The high school prom: An American ritual for teenagers

The prom evolved from 19th century royal court presentations to the modern day prom for graduating teens. Photo: All dressed up and ready for the big night at the prom Wikimedia photo

FORT WORTH, Texas May 1, 2013 — Welcome to May and one of the busiest times of the year for flower shops, formal wear boutiques and specialty stores as young people prepare for the prom.

A precursor to graduation the Prom is an American institution. But where did it come from? What is the meaning of the word “prom?” And why do high school seniors even do it?


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First, the word “prom” is short for a Promenade Ball. Youth Voices explains, “During the Victorian era in the United States, when social class distinctions were much more important than they are today, it was not uncommon for members of the upper class to hold grand balls where each guest was announced before entering.” 

Victorian debutantes get ready for presentation at the Royal Court

It is from this culture that colleges in the Northeast began having a Promenade Ball for their graduating classes.

Middle class parents admired the poise and composure of the upper class students and began holding formal dances to instill the same values in their own children.


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According to Pretty For Prom, the first reference to a prom comes from an Amherst College student who wrote in his journal about his attendance at one at Smith College in 1894.  High school proms didn’t start until the early 1900’s.

The first proms were modest parties where students wore their Sunday best and celebrated with tea, socializing and dancing. Yearbooks first mentioned high school proms in the 20s and 30s. At this time they in gained popularity and grew into an annual banquet for graduating seniors.

History of Water Filters describes, Early proms were times of firsts; the first adult social event for teenagers, the first time taking the family car out after dark, the first real dress-up affair, and so forth. Proms also served as picture-taking events, similar to a first communion or wedding, in which the participants were taking an important step into a new stage in their lives.”

The post-war economic boom of the 50’s saw the prom begin to form into what we know today.  Social status could now be increased by being selected to the prom court, wearing the prettiest dress or having the best-looking date. Random History explains, “…expensive prom dresses and fancy tuxedos became the norm, prom became less of a simple gathering of young people and more of a time to show off and be admired.”

Prom court in the 1950s

And while many schools still held the prom in the high school gymnasium, many started branching out to other locales during this time. Most proms today are held at off campus locations and schools in coastal cities even book cruise ships for the event.   

By far the most unusual and dramatic place to have held a senior prom is the White House. In 1975 Susan Ford, daughter of  President Gerald Ford and her classmates  celebrated their senior prom at the president’s mansion.

By the 80s, many movies and books became a testament to the importance of the prom in American teenage society. Since then proms have become much more extravagant than days of old including limousine rental and a trip to the beauty salon for girls to get hair, nails and make-up done. The average prom couple will spend hundreds of dollars for their special night. This includes buying or renting formal clothing, grooming, flowers, prom tickets, photographs, and limousine rentals. 

That’s a long way from wearing one’s Sunday best to a social tea.

Once the dance is over, today’s teens often attend “after prom” celebrations. These events offer students a safe and fun alternative to those places that could include drugs, alcohol, and sex.

Examples of post prom parties include a locked down, all night at school with food, music, fun and games. Lock-ins can be in the school gym, community center or another place that will allow for teen-agers staying up all night eating, dancing and playing. And students don’t have to be popular or have a date to attend these overnight parties either.

It seems that gone-are-the-days of the prom being a place for young people to learn poise and composure. While proms are still chaperoned by teachers and parents, some include security personnel to prevent violence and vice.

In some places, celebrations roll over into the day after as well. The two high schools I attended had traditions of going to the beach the day after prom. Thornridge seniors went to Warren Dunes on Lake Michigan and Brewer students spent the day at Burger’s Lake in Fort Worth.

And what happened to college proms? Many still hold them as well as their high school counterparts.

The first proms in the late 19th century are much different in meaning and style than of those of today. Yet they both represent an important milestone in the lives of seniors as they take their first steps into adulthood.

Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities @ The Washington Times and Greater Fort Worth Writers. Join her on Twitter; Facebook; Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul FB Page; Greater Fort Worth Writers Group FB Page


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Claire Hickey

Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities @ The Washington Times has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. A proud member and Treasurer for the Greater Fort Worth Writer’s Group she is currently working on her first novel.  

 

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