Teenagers are now one of the most powerful demographic groups in the world. Multi-million dollar ad campaigns are designed around their tastes in music and fashion as corporations the world round fight tooth and nail for their business. Yet this term is relatively new, having been coined near the start of the last century and rising to prominence by the 1950s. To help better understand this sometimes confusing period of all our lives, and to help draw parallels between our parents’ teenage years and our own, the Waterloo Region Museum has recently launched a new exhibit called Coming of Age that examines the lives and the culture of adolescents in Waterloo Region from the 1920s to today.
“This notion of a four- or five-year period where you continued on in high school and had a life of your own separate from your family and parents is a fairly recent phenomenon,” said James Jensen, curator of exhibits at the museum.
“Prior to that you were going to school until you were about 14 and then you got married and got a job and went to work.”
The exhibit spans nearly a century of teenage life, from the fashion of the roaring ’20s to video game consoles from the late-’70s and early-’80s. It fills nearly 2,000 square feet of space at the museum, and Jensen said they made a real effort to set it apart from typical museum displays.
“It’s very colourful,” he said. “People think of museums as dark and grey, with lots of old, rusty items, so it’s bright and it’s colourful.”
Items ranging from old phonographs and record players, to televisions and sporting equipment fill the display cases, and period music plays in speakers overhead to give visitors a better sense of what each era sounded like.
“When you walk in its big-band and crooners, and when you walk out it’s the Black Eyed Peas,” Jensen laughed.
The museum consulted with Cynthia Comacchio, a professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University who specializes in social history and is the author of The Dominion of Youth: Adolescence and the Making of a Modern Canada, 1920-50.
She has been working with the museum for the past two years to get the exhibit ready, and said the task presented her with a unique test.
“The stuff I write is dense and academic, so it was a challenge to write for a mainstream audience without dumbing it down because that is really offensive to the audience, because they’re not idiots.
“They did a wonderful job with the exhibit.”
So how did teens rise up to become such an influencing factor in everything from the music on the radio to the clothes on our backs?
Comacchio said that a major shift occurred in the 1920s where instead of looking to adults to set trends, teens were the ones dictating the direction of fashion and popular culture. She said that was largely due to new technology, such as the phonograph, the automobile, radio, and later, television.
“Young people are really the forerunners in adapting technology and applying it to popular culture. Because they’re young they’re the first to grab on to the ‘new’ and then the ‘new’ goes mainstream.”
That phenomenon has a direct link to Waterloo Region, home to one of Canada’s most active and thriving technology sectors. Comacchio admits she was surprised by just how tech-savvy the region has been for the past century; despite the popular misconception that the rural area stifled technological advances, the opposite occurred.
Fashion that was being worn in Montreal and Toronto was easily accessible in Waterloo Region, the area was home to one of the first privately-owned private radio stations, and cinema caught on quickly, she said.
In turn, that inspired and contributed to the growth of the tech industry that now calls Waterloo home during the latter half of the 20th century.
“That’s nothing new. That’s not just about the digital revolution by any means. The historical roots go way back,” she said.
“It’s not all about RIM,” she added with a laugh.
Ironically, the hardest part of the entire exhibit was collecting artifacts from closer to the modern era. Jensen said that museums tend to “forget” to collect those items until 30 or 40 years has passed, meaning some of the items from the ’80s and ’90s were trickier to find – and more difficult for Comacchio to research.
They both are optimistic that the exhibit, which will be on display for the next couple of years, will help bridge a gap between youth, their parents, and their grandparents.
“There is so much that we have in common that tends to go out of focus because we start saying ‘the youth of today’ in a negative way, but we’ve always said that,” said Comacchio.
“Adults have always said that, and young people have always said that their parents don’t understand them.”
The Waterloo Region Museum is located at 10 Huron Rd. in Kitchener. For more information call 519-748-1914 or visit www.waterlooregionmuseum.com.