Teaching Social History: Focusing on the Landscape of Daily Life

By Cynthia Resor posted 14 days ago


Social history themes across time are difficult to squeeze into teaching units defined by specific beginning and ending dates. Instead social history often focuses on patterns that develop over decades, or even centuries.  Social history themes, such manners or etiquette, must be examined across the traditional instructional units that are usually centered around political history.

For example, nineteenth century codes of polite behavior were different than today. When did manners change? Pinpointing an exact date on a timeline is difficult. Changes in daily behavior occur quickly in some places, slowly in others, and new customs are adopted at different rates among different groups of people.  What is polite in a rural community may be viewed as old-fashioned or rude in a city. Older people may follow and expect different manners than younger people.

In 1884, etiquette expert Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood (1830-1903), advised readers that chaperones were required during courtship, even for engaged couples.

“Nothing is more vulgar in the eyes of our modern society than for an engaged couple to travel together or to go to the theatre unaccompanied, as was the primitive custom. This will, we know, shock many Americans, and be called a “foolish following of foreign fashions.” But it is true; and if were only for the ‘looks of the thing,” it is more decent, more elegant, and more correct for the young couple to be accompanied by a chaperon until married. Society allows an engaged girl to drive with her fiancé in an open carriage, but it does not approve of his taking her in a closed carriage to an evening party.”

In this excerpt, Mrs. Sherwood condemns the “primitive customs” of an American past, which she advises readers to discard, in favor of the “foreign fashions” of Europe favoring chaperones. A close reading of her etiquette manual suggests that everyone did not follow her advice. Mrs. Sherwood’s advice was relevant to an elite, urban society or those that wished to enter that elite society. European manners were in vogue among these social circles. But what about working, middle-class, or rural couples who could not afford carriages or attend the theatre? Were they still following the “primitive customs” to which Mrs. Sherwood referred or other cultural codes for behavior?  Were these couples expected to have chaperones or where the rules different?

Not only were the "rules" of relationship behavior different in different areas and among different groups of people, but upper-class rules of courtship described by Mrs. Sherwood were about to change. A new behavior called “dating” spread over the next forty years. The word “date” began to appear in stories about working class life in the 1890s and was originally a lower-class slang word. Dating was an urban necessity for poor and working-class girls living in crowded city tenements with no parlors to accept male callers and no one to act as chaperone. Instead, these women socialized with men in urban public places—free or low-cost dance halls, amusement parks, and later, at the movies.   

A generation later, by 1914, the term “dating” was used in Ladies’ Home Journal, a respected middle-class magazine.  By the 1920s, dating was common across America among all social classes.

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New technology often calls for new forms of behavior and new manners. The shift from courtship to dating in the late 19th and early 20th century is often associated with a new kind of technology that allowed couples privacy away from their families – the automobile.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Throughout the series of American history units covering the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ask students to consider WHY relationship behavior between unmarried people changed and make comparisons to changes in etiquette today. For example, during this period, new forms of transportation such as the automobile and new methods of communication such as the telephone required new etiquette.  More women worked outside of the home and attended college and refused to be chaperoned.  Asking students to evaluate the rules for modern relationships in the context of past shifts helps them to analyze the larger patterns of their own behavior.

Social history themes may lack a clear narrative and specific “memorizable” events to which teachers and students are accustomed.  Historian Daniel Boorstin said, “If we teach history as chronology the landmarks overshadow the landscape.” Let’s make an effort to teach more about the landscape of daily life in the past. For more ideas about teaching with social history themes, visit my website teachingwiththemes.com, and “like” my Facebook blog Primary Source Emporium.