of How It Has Evolved

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Where Did Dating Come From?

Did you ever wonder where the concept of dating came from?

Dating became a thing during the 1920s. However, what we consider dating today is so different from what it was in the 1900s. It has constantly been changing and evolving in many ways over the centuries.

Dating has a history, which is important to learn and understand. Let’s take a look backward as well as present-day at the history of dating, courtship, and contemporary dating.

Who started the idea of dating?

Dating became a thing at the turn of the 20th century. Before that, courtship was a common affair; arranged marriages were the norm.

Women would meet several men in the presence of parents who would pick a suitable man for them based on social and financial status. When the parents selected a man to court the lady, their activities would occur in the household, under a parent’s supervision.

According to Moira Weigel’s book, “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating,” the word “date” first appeared in a newspaper column in 1896. A heartbroken clerk called Artie was complaining about his woman seeing other men. He said that these other men were “fillin all my dates,” referring to the dates on her calendar.

When did humans start dating?

Clip art of 1920s couple dating in a club
Clip art of 1920s couple in a club.

During the first decade of the 20th century, a proper date involved a gentleman caller. If a guy was interested in a woman, he would visit her family house and hope that the family would welcome him. 

If the family liked him, they would invite him for subsequent visits, and their activities would be under supervision. This would go on until both of them established a romantic connection, after which the man offered a proposal. 

As the years progressed to the 1920s, the American courtship dynamics changed forever. The system of calling became outdated. Men and women started going out on dates. Women stopped depending on their parents to help them pick marriage partners.

Dating was a new concept, and law enforcers were unsure how to react. Seeing men and women in public buying food, drinks, and flowers, was something new. Authorities would think of it as prostitution and arrest the women. 

How courtship transformed into dating in the 1920s

The 1920s redefined the social values of young people. Emerging revolutions due to the economic boom enticed young people to live differently and rebel against previous strict moral codes. The revolution entirely changed how they interacted. 

What kind of events transformed dating life in the 20s?

Prohibition

After World War 1, American men and women found new ways to live their lives. There were some changes in societal attitudes. As a result, young people challenged restrictions before the 19th century. They would finally go out on dates without a chaperone or escort. 

In 1919, with the passage of the 18th Amendment, Prohibition began. It prohibited the manufacturing, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages.

It led to the creation of underground clubs known as speakeasies. They sold alcohol to both men and women illegally. They were found all over the US.

The Green Door, Prohibition Speakeasy
The Green Door is Chicago’s oldest tavern, dating back to 1872. In 1921, a speakeasy was established in the basement. (Image credit: “The Green Door, Prohibition Speakeasy” by Stephen Hogan on Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Previously during the courtship era, speakeasies allowed only men inside; they were dirty joints. But with this Prohibition, they let women inside, resulting in a change in the dating scene forever.

Speakeasies allowed young men and women to drink, dance, and socialize. With them being a secret, it was exciting, appealing, and incredibly cool.

Women’s right to vote

After Prohibition, the 19th Amendment resulted in the rise of women’s suffrage in August 1920. With women having the constitutional right to vote, they were more empowered.

They had found a forum to fight for their roles, which resulted in independence and equality. They would now focus on their pursuits rather than getting married and having babies. Now they would go out and just have fun. 

Spreading technology of automobiles

In America, car ownership rose drastically from 1910 to 1930. Around 1910 only a small percentage of American households owned cars, and this rose to almost half of Americans having cars by 1930.

During this period, women seemed to have found a new way of “letting go.” Both men and women finally had a new place to have unsupervised dates.

In the book Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, the authors studied American life in Muncie, Indiana, in the 1920s. They noted that residents worried about driving compromising traditional courtship. Additionally, they reported that underage girls charged with sex crimes had committed the offenses in cars.

Development of movie theaters

Couple going into movie theater
Couple going into movie theater.

As nightclubs, the movie industry was huge, and it changed the popular culture forever. Going to the movies became a common dating activity; it was new and exciting. 

Singles and couples could frequent movie theaters. Most young people could frequent these joints since movies opened up their eyes to the knowledge of sex. 

Cosmetic industry

The cosmetic industry started to develop in the 1900s. Prostitutes and actresses used cosmetics to “paint their faces.” A natural look was a sign of a clean living. 

However, the industry exploded in the 1920s. Respectable women in society would be seen in public with painted faces. As a result, the cosmetic industry came up with a new name to oppose society’s negative outlook on cosmetics. The new term was makeup. 

Makeup was now a sign of femininity, and it showed that women were willing to spend their time and money on appearance.

1940s and 1950s: Securing a husband 

World War 2 drafted some men, causing a gender imbalance that made women feel the pressure to secure husbands. It was important for a woman to be in a monogamous and serious relationship. 

This gave birth to the term “going steady.” It was a term for a commitment to a serious relationship. 

Women expected men to initiate a relationship. If a guy liked a woman, he would call her, and she would promptly respond to a first date. First dates happened in public places such as movie theaters and ice cream parlors, and the guy was responsible for paying any money spent.

1960s and 1970s: Free love

During this era, young people explored free love, the idea or practice of having sex without a long-term commitment. 

Pre-marital sex was on the rise because it was no longer considered a taboo. At the same time, birth control pills emerged to prevent pregnancies.

In 1965, a team of Harvard undergrads (Jeffrey Tarr and David Crump) established the first-ever computer-based dating service known as Operation Match. For only $3, users could answer questionnaires and would three weeks later receive a list of potential matches. 

Cover of the questionnaire used by w:Operation Match, the first computer dating service in the United States
Cover of the questionnaire used by Operation Match, the first computer dating service in the United States. (Image credit: Jeffrey C. Tarr, David L. Crump and Vaughan Morrill on Wikimedia Commons)

1980s and 1990s: Hookup culture

By the 80s and 90s, the phenomenon of hookup culture came to the scene. Young people mainly used new terms such as casual sex and friends with benefits. It was pretty easy to hook up with people; because of the increased number of nightclubs, movie theaters, etc. 

More and more people would forgo dating and committed relationships to engage in casual sex. 

In the 1990s, there was an explosion of the internet, causing the emergence and accessibility of dating sites. Match.com was the first dating site to register a domain in 1995, followed closely by JDate in 1997. Shortly after, many other dating sites followed.

Emailing and social media emerged with the evolving set of technologies and standards. They made people connect quickly and more conveniently.

Modern dating 

It is safe to say that cultural norms around dating have loosened over the years. The world of dating has changed so much thanks to the different types of dating. 

Modern dating can involve two or more people exploring mutually held romantic interests through one or several casual meetings. It may be sexual or not. Dating can lead to a friendship, intimate relationship, marriage, or no relationship.

The Modern dating cycle 

We regularly hear about online dating, speed dating, group dating, and blind dates. Going steady has become a thing of the past when parents or family members no longer set up young people. Also, meeting people in nightclubs is no longer the only way. We can now use dating apps to find people. There is someone for everyone.

Here are some of the characteristics of modern dating:

  • There is a need for instant gratification. We are skipping the talking and getting to know each other for instant results.
  • We are trying to achieve a balanced life. Balancing friends, exercise, work, family, and dating can be a bit of a hassle.
  • Netflix and chill have become a sensation. This phenomenon has paved the way for short-term relationships and hookups. It’s no longer about meeting up for movies and getting to each other anymore.
  • We have a choice of choosing what we want; long-term relationships, one-night stands, etc. There is an app for everything.
  • Too many doors are open, and there are options everywhere. Everyone will likely be dating a thousand other people, especially online dating.
  • There is a late entry to marriage due to economic uncertainty or lack of serious partners. 
  • There are many different relationship statuses, like friends with benefits, single, engaged, married, separated, divorced, etc.

Is dating worse or better today?

According to research, Pew Research Center stated that nearly half of American adults (mostly women) have had difficulty dating in the last 10 years. This is mainly due to online dating and the #MeToo movement.

Dating is better today mainly because it brings freedom. We have the freedom to choose how we want to meet our partners, choose the kind of relationship we want, and how we wish to interact with our partners. Technology has helped to make things easier to find viable partners.

However, since you can find potential partners by swiping right, there are unlimited options that make it hard for us to find serious people.  

Ashley Fetters, a writer, explains the social implications of online dating.

Conclusion

Just like everything else, dating has evolved. Looking at dating history, courtship was less about love and romance but more about men finding women to bear children and to help with the workload at home. Fast forward to modern dating, romance is playing an important role.

From gentleman calling to swiping left or right on Tinder, dating has changed society. So, the next time you go on a date, remember there are years of history that brought you to that moment.

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AUTHOR

Over the years, Stephanie has had her fair share of dating experiences. While some turned out great, others weren't so great. She believes that relationships are meant to be fun, exciting, and full of laughter. She wants to help men and women become confident, attractive, and successful in their romantic relationships.