In our new age of being “wired” wirelessly 24/7, there is a lot of debate – especially over the wireless Internet – about what new technologies are “doing” to us: making us lonely, or dumb, or frenetic, or surveilled, or empowered, or disempowered, and so on.
Public worry about the consequences of technological change are not new. One of the spicier controversies arose in the 1920s about the newly spreading technology of the automobile: Was it encouraging promiscuous sex among American youth?
What historians know about this story may have lessons for today’s debates about technology.
Automobile ownership in the United States rose dramatically from 1910, when only a few percent of American households had cars, to 1930, when over half of American households had cars.
In those same two decades, American youth – particularly young women – seemed to be “letting go” in new ways. Listening to jazz and dancing the Charleston were only the public demonstrations of a new looseness that shocked the older generation. Demographic records and oral histories suggest that the proportion of American women who had premarital sex rose noticeably in the first two or three decades of the twentieth century. (Important note: data suggest that sex outside of marriage was rising from a low point in late nineteenth-century America, but was only as or even less common than it was in late eighteenth-century America.)
Many put the two trends, cars and sexuality, together. And they had plausible reasons. Men were using cars to visit brothels outside of town; prostitutes increasingly plied their trade in cars. Most important, it seems, young people could use cars to get away from parental supervision and get into sexual explorations. Cars seemed to be undermining American mores.
The authors of Middletown, the classic study of American life in Muncie, Indiana, in the 1920s, noted residents’ worries that driving was undercutting traditional courtship, allowing couples to escape family supervision. They reported that a high percentage of under-age girls charged with “sex crimes” committed those offenses in cars.
Dating the Start of Dating
But a closer look by historians suggests a more complex picture. (I list some sources below.) For one, couples who wanted to find a trysting spot usually could, even before the car. Behind the haystack or in the woods was convenient. In cities, couples rode trolley cars to dance halls, amusement parks, and out to the countryside even before 1900. More broadly, old-style courting had started changing to new-style “dating” a decade or two before cars became widely available.
Dating, the custom of a young man coming to a young woman’s home and taking her out for an evening of entertainment, developed in the early part of the century. Some analysts describe it as an urban, working-class fashion that spread to the middle class. Previously, in “proper” circles, a young man “visited” or “kept company with” a young woman in her home, with her parents about, or saw her in public settings like church, or perhaps took her for a chaperoned buggy ride. Dating now left parents and neighbors behind and increased the chances for sexual adventure. Also, with men now paying for the woman’s food and entertainment, an implicit understanding hung over the evening that he was due something in return. For many working-class girls, in particular, being able to enjoy the new attractions of the age, such as movies and amusement park rides, meant making some concessions.
Also happening around the turn of the century, before widespread car ownership, was a change in women’s roles: More started seeking education and employment; more demanded to be released from bad marriages; and more displayed a certain brazenness, such as wearing bloomers while riding bicycles. Some historians suggest that 1920s sexual liberalization was largely the product of these cultural changes, intensified perhaps by the emotional turmoil of World War I and additionally by the bohemian culture of the postwar period.
The automobile, accordingly, did not loosen American sexual restraints. More Americans used the automobile to do what they would have done in other ways (and in other places) – perhaps more easily, perhaps more comfortably. But it was not that the car brought a new sexual culture; it was that Americans pursuing a new sexual culture found the car a useful technology.
A Sample of Sources
Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America.
Ling, “Sex and the Automobile in the Jazz Age,” History Today, vol 39, Iss. 1.
Modell, Into One’s Own: From Youth to Adulthood in the United States, 1920-1975.
Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York.
Rothman, Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America.
Scharf, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age.
Spurlock and Magistro, New and Improved: The Transformation of American Women’s Emotional Culture.