A scene from the set of the movie American Graffiti.

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The Culture and Coolness of the Sock Hop

Historically, the teenage years didn't exist, at least not to the extent that they required an appellation all their own. That started to change, though, when psychologists began recognizing adolescence as a concrete life stage near the start of the 20th century. From then on, society treated teens as a group psychologically distinct from children and adults. The characteristics we often associate with today's teens, however, like rebelliousness, obliviousness and gravitation toward cliques, didn't really go mainstream until around the time of the sock hoppers [source: Marantz Henig, Platt].

As a demographic, young people's priorities, perceptions and practices typically tilt wildly from generation to generation. To read about 1950s America is to witness this giant generational muddle in an extreme, with the older folks often baffled and horrified by the ways of the youth (despite their own Jazz Age teenage years), while at the same time helping to trigger the transition.

Some historians believe the modern teenage mindset was born out of attitudes prevalent following the Great Depression and World War II, as 20th century consumerism and the search for the American Dream took shape. Determined to wring the most out of life, and often spoiled or neglected by parents who had lived through such hardships and were now working hard and prospering, the fun-loving teens of the '50s (and to some extent, the '40s) burst onto the scene with a vengeance.

And while the aftereffects of the Great Depression and World War II undoubtedly affected the generation coming of age following those social upheavals, one can't underestimate the importance of TV for defining trends. In 1950, there were approximately 6 million televisions in the United States; by 1960, that number had soared to more than 50 million -- almost 9 out of 10 households had one [source: Tamazashvili]. The teens of the 1950s those that followed were sucked in by the visual power and connectivity of televisions, which helped fuel conformity and fads.

Beyond simply listening and dancing to rock-and-roll -- as teens could at sock hops -- they now saw these musicians performing live on television, and a wild new incarnation of fandom was forged. They were confronted by a barrage of media meant to appeal to them from an advertising perspective to fish out money forked over by indulgent parents, which ramped up teens' desire to connect with and mimic these real and fictional teenage standards. Automobile sales took off, too, and many teens were given the freedom of the open road -- which also meant the freedom of unchaperoned "parking" at the end of especially good dates. Even the practice of dating in and of itself drastically evolved from past conventions.

It was heady stuff, and all of these factors fueled a culture of teens who could hit the gym floor in socked feet and dance their hearts out, swirling and hopping the night away.