Time Machine » The 1940s

The 1940s was arguably the most important decade of the 20th century. The first half was consumed by World War II, an unprecedented global conflict, which produced a heady mixture of anticipation and fear for the coming battles among its countless participants.

Before the enemy could be engaged, soldiers huddled in foxholes, waiting for the signal to advance from superiors who just months before had been contemporaries. For loved ones back home, the waiting was equally unnerving—sometimes the details of a particular attack or campaign would not be revealed until a newspaper landed on their doorstep.

The Battle of Britain was fought in 1940, Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy in 1944, and less than a year later, Germany surrendered. It took two atomic bombs in August 1945 to convince Japan to do the same—a Parker 51 pen was chosen to sign the peace treaty between the U.S. and its former enemy.

At the close of the struggle, people around the world took to the streets to celebrate the peace, but the jubilation was tempered by the horror of uncovered genocide, the impact of nuclear weapons, and the sobering reality of postwar recovery.

On the positive side, postwar, both Allied and Axis countries enjoyed the greatest economic expansion in history. In the United States, returning soldiers were given a chance to better themselves and secure a more prosperous future for their families thanks to a forward-looking GI Bill. Equally visionary was the Marshall Plan for Europe, which sought to avoid the mistakes that had been made at the end of World War I.

In the United States, the war effort diverted scarce resources from non-essential uses, putting production of everything from Lionel trains to Bell System Model 302 telephones on hold. Porcelain advertising signs by the truckload were melted down for scrap, much to the chagrin of today’s collectors. Fiesta dinnerware producer Homer Laughlin was even obliged to discontinue all of its red plates, bowls, and cups due to government restrictions on the radioactive uranium in the glaze, which was needed for the Manhattan Project.

1940s Technology and Culture

One of the exceptions to the limits of wartime metal rationing was a young Pennsylvania company called Zippo. Unlike consumer-products companies like Shakespeare, which had to set aside fishing tackle to crank out planes, tanks, and other equipment, Zippo was able to maintain its production of cigarette lighters thanks to a contract with the U.S. military. From that partnership, the steel-case Zippo with the black crackle finish was born. Highly collectible today, these lighters were standard issue for soldiers, and their black crackle surfaces made them perfect canvases for “trench art.”

With its ability to stay lit in a high wind, the Zippo lighter was actually a fairly nifty innovation, but the 1940s spurred many more influential technological breakthroughs. In 1943, Jacques-Yves Cousteau co-created the aqualung, which paved the way for, among other things, the SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) craze that followed.

In 1946, Piaggio of Italy introduced its first Vespa motor scooter. A year later, Bell Labs laid the groundwork for the first transistor, which would be put into production by Texas Instruments. In a related musical development, the long-playing vinyl record and 45 RPM records were introduced by Columbia and RCA in 1948 and 1949, respectively.

When American GIs returned home from the war, they faced shortages of housing and basic goods and services (although they had it better than Chinese soldiers, who returned home to a civil war). Planned communities such as Levittown sprang up to offer former GIs affordable homes.

Designers like Charles and Ray Eames brought style to mass-produced household items, providing the tables, chairs, and cabinets we now know as Mid-century Modern. Before too long, these newly married servicemen and their wives got busy, kicking off a baby boom that would last until 1964.

Many American GIs came home with a taste for the objects they’d encountered abroad. For example, serviceman stationed in postwar Japan marveled at the high quality of the brass model trains being produced by local craftsman. Some of them got to know the locals, sharing photos of their favorite hometown trains so the Japanese craftsmen could produce small-run or even one-of-a-kind brass trains for them.

Soldiers stationed in Europe returned home with an appreciation for everything from cuckoo clocks to Meissen porcelain to Italian art glass, especially the work of glassmakers on the island of Murano in Venice.

1940s Art and Recreation

In terms of popular U.S. culture, the 1940s was the decade of the superhero. Superman got the trend going in 1938, making his first appearance in “Action Comics.” By the 1940s, the man of steel was at the top of his game, single-handedly fighting Hitler and Hirohito in one memorable cover from 1942. Batman appeared in late 1939, but he, too, was really a child of the 1940s. When Green Lantern arrived in July 1940, the archetype of the superhero was firmly entrenched in the nation’s mythology.

Even the art world idolized its leading lights. Painters like Mark Rothko, whose so-called multiform paintings of 1946 elevated color to heroic heights, and Jackson Pollock, whose drip paintings were created between 1947 and 1950, were legends in their own time. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania native Alexander Calder essentially created the vocabulary for what a work of public sculpture should look like—on a more intimate level, he also produced lovely and playful pieces of modernist jewelry.

Automobiles were not yet the middle-class adult playthings they’d become in the 1950s and ’60s, as Detroit retooled to make Jeeps, aircraft, and anything else that would contribute to the war effort.

But after the war, new Hudsons, Buicks, and DeSotos flaunted their big whitewall tires, streamlined styling, and gleaming chrome. Dads would polish these beauties on weekends, when friends would come over for drinks and an evening spent listening to Sinatra on the radio while enjoying board games such as Monopoly and mahjong. Little boys played with their Tonka Trucks, while their sisters busied themselves with Ideal’s Sparkle Plenty and Toni dolls.

As for the literary set, they curled up with first-edition copies of “The Human Comedy” by William Saroyan, “Native Son” by Richard Wright, “The Naked and the Dead” by Norman Mailer, and, probably most widely read of all, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” by Dr. Benjamin Spock.

1940s Theater, Film, and Television

In the 1940s, renowned Broadway composer Richard Rodgers teamed up with a new lyricist named Oscar Hammerstein to create “Oklahoma!” “Carousel,” and “South Pacific.” Irving Berlin contributed “Annie Get Your Gun,” with Ethel Merman in the title role. Tennessee Williams’ dramas of the decade included “The Glass Menagerie” in 1945 and “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947, for which Williams won a Pulitzer. Directed by Elia Kazan, “Streetcar” is best remembered for the performance of a 24-year-old actor named Marlon Brando in the role of Stanley Kowalski.

As you’d expect, World War II played out on the silver screen. In 1942, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman proved that the problems of three people didn’t amount to a hill of beans in the crazy world that was “Casablanca.” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” 1946, showed how tough it was for returning GIs—the William Wyler film won an Oscar for former paratrooper Harold Russell, who had lost both his hands in an Army training accident.

Other films, though, had nothing to do with the conflict. “Citizen Kane” by Orson Welles, from 1941, is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. And the early 1940s was a glorious period for fans of Disney cartoons, from “Fantasia” (1940) to “Dumbo” (1941), to “Bambi” (1942).

Television sets became commercially available in the late ’30s, but the war interrupted their acceptance. By some accounts, at the end of World War II there were maybe no more than 5,000 black-and-white sets in the United States. Over the next five years, though, 17-million would be sold.

People watched shows like “The Original Amateur Hour,” which had started out as a radio program, and a variety show called “Texaco Star Theater,” which was hosted by Milton Berle. There were even programs for the kids, two of which bowed in 1947—the “CBS Children’s Film Festival” was hosted by a pair of hand puppets, Kukla and Ollie, and their human minder, Fran Allison; “The Howdy Doody Show” featured Buffalo Bob Smith and a collection of marionettes, including the show’s famous namesake.

1940s Music

Imagine a time before rock ’n’ roll: that would be the 1940s. Nat King Cole captured the limelight with his 1943 hit “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” while Billie Holiday had the most productive decade of her short life, even with a brief stint in prison and two arrests for narcotics.

Other musicians used their talents to rally the troops. Bandleader Glenn Miller signed up for the Army in 1942 and spent two years on the road performing for his fellow enlisted men until his plane was lost in bad weather. The Andrews Sisters sang songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me),” and England’s Vera Lynn promised the boys on the other side of the English Channel that “We’ll Meet Again.”

1940s Fashion

One material in especially short supply during the war was silk, which was needed for parachutes. This meant silk stockings and hose were all but impossible to find, causing “Vogue” to wryly proclaim that silk was on its “last legs.” Besides, with a war on, it was bad form to wear clothes and accessories that made one look extravagant. Tastes were conservative, and remained so long after the war ended.

During World War II, the fedora was the most popular women’s hat, mostly due to Ingrid Bergman’s choice of chapeaux in “Casablanca.” Crocheted snoods designed to keep hair from getting tangled in machine parts were a counterpoint to Rosie the Riveter’s famous red with white polka dot headscarf. After the war, berets of crushed velvet and printed barkcloth gained ground.

Shoe designers were also asked to work with non-traditional materials. Wood sandals sat on closet floors next to felt wedges and lace-up, open-toe, sling-back alligator pumps. Satin mules with oversize fabric rosettes on their vamps were the choice for wearing around the home.

Even costume jewelers were forced to cut back on their materials, although this occasionally produced surprising results. For example, because Trifari was unable to use metal in its products due to rationing, the company was forced to switch from inexpensive base metals to sterling silver, which tripled prices for its products.

That didn’t seem to hurt Trifari’s sales, but after the war, the company wanted to go back to less costly, maintenance-free metals. Unfortunately, its audience was now used to silver. To hype the return to a cheaper metal, the company advertised a “revolutionary” new metal called Trifanium to make it sound fancier.

Finally, Christian Dior shook things up in 1947 with his New Look, defiantly lavishing 25 yards of precious fabric into a single short taffeta evening dress. Waists were tight and skirts billowed and flowed, presaging the style of the next decade.

1940s Sports

Like Glen Miller, heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis, and other celebrities, baseball players such as Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox and Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees enlisted to serve their country. But for the players who remained, their work was considered an essential part of the drive to maintain morale at home.

President Roosevelt even wrote a letter to the commissioner of baseball urging him to “keep baseball going,” and broadcasts of games were considered so strategic that the Japanese tried to jam them. No baseball cards were produced during the war, but Bowman and Leaf cards were widely collected again by the end of the decade.

Finally, it’s worth noting that football underwent a major change in 1941, when teams were permitted to field different offensive and defense lines—until then, a team’s roster of 11 players was required to play an entire game. Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch played for the Chicago Rockets from 1946 to 1948 before finishing his career with the Los Angeles Rams, while fellow Chicagoan Charley Trippi began his career in 1947 with the Cardinals.

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