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Valentine photo

Wouldn’t you think that the boundaries around love and courtship have grown more lax over time? Well, it turns out that finding love has been much more erratic than that.

In the Victorian age, conduct between men and women was so strict that women wore six to eight layers of clothes to conceal their bodies. Using the word “leg” in mixed company was scandalous. To avoid the indelicacy, the leg of a piano or chair was referred to as a “limb.”

The beginning of the personal ad

Rules for mixing with the opposite sex were so stringent that personal ads and matchmaking services were common from the middle to late 19th century. Once you ran through your personal contacts, you couldn’t just strike up a conversation with someone off the street. That’s why people from the urban working class turned to personal ads. Consider this plucky classified ad from the later part of the 19th century:

“A young widow, unencumbered, would accept friendship of refined, temperate, elderly gentleman of means, matrimonially inclined. Seamstress. 265 Herald, 23rd Street Branch.”

Nice gig if you can get it, sister, but personally, I’d rather have true love than a sugar daddy to help me pay the bills. Internet dating doesn’t seem half as revolutionary now that I know about 19th century classified ads.

Bundled together

And the 2012 teen pregnancy rate of seven percent? Well, that’s not even close to the number of pregnant teens during the 1760s, when 40 percent of brides were pregnant before marriage. Sex before marriage got a big boost from bundling, an odd practice intended to preserve the start of families.

Here’s how it worked: parents invited their daughter’s suitor to spend the night with her—in their home—possibly with a Bible or piece of wood to separate them. (Ha!) If things got out of hand, well…too bad, so sad. The guy was on the hook for marriage. With plenty of witnesses and documentation to their union, he could be sued if he later abandoned her.

I learned all this and more from a radio history program, which featured interviews with Pam Epstein and Beth Bailey. Epstein is a history professor at Rutgers University who blogs at Advertising for Love. Bailey is a history professor at Temple University and author of From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in 20th Century America.

One thing is clear from the scholars: dating and courtship traditions have fluctuated wildly through the ages. In one decade, “going steady” was outlawed by high schools; in another, dating was a popularity game where young people learned to compete or traded love with reckless abandon.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all my friends! How did you meet your Valentine? What’s the best way for young people to meet today?

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.