The Return Of The Gentleman Caller

A few months ago I saw an article by Peter Ling on History Today about how automobiles enabled a greater degree of sexual and social freedom in the 1920s.

I, of course, read it for the details of the social freedom cars afforded.

Ling talks about how there wasn’t really such a thing as dating before the 1900s. Arrangements would be made for a gentleman to call upon a young lady at her home where he would be entertained in the family parlor, speaking with the girl and her mother and perhaps witnessing the young lady’s skill at the piano.

With an increase in automobile ownership, the gentleman might show up to find the young lady waiting at the door, eager to go out somewhere. People were able to have new experience and interact across social classes.

“Money gave access to theatres, restaurants, galleries and clubs. By 1900, the traditional events of the season, such as the opera, began to be deemed passe by a growing number of privileged youths. These ‘bohemians’ began to perceive the possibility of a new freedom arising from the anonymity of crowded city streets…Thus, affluent youth figuratively ‘crossed the tracks’ to enjoy a surer privacy amidst working-class crowds than they experienced in their parents’ homes…

Women who regularly read the Ladies Home Journal, who could recall being warned in 1907 that it was scandalous to be seen dining alone with a man, even a relative, learnt from a debutante of 1914 that it was ‘now considered smart to go to the low order of dance halls, and not only be a looker-on, but also to dance among all sorts and conditions of men and women…’ Thus leisure-class and working-class youth began to date and sometimes to frequent the same venues

I have recently been wondering if we are seeing a reversal of this trend. With the poor economy, children are moving back in with their parents. People are staying at home to experience their entertainment from the internet and Netflix videos. And, young people today apparently aren’t interested in driving cars.

I don’t think we will see a return to courting and a rush to buy pianos for the parlor. Which is too bad because it would be nice for people to value musical skills more and most of Tennessee Williams’ plays, which often referenced courting practices, would gain renewed relevance.

If people are eschewing cars and staying closer to home, there are some possible benefits for the arts and culture. Back in June I wrote about how young people returning home from the big cities were bringing expectations and vitality back with them.

There may be a shift in importance for neighborhood arts and cultural spaces as people seek things to do closer to home. And if they don’t own cars, lack of convenient parking may vastly diminish as a consideration for attending or participating in a cultural experience which in turn provides more flexibility for establishing spaces.

These spaces may be smaller with versatile use so that they serve the varied interests of the more immediate community. Though I wouldn’t discount the possibility of larger facilities gaining renewed investment from the neighborhood and gladly renovating to accommodate more bikes and pedestrians.

Perhaps they can serve as latter day parlor for young people to call upon each other. Apparently Gen Y isn’t very good at dating and in fact can be very anxious about the whole process. There may be a very real need for a safe, chaperoned environment designed to facilitate interactions.

I make no claims at being a proficient trend spotter so who knows if any of this will really manifest. Still in some places around the country, there is probably some worth in looking around to see if former empty nesters in a short radius are seeing their chicks return and figuring out if there is something of value you can offer them.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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