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



  1. Georgia Downer

    Enjoyable, full of good information, will look for more info. about the Depression era. Thank you!

  2. Carmen

    Very good information. My paternal Grandparents met in Port Huron, Michigan and married in 1904 . He was a teacher and a border in my Grandmother’s parents’ home. When he began to live there she was 14 and graduated 8th grade. I believe he was 22. When they married she was 19. My maternal grandparents met at a Shirt Factory in Leominster, Massachusetts.

  3. velma burgess

    Very interesting I have three relatives and one friend who met their spouses oneline. Thank y’all from tornado alley–that being said, would love to be guests (myself, AND I AM A WHEELCHAIR CRIPPLED VICTIM WHO WAS HIT HEADON BY A DRUNK DRIVER WITH NO INSURANCE AT 146 MPH WHICH DECAPITATED HIM AND HE LEFT ME IN THE MIDDLE OF THE VERY BUSY INTERSTATE LIKE YESTERDAYS HUMAN ROADKILL TO DIE, I WAS IN A COMA ABOUT 90 DAYS ++ ON LIFE SUPPORT/VENTILATOR AND HAD 34 BROKEN BONES AND PUNCTURED LUNG) my husband (he is a USAF veteran) and our beautiful 19 year old granddaughter who lives with us and attends college we would love and appreciate the opportunity of being on y’alls show AND we have ALL met our significant others on the internet! (certain I was NOT supposed to blab that but if we get on television y’alls show and our roots traced, AND I want sooo bad a copy of a television video I played piano on in July, 1991 in Tulsa, Oklahoma called SPOTLIGHT, OKLAHOMA, under the name of Velma Fitzer and I played piano and sang gospel music with my sister Donna Turner on Darrell Magee (s) television spot on the above referenced television show. KWHB TV 47 I spoke with Rob and Susan Smith
    918 254 4701 and it was done on reel tape and they CLAIM they can’t find a copy but I know y’all can work miracles at

    Also, I have rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, AND an amputated toe, and lymphedema, BUT I am a christian with an extremely positive attitude.

    Thank y’all in advance.

    Velma Burgess
    The Milkman98s wife

  4. Zsazsa

    I have helped some friends whose roots are in the South, and many a plantation maiden married a cousin. Second cousins were especially favored. The young woman got a spouse she knew and the plantation got someone brought up in the system. Also there was the union of the two families’ holdings which made them more profitable. I also found, in the case of my husband’s family, that young farming men looked for women who lived upstream. There are a lot of navigable streams in that area and small boats were a common mode of travel. Paddle upstream to woo your girl and ride the current homeward when you were done and tired. For my parents the death of my invalid grandmother and WWII were the impetus to get married though they’d known each other for several years. My in-laws on the other hand waited until after WWII to marry. They also had known one another before the war started. My maternal grand parents were married in 1905 in the US and were introduced by and older brother and sister who had married each other. My paternal grandparents married in 1900 was an arranged marriage in a rural area in Europe. My paternal grandmother did not like being married- she hated being pregnant even more- but she was from a family of 7 girls (second oldest) and they had to be married in birth order. There were two possible men and my great grandparents chose the younger one because they figured my grandma needed someone her own age to keep up with her. She was quite a spitfire who loved the social scene and flirting. When going to a dance she always carried her shoes so she could dance longer before they wore holes in the sole.

  5. Linda

    The description of the 1940’s totally portrays my mom and dad. My father was in the Navy and they met while he was on leave. They were married 6 wks later and remained married until he passed away. They had 26 wonderful years together.

  6. Wendy

    I am fortunate to have been able to go back to the early 1600’s on my granny’s British – Yorkshire Ancestry. I first found out that my GG grandparents were 1st cousins – and then the web began! I was surprised to find how many upper middle class families were all intermarried throughout my tree. So were these arranged marriages or were they brides bought and/or sold ?? I tend to think that these marriages arranged to keep the money(s) flowing within the same families. I love my hobby and helping others gain knowledge of there families past. On a final note I have also noticed the repeat of many generation of having the same careers (over 100 years) and the sadness of women losing their husband while pregnant and toddlers left behind. Again this repeats of over 100’s of years! Thank you Ancestry for all of your work so I am able to continue my journey of searching and learning!

  7. Linda Hendricks

    My great great grandparents, Domitile Robidoux and Antoine Chatelle ived in the same town of St. Anicet, Ontario, Canada and crossed the US border and married in Ogdensburg, New York, and later returned to St. Anicet , and began raising their many children. At some point in the 1850s Antoine had a barge built, equipped with a wood burning stove, and a shelter for the family and they floated down the St. Lawrence River cutting wood with the small saw mill that was on board. He came home one evening and told her they were loading up the following day and they did. Eventually they made it to Missouri by way of land to Joplin, before it was Joplin, in the 1860s and opened the first lumberyard here to supply wood for the lead and zinc mines here. I wood like to find more about their journey here especially down the St. Lawrence River. Could anyone help me out?

  8. My grandfather, James Blackburn Tower supposedly left a engagement party his parents arranged for a bride for him which they chose. He was born in Boston MA in 1867 so expect this to have occurred in 1887 to 1890+. He was an artist, very reserved, kind and well mannered and a follower of Western Artist in Montana. He stowed away on a Show Boat and traveled with it overland, painting the sides of the train and other advertising banners, etc. Later he came to Texas by train to a little Panhandle town called Canadian. There he consulted a Lawyer to try to obtain his inheritance and my Grandmother, Persephone Wilbanks was the Secretary he met in the Reception room. They were married in 1910 in Hansford County, Texas and there began our family history. He has been very difficult to trace. There were James Towers born around that time, but none with an August birthday and we have no contact or knowledge of his family. Can anyone shine some light on this? You would be greatly appreciated if so.
    Nancy Overton Thompson-Westerfield

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