This Is What Flirting Looked Like 50 Years Ago
Before you could flirt with a girl, you'd have to get dad's permission!
Single folks today would likely argue that flirting is an impossible feat. However, wooing the opposite sex now is a cakewalk compared to how it used to be. In the 1950s, for instance, a guy could hardly look at a girl until he had her father’s permission to do so. And for women, flirting wasn’t so much about finding someone who likes you for you as it was about convincing a guy that you were pretty and poised enough to make a suitable wife. (Yes, suffice it to say that these practices stayed in the past for a reason.) Keep reading to discover how people used to flirt in decades past.
Flirting advice in the 1950s was all about how to find a husband.
In the 1950s, a range of societal influences suggested women should get married as quickly as possible. Therefore, many of the etiquette books and magazine articles of the time offered advice about searching for a husband.
One article in a 1958 edition of McCall’s, for instance, listed 129 ways to get a husband, with suggestions like “attend night school—take courses men like,” “get lost at football games,” and “wear a Band-Aid” because “people always ask what happened.” Oh, and if you want him to know you’re 100 percent interested, you can “stumble when you walk into a room that he’s in” or “stand in a corner and cry softly” because “chances are good that he’ll come over to find out what’s wrong.”
In the ’50s, guys were expected to ask for permission to so much as flirt with a girl.
Flirting in the 1950s really took parental guidance to a whole new level. During the decade, before a male suitor so much as thought about flirting with a female acquaintance, he was expected to first ask said female’s father for permission to get to know her. In the 1953 edition of Amy Groskamp-ten Have’s manners book, the dating expert advised that “the young man who knows his world will pay a visit to the father of the girl he feels attracted to, after meeting her a couple of times, and ask his permission to take his daughter out now and then so they can get to know each other better.”
But this didn’t stop the so-called bad boys from inappropriately hooting and hollering on the street.
While the well-mannered men of the ’50s were busy asking for permission to flirt, the bad boys of the decade were lining the streets looking for girls to catcall. “In the 1950s, [writers] scoffed at the ‘stupid chuckling, scallywag whistling, not to speak of the rest’ of what happens when a few boys meet one or more girls,” writes Cas Wouters in his text Sex and Manners: Female Emancipation in the West 1890-2000. “Another target was a scene on the pavements of every city: boys talking to a girl while disrespectfully hanging on their bicycle, one leg over the crossbar.”
Those first flirtatious moments in the ’50s and ’60s often took place in public.
In the 1950s, it was seen as improper for a guy to take a girl out without supervision of some sort, at least if they were still in their teens. As Amy Vanderbilt wrote in Everyday Etiquette: Answers to Today’s Etiquette Questions in 1952: “Is it proper for a single girl to have dinner in a bachelor’s apartment without a chaperone? …A girl not out of her teens would do better to avoid such a dinner engagement… A career girl, from her twenties onward, can accept such an invitation, but she should not stay beyond ten or ten-thirty.” According to Vanderbilt, these societal norms were put in place to protect children “from their own possible foolishness, and from destructive gossip.”
Single folks advertised themselves in the newspapers.
While today you can find your next sexual partner or significant other with the swipe of a finger—thanks, Tinder!—folks in the 1970s had to pick up a newspaper if they wanted to get lucky. Publications like Singles News and the Singles News Register were available from coast to coast, and they were filled with advertisements for men and women alike in search of a partner. One advertisement from a 1976 edition of Singles News for a girl named Kally, for instance, noted that the eligible bachelorette “loves New York City” and “would love to meet someone with the same interests she has and who loves being a single New Yorker as much as she does.”
Women were taught that they should focus on his wants and needs.
Nowadays, flirting is all about witty banter and forming a meaningful bond. In the ’50s and ’60s, though, women were taught to worry more about their appearances and getting a guy’s attention than they were about actually finding a person they connected with. In the 1958 McCall’s piece, some of the tips under the headline “How to Look Good to Him” include things like “buy a full-length mirror and take a good look before you go to greet him” and “go on a diet if you need to.”
In the ’70s, women were encouraged to simply “brush off” unwanted flirtatious advances.
If a male coworker was making lewd jokes at you or getting too touchy-feely in the 1970s, the most common advice you’d hear was to ignore it and move on. In Helen Witcomb and Rosalind Lang’s 1971 book Charm: The Career Girl’s Guide to Business and Personal Success, the two authors encourage women in uncomfortable sexual situations to “act naturally, change the subject, and ignore it,” as “expressing displeasure at this stage (either by a feigned look of alarm or by coolly and quietly moving away) will probably discourage further advances.”
Similar advice can be found in Evelyn Bourne’s 1965 book The Anatomy of a Love Affair: The Guide to Sex for the Girl Who Says “Yes!” As if the title isn’t bad enough, some of the worst advice Bourne gives in her book involves unwanted advances and keeping quiet. “If you do find it necessary to shower at his place, and he makes a pass at you when you step out of the stall, soft-skinned and sweet-smelling, don’t threaten to scream,” she wrote. “With your luck all the neighbors will be stone deaf. And if you do scream, he and the police department might well ask what you were doing up there with no clothes on in the first place.”
But by the ’80s, women had more freedom to flirt and fight back.
Things changed by the 1980s. During this time, advice columns and manners books started to encourage women to both fight back against unwelcome advances and take more initiative themselves. One author at the time, for instance, wrote that “if there is no opportunity for you to get into a conversation with someone in an inconspicuous way that does not seem forced, perhaps the best thing would be simply to walk up to him/her and say you would like to make his/her acquaintance.”
Though today this advice seems silly—why wouldn’t you just walk up to a person you like and say hello?—it was major for women at the time, as up until then they were expected to wait until the man approached them. And for pertinent advice you can use today, check out these 40 Best Dating Tips for Men Over 40.
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