A post by Catherine McCann
During our group meeting the volunteers at St. Cecilia’s Hall often wonder how the youth culture of the 1940s compares to the one we know today. Did young people get dressed up like we do? Did girls carry two pairs of shoes with them when they went dancing? Did most people listen to same kinds of music or did different places cater for different tastes? A good place to start would be to understand a bit more about the youth culture in the 1940s.
If we look to historians to help us, historians such as David Fowler argues that the term ‘teenager’ was not coined until the late 1950s. This means that the young people that would have danced at St. Cecilia’s Hall were neither children nor adults. Youth culture, then, was caught in limbo between childhood and adulthood until the late 1950s. Youths had surpassed the age for compulsory education and took up unskilled and semi-skilled employment to earn a wage while they lived with their parents. They lived in a state of dependence and independence as they relied on their families for a roof over their heads but enjoyed spending the money they earned as they willed. It must be said that more young men than young women spent their wages on themselves as girls were pressured to contribute a proportion of their wages to the household for much longer than boys. It is clear then that the youth of the 1940s exploited their ambiguous status within society to varying degrees.
Youths did not spend their money on things that would distinguish themselves as a particular group like what can be seen in the 1950s and 1960s. There were no Mods and Rockers in 1940s but simply youths who wanted to have a good time. In fact, young people copied the styles of their parents because they did not see clothes as a way to express individuality as many young people do today. Instead they chose clothes that would make them look older because they wanted to move into adulthood as fast as they could rather than make the most of their youth while they could.
When the ‘teenager’ did appear in the 1950s it is apparent that this youth culture had decided to reject societal norms of respectability. Teenagers were to be a group that experimented and made noise because they did not neatly fit into childhood or adulthood.
Although the term ‘teenager’ was not coined until the 1950s the beginnings of the ‘teenager’ can be seen in the 1940s. Their high expendable incomes had meant that they were increasingly accepted as a distinct part of the consumer market. Youths had also become a visible part of society because of the disproportionate numbers in comparison to previous generations. Youths also became more visible in society because communal leisure activities such as cinema going and spectator sports boomed during the 1940s. More young people would have been seen during the evenings and weekends as they made their ways to these new forms of entertainment that catered to their tastes and suited their pockets. On Sundays, when these attractions were closed, the ‘Monkey Parade’ of young people made sure that these young people still turned heads. Dressed in their best to impress, young people walked up and down their local streets to catch an admirer’s eye. The Monkey Parade was an early way in which the youths of the 1940s would have courted one another.
The growing popularity of the dance hall in the 1940s was significant in this respect as the dance floor became a new way to attract the attention of the opposite sex. The music that was played at these dance halls was very different from the clubs and DJs that we are familiar with in the twenty-first century. Live music was provided and only soft drinks would be served. There was no such thing as a bar in dance halls during the 1940s. There was, however, American dances and music that caused a stir. In some ways, the teenagers of the 1950s were destined to cause social anxieties whatever they did just as their births did as part of the baby boom.
To conclude, what it meant to be young in the 1940s would have been very different from the present day. Their taste, sense of style and attitude towards spending their earnings was completely different. They cared less about identifying themselves as a distinct group and more about having fun as part of that group.