Dating in the Olden Times: How 20th Century Men Courted

15. September 2011

Throughout history, men and women have faced the traditional need to find love and fill their homes with the children and wealth that can best be produced by a great marriage. At the very least the marriage should look great in public.

Needless to say, deciding who you should marry is a major choice and should never be entered into lightly or while drinking alcohol. So the process of courtship has always been a big deal, even though it has changed dramatically over the years. This article is going to be primarily concerned with how dating and courtship took place during the 20th century.


The rules for attire in the 20th century changed rapidly. In 1901 the Victorian era basically ended with Her Majesty’s death. Thereafter, informality grew and waned based on the economy and social norms of four generations. From the flappers of the 1920s to the flower children of the 1960s, personal expression began to replace formality in men and women’s clothing.

As the 1980s song goes, women do tend to prefer a sharply-dressed man. However, dating customs increasingly favored a man who had a simpler style and was able to be both handsome and casual. At the same time, plenty of women have always been attracted to men in uniform, which only added to a man’s clothing options on a date.

Getting Ready

Getting ready for a date in the 20th century sometimes consisted of putting on makeup and styling one’s hair—in the 80s this also applied to guys—and sometimes consisted of little more than getting up and throwing on clothing. Widespread access to deodorant, tooth brushes and clean water meant that a new level of cleanliness was standard.

Of course, the hippie era and the grunge fashion trends of the 90s proved that with certain levels of social status, a person could get away with a lot of things one wouldn’t necessarily expect. One could literally fall asleep in spilled beer or mud, and be attractive enough to date without any preparation whatsoever.

Settings for Dates

As more of the population moved into cities and began to own cars, mobility became unprecedented. With the advent of movies, young couples had a new place to make out unobtrusively. Cars provided a great place for random sex, as well as for finding additional out-of-the-way places for rendering the clergy’s role in courtship invalid and unnecessary.

Dates took on a far more casual feeling as the century moved along, going from needing a chaperone to needing only the couple themselves. Often a date would merely consist of meeting for long enough to get high, have sex and then drift their separate ways. These kinds of dates could literally take place anywhere.

Key Players

By the middle of the 20th century, a man’s involvement with parents evolved from asking their permission to date their daughter to occasionally noticing them lurking in the background as he picked up the object of his affections.

In the 20th century, a gentleman only needed to attract and captivate the woman of his choice instead of trying to please her family. When the man and woman are interested in one another, nobody else’s opinion needs to matter very much to them.

The Steps of the Process

Men and women went into the work force at roughly equal levels during the 20th century, opening up a whole new avenue by which they could meet one another. Other than through their workplaces, men and women tended to meet at social gatherings like parties and through mutual friends. The blind date was invented during the 20th century, and it consisted of a friend playing amateur matchmaker.

In Western society, the matchmaking concept was fairly rare until this time. It became highly popular because free time receded during the century. People became so busy that it was often hard to meet anyone outside of bars. In many cases, courtship was of an extremely variable length during the 20th century.

Casual dating came to the fore during the 20th century. With less need to marry young, lots of people stayed single and dated around into their 30s. This led to people being far more selective about when, whom and even if they married.

Often a couple would have little interest in marriage, and long-term romantic relationships known as “shacking up” became increasingly common. Since the divorce rate climbed to as high as 67% during the century, marriage seemed to many people to be a needless step. As well, the increasing freedom of both genders meant that casual sex became a convenient method of satisfying a need without undue stress.

According the to the Kinsey Report in the 1950s, more than half the women surveyed reported that they were not virgins when they married. While social mores opened toward sexuality more and more over the century, practices behind closed doors opened up far more quickly.

Putting it to Bed

The 20th century saw some rapid changes in the way people dated one another. A man wanting to court a woman could have hardly hoped to live in a better time. Courtship could lead to marriage or not, and often sex preceded it.



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