By Greg Clark, May 16, 1931
The wife of one of the prominent members of the Ontario legislature brought her little girl to the opening ceremonies in Queen’s Park this spring. The little girl would be about thirteen years old.
But she did not have on a little girl dress. She wore a gown. A ball gown. Right down to her toes, which peeped out in satin slippers. And on her shoulder she wore the proper bunch of flowers.
She was not even a miniature of a lady. She was a lady full size.
And her presence at this magnificent social function created greater stir than the speech from the throne. Nothing that happened during all the past session was nearly so exciting.
It is not an isolated case. But it was a sort of declaration of a new dispensation.
In the communities round about Toronto, in Newmarket, Oshawa, Oakville and the numerous centres where social activities are concentrated enough to be grasped with the eye, the blossoming forth of fourteen and fifteen-year-old girls into gowned and slippered ladies is a phenomenon of the year. Eighteen is the age of debut. For a century, the “coming out” party has been the goal and ambition towards which girls crept slowly through the interminable teens. To this day, the discovery in Toronto of a girl who “came out” before she was eighteen is an impossibility.
Bat the younger generation of girls seem to have lost patience with stiffly organized society. They are developing an organization of their own. No more charades and musical chairs. No more blind man’s buff, which was considered a smart evening’s entertainment for the ‘teen age lassies in dimity frocks a dozen years of age.
Children’s parties now mean tuxedos and gowns. The big caterers in Toronto admit that the menu of ‘teen-age parties now differs in no respect from that of a Conservative association dance. No more ice cream and cookies. Chicken patties, cress rolls, coffee and, aye, even – hors d’oeuvres!
The situation is more acute in the smaller suburban communities than in the city itself. At one children’s dance, in a town not a million miles north of Toronto, some fifteen-year-old city girls were invited out by former misses’ school chums and they arrived with their party dresses. They were shocked and dismayed to discover that all the young ladies of the suburbs were arrayed in satin slippers, dance frocks and all the regalia of the elder generation.
“This is my first dance,” admitted one of the city girls.
But the social secretariat of Government House, Toronto, when asked what age limit is put, by this supreme social arbiter in Ontario, on girls invited to Government House balls, had to say that there is no age limit.
If eighteen years is the official age for a girl to be “out”, then seventeen-year-olds, if they can command a dance frock from their startled parents, are “out”, too. And it is not at all out of the way for sixteen-year-olds to be sharing in the joy of Government House dances.
Young Ladies at Fifteen
Both the big hotels confess that, in the past couple of years, they know for a fact that fifteen and sixteen-year-old girls have appeared in considerable numbers at the numerous dances and balls of the season and have carried themselves as gracefully and maturely as any young woman could do.
The big stores, the makers of formal frocks, announce with some glee that they are making the finest garments for younger girls than they ever had to fit before.
Col. William Michell, senior and directing high school principal of Toronto, a bachelor, and therefore a dispassionate and life-long observer of the fair sex in its ‘teens, unhesitatingly allowed that the girls of Toronto are stepping far past the ‘teenage boys.
“A fifteen-year-old boy is still a boy,” said this shrewd educationist. “But a fifteen-year-old girl is a lady, and not only expects to be treated as such, but really is a young lady. I believe there is something in what you say – that in recent years, girls have advanced in spirit and in mental poise far beyond their years.”
Fathers no longer take their fifteen-year-old daughters to the parties and call for them at a quarter to eleven. Because one of the characteristics of the case is that the fourteen and fifteen-year-old girls are pairing with the seventeen and eighteen-year-old boys. The first form girls find their dancing partners in the fourth form boys. Their young Lochinvars, resplendent in tuxedo, call with a car. And after midnight, the car comes roaring to a stop in front of the house, where papa and mamma are waiting behind the front curtains.
The first form boys, alas, are only boys. They are ordered to bed at ten. And if you mention the word girl to them, they blush and say, “Aw, heck!”
But the case is not without its embarrassments.
At one children’s party last month, one young lady of fifteen, carried away by the glorious consciousness of her gown and her high heels, and recollecting her big sisters, somehow got a cigarette, and in the innocence and show-off of that delightful age of fifteen, proceeded to be the queen of the castle at the party by dancing by with cigarette in fingers.
An adult present reached forth indignantly and snatched it from her. He then reported to the host, who was hiding himself in a bewildered way in front of the fireplace in the living room. And the host congratulated the crusader for his courage.
However, at another youthful party, when the host himself commandeered a cigarette from one of the young swains, half the party good-naturedly and cheerfully retired to an upper room where they locked the door; and all enjoyed a smoke!
The psychology of that, of course, is obvious. The next day, the younger members of the family would be apologizing left and right for the behavior of their elders. Old-fashioned parents, after all, are acts of God.
We may evade the issue by saying to ourselves that these manifestations are superficial, that there always were a percentage of children more advanced, that grandmother was married at eighteen, and that thank goodness the great multitude of children are just plain children and wear middy blouses and accordion pleated skirts still.
Look about you. Look at the girls passing each morning on their way to high school.
Middy blouses, like plus fours, are sport costumes, kept in the school lockers!
Dr. Munthe’s Mystical Theorizing
There are other explanations, vague theories, it is true, standing afar like mountain peaks in that dim country of Nature and Human Nature of which we know so little after all these centuries of ignoring the humanness of Nature.
In his wonderful and most entertaining book, “The Story of San Michele”, Axel Munthe, a great European nerve specialist and doctor of the mind and spirit, quotes such psychologists As Kraft-Ebing and Freiborg to the effect that after exhaustive wars, all through human history, there followed, in Greece, in Rome, in Europe of the middle ages, a startling reaction, in which men became effeminate and the women grew dominant.
Dr. Munthe was amazed both at the Messina earthquake and the terrible epidemic of cholera in Naples, at both of which he labored as a doctor, over the astounding manifestation of love-making that broke out in the very midst of these destroying holocausts. While the human race seemed to be in the throes of destruction in the cholera outbreak, he beheld young men making desperate love to young ladies, though the spectre of death stalked in their midst. At Messina, where with an anger and violence beyond belief, Nature shook a whole countryside to dust and ashes, he beheld the most elaborate serenading, the most desperate wooing.
“It was as if Nature,” says this mystical nerve specialist, “in the moments that she destroyed the race, inspired in hectic fashion, the spirit of preservation of the race.”
He believes that the race of men is no different from the race of pigeons or rabbits, and that Nature moves unconscious in them, causing them to do things on a vast, racial scale, in automatic response to certain causes.
So he comes to this aftermath of war. We had a war. It involved some millions of men of the western world. It killed and maimed some millions of them. It drove stark fear into the souls of millions of women. It sopped the tears from millions more.
To think that such a squeezing and yearlong straining of the hearts of humankind would not have some effect on those hearts is unthinkable.
Are the little girls of fifteen who wear dance frocks and high heels in Toronto today unconsciously answering some far, faint call of the great Mother? Are the parents who stand bewildered by the development of their children rendered numb and helpless by some mysterious spiritual drug blown on the breezes of the world by Nature?
Dr. Munthe, in his thought-releasing book, says that through all history, great wars have been followed by periods of effeminacy amongst the rising generation of men. It may be a reaction due merely to boredom with the war stories of their daddies. Or it may be, as Dr. Munthe says, one of those cyclic efforts of Nature to restore a balance. The men of the race, having exhausted themselves with war and wasted their time in hard, unprofitable things, are turned automatically to the softer aspects of life, to creative things, to dreaming again, and thinking: to art, to law, to philosophy, and those essential parts of life which have been sadly neglected during the time of strife.
And by the same token, the girls of the race are made strong, made lively and adventurous. You might upset Dr. Munthe’s mystical theorizing about Nature by saying that the girls merely seem more lively in comparison with the boys, who are reacting to the boredom of war as expressed in the bayonets, tin hats, pictures and souvenirs that clutter up the mantel piece, and eternally inspire their daddies to reminiscences of a bloody kind.
An Invasion of Nature
But Nature having lost its boldest and bravest in war may, argues the psychologist, speed up the future mothers of the race, to be bold, active, courageous and selective. In times of peace, the girls sit demurely at home and are sought out and wooed by the young men. In times of recuperation after a mighty waste, the girls wake up and come out of their Victorian swoon and do a little active selecting themselves. When good men are few and dreamers are many is no time to sit and wait for a reasonably suitable young man.
The other day there was a tag day. At six o’clock in the morning, into King street Childs there swooped a troop, a platoon, a raiding party of some thirty or forty young girl taggers for an early morning breakfast. It was apparently a rendezvous of one group of taggers for the start of the day’s assault.
Half of them were under eighteen. Some of them were not much over 16. But you could not tell their age by their clothes, because they were all smartly arrayed in the very smartest of early summer costumes, suits, ensembles.
Now, if this mystical theory of the unconscious invasion of Nature were right, I might have expected to hear deep, sonorous voices from these militant taggers. But what filled the restaurant to the deafening point was the high, squealing pandemonium that always accompanies any number of girls from four in number up.
How natural they were! But how keen and competent, the way they got their breakfast, the way they sat about the tables chattering and planning. If your wife is thirty or forty, you know how diffidently and shyly she comes into a restaurant. Or into church.
But these wee girls, radiant, with no sleep in their eyes though it was just the break of day, were alive, vital; and I felt myself wishing, in a kind of hopeless way, that these had been our bond salesmen, our executives, our young go-getters, so that the world could feel the force, the lance, the drive of their vibrant spirits.
There are two things we can do. We can rouse ourselves from our drowsiness and DO something about the younger generation. We can obstruct, rant, hinder, deprive. We can lay down the LAW. We can assume our responsibilities, as one mother of sixteen year-olds said to me in connection with this story. She assumes her responsibilities by making pals of her daughters. What a pal! And she is wearing herself to frazzle trying to do it, and though she is an old friend of mine, I must confess there is a sort of what we used to call “baby talk” creeping into her everyday conversation and making it rather terrible to deal with her.
She spends a lot of time keeping young, taking exercises and treatments. She has responded splendidly to those face cream advertisements. For her children’s sake, she is keeping young.
Yes, and at the same time, having not a bad time.
But I wonder if the two gals do not secretly talk to each other and wonder how much longer they will have to keep it up before they wear mamma out.
But if, as Axel Munthe says, it is the mighty Mother Nature who is back of it all, performing one of her vast, invisible movements, as invisible as the moving of the hands of your watch, or the unfolding of these little leaves of spring – then, dear relics of the past, there is nothing we can do.
Save wait to marvel at our grandchildren.
Editor’s Notes: When speaking of “coming out” in this era, it meant “coming out to society“. It was considered a rite of passage for upper class girls to transition to women.
“To make love” also is different from current usage. It means to make amorous approaches to; to romance.
Jim provided the illustrations to this news article.