Parlor Games

Caroline C. Morris

In the early 1920s, a common joke went: “Charlie asked Esther if he could call on her. When he showed up at her parents’ house, she had her hat on.” Get it?

In the 19th century, courtship took place under the roof – and supervision – of the relatives of the woman in question. Front porches and carefully appointed parlors were popular locations for young couples to chat, play “parlor games,” and maybe hold hands when Aunt Lucy was not looking. The practice was commonly referred to as “calling.”

In the first decades of the 20th century, however, courtship moved outside of the parlor and away from the chaperones. Instead of pursuing awkward conversation in the parlor with Aunt Lucy, young couples could go to a restaurant and a movie or public event, and could engage in more canoodling than would have been possible in the parlor. Young people called the new convention “dating.”

When “Charlie” asked “Esther” if he could call on her, he was envisioning an afternoon in the parlor. Esther was envisioning an evening on the town. The afternoon in the parlor would have been free; an evening on the town would cost Charlie dearly. An afternoon in the parlor would also have been scripted by etiquette, while a night on the town held endless possibilities. Do you get the joke now?

Like the joke about Charlie and Esther, this postcard makes light of the confusion between “calling” and “dating” in the early twentieth century. In this case, however, the author implies that enterprising young folks might pick and choose among the conventions, bringing a whiff of the “date” to the parlor sofa.

Interested in more information about how American courtships rituals have changed over time? Check out Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on April 23, 2016.