It is once again upon us; that century-old ritual of courtly grace and sequins! Prom!
Prom, short for 'promenade,' has been around since the late 19th century. Starting at colleges, the dances served as a more egalitarian version of the ever-popular debutante balls cherished by the upper classes. The dances were fancy, but usually more high tea than black tie. Because proms served as socialite training grounds, it makes sense to see them listed in Brooklyn Life's "Dances" section along with the other society happenings. The magazine, published weekly for Brooklyn's upper crust and now digitized on Newspapers.com, had a section devoted to which fancy person traveled to which fancy country and another detailing which lucky young lady took a ride with which handsome young man (and his mother, inevitably). Think one step down from Downton Abbey, Brooklyn style. (Netflix, I'm going to need that show created. Thanks.)
Brooklyn Life Magazine 1915.
The only proms that appear in the news (be it the Brooklyn Daily Eagle or Brooklyn Life) around the turn of the century are those held at elite girls' schools. The first mention of a prom in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle can be found in 1897 in reference to the Packer Institute, originally one of Brooklyn's preeminent all-girls schools. Along with the Packer Institute, there are many refrences to the Berkeley Institute (now the Berkeley Carroll School). Girls High School makes an appearance in the early 1910s.
In 1915, Brooklyn Life described the Packer Senior Prom: "...the members of the class of 1915 transformed the gymnasium in which the dance was held into a bower of green with blue conflowers and yellow tulips intermingled, showing the class colors. In the library a cheerful fire was blazing, lighting up, with the glow of electric lamps, the couches and cozy corners around the room." The magazine also wrote that "preceding the Packer Institute 'Prom' on Friday evening of last week, Mrs. Horace L. Rutter gave a dinner for her daughter, Miss Kathleen S. Rutter, who was the head of the 'prom committee'" (Brooklyn Life Magazine 20 Feb 1915). Being on the committee looked great on a society resume and often netted you a beautiful photo in Brooklyn Life.
Brooklyn Life Magazine 24 Feb 1923.
The Brooklyn Collection has a great collection of dance tickets from the early twentieth century, most from social club gatherings like the ones listed above in Brooklyn Life . The cards illustrate the popularity of dances and society parties and provide an interesting window into the social life of middle- and upper-class Brooklynites of the day. I was hoping to find a ticket or invitation to a prom, so I started flipping through the binders.
Apparently, there was always a reason to dance.
Third Annual Halloween Dance, Bath Beach Olympics, Inc. 1932. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Dinner-Dance, Lincoln Social Club, 1938. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Look! It's a "Lincoln Eve" dance! I'm throwing one of those next year.
First Annual Dance, Hob-Nob Club, 1938. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
And then I found what I was looking for:
Brooklyn Tech Junior Prom Card, 1932. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
An invitation to Brooklyn Tech's junior prom, held in the Jade Room of the Brooklyn Elks Club on Livingston Street. The attire is specified as "Informal - Red and Gray Collegians" and the cost is $1.50 per couple.
The 1930s and 1940s saw proms move into the mainstream, popping up at schools across the borough. As reported in the Eagle in 1943, "At Namm's party and fashion show held yesterday in the Colonial Room on the third floor the loudest applause was for a prom party dress of heavenly blue, the satin bodice trimmed with narrow pleating and the skirt of yards and yards of matching net. Priced at $16.95. A single string of blue pearls at her throat and a gleaming white gardenia in her hair completed this graduate's costume" (30 December 1943). The 1950s, with the rise of the "teenager," the suburban dream, and the disposable income, proms became more involved affairs replete with taffeta and tulle.
"Prom Delights." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1949. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle documented a few 1950s proms, like the one below at Prospect Heights High School.
McNamara, C.E. "Seniors Take Over." Brooklyn Eagle 1954. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Sadly, proms aren't always fun and games. For one, someone always cries at prom. Always. But, in all seriousness, there is certain antiquated feel about many of the customs involved in the evening. Aspects of prom feel very traditional and tradition can sometimes get in the way of progress.
You might recall the 2010 story of Constance McMillan, a lesbian student in Mississippi who asked to attend her prom with her girlfriend who was also a student at the school. The school board refused to allow her to attend unless she came alone or brought a male date. In the end, the school board cancelled the prom entierely. Just last year there was a story of the first integrated prom in Abbeville, GA. The battle for inclusivity has also been fought right here in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 22 April 1920.
In 1920, six young women were told they could not attend the Girls High School prom because of the color of their skin. One of those young women had a fairly famous father: W.E.B DuBois. When DuBois was notified that his daughter was barred from the dance, he and other parents and distinguished community members went to speak with the principal, Dr. William L. Fetter. The paper reported that the concerned parents "got no satisfaction from him." The parents then went to see the superintendent who was "astounded when he learned the facts of the case." Thus, the principal was given an ultimatum: cancel the prom or integrate it.
Dubois' daughter attended the prom.
The last paragraph of the article reads: "A suggestion was made that in leiu of the prom, a theater party be held for the colored girls, but that was voted down." Youbetcha it was voted down! Separate is not equal, not then, not now.
We wish all students a safe, memorable, and inclusive prom!