Let me be clear: there have always been paid shadchanim around. But the New York of the 50s, 60s and 70s had far fewer of them than the Europe of the time that preceded them. And those organized shidduch groups and shidduch circles that have sprouted up in every community, as well as online? There weren't any. Why? There was no need for them.
Those who were chassidish used such shadchanim, although not exclusively. And a few others of what we might call yeshivish leaning sometimes used them. If a couple did not meet on their own, then it was most likely that someone who knew the single or the family or of the family did the fixing up. Neighbors, friends of the family, members of the same shul, family members--all were called into shadchanus duty. Parents who had children old enough to get married only had to let the "grapevine" know and names would be suggested.
But let's focus on that word "suggested." Beyond giving the initial information, these people rarely played a part in what happened next. They weren't playing go-between for the boy and the girl. They gave the boy a phone number. He called the girl. They arranged a date. They went out. If there was going to be another date then HE would have to call HER and ask her out. And SHE would have to decide yes or no and deliver the news to HIM. If either party at the end of a date didn't want to continue further then that person had to say so, in person, to the other person. Uncomfortable sometimes? Yup, but that was part of being an adult and dating. Such was life. Only once do I remember having a friend, who had set me up, call me to tell me that the boy wasn't going to call again. And I believe her comment was on the order of "What a dufus! He couldn't just tell you himself?!"
Yes, blind dates were also common in the olden days. The were considered "blind" if 1)the two people going on the date had never seen each other or 2) no one doing the suggesting had actually laid eyes on either or both parties.
Checking on the family? Yeah, sort of, some times. If the person who suggested the match knew both sides and could give some basic information--like where in Europe did the family come from, what does the father do, where do they daven--it didn't go beyond that. And if the person didn't know both or either side, you were lucky if you got the correct name. For a few people, yichus was important and they would ask about this. What was not asked about and reported was what the great grandmother ate for breakfast and other questions of that ilk. And what was assumed was that if a frum person was setting you up and knew you were frum then the person they suggested would be frum also. And basically, "frum" was the only designation you were going to get. Investigating family before the two people had met? Why waste time.
Shidduch questionnaires to be filled out? Surely you jest. The vast majority of the things that singles are asked to put down on those questionnaires was considered conversation to have on a date. Daters maybe got some reallly basic information--age, height, what schools the boy and girl were in now, maybe what they were majoring in. And maybe this information was correct and maybe it wasn't.
Here's another difference. Shul was considered a good place to see and be seen. When davening was over mispallelim lingered for a few moments outside of shul and exchanged hellos. It was considered just fine for groups of singles to gather like this as well and say hello and introduce each other. After all, what could possibly happen untoward standing around in public? You had to see some of the looking and networking that went on at a shul's Simchas Bais Ha'Shoevah, Simchas Torah for hakofos etc.
And then there was this. Families got together with other families for meals on Shabbos or yom tov. And no one checked first to make sure that they weren't putting together unmarried boys and girls at the table. I have Vishnitzer sort of cousins (some of my family relationships get a bit convoluted) who lived in Boro Park when I first arrived to NY. I was invited to their home for a Shabbos. I slept in the house, sharing a room with one of the daughters. They had older daughters and older sons as well and we all were in the house together and sat at the table together. In fact, almost all of my family in Brooklyn was what we liked to call "shteible people" and I was invited to all their homes, and there we sat, males and females. After all, what could possibly happen untoward sitting with a whole group of people at a table?
When my parents moved to Far Rockaway, our home sometimes seemed like Grand Central Station on a shabbos. My father loved having company and many a Shabbos he came home with a stray guest or two. And no one asked if it was okay to invite single men where there was a single, eligible daughter. When R' Freifeld first opened his yeshiva in Far Rockaway he was a tenant of close friends of my parents. The landlord had three sons. One Shabbos I remember their inviting us to meet the Rav at lunch in their home. There we were, all sitting at the table, my parents, my brother and sister and me, the hosts and their three older sons, and the Rav and his wife and their children. (And just for the record, I had gone out once with one of the sons. We "weren't a match made in heaven" but that didn't preclude our never seeing each other again or fixing each other up.) No one yelled "ossur!" Not only that, but the Rav was thrilled when my dad volunteered us to host bochrim from the yeshiva for shabbos meals when needed. And yes, he knew I'd be there.
Here is something else you don't see today: group dates. (Not usually first dates however) Yes, sometimes two couples would go somewhere together, sometimes even three or four or more couples. Those dating wanted to see how their dating partners interacted with others. After all, couples were going to have a social life. It's ironic that a former student would tell me that when she was in Lakewood the rule was that young couples absolutely did not/could not invite each other over for Shabbos meals. And yet, these same couples were encouraged to invite single bochrim for these meals. "Social life" in mixed groups is apparently not expected or encouraged in some circles.
I should mention another huge way in which dating and shidduchim were different then. Certainly people hoped that a fix up would lead to a marriage. But no one assumed that it would. It would take the couple's going out to find out if there was something there that would lead to marriage. And for the most part, the datees were left in peace to do the discovering on their own. Everyone assumed that if you were old enough, you were dating. There wasn't the veil of secrecy that hangs over dating today. No one, seeing a couple in a local restaurant together, assumed that they were getting married. Unless there was a formal announcement, you were just dating. And it was the rare parents who began nudging their kids as to their intentions on some kind of artificial timetable.
Now a word about age. Yes, there were some girls who got married at 19. I look at all those Boro Park relatives and a lot of the girls did marry at 19 and 20. But almost without exception every one of their husbands was already making a parnoseh, even if also going to school, usually for graduate work. The only two exceptions I remember were marrying into wealthy families, families that were going to support the couple until the husband finished his graduate work (note the graduate work, not sitting and learning). Plenty of girls who got married first after graduating college or later. I got married at 24-1/2, and I was hardly stigmatized as an old maid.
Let me end with one of the reallllly big differences between then and now. College age people and up who were dating were considered to be adults. "Babies" getting married was the exception, not the rule. The expectation was that when a couple got married they were on their own: they would take care of all their expenses. And the correlation was that they would make all the big decisions that would come up, all on their own. If a boy was 23 or 24 it was expected that he was already working. One particular boy who I remember was having trouble getting dates. This was because, at 23, he still didn't know what he wanted to be "when he grew up." His parents would tell people "He's bright. He'll 'go into business' and he'll be all right." But people back then didn't want to hear about what you were going to do--they wanted to hear about what you were doing. The only exceptions were for boys who were in law school or dental school or medical school or finishing engineering programs. And even there, lots of those boys first got married when they finished their programs. Those who married earlier may have had wives who already were out and working or a few were from wealthy families who could afford to hold them out for the few years.
So where did we meet if we weren't meeting through blind dates? Stay tuned for Part Two.