In Search of Youth: The 1920's at New Jersey College for Women - Jacqueline Green, Douglass College '03
The prosperity and isolationism in the United States in the 1920's gave rise to a mass phenomenon that would remain prominent well into the 1930's: the emergence of youth. For the first time, adolescents become known as a separate entity in American society, which had profound effects on their relationship with the rest of the population. The youth phenomenon pervaded nearly every area of life from fashion, to social activities to morals and values creating a unique culture, exemplified by collegiate life. At Rutgers and its sister school, the New Jersey College for Women, the youth culture came to fruition just as it did on many other campuses.
An advertisement for the College Humor magazine reveals the influence of youth at the time:
The musty unused parlor...the funeral wreath ornaments...the gloomy crayon portraits, the locked pianoforte...Gone-and not a wet eye to mourn them! Gone forever...and with them, hollow chest...fainting ladies...and age! The world grows younger and happier everyday. Life now is a pleasant room...made really to be lived in. Youth, and those who love youth, revolve in a whirl of parties and athletics-cyclonic, devil-may-care, but oh, how level-headed and healthy! You find yourself in the midst of this joyous, dynamic life when you read College Humor. Every page sparkles with the color and variety of the quadrangle and the stadium- and of youth outside the campus too.1
Of course not everyone was enthusiastic. According to George A. Coe, author of What Ails Our Youth?,
That they [youth] are somehow different from the young people of "our generation" is a common remark of persons in middle age and beyond. As a rule, this difference makes us of the older generation uneasy. "Something ails" the youth of today. The opinion was in evidence for several years before the Great War, and since the War it has become an alarmed conviction.2
Though opinions on the exact timing of the change varied, it was definite that "the practice of youth became in the 1920's a fully structured, directive, social act."3 It was evident that this period was an important turning point, a critical juncture between the traditionalism of prior times and the permissive sexuality of the new Freudian Age.4 Suddenly in the 1920s, the youth peer group and the collegiate style became a fad as attendance at school became the most engrossing experience for adolescence, and work, church, community, and family became less important5. Even people who were not students wanted to look and act like them. Advertisements and fashions were geared towards youth or those trying to emulate them. Several evidences for this can be found. One is an advertisement for Adler-Rochester Clothes that appeared in the March 1927 Chanticleer,
In style, in fabric and in skillful tailoring, suits and topcoats bearing the Murray label conform to the conservative good taste of well-dressed university men. They present an agreeable contrast to what the sartorial jazz school so quaintly terms "collegiate clothing."6
Similarly, the advertisements appealed to young women. In the October 28, 1927 edition of Campus News, the Mae Mack Beauty parlor declares,
Bobbing is the rate- the fashion now, and not a passing fad. There's comfort, convenience and youthful charm in this stylish cut of the hair. Let us produce a bobbed effect for you that will create a flattering impression.7
College students, who symbolized the essence of youth, were defined as a unique peer group for many reasons besides their fashions, however. From diners to salons to dry good stores, youth was the important and popular group to target. One may wonder what the youth culture that was so attractive to society actually entailed in the college setting.
Campus life in the 1920's and 1930's was relatively carefree. Students focused on three main areas: academics, extra-curricular activities, and social relationships. For many, academics seemed to have lower priority than participation in extra-curricular activities, which historian Paula Fass views as a "critical demonstration of peer group affiliations."8 The 1922 Redbook shows the scope of activities offered at NJC. The events of the year included the Christmas Dance, Mid-Winter Play, Mother's Day, Field Day, Senior Ball, Junior Prom, Sophomore Hop, and St Valentine's, Halloween, and St. Patrick's Day Dance.9 There were also clubs for nearly every interest, including the History Club, the Weepies (a singing group), the governing association, the Quair (the yearbook), and Campus News.10 At Rutgers, many of the same types of groups existed in addition to fraternities, which further emphasized the values of peer society.11 A first-hand account of an NJC student provides some insight into the typical college student's life. In her 1933 diary, Theresa Kerr describes talking with friends, meeting with her boyfriend, and attending events on campus that were part of her day-to-day college life.12
Americans have always been known to be joiners, but during this time period, youth established their own pastimes, clubs, and organizations that, although were not unique in content, were unique in their membership, which included only those of a specific age group.
Another defining factor of campus life was student traditions. At NJC, the students cherished the college traditions such as Campus Night, the Sacred Path, Mom's Day, and wearing a hat at all times when off campus.13 However, the most widely practiced tradition was "breaking in" the freshmen. Students at this time were fiercely devoted to their class year, as evident in this poem:
Seniors wise, Juniors gay,
Freshman green and sophomores blue,
See you here classes four
Look them over, which are you?14
However, despite their usual separateness and competitiveness (e.g. class year athletic contests), the sophomore, junior, and senior classes made a collective effort to harass the freshmen. In the 1928 Redbook, a message to the class of 1932 issues the freshmen several warnings, such as "Freshmen! DO NOT wear the college color, scarlet, at any time during your first year. Woe be unto her that does! Wait until you are sophomores and have the proper dignity." Freshmen were also required to wear a green feather until their "freshness has been turned to wisdom."15 At Rutgers, the class of 1931was greeted with "An Idiotorial of Welcome" in the September 1927 Chanticleer which lamented that Rutgers is cursed with a freshman class. A Freshman Bible was then described to inform the newcomers of the traditions of the college.16
By far, the most fascinating feature of the youth culture that began in the 1920s and persisted into the 1930s was the relationship between the sexes. Prior to the 20th century, informal get-togethers had been the preferred method of socialization, and even earlier than that, courting had been the way to interact with a member of the opposite sex. However, youth in the 1920s adopted two "radical" behaviors that required no commitment: dating and petting.17 Males and females socialized together by dancing the Charleston, drinking, smoking, and being more sexually intimate than young people had been in the past. These practices caused the young generation to be labeled disapprovingly by their elders as "pleasure seeking."18 The dismay about these activities is revealed in the college rules and regulations in the 1922 Redbook, which states that,
"Dancing is sanctioned so long as it remains a clean, wholesome, recreation. No exaggerated type will be tolerated. Vulgarity on the floor will not be permitted...Dancing is clean when the mind is clean. Do not offset the good influences of your college training by thoughtless action when dancing."19
In addition, in the 1928-29 Redbook, unchaperoned automobiling was considered a major offense, along with smoking and drinking.
Nevertheless, women from NJC and men from Rutgers found ways to socialize in both "acceptable" and "unacceptable" ways. In fact, "weekending" between campuses reached epidemic proportions during this period20. Fass wittingly states that there were two kinds of women among college students in the 1920s: sexual women who lived by the rules and those who did not. The Rutgers men also divided women into two categories as is evident from the following poem, "Not so Bad":
Poem, "Not So Bad!" Chanticleer, Fall 1926.21
This poem reveals a significant amount about the relationship between men and women at the time, though it must be taken into account that the source of this poem is a humor magazine and thus, the opinions of the male writers will be exaggerated. Even so, the views generally expressed in the Chanticleer, and in this particular poem, are that women are stupid, out to spend men's money, and either of the goody-goody innocent type who would be reticent to be too physically intimate, or the wild, rebellious type. It is quite likely that the majority of NJC women were viewed as the more traditional type women, strictly ruled by the college regulations, while the town women, whom Rutgers students often dated, may have been more scandalous.
Paula Fass summarizes the changes of the times when she states,
Youth life in college had congealed into a distinct and identifiable social experience still limited to the few in the 1920's but already etching a pattern which would soon bite into the experience of more and more Americans.22
The truth of this statement is evident in the youth culture on campus, which entailed unique fashions, pastimes, social activities, traditions, and relationships between the sexes. The unique culture that developed during the 1920s and continued to exert quite an influence into the 1930s on college campuses and beyond, signified important social changes that were occurring in American society. Adolescents, influenced by the aftermath of World War I and Freud, emerged as their own entity at a critical time in our history. Conformity within the youth culture provided a cushion on which children could make a transition form their young life at home with family to their adult life in the college setting, and many who were not of college age wanted to live vicariously through the youth experience that was a new and exciting development of the times.
Douglass College '03
1 Advertisement, Chanticleer (March 1927.) Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.
2 George A.Coe, What Ails Our Youth (1924) in Paula Fass as quoted in The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, 1977.
3 Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, 1977. p 120.
4 Fass, p. 260.
5 Fass, p. 124
6 Advertisement, Chanticleer (March 1927.)
7 Advertisement, The Campus News. (October 29, 1927.) Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.
8 Fass p 182.
9 The Redbook (1922.) p 8 Special Collections and University Archives,
10 Quair, 1929. Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.
11 Fass, p. 236.
12 Diary, Theresa Kerr. 1933. Mabel Smith Douglass Library Nj Cana Collection.
13 The Redbook (1922.)
14 Quair (1929.)
15 The Redbook (1928.)
16 Chanticleer(March 1927.)
17 Fass p 262.
18 Ibid p 13.
19 Redbook (1922.)
20 Fass, p 205.
21 Chanticleer (Fall 1926.) p 24. Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.
22 Fass, p 123.
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