Historians and social critics differ on the specifics of the timeline, but most cultural observers agree that the strange and fascinating creature known as the American teenager — as we now understand the species — came into being sometime in the early 1940s. This is not to say that for millennia human beings had somehow passed from childhood to adulthood without enduring the squalls of adolescence. But the modern notion of the teen years as a recognized, quantifiable life stage, complete with its own fashions, behavior, vernacular and arcane rituals, simply did not exist until the post-Depression era.
Here, in the first of a series of galleries on the evolution of LIFE magazine's — and, by extension, America's — view of teenagers through the middle part of the 20th century, LIFE.com presents photos that the inimitable Nina Leen shot for a December 1944 article, "Teen-Age Girls: They Live in a Wonderful World of Their Own."
Leen focused on a group of 12 girls, from 15 to 17 years old, living in Webster Groves, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.
(Note the hyphenated phrase, "teen-age." By all accounts, it would be several years before the word as we spell it today, "teenager," would make an appearance in the pages of LIFE. The word "teen-agers" itself, meanwhile, likely made its debut in print in a 1941 issue of Popular Science Monthly.)
In its December 1944 feature, LIFE breathlessly discussed the "teen-age" phenomenon in language that, in 2013, somehow feels naive, chauvinistic, celebratory and insightful, all at once. That so many of the article's impossibly broad, sweeping claims ("Some 6,000,000 U.S. teen-age girls live in a world all their own: a lovely, gay, enthusiastic, funny and blissful society. . . .") clearly apply to a specific type of teenager — i.e., white, middle-class — tends to blunt some of the more incisive observations. But taken as a whole, the LIFE article and Leen's photographs constitute a fascinating, early look at a segment of the American populace that, over the ensuing decades, for better and for worse, has assumed an increasingly central role in the shaping of Western culture.
As LIFE stated the case to its millions of readers in 1944:
There is a time in the life of every American girl when the most important thing in the world is to be one of a crowd of other girls and to act and speak and dress exactly as they do. This is the teen age.
Some 6,000,000 U.S. teen-age girls live in a world all their own — a lovely, gay, enthusiastic, funny and blissful society almost untouched by the war. It is a world of sweaters and skirts and bobby sox and loafers, of hair worn long, of eye-glass rims painted red with nail polish, of high school boys no yet gone to war. It is world still devoted to parents who are pals even if they use the telephone too much. It is a world of Vergil's Aeneid, second-year French and plane geometry, of class plays, field hockey, "moron" jokes and put-on accents. It is a world of slumber parties and the Hit Parade, of peanut butter and popcorn and the endless collecting of menus and match covers and little stuffed animals.
American businessmen, many of whom have teen-age daughters, have only recently begun to realize that teen-agers make up a big and special market. . . . The movies and the theater make money by turning a sometimes superficial and sometimes social-minded eye on teen-agers.
Their new importance means little to teen-age millions. By their energy, originality and good looks they have brought public attention down from debutantes and college girls to themselves. Moving through the awkward age, the troubles of growing up, their welter of fads and taboos, they eventually become — in the judgment of almost every Western nation — the most attractive women in the world.
Then again, perhaps that particular discussion is best left to another series on LIFE.com -- one looking at, say, LIFE's portrayal of women through the years?
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.
Society's Low Expectations Of Teenagers Essay
Did you know that elephant owners in Asia can keep their elephants in their yard with a simple piece of twine and a post in the ground? I’m sure you’re probably thinking, “How is that possible? Elephants are strong, smart, and have potential to do huge things.” The answer has nothing to do with the twine and the post; but it has everything to do with the twine around the elephant’s mind. The thing is, teenagers are a lot like elephants. We are strong, smart, and have incredible potential, but somehow we are held back by a tiny piece of string, held back by a lie; the lie that teenagers are rebellious, good for nothing, lazy bums. Today I am going to be talking about how this lie affects the relationship between adults and teenagers, the relationship between God and teenagers, and finally the relationships teenagers have with each other. If everybody, adults and teenagers alike, work together we can get rid of this horrible lie.
First I’m going to talk about how this lie affects relationships between adults and teenagers. Here’s the problem; adults don’t expect enough out of teenagers today. When I was doing research for this speech, I came across the website parentingteens.com. This website popped up first on Google, so it must by good. Right? WRONG! I went to the “setting up expectations” section by author, Denise Witmer. The list of expectations is pathetic! For pre and young teens, the expectations are making your bed everyday, being able to take a phone message, and cleaning your room once a week with help from Mom and Dad. (parentingteens.com) There is a warning at the top of this list saying that these expectations might be overwhelming and too much for your teen, so just pick one to start with! The list for older teens isn’t much better. The expectations are the entire preteen list, just one daily chore and cleaning your room once a week with no help. (parentingteens.com) Wow! That could be tricky! I don’t know if we could handle all of that! In the book “Do Hard Things” by fellow teens Alex and Brett Harris, they say, “The world almost expects less out of teenagers than they do of toddlers!” (Harris, Do Hard Things) Sadly, that statement is undeniably true. The problem with adults having low expectations of teenagers is this, we as teenagers live up to the expectations we are given. If adults believe the lie that teenagers are rebellious good for nothing lazy bums, we teenagers are going to live up to be just that.
Teenagers that are presented with low expectations from their parents or other authority figures are more likely to make bad choices and rebel. Did you know that the majority of teens that drink had their first sip of alcohol when they were only ten years old; and that today there are three million teens suffering from alcoholism? (about.com) Did you know that the average age for teenagers trying marijuana is 14? (Drug Statistics) However, I believe the worst statistics involve teen...
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