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From Codpieces to Dick Pics: How Dating has Changed Throughout History

In "The Curious History of Dating," author Nichi Hodgson chronicles the unlikely and occasionally bizarre ways people have found true love.
Photo by Simone Becchetti via Stocksy

For time immemorial, people have performed the era equivalent of swiping through their dating undesirables. What's changed, says Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder, is who's had the power to do that swiping, who's been considered desirable, and the way in which resulting hook-ups were dealt with by society.

This will be Hodgson's second book. Her first, Bound to You, rode on the 50 Shades hype and chronicled Hodgson's time as professional dominatrix. The Curious History of Dating, Hodgson says, was born from a desire to broaden her scope.


"My first book had somewhat ghettoized me and I wanted to prove that I had more intellectual mettle," Hodgson says. "I've always found it bizarre that we don't talk seriously enough about dating, sex, love and relationships, that we relegate it to 'women's' issues or 'lifestyle.' And then it came to me—what about a serious social history, albeit one written with plenty of juicy human stories about the foibles of loving and losing?"

BROADLY: Was there a Victorian equivalent of being sent dick pictures?
Nichi Hodgson: I think the padded-out codpiece is almost an equivalent. "You have to look at my package even if you don't want to." People did send each other rude little illustrations and stuff but it wasn't the norm. It really is the advent of, not just picture-taking but of being able to take your own picture, that's behind this phenomenon!

**Read more: The Infuriating Appeal of Hyper-Exclusive *Dating* Apps**

You've looked at hundreds of dating ads. Were there any that particularly stood out for you?
After the Crimean War, a lot of the guys start to talk about lost limbs. "I've only got one leg." And then another ad would be a woman saying, "It's cool if you've only got one leg." It was sweet. It showed people's strength of character, like it doesn't really matter.

For women, there have always been such strict codes of moral conduct around dating. Victorian women were expected to have chaperones!
Yeah. Because of the endemic sexism that exits in society, women couldn't own or inherit their own property until 1850. Up until that point, anything you've got became your husband's. Even your children technically belonged to your husband. That meant it was so important to make sure whoever you were marrying wasn't a cad and wasn't going to fritter away your fortune. So the chaperoning thing was really about protecting the source of income. It was economic and also about protecting reproduction.


Nichi Hodgson. Photo courtesy of Little Brown

Obviously that applies to the upper classes. What about the women who didn't have a family fortune to protect?
The reproduction thing applies to all classes, because at the top you don't want to dilute the noble blood line and at the bottom, you can't afford to look after a child because it takes the mother out of work. That's why, when people finally had access to contraception, the biggest shift in dating came about.

Would you say it's with the pill, more than anything else, that you see a real radical break in dating traditions?
Way before that was the Married Women's Property Act 1882, which coincided with Queen Victoria proposing to Prince Albert and the invention of romantic love. Combined with the Industrial Revolution—women going out to work and just the movement of people in general—it completely revolutionized how people could interact and meet. Romance was an antidote because, for most people, Victorian England was a fucking awful place to live. Once that idea of romantic love had been captured in everything from high art to scrappy cartoons in newspapers, the mood of the nation changed. The next really significant point is the end of the First World War. Chaperones just vanished over night because everybody was working and all the men had disappeared.

Romantic love has always been held as an ideal, it just hasn't always been held as an ideal combined with marriage; the Victorians did that.


The idea of romantic love has permeated society to a point where it's hard to imagine the concept didn't always exist.
I don't think it existed before the Enlightenment. The grip of the Church was loosened and a notion of women as people with rights was introduced, whereas before they were just baby carriers. Romantic love has always been held as an ideal, it just hasn't always been held as an ideal combined with marriage; the Victorians did that.

Dating history changes every time there's a movement in women's or minority rights. How has dating changed for LGBTQ people?
Legally, it's been difficult to date but people have always found ways to meet. In the 1850s, drag balls in London were quite a common thing. Then in the 20s, after the First World War, all these young working and lower middle class women moved into cities to get jobs. They lived in digs and started getting it on with each other. It allowed them this freedom; they had money of their own, they could go out for dinner. They took loads of cocaine, they danced to jazz all night.

If you were a gay male, you were under the death penalty until the Victorian age, and then it was still imprisonment. That law wasn't repealed until 1967. If you were a lesbian, you just weren't legally recognized. In the 1920s, the government thought about writing lesbians into the law, prohibiting their sexual behaviour, but they decided not to, in case it gave other women ideas.


Still, people figured all this stuff out for themselves. In the 30s, there was actually a cottaging guide published, called For Your Convenience. It was literally a guide to every toilet in London where you could have a shag, if you were a gay guy.

Watch: How One Matchmaker Changed Online Dating for Women Everywhere

Do any specific moments stand out as being times of change when it comes to race? The history of dating must be steeped in racism.
During the Second World War, lots of black American GIs were stationed in Britain but they were stationed separately because of American segregation. Black GIs were sent to rural places like Cornwall and Norfolk and women went crazy for them. When the war ended, women who wanted to marry these men were banned by the American government—they actually put a law in place to stop them. Their children were taken into care. It's this lost generation of interracial babies, who were just tossed aside.

In the 50s, there was the arrival of the Windrush generation. In 1950, a scientific investigation had concluded there was no biological danger in races intermarrying and having children and that's when Britain started to allow more Commonwealth immigration. They needed a scientific judgement to decide that it was okay…

We're at the beginning of an evolution in dating culture where women can afford to call more of the shots, but we haven't recognized our own power.


You've worked in the sex industry—do you think there's much overlap with the world of dating? To what extent are all relationships transactional?
I think while men still tend to own most of the property and wealth in the world, it's inevitable that they will trade that for sex and affection and women will trade sex or affection for wealth. What's more, even if the scales are evening up in the West, the habits of hundreds of years are going to die hard. We're at the beginning of an evolution in dating culture where women can afford to call more of the shots, but we haven't recognized our own power in that regard yet I think.

The LSE academic Catherine Hakim coined the term "erotic capital": the charm, sex appeal, or suggestion of sex and love we exchange for not just money but other kinds of liberties and protection. And that term helps us to see the sliding scale on which everything from monogamous marriage to sex work rests.

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You discuss etiquette books and how people relied on them for years. What do you think of today's dating etiquette?
It's going to sound horribly conservative and weird but I actually think people need more rules. Things about manners and politeness and about returning calls and returning messages, treating somebody with a certain amount of respect from the beginning.

So just being a nice person basically?
Yeah. How to not be a dick. How to date and not be a dick. I think it's so needed.

Nichi Hodgson's The Curious History Of Dating: From Jane Austen To Tinder is out now.