Today is my parents’ 32nd wedding anniversary. Per my dad’s family’s request, they had a big wedding with over two hundred people, most of whom my mom didn’t know, and a ceremony that lasted hours. At the altar, they couldn’t stand before the officiant the whole time, so there were chairs available.

While some elements of wedding celebrations in the United States have remained the same since colonial days, including the formal ceremony and the after-party, much differs between pre- and post-Industrial Revolution America. Of particular interest to me is ye olden courtship.

The more modern idea of dating evolved from the courting system. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, young women working for themselves in booming industrial cities began to court publicly, which practice captured the attention of authorities, who worried about the “potential public menace” of it all.[1]

Attempts to differentiate courting and dating is difficult because dating is, in essence, an extension of courting. According to social scientist Skip Burzumato at Bridgewater College, “[W]e have not moved from a courtship system to a dating system, but instead, we have added a dating system into our courtship system.” [2]

Image from

Courtship was a legacy of aristocratic Europeans of the Middle Ages. Traditionally, it was a ritual wherein a lady’s family evaluated the worthiness and advantage of a suitor. One article terms it a “long, parentally-controlled audition for marriage” [3]. The relationship would start with the intent to marry, and would proceed in such a way so as to determine any reason(s) that the union should not keep.

Marriage was both an emotional relationship and property arrangement, so parents were heavily involved in the proceedings. Customarily, a gentleman sought a relationship with a lady from his same social standing. To maintain a family’s good name, especially in higher ranking society, a lady must marry well, or risk shaming the family.

To start, the gentlemen would inquire among social groups about the availability and interest of the lady. Forthwith, he would take his case to her parents, requesting permission to call upon her. If the parents agreed to his proposition, short, chaperoned meetings between the gentleman and the lady would take place to ascertain fit.[4] Should the gentleman come to call and the lady be not available, he would leave a calling card.

calling card
A 19th century calling card (Image from The Art of Manliness)

Before the mid-1700s, the emotional connection between two people mattered not in courtships. Furthermore, the couple should not have any physical intimacy between them before engagement, though whether or not the parties involved in the business abided by this rule is questionable. According to Richard Godbeer, Professor of History at the University of Miami, between 30 to 40% of New England brides were pregnant walking down the aisle.[5]

In the 18th century, parental control on courtship waned, and certain practices gained greater acceptance. Prominent among them was bundling, wherein a serious courting couple would spend a night together in the lady’s bed, oftentimes with the parents’ full knowledge, so as to further verify compatibility.

Young English visitor to the colonies Andrew Burnaby described bundling as follows:

“At their usual time the old couple retire to bed, leaving the young ones to settle matters as they can, who after having sat up as long as they think proper, get into bed also, but without pulling off their undergarments, in order to prevent scandle.”

Bundling with a bundling board (Image from History And Other Thoughts)

A bundling board to divide the two or a bundling sack to ensconce the lady was sometimes employed to ensure chastity. (I doubt that these measures were very effective.)

Gradually, parental influence and involvement lessened more and more, until the Industrial Revolution and Gilded Age hit America, and dating entered the scene. Freed from the family parlor, equipped with income, and having time to kill, young people took to this more casual arrangement.

Some today, and the church particularly, have called into question the legitimacy of modern dating and played with the idea of resurrecting traditional courtship. What opinion have you on the matter?

[1] The fascinating history of how courtship became dating
[2] A brief history of courtship and dating in America
[3] The history of dating in America
[4] A brief history of courtship and matchmaking in America
[5] Courtship and sexual freedom in 18th-century America