Teenagers: Youth in the Fifties

America’s First Teenagers: Youth in the Fifties

Author: Barbara Diggs

When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to be a teenager. To my mind, when I reached that magical idyll, there would be a never-ending stream of convertible cars outside my house, a closet full of poodle skirts, and a stack of 45s, to which I would dance in my bedroom, between dates at the soda shop. To be sure, I would be asked by a handsome college student to “go steady” and would sport his fraternity pin or letterman jacket with pride. I got excited just thinking about it. Being a teenager of the ‘50’s would be so much fun!

Unfortunately, when I was doing all this daydreaming, it was already 1978. My vision of teenage hood had been led badly astray by retro 1950’s television shows such as “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” and, of course, the film “Grease.” There would be no saddle shoes or sock hops in my future –the big hair and acid wash jeans of the late ‘80s awaited. I have always felt a bit cheated.

But was I? Had I been a teen in the ‘50s what would it really have been like?

The term “teenager” was scarcely heard at the start of the 1950’s, but by the decade’s end, the word rolled off every American tongue with ease. The teens of the ‘50’s were the first teen-aged youths to stand out as a distinct group with interests, fashions, musical tastes and economic power of their own. Their rise to prominence was largely because, unlike the youth of previous generations, the youngsters of the 1950s were unencumbered by responsibilities brought by world war and economic depression. In the 1950s, America was as prosperous as it ever had been; the morale of the white middle-class was high, and parents, smilingly indulgent. For the first time, young people had both the money and the freedom to do what every generation of teens since has expected as its right: have fun.

And fun, they had.

The average white middle-class teen in the 1950’s often engaged in the type of wholesome activities for which they are so well remembered. They hung out with their friends at malt shops, “necked” at drive-in movies, and gathered around the television with their families – only one set per household in those days – to watch respectable programs such as “I Love Lucy” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Teenage boys – from slick-haired “greasers” to cardigan-wearing preppies – spent ample time salivating over the increasingly sleek and sporty cars that were being churned out each year. Girls swooned over pin-ups of teen idols like Troy Donahue and Fabian, and consulted newly inaugurated teen magazines for advice on dating or fashion.

Perhaps if the teens of the ‘50s had gone no further with their exploration of fun, perhaps the world would be a different place. But America’s first teenagers clearly wanted more than wholesome fun. And when rock ‘n rollers such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley burst onto the scene, teens were ready. They latched onto rock ‘n roll’s reckless, thrilling beat and refused to let go. With the advent of rock ‘n roll, and a spate of movies featuring disaffected teens (most notably being James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause”), America got its first taste of teenage rebellion.

Most parents were appalled. Rock ‘n roll, with its powerful beat, gyrating singers, and sexually suggestive lyrics, was considered to be utterly unsuitable for children. The fact that such music also had strong roots in the African-American blues and gospel traditions made it all the worse. It was denounced by conservatives as “jungle music” or “Satan’s music” – which made the teenagers, in true teenage form, crave it all the more. Record producers were happy to oblige them. Teens flocked the record stores, dropped millions of dimes in the jukebox, and joyfully jitterbugged away in thousands of high school gyms across the nation. And as the song goes, rock ‘n roll was here to stay.

Naturally, life in the ‘50s wasn’t one sock hop after another. Teens spent most of their time in school, and were constantly pressured to conform to society’s extremely conservative standards. One such method of pressure were the frequent showing of “mental hygiene” films in schools. These 15 minute films (with titles such as, “Keep off the Grass”, “Are You Popular?” and “Safety or Slaughter”) attempted to steer – or frighten – young people away from drugs, sex, slouching, speeding, or anything that might render them socially unpopular. The consequences for teens that veered from the norm were severe: an unwed pregnant teen would quickly find herself a pariah; homosexuality could result in a jail sentence; an interracial relationship would practically guarantee ostracism from everyone, including your own family.

But, overall, Happy Days wasn’t outrageously far off the mark. Few teens stepped far beyond their social boundaries, and life for a white middle-class teen was good fun.

However, for me, the question remains – had I been a teen in the ‘50s, what would life have been like? I am black. What was life like for the average African-American teen? Would I have worn a poodle skirt? Gone to a sock hop? With such racially charged and conservative times, would I have – could I have – had fun?

“Of course!” said my mother indignantly, when I asked. “We were teenagers!”

The average black teen, although painfully aware – and often brutally reminded – of the pervasive racism in America, had their own happy days. Like their white counterparts, black teenagers of the ‘50s, laughed with their friends, wore saddle shoes, penny loafers and swing skirts, listened to 45s, and watched wholesome sitcoms with their families. They danced at parties, took “home economics” or “shop” in school, and a small percentage applied and went to college.

Rock and roll was well-liked among black teens, but many teens, especially those in big cities, often preferred the smooth, harmonious sounds of black “doo-wop” groups such as the Clovers, the Platters or Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Doo-wop was a recent permutation of rhythm and blues, a form of music that originated in the black community and had been long enjoyed by parents and kids alike. However, doo-wop in particular was a teenage thing, as it began with groups of young inner-city black males gathering on street corners or on front porches to make up songs and sing a cappella for their friends.

Although white and black teens shared many similarities in pastimes, fashions and musical taste, the two situations were not “separate but equal.” The ‘50s are often characterized as an age of ‘youthful innocence’, but black teenagers were all too aware of their vulnerability to the ugliness in the world. Fourteen year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered and mutilated in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Nine courageous teenagers endured taunts, violent threats and gobs of spit, for daring to be the first blacks to integrate an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Popular dance programs, such as American Bandstand and the Milt Grant Show, would not, at least initially, allow black and white teens to dance in the same studio. Black teenagers could not help but be aware that white America considered them vastly inferior, and that straying over racial boundaries could have humiliating and/or devastating consequences. Nevertheless, a flutter of rebellion was growing in the hearts of many black teens. And in the sixties, this rebellion would converge with the discontent of white middle-class teens, to explode into a revolution that would alter the course of America’s history.

In the end, I wasn’t “cheated” by not being a teenager in the ‘50s. Even though I missed out on some pretty cool fashions, music and cars, I still ended up with the best thing America’s first teens left behind: the fruits of their defiance. Perhaps if the teens of the ‘50s had not taken those initial, rebellious steps away from a culture of conformity, I would not have experienced a teenage hood that was a rich and unfettered mix of cultures and experiences. But they did, and I did, and I am grateful.

I just wish I could have worn a darn poodle skirt.



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