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A Revolution in Colonial Romance

To mark Valentine's Day, "Wise Words" looks at romance in colonial America. Marie McDaniel, assistant professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University, discusses the customs of that era.

As romantic vibes fill the air with the approach of Valentine’s Day, it is easy to assume that today’s customs -- such as buying your significant other a token of affection or taking them out for a candle-lit dinner -- have always existed in the American culture.

Granted, the chocolates that existed once upon a time probably didn’t come in as many forms or flavors. And a floral arrangement in the 1700s might not include one of those cute teddy bears. But the basic idea was pretty much the same, right?

Not really. In fact, dating as we know it did not even exist in America until the Revolutionary War. And even courtship – a serious effort to woo a potential marriage partner – had been confined primarily to the elite class, according to Marie McDaniel, assistant professor of history at Southern.

To be fair, the country was much more sparsely populated back then, and there were no cars to hop into for a quick drive. People either walked, or traveled on horseback, wagon or if you had money, by carriage.

So, guys, if only you were alive in those days, you wouldn’t need to worry about trekking out late on Valentine’s Day eve to pick up a card, or get those chocolate truffles she has come to expect.

But romance began to change in America after the birth of our nation.

“The Revolutionary War served as a social revolution, even though it was an unintended consequence,” McDaniel says.

She notes that during colonial times, marriages were based more on economic interests than romantic ones. And companionate love took precedence over passionate love when considering a spouse. “The emphasis on romantic love really doesn’t take off until after the Revolutionary War. The culture and customs in colonial America were in many ways a backlash against England,” says McDaniel, who notes that passionate love was alive and well in England during the 1700s.

But societal mores began to change. The courting ritual began to take hold among what would later be known as the middle class after American independence.

The change to a democratic form of government had a cascade effect that led to the proliferation of romantic literature, especially in the form of novels. McDaniel notes. America began to place a higher value on education after the war – first with boys -- because it recognized the importance of an educated citizenry in a democracy. White male property owners had gained the right to vote to elect the nation’s leaders and with that right came an increased responsibility. But an increased emphasis on the need to educate girls would follow – not because women could vote back in the early 1800s, but because mothers needed to be better educated so that they could raise well-educated sons. This better education of girls enabled them to read more novels, which encouraged their publication.

And by 1840, and the advent of the Victorian Era, the whole concept of romance in America had changed. Even many of the trappings of marriage that exist today, such as the wearing of white dresses and the exchange of vows and rings, began to flourish around that time.

(For additional insightful blog posts, check out "Wise Words.")

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