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From Front Porch To Back Seat

March 2023
1min read

Courtship in Twentieth-Century

By Beth L. Bailey; Johns Hopkins University Press; 208 pages.

For as long as men and women have met, attracted each other, and fallen in love, they have wondered how it happened. The event, however frequent, is never commonplace. It has always held a certain fascination for those experiencing it and for many on the sidelines too. Throughout the ages and, as this well-written, well-researched book shows, increasingly in the twentieth century, courtship has been a matter not only for malicious gossip and heartfelt discussion but also for earnest instruction and serious scholarship.

The book begins with a recapitulation of the rituals of nineteenth-century courtship in the middle and upper classes. Men requested permission to call on women at home and were granted the privileges at her and her family’s discretion. These decisions were not based on the fellow’s good looks or sex appeal, or even how much the young lady liked him, but on the basis of “suitability, breeding, and background.” Such meetings were not, according to Bailey, dates per se. The advent of dating, spurred by the invention of the automobile, “moved courtship out of the home and into the man’s sphere.” And yet, Bailey tells us, what is most interesting about this change is what stayed the same. The family no longer exercised control; the individuals themselves did—but according to Bailey, they no more listened to the dictates of their hearts than their parents had.

Courtship in the twentieth century observed the laws of supply and demand. Before World War II, women were viewed as precious commodities and treated as such. During and after the war, the supply of eligible men dwindled, and demand for them rose accordingly. “Increasingly, authors of these [advice] books [urged] women not to be too picky. If you’re only ‘so-so,’ the argument went, and men are scarce, you’ll never get a husband if you wait for your’ideal.’”

The themes of competition, economics, and social pressure presented in this book shed light on the institution of courtship. But the illumination is that of a fluorescent lamp, not of candles. “The word love scarcely appears [in this book],” Bailey writes in her introduction. Such an omission, although possibly enhancing the work’s scholarly integrity, could result in a cold, even bitter presentation. Bailey manages to avoid such a reduction by the quotes and anecdotes she has scattered throughout her book. She lets us hear so many different poignant and humorous voices, of columnists, sorority girls, callow suitors, and even a “historian of masculinity,” that we recognize and greet the hopefulness and vulnerability so characteristic of human beings falling in love.

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