19 May 2012


From an item by Peter Ling on 'sex and the automobile in 39(11) History Today (2012) -
By combining mobility and privacy, the automobile offered young Americans in the 1920s a 'getaway' vehicle from parental supervision. Consequently, students of American courtship attributed the rise of dating to the automobile's arrival. Dr Evelyn Duvall in a 1956 textbook for teenagers, for instance, declared simply that the car had changed courtship.
To understand the automobile's contribution to this change, however, one should first clarify the nature of earlier courtship practices. The convention of calling was not universal practice in late nineteenth-century America. It was a bourgeois custom based on the concerns and capabilities of the middle classes. As a courtship ritual, calling involved three of the pillars of bourgeois life: the family, respectability, and in particular, privacy. The focal point of calling was gaining admittance into the private family sphere of the home which was the central expression of bourgeois status. Although privacy itself had only become a realistic possibility in the eighteenth century, thereafter it had rapidly established itself as a necessity for the affluent and an aspiration for the poor. A badge of respectability, privacy was profoundly important to the nineteenth-century bourgeois family whose individual members each pined for rooms of their own. Only affluence afforded such spaciousness and so the separate parlour in which callers applied for admission into the bosom of the family was itself a status symbol. As guardians of the home, women were the chief arbiters of who could call and who would never be invited. Daughters could invite male suitors to call but there remained a parental veto on who would be received. In this way, family honour and essential privacy could be preserved. However, parental oversight always threatened to infringe the maturing offspring's right to privacy. To uphold their own notions of honour and ethics, Peter Gay points out, parents went to extraordinary lengths. They would 'open their children's letters, oversee their reading, chaperone their visitors, (even) inspect their underwear'. To the dismay of the younger generation, bourgeois parents failed to respect the principle of privacy they preached.
For the mass of working-class Americans, such privacy was very remote from the daily reality of overcrowding. Cramped lodging houses made the social niceties of 'calling' ludicrously impractical. Of course, a large proportion of the American working class was either immigrant or the children of immigrants and so tried to continue in the New World their traditional practices of chaperonage and female seclusion. However, as social workers like Jane Addams noted, the need for everyone to earn money in impoverished working-class households made such customs hard to maintain, while crowded living conditions, simultaneously prevented the adoption of bourgeois habits. The working classes consequently pioneered dating as an expedient born of the opportunities offered and the comforts denied to them. Forced out onto the streets, Addams warned, working-class youth was highly susceptible to the enticements of commercialised entertainment.