79: Beth Bailey’s Front Porch to Back Seat

Beth Bailey’s From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America reads 20th century culture through the lens of dating and courtship.  She draws on prescriptive literature – advice books, newspaper columns, magazines for teens, college newspapers, and “scholarly” works by proponents of marriage ed – to reconstruct two major changes in courtship in America from 1920 to 1965.

First, courtship made a spatial shift from the female-dominated private sphere (calling) to the male-dominated public sphere (dating).  This shift began in the 1890s, when urban working classes went out on dates due to lack of space and privacy at home.  It was picked up by the upper classes and then “imploded” into the middle class in the 1920s.  The shift created a tension within the courtship, because while women were still urged to remain passive and protect their sexual virtue, the date now happened in the context of the marketplace, and men, with their superior purchasing power, now controlled the date.  This shift from private home to public marketplace also changed the meaning of courtship, from a thoughtful step toward matrimony to a “public commodity” that could be used to achieve social standing in a new consumer-oriented youth culture.  This shift was reflected in the new language about dating: advice books talk about price tags, supply, and scarcity, and describe virtue as a commodity, merchandise, or line of goods.

Second, once in the marketplace, dating itself evolved from one competitive system to another.  Before WWII, the “dating and rating” system prevailed, where lines of young men competed for dates and dances with young women, and the number of dates determined status.  The system worked by creating a “scarcity” of eligible women.  After WWII, “going steady” replaced the earlier era of “promiscuity.”  Beginning in junior high, students sought commitment and security in “play marriages” that horrified parents – in their generation, only dating one person meant you were horribly unpopular! – but lasted until the 1960s.  Bailey attributes this trend to a post-war scarcity of “security:” fear of war, fear of the bomb, a shortage of men, etc.

Throughout, Bailey connects these changes in dating culture to “all the -isms that fall under the mantle of modernization,” as well as to the marriage education movement, which responded to modernization by attempting to centralize authority over marriage in an applied science.  While she draws her generalizations from prescriptive literature rather than lived experience and generally ignores regional and racial differences in her construction of a national dating culture her links between dating and modernization are provocative.

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