What Your Grandmother Was Like as a Teenager

Posted by Ancestry Team on April 17, 2015 in Family History


[Image: Shutterstock]

The concept of “teenager” being a distinct part of life complete with its own lifestyle — let alone one with time to sit around texting on their phones — is a 20th-century one that didn’t really exist until about the 1940s.

Prior to the 1900s, many young people left school and worked, either on the family farm or at a job. But by 1900, some children were staying in school longer than before.

In 1895, the Connecticut State Board of Education actually started issuing certificates showing proof of age for children over 14 because children under 14 could no longer legally work. (These certificates list the child’s name, parents’ names, date and place of birth and evidence of age and are available at Ancestry).

And then came some other changes that altered societal conditions quite a bit.

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1. The Automobile

The early years of the 20th century saw the automobile age gearing up, and that led to changes in how young people lived. Before, when a boy was interested in a girl, he was invited to her home to have dinner with her family. He might sit in the parlor with them as they all listened to the radio together. At the end of the evening, he and the girl might spend a very short time together, unchaperoned, on the front porch.

Once boys had automobiles, though, those traditions were out the window. Dates were unchaperoned, and teenagers had about as much freedom, mobility, and privacy as they wanted. Anything could happen.

2. High Schools

The automobile culture at the start of the 20th century led to another big change: the end of the one-room schoolhouse. Americans started seeing the importance of more education for their teenagers, and buses could carry them greater distances. So towns built centrally located high schools and brought large numbers of older students to one location. All of a sudden, there were athletic teams and extracurricular activities, and this togetherness fed the growth of a teenage culture that hadn’t existed before.

3. Media

And, of course, people noticed this newly emerging group and its buying power. Marketers, advertisers, and other media began targeting, supporting, and creating trends and fads. Teenagers and their unique lifestyle had arrived.

4. The Decades

The 1920s were called the “Roaring ’20s” or the “Jazz Age.” World War I had recently ended, and the economy was booming. Many people left school young, at 14 or so, and started into full-time careers. Fashion had become much less Victorian, tight, and formal. Young people were listening to jazz music and going to dances. Teen spirits were high.

In the 1930s, the Depression hit, and times were hard for just about every family. Many teens left school to help their families on the farm. Jobs were scarce; people made do with what they could grow, gather, or make themselves and with very little money. A quarter of a million teenagers in the U.S. — mostly boys but a not-insignificant-number of girls, too — took to the rails and rode freight trains across the country. Many of them were looking for work.

The 1940s brought the U.S. into World War II, which also meant rationing and planting victory gardens. Many teens worked after school and helped with the war effort (collecting scrap metal or selling war bonds, for instance). For fun, they had sock hops, danced the “jitterbug” to big bands, and frequented soda shops.

In the 1950s, the war was over. Parents who had lived through two wars and the Depression wanted more for their children and encouraged their teens to attend college and prepare for a career. Their teenagers had more independence, opportunities, and freedom than ever before. It’s also when rock ‘n’ roll music hit, and that, too, changed the teen climate, initiating what was considered an almost insurmountable “generation gap” between parents and teenage children.

Start a free trial of Ancestry to search census records and discover whether your ancestors were in school or working as teens.

—Leslie Lang


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