In the early 20th century, young suitors would call on young women at home and spend time with her family. The couple enjoyed limited privacy in a parlor, and the woman may have played the piano to entertain her suitor. During this era, mothers and daughters controlled the dating ritual. Because working class men and women did not have the space to entertain in their homes, they would go out to a public place. This practice became known as the "date."
Defiant upper class young men would ask women out on dates and take them away from her vigilant parents. A formal date would consist of a dinner at a restaurant or a night at the theater. As greater numbers of women went to universities and took on employment, they enjoyed increased independence as well as access to the public arena. With the emergence of the automobile, dating spread throughout the U.S. until it became an acknowledged custom in the 1920s.
In the 1920s and 1930s, young men and women in urban areas spent their leisure hours at dance halls, nickelodeons and amusement parks. High school students began pairing up on dates to attend football games, dances and other school-related events. At this time, the dating was not considered courtship with the objective of marriage. Dating was a lighthearted way to enjoy the company of the member of the opposite sex and did not necessarily translate into a long-term relationship. The dating system was controlled by a young person's peer group, which set informal rules and determined an individual's dating status. Dating also became a competitive way to boost one's status on college campuses. A popular man or woman on the dating circuit was not valued for his or her personal characteristics but was defined by the reigning peer group.
World War II had a profound impact on dating habits. In the 1940s, the lack of available men due to the toll the war took on young servicemen sobered the dating script. The men who did come home wanted to settle down. According to Kathleen A. Bogle's 2008 book, "Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus," focus shifted to dating exclusively with one person, known as "going steady." College women looked forward to being pinned by a fraternity man and then marrying him. Due to the boom in the economy in the post-war years, the median age of marriage dropped as young people sought a happy domestic life.
With the sexual revolution and the women's movement in the 1960s, the focus shifted from dating in pairs to socializing in groups. College kids would attend large parties on campus where there was an abundance of alcohol and opportunities for sexual encounters. The convergence of the availability of the birth control bill and the liberalization of attitudes toward sex shifted the focus to casual relationships. Young people did not plan dates, but hooked up spontaneously at parties for sex.
The digital revolution has ushered in the era of online dating in the late 20th century. Dating websites came to offer singles with an Internet connection a chance to meet new partners. With the growth of social networking sites singles can cruise the personalized web pages of friends. Instant messaging (IM) applications also enable young men and women to conduct real-time text chats. Because the line between an individual's public and private information blurs in the digital world, prospective partners who connect online typically know more about each other than couples did in the past. Given the safety of the Internet relative to a singles bar, women have grown more aggressive and will pay to contact potential mates online.