Written By: Ben Cosgrove
In late 1948, LIFE revisited a topic that the magazine had covered a number of times in previous years, and would delve into again and again over the next several decades: namely, teenagers. More specifically, the mystifying habits, lingo and fashion choices of teens around the U.S., from Detroit to Des Moines to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.
As LIFE wrote in that 1948 article, titled simply (hyphen and all), “Teen-Agers”:
Every year as school begins boys and girls from 12 to 20 start scurrying around like squirrels after nuts, looking for games to play, new clothes to wear and new songs to sing. Every year by Christmas they somehow manage to figure out a different twist for almost every ordinary thing, like hats and handshakes, dates and dances. [Now] LIFE takes a look around the country to answer the annual question about teen-agers: what are they up to now?
In Atlanta on Thursday the boys have nothing to do with the girls and the girls have nothing to do with the boys. In Des Moines Tuesday is a special day. On Tuesday the boys wear GI shoes to school. In Detroit the boys go in for crazy haircuts, and in Seattle some football players wear hair curlers at night. This year’s fashionable word for a jerk, square or schmo is “geek” in Detroit, “mole” in Philadelphia, “pine” in Atlanta, “tweet” in Chicago, “snook” in Des Moines, “tube” in Los Angeles and “scurb” or “T.W.O” (Teensy Weensy Operator) in Washington, D.C.
Sometimes . . . the teen-agers have to be content with exaggerating the fads that were left to them by their elders. . . . Last year they liked to dance languorously to slow music; this year, with the exception of some pace-setters in California who are reviving the Charleston and the black bottom, they move even more slowly, dragging themselves at a walk around the dance floor.
And so it goes. One would think, reading the article in LIFE its tone one part scornful, three parts amused that the editors of the famous weekly had never been teens themselves. Then again, as the modern notion of the teen years as a quantifiable life stage didn’t exist in full until the early 1940s, perhaps LIFE’s editors were never teens, after all. What lucky moles, snooks and tubes they were.
Finally: Note that “Popular Guy” Earl Reum, who is featured in many of the pictures in this gallery, evidently went on to become what a tribute website calls “the ‘Master Wizard’ of student leadership training.” Dr. Reum died in 2010. Read tributes written by many people whose lives he touched.