The Surprisingly Humble Origins of Prom

iStock/shoresidephoto
iStock/shoresidephoto

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.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.