A guide to 1940's life
A brief glimpse at some highlights of the era:
The 1940's are defined by the Second World War. US isolationism was shattered by the bombing of Pearl Harbour. As President Franklin Roosevelt guided the country on the home-front, Gen. Eisenhower commanded the troops in Europe. Gen. Douglas McArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz led them in the Pacific. The successful use of Penicillin by 1941 revolutionised medicine. Developed first to help the military personnel survive war wounds, it also helped increase survival rates for surgery. The Great Depression was nearly over. 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 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 began in 1943. Victory gardens began and supplied 40% of the vegetables consumed on the home front. Television made its debut at the 1939 World's Fair, but the war interrupted further development. Radio and film were still king of mass entertainment.
In popular dancing, the Lindy Hop or the Jitterbug made its 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 Betty Grable 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! And, many pregnant woman came into the delivery room with "Kilroy was here" painted on her belly.
Let's look at some other highlights in a bit more detail:
Films were a huge form of entertainment for most Americans in the days before TV caught on. For 25 cents one could see a film and maybe even a double feature. There were usually some news stories, a cartoon, a serial western or cliff hanger, then the feature film. Your movie experience could last from 2-6 hours - and 10 cents more would buy a soft drink and popcorn. Wow, what a Saturday afternoon!
It was different 60 years ago to see films that were mostly black and white with actors - some legendary now - whose names were household words. Colour was a novelty and The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind were exceptions. Who won the "Oscar" for best actor in 1941? (Gary Cooper, Sgt. York) Who was his leading lady? (Joan Leslie) Plots and film stars were not better than today, but they depended much less on technology (computer graphics) and more on solid acting. Even comedy had a different feel to it. Who today compares to Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy?
Watch an old movie. Listen to the dialogue, watch how people move and the way they hold a cigarette. Of course, these are actors reading a script but they can give you perspective of the way people conducted themselves - at least through the eyes of the fantasy world of Hollywood. Like today, they mirror cultural language patterns, life styles, and reflections of the scenes of life then - as it really was.
A few film important hits of the era included:
Citizen Kane (Orson Wells) Considered one of the best films ever made
Gone With the Wind (Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh)
The Maltese Falcon (Humphrey Bogart)
How Green Was My Valley (Walter Pidgeon - Oscar 1941)
Sergeant York (Gary Cooper, Joan Leslie)
Suspicion (Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant)
Grapes of Wrath (Henry Fonda)
Gunga Din (Cary Grant)
Dumbo, Fantasia, Bambi (Disney did a lot of training films for the Government and that took a lot of resources and time so their regular work was curtailed somewhat.
We must be aware that beyond the well known Hollywood fantasy version of real life, stereotypes of the times are also represented. For example, African-Americans seldom appeared in starring roles. They were servants, drivers or provided comic relief.
There were also the Westerns -
Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Riders of the Purple Sage, Buster Crabbe, Heldorado, In Old Caliente, The Outlaw … and cowboy stars - Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Tex Ritter, Tom Tyler.
A few other films of the era that may interest us:
Stage Door Canteen (and Hollywood Canteen, many stars, including Joan Leslie)
This is the Army (Ronald Reagan, Joan Leslie)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (James Cagney, opps, Joan Leslie again!)
Air Force (John Ireland)
Why We Fight Series
The Story of GI Joe (Burgess Meredith)
Casablanca - another classic - Oscar 1943 (Bogey and Bergman)
Back to Battan (Errol Flynn)
Sports - Baseball in particular
1941 winner of the Kentucky Derby was Whirlaway ridden by Eddie Arcaro
1941 saw the Chicago Bears as Pro Football champs and Texas was the top college team
Baseball was THE American pastime. Football was popular of course, especially in college but baseball was the king of American sports. Nearly everyone knew at least something about it and who was hitting and winning in the Major Leagues. The game was quite different though before integration, television and super stadiums. Ever heard of the Iron Horse or Dizzy Dean?
Here is a baseball tid-bit:
Under the guidance of Leo Durocher, who became the Dodger manager in 1939, the Dodgers in 1941 won their first National League pennant in 21 years with a 100-54 record and played the first of their classic World Series confrontations against the New York Yankees.
Outfielder Pete Reiser was dynamite in 1941. He led the league in batting, runs scored, total bases, slugging percentage and triples, while teammate Dolph Camilli topped the league in home runs and RBI and was honoured as the National League MVP. Whit Wyatt and Kirby Higbe paced the pitching staff with 22 victories apiece.
Who was the Iron Horse? What does, "He won't make it to first base…" mean? Just a little knowledge of the sport and its language can help us with the mind-set of our parents or grandparents.
Hank Greenberg - a big hitter went left baseball to join the Army in 1941. Hammering Hank (before Hank Aaron) went to war and came back in '45 to continue slugging away. So did Ted Williams.
Popular music was quite different then. No CDs, cassette tapes, or even 33 1/3 LPs. It was the radio, a 78-RPM record player, juke box, or best of all - live. Swing was the most popular form of music with the generation that fought the War, with Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Les Brown, Woody Herman, Charlie Barrnet, Artie Shaw, (to name just a few) gracing the airwaves and music halls of the nation. The "Big Bands" floated on the airwaves every night across the country and even big named groups could be found doing one night stands in relatively small towns.
Jazz - Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway Duke Ellington (with Ella Fitzgerald) and Count Basie, Flecther Henderson
Country - Bob Willis, Gene Autry
Novelty bands - Spike Jones, Kay Kyser, Hoosier Hot Shots
Small singing groups - Ink Spots, Mills Brothers, Andrews Sisters
Soloists - Dick Haymes, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Kate Smith, and Britain's Vera Lynn
and who could forget the crooners - Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby
The "Hit Parade" counted down the popular tunes of the time every week. For example: November 21, 1942:
#10 There Will never Be Another You
#8 My Devotion
#7 Serenade In Blue
#6 Mister Five By Five
#5 Dearly Beloved
#4 When The Lights Go On Again
#3 Manhattan Serenade
#2 Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition
#1 White Christmas
We have the music of our choice all around us now. The car stereo, home theatre systems and portable CD players give us the chance to listen much of our waking hours. At that time, music was not usually a background to the environment - it was an effort! Folks tuned in to their favourite bands on the radio listened (while staring at the radio) intently. Or, maybe they cranked up the record player - often with a wind up device - to play one record at a time. Of course, the family piano would often be a focal point and people even knew the words when they sang or at least the melody.
It's 7:00pm - you reach for the radio and turn on the switch. As you turn the radio dial, the static crackles, clears, and on comes the blare of a trumpet, the sound of pounding hooves, and… "Hi-ho Silver, away!" The Lone Ranger rides into your living room with another adventure! On January 31, 1933 the first broadcast of the greatest radio western began. It originated from station WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan and ran until August 31, 1955. The program was broadcast 3268 times over that time span and spread to over 400 radio stations across the United States.
News, sports, comedy, variety, music, quiz, mystery, drama and lots of commercials could all be found on any given day on your radio. All the major bands could be heard in the evenings along with various variety shows.
Just a few of the popular shows of the late 30s and early 40s included:
The Green Hornet
Gene Autry's Melody Ranch
The Great Gildersleeve
Amos n' Andy
Fibber McGee and Molly
Little Orphan Annie
Arthur Godfrey Morning Show (announcer in Washington D.C.)
The Fred Allen Show
The Jack Benny Show
Favorite Orchestras often had shows
Grand Old Orpy
Lux Radio Theater
The Guiding Light
Edward R. Murrow was busy broadcasting news and live reports of the London blitz in 1940 - "This is London…"
You may have heard, in addition to FDR's fireside chats, Eleanor as a guest on network shows. She could be quite a ham at times.
FM was established in many cities by 1941 and played classical music or simulcasts of the AM station that owned it.
There are a few products that were on the shelves in the early 40s that are still there - some with the same or similar labels. Check old Life and other magazines for adds to see what can be used or modified.
Hires Root Beer
Ronson and Zippo lighters
Spam (different can opener)
Eight O'Clock Coffee
Campbell's Soup (Tomato)
Sprinkling some period words, slang or expressions in conversation can add a little flavor to the feel and spirit of the time.
The word "swell" was in common use by the late 30s but by some it was considered vulgar. The original authors step Mom was slapped by her Mother in 1940 for saying swell.
A point to remember - Education is very expensive these days but it can be had if one is creative and hard working. How many of you graduated from college? How many of you would have even finished high school by 1942? Our view of the world has changed drastically with education and mass communications.
Some slang samples:
Gremlins (bugs or fictional creatures that mess up things - like air-planes) ticker (heart)
Jitterbug - the Lindy Hop
cats (jazz fans)
Killer Diller (good stuff)
18 Karat (excellent)
Lay some skin on me Flynn! (greeting from a jazz fan)
Alligator or Gator (swing fan - see ya later…)
Beat me daddy, eight to the bar... (play it hot!)
Ball (good time)
Twern't me McGee! (denial - from Fibber Mcgee and Molly radio show)
Snap your cap (blow your cool, get angry)
The bomb (very good - cool)
Hooch, booze (alcohol)
licorice stick (clarinet)
Greetings Gates (hello!)
Well, allreet! (Alright!)
What do ya know, what do ya say? (Hello, how are you?)
Some other pieces of the puzzle -
- 1939 - the World's Fair opens in New York
- 1941 - new car $850, gallon of gas 12 cents, gallon of milk 54 cents,
- Popular books included My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara, Berlin Diary by William Shirer,
- Aaron Copland wrote Appalachian Spring in 1944
- Population in 1940 = 132,122,000
- Unemployed in 1940 = 8,120,000
- National Debt = $43 Billion
- Average Salary = $1,299 per year. Teacher's salary = $1,441(!)
- Average minimum wage = 43 cents per hour
- 55% of U.S. homes have indoor plumbing
So, where do I look for period information?
Internet - be careful here, some info is correct, some… well…
Classic movie channels
History Channel - caution, they are still entertainment oriented
1940s (Not Just) Trivia
To give you something to research or at least think about here are some fun bits and pieces of the 1930s and 1940s.
1. What was the average income of the American family in 1944?
2. Who were "Dem Bums"?
3. What does, "Going like sixty," mean?
60 miles an hour - pretty fast highway speed until the late 30s!
4. What was the Glenn Miller Orchestra theme song?
5. Who said, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
The announcer for the radio show - The Shadow.
6. How much did a loaf of bread cost in 1941?
7. What does SNAFU mean?
Situation Normal -- All Fucked Up
8. Who was Kilroy?
Character in drawings that showed up Everywhere, symbolising American soldier presence.
9. Who or what was a gob?
A Navy man.
10. In 1941, who is president? FDR. - Vice President? Henry Wallace. Army Chief of Staff? General George C. Marshall One of your state senators? Sheridan Downey, Leland Ford, Calif
11. Who was in charge of the "College of Musical Knowledge?"
Band leader Kay Kyser
12. Who was "Rosie the Riveter?"
Symbol of the woman in the wartime work force.
13. Who was Ernie Pyle?
Famous journalist that accompanied soldiers at the front who wrote for the GI.
14. What was the value of an "A" gas sticker?
15. Who was the known as the King of Hi De Ho?"
16. What candy coated chocolates perfect for soldiers in the field who could not afford to let their hands or weapons become sticky were invented in 1940 by Forrest Mars and Bruce Murrie?
M and M's
16. What was the name of the new dance craze in the 1940s?
The Lindy Hop
17. What voluptuous star exploded onto the screen in "The Outlaw?"
18. What is the meaning of "Rosebud?"
From the Movie Citizen Kane - Kane's sled = childhood memories
19. What selective service code or number was used to determine that a man was fit for active military duty? A1
20. Who was the lead female singer for the Kay Kyser Orchestra in 1941?
Living history, reenactments, events, impressions, time periods, complete immersion, acting, "costumed" interpretation, resources, research, and backgrounds… What do these things mean? Why should we care about the differences? Where do you and the 82nd LHA fit in this scheme of things? What do you want out of this hobby?
The Time Period - early to mid 20th Century
What was the culture of the time period? What was happening in politics, sports, music, film, art, and education? What was the average income? What would a nickel buy? What names or events were on everyone's lips? If you stand on a street corner, what would you hear, see, smell, and experience compared to now?
Your Impression Some questions to ask yourself to fill in your personae…
Where did you come from? What was your family like? How did you get where you are in the personal history that you have developed? When did you go into the Army? What were the circumstances? Where did board the train for basic training?
Do an outline of who you are, where you came from, parents, education, profession, likes and dislikes. Fit it to your life now as close as possible. It will be easier to remember details if it matches closely. The little things mean a lot! Polishing - not just shoes, but the details…
In my personal personae, I was born in Los Angeles, California. I went to South Gate (LA suburb) High School and had some college at UCLA, before working in the Hollywood movie industry as a prop man then went into the Army to beat the draft. I was in the Air Corps at Pearl Harbour based at Hickam on Dec. 7, 1941 (lucky me). I was injured and after recovering, was transferred to Ft. Belvoir and later D.C. on light duty and volunteered the 116th Inf. Regt, 29th Division in early 1943. I am a Dodgers fan and love movies and swing music, although I can't dance very well. And on and on… Now, to compare this to my real life:
I really am from LA and went to high school near South Gate and have a college degree. I have enough working knowledge of 40s Hollywood and the prop business that I could have done that prop job for a while. I worked for the National Park Service at the USS Arizona Memorial and have an in depth knowledge of the events there and of Hawai'i. I also lived and worked in Washington D.C. on the National Mall so I know the District and its history fairly well. The 29th Div. has been part of my living history past since the early 80s and I had to make a connection to it. I am a Dodgers fan, like classic movies, swing music, but can't dance very well… so there are some comparisons.
"First" and "Third" Person Impressions - Elements of time travel
What now? Is he kidding? Time travel? Well, in way, yes. Though we all know that it is a game of "pretend" it can be done in an effective, educational and meaningful way. The work is significant to get there, but the benefits can be priceless.
Why do we bother with all this in the first place?
- The journey comes to a crossroads…
- To what end? To experience a glimpse of their world - the Second World War. A time trial and of memories of our fathers, mothers and grandparents.
- Why? So we can better understand and comprehend what they did, how they did it, and why. The people we are representing deserve our best efforts to know them.
- So what? IF we use our energies to do interpretation and living history in the highest and most professional manner possible, we will learn and pass on. We can then more efficiently preserve their memory, their efforts, and their sacrifice.
- The bottom line: We do this in order to give to future generations their legacy; one that has been that has been bought and paid for, with blood. They gave their all to give a precious gift, a second chance at peace. What will we - this and coming generations - do with this responsibility? Each of you must decide for yourself. Then we must decide as a culture, a society and a nation. You can make a difference…
We've only scratched the surface here with our journey into the American culture of the 1940s. Use this as a starting point. Living history is time travel as best as we can get there. In order for us to really begin to comprehend we can better know the people that we represent
A Final Thought -
Proper Living History and quality Historical Interpretation is a journey of the mind, heart and spirit. The more we know of what we speak, the better prepared we are to represent our roles. If we can then combine our talents into thoughtful action, we may come closer to our goals. Interpretation is like anything that requires effort; the more we (properly) do it, the more sharp our skills become. You can facilitate another person's journey to understanding by guiding them and showing them the way. That is what we can begin in this busy day, but we must all take the journey together.
A beginning timeline -
September 1, 1939-- World War II begins when Nazi Germany invades Poland. Britain and France declare war on Germany.
1940 -- Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is a best seller.
1940 -- Walt Disney releases "Fantasia" which combines cartoons with classical music.
October 29, 1940-- Secretary of war Henry Stimson randomly draws number 158 beginning the first peacetime Draft in U.S. History.
May 15, 1940-- Igor Sikorsky makes the first successful helicopter flight in the United States.
June 14, 1940-- Victorious German Troops enter Paris and march down the Champs-Elysees.
September 7--November 2, 1940- German planes bomb London.
April 5, 1941-- The Germans test the first jet fighter plane just one month ahead of the British preparing it for the war.
June 28, 1941-- Heeding Einstein's advice, President Roosevelt creates an office to oversee weapons development. The Manhattan Project will develop an atomic bomb.
December 7, 1941-- Japanese warplanes bomb Pearl Harbour. The United States enters the war.
February 20, 1942 -- President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 ordering the internment of Japanese Americans.
December 31, 1942 -- Frank Sinatra debuts and young women faint at the sight of the blue-eyed singer.