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Training for Love and Family: Princeton University’s Marriage Course

In 1927, Ernest R. Groves developed a groundbreaking new course at the University of North Carolina focused on comprehensive preparation for marriage and family life. By the mid-1930s, scattered colleges throughout the United States were offering similar classes to undergraduates, but Princeton joined the group a bit late. The first serious discussions of the possibility of having such a course here occurred in the late 1940s. Students were pushing for a course to address sociology, psychology, religion, economics, law, and medicine as they related to marriage and family life. A 1949 editorial in the Daily Princetonian lamented the lack of such a class as “an astonishing fact.” The first marriage lecture at Princeton was given on February 15, 1950.

Due to its high demand, “A Course on Marriage and Family Life” was open only to Princeton seniors after the first couple of years, even though it was non-curricular (i.e., could not be taken for credit). One needed tickets to attend lectures, for which a fee was charged. Princeton faculty led smaller discussion groups, similar to precepts, following the lectures. The institution was not yet co-educational, so the focus was on how to be a good husband and father; wives- and mothers-in-training were presumably taking courses elsewhere. Some students found it difficult to discuss sensitive topics openly, but most reports indicate that they felt it had been a good experience for them.

Marriage course ticket sales. Photo from 1957 Bric-a-Brac.

What Princeton believed one needed to know in order to fill the roles of husband and father reflected mid-20th century values as well as more enduring ones, such as questions about engaging in the rituals of courtship, choosing a mate wisely, managing family finances, addressing legal issues that arise in marriage, establishing a healthy sexual relationship, and selecting birth control methods. The course was always tilted more toward the practical than the theoretical. High schools did not commonly offer basic sex education at the time, so this was the first time many students encountered information about sexuality and contraception. The first semester’s speakers included Morris L. Ernst, contributor to Sex Life of the Unmarried Adult. The best-attended lectures were always those that dealt with some aspect of sexuality. Students stayed afterward to ask questions; in at least one case, this question and answer period lasted more than 45 minutes after a lecture on birth control methods.

Harold Saunders ’52’s marriage lecture tickets (click to enlarge). Scrapbook Collection (AC026), Box 329.

Due to its often sensitive nature, actual course content seems to have remained shrouded in secrecy both then and now. The Daily Princetonian announced the lectures in advance but did not report on them afterward. Very few related records are available in the University Archives. Because it was non-curricular, researchers will not find it listed in the course catalogs. A few documents can be found scattered among our collections, but none give a full picture. The most detailed look comes from an incomplete draft of an internal administrative report on the course.

First page of a draft of an internal memo about Princeton University’s 1951 marriage course (click to enlarge). Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 38, Folder 4.

Organizers responded to student interest and needs by including a more purposeful focus on sex education, though not without concerns about potential controversy. “Students’ questions and, surprisingly enough, their greatest ignorance, lie in this field,” the internal report draft noted. “The students are more poorly informed about the sexual aspects than any other angle. They are interested a great deal in courtship (esp. in the significance of premarital intercourse) and physiological aspects (slides on contraception v. popular).” Yet the author of the report quoted above crossed out a sentence reading, “Note: Maybe the contraceptual [sic] angle should not be mentioned. I think it is against the law in [New] Jersey.” If administrators feared the course might be illegal, it is unsurprising that they have left so little information about it behind for us today.

Poster announcing marriage course lecture. Photo from 1959 Bric-a-Brac.

Despite apparent concerns about running afoul of the law, the course became extremely popular after the success of its inaugural semester, reaching maximum registration within hours in many cases. Usual enrollment ranged between 200 to 400 students per year. However, as American society changed, the need for the marriage course began to wane. Pressure to address difficulty with male-female socialization through coeducation rather than coursework intensified at Princeton in the mid-1960s. Locally, Planned Parenthood had begun offering a similar course free of charge to anyone over the age of 18, so students had other options for education about these topics, too. It appears that the final semester Princeton University held such a course in any form was the fall of 1967, around the same time as the rest of America was giving up their college marriage courses.



Daily Princetonian

Office of Communications Records (AC168)

Scrapbook Collection (AC026)

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