Dating became more formalized in the 1950s and also less chaperoned than in earlier generations. Although dating originated at the turn of the century, it continued to evolve away from courting rituals where men interacted with potential spouses in the girl’s parents home or in very public venues. Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weigel.
Clear Expectations and Romance
Social expectations for young men and women, referred to as boys and girls, were clearly understood. Boys were expected to act like gentlemen and to mind their manners. Girls were supposed to be pretty, dote on the boy, help boost his ego, and above all: not get pregnant! Here’s an excerpt from The Art of Dating, ©1958:
“Movie manners: While the fellow buys the tickets, the girl steps aside and looks at the stills outside to avoid the boy any embarrassment he may feel at the ticket window. Once inside, the girl follows the usher to their seats, and the fellow follows the girl. If there is no usher, the boy precedes the girl down the aisle, finds two seats, and steps aside so that the girl may be seated first; he then follows and seats himself beside her. If the girl is wearing a coat or jacket, the fellow helps her out of it and arranges it comfortably over the back of her seat. Then he removes his outer coat and hat and scarf and either places them under his seat or holds them in his lap.
“The boy may hold the girl’s hand if she has no objection, or place his arm over the back of her seat. Such actions do not go beyond socially acceptable behavior. They may whisper their reactions to the picture, or comment to each other about the characters or the plot, so long as they neither embarrass each other nor annoy their neighbors.“
The boy would pay for every date in anticipation of his future role as sole provider in marriage. Early critics of the new practice of dating suggested that this was equivalent to prostitution, with a meal and entertainment being paid instead of cash. The criticism was dropped, but there was an inherent sense that a girl owed a boy “something” for what he provided. A girl’s family wanted to meet the boys she dated, but the boy’s families didn’t expect to meet his date until things were serious and likely to head to marriage. Girls had to wait to be asked on a date, and utilized various strategies to help make that happen with a shy boy. If a girl was considered too smart, a “brain,” she might be intimidating to boys and was expected to play dumb.
Rock N Roll music was growing up, bothering parents with their brash sounds and superstars such as Elvis Presley and James Brown who moved their hips in a sexually suggestive manner. Articles warning parents about the new “teen-ager” culture were featured in popular magazines. A boy was particularly cool if he was a good dancer and the Lindy Hop was one of the favorites of the time.
“Adam began by rapidly twirling his partner around. This worked best if she was wearing crinolines, those scratchy, layer cake-like underslips meant to be seen, so fashionable among teenage girls at the time. Then he forcibly swung them away from himself and across the floor. There was a 3 or 4 beat pause so that he could snap his fingers in a cool offhand way, making sure the other dancers had cleared enough space between them. Then the girl ran directly toward him at top speed. At the last second before they crashed together, he grabbed her and lifted her first to his left side and then to his right, up in the air and down between his legs, and then up in the air again for the grand finale. It required an athletic partner.” Trying to Be Cool– Growing up in the 1950s Leo Braudy
We think if it all as quaint now, but the 50s and early 60s was the time of highest teenage pregnancy in the US, despite all the warnings given to girls (without any formal sex education beyond books like Peyton Place).
This was also the period of earliest marriages in US history. At age 19, 42% of girls were married, and by age 24, it was 70%. Eventually 93% would marry and most would stay home to raise their children. (New Passages– Mapping Your Life Across Time by Gail Sheehy)
Shotgun marriages were common to prevent shame and illegitimate birth. In the following decade and beyond, the number of illegitimate births, especially among teen mothers, would rise significantly, presumably because of fewer unwanted marriages as the stigma of single mothers decreased.
The above statistics demonstrate the real danger of unexpected pregnancy leading to a sudden marriage in the 50s and early 60s. At the time, the even newer practice of “going steady” was used in explanation. So much so, that the Catholic Church, privy to the extent of hastily-arranged marriages, publically campaigned against the “pagan” practice of going steady.
“While steady dating is often construed as ‘marriage in miniature,’ the speaker [The Rev. John R. Cavanagh] said, ‘it is not preparation for marriage’ when the practice is devoted to individual pleasure.” Parents were urged “to ‘do everything in their power’ to prevent the going steady of teen-agers and pre-teen-agers. He declared, ‘It limits their friendships and if continued is likely to promote at best a brother-sister relationship in marriage. In addition, it may lead to a consummated sin, even in their early teens.’” NYTimes March 20, 1957
Parking in cars was another factor leading to unexpected pregnancy. Many boys and their families had the means in the post-WWII prosperity to own cars. After some public activity, often associated with a church or synagogue, parking required significant self-control when boys and girls had couch-sized spaces for necking and petting. Sexual promiscuity in boys was tolerated, but was strictly taboo for “nice” girls. This double-standard meant that preventing pregnancy was the responsibility of the girl.
“Since time immemorial the woman has been called on to be the one who maintains sexual standards in a relationship. So the burden of the situation rests primarily on her. If she allows premarital intercourse, it is she who is generally considered the fool. If a pregnancy ensues, it is the girl who is ‘in trouble.‘
“What does the guy think if his girl gets pregnant? He may realize that he does not really love the girl. He may wonder if perhaps she has trapped him into this predicament. He may be haunted by the question, ‘if she went all the way with me, how can I be sure there have not been others?’ Few fellows want to get stuck with ‘a tramp.’” The Art of Dating
The Happy Ending
Young ladies were expected to marry as virgins and become the helpmate to a well-providing young man and start a family. This excerpt from The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, © 1958, says it all:
“So now she was packing, saying goodbye to her apartment and to New York and to the job that she had never really liked enough to miss now. How strange it would be to lie in bed every morning until ten o’clock, and to be able to cut out recipes from the newspaper and make things that Ronnie liked, and to know that there was someone who would come home to her every evening, who would want to come home to her, who would direct himself to his home as a bird flies south in winter, instinctively, for warmth and love and the life he needed. Things that had never seemed so interesting before: tablecloths in store windows, embroidered sheets, silverware, now took on a great significance.“
It was the next generation that would rebel against these expectations for both men and women and open up new opportunities for women beyond the home. But this generation, sometimes called the Silent Generation, was a necessary bridge between the more conservative past and the sexual revolution and feminism of the sixties and seventies to come.
2 thoughts on “Dating in the 1950s: Romantic and Dangerous”
Compared to the social and political and religious climate we are currently living in ( not to mention the pandemic), I might enjoy a time to consider recipes and tablecloths.
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I hear you, Mary. Simpler times with clear expectations and everyone reading from the same script does have it’s appeal.