Every spring, millions of teenagers across the United States take part in a quintessentially American rite of passage known as the high school prom. Experienced by rich and poor, black and white, Jewish and Catholic, Californians and Virginians, prom night is arguably the most widely shared of all modern American rituals. Certainly, it is one of the most talked about. Though the exact format varies, a traditional prom involves high school students in tuxedos and gowns coming together for a formal dinner-dance. Corsages, limousines, favors, photographers, and post-prom festivities are all standard extras. Depending on the location of the school and the age of the participants, proms are held either in school gyms and cafeterias or in hotels, country clubs, and banquet halls. Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior Proms tend to be less extravagant rehearsals for the all-important Senior Prom, the final social gathering of a graduating class.
Though popular historical imagination, influenced by films like Back to the Future (1985) and Grease (1978), remembers proms as a product of the 1950s, they in fact long pre-date that legendary era of bobby socks and drive-ins. In Philadelphia, home to many of the nation's oldest public, private, and parochial schools, proms first emerged in the 1920s and rapidly replaced "Senior Play and Dance" evenings as the high school social events of the year. By the 1930s, proms were commonplace, their rise in popularity linked to several interwoven factors, including ongoing urbanization and industrialization, the expansion of secondary education, the rise of "youth culture," and, stemming from all of the above, the mass dissemination of prom stories.
Tales about the glories and mishaps of prom night were first published in the pages of high school magazines which were then exchanged between educational institutions throughout the nation. Early twentieth-century student journalists were extremely zealous about this new event and appear to have regarded prom attendance as an essential marker of good citizenship. "If You Don't Like This," quipped the headline of a 1931 article on the merits of prom night, "Go Back to the Country Where You Came From." There is evidence to suggest that these early proms served an important unifying function, especially in city schools filled with first and second generation immigrants from around the world. Certainly then, as now, prom night was constructed as having been synonymous with "Americanness."