All We Need Is Love: How Your Ancestors Courted Back in the Day

Posted by Ancestry Team on October 13, 2015 in Family History Month


[Photo credit: Shutterstock]

Courtship: A period when a couple gets to know one another exclusively in order to determine whether they might become engaged or otherwise commit to each other.

How did your grandparents and great-grandparents court and fall in love?

These days, couples in Western countries usually date casually — though online matchmaking has recently changed the face of dating and courtship dramatically — but traditionally, there were formal courtship rituals that evolved over the ages.

Europe in the Middle Ages (1100-1500)

Courtship in the Middle Ages was often a matter of parents negotiating in order to increase the family’s power or wealth. Status, property, and wealth were the deal makers or breakers. Young people often didn’t meet their future spouses until after the marriage had already been arranged, and they were sometimes betrothed and married at very young ages.

The concept of chivalry, or romantic ideals, arrived later in the Middle Ages with knights (some possibly on white horses) and troubadours (traveling poets/musicians) who tried to win their women’s hearts through brave deeds, poetry, and singing beneath balconies (the story of Romeo and Juliet is set in 15th-century Italy). A man courted a woman by putting her wants and desires first. The emphasis was on passion and romance; we still talk about a man being chivalrous when he holds open a door for a woman or helps her into a car (or onto a horse). Chastity and honor were the virtues of the day for women in the Middle Ages.

The Elizabethan Era (1558-1603) in England

Courtship as we now know it was not common during the time of Queen Elizabeth I in England. Among upper classes, marriages were still arranged between people of similar levels of wealth and social status. When a suitable husband was found, the woman’s father paid the groom’s family a dowry in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. In the lower classes, the dowry might be a farm animal. Sometimes, these arrangements were made between wealthy families before either child could walk or talk. Henry VIII betrothed his 2-year-old daughter, Mary Tudor, to the infant Dauphin of France. When that fell through, she was again promised at the age of 6 to her cousin, 22-year-old Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Colonial America (the 1600s & 1700s)

The higher a Colonial family’s status, the greater the pressure for their children to “marry well.” At stake were the survival and consolidation of the family’s power and prosperity.

An interesting aspect of courtship in Colonial days was “bundling,” in which a courting man and woman would share a bed, fully clothed and often with a “bundling board” between them. The idea was to get to know each other in a chaste way while in the safe environment of the home of the girl — and homes were cold, thus the bed and bedcovers. This custom of “bed courting” came to the American Colonies with early Scots, Welsh, and other European immigrants. An 18th-century Scottish rhyme declared:

Since in a bed a man and maid,

May bundle and be chaste,

It does no good to burn out wood,

It is just needless waste.

The American West, mid-1800s

By the mid-1800s, pioneers pushing west on the North American continent were finding a serious shortage of available women in their frontier towns. Courtship turned a different page as men advertised for wives in newspapers, as portrayed in the book and movie Sarah Plain and Tall.

This ad appeared in an Arkansas paper during those times and sought a woman who would bring practical skills to a marriage:

“Any gal that got a bed, calico dress, coffee pot and skillet, knows how to cut out britches and can make a hunting shirt, knows how to take care of children can have my services till death do us part.”

The Victorian Era (1837-1901)

The Victorian Era in England was about proper etiquette, manners, and respectability. Courtship was a way for a woman to

secure her position in life and ensure security for her children; for a man, it was a career move. He could amass great wealth simply by choosing well, as his wife’s property transferred to him once they married. Balls and dances were common ways for young Victorian women to be introduced to society. In order to court a young lady, a gentleman followed strict protocol. He must first be formally introduced to a young woman and then would ask permission of her, or her parents, to “call” (visit) at a certain time. Most courting took place in her parents’ home. When he arrived, he would leave his calling card and they would have a chaperoned visit, perhaps drinking tea and chatting or playing cards in the parlor. He would need to impress the parents in order to be allowed to call again.

The Edwardian Era (1900-1910)

This era was similar to the Victorian era, where courtship depended on class. A new twist was that some of the English gentry, finding their coffers rather depleted, married off their sons to the daughters of wealthy American industrialists. These American heiresses (Winston Churchill’s mother was one) had great fortunes from their fathers, and such marriages kept many English estates going. A fictional example of this can be seen on the television show Downton Abbey: Lord Grantham marries Cora, a rich American heiress, to preserve his estate.

Servants falling in love while working at the same great house was typically not allowed. They would have to leave service (sometimes both of them, sometimes only the woman) and often without character references that would help them get another job. The love match between Downton Abbey’s parlor maid Anna and the valet Mr. Bates is not typical of below-the-stairs life in Edwardian England.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The United States in the 1920s

Courting traditions changed quite a bit in the “Roaring 20s,” an affluent decade defined by excess and living in the moment. More people lived in cities than on farms for the first time, and many had automobiles. Young people planned fun and social nights out instead of staying at home under the watchful eyes of their parents. Dating was not seen so much as a way to find a spouse but as a fun activity.

The Depression Era in the U.S. (the 1930s)

During the difficult economic era of the Depression, many couples remained engaged for several years, wanting to wait until they were self-supporting before marrying. The U.S. marriage rate in the early 1930s was the lowest it had been in decades.

World War II America (the 1940s)

In contrast, the WWII era saw many couples get married on the spur of the moment, or after only a very short courtship, as men went off to war. This haste probably contributed to a very sharp increase in the divorce rate right after the war.

— Leslie Lang



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