A Dating History

13 February 2023

Valentine’s Day is here whether we want it or not! This year got me thinking, where did Valentine’s Day come from? And where did the concept of dating come from? How has it evolved from the strict rules of the Regency era where not even a kiss was allowed, to what we see today? This blog answers all these questions, but also importantly answers how all this can help us as genealogists!

The history of Valentine’s Day.

The history of Valentine’s Day is a bit murky. One famous legend says Valentine was a Roman priest in the third century. Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers, he outlawed marriage for young men, so Valentine continued to perform marriages in secret but when his defiance was discovered, he was put to death! His sacrifice was held in great honour and is believed to be the reason we still celebrate to this day.

The reason for the date of the 14th of February is not known for sure. What we do know is that in 496, Pope Gelasius I set aside the date to honor St. Valentine, which replaced a Roman fertility festival on the same date.







How did dating start?

Dating as we know it today is a relatively recent concept. Up until 1870, women couldn’t keep anything they inherited upon marriage meaning everything got given to the person they married. To find a husband, women would meet several men with a chaperone at social gatherings, or in the household, to pick the most suitable match, which heavily relied on factors such as financial and social status. This was known as courting and love was rarely involved. This began to change in the early years of the 20th century when couples began to go out together in public and unsupervised, still with the apparent goal of marriage.

How has dating evolved?

A proper first date in the early 1900s involved a gentleman caller coming to the house of a women who piqued his fancy, and the two would have a visit with a chaperone in the room. This would continue until a mutual interest was reached and marriage was proposed.

This dramatically changed in the 1920s, which introduced events such as the prom which changed the dating game for young adults. They were finally able to get out from under their parents’ thumb and do activities they enjoyed, such as attending dances, seeing a movie, or with the Prohibition in full swing, going drinking was a popular choice. ‘Playing the field’ by dating multiple people also became popular in this decade, and women became more liberated.

During World War II, trying to find a man for a first date was a tricky task because so many had been drafted. It was paramount for women to quickly get a promise that the relationship would continue when the man returned. This is when the term ‘going steady’ was solidified where the man gave the women an item of his clothing or a ring to symbolise commitment before a proposal. First dates were often comprised of getting to know each other and lots of talking.

The 60s and 70s were when traditional dating etiquette was replaced by a freer norm. Accessibility to the Pill, legal abortion (in some countries), and the rise of feminism made experimentation part of the ‘getting to know you’ process.


In the 1980s and 1990s, we got the term ‘hooking up’ which referred to the no-strings-attached enjoyment which we still see today. This has led to a confusion which continues today over what constitutes a date at all.

In today’s dating culture, we can see traces of the past 100 years. However, with the rise of technology and the added element of texting and social media, a relationship can blossom without even meeting the person!



LGBTQ+ dating.

The traditional recorded history of dating tends to focus very heavily on straight relationships, so what about LGBTQ+ people? While it may have seemed on the surface that LGBTQ+ dating wasn’t happening, it was, however it was very closely guarded as it was, historically, illegal. To avoid being caught by the police, people used clever codes in magazines to indicate to those in the know that they were looking for a partner. For example, in Victorian times, people would use the newspaper columns of women’s magazines to send coded messages out to people that they wanted to date. In the 1930s, gossip magazines were used in a similar way.

A proper match vs falling in love.

As time has gone on, the importance of finding love and romance has become one of the most important factors when looking for a partner. The search for love can be linked to early 19th century fiction, which frequently drew on love themes. Women no longer being reliant on a man to make a living and a more accepting society is also a crucial factor in the search for love, meaning the desire to climb the social ladder or to secure one’s place in society fell, and the desire to find love in a life partner took its place. This can explain the rise of dating and the change of the norm, as we spend more time discovering everything about a potential life partner before taking the plunge.

How can love help us find our ancestors?

So, how can marriage help us as genealogists? Luckily for us, historical newspapers printed engagements, marriages, and anniversaries regularly. Most of these announcements were published from the 1800s to the late 1900s and can be a gold mine for genealogists. Names appeared in the engagement section and wedding announcements were published in the local newspapers with a surprising amount of detail. They sometimes included a guest list, description of the bride on the wedding day, the couple’s occupation and education! Newspapers also published milestone wedding anniversaries which often included details of the date of their marriage, family names, children, grandchildren and more, so an absolute wealth of information!

I hope you enjoyed this blog and maybe you even learnt something! Have a lovely Valentine’s Day however you are spending it or ignoring it!

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