Teenage rebels, pre-1950 -- what did they look like?

The earliest teenage rebel that I can picture in my mind is the 1950’s “greaser”. What would they have looked like in the 1940’s – Zoot suiters? What about the 1900’s thru the '30’s? Did teenege fashion even exist before the '50’s?

The concept of “teenager” as a subculture (and a word) did not exist until the mid-20th century. I don’t know if that means there wasn’t actually a teenage subculture, but no one thought of it as such.

During the '30s there was the depression and then in the 40’s there was WWII, both of which cut down on the number of teens, until the 50’s. I was born during the depression, but was not a teenager until the 50’s. There weren’t that many of us, but times had gotten better. When the 60’s arrived the baby boomers were becoming teenagers and things have never been the same since they did.

Funny you should ask this question today, as just last night TCM showed the B-movie Youth Runs Wild (1944), about teenagers with too much time on their hands when their parents are off working second and third shift at the wartime defense factories. This must have been a topical issue, because it was part of an early cluster of wartime juvenile delinquency films that included Are These Our Parents (1944), Delinquent Daughters (1944), The Beautiful Cheat (1945), Youth Aflame (1945), and Youth on Trial (1945).

To expand on what Zhao Daoli said, teen subculture in America first became notable in the 1930s. As this site relates, the Great Depression added significantly to high school enrollment and graduation rates.

Hollywood gave us both sides of teen culture: the delinquent side was represented by the dockside teenage gang in the Broadway play turned “A” picture Dead End (1937). The gang were later known as The Dead End Kids and The Bowery Boys. The good side of teen life was featured in the M-G-M’s successful Andy Hardy series starting the same year.

If you think about it, before “teenagers” as a concept existed, rebellious young people were probably pretty much invisible. A lot fewer people finished school even in the 1930s than in the 50s,* and those that didn’t grew up fast – right into the workforce (or the unemployment line).

Kids seldom had much if any disposable income staying at home. On their own, they’d have struggled just to live. They might runaway and work, or look for work, or go be hoboes (another group whose ranks swelled during the depression, and most were just kids). There just wasn’t enough money around to allow for shenanigans like ganging around on motorcycles.

As the war put money into workingclass pockets, juvenile delinquency became a new kind of problem – not of money, but social normlessness. Add that to the more conservative lifestyles post-war, and the youth rebellion really built up steam.

*I have somewhere a Look magazine survey taken in 1940 on “Reasons for Leaving School.” Most common reason: the need to go to work. Graduation was about fifth.

Teddy boys were more along the line of young men then teenagers.