Teenagers in the 1920s had a lot in common with today's teens. Just as today's teens are celebrating a new century filled with excitement and promise for the future, the teens of the 1920s also celebrated the marking of a new century and all the promise of tomorrow. Known as the "Roaring 20s," "The Jazz Age," and other nicknames, this was an era of romance, excitement, and America coming into a more modern age.
Teenagers in the 1920s Danced Too
A popular activity among tweens and teens today is dancing. Artists such as Silentó have come up with hit songs and all the right dance moves to compliment the lyrics. Teens in the 1920s also had dances that were popular and provocative for the time. Some of these dances were brand new while others were simply updated steps for older dances.
Favorite dances of young people during this era included:
- The Charleston - bending and straightening the knees to the beat with periodic heel kicks
- The Foxtrot - the new name for an old dance, the One-Step; young people added hops with every step
- Tango - involved close contact between dance partners and took on a "gaucho" style
- Shimmy - a shaking of the upper body
- Black Bottom - involves side-to-side stepping and more individual performance
- Slow Waltz - a partner dance with close physical contact
Although they may not have enjoyed quite as much freedom as many of today's teens do, teenagers in the 1920s were able to loosen up a bit. Historians from U.S.History.org suggest, although the term wasn't used then, the idea of "teenagers" started in the 1920s. During this time you see more stark differences between older and younger children, making them two distinct groups.
Gone were the constricting long dresses and corsets from earlier in the century and replacing those were shorter, flapper style dresses. Many girls wore stockings with the longer skirts. Teen boys wore bomber jackets and tried to look like the fighter pilots from World War I.
Adolescent girls' fashion followed women's fashion because it was the style for young girls and women to dress alike. A 1920s teen girl wardrobe typically included:
- Fun hats
- Drop-waist, loose dresses
- Wool skirts
- Blouses with wide collars
- Patent leather party shoes
- Suits in patterns and light colors like gray, blue, or tan with round lapels and loose pants
- Colorful striped shirts
- Lace-up dress boots
The country was doing well financially and going through a boom in the 1920s, so most teenagers could easily find jobs. Many chose not to finish school, because they did not need a high school education to find a job paying livable wages. Because of this, many teens grew up more quickly and lived on their sooner than teens do today. According to npr, 1 million 10-15 year olds had jobs in 1920. That accounts for about one in twelve kids, half of whom worked on family farms. Other common jobs include being a messenger or working in manufacturing.
Model-T Fords were readily available in a stripped down, no frills version that was affordable for many families. Most families had only one automobile, but teens were often allowed to use them for social purposes on occasion.
The invention of the automobile also meant kids could be transported further to school, so consolidated high schools started to form. One-room schoolhouses were no longer acceptable and preferred for educating older adolescents. Time magazine reports that by the 1920s about three quarters of adolescents went to high schools.
Teens in the 1920s were spending four nights each week enjoying unsupervised recreation with friends and peers, according to Time. The invention of the automobile helped revolutionize teen dating because these young people could now date in private, rather than in front of their parents. Adolescents in families with cars were often permitted to drive to:
- Go to the movies or a vaudeville show
- Get ice cream
- Get Coca Colas
- Drive around leisurely
Differences Between 1920s and Today's Teens
There are some marked differences between teens in the 1920s and teenagers today.
- Technology: Teens in the 1920s didn't have cell phones, iPods, or laptop computers, and didn't use a lot of technology. In fact, many did not even have telephones in their homes, and there were no televisions to distract them either. Teenagers spent time listening to radio shows and music, socializing with friends, and in the pursuit of various arts and studies. Late in the decade, young people could also enjoy movies with sound for the first time.
- Education: Education was not as revered in the 1920s or as essential as it is today. Many teens took on full-time careers as young as 14 and quit school. Higher education was available, but not as readily. It was much harder for women to get into college.
- Gender Roles: Although 1920s teen girls did have quite a bit of independence, women and men had very separate roles to play in society. Women were expected to get married and raise a family, although it wasn't required for survival as it had been in centuries past. Nevertheless, most girls married and started families rather than pursuing careers. However, women like Amelia Earhart offered the hope that they could really do anything they set their minds to.
- Music: Jazz was extremely popular in the 1920s. Ragtime and Broadway music was also a favorite. The sound included a lot of brass instruments and soulful notes. Popular artists included Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, Mamie Smith, and Edith Day.
The Start of Teenage Years
To describe teens in the 1920s is to describe an overall attitude of the people at the time. Everyone was ecstatic over the end of World War I, the new technologies, and booming economy. Things became more relaxed, even fashions. While there are similarities between the teens of the 20s and today's teenagers, the 1920s was a unique time in history that will never be fully repeated. However, we are left with hints of independence and a hope for the future that all started in the second decade of the twentieth century.