Courtship was considered more a career move than a romantic interlude for young men, as all of a woman's property reverted to him upon marriage. Therefore courting was taken very seriously--by both sides. Men and women were careful not to lead the other on unnecessarily.
From the time she was young, a woman was groomed for this role in life--dutiful wife and mother. Properly trained, she learned to sing, play piano or guitar, dance and be conversant about light literature of the day. She also learned French and the rules of etiquette as well as the art of conversation and the art of silence.
Coming out meant a young woman had completed her education and was officially available on the marriage mart. Financial or family circumstances might delay or move up a girl's debut, though typically, she came out when she was seventeen or eighteen. She purchased a new wardrobe for the season, in order to appear her best in public.
A girl was under her mother's wing for the first few years of her social life. She used her mother's visiting cards, or that of another female relative if her mother was dead. This same person usually served as her chaperone, as a single girl was never allowed out of the house by herself, especially in mixed company.
Courtship advanced by gradations, with couples first speaking, then walking out together, and finally keeping company after mutual attraction had been confirmed. But a gentleman had to take care in the early stages of courtship. If he was introduced to a lady at a party for the purpose for dancing, he could not automatically resume their acquaintance on the street. He had to be re-introduced by a mutual friend. And then, only upon permission of the lady.
The lower classes had opportunities to socialize at Sunday Service, Church suppers and holiday balls, while upper classes held their social events throughout the season. The season ran from April to July. Some families arrived in town earlier if Parliament was in session. A typical debutante's day meant she rose at 11a.m. or 12 noon, ate breakfast in her dressing room, attended a concert or drove in the Park, dined at eight, went to the opera, then to three or four parties until 5 a.m--all under the watchful eye of her chaperone.
Great care had to be taken at these public affairs, so as not to offend a possible suitor or his family. Following are some rules of conduct a proper female must adhere to:
• She never approached people of higher rank, unless being introduced by a mutual friend.
• People of lesser rank were always introduced to people of higher rank, and then only if the higher-ranking person had given his/her permission.
• Even after being introduced, the person of higher rank did not have to maintain the acquaintance. They could ignore, or 'cut' the person of lower rank.
• A single woman never addressed a gentleman without an introduction.
• A single woman never walked out alone. Her chaperone had to be older and preferably married.
• If she had progressed to the stage of courtship in which she walked out with a gentleman, they always walked apart. A gentleman could offer his hand over rough spots, the only contact he was allowed with a woman who was not his fiancée.
• Proper women never rode alone in a closed carriage with a man who wasn't a relative.
• She would never call upon an unmarried gentleman at his place of residence.
• She couldn't receive a man at home if she was alone. Another family member had to be present in the room.
• A gentlewoman never looked back after anyone in the street, or turned to stare at others at church, the opera, etc.
• No impure conversations were held in front of single women.
• No sexual contact was allowed before marriage. Innocence was demanded by men from girls in his class, and most especially from his future wife.
• Intelligence was not encouraged, nor was any interest in politics.
So long as Romance exists and Lochinvar remains young manhood’s ideal, love at first sight and marriage in a week is within the boundaries of possibility. But usually (and certainly more wisely) a young man is for some time attentive to a young woman before dreaming of marriage. Thus not only have her parents plenty of time to find out what manner of man he is, and either accept or take means to prevent a serious situation; but the modern young woman herself is not likely to be “carried away” by the personality of anyone whose character and temperament she does not pretty thoroughly understand and weigh.
In nothing does the present time more greatly differ from the close of the last century, than in the unreserved frankness of young women and men towards each other. Those who speak of the domination of sex in this day are either too young to remember, or else have not stopped to consider, that mystery played a far greater and more dangerous role when sex, like a woman’s ankle, was carefully hidden from view, and therefore far more alluring than to-day when both are commonplace matters.
In cities twenty-five years ago, a young girl had beaux who came to see her one at a time; they in formal clothes and manners, she in her “company best” to “receive” them, sat stiffly in the “front parlor” and made politely formal conversation. Invariably they addressed each other as Miss Smith and Mr. Jones, and they “talked off the top” with about the same lack of reservation as the ambassador of one country may be supposed to talk to him of another. A young man was said to be “devoted” to this young girl or that, but as a matter of fact each was acting a role, he of an admirer and she of a siren, and each was actually an utter stranger to the other.
To-day no trace of stilted artificiality remains. The tête-a-tête of a quarter of a century ago has given place to the continual presence of a group. A flock of young girls and a flock of young men form a little group of their own—everywhere they are together. In the country they visit the same houses or they live in the same neighborhood, they play golf in foursomes, and tennis in mixed doubles. In winter at balls they sit at the same table for supper, they have little dances at their own homes, where scarcely any but themselves are invited; they play bridge, they have tea together, but whatever they do, they stay in the pack. In more than one way this group habit is excellent; young women and men are friends in a degree of natural and entirely platonic intimacy undreamed of in their parents’ youth. Having the habit therefore of knowing her men friends well, a young girl is not going to imagine a stranger, no matter how perfect he may appear to be, anything but an ordinary human man after all. And in finding out his bad points as well as his good, she is aided and abetted, encouraged or held in check, by the members of the group to which she belongs.
Suppose, for instance, that a stranger becomes attentive to Mary; immediately her friends fix their attention upon him, watching him. Twenty-five years ago the young men would have looked upon him with jealousy, and the young women would have sought to annex him. To-day their attitude is: “Is he good enough for Mary?” And, eagle-eyed, protective of Mary, they watch him. If they think he is all right he becomes a member of the group. It may develop that Mary and he care nothing for each other, and he may fall in love with another member, or he may drift out of the group again or he may stay in it and Mary herself marry out of it. But if he is not liked, her friends will not be bashful about telling Mary exactly what they think, and they will find means usually—unless their prejudice is without foundation—to break up the budding “friendship” far better than any older person could do. If she is really in love with him and determined to marry in spite of their frankly given opinion, she at least makes her decision with her eyes open.
There are also occasions when a young woman is persuaded by her parents into making a “suitable marriage”; there are occasions when a young woman persists in making a marriage in opposition to her parents; but usually a young man either belongs in or joins her particular circle of intimate friends, and one day, it may be to their own surprize, though seldom to that of their intimates, they find that each is the only one in the world for the other, and they become engaged.
If a young man and his parents are very close friends it is more than likely he will already have told them of the seriousness of his intentions. Very possibly he has asked his father’s financial assistance, or at least discussed ways and means, but as soon as he and she have definitely made up their minds that they want to marry each other, it is the immediate duty of the man to go to the girl’s father or her guardian, and ask his consent. If her father refuses, the engagement cannot exist. The man must then try, through work or other proof of stability and seriousness, to win the father’s approval. Failing in that, the young woman is faced with dismissing him or marrying in opposition to her parents. There are, of course, unreasonable and obdurate parents, but it is needless to point out that a young woman assumes a very great risk who takes her future into her own hands and elopes. But even so, there is no excuse for the most unfilial act of all—deception. The honorable young woman who has made up her mind to marry in spite of her parents’ disapproval, announces to them, if she can, that on such and such a day her wedding will take place. If this is impossible, she at least refuses to give her word that she will not marry. The height of dishonor is to “give her word” and then break it.