A short history of the American high school Prom

The Senior Prom: This youthful American rite-of-passage ritual has its roots in the throne rooms of Victorian England.

Corsages complete the lovely modern prom ensemble. (Photo: Kevin Kenny/Flickr)

FORT WORTH, Texas, May 30, 2016 — Flower shops, formal wear boutiques and specialty stores are busy for the months of May and June. School is almost out and seniors have started graduating but before Commencement they go to their long-awaited prom.

As well as 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 do it?

First, the word “prom” is short for a Promenade Ball. According to Youth Voices

“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.”

Debutantes about to be presented to royalty at their Debutante Ball.
Debutantes about to be presented to royalty at their Debutante Ball. (Image in the public domain)

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.

According to Pretty For Prom, the first reference to 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 1900s.

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 1920s and 1930s. At this time they in gained popularity and grew into an annual banquet for graduating seniors.

History of Water Filters notes

“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 1950s saw the prom start its transformation into the event we’re familiar with today.  A student’s social status could now be increased by being chosen for the prom court, wearing the prettiest dress or having the best looking date.

Random History observes

“…. 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.”

While many schools still hold the prom in their high school gymnasiums, many others have started branching out to stage the event in other locales. Off campus venues now include hotels, banquet halls, sports stadiums or any other place suited to hosting a ball. Some coastal schools even celebrate the event on cruise ships reserved for the event.

By far the most unusual and dramatic place to have held a senior prom is the White House. In 1975 the Secret Service had security concerns about the prom venue for Susan Ford, daughter of President Gerald Ford. The answer: Susan’s prom was held at the president’s mansion.

By the 1980s, numerous movies and books became testaments to the enduring importance of the prom in American teen-age society. Since then, proms have become considerably more extravagant than in days of old, including fancy limousine rentals 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 on their special night. This includes buying or renting formal clothing, grooming, flowers, prom tickets, photographs and those ubiquitous limousine rentals.

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

Prom dresses have come a long way since the mid-20th century
Prom dresses have come a long way since the mid-20th century. (Vintage advertisement, public domain)

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

Examples of post prom parties include a lock-down all-nighter at school with food, music, fun and games. Lock-ins can be in the school gym, the local community center or any other place that permits  teen-agers to stay up all night eating, dancing and just having a good time. Even better: 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 an opportunity for young people to learn poise and composure. While proms are still chaperoned by teachers and parents, it’s a sad fact that some of these events also add security personnel to the mix to deter violence and vice.

In some places, prom celebrations roll over into the day after as well. The two high schools I attended had a tradition of heading for 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 colleges still hold them in addition to their high school counterparts.

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


Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul here at CDN and in 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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