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The Decade That Roared

46c. The Invention of the Teenager

Cars and courtship
The automobile was monumental in the evolution of courtship. High speed and moonlight drives inspired a spirit of reckless abandon.

In the 19th century, the American world consisted of children and adults. Most Americans tried their best to allow their children to enjoy their youth while they were slowly prepared for the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Although child labor practices still existed, more and more states were passing restrictions against such exploitation. The average number of years spent in school for young Americans was also on the rise. Parents were waiting longer to goad their youngsters into marriage rather than pairing them off at the tender age of sixteen or seventeen. In short, it soon became apparent that a new stage of life — the teenage phase — was becoming a reality in America. American adolescents were displaying traits unknown among children and adults. Although the word teenager did not come into use until decades later, the teenage mindset dawned in the 1920s.

Girls smoking on Long Island beach (1919)
International News Photos
These young women probably raised the eyebrows of a number of their fellow sunbathers. But only a few years later, young people would be smoking, drinking and dancing with an abandon never seen before in America.

From Courtship to Dating

The single greatest factor that led to the emergence of the independent teenager was the automobile. Teens enjoyed a freedom from parental supervision unknown to previous generations. The courtship process rapidly evolved into dating. In earlier times, young boys and girls spent their first dates at home. The boy would meet the girl's parents, they would have a sitting in the parlor, followed by dinner with the entire family. Later in the evening, the couple might enjoy a few moments alone on the front porch. After several meetings, they could be lucky enough to be granted permission for an unchaperoned walk through town. The automobile simply shattered these old-fashioned traditions. Dating was removed from the watchful eyes of anxious parents. Teenagers were given privacy, and a sexual revolution swept America. Experimentation with sexual behaviors before marriage became increasingly common. Young Americans were now able to look beyond their own small towns at an enlarged dating pool.

Impact of the Automobile

Automobile technology led directly to the other major factor that fostered a teenage culture: the consolidated high school. Buses could now transport students farther from their homes, leading to the decline of the one-room schoolhouse. Furthermore, Americans were realizing the potential of a longer education, and states were adding more years to their compulsory schooling laws. As a result, a larger number of teenagers were thrown into a common space than ever before. It was only natural that discussions about commonalties would occur. Before long, schools developed their own cultural patterns, completely unlike the childhood or adult experience. School athletics and extracurricular activities only enhanced this nascent culture. The American teenager was born.

On the Web
Jazz Age Slang
The youth of the Jazz Age had their own style. The language was as stylish as the clothes. Take a quick glance at 20's slang on this list of words and phrases and see how many you recognize.
Leopold and Loeb Trial
Were they men or boys? In 1924 in one of the most sensational trials of the century, famed attorney Clarence Darrow stressed the youth of accused murders Nathan Leopold (19) and Richard Loeb (18).
Petting parties abound in college
An interesting essay about "dating" replacing the earlier custom of "courting" and how new fashions reflected new freedoms and also made them possible.
The History of Girls' School Stories
An interesting article about the rise of schools for girls and how education in a school setting created a period of transition between childhood and adulthood for older girls, with different clothes, different literature, and different attitudes. Lots of food for thought.
Like some young people today, teens in the 1920s drank illegally. In 1926, one Yale student testified before Congress on the availability of whiskey.
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Listen to Al Jolson, Bert Williams, Marion Williams and other popular artists of the 1920s.
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