Since Shakespeare’s time, farcical romances featuring classic tropes like mistaken identity, love at first sight and couples breaking through society’s class barriers have long been a favorite staple of theatergoers. And for good reason – for centuries, strategically planned marriages allowed the wealthy and elite to retain their social standing, property and family businesses for generations. Marrying for love was pure fantasy and relegated to works of popular fiction.
Set in Yonkers, New York, just before the turn of the 20th century, Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker addresses a pivotal time in courtship’s history: “dating” as we currently know it didn’t yet exist, and America’s constantly shifting class mobility made traditional courtship difficult. So why would a successful, widowed bachelor like the play’s protagonist, Horace Vandergelder, seek out a matchmaker to find him a new bride? Looking back at the evolution of courting customs in America over the last two centuries sheds light on the factors that would have influenced Vandergelder’s search.
Courtship in the Victorian Age: Calling Cards, Visits and Chaperones (1837-1901)
Respectable behavior and strict courtship rituals were the hallmarks of Victorian romance. Men were expected to marry within the same class to preserve their family’s social standing; courting a woman from a family “above” or “below” his own class standing was frowned upon. Gentlemen were to first ascertain a lady’s interest publicly (via a marriage broker or group social gathering), ask her parents for permission to “call” on her at a particular time and then enjoy a series of formal, chaperoned visits lasting no more than 15 minutes. (Should the lady in question be indisposed, personalized “calling cards” were left as a sign of intent.) If the woman’s family was sufficiently impressed, courting would progress until the man formally asked for her hand in marriage. Absolutely no physical contact was allowed until the couple became engaged, and gifts were limited to impersonal gestures like flowers, chocolate or a book. Emotional intimacy was expressed primarily through love letters. In The Matchmaker, aspiring young artist Ambrose Kemper states his intention to marry Vandergelder’s niece, Ermengarde, during a formal visit reminiscent of traditional “calling.” Vandergelder dismisses him, saying, “Ermengarde is not for you, nor for anybody else who can’t support her.” And while Ermengarde has already consented to marry Ambrose, without securing Vandergelder’s permission, the couple must explore other deceptive options in order to remain together.
The Rise of Dating in America (1920-1939)
As young Americans left small towns in droves for job opportunities in sprawling urban cities, traditional parlor visits under a family’s watchful eye disappeared. Dance halls and theaters encouraged group socializing between men and women, and dating became a way to build popularity and social standing. Certain behavioral norms – for example, men should pay for dates, dating many different people before marriage – became popular. “The idea was to go out with as many people as possible, as visibly as possible, with someone as high a status as possible,” historian Beth L. Bailey wrote in From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. “You would never dance with the same person you came to the dance with all night.” Dating was expensive, as women expected to be taken out and entertained by an array of suitors competing for their attention. Wilder hints at one of these more modern norms in one of The Matchmaker’s more memorable scenes, in which milliner Irene Molloy and her shop assistant, Minnie Fay, insist on having a spontaneous dinner out with their new acquaintances Barnaby Tucker and Cornelius Hackl.
The Rise of Matchmakers and Other Dating Experts
Victorian-era “calling” was specifically structured towards the goal of marriage, but dating triggered a cultural shift in socializing between the sexes that didn’t necessarily lead American couples down the aisle. Dating’s social dominance provided plenty of new opportunities for marriage brokers and matchmakers. The Gilded Era (1870 – 1900) saw the fastest rate of economic growth in America’s history, providing singles with access to disposable income. Rapid industrialization across the US meant opportunity for more leisure time, too, producing a nationalized culture and popular media in the form of magazines, radio programs and scholarly journals. And because dating no longer followed the same rigid rules of Victorian courtship, everyone from members of the clergy to social scientists, educators and newspaper columnists stepped in to offer dating advice and matchmaking services. In The Matchmaker, Vandergelder enlists marriage broker Dolly Gallagher Levi’s help in securing Irene Molloy’s hand in marriage, but Dolly is determined to pair him up with a woman she believes will be a much more equitable match for him: herself! Luckily for the audience, there’s plenty of mischief, humor and misdirection as Dolly works to make her plan a reality.
Lori Polemenakos is an award-winning journalist and the former senior editor at Match.com, where she reviewed over 1.5 million dating profiles, provided dating and relationships content for major portal sites like Yahoo, AOL and MSN. She has also served as editorial content manager for Happen, Match’s online dating magazine.