The Surprisingly Humble Origins of Prom

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Ah, prom. From the illicit temptation of underage drinking to the simple beauty of an over-corsaged wrist, the high school formal is an American tradition. But with the end of the prom season quickly approaching, our reader Laura wanted to know where exactly the dance originated. Matt Soniak's got the answer below.

Where Do Proms Come From?

Just in case you were home schooled in a survivalist compound, the prom is a semi-formal dinner and dance held at the end of a high school academic year. Today, the prom is completely inseparable from the American high school experience, and it often features fantastic displays of excess-- dresses with four or five figure price tags, transportation by stretch Hummer, weekend-long after-parties. But that's not exactly how the tradition started out. The first proms were held at colleges and were simple, home-grown events meant to teach good manners. More specifically, the dances got their start in the Northeast in the late 1800's. According to historians, one of the earliest references to prom comes from the journal of a male student at Amherst College who, in an entry from 1894, describes his invitation to, and experience at, an early prom at the nearby Smith College.

How they migrated to high schools is another story. Parents and educators thought that a (heavily chaperoned!) formal dinner and dance would instill social skills and etiquette in young adults, so they started holding their own versions of the balls for the rich and well-to-do. They even borrowed the name; "prom" is a shortened form of promenade, the march of guests at the beginning of a ball or formal event.

By the early 1900s, the prom had spread to high schools. The very early ones were like those held at colleges: the senior class, dressed in their "Sunday best," gathered in the gym for tea and light refreshments, socializing and dancing under crepe paper streamers and the watchful eyes of chaperones. But by the '30s, proms were being held nationwide. The events began to feature a banquet dinner with music provided by a local band or a record player. And in 1936, "The Junior-Senior Prom: Complete Practical Suggestions for Staging the Junior-Senior Prom," the first guide to planning and holding a prom, was published.

Up until the 1950s, proms were still being held in high school gyms. But as the country benefited from the America's post-war economy, proms began to transform into more elaborate events. Gym were abandoned for banquet halls, hotels and country clubs. Of course, the fancier venues necessitated special shopping trips for the perfect prom dress. The emergence of prom dresses, in turn, gave rise to the prom corsage. By the end of the 80s, the prom had taken on almost larger-than-life status, which it  maintains it today-- a far cry from its humble beginnings.

June 8, 2009 - 5:54am
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