When I first began writing about the history of dating, what struck me most was how similar the problems of today are to the 1930s, the 1840s, and even the 1780s. From worrying about a partner’s financial standing, or whether someone was going to stick around long enough for you to have children with them, to persuading your parents they are indeed a good fit, the means by which we go about finding love may have changed, but not the hopes, dreams and anxieties we’ve had about discovering it.


In the Regency era, for example, the advice was clear: looks matter but value them at the peril of your long-term happiness: “She, who, intoxicated with flattery, protracts the triumphs of her beauty in youth, may live to lament the barren spoils of it in age.” Indeed, throughout history, grooming and dressing as well as you possibly can has always been a better strategy than ruminating on what you don’t have. Victorian women wore dresses cut just above the nipples, with pearl necklaces draped lasciviously in their décolletage, while some Edwardian men favoured wearing corsets and delighted in the sensation of tight lacing. When the mini skirt was invented in the early 1960s, some men even tried it out, including 16-year-old trainee brick layer Tony Liggard whom the Daily Mail reported was convinced it would catch on among men. It didn’t – but long hair, floral patterns, make-up and jewellery all eventually did. So much for the myth that male grooming is a recent phenomenon…

While young ladies may have been daydreaming of handsome film stars such as Cary Grant, pictured here kissing the cheek of Ingrid Bergman in a publicity still for the 1946 film ‘Notorious’, agony aunts were keen to bring them back down to earth. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Once you were suitably styled, you needed to get a date’s attention. The Georgians were mad for ‘lonely hearts’ adverts, which they would write and post via newspapers including the Times, later in matrimonial gazettes, circulated around London’s coffee houses, while the Victorians settled on the idea of the marriage bureau, an agency designed to match the middle classes, via photos and details about their hobbies. In the 1930s, gay men and women would use the fan columns of movie magazines to drop hints about their sexuality by referencing Hollywood stars such as Bette Davis and Montgomery Clift.

Stars such as Bette Davis, pictured above in a promotional portrait for the film ‘All About Eve’, were referenced by gay men and women in the 1930s to drop hints about sexuality. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Stars such as Bette Davis, pictured above in a promotional portrait for the film ‘All About Eve’, were referenced by gay men and women in the 1930s to drop hints about sexuality. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the flesh, of course, the best seduction tool has always been dancing. From Regency square dancing to secret Victorian drag balls, from the 1920s ‘turkey trot’ to the 1990s acid house rave scene, the vertical expression of the horizontal desire has rarely failed a trier. As playwright and actor Steven Berkoff reminisces about the Tottenham Royal dance hall in his autobiography Free Association: “You were the dandy, the mover and performer in your own drama, the roving hunter and lover, the actor adopting for the girl the mask of your choice.”

Dancers demonstrate the Charleston, c1926. The dance is often associated with ‘flappers’ – newly enfranchised women with bobbed hair, short skirts and supposedly looser morals – and characterised by frenetic up and down movements and swivelling, akimbo limbs. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

But if you couldn’t dance, witty conversation and excellent manners have always served as a good substitute. Meeting a lady on the street in Victorian England was a fraught business. As the etiquette manual Manners for Men put it, you were never to introduce a lady to a gentleman, but always the gentleman to the lady, and must never offer an umbrella to a woman on the street on the basis that “No lady would accept the offer from a stranger, and the other sort of person might never return the umbrella.” Middle-class Victorians embraced a complicated ritual of giving out calling cards, and of making home visits according to a strict etiquette. However, even if you succeeded getting an audience with your potential amour, you would never be left unattended. Chaperones were in full force until the First World War, when the exodus of Britain’s young men left women to parry and party on their own. Etiquette manuals were swapped for magazine problem pages, and by the 1930s, handbooks on sex were as easily purchased as those on hosting.

When we think of the early 20th century, we may imagine courting couples meeting one another on realistic terms, their expectations untroubled by the imagery of dream homes and impossibly honed bodies that haunt contemporary media. However, we’ve always idealised glamour. From the birth of the celebrity-courted gossip column in the 1920s and the boom in cinema from the 1930s, our aspiration to marry the richest and most beautiful has long intruded upon our daily contentment. Today, with living standards so much higher, and the cost of clothes and cosmetics cheaper, it’s actually easier than ever before to replicate celebrity standards of grooming. And while we frequently flagellate ourselves for living in an increasingly narcissistic, selfie-obsessed culture, we aren’t the first generation to be so concerned with the vagaries of appearance. In fact, the Victorians even had the own version of Instagram, exchanging carte de visites – small portrait prints which would be organised into albums also containing images of celebrities and royalty. These albums were exchanged in flirtation but also as a means of asserting one’s social standing. The trick was to guess whether someone showcasing a royal portrait had in fact met the royal in question.

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A cartoon depicting the Duke of Wellington, who demands attention outside a house, while the Duke of Argyll, inside with Harriette Wilson, pretends not to recognise him.

Sex before marriage

Perhaps the biggest surprise about our dating history is that pre-marital sex has often been the norm for most people. Apart from the revival of a long-practised behaviour called ‘bundling’ – cuddling with clothes on – which was a response to the 1834 Poor Law penalising women who found themselves pregnant as single mothers, it seems our ancestors always found a way to “try the goods before you buy them,” as I remember my grandmother once joking to me.

Condoms that could be washed out with carbolic soap were used from the mid-19th century, while contraception campaigner Annie Besant was tried for obscenity for publishing a pamphlet on the topic, which then went on to sell 175,000 copies by 1891.

Marie Stopes was a social reformer and author of a sex manual called 'Married Love'. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Marie Stopes was a social reformer and author of a sex manual called 'Married Love'. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Marie Stopes wrote her sex manual Married Love in 1918, it was just as widely read by single girls as married ladies. In her book, Stopes – who was a married virgin when the book was published – advocated the benefits of conjugal love, and physical pleasure within marriage. “I paid such a terrible price for sex-ignorance,” she says in the preface, “that I feel knowledge gained at such a cost should be placed at the service of humanity.”

In the 1930s, Marjorie Hillis, the author of Live Alone and Like it, recommended that women stay away from affairs before the age of 30 while acknowledging that plenty of single ladies were inviting gentleman callers back to their homes at night, and that societal attitudes were changing: “A woman’s honour is no longer mentioned with bated breath and protected by her father, her brother and the community. It is now her own affair.”

Victorian wedding, circa 1900: A wedding group poses in the garden, 1900. (Photo by F J Mortimer/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, in the 1960s, ‘the pill’ didn’t quite provide the immediate revolution it has been credited with. Originally it was only prescribed to married women, and even in the 1970s, doctors could refuse women a prescription on moral grounds – something my own mother remembers happening when she went, as an engaged woman, to seek it out. What’s more, the downside of women procuring the pill was that men, who had originally assumed responsibility for acquiring condoms, stopped taking as much responsibility for contraception.

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Long before apps like Tinder widened the dating pool, developments in travel and technology have been crucial to navigating the course of true love. When the stream train came into everyday use in the mid-19th century, rail travel reached the masses. Women now shared dimly lit, cramped carriages with men, and even if you were venturing to visit a maiden aunt, there was every chance you could enjoy a verbal dalliance or three along the way with people you wouldn’t necessarily ever clap eyes on again.

“Surprise visits by moonlight”

The bicycle, meanwhile, also improved romantic opportunities. Contrary to the tricycle, which saw women wearing full skirts and accompanied by a chaperone, the two-wheeler required women to get their leg over, and was effectively the first mode of transport that they could use entirely independently of men. Etiquette guides of the period recognised that people could now pay “surprise visits … by moonlight” and that seaside flirtations could be enhanced by romantic bike rides together. While there was fear about exactly what kind of excitations might be invoked by the bike riding, 1897’s Manners for Men advised that men encountering female cyclists “help ladies as much as possible by pushing their machines up the hills for them”.

A group of women cycling along the beach at Newquay, c1923. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Of course, when circumstances called for it, people have travelled to far-flung lands to find a mate. In the 1930s middle-class women that found themselves ‘left on the shelf’ still travelled to colonial India in search of husbands. Nicknamed ‘the fishing fleet’, these women travelled by boat to colonial outposts along with ambitious young men seeking work. In some cases, they’d often coupled up before the vessel had even docked, or used the voyage as an opportunity to scope out who would be available on dry land. This was encouraged by local Indian church who did not approve of ‘loose’ women flitting about the provinces. There was even a tale of one 36-year-old woman named Kitty Irwin who was invited to stay with a married friend in Karachi. During her six months ‘on tour’, she met an exporter called Sam Raschen who became more or less besotted with her at first sight. When she arrived at the booking office to arrange her passage home, she was escorted to see Raschen in his office at the dock and he subsequently persuaded her to delay her return indefinitely and, instead, marry him.

In the 1950s, the first package holidays opened up the possibility of a ‘holiday fling’ to the general populace. The 1970s, meanwhile, saw the invention of 18-30s holidays, which began with the same insalubrious a reputation that they ended up with. A Sunday Times reporter from the end of the decade wrote: “I spent one night on the beach until 4am waiting for Chas to finish and let me get back to bed. But he did not give me 1,000 pesetas to amuse myself with. As for my other room-mate, he was sick in the sink on the second day. Too much sangria. Despite that, he managed five girls in our seven nights there. And one girl, I found out, had tackled an equivalent number of blokes.”

A poster produced for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) promoting express rail travel to the Lancashire seaside resort of Blackpool, the world’s first working-class seaside resort. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Later, the film Shirley Valentine would inspire a flock of similarly inclined women, including female sex tourists who were courted by young Caribbean men called ‘rastitudes’, and men who sought mail-order brides, on a ‘no-try-before-buy’ basis. Today, dating organisations like The Inner Circle connect peripatetic singles at events in multiple capital cities. And with advances in digital messaging and Virtual Reality technology, it’s never been easier to start a relationship across a distance.

Nor has it ever been easier to date regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, or erotic peccadilloes. Much of that is a result of the relaxation in the laws against LGBT individuals and relationships. While sex between men was decriminalised in Britain in the 1960s as a result of the Wolfenden Enquiry, gay women have mainly just been purposefully ignored (in 1921, the British government decided to keep all mention of ‘lesbians’ off the statute book, for fear that defining lesbianism might give impressionable women the wrong idea). But today’s dating space is much freer of categorisation or prejudice. A YouGov poll from 2015 found that only 46 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds would define themselves as exclusively heterosexual. Polyamorous and open relationships are on the rise and even people who define themselves as asexual have dating services available to them.

As for the future of dating? Well, there’s one thing for sure – it’s not in decline like marriage, which, in 2013, was nearly back down to its 2008 all-time lowest level since 1895. Instead, dating is fast becoming our favourite global hobby. And in an increasingly competitive marketplace, we’ll need new tricks up our sleeves in order to compete for the best paramours. Now where did I put that book on the secret language of hand fans…

Nichi Hodgson is a journalist and the author of The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder (Little, Brown, 2017).


This article was first published by History Extra in 2017