Recently, I was rereading, with new appreciation, Courtship in Crisis: The Case For Traditional Dating by Thomas Umstadt Jr. Among other things, it is a chronicle of the failures of Modern Courtship over the past thirty years. Since I am promoting Courtship around here, we also want to avoid all the problems of Modern Courtship. Among them, it turned out to be a very bad way to get married. Highly prospective, marriage-minded singles stayed single. Many of the men, after suffering multiple rejections often by “Dragon Fathers,” had to leave Courtship circles and engage in Modern Dating in order to find a wife. Many of the women cried themselves to sleep (really) wondering why nobody seemed interested in them. In the old days, it was imperative upon Fathers and Mothers to get those girls out of the house, around Age 18-20, ideally married to the best sort of men, but get it done one way or another.
Umstadt lays out four stages of “Traditional Dating,” as it was actually practiced in some communities in the 1950s. Apparently, this was quite successful. Since people got married young then, it is mostly a guide for Dating among people aged 13-20.
- Dating. This is strictly noncommittal. One of the rules was actually: Do not go on a date with the same boy twice in a row. Once you have decided that, it is not hard to add a few more. No kissing. Be home by 10pm (for older girls). Younger girls (Age 13-15) would probably be home before dinner. Limit dates to no more than two hours. No boyfriends. The goal is to get used to dating, and to meet a variety of different boys in a safe and noncommittal way. Girls went on a lot of dates — fifty or more — but there was nothing slutty about it. A major point of the book is that young people need something easy and accessible. In the Modern Dating framework, a date has an implicit commitment of sex, or Long Term Relationship; in Modern Courtship, it has an implicit commitment of marriage. Are we going to hook up? Does she expect me to take her back to my apartment? Are we going to Start a Relationship? Are we going to bang on the first date? The second? The third? Here, these extra commitments are explicitly excluded. The answer is: no, no, no no and no. You can just have a good time.
- Going Steady. Here, a girl (or young woman) and a boy (or young man) see each other exclusively, and often, as preparation for a potential proposal of marriage. It makes sense that, if you were getting close to the proposal stage, you would maybe want to stop seeing other men or women. There would be some serious discussions. Still, no “boyfriends” or “girlfriends” here. No kissing. Just a “potential wife” or a “potential husband.” You could still break it off, and since you were never really a couple, but just discussing that, there wouldn’t be too much breakup trauma. This stage does not last long. It is not a steady state. You either get a proposal, or you cut it off. No wasting time.
- Engaged. After a proposal of marriage is accepted, with parents’ approval of course, a couple is engaged. This would not take too long — a few days up to a few months, basically long enough to plan a wedding. Still, no kissing is necessary here, since if you are going to get married soon, and then go on a nonstop sex extravaganza for a week or even a month (a honeymoon), who cares really?
- Married. You may now kiss the bride.
When I look at this proposal, it looks to me a lot like Courtship around 1850, but with the substitution of going on Dates for the prior customs of Visiting at the family house, or organized social Dances. Visiting, which seems strange and difficult to us today, might have actually been a nice, low-stress way of going about things. A girl would have established Visiting Hours, and you would just go up to the door and Visit. Like seeing a movie. You would probably get to know the parents in a casual, informal sort of way, since you would be over there a lot. You would meet some brothers and sisters. Not only would this tell you something about the people that would be part of your family, it would also tell you something about how the girl was raised. Nevertheless, today we tend to Go On Dates (which is not the same as “Dating”), and why not.