1909 vs. 2014: Sharon Biggs Waller On Why Teens Today Have It Easy

Kids today! Think they’ve got it so hard. Well, today Sharon Biggs Waller, author of A Mad, Wicked Folly, is here to set them straight. See, things were a lot more stringent for those adolescents coming of age in 1909. School us, Sharon!


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 If you were a teen in the Edwardian era, your social class was unbending. What you did in life depended on how you were born: working class, middle class (lower, middle, and upper), and the aristocracy.

Nick names, nuh uh!

Unless you were in the working class, you could forget about calling your friends by nicknames. In fact, you were forbidden to use first names unless the other girl or boy “proposed,” a close friendship, which meant you could now use first names. Until then, Elizabeth Morris remained Miss Morris to you. Or if she were an aristocrat, you’d address her as Lady Elizabeth.

Sorry for party rocking. (Seriously, you are in so much trouble young lady.)

Prom is a rite of passage for any high school girl, but in Edwardian times, the young upper class females had something a little different to look forward to: becoming a debutante, “coming out” into society. You’d put your hair up and lengthen your skirts. The Edwardian equivalent of modern prom queens were those debutantes invited to meet the King, arriving at Buckingham Palace in a white dress, with a huge train, veil, bouquet of flowers, and ostrich feathers in their hair.

You work hard for the money (unless you’re aristocracy).

Edwardian working class boys left school around age 12, and took up an apprenticeship or the family trade. Or they became servants, usually starting at the lowest rung—hall boy or scullery maid. Hall boys, so named because they lived in the hall, did the grunt work, like carrying heavy sacks of coal. Working class girls did factory work or went into service, usually starting at the bottom as the much maligned scullery maid, washing dishes and scrubbing fireplaces.

Middle class boys would also take their father’s trade or go to university, if their father could afford to send them, where they would meet suitable boys who would become business contacts later in life. Middle class girls could find a profession, like secretary or telephonist. She could go to university too.

Upper class and aristocratic teens never worked, unless the boys were learning to take over the family business, but mostly they were encouraged to have as much fun as possible when not at school or university.


Working class servants weren’t allowed a boyfriend or girlfriend (called a follower, at the time). If discovered, a secret boyfriend might get you sacked without a character reference—and without a reference, you could forget about finding another job. So you fell on the charity of your family or became a prostitute. Servants-turned-prostitutes were called “dolly mops,” and their lives were extremely dismal and often short. Some young female servants married out of the house after meeting lower middle-class tradesmen who had business at the house.

If you were a deb, you’d attend balls in order to meet eligible bachelors, hopefully finding one to marry you. If you did not find a husband within two years, you were doomed to be left “on the shelf”—you became the dreaded spinster. A spinster was looked on with suspicion, and because few upper class women worked, she had to live with her family for the rest of her life, a lonely existence. She was a burden, and would remain so for the rest of her life.

Of course, all this was changing. The suffragettes were making their voices heard, and war was coming. When the boys became soldiers, young women were able to slip into their jobs, including sports. Edwardian girls football clubs packed the stadiums, and crowds of up to 50,000 came to see the girls play. When the Great War was over, everything had changed. The social world had changed, occupational life had changed, schooling had changed–and with these changes came new opportunities for teens.

Sharon Biggs Waller

Feeling better about modern times? (We mostly just want an ostrich feather to wear in our hat.) Check out Mad, Wicked Folly, out now. And for more teen tales, visit our Everything YA page!