Written by Elaine Hirsch
The first half of the 20th century marked the beginning of “going out,” meaning that couples were no longer forced to ply romance in their homes where everyone could monitor their amorous activities. While gender roles were still clearly defined trough the Great Depression and the two World Wars, dating was becoming less a comedy of manners and more an exercise in intimacy and communication. It also no longer had a strict matrimonial connotation, though there was still an expectation of “going steady” until after World War II, particularly among young women. By this time American society had come to accept certain customs and courtesies which eventually became dating institutions.
The postwar period of American prosperity and the sexual revolution managed to shake up the establishment when it came to romance. Dating was no longer just a conduit to marriage, but a matter of personal freedom. Societal pressures were scorned by people who wished to take more liberties in choosing their mates. As more women entered the workforce and divorce rates increased, gender roles were no longer so strictly defined.
The arrival of oral contraceptives forever changed the dating landscape, and the gay rights movement brought a different perspective. Mating was probably a lot easier before the 20th century due to the unbridled influence exerted upon romance by those old societal institutions of class, organized religion, and civil law. But once lovers shook off those undue pressures, technology and commerce promptly moved in to create today’s fascinating dating industry.
In the internet-connected world of the 21st century, the courtship rituals of yore have been largely replaced by online dating, social networking, and “hooking up.” Lovers have always relied upon the latest advances in communications technology to facilitate their budding relationships. The perfumed, handwritten letter delivered by personal courier was replaced by the more efficient postal service. Post office boxes afforded privacy, efficiency, and later anonymity (something later treasured by newspaper readers who ventured into the world of personal ads). As soon as other communication technologies arrived, they were quickly adopted by daters: telegrams, radio, telephone calls, fax machines, computer bulletin boards, the Internet, text messaging, and so on. Today it’s generally accepted that technological advances in broadcasting or personal communications will be quickly adopted for romantic purposes.
The history of personal ads brings into focus the fact that daters yearned to free themselves from being arbitrarily paired off by society long before the 20th century, and to this extent they looked to mass communication media to help them look for romance. As seen from personal ads published in New York newspapers during the Civil War, the signs of a restless and mobile American society looking for love were already evident in the mid-19th century. The gentleman seeking marriage in the following remarkable ad exemplifies this trend:
Matrimonial. – A young unmarried cavalry officer, who intends to serve his country till “this cruel war is over,” desires, should he be slain during the war, to leave an heir to his name and inheritance. He therefore wishes to open correspondence with a view to matrimony with a patriotic young lady of intelligence, accomplishments, common sense, &c. Address K, Nineteenth New York cavalry, Manassas Junction, Va.
This soldier took time off from his war duties to place an ad in his hometown newspaper. One can almost see the reaction of New York society at the time: “How honorable of this dashing Union officer to want to leave a legacy, but he will most likely be killed in combat or die from dysentery, thereby making you a widow. Read the next ad, Mildred.”
Personal ads paved the way for more specialized publications dedicated to the Gordian world of dating. By the late 1970s, newspapers such as the Single News Register turned dating into a virtual marketplace for romance. Even with the advent of the Internet, personal ads still had a strong global presence in the 1990s, as they combined communication technologies such as 900 numbers, voice mailboxes, conference calling, and even VHS tapes. The cringe-worthy “text speak” preferred by teenage users of short messaging services (SMS) today had nothing on the cryptic personal ads of yesteryear (try interpreting “SWF 28 ISO S/D W or B M 30-42 for NSA/LTR”).
Personal ads, once scoffed at by traditional daters as the last recourse of the desperate, were easily adopted by the mainstream upon the arrival of computer matchmaking technology. In 1964, at the height of the sexual revolution, a giant IBM computer was used to match potential mates according to their responses to a questionnaire that cataloged their personalities. Based in New York City, Project TACT (Technical Automated Compatibility Testing) became the first computerized dating service.
Marriage as an institution had fallen out of favor in the ’80s, and with so many singles to choose from, dating became a highly casual affair. Enter the world of computer bulletin board systems, precursors of internet-enabled communications. Early adopters of BBS technologies were mostly tech junkies, but it wasn’t long before digital romance was transmitted via modem. By the mid-’80s, the always-romantic French had already transformed their own Minitel system into a dating haven with their messageries roses (“pink messages”) chat lines. When the major commercial computer information services such as CompuServe and America Online arrived, online dating became a staple of American life.
In the 21st century, the worldwide Web facilitates algorithmic and psychological matchmaking with sites such as Match and eHarmony. The online dating industry has become highly profitable, even for free services. Specialized dating sites continue to spring up as well, filling out the corners of a very wide niche market.
The current evolutionary stage of dating owes a lot to technology, specially to the online social media platforms and the popularity of smartphones. The premise of finding and evaluating potential mates through social networking was realized by Friendster in the early 2000s. Early sociological research on Facebook found that online dating was the main reason many users flocked to the site.
Facilitated and perhaps encouraged by these technological developments, the prevalence of “hooking up” (meeting for sexual dalliances with a diminished sense of intimacy or commitment) has gone beyond the realm of high school and college students. Working adults are now engaging in hookups instead of dating, and are meeting and vetting their mates on web-based social networks rather than in person.
There seems to be a predilection toward finding playmates rather than partners, and modern communication technology empowers this trend. To this extent, the smartphone application Grindr may signal the future of dating. Grindr is an app developed for gay men to find each other through geosocial proximity. With the clever use of wireless connectivity, GPS technology, and social networking elements such as messaging and personal profiles, the app enables instant connections in real time. Grindr has been compared to a pick-up bar without the grimy stools and expensive drinks, and smartphone apps for heterosexual daters are already in development. It seems likely that for the next generation, digital connection will be the fully normal way to meet potential mates, short-term or otherwise. Whether calling it “dating” will make much sense anymore is quite a reasonable question.