Running Wild: College Students in the 1920s

By Mrs. Parker

 Copyright 2004 by Michele Gouveia. All Rights Reserved.

“The average young person of today is not bound by the strict conventions which governed the actions of previous generations.”—Unidentified Denver Coed, Sunset Magazine, 1926.

John Held, Jr., "The Sweet Girl Graduate," Life, June 3, 1926. Note how she is lighting her ciggie with her diploma.

During the Victorian age, few people outside the wealthiest families attended college, and even then it was primarily men. World War I saw a change in this trend. With general malaise among the youth who looked to the future with a new cynical eye, they turned to universities to study and to have fun. Men and women in the 1920s began attending classes in record numbers and college applications soared. By the end of the decade, 20 percent of college-age Americans were enrolled in college.[1] This change altered not only the make-up of U.S. college campuses but marked a turning point in the lives of young people; for now on, they would throw off their elders’ shackles and make an impression on the face of their country. Young people for once were making headlines instead of their parents.

She doesn’t drink

She doesn’t pet.

She hasn’t been to college yet.—1920s joke


Some 1920s college Seniors.

Female Students: One of the biggest changes on college campuses were the number of women in attendance. This increase (in 1920 their number peaked at 47 percent[2]) not only challenged the way both male students and faculty approached the classroom but influenced many of the new activities popular on campus.

The new female student debuted in the pages of popular magazines. The healthy Gibson Girl of the teens who had been portrayed playing tennis or studying was replaced with John Held Jr’s Betty Co-Ed, a stick thin, shingled hair flapper who was dedicated to having fun more than studying. While the majority of female students didn’t attend class in full flapper gear, many of the “vices” attached to the flapper model were embraced by the young women.

One of the hottest debates on campuses was about smoking. Although women had begun smoking in public, it was still highly frowned upon in most circles. Yet young women saw smoking as a symbol of their new found freedom. The increase throughout the 1920s in female-student smoking resulted in the creation of anti-smoking rules on many college campuses (male students, of course, were still allowed to puff away) and expulsion for many. After four students were ejected from a women’s seminary in the Midwest, the administration said that smoking “did not make them ‘bad girls’ but claimed that such behavior would undermine commonly objectionable practices.”[3]

Female students also shocked their elders by drinking illicit alcohol and attending petting parties (more on these later). Much of this was made possible by the fact of distance between the young women and their families. Living away from home in dormitories, even with their curfews and strict guidelines, allowed women more freedom than they could ever have gotten living at home.

“The man who has taken no part in the social side of college life usually comes a very long way from having all the characteristics that the world implies in the use of the term “a college man.”—Daily Illini, May 19, 1922


Some 1920s college Seniors.

Academics: College students in the 1920s followed a primarily class curriculum, studying English, mathematics, science, and history. Foreign languages were required of most students with Latin still being mandatory at the top schools. One difference was an increase in business classes that were offered, indicating a change in what students expected to receive from their schools.

Unlike today’s college students, striving to achieve good grades was not the main goal for most students in the 1920s. A “C” was the average grade[4] and exerting a lot of efforts on your studies won students few friends. For example, a “grind” or “grund” was a student who spent his time studying and was generally thought of as boring. In many situations, it was the connections to fellow peers and the activities that they participated in outside the classroom that were of the utmost importance to students. At the University of Chicago, for example, more than one third of the students spent less than 35 hours combined a week on going to class and studying.[5] This compares to the more than 20 hours spent on recreational activities.

“What horrible little conformers you are…and how you loathe anyone who doesn’t conform! You dress both your bodies and your minds to some set model.—Percy Marks, The Plastic Age (1924)

Fitting In: Not so different from today, the youth of the 1920s, while seeing themselves as rebelling against their parents’ Victorian guidelines, were just as conformist in their own ways. Styles were adhered to religiously and much of the slang of the time derived from stereotyping people based on their dress sense. F. Scott Fitzgerald lists the differences between the “Slicker” and the “Big Man” on campus, with how one combed ones hair being the main defining line.

While female students began bobbing their hair, few appeared on campus with rolled stockings, swinging long ropes of pearls. Instead, they wore acceptable dresses (trousers would have to wait a few more decades for most college campuses) and skirts. One trend was the wearing of colorful bandanas, around the head and the waist. It was also popular to don yellow rain coats and to wear ones galoshes open. This latter trend is commonly credited for the invention of the word “flapper,” describing the way the shoes sounded while walking.

For men, a jacket and tie were de rigueur for class. But letterman sweaters became increasingly popular as the attention to college sports took off. And the best-dressed man on campus would have a raccoon coat to wear at night and knickerbockers for the weekends. Hip flasks were also extremely popular, a nod to Prohibition.

Slang: Each generation invents their own slang—a code of sorts to separate them from their parents. College students contributed much of the slang of the 1920s, some of which is still used today.

Smooth: well-dressed male student

Doggy: well dressed but self conscious male student

Joe Brooks: perfect dresser

Joe Zilsch: average student

Wife: steady girlfriend

Dragging: taking a girl to a dance

Mule: alcohol

Hoot: something quite amusing

Oodles: a lot of something

To tub: to take a bath[6]

College Humor magazine, 1925.

Dating:  The 1920s saw a new sexual boldness in youth. Petting parties became quite common on most campuses, and many young women of the 1920s could claim to have kissed more men than their Victorian sisters. So much dating occurred on college campuses that at Northwestern, female students made a pact to have set dateless nights so they could actually get some studying done.[7]

The automobile had a major influence on dating in the 1920s. Newly enclosed cars afforded youth privacy. Whereas in the past, a boy might court a girl at her home under the watchful eye of a family relation, now he could take her for a ride, alone. Joyriding became a popular pastime, and dating a boy with an automobile was highly desirable.

Yet this new sexual freedom did not mean that wanton orgies occurred on campuses. Most young women still held out for the idea of love and marriage. The main difference between them and the Victorians was that they often condoned sexual favors if they were involved in a serious relationship (e.g. leading to an engagement). At the University of Southern California, a group of female students created an “anti-petting” league yet conceded certain sexual favors. “She must kiss and squeeze and be kissed and squeezed by only a man to whom she is engaged.”[8]

The 1928 Tufts University Football team.

Athletics: Of all the activities that college students participated in, involvement with sports was high on the list. While sports have always been popular in America, they took center stage on college campuses in the 1920s. Gathering to support ones school team became the main event of the week on many a college campus. In fact, the majority of college students attended at least one sporting event weekly, one of the few student activities that were actually college-sanctioned it should be noted. Football was undoubtedly the most popular sport in the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was cut from Princeton’s team on his first day, stayed a rabid college football fan his entire life, often calling up the Princeton coaches late at night with advice on new team strategy. Women athletes were also allowed to participate in more sports although they were not considered in the same league as their male counterparts.

Other Recreations: College students in the 1920s had many forms of entertainment to choose from. Parties, often referred to as brawls, rubs, or work outs, were frequently held. These often involved bootleg liquor but not always. Performing music was still a popular holdover from the previous generation and many a young co-ed was able to pluck out a few hit tunes on a ukulele.

Dancing was also in vogue with the Fox Trot, the Lindy, and the Charleston being the most popular. Even the Tango gained some popularity after being demonstrated by Rudolph Valentino in one of his pictures.

Motion pictures were eagerly attended, with most college students having favorite male and female leads. The output by Hollywood was so great, that most students could see a new feature each week. And the darkened cinemas were a boon for dating.

The 1920s also saw a craze for new games. Mah jong was all the rage while many a young person experimented with the mysterious Ouija board (spiritualism having become hugely popular after World War I). And crossword puzzles, which had debuted in 1924, were to be found in most college dormitories.

  “An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Intellectualism: While college students in the 1920s were out to enjoy life, they were also serious at times. Their decade saw incredible leaps in science and thinking. The college student of the 1920s was able to follow the Scopes Monkey Trial, discuss the writings of Freud, and argue about Bolshevism.

They were also witness to the greatest decade of literature to ever be produced in English. Novels such as Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920), Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), and Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat (1924) were best sellers. Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay became a role model for countless female students.

But the author who influenced college students the most was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose debut novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), about life at his beloved Princeton, became the defining novel for the youth of the 1920s. While many adults were enraged at the amount of kissing and other flagrant disregard for morals exhibited in the novel, others, such as Princeton president John Grier Hibben, took offense at Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Princeton as “the pleasantest country club in America.”

Other popular novels depicting college life followed: Walter Fabian’s Flaming Youth (1923), and Percy Marks’ The Plastic Age (1924), “exposes” on the lurid side of college life were popular as well, but Fitzgerald was the quintessential college novelist.

“We’re just one generation—we’re breaking all the links that seemed to bind us here to top-booted and high-stocked generations.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise.

Although their actions might appear tame by today’s standards, college students of the 1920s stood up against their parents’ morals and stepped boldly into the new modern world. While they often appeared to be running wild, their influence in America made youth culture, for the first time in history, a dominant force to reckoned with for generations to come.


[1] Hawes, Joseph M. Children Between the Wars: American Childhood 1920–1940. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997, page 49.

[2] Filene, Peter G. Him/Her/Self: Gender Identities in Modern America. Baltmore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, pg. x.

[3] Fass, Paula S. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977, page293.

[4] Ibid, page 172.

[5] Ibid, page 173.

[6] Slang words taken from Dalzell, Tom. Flappers 2 Rappers: American Slang Youth. New York: Merriam-Webster, 1996.

[7] Fass, page 200.

[8] Ibid, page 273.