Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Strange Dating Games Of 1914

With a peck of new tech in development, Upstart reports recently, "the dating game may never be the same."

The site makes a good case, showcasing newfangled Magnet bracelets that allow lovers to communicate via vibrations and lights, the Dorothy app that lets you signal a friend to rescue you from a dud date, and NameTag that uses facial recognition to get to know a suitor at warp speed.

Can digital spin-the-bottle be far behind?

"Technology changed courtship rituals dramatically in the early 20th century," Ellen K. Rothman, author of Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America, tells NPR. "Compared to the car — privacy and mobility — and telephone, Magnet bracelets are nothing."

So what were courtship rituals like in early 20th century America? According to a Boston Daily Globe "Household Department" feature on Oct. 11, 1914, parlor games were all the rage.

Here then is a parlor game based on parlor games that were played in Boston circa 1914. You will be given a list of four games, and the challenge is to know which ones were actually played in American living rooms and which ones, prithee, were not. Answers below.

  • The Walnut Game. Split some English walnuts in half and put a small candle in each little "bowl." Have each guest choose one as "theirs." Set the halves adrift in a tub of water. If two half-nut cases float side by side, their owners will also do the same in real life.
  • Candles in the Sand. Arrange a dozen small, colored candles in a plate of sand and light them. Lead a blindfolded woman or man to the candles and let them blow at the candles three times. The remaining number of candles burning represents the number of years before she or he will be married.
  • Three Boxes. Place a trio of boxes — one empty, one containing an engagement ring and one with a wedding ring — in a pail of water. Pour a bit of alcohol on the water and light it with a match. Have a man or woman dip a hand quickly into the water and seize a box. An empty box signals they will not ever marry; but otherwise they will be engaged or married — depending on which ring they retrieve — within a year.
  • Bowling for Love. Lay out three bowls — one containing clean water, one soapy water and a third empty — on a low table. Blindfold each guest and spin her or him around twice. Then escort the game-player to the table to put a hand in whichever bowl comes first. The clean water represents a long, happy marriage; the soapy water heralds a short marriage; and the empty bowl means no marriage.
  • Answers: All of the above courting-and-sparking pastimes were being played in Boston parlors a century ago.


    The Protojournalist: An experimental storytelling project for the LURVers — Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. @NPRtpj

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.