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JACK SMITH

Ardor in Court : Does Anyone Still Pine for the Old-Fashioned Rites of Courtship?

September 04, 1988|JACK SMITH

COURTSHIP IS AS OLD as Adam and Eve, who got off to a fast start by being naked when they met. Also, they had no watchful parents and no competition.

Over the centuries the rules and styles of courtship have evolved until today, when sometimes there seem to be no rules. But even in the wake of the sexual revolution, courtship is not a simple thing.

In her book, "From Front Porch to Back Seat," Beth L. Bailey examines courtship in the early and mid-20th Century, tracing the modern rituals from the late 19th Century, when proper young men "called" upon young women only at their invitation.

"Calling" was governed by rigid rules and followed a series of "measured steps" that are seen nostalgically as simpler and more graceful than the more open "dating" that replaced it.

The couple conversed in the parlor, under the noses of her parents; she might make cakes and serve hot chocolate and play the piano; at the proper hour he left; she did not see him alone to the door. The entire confrontation was initiated and controlled by her.

This convention was largely practiced by the upper classes, though the middle classes sought to imitate it. What brought it to an end, eventually, was urban stress, women's liberation and the automobile, which gave youth privacy and mobility at the same time.

Bailey notes curiously that the word dating did not even enter the national vocabulary until about 1914. George Ade, the Chicago columnist, probably introduced it as street slang in 1896. In the next decade Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair and O. Henry picked it up.

Bailey recalls a popular story of the 1920s that illustrates the transition from calling to dating. A young man calls on a city girl, it goes, and she has her hat on. That's the whole story. He expected to be entertained, she expected to be taken out. "He ended up spending four weeks' savings fulfilling her expectations."

Dating moved control from the woman to the man and moved courtship into the world of the economy: man's world. "Money--man's money--was at the center of the dating system."

The equation was brutal: "What men were buying was not just female companionship, not just entertainment--but power. Money purchased obligation; money purchased inequality; money purchased control."

Bailey relies heavily on the advice columns of such magazines as Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal, which both dictated and reflected changing courtship styles.

In 1907, Ladies Home Journal sought a balance between old and new, advising that a girl should not go out with a man until he had called at her home.

Bailey recalls the strains of dating in the 1930s, when a girl's main goal was social success. The more dates, the better; the longer the stag line, the higher one's rating. "Dating was primarily concerned with status, competition and popularity." At any cost, one must stay in circulation.

Before World War II, she observes, the accent was on "promiscuous popularity"; after the war, the "rating game" was replaced by "going steady." Yet, she adds, "for all their disagreement, both groups understood dating in the same terms: competition, scarcity, abundance."

Bailey emphasizes that her book is not about love and marriage but about courtship. It was not until after 1942 that marriage became popular for the young. "As the war drew to a close, the media began to celebrate American marriage--for youth. This celebration would last for almost 20 years."

Of course, the women's movement, the Pill and women's entrance into the workplace and public life have changed everything. "It has been more than a quarter-century," she says, "since the dating system lost its coherence and its dominance . . . . In contemporary America, living together has become a conventional step in the path to marriage and an acceptable arrangement on its own terms. Sexual intercourse is a conventionally assumed part of long-term relationships and a clear possibility on first dates."

Even today, under the shadow of AIDS, she says, "the sexual legacy of the revolution is not really threatened."

But nostalgia for the old days is idle. "Our past does not contain a golden age of courtship . . . . We are not those people . . . ."

Heck, no. Today's women don't even wear hats.

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