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The wedding photo didn’t exactly shout “happily ever after.” The somber-faced bride and groom stood next to each other. The only physical contact: each rested a hand on a table—which was between them.

This 19th-century image “reminds me of those old photos where Stalin or Lenin are signing pacts,” said Shawn Levy (COM’14).

He got appreciative laughs from the 80 fellow students taking American Popular Culture, Brooke Blower’s survey of our changing assumptions, from the Victorian Gilded Age to today, about mating, homes, work, gender, and other matters of everyday living. During this particular lecture on marriage and family, Blower, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of history, declared, “Modern marriage is a 20th-century invention.”

To make her point, she asked students to raise their hands if they expected to marry someday. A few went half-mast. “Who are you going to marry?” she asked one woman. “Uh, a boy?” came the answer amid laughter. “First hurdle accomplished,” her professor cracked.

Earlier generations would have been more certain about marriage as life’s goal, Blower said, because they were unencumbered by such romantic notions as “you’re going to meet and marry your true love.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, she said, “marriage could involve very little intimacy between the man and the wife,” as it and family were mechanisms of economic survival rather than emotional and sexual fulfillment.

Ugh, you say? Blower has news for you: there are downsides to our modern concept of marriage as well. Sure, the new view made marriage “a lot more fun. It could be a lot more satisfying,” she told the students. “But you also had such high expectations that it was easy to be disappointed.” The definition of a good wife now included the imperative to be sexy, as Blower demonstrated by screening post-Word War II ads featuring glamorous wives and mothers who were expected to keep house “and look like a pinup—and perform like one in the bedroom.” Meanwhile, husbands, formerly the kings of their castle, now had to mingle authority with loving tenderness, not to mention their “sheep-like existence in the corporate world.” Many complained that women had it better, she told her students.

If this makes history sound like a sputtering jalopy trip rather than a smoothly progressing ride, that’s the point. Blower has taught the course since 2006 to students who “are unfailingly optimistic, and they want to feel really good about the world they live in,” she said in an interview after class. “And so I do see it as somewhat my job to try to make them not think that history is about progress…but how things might be better in certain ways, but they’re worse in other ways.” Dating and mating are prime examples; in fact, she said, students are so “absolutely obsessed” with them that she’s piloting a new course in spring 2015 on sex, love, and the family.

On a campus where most students are at least middle-class, Blower’s course emphasizes how the working classes typically lead social change. We think of the Roaring Twenties as the time when people embraced the free-wheeling life of hard partying, smoking, and wearing alluring clothes, but working-class women had done that for decades, “stepping out after work wearing flouncy bows in their hair,” the professor said. “I show them pictures of these women, and it’s like Sex in the City from the 1890s. We can’t have Carrie Bradshaw until we have this.”

Where political history focuses on transformational events and great-person motifs, this is cultural history, about “the web of beliefs, assumptions, the logic people hold” in their everyday lives, Blower said. She wants students to see how that cultural ether affects them, so that they ask, “Why do I make that decision? What is that commercial really selling me? Why do I respond when they tell me that my coffee is hand-crafted?” By studying how previous generations lived daily life—“little things you take for granted as normal, as natural”—she hopes students “see those things as historically constructed.”

“Those are the things that have the most power over our lives. You know when a politician passes a law…you can see power at work. But you don’t realize power is at work in the children’s stories that you were read as a child, or in the commercials, or in the way that you describe your coffee.”

It’s a fascinating message for Levy, who said after class that he’d tired of traditional history about great events or our European forebears (the latter he summed up as “one giant family fighting itself for like 700 years”). Blower’s course reassured him that “everybody’s always kind of a little bit weird. It’s always been this weird time of people not really knowing what they should be doing or what the social norms are supposed to be. It makes me feel less like my generation has —-ed everything up.”