A historic St. Louis magazine could be a reason people ask: 'Where’d you go to high school?'
From the 1940s to the 1970s, St. Louis teenagers flocked to drugstores to buy a magazine called Prom, which recruited student correspondents to report on the ins and outs of social life in high schools across the region.
The publication was so popular that it may be a reason St. Louisans started asking people, “Where’d you go to high school?” The teens would reportedly ask each other that question and look through their old copies of the magazine to see if their new acquaintance was a SNIP (See Name In Prom).
Now, a new exhibit is highlighting St. Louis Public Library’s archive of the publication. It features firsthand accounts from Prom reporters, an opportunity to look through the digitized collection and examples of prom outfits and pop music throughout the decades.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Kate Grumke spoke with St. Louis Public Library CEO Waller McGuire about the exhibit at the Central Library.
Kate Grumke: Tell me about the time period when Prom magazine first started. What was going on then?
Waller McGuire: Prom magazine itself started in the late 1940s, so it was just when the baby boomers were on the cusp of beginning and the American economy was beginning to boom after World War II. We'd come through that grim period of history, and people were looking for fun and excitement, and the baby boomers were beginning to be a huge market. And frankly, that's part of what Prom magazine was about. The editor knew that kids had money to spend, and they were controlling some of their parents' money, too. So it was a really smart move to start marketing to kids and boy did Prom magazine do it. You can see all of the major department stores and clothing stores up through the years, car companies, record companies, appliance companies. It really rode the cusp of the teen explosion across the United States and was part of it. It was a look at teenage life, at school life, at what was going on with young people across the city. And although it was called Prom, it touched on everything.
Grumke: How did the magazine work with student reporters?
McGuire: They recruited and found students in the schools who were interested in journalism and interested in student activities, and encouraged them to write articles about what was going on in their school and their school alone. Sometimes they gave them cameras. They even gave them, occasionally, tape recorders, which would have been really unusual in the 1940s, and '50s. So they invested a lot of effort and trust in training and showing these people, these kids what they needed and the kids really responded. They did a lot of writing and some of them got really interested in it.
Grumke: And I've heard that the student reporters were also really popular with their classmates. Is that right?
McGuire: Yeah, I understand that there was a lot of effort to get into Prom magazine. Your local high school reporter was your key to get mentioned in the magazine, so yeah, I imagine there was a lot of recruiting and schmoozing going on in those days.
Grumke: Many things related to schools in St. Louis are deeply segregated. How did Prom magazine navigate that?
McGuire: Yes, and of course, in the '40s and '50s, it was even legally segregated; very damaging. Prom was unusual in that it covered all high schools. That was its mission, to have representation and to cover all high schools throughout St. Louis. The magazine recruited reporters in all of the African American as well as the private and segregated high schools in St. Louis, so it touches on all of them. They are very early mentions in the magazine in the 1940s of Soldan and some of the other segregated schools. That was, I think, really pretty forward-looking in the day, and we should credit the editor, Julian Miller, who made a point of covering all high schools.
We've heard from a couple of the reporters in the Black high schools that they felt included, that they were included in all the training, that they had the equipment, that they felt they were full members, and, you know, in St. Louis and the United States in the 1940s and '50s, I think that was an effort that's admirable, so it's nice to see that and record it and make it available.
Grumke: I understand you all think this magazine might have had something to do with the ubiquitous, ‘Where did you go to high school?’ question in St. Louis. Why do you think that?
McGuire: Well, that question is famous. I was just at a library meeting out of town and somebody mentioned that question to me as something that he didn't see in New York, but was familiar with from St. Louis. So believe me, the whole country is familiar with St. Louis and, ‘Where did you go to high school?’ This way of identifying yourself and giving people shorthand, what your background is and where you're from, is certainly a St. Louis thing. But Prom magazine very closely identified you with what high school you were attending, so I think there was a strong connection there.
Grumke: Why did the magazine stop publishing?
McGuire: It's funny to look at. I think of the early issues as the kind of Leave It to Beaver era of the United States, which may reveal more about my age than I want to, but there were lots of sock hops and productions of Oklahoma and sort of stereotypical activities from the '40s and '50s. By the time the '70s rolled around, things were really different for high school students. The war in Vietnam had changed how they looked at life, and there were more protests and drugs were much more of an issue within high schools all across the United States.
The editor of the magazine got very concerned about high school students and drugs and a lot of the issues focused on that. So one would go from, what to wear and what dances to go to in the '40s and '50s, then all of a sudden, in the '70s, it was talking about the problems of drug addiction and suicide. And the market just changed, I think. [The magazine] was still going strong, actually, in 1973 when it was shut down. There was still a market for it, and kids were still paying a dime to carry home a copy of the magazine, but interest was falling, and Julian Miller, the editor, decided to go on to other things so they closed it down.
Listen to the songs that have defined proms over the years, as curated by the St. Louis Public Library.