Dating was invented in the 1920s.
Up through the beginning of the twentieth century, American courtship was carefully monitored. A girl would receive her gentleman caller on the front porch or in the family parlor, in the company of at least one adult chaperone. The couple would talk, read together, or play board games; on rare occasions they might be allowed to attend a church social or musical performance together, but always in view of nosy neighbors and family friends.
Under this system of courtship, women were in control. They selected the times and days for visits, did the inviting, and set the limits. All men could do was play along.
During the same period, even in the big cities, there was virtually no urban nightlife in America. After the sun went down, the night was lit only by the dim glow of gas lamps, and few respectable persons would dare to venture out after dark.
But by the first decade of the twentieth century, all that started to change.
The first challenge to the courtship system was America’s infatuation with the bicycle. These new contraptions made it easier for couples to slip away beyond the monitoring eyes of parents. Then came the telephone, which made it possible for young people to talk more freely, more often, and with more privacy.
Then came the automobile.
In the first years of the twentieth century, cars were considered unsafe and impractical. They didn’t work very well, and only millionaire hobbyists owned them. Drivers were limited to speeds of eight miles per hour, and some local ordinances required that each car be preceded by someone on foot, who was to warn pedestrians by waving a red flag.
But by the 1920s, cars were becoming commonplace; one-fifth of all Americans owned one of the new mass-produced automobiles. Suddenly, young people were never home anymore. Increasingly, they spent their evenings not in the family parlor, but in a car parked at Lover’s Lane.
In the same decade, for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than in the countryside. More and more young people were leaving the family farm every year, and flocking to the newly-electrified cities.
Many of those new urbanites were women. By 1929, more than half of all single American women were gainfully employed, and many of them lived in large cities, alone and unsupervised, in boardinghouses or private apartments.
Thanks to mechanization, working people found that their hours dropped, while wages rose. Young people suddenly had more time on their hands and more money to spend. And they had all kinds of new public amusements on which to spend it: dance halls, movie palaces, amusement parks and baseball stadiums sprang up everywhere.
These amusements were meant for men and women to enjoy together. Popular amusement park concessions included romantic rides like the Tunnel of Love, and scary rides meant to induce mock terror and encourage clinging and hugging. In the dance halls, women stayed out late, smoking, drinking and carrying on with men, engaging in the new dances with their wild movements and close embraces.
Instead of paying calls, young men and women were now going on “dates,” a term that social commentators still placed between quotation marks in the immediate pre-War years.
In contrast to the more circumscribed rituals of courting, the new dating culture led to increased sexual frankness and experimentation.
Although women were earning more money then ever before, wage and employment discrimination were rampant. Most working girls could barely earn enough to survive, and could not afford to go to movies or amusement parks on their own, nor afford the fancy clothes such activities required. So dating soon evolved into a system whereby men paid for dinners, movies and admissions, and women were unofficially expected to provide some physical and romantic attention in return.
The unwritten expectation that women would reciprocate sexually in return for indulging in social opportunities was completely new. Since dating was centered on public leisure activities that cost money, it took away much of the power women had held under the courtship system, and instead gave the advantage to men, who had the money to spend.