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From Jazz Babies to Generation Next: The History of the American Teenager

From Jazz Babies to Generation Next: The History of the American Teenager

By: Laura B. Edge
Publisher: Twenty-First Century Books
Publication Date: March 2011
ISBN: 978-0761358688
Reviewed by: Deb Fowler
Review Date: April 12, 2011

Teenagers didn’t always lead the carefree lives they have in recent decades. In fact the word “teenager” wasn’t even in the dictionary until the 1940s. At that point in time society realized the economic punch the younger set had with their expendable income and were targeting this particular age group. Some advertisers called them “teeners” or “teensters,” but ultimately the thirteen- to nineteen-year-olds became “teenagers.” It wasn’t always a time anyone looked forward to because during the 18th century “Children generally entered the labor force sometime after the age of seven.” It was essential to the survival of the family that a child be put to work as soon as possible. City dwellers often found themselves in factories by the time they were fourteen working twelve hour shifts, six days a week.

Child labor laws were not yet into effect, yet young people still found ways to entertain themselves by immersing themselves in dime novels or playing sports. In the latter part of the century, “survival took precedence over fun” and many took to the streets or roads as vagabonds. In 1899 the Juvenile Court Act helped society recognize that “the teen years were a separate stage of life.” Another act, the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, forced children out of the factories and mines and back into schools. It was a time when the youth of America began to enjoy their lives and flocked to nickelodeons, dance halls, penny arcades, ice cream parlors, and amusement parks. Their parents began to object because “hard work was prized as a virtue, time wasted lounging in a nickelodeon was considered pure laziness by some.” Not to worry, they were going anyway.

A clear distinction had been made and “Teens were beginning to form their own distinct culture, separate and apart from both childhood and adulthood.” Teenagers in the ‘20s began to rebel, imitating the flappers or jazz babies. They danced their way through the decade, developed their own way of speaking, changed the rules of fashion, smoked cigarettes, drank, and found ways to entertain themselves with others their age. The eternal love with the movies and budding obsession with the stars was carried over to the next decade of teenagers in the ‘30s, but the Great Depression would put a damper on teenager’s lives. Shantytowns arose as a result of the Crash of 1929 and some “250,000 young people left home and wandered the country looking for work.” There were still ways to have fun and comics, games, books, movies, friends and the radio “were important means of escape.”

The ’40s saw the older teens signing up for war and the child labor laws were temporarily set aside. Teenagers were working and “had money to spend” and like their teen predecessors they found many ways to spend it. Big bands and swing music became “central to teen culture.” America’s first “teen idol,” Frank Sinatra wowed the “bobby-soxers.” Once again the older generation began to speak of bad influences inflicted on their teens. The teenagers handed over their baton to those in the ‘50s who became “clean cut or greasers” and found the likes of James Dean and Elvis to adore. Drive-in movies, cruisin’ and rock and roll dominated their lives. Television quickly began to be the “center of family life for many people.” Not everything was as simple as poodle skirts because things began to rumble with Brown v. the Board of Education.

When the ‘60s arrived, “Nearly half the population was under the age of twenty-five.” It was a decade when teenagers “believed their actions mattered to society.” The music scene exploded and the lyrics expressed their dissatisfaction with society, a society that began to change under their influence. They protested Vietnam, fought for civil rights and “began to openly challenge their parents. The teenagers of the ’70s were clearly a separate entity in society and with the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which “made eighteen the standard voting age,” were more powerful than ever before. Title IX gave “girls the same opportunities to play team sports as boys” and they began to divided themselves into social groups. There was the “jock, weirdo, popular girl, bad boy, and nerd.” The teenager had arrived and soon technology would transport the teens of the ‘80s and ‘90s into a world that their counterparts in previous decades could never in a million years ever imagine existed. The “digital age” had arrived.

I was absolutely mesmerized with this book. It was very well researched and captured perfectly the essence of teen culture going back many decades. The cover belies the amazing content the reader will find in the book. The photographs, all black and white, capture the teen segment of society from the 1880s up into the 2000s. Perhaps the most poignant was the one of a beautiful teenage girl working in a South Carolina mill in 1908. It was interesting to “watch” as the power and influence of the teenager grew throughout the years. This is not only a book that the teenager would enjoy, but also “teenagers” of long ago, their elders. In the back of the book is an index, a timeline (1880 to 2010), expansive source notes, a selected bibliography, and additional recommended book, website, and screen resources to explore.

Quill says: This is an astounding book on the history and evolution of teenage culture.

Feathered Quill

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