Research Paper: Dating Culture in 1950

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Dating Culture in the 1950s

While dating has been part of American popular culture for several generations, the dating culture has changed from one generation to another. Prior to the 1940s and World War II, most dating was actually in the form of courtship, and parents carefully monitored the interactions between teenagers and young adults. This began to change in the 1940s, because World War II greatly impacted how young men and women could interact. However, those changes mainly impacted young adults, rather than teenagers. Teenagers in the fifties changed the rules of dating and, consequently, formed the basis of what today's teenagers consider normal dating. However, allowing norms created in the 1950s to define modern day dating practices may be an anachronism because of the tremendous changes in society since the 1950s. By considering the relationships among teenagers in the 1950s, it becomes apparent that the families back then were significantly more conservative than nowadays families. For example, in the 1950s, divorce rates were lower, so that the nuclear family was the norm, giving rise to the idyllic happy days references to the 1950s. In addition, popular culture in the 1950s was far more conservative. For example, popular music in the 1950s, though considered scandalous by many in that time period, had far more conservative lyrics and patterns than modern music. All of these factors contribute to liberalization in dating attitudes since the 1950s.

"Teenagers in the 1950's are so iconic that, for some, they represent the last generation of innocence before it is "lost" in the sixties. When asked to imagine this lost group, images of bobbysoxers, letterman jackets, malt shops and sock hops come instantly to mind" (Sombat). These images even became part of the collective consciousness for later groups of teenagers and young adults through the popularity of the television series such as Happy Days and movies like Grease. In fact, the 1950s may have marked the beginning of America's youth-oriented culture because it was then that teenagers gained both freedom and visibility. However, this freedom and visibility came with the requirement that teens confirm to a series of social norms, many of which they were developing, guided by the norms and expectations of their parents. These norms were reflected most strongly in the 1950s version of dating.

Prior to dating becoming the normal way for young adults to mingle with members of the opposite sex, interested males would call upon girls in their homes. Their visits would be supervised by the family, and, if the young pair was given any time alone, it was under highly controlled circumstances. In this way, calling was controlled by the girl, or at least by the girl's family. In the days of calling on girls, the word date probably referred to booking an appointment with a prostitute. "However, by the turn of the 20th century we find the word being used to describe lower-class men and women going out socially to public dances, parties and other meeting places, primarily in urban centers where women had to share small apartments, and did not have spacious front parlors in their homes to which to invite men to call" (Burzumato). The practice of dating began to spread as the surrounding culture changed. "With the rise of the entertainment culture, with its movie houses and dance halls and their universal appeal across class lines, dating quickly moved up the socio-economic ladder to include middle and upper class men and women, as well as the new urbanites" (Burzumato). One element of the entertainment culture was the spread of popular music. Though rock and roll did not officially develop until the 1950s, one could see its roots in the popular music of the early 20th century, which was an essential part of the entertainment culture, especially among the lower classes and minorities, as exampled by the development of the Jazz culture in Harlem in the 1920s and the spread of blues music throughout much of the American south leading up to the 1950s..

Dating introduced a completely different element to American courtship rituals, separating them from the cultural traditions immigrants brought with them when they came to America. After all, the practice of a man calling on a woman was one widely used in Europe. First, dating allowed the young people to interact without parental supervision or intervention. Second, it changed the balance of power in budding romantic relationships. When, "dating replaced calling, the males held most of the power, for they paid for the date, drove the automobiles, and came by the girl's house only to pick her up" (Sombat).

One of the ways that males held the power was by controlling the aspects of the date. "In the 1950's, it was unheard of for a young lady to ask for a date or to initiate the dating process. The men were supposed to do the asking and calling" (Sombat). Women were expected to be passive in the courtship process, and could only control their dating lives in a passive way. Young women were told how to attract boys and lure in dates, but discouraged from taking a more active role in dating. This helped reinforce earlier stereotypes of women as sexual victims and may have contributed to a rise in sexual and domestic violence against women, but inadequate record-keeping makes it impossible to know whether or not that is true.

Perhaps the most significant change, from the perspective of males, was the economic change that came with dating. Prior to the 1950s, while a man's financial situation may have been critical in the decision whether or not to marry, men could generally court without regards to economic considerations. However, "back in the fifties, it was pretty much understood that boys pay for the expenses of the date. They take their girls out and show them a good time, but all of this costs money. Girls were, and some would insist still are, expensive to please especially if one takes them out frequently. The concept of Dutch dating was not acceptable back in the fifties. Both boys and girls were embarrassed by the idea" (Sombat). However, it was acceptable for a girl's family to feed a young man who was courting their daughter. That does not mean that males were the only ones who had to pay dating-related expenses. Girls had to purchase clothing, and spent significantly more on proms and formals than males did (Sombat). The main difference in male and female expenditure was that males spent their money on the couple, on the date, while females spent their money preparing for the date.

This balance of power was reflected in the courtship rituals associated with dating in the 1950s. Children did not date before a certain age, and dating generally began with double dates (Sombat). If the double-dates were successful, then a couple would move into single dating, and might eventually progress to going steady (Sombat). Before the 1950s, going steady would have been seen as a pre-engagement step, which people would only consider if they intended to get married (Sombat). However, during the 1950s, going steady simply implied an exclusive relationship. There were several customs associated with going steady in the 1950s:

The boy was required to give the girl a token which was to claim her as his, like his class ring, letterman sweater, or ID bracelet. If a ring was given, it had to be worn on the third finger of the left hand. Of course, these customs varied by region. Some places preferred rings over clothes, and others did not. Boys are also expected to call their steady girlfriend a certain number of times a week and take her out on a certain number of dates. Going steady also meant that the couple would reach a higher level of sexual intimacy (Sombat).

Dating was such a pervasive part of teenage life in the 1950s that it even became part of the classroom. Teenagers were educated, frequently through educational films, about dating. "These films were simply representations of adult views and adult preferences but created with teenage actors. They served as reminders to teenagers that there were customs and certain boundaries in dating, and if they violated them, there could be serious consequences" (Sombat). In addition, the films presented adult ideals for teenage dating behavior, for example dates ending with the asexual contact of a friendly handshake (Sombat).

Fortunately for dating teenagers, the youth-culture orientation of the 1950s ensured that there were a number of places for teenagers to go on dates. These places included dances, amusement parks, school sporting events, sock hops, malt shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, coffee houses, drive-ins, bowling alleys, and record shops (Sombat). One interesting thing about dating in the 1950s is that so much of it revolved around popular culture, and much of popular culture revolved around emerging rock and roll music. For example, dances were an exceptionally popular dating venue. In fact, looking at dances in the 1950s reveals another fact of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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