I've been seeing a lot of Newtina proposal headcanons recently, so I'm wondering... What were proposals like in the 20s? Was it a big deal, involving a ring and getting down on one knee and a special setting? Or would it be more of a casual conversation? Also, what was dating like? Did people date? Or did they court instead? Or something in between?
Okie dokie, so this gets complicated. To keep it from completely running away from me, I’ll focus on Western Europe and white America; these are the cultures I know best. Other cultures may have certain similarities or differences, but I don’t know them well enough to comment.
Let’s start with how people started to pair off. First of all, the general concept of “dating”–doing fun activities in public with a member of the opposite sex–is something lower classes have been doing for pretty much forever. After all, if you don’t have much in the way of material goods, the biggest consideration in picking a partner is how well you work together, and the Western way to address that is via dating. After WWI, the concept of dating started to slowly trickle up the social scale. A young woman in the 1920s (keeping in mind that “young” stopped at about twenty-three then) might go on dates with dozens of guys before she settled down, and it would be perfectly acceptable…but that kind of dating was not much more than having a partner to do something in public with. Maybe handholding, but kissing was the most a smart girl would do under those circumstances.
People did still do what we think of as “courting” (sometimes following a period of dating), though they may not have thought of it using that term. “Courting” would be a lot like dating, except it would be with just the one person. Courting was always initiated by the male half of a couple, and this was for a very important reason: courting was intended to lead to marriage, and that meant the male half of the equation had to be financially stable enough to support a wife and children (because a pregnant woman wouldn’t be hired or kept working anywhere, and a wife could get pregnant at any time). If he couldn’t do that, he had no business courting a woman.
(Now, to apply this to Newt and Tina…the four years between their ages actually means a lot here, because those four years meant that Newt came of age before the War, and Tina came of age after. Newt would have been brought up to a courtship-only model, and Tina would have entered adulthood when a hybrid courtship/dating model existed. It is highly unlikely Newt would begin to court Tina unless he was doing financially well; either his book would be immensely successful, or he’d get a decent promotion at the Ministry, or his parents would die and leave him mountains of Galleons…you get the picture.)
In terms of engagement, it was no longer customary to ask a woman’s father for permission to marry his daughter…but etiquette books of the period explain that a man should be able to tell if his sweethearts’ family liked him well enough or not by how they interact (indicating a man should meet the family several times before proposing). However, it would have been appropriate to address the family before the engagement was announced, and the man had better be prepared with an accurate, honest breakdown of his current and anticipated future finances; presumably, if he wouldn’t be able to support her appropriately, it would be so determined at this point, and things could be broken off (temporarily, perhaps) with minimal embarrassment to involved parties.
Engagement rings are a very old tradition, so a man who could afford one would likely propose with a ring at hand. However, “Diamonds are Forever” wouldn’t hit the marketing scene until 1947, so you saw a much wider variety of engagement rings. On the lowest end of the scale were unadorned bands not unlike wedding rings (side note: in the 1920s, it was fairly uncommon for men to wear wedding bands; it was more a female thing), and the ring might even serve as the wedding ring. On the higher end you could see some pretty fabulous combinations of gems, though diamonds were popular still. In-person proposals were still made on one knee with or without a ring, but it would have been considered really bad manners to propose like that in public. That’s the sort of thing one would do in a living room.
However, there’s another method of proposal which has fallen out of favor recently: proposal by letter. As travel was comparatively more expensive and less practical for people than it is today, it was acceptable to propose by letter when an in-person proposal was impractical. A good proposal by letter was explicit and clear, so the woman being written to would understand exactly what her beau was asking. An in-person proposal could have less precise verbiage because the body language and presence of a ring would make the meaning clear.
(Newtina application time: Newt’s got a ton of options for how to propose and what to propose with depending on his situation.)
Important fact to remember: engagements were treated as seriously as marriage. Breaking off an engagement might leave you open to a lawsuit for “breach of promise”; these laws were mostly repealed or limited in the 1930s. The way these laws were written implies that it was not uncommon for couples to become sexually active during engagement; these lawsuits were a way for a woman to compensate for any “damage” to her person incurred without a marriage to make it acceptable.