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For those Valentine grinches who abhor modern dating rituals, I hear you—I hated dating and was terrible at it. My wife will confirm this. She almost dumped me after our misstep-filled first date: I asked her to split the check, thinking I was being progressive, but I just came off cheap. Plus I was disconcertingly self-referential, inquiring how she thought the date was going a few minutes into the date. Luckily, she gave me a second chance.
But consider this: At least we live in the 21st century. Online dating and swiping on Tinder have nothing on romance in the past, which was often even worse—humiliating, dangerous, and exhausting. Here are seven ways courtship of yore was disenchanting.
Granted, daters today have to learn the nuances of textspeak. But communication between lovers in the past was even more complicated, lest they be accused of being immodest or improper.
In the 17th century, French aristocrats communicated their desires with fake beauty marks called mouches, a practice that would spread to other parts of Europe. They pasted black velvet patches onto their face, and the placement signified their interest. As professor Peter Wagner writes, it's said that “women who wanted to create the impression of impishness stuck them near the corner of the mouth; those who wanted to flirt chose the cheek; those in love put a beauty spot beside the eye; a spot on the chin indicated roguishness or playfulness, a patch on the nose cheekiness; the lip was preferred by the coquettish lady, and the forehead was reserved for the proud.”
In the Victorian era, the position of stamps could be used as a form of secret code between lovers, at least until the placement of the stamp on postcards and envelopes was standardized. British ladies and gentlemen in the 1800s also may have sent messages to their crushes through an elaborate "Language of Flowers." An 1889 book spells out some of the codes: A double China aster meant “I partake your sentiments;” a currant meant “Thy frown will kill me”; a peach flower meant “your qualities, like your charms, are unequaled”; and so on. (The extent this language was actually used is perhaps debatable; according to historian Beverly Seaton, “language of flower books were intended as suitable gifts, perhaps to entertain the genteel female reader for a few dull afternoons. There is almost no evidence that people actually used these symbolic lists to communicate.”)
If you were a Puritan singleton in colonial America, you were often not allowed to be alone with your potential mate. However, wooing couples did come up with a brilliant workaround: a “courting stick”—a hollow tube about 6 feet long through which they could talk to each other while keeping their bodies at a safe, God-approved distance.
When 18th-century American paramours were given rare moments of privacy, it came with severe limitations. Consider the peculiar custom of “bundling,” in which the couple slept together, fully clothed, sometimes tied in a sack, sometimes with a wooden board placed between them (and sometimes both). The idea was to allow them to talk and get to know each other without risking actual skin-on-skin contact. Better than nothing, I suppose.
Consider chaperones in Victorian times, for example: An unmarried woman under 30 could not be in the presence of a gentleman without the watchful gaze of a chaperone. If you were lucky, the chaperone might nod off and you could steal a kiss.
The rules also dictated that women couldn’t even speak to a man without being introduced first. Touching a member of the opposite sex was forbidden except in very specific situations—namely, dancing and a man giving a lady a hand when the road was uneven.
And if you weren’t careful, you could find yourself making a costly mistake: In Regency-era England (the early 19th century), if you danced with the same person more than twice, that was a big deal—you might even be considered engaged. So that unchaperoned meeting and kiss between Daphne and the Duke of Hastings on Bridgerton really would have been scandalous and reputation ruining.
Millions, perhaps billions, of women in centuries past were coerced to take vows. I’m not talking about arranged marriages in which all parties are consenting. I’m talking about rituals that smack of cruelty and humiliation, at least to my modern eyes.
Men often chose their wives as if they were choosing fruit at a grocery. Consider this frankly horrifying description (which is hopefully more folkloric than historic) of how famed 16th-century British politician Sir Thomas More supposedly married off his daughter, described in Tania O’Donnell’s book A History of Courtship: He led the suitor to the bedroom, where “More’s two daughters were asleep, lying naked on a truckle bed. More threw back their covers and the protesting girls turned onto their stomachs to cover their private parts. [The suitor] having charmingly said that he had now seen both sides, gave Margaret’s buttock a pat with his walking stick to indicate his choice.”
In 17th-century England, men couldn’t resist that hot deathly pallor look. So women would whiten their skin with ceruse, which was a mixture of vinegar and poisonous lead. Side effects included hair loss and muscle paralysis.
The fun continues in 1600s Spain, where girls ate clay under the impression it would whiten their skin. (It also gave them anemia.) In the 1800s, mercury was widely used in makeup. And the first waterproof mascara in the 1930s was made with turpentine, giving ladies those swollen and burning eyelids that no man could resist.
In the 19th century, there were dozens of dating advice books for women, oftentimes condescendingly counseling them to be demure and intellectually non-threatening in pursuit of a husband.
As Therese Oneill wrote for Mental Floss, the rare advice book for men would often dole out bizarre and obnoxious counsel, including making sure their future wife had a “good, full, round back head,” which apparently meant that she had a strong libido and maternal instincts, according to the author of the 1883 book The Marriage Guide for Young Men.
The author also had no shortage of disturbing sex advice, such as the man “is obliged, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases in every thousand, to break her into the harness of passion, by dint of both stratagem and perseverance. True, when thus broken in, she often pays him in his own coin.”
The author also warned men not to pursue women who couldn’t cook or clean, even if the woman promised to learn: “[Think of] that fearful period of learning, during which your stomach must be made the receptacle for all sorts of messes, and your home remain in a chaotic state! You may die of dyspepsia, or go mad before she succeeds.”
If you were the type of guy who would take this kind of advice, maybe that wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world.