Notes over 1940-1950

FACTS about this decade.

 Population 132,122,000 Unemployed in 1940 – 8,120,000 National Debt $43 Billion Average Salary $1,299. Teacher’s salary $1,441 Minimum Wage $.43 per hour 55% of U.S. homes have indoor plumbing Antarctica is discovered to be a continent Life expectancy 68.2 female, 60.8 male Auto deaths 34,500 Supreme Court decides blacks do have a right to vote World War II changed the order of world power, the United States and the USSR became super powers Cold War begins. 

FACTS about this decade.

 Population 132,122,000 Unemployed in 1940 – 8,120,000 National Debt $43 Billion Average Salary $1,299. Teacher’s salary $1,441 Minimum Wage $.43 per hour 55% of U.S. homes have indoor plumbing Antarctica is discovered to be a continent Life expectancy 68.2 female, 60.8 male Auto deaths 34,500 Supreme Court decides blacks do have a right to vote World War II changed the order of world power, the United States and the USSR became super powers Cold War begins. 

Kingwood College Library American Cultural History The Twentieth Century

1940 – 1949

The 1940’s were dominated by World War II. European artists and intellectuals fled Hitler and the Holocaust, bringing new ideas created in disillusionment. War production pulled us out of the Great Depression. Women were needed to replace men who had gone off to war, and so the first great exodus of women from the home to the workplace began. Rationing affected the food we ate, the clothes we wore, the toys with which children played. 

After the war, the men returned, having seen the rest of the world. No longer was the family farm an ideal; no longer would blacks accept lesser status. The GI Bill allowed more men than ever before to get a college education. Women had to give up their jobs to the returning men, but they had tasted independence. 


he forties are pretty well defined by World War II. US isolationism was shattered by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt guided the country on the homefront, Dwight D. Eisenhower commanded the troops in Europe. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz led them in the Pacific. The discovery of penicillin in 1940 revolutionized medicine. Developed first to help the military personnel survive war wounds, it also helped increase survival rates for surgery. The first eye bank was established at New York Hospital in 1944. Unemployment almost disappeared, as most men were drafted and sent off to war.

The government reclassified 55% of their jobs, allowing women and blacks to fill them. First, single women were actively recruited to the workforce. In 1943, with virtually all the single women employed, married women were allowed to work. Japanese immigrants and their descendants, suspected of loyalty to their homelands, were sent to internment camps. There were scrap drives

Returning GI’s created the baby boom, which is still having repercussions on American society today. Although there were rumors, it was only after the war ended that Americans learned the extent of the Holocaust. Realization of the power of prejudice helped lead to Civil Rights reforms over the next three decades.

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, entitled returning soldiers to a college education. In 1949, three times as many college degrees were conferred as in 1940. College became available to the capable rather than the privileged few.

Before the war, British and German inventors were working on jet aircraft. The designs had flaws, and the prototypes crashed, killing the pilots. It wasn’t until 1948 that a U.S. company, Boeing, developed the Sabre, the first operational jet fighter. Television made its’ debut at the 1939 World Fair, but the war interrupted further development. In 1947, commercial television with 13 stations became available to the public. Computers were developed during the early forties. The digital computer, named ENIAC, weighing 30 tons and standing two stories high, was completed in 1945.


n architecture, nonessentials were eliminated, and simplicity became the key element. In some cases, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous glass house, even practicality was ignored. Modern glass-and-steel office buidings began to rise after the war ended. Pietro Belluschi designed the prototype Equitable Savings and Loan building, a "skyscraper" of twelve stories. Eliel Saarinen utilized contemporary design, particularly in churches. The dream home remained a Cape Cod. After the war, suburbs, typified by Levittown, with their tract homes and uniformity, sprang up to house returning GI’s and their new families. The average home was a one level Ranch House, a collection of previously unaffordable appliances surrounded by minimal living space. The family lawn became the crowning glory and symbol of pride in ownership.



Like art, music reflected American enthusiasm tempered with European disillusionment. While the European emigres Bueno Walter, George Szell, Bela Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, and Nadia Boulanger introduced classical disonance, American born composers remained more traditional, with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944) and Rodeo (1942). William Schuman wrote his symphonies #3(1941) through #7(1949). At the beginning of the decade, Big Bands dominated popular music. Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman led some of the more famous bands. Eventually, many of the singers with the Big Bands struck out on their own. Bing Crosby’s smooth voice made him one of the most popular singers, vying with Frank Sinatra. Dinah Shore, Kate Smith and Perry Como also led the hit parade. Be-Bop and Rhythm and Blues, grew out of the big band era toward the end of the decade. Although these were distinctly black sounds, epitomized by Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Mon, Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Woody Herman.

Radio was the lifeline for Americans in the 1940’s, providing news, music and entertainment,, much like television today. Programming included soap operas, quiz shows, children’s hours, mystery stories, fine drama, and sports. Kate Smith and Arthur Godfrey were popular radio hosts. The government relied heavily on radio for propaganda. Like the movies, radio faded in popularity as television became prominent. Many of the most popular radio shows continued on in television, including Red Skelton, Abbott and Costello, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Truth or Consequences


The decade opened with the appearance of the first inexpensive paperback. Book clubs proliferated, and book sales went from one million to over twelve million volumes a year. Many important literary works were conceived during, or based on, this time period, but published later. Thus, it took a while for the horror of war and the atrocities of prejudice to come forth. Shirley Jackson wrote The Lottery to demonstrate how perpectly normal, otherwise nice people, could allow something like the Holocaust. In The Human Comedy, William Saroyan tackles questions of prejudice against the setting of World War II. Richard Wright completed Native Son in 1940 and Black Boy in 1945, earning acclaim, but government persecution over his communist affiliation sent him to Paris in 1945. Nonfiction writing proliferated, giving first-hand accounts of the war. The first edition of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care is considered by some to have changed child rearing.


n popular dancing, the Jitterbug made it’s appearance at the beginning of the decade. It was the first dance in two centuries that allowed individual expression. GI’s took the dance overseas when they to war, dancing with local girls, barmaids, or even each other if necessary. Rosie the Riveter was the symbol of the working woman, as the men went off to war and the women were needed to work in the factories. GIs, however, preferred another symbol, the pin-up girl, such as Rita Hayworth or Betty Grable. Pictures were mounted on lockers and inside helmets to remind the men what they were fighting for.

Wherever American soldiers went, even the first to arrive would find a picture of eyes and a nose, with the message, Kilroy was Here. After they returned, Kilroy began to mark his place on the walls and rocks of public places. More than one pregnant woman came into the delivery room with "Kilroy was here" painted on her belly.

Working mothers, combined with another new phenomenon, the refrigerator, led to the invention of frozen dinners. With the advent of television later in the decade, they became known as TV Dinners. Tupperware and aluminum foil eased the postwar housewives’ burden, and diners, originally horse drawn carriages with a couple of barstools, became stationary and a respectable staple of the postwar culture. The Slinky was invented by a ship inspector in 1945. Teenagers became a recognized force in the forties. With the men off to war, teenagers – boys and girls – found employment readily available, and so had money to spend. Seventeen magazine was established in 1944. Advertisement began to be aimed at teens. With fathers away and mothers at work, another new phenomen arose – the juvenile delinquent.


he Zoot Suit was the height of fashion among daring young men until the War Production Department restricted the amount of fabric that could be used in men’s garments. The same restrictions led to the popularity of the women’s convertible suit, a jacket, short skirt, and blouse. The jacket could be shed for more formal attire at night. Silk stockings were unavailable, so, to give the illusion with stockings with their prominent seam, women would draw a line up the backs of their legs with an eyeliner. At work, as "Rosie the Riveter" took on a man’s work, slacks became acceptable attire.

When the war and it’s restrictions ended, Christian Dior introduced the New Look, feminine dresses with long, full skirts, and tight waists. Comfortable, low-heeled shoes were forsaken for high heels. Hair was curled high on the head in front, and worn to the shoulders in the back, and make-up was socially acceptable. Glamourous Rita Hayworth made the sweater look popular. It took time to put the New Look together, time the women now had as the men returned to their jobs in the factories and offices


The theater, too, turned to abstractionism. Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth (1942) was bizarre and difficult to understand but won the Pulitzer Prize. Tennessee Williams wrote of self-delusionment and futility in the Glass Menagerie (1945) and Streetcar named Desire (1947). In contrast Musical Theater was reborn, with Agnes de Mille’s technique of dancing in character in Oklahoma (1943). Carousel (1945), and Annie get your Gun (1946).

The forties were the heyday for movies. The Office of War declared movies an essential industry for morale and propaganda. Most plots had a fairly narrow and predictable set of morals, and if Germans or Japanese were included, they were one-dimensional villains. Examples are Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver, Lifeboat, Notorious, Best Years of our Lives, Wake Island, Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal Diary, Destination Tokyo. Citizen Kane, not fitting the template, was one of the masterpieces of the time. Leading actors were Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner. Walt Disney’s career began to take off, with animated cartoons such as Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). During the war years, the studio produced cartoons for the government, such as Donald gets Drafted (1942), Out of the Frying Pan into the Firing Line (1942) and Der Fuehrer’s Face.

The Emergency Committee of the Entertainment Industry, composed of both black and white actors, fought for better roles for blacks. Lena Horne, Hattie McDaniel, and Cab Calloway, among others, made small inroads. The boom years of movies faded with the advent of television in 1948. TELEVISION

At the end of the war, only 5,000 television sets, with five inch black & white screens, were in American homes. By 1951, 17 million had been sold. The Original Amateur Hour, a revival of a popular radio show, was the first top-rated show in 1948 . Milton Berle’s slapstick comedy, Texaco Star Theater, was credited with creating the demand for televisions. It’s greatest rival was Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town.

Kukla, Fran & Ollie kicked off children’s television as Junior Jamboree in 1947, followed by the Howdy Doody Show. The sitcom made its appearance in January, 1949, with The Goldbergs



for steel, tin, paper and rubber. These were a source of supplies and gave people a means of supporting the war effort. Automobile production ceased in 1942, and rationing of food supplies began in 1943. Victory gardens were re-instituted and supplied 40% of the vegetables consumed on the home front. In April, 1945, FDR died, and President Harry Truman celebrated V-E Day on May 8, 1945. Japan surrendered only after two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States emerged from World War II as a world superpower, challenged only by the USSR. While the USSR subjugated the defeated countries, the US implemented the Marshall Plan, helping war-torn countries to rebuild and rejoin the world economy. Disputes over ideology and control led to the Cold War. Communism was treated as a contagious disease, and anyone who had contact with it was under suspicion. Alger Hiss, a former hero of the New Deal, was indicted as a traitor and the House Un-American Activities Committee began its infamous hearings.

Researched by Wilbur Bush