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The language of courtship

Both my parents have been gone for many years now, but I sometimes have to jolt myself into remembering just how long it has been. Today is one of those times because it’s soon after the turn of the new year that I used to be making anniversary plans with my siblings. As what would have been our parents’ 68th wedding anniversary approaches, I reflect not only on their being my parents, but even more so on their courtship. It’s a quirky little story that, in an extremely condensed version, goes something like this:

In 1942, Evert’s pal Jack goes to war, leaving behind pregnant wife Mary. Schoolteacher Ruth boards with Mary and meets Evert, who takes home movies of the new baby for Jack. Then, the telegram: Jack won’t be coming home. Evert visits more often. Ruth is glad he’s there for Mary, and she imagines the little boy will soon have a father. Occasionally, Evert takes Ruth fishing, and they talk about Mary. Indeed, Evert is in love. He buys a ring and proposes to. . . Ruth! She is stunned, but much more than that, she is overcome with the embarrassment that she didn’t know they were dating, so, as not to make him (or herself) look like a fool, she says “yes.” It was my mother’s one and only courtship, and she missed it! An odd entrance to marriage, but it was only Evert’s death 49 years later that would separate them.

It gets cold in New England, so bundle up!

It’s true that theirs was an odd courtship, but historically speaking, courtship has not been without its peculiarities. One of the most peculiar was the custom in Colonial America of “bundling.” A practice that endured the longest in New England (oh, those Puritans), it involved an arrangement in which the male suitor would be asked to spend the night with the young lady’s family, specifically to share her bed. An upright “bundling board” would separate the couple, or the bed might have a “bundling sack,” one style of which was like a double sleeping bag stitched down the middle. As if these separating contrivances weren’t ineffective enough, some households had only a “bundling bolster,” which was a long pillow that ran the length of the bed (yeah, that oughta work). Known as a British import, the tradition of bundling apparently came with the Dutch to New Amsterdam, New York, as well, though they called it “queesting.”

The poor girl’s a senior in high school and she isn’t even engaged

By 1800, bundling as a courtship practice was well on its way out. Before long, Victorian culture would prevail, and if one term characterized courtship of the 19th century, it would be “calling.” When permitted, gentlemen would call upon young ladies, and it was this custom of calling that eventually segued into “dating.” The transition was not, however, a subtle one. Prior to the 1910s, “dating” was a word associated with prostitution. But the Victorian Era was over, and socializing was undergoing a revolution. The shift was profound, in that calling was all about meeting with one’s future spouse in a proper domestic (or church-sponsored) setting, and dating was all about having fun in public venues with someone of the opposite sex. In other words, tea in the parlor and church picnics were losing out to amusement parks and dances. By the 1920s, courtship was synonymous with dating, the relatively new terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” were fast gaining ground, and “going steady” had become the norm. In the 1940s, dating was an imperative social ritual, and just after World War II, the most common age for a bride was 17.

The Courtship Olympics: Victorians vs. Puritans

The average age at marriage took a leap in the 1960s, and courting as a social structure headed for the breakdown lane. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, the language of courtship, once infused with such expressions as “pitching woo” and “getting pinned,” took on a whole new level of informality with the likes of “hanging out” and “hooking up.” In the 21st century, it is not uncommon to hear that some of the earlier customs of courtship might be due for re-entry into the social paradigm. The question is, how much earlier? I mean, the occasional cup of tea in the parlor sounds rather pleasant and civilized, but bundling? Let’s just say, “Victorians 1, Puritans 0.”