In 1900 teenagers did not exist. There were young people in their teens, but there was no culture or institution that united them or fostered peer group development on a societal scale. While some worked at home, on family farms, or in factories or offices, others attended school. Still more married or prepared for marriage. One hundred years later, in 2000, teenagers were impossible to avoid. There were more teens than ever before and their cultural presence was undeniable. They existed not only as high school students, but as highly sought consumers, carefully watched as trendsetters in FASHION, music, and MOVIES.

In the public imagination teenagers first appeared after World War II, complete with distinctive dress, habits, and culture. The period before 1950, however, proved crucial for the formation of teenagers in the United States. After 1900 reformers, educators, and legislators began to separate teens from adults and children. The legal system created JUVENILE COURTS. State and federal governments legislated minimum age requirements for sexual consent, marriage, school attendance, and work, and later for voting, driving, and drinking alcohol. Often inconsistent, some legislation further divided teens by gender. Girls, for example, could marry younger than boys, but could not legally consent to sexual activity until later.

The dramatic rise in HIGH SCHOOL attendance was the single most important factor in creating teenage culture. High school, based on biological age, reshaped the experiences of thirteen- to eighteen-year-olds. Between 1910 and 1930, enrollment in secondary schools increased almost 400 percent. The proportion of fourteen- to-seventeen-yearolds in high school increased from 10.6 percent in 1901 to 51.1 percent in 1930 and 71.3 percent in 1940. Graduation rates remained low but still rose from 29.0 percent in 1930 to 50.8 percent in 1940. The number of African-American teens in high school was lower, but also rose at a steady rate and by the early 1950s, more than 80 percent of African Americans aged fourteen to seventeen were enrolled in school.

As enrollment grew, the student body changed. No longer an elite institution, students increasingly came from all socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial groups. Educators redesigned rapidly expanding schools to foster responsible citizens, promote social order, and, during the Depression, to keep teens out of the labor market. High schools also promoted unsupervised peer interaction.

During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, some manufacturers, marketers, and retailers also began to recognize high schoolers, especially girls, as consumers with purchasing power and style preferences. Simultaneously, teenagers began to develop a "teenage" identity and recognize their collective strength. Social scientists and parents also engaged in the extensive dialogue over the nature of ADOLESCENCE, high school, and the growing concept teenager. Scholarly work, popular advice, and parental strategies emerged alongside the developing high school culture and teen CONSUMER CULTURE. Gendered differences remained–literature on boys emphasized education, work, and rebellion, whereas literature on girls addressed behavior, appearance, and relationships. Media also played an important role, often defining teenager as female. Media served to promote teenage trends by offering publicity and a national means for reaching other teens. But by the early 1940s, the BOBBY SOXER stereotype dominated, which negatively portrayed teenage girls as mindless worshipers of celebrities and adolescents fads.

Recognized as separate from the adolescent, the teenager more closely related to high school culture. Use of the words teen, teener, teen-age, and even teenager first appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. They referred to thirteen- to eighteen-year-olds, increasingly conceptualized as a distinct cohort in media, popular literature, and advertisements. As teenage culture emerged, teens used mass-produced commodities to imitate adults, but they also used them to create fads and to define themselves as teenagers.

See also: Consumer Culture; Youth Culture.


Austin, Joe, and Michael Nevin Willard. 1998. Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America. New York: New York University Press.

Inness, Sherrie, ed. 1998. Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls' Cultures. New York: New York University Press.

Palladino, Grace. 1996. Teenagers: An American History. New York: Basic.

Schrum, Kelly. 2004. Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls' Culture, 1920–1945. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.