February 2008 | Home
In 1943 the world was on fire. The campus, too, burned with change — while a little booklet taught students the genteel manners of courtship.
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How to date women, circa 1943
February 12, 2008
In the fall of 1943, the Michigan Union published a little booklet called "Michiganetiquette." This was when "the Union" connoted not only the building on State Street but the campus-wide men's club of which the building was merely the headquarters. And the Union's officers held a good deal of sway over student activities, especially social activities.
But that fall the campus's social order was in flux. Thousands of male students had gone to war, replaced by thousands more soldiers and sailors undergoing six-week sprints of training in subjects ranging from Japanese to meteorology to weapon design. Most male students not yet in the military were rushing to win their diplomas on accelerated schedules. Van Boven's was selling uniforms; the Arcade's jewelry stores sold silver pilot's wings. Women students held most of the leadership slots traditionally occupied by males.
So it may have been a small effort to reassert the primacy of "Joe College" when the Union's officers took it upon themselves to remind students of the rules governing men's conduct toward women. In the heyday of Emily Post, and with the common-sense gentility of that worthy dame's bestselling guides to decorum, "Michiganetiquette" neatly summarized "the Ann Arbor social scene and some of the details which make up good behavior therein."
It's a fascinating glimpse into the social world of the "Greatest Generation."*
The advice in "Michiganetiquette"—most of it aimed at freshman men—guides the neophyte through each step on the path of romance, from initial exchange to the giving of the fraternity pin. First came the problem of meeting girls, a larger challenge when the sexes did not share dorms and visiting hours for women's dorms and sororities were strictly regulated. The thing was best done at freshman "mixers."
"At these affairs a boy may meet anyone he desires simply by cutting in while she is dancing with another fellow. The usual procedure is for the girl to introduce herself by mentioning her name, while the fellow follows suit. If the lass is shy, there is no reason why the fellow can't begin the conversation… If one wishes to know a girl's phone number and address, there will be no frowning if he simply asks her."
The first date was typically a "Coke Date," in which "the boy meets the girl somewhere in the afternoon, and they repair to some suitable place where they can sit around and 'get acquainted' with each other for an hour or two." This was often done at the Union's Coke Bar, open from 4 to 5:45—a dime for men, free for women.
To ask for a more formal date, "Michiganetiquette" advised against the old chestnuts that began "What are you doing…" and "Are you available…"
"These questions put the poor kid in a spot, especially if she doesn't particularly want to go out with you. Ask her if she would like to do whatever you have planned for that night with you, then, if she doesn't, she needed come right out and say so. She can say she's busy. This little fine point is well worth remembering. It may save you some awkward moments."
No need for flowers, except for a formal: "Ordinarily…the question of a corsage does not arise in Michigan dating."
It was customary to walk to dates. "The young lady…knows that there may be reasons why a fellow doesn't want to go by cab, and it would be poor taste to put him on the spot….College boys can no more afford such expenses than the girls can, and a sensible co-ed realizes this…"
But walking to a date was no easy matter.
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"There is an art to walking with a girl. You must not walk too fast, and you must not be oblivious to the things going on around you while keeping up a stimulating conversation with her." If the occasion was a Union dance, one must observe the custom about women:
"Remember to escort your girl through the side door, for there is an old Michigan tradition that the front door of the Union is for men only. It may be that the gallantry of the Michigan man will not permit him to allow his fair lady to enter an uncanopied doorway, but, just in case you should forget, there is a gentleman at the front door to deter you." (This was a reference to George Johnson, a cigar-chomping 76-year-old who had been guarding the Union's front door against females since the Harding administration. He had infuriated women in 1935 for suggesting in public that the appearance of that year's entering class of co-eds failed to meet the Michigan standard.)
Once at the dance, it was wise to keep an eye on the clock, since male escorts had to be out of the women's dorms by 11:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Sleepovers? Don't even think about it. Any woman expecting to be out of her residence overnight had to get an okay from her housemother or, during the week, from the Dean of Women herself.
If love bloomed, the young man should be careful about offering his fraternity pin. Most national fraternities considered the giving of a pin to signify engagement, but "tradition at Michigan does not declare that this is so… Before a pin is given or taken, be certain of the terms to prevent hurt feelings later…"*
The male authors of "Michiganetiquette" offered a bit of advice to women, too, most of it on the subject of social reputation.
- About smoking: "No girl was ever made more attractive or a more sought after personality because she smoked cigarettes! It doesn't help a bit, and it may actually make you look cheap."
- About "going steady": "Dating in general is the usual procedure, and probably the most desirable state of affairs for Ann Arbor youth. … Many an up-and-coming freshman girl has been permanently shelved by going steady, and could never quite make a comeback. It's hard to get back into circulation after breaking up with the 'steady.'"
- And about the giving of favors: "If a boy asks you when you are going to grow up and act like a college girl because you won't kiss him good night, ignore him. … Boys respect girls who deserve respect!... Social success at Michigan definitely does not depend upon humoring the passions of other people. It may result from a tactful practice of doing just the opposite.…Girls don't have to 'give' to be popular, and, as a matter of fact, it usually turns out that the most discreet and unkissable girls draw the better class of men – not the wolves, but the good guys that are going places, and who like girls with ideals as high as their own!"
Sources for this article were found in the archives of the Michigan Union and the U-M Alumni Association at the Bentley Historical Library; in The Michigan Daily; and in Kent Sagendorph, Michigan: The Story of the University (Dutton, 1948).
James Tobin is an author and historian. His most recent book is To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight.