The History of Homecoming

How an American pastime conquered pop culture worldwide.

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Aug 31 2015, 3:30pm

Image via Flickr user Jay Phagan

Last October, Charli XCX made a pit stop in Los Angeles to perform at a homecoming dance held by the charter school Aspire Pacific Academy. The British pop singer told the Associated Press, "Homecoming dances and proms are an American thing I've always been very fascinated with because all my favorite movies end with a prom or something like that. I was really excited because I thought it was going to be my own 'Jawbreaker' moment." Who can blame her? Mythologized in films like Carrie and Mean Girls and hyped in real life by swaths of expectant teenagers year after year, high school dances offer to those slogging through gym class and biology the hope of something transformational.

As far as school festivities go, prom occupies the greatest part of our cultural consciousness, it being the grand finale to the school year—the opportunity to finally get things right. For a writer or director, the dramatic opportunity is undeniable. While prom proliferated in early twentieth century high schools as a democratized debutante ball, homecoming wasn't even a high school thing to begin with. So, sorry, teens. Just for today, it's not all about you.

A very literal etymology

Homecoming got its start on college campuses as a fall celebration of the first football game of the season, for which alumni would return to their alma maters. Although most early homecomings date back to the turn of the century, there's some debate over which school actually began the tradition. The University of Missouri claims to have invented homecoming in 1911, when Director of Athletics Chester L. Brewer had the bright idea to invite alumni back to the annual game against the University of Kansas—he further sauced things up with a spirit rally and parade. But while Trivial Pursuit and "Jeopardy!" also recognize Mizzou as homecoming's progenitor, Baylor University in Texas says it held its inaugural homecoming game in 1909. The University of Illinois dates its festivities to 1910, having held it every year since then except in 1918, when it was cancelled because of the influenza pandemic.

Traditions are weird, and we want in

Whatever the truth of its origins, homecoming spread throughout the country and into high schools in the early part of the century. It developed along the way a number of signatures, including a parade with floats, the central football game, a dance in the evening, and the election of a homecoming court. (In a mash-up of Old World titles and democratic processes, that last one comes replete with a queen, king, prince, princess, duke, and duchess.) At this point, many schools jack up the excitement by dedicating an entire week to homecoming.

While some traditions are universal and perennial—high schoolers' keen interest in getting wasted on the night of the dance, for instance—others are particular to certain schools or regions. Consider Arizona State University's "Lantern Walk," wherein students, alumni, and faculty carry lit candles up A Mountain, a butte composed of volcanic rock with a giant letter "A" at the top. In some regards, a literal golden idol. That takes place the Friday evening before the big game, complete with fireworks and speeches, the technical production of which has no doubt improved since the first Lantern Walk in 1917.

In Texas, meanwhile, students are in the habit of exchanging homecoming mums, corsages worn by both guys and girls. We're not talking restrained little clusters of flowers here. These are massive pins affixed at the chest or around the upper arm, which are frequently tricked out with feather boas, stuffed animal mascots, and LED lights. Ribbons extend from the bottom, trailing down to the shin. Should the urge strike, you can purchase a mum on Etsy for anywhere from $12 to a couple hundred dollars.

Tradition is only as absurd as your distance from it.

From an outsider's perspective, getting stoked about something like homecoming mums seems absolutely insane. But tradition is only as absurd as your distance from it. The photographer Nancy Newberry, who produced an excellent portrait series of Texas teenagers wearing elaborate mums, writes on her website: "They are ritually worn and subsequently immortalized, tacked to bedroom walls as trophies. At a time when many American high schoolers seem purposefully disengaged from the world around them, the Mum constitutes both a unique act of cultural immersion and a specific brand of folk art."

In that light, it's no wonder sociologists have expended a decent amount of brain calories thinking about how events like homecoming play into youth culture and teenagers' developing senses of self. In the Dec. 2002/Jan. 2003 issue of The High School Journal, Lynn M. Hoffman explains that some researchers classify high school experiences as either "rites of passage" or "rites of intensification." While rites of passage deal primarily with the individual, rites of intensification — of which homecoming is considered one — are all about learning to live within a group and ritualizing interdependence. When the student council organizes a homecoming parade, it does so by working with the local community. When a high schooler pins on her mum, she's intentionally immersing herself in the crowd.

Why does she want to do that? Because, Hoffman writes, rites of passage and intensification are "embedded in the high school experience," which is itself a passageway from childhood to adulthood. It's about growing up.

Cashing in on school spirit

Although homecoming is an opportunity to foster good vibes within the community, it also seems to support that other great American pastime: the pursuit of cash money.

Back in 1904, a guy named Edmund J. James took over as president of the University of Illinois, having completed a stint in the same position at Northwestern. James figured his new university was underfunded, so he set about rallying alumni to help it claim better legislative appropriations from the state. That was to be accomplished by having them send letters to every legislator and newspaper editor possible, detailing the university's needs. In order to reconnect graduates with the college, James founded the school's Alumni Record and Alumni Quarterly magazine, and established local groups for alums around the States. Recognizing that current students would one day be alumni, too, he "took every opportunity to instill a missionary fervor in the student body," as Jerome Leon Rodnitzky describes it in a 1970 article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. James understood that school spirit begets a desire to give back, whether in the form of lobbying the state or donating directly. One event for students and alumni that's all about generating enthusiasm for the school, that happens to have been established under James's tenure? Say it with us: homecoming.

While it's hard to be so cynical as to believe that homecoming is all about the money, there are some organizations for whom homecoming is clearly all about the money. Those would be the companies selling the sparkling confections we know as formal dresses to today's high schoolers. Matching high-waisted skirts and crop tops in the vein of Taylor Swift's 1989 tour outfits seem to be big for fall 2015. As with prom, there wasn't always a vibrant apparel industry attending to teenagers' wildest homecoming dreams, but there sure is now. Racked recently reported that the formalwear brand Jovani sold $125 million in formal dresses last year, and Rent the Runway loaned out $800 million worth of merchandise. Homecoming certainly doesn't account for all of that, but a quick troll through the multitude of online dress shops catering to this event suggests that the market is nonetheless hopping.

Kids just want to get down

Though homecoming is in many ways about bringing together olds and youngs, it wouldn't be an all-school party if students weren't butting heads with the administration. Naturally, dancing has been a key issue.

In recent years, schools have canceled dances on account of "pornographic" dance moves.

Homecoming got its own "Footloose moment" in 1988 when Purdy High School in Missouri held its first-ever dance on a Saturday night in December, ending the school board's 100-year ban on occasions of that sort. Students and their parents had filed a suit with the Federal District Court claiming that prohibiting dances stemmed unconstitutionally from the religious belief that dancing is sinful. The court sided with the kids, and the dance was deemed "a blast." In recent years, schools everywhere from New York to California have canceled dances on account of what one principal described to the New York Times as "pornographic" dance moves.

Then, of course, there's the issue of underage drinking, which got 28 Scarsdale High School students suspended and immortalized in the Times in 2002. The school's superintendent said at the time that though some years are worse than others, that's always been a problem; when he was a student in the '50s and '60s, the entire football team got suspended for the same.

The dance moves may evolve, but some things never change.