I dare you to try: google for ‘flapper’ or ‘1920s courtship’, and you’ll probably find a lot of articles online that praise the freedom gals found in the Jazz Age with regard to their sexuality and their desires. Even worst, if you search books set in the 1920s, you’ll find a whole host of stories telling the erotic exploits of young flappers.
Mhm… I’m not saying courtship and sexual life didn’t change hugely in the 1920s, especially for women. Sure it did. But the casual reader often misunderstands the actual ways and the magnitude. When we speak of sexual liberation, we should always remember that what they meant back then isn’t necessarily what we mean today.
To properly understand the change, we have to take a look at where 1920s young people came from.
Up until the 1910s, courtship was a very complex ritual. It concerned not only the lives of the two people involved in the marriage but also a host of family considerations, with regards to economic, political and social aspects. Romantic considerations had started entering the matter of who a young person would marry. Yet marriage was still widely a family affair, and so courtship mostly took place in the home.
A young man would be encouraged to ‘call’ on a young woman. He could, of course, refuse to call, but if he did, he entered the woman’s space. He would meet her parents and talk to her in the family parlour. Maybe he would be offered refreshment and entertainment by her in the form of piano playing and singing.
Basically, it was a family matter to create the conditions for a young man to be able to ‘call’ on the girl, and for the girl to be able to receive the man.
This social ritual, originating with the upper class, common between the middle classes and copied as far as possible by families of more modest means, gave the girl and her watchful parents a firm control over the process.
By the early XX century, social conditions changed to the point that ‘dating’ started to replace ‘calling’.
Many families moved to suburban residences, which tended to be smaller than in the past and had less space for receiving and entertaining guests. At the same time, cities started offering multiple modes of entertainments, from theatres, to dance halls, to movies. Moving around became easier and move comfortable for people because the car became increasingly commonplace.
Although courtship was still a family matter, courting couples began to go on dates, prearranged excursions to soda and coffee bars or movie theatres. Places away from the house where the young couple, even in the midst of a crowd, still experienced less supervision and more privacy than in the parlour.
The car became itself a place of intimacy. Since the man was far more likely to own and use one, it was now the woman that entered the man’s space. This gave the man slightly more control over the courtship process.
Jazz Age Courtship
By the 1920s, two social shifts that were huge by their own right had occurred in Western society:
1. Thanks to the more readily available and widely accepted methods of contraception, the family had become a place of affection and companionship more than need. This had especially impacted the lives and expectations of the children, who had been further encouraged to find a partner who would be a good match for the person’s life aspirations.
2. More and more young people attended college, both young men and women. This placed them in a freer environment, away from the traditional places of supervision. In this new environment, young people developed their own social rituals and values, depending on their own desires and aspirations more than those of their elders.
In fact, it was in colleges that the youth culture found its more important expression. Here it is where the new courtship rituals became more prominent and accepted.
In the 1920s, dating become commonplace. Young people now had an unlimited possibility to meet at social events at dance halls, speakeasies and bars, skating rings, movie theatres, sports courts. These were all places where man and women could freely mix in a socially acceptable environment. In these conditions, dating ceased to be specifically a search for a mate and became a means for casual social entertainment.
In colleges and high schools, where the practice spread, dating came to be regarded as a means to demonstrate popularity. The more numerous and varied the dates, the higher one’s status. For many young people, dating was a form of recreation and self-affirmation, not necessarily a real courtship of a potential life companion. Dating permitted a paired relationship without implying a commitment to marriage, and so it encouraged experimental relations.
Petting and necking
Petting and necking described a broad range of potentially erotic physical contacts, from casual kisses to more intimate caresses and fondling (the distinction depending on whether the contact was above or below the shoulders). Young people widely practised it as a perfectly acceptable expression of affection in a couple.
What were the limits of 1920s courtship?
All of this looked like huge freedom to the adults, who started to fear for a life of promiscuity for their children. But if young people in the 1920s did have a lot more freedom then their parents had had in term of choosing a partner and exploring that relationship, they still had limits that the adults sometimes failed to see. Limits held in place by the peer group itself.
This generation developed a sexual behaviour that was a middle ground between the no-sex-at-all taboo of their parents and their own interests and marital aspirations. They laid the basis for a massive change in the accepted standard. But with all their freedom, these youths were still influenced by their childhood training as well and the more immediate control and sanction of their peers.
The peer group accepted and even encouraged the practices of dating and petting. These activities, however, were considered acceptable only if devoted to one person, the one who would likely become a life partner. Premarital intercourse became increasingly common as the contraception methods became more efficient. Once again, it was acceptable only when it happened with a chosen partner, the one the person was going to marry. Intercourse with a casual partner, which was horrifying to their elders, was still strongly sanctioned even by peers. Although gender distinctions and sexual attitude were beginning to change, most of the sexual activity that did take place was only with a single partner whom the individual expected to marry.
In any case, the ‘double standard’ was still in place and very strong. It was generally acknowledged that a young male could not be expected to be faithful to a single companion and he would explore and experiment. A woman who behaved in the same way was considered to have abandoned her virtue. In fact, giving in to a man before marriage was always dangerous for a woman. She may have a steady relationship (or what appeared to be a stable relationship) and decide to give herself to that man. But if the relationship then failed and she married a different man, the social consequences and sanctions of her act would still fall over her.
So, in spite of an attitude and behaviour that were undoubtedly new and freer, the fundamental aspiration and expectations of young people weren’t all that different from their parents’. They were enacting a social revolution, something that the Great Depression and then WWII would stop and prevent evolving until as far as the 1960s. It just wasn’t as radical as we love to think.
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977
Kyvig, David E., Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940. How Americans Lived Through the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the Great Depression. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2002
Vintage Treasures – My Victorian Valentine