How the "First Date" Has Changed in Every Decade Through History

How the "First Date" Has Changed in Every Decade Through History

The all-important first date isn't easy. Between the pressure of who's going to pay, how to keep the conversation going and whether or not the night will end in sex, the moving pieces all make it a less than appealing way to spend your evening.

And yet traditional dates are held up as a romantic ideal, the kind the older generation desperately wants Millennials to learn (so much so that a Boston College professor is teaching a course on it). 

There's just one problem: The "classic first date" is bullshit, because there has never been one standard for it. Case in point: all of history.

Dating is actually a pretty recent phenomenon, in the grand history of civilization. It wasn't until the 19th century that launching a relationship had anything to do with love and attraction. Courtship, to put it in old-timey terms, then became a part of the mating process. That eventually led to dates. But even then, they didn't always fit one mold.

Here are some ways our idea of a "date" has dramatically varied over the years.

Pre-19th century: Who needs dating when your parents can set you up?

As history shows us, dating didn't really exist before the 19th century, at least not in the United States. Back then, many marriages were facilitated by parents with the goal of finding their child a spouse that could physically help in maintaining the family home or bear children.

In cases where the there was no formal arrangement, children were still expected to choose someone who would be beneficial to the family (think: Pride and Prejudice), decided after a courtship void of touching and sexual thoughts. As Thomas Campbell wrote in 1799 about the courtship process at the time, "Distance lends to enchantment." Things weren't totally chaste, premarital sex did happen and love wasn't completely irrelevant; but they were all kept on the down-low.

Early 1900s: A date involves a "gentleman caller" and is definitely chaperoned. 

Source: Thiophene_Guy/Flickr
Source: Thiophene_Guy/Flickr

A proper first date in those days involved a gentleman caller coming to the house of a woman who piqued his fancy, and the two would have a visit with a chaperone in the room. This would continue on until a mutual interest was reached and a marriage proposal was offered. There could be sexual tension involved, as anyone who's ever read Henry James knows; but the pace would be what we'd call today a (seriously) slow burn.

1920s: Dating is about going out and playing the field.

Source: Getty
Source: Getty

The emergence of institutions like prom brought a new way of dating for young adults. Finally, they were able to get out from under their parents' thumb to enjoy activities with those they found attractive. First dates would include attending a dance or hitting up an amusement park, often in a fast car. And with Prohibition in full swing, alcohol was more appealing than ever.

Movies were also huge. By the mid-decade, movie theaters were selling 50 million tickets a week, and they opened up young people's eyes. "The only benefit I ever got from the movies was in learning to love and the knowledge of sex," one young woman told an interviewer in the 1920s. Indeed, "playing the field" by dating multiple people became more common in this decade, as the liberated women we now know as "flappers" explored sexual boundaries and brought taboos like premarital sex out of the closet.

1940s and 1950s: Dating is about procuring a husband ASAP.

Source: YouTube

During World War II, trying to find a fella for a first date was a tricky task, because so many had been drafted. It was then paramount for women to quickly obtain some sort of promise that the relationship would continue upon their fella's return. When that happened, "going steady" was solidified with a letterman jacket or class ring.

First dates often happened after the guy called the girl on the phone, as the charmingly bumbling video above demonstrates. The date usually happened in a public place, among other teens (think Danny and Sandy's movie date in Grease); there was lots of talking to get to know each other; and if there was any money spent, the guy paid. There was also a lot of trial and error: If a first date fell flat, then another first date was around the corner, especially for young female coeds with their pick of men for their "MRS" degrees.

1960s and 1970s: A date is really about sex.

Starting in the 1960s and into the '70s, free love was on the dating menu. Premarital sex became increasingly mainstream, replacing the pre-existing dating etiquette with a freer, less restrictive norm. It was in 1962, after all, that Helen Gurley Brown published "Sex and the Single Girl," laying out the manifesto for what would become the Cosmopolitan magazine we know it today. In it, she wrote, "An affair can last from one night to forever," a pretty clear sign that dating and sex could now go hand-in-hand. Accessibility to the Pill, legal abortion and the rise of feminism made experimentation part of the "getting to know you" process and first dates to the amusement park a thing of the past. 

1990s: Dating isn't actually dating, it's "hooking up."

Source: katrinfigge/Instagram
Source: katrinfigge/Instagram

In the 1980s and 1990s, we got the term "hooking up," meant to refer to no-strings-attached enjoyment (a definition that would be debated forevermore, particularly by the New York Times). It allowed and presumably still allows women to "go out and fit into the social scene, get attention from young men and learn about sexuality." With all the "hanging out" and "getting together" happening, there was confusion over what would constitute a date at all. Dating culture was on the whole replaced by hookup culture.

Today: A "first date" happens before you even meet in person.

Source: m_frigillana/Instagram
Source: m_frigillana/Instagram

"Hooking up" is still very much a part of the courtship process, as anyone on Tinder knows, while formal dates do still happen. But there's a ton of in between; as psychologist Goal Auzeen Saedi, Ph.D., described, talking sporadically over text can mean "not quite in a relationship, but not out of the realm of possibilities either." 

But more significantly before a first date even could happen, apps and the Internet have changed its entirely. The coyness, banter and getting-to-know-you talk that used to fill first dates is now taking place in the palms of our hands: Twenty-two percent of 25- to 34-year olds are using dating sites or apps. By the time the "first date" happens, we've already gotten to know so much about the other person online (via volunteered information or our own adept stalking) that the initial first face-to-face is exceedingly casual or already has an air of familiarity.

So, what does this mean for the picture-perfect first date? Given how fast things change (it was only a few years ago swiping right wasn't a term we even knew), trying to get a "first date" right isn't worth the stress. It could be dinner and a movie, or it could be a hookup achieved with one Tinder swipe, or both. First date outfits, first date questions, first date sex — take any or all of it. Or take none of it. Now, it's all up to you.