How Bobby-boxers Worked

In the mid-1940s, one shining star among the constellation of contemporary crooners burned a hole through teenage girls' ears and right into their young hearts. Frank Sinatra's smooth vocal cords could set off riots in those days, and when he played at New York's Paramount Theater in October 1944, hundreds of police officers had to quell the 30,000 ravenous teen fans waiting to hear "The Voice" [source: The Paley Center]. The girls going gaga over Frankie were collectively called "bobby-soxers" in reference to the white, folded-over ankle socks they wore. Although stereotyped in contemporary media as vapid fangirls, bobby-soxers set the tone for American teenage culture, complete with celebrity-worship, trend conformity and detachment from adults.

The September 1944 launch of Seventeen magazine served as official recognition that teenage girls had became their own consumer group -- and a valuable one at that. World War II industrial production had reinvigorated the U.S. economy, shaking loose the cobwebs of the Great Depression and putting more money in everyone's pockets. Teenagers benefited from the boom as well, receiving allowances that they spent at the movies, in soda shops and going to concerts to see their favorite bandleaders and singers of the day. Recognizing the spending and trend-setting power that this newly recognized group wielded, Seventeen magazine and its advertisers set out to simultaneously understand this fledgling demographic and mold its tastes.

Shirley Temple served as a great example when she starred as the consummate bobby-soxer in the 1947 hit "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer." Outfitted in bobby socks, saddle shoes and poodle skirts and spitting out slang of the time, such as "jeepers," Temple epitomized the headstrong adolescence of mid-century teenagers. Swooning for leading man Cary Grant as passionately and fervently as a 15-year-old girl at the Paramount Theater might have reacted to Sinatra, Temple's role offers a slightly satirized view of the upper middle class world of the bobby-soxer, who had money in her pocket to spend where she pleased and new advertising and mass media chaperones to oversee her developing consumer choices. For as much as the history of bobby-soxers is about the lives of teen girls in World War II-era America, it's also a story of how popular culture and advertising permeated that peer group for the first time.

Frank Sinatra and Bobby-soxers

The 1940s music that floated through the airwaves and into the minds of teenage bobby-soxers was that of big bands, such as the Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras. It was also the era of the heartthrob male crooners, who often transitioned from the stage to the screen, where fans could see their crushes in action. Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney and Van Johnson were a few of these leading "croon cats," but they paled in comparison to the king of the crooners, "The Voice" himself: Frank Sinatra [source: Fitzpatrick]. Sinatra started out with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, then left to pursue a solo career. By 1943, Sinatra had become the apple of seemingly every bobby-soxer's eye, singing to a swooning crowd of 10,000 at the Hollywood Bowl [source: Kidder and Oppenheim]. Not surprisingly, in 1944 -- the year of his riot-inducing Paramount Theater performances -- the official Bobby Soxers of America organization voted Frankie their "Man of the Year" [source: Woloch].

Predecessors to the hoards of screaming, fainting Beatles fans that would fill concert halls and stadiums a generation later, bobby-soxers became known for swooning over Frank Sinatra and other male celebrities. Swooning was a public display of infatuation that involved girls groaning and dramatically flailing their arms before placing their hands on their foreheads or cheeks and ultimately falling to the ground, overwhelmed. One former bobby-soxer recalled to the Paley Center for Media how she and her friends used to kick off their saddle shoes, play Sinatra records and "practice swooning" [source: Paley Center]. Fan clubs, celebrity magazines and movies fueled bobby-soxers' obsessive crushes -- not to mention record album and concert ticket sales.

Some fretful adults interpreted bobby-soxers' hysteria over Frank Sinatra as a sign of burgeoning sexuality and were concerned at the lusty sentiments young girls expressed for the bowtie-wearing troubadour. Psychologists warned parents about the hypnotic power of Sinatra's voice that apparently compelled one extreme fan to attend 56 straight performances over an eight-day period [source: The Guardian]. Fortunately, Sinatra's married status kept him enough at arm's length that the teenage swooning wasn't seen as a direct threat to his bobby-soxer fans' innocence [source: Paley Center].

As Sinatra's bobby-soxer fan base aged, his immense popularity waned, but didn't disappear. And just as the bobby-soxers established a long-lasting career for one the best-known stars in American popular culture, the trends they followed and items they bought along the way affirmed the collective power of the teenage consumer market.

Bobby-soxer Fashion

A gang of bobby-soxer pals would certainly be easy to spot at a soda shop or movie theater because of their uniform-like outfits that revolved, of course, around ankle socks, which replaced stockings when nylon became necessary for producing World War II supplies [source: Peterson and Kellogg]. Typically, bobby-soxers would wear their ankle socks with saddle shoes, penny loafers or ballet-style slippers. A Shetland sweater with cuffed blue jeans or a poodle skirt, along with a trendy identification bracelet bearing a girl's name or initials, completed the classic bobby-soxer ensemble [source: source: Woloch].

Fashion conformity was a cornerstone of bobby-soxer culture, because unlike preceding generations, these teen girls were fixated on fitting in. LIFE magazine reported on this facet of the bobby-soxer mindset in the early 1940s, observing that "the microcosm of their gang is everything" [source: Woloch]. That adolescent angst over their appearance makes sense, considering that they were interacting every day in school more than ever before. In 1900, only 11 percent of teenagers in the United States attended high schools, whereas almost 80 percent of them were doing so by 1940 [source: Inness]. In addition to allowances doled out by parents, teen girls funded their wardrobes and extracurricular outings with pocket money earned from babysitting, a grassroots industry that would only pick up after the baby boom began in 1944 [source: Forman-Brunell].

Although most bobby-soxers weren't working full-time, their disposable incomes didn't escape the attention of advertisers and popular media. Leading the pack of teen taste-makers, Seventeen magazine served as the bobby-soxers' how-to manual for clothing, cosmetics and hairstyles [source: Inness]. And in a landmark effort to understand the consumer wants and needs of the average bobby-soxer, Estelle Ellis, who headed marketing research for Seventeen magazine at its inception, surveyed teen girls around the country in 1945 about their spending habits, interests, education and aspirations. That "Life with Teena" survey (named as a wordplay on "teenager") revealed, among other things, that these girls spent a bulk of their baby sitting profits and allowances on movies, candy, soda, lunch and entertainment [source: Smithsonian Institution].

Thanks to the launch of Seventeen magazine and its interest in what appealed bobby-soxers, marketing and popular media directed toward teens only continued to grow. Though bobby-soxer fashion faded away in the 1950s, along with that collective crush on Frank Sinatra, a new teen market had been born.

Lots More Information

Related ArticlesSources
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  • Forman-Brunell, Miriam. "Babysitter: an American history." NYU Press. 2009. (Aug. 11, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=KnaKW5zvkUgC&dq=bobby+soxer&source=gbs_navlinks_s
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