History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
The world of dating has always been perilous, but teens in the 1940s weren’t left to figure it out on their own. They had a little help in the romantic arts, via educational “mental hygiene films” that parents and teachers hoped would help them find their way in an increasingly complex world.
Following World War II, America was in social upheaval. Men were returning home from the battlefield, women were returning (willing or not) home from the workforce, and everyone was trying to figure out what life after war would look like. Around the globe unrest continued as countries began picking philosophical sides in the brewing Cold War.
With more propagandistic qualities than acting or cinematic merits, these films tried to give teens some certainty about what their roles should be.
Coronet Films was launched by the co-founders of Esquire magazine and became one of the more prolific players in the genre. From the late 1940s to the mid-70s (with a trickle of school movies continuing into the early 90s), three decades of students were indoctrinated in school with the behaviors society expected of them with titles like 1949’s “Dating Dos and Don’ts.”
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Director Ted Peshak was responsible for over 300 films, covering a a range of social issues includingAre you Popular? (1947), Are You a Good Citizen? (1949), Appreciating Your Parents (1950), Control Your Emotions (1950), Going Steady? (1951), Improve Your Personality (1951), and Choosing Your Marriage Partners (1952).
As these titles show, dating was of particular concern in the 1940s and 50s when the romantic stakes seemed higher than ever. By 1950, the average age of first marriage according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census dropped to 20 for women and 23 for men. The rules governing courtship became stricter as well.
With the single-minded focus on finding a spouse beginning at an even earlier age, dating etiquette dictated not only how teens should act—the man always initiated the engagement and picked his date up, at which time he would generally meet her parents—but also how the relationship would proceed. It was during this time that concepts like going steady and getting pinned took hold as teens began dating only one person at a time, rather than entertaining multiple dates as their parents had.
Videos like Dating Dos and Don’ts provide a window into an antiquated era of teenage courtship and formal social rules and roles. Outside of the classroom, these impressions are supported by the popular culture at the time, as the 1950s kicked off an era of shows like Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, and I Love Lucy.
But it’s also important to remember who was making these films—the adults. The videos were, at least in small part, wishful thinking on the part of grown-ups hoping to shape—and control—the behavior of the next generation.
“The approach may have calmed the fears of mid-20th-century educators, but it plays havoc with our notions today of what life was really like in, say, 1952,” Ken Smith, author of Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970, wrote in The New York Times in 2000. “But it bears remembering that there would have been no need for mental hygiene films if the young really had behaved so pleasantly.”