In days of old young men and women would meet in various day-to-day situations (especially church). He might ask if he were permitted to call on her. If he didn’t ask, she might hint that he wouldn’t be turned away if he chose to do so. A traditional courtship began when he knocked on her parent’s door.
Information regarding suitable matches (according to age, social standing, and religious affiliation) was widely disseminated. Many people in the community were willing to take an interest and point out appropriate prospects. Not least among these people, of course, were the parents of the youngsters involved.
This system of “courting” was formalized among the middle and upper classes – the girls would wait at home for the boys to call. The two of them would spend time together in her parent’s home, chaperoned from a distance (an occasional peek through the open doorway). The two would talk about whatever interested them and the girl would evince more or less interest in each lad.
Among the lower classes the process was often less formal. A shopgirl might have a number of boys dropping in and hanging around during her working day. They would engage her in conversation whenever she had a spare moment. The results were similar.
Of course, each young man might be calling on several girls.
The girls and boys knew quite a bit about each other before they first sat down together. Through extended networks the girls would be sure to find out any flaws the boys had exhibited in their lifetime. A boy generally had to depend on his female relatives; they would hear things that “team woman” wouldn’t tell the men. Families protected the youngsters from spending time with inappropriate matches. The conversations (in the parlor, over the shop counter, or on daylight walks) primarily allowed the young people to find out if their personalities clicked, if they enjoyed spending time together.
After a period of time a young lady could expect to have a group of young men calling on her consistently. The young men in whom she showed little interest, and those not interested in her, would simply stop calling. The boys still calling thought she was a good potential wife.
Now it would be time to get serious. A girl would choose one or two boys that she preferred and intensify her indications of interest. She might even begin to speak a little more boldly – bringing up “hypothetical” questions about marriage, children, etc.
Eventually an agreement was reached with one of the boys that she would be amenable to a proposal of marriage. Before he actually asked her, of course, he had to talk to her dad. Presumably dad and mom had been vetting the boys all along, so permission would be granted.
This system worked, and worked much better than the current system of “dating.” Some girls might have been raised to think of themselves as princesses and be overly fussy about finding “Mr. Right.” Some fathers might even indulge their daughters by introducing them to visiting suitors. This could backfire since, without a solid local knowledge of the man’s reputation, he might not be what he seemed.
Some of the boys might have been under the impression that no local girl was good enough for them. They had the option of moving to the big city to seek their fame and fortune (and wife). Even in the big city they had to go through the same courting process. They rarely found anyone better than the girls back home.
Most young men and women married locally – though the pool of eligible mates might have seemed very shallow according to our modern standards. And those who did were generally as happy as anyone in their marriages.
The truth is that most young men and women who didn’t differ too greatly in their looks, upbringing, and religious preferences could marry successfully. That’s why arranged marriages worked so well for so many centuries.
Young people in those days were taught to have reasonable expectations about what it meant to be a good husband/wife. That was the most critical factor in “making a good match.”