Lone Star College - Kingwood
American Cultural History
1940 - 1949
|FACTS about this decade.
The 1940's were dominated by World War II. European artists and intellectuals fled to the United States from 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
The purpose of this web / library guide is to help the user gain a broad understanding and appreciation for the culture and history of the 1940-1949 period in American history. In a very small way, this is a bibliographic essay. To see the whole picture, we encourage users to browse all the way through this page (and the other decades as they come online) and then visit the suggested links for more information on the decade. As you can see, the best way to immerse oneself in a topic is to use both Internet and the library. Some information is best viewed or read in books. This is where the real depth of information can be found. Then there is information that will be found only on the Internet. If you can add a valuable site or information to this page, we invite you to write. Thanks for the visit. ENJOY!
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 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.
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.
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.
As Adolf Hitler systematically eliminated artists whose ideals didn't agree with his own, many emigrated to the United States, where they had a profound effect on American artists. The center of the western art world shifted from Paris to New York. To show the raw emotions, art became more abstract. Abstract Expressionism, also known as the New York School, was chaotic and shocking in an attempt to maintain humanity in the face of insanity. Jackson Pollock was the leading force in abstract expressionism, but many others were also influential, including Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Piet Mondrian, Arshile Gorky, Adolf Gottlieb, and Hans Hofmann. Andrew Wyeth, the most popular of American artists, didn't fit in any movement. His most popular work, Christina's World, was painted in 1948. Sculpture, too, became abstract and primitive, utilizing motion in Alexander Calder's mobiles, and modern materials such as steel and "found objects" rather than the traditional marble and bronze.
In 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 buildings 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.
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 Monk, Billy Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Herman also performed blues and jazz.
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.
American Popular Music
1900-1950 | A look at the music and the times.
Lyrics Database | 61,000 song lyrics. Search by keyword.
Music in the Public Domain | Includes song lists - with links to some lyrics.
History of Radio | Arranged chronologically.
American Pop Culture | Songs, fads and inventions from the first half of the century.
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 perfectly 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.
World War II as Seen through Children's Literature | Overview and bibliography of books written during or about the war.
|Books That Define the Time|
Award Winners - Began in 1922 (award for
the most distinguished child's book of the previous year)
1940: Daniel Boone by James Daugherty
1941: Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry
1942: The Matchlock Gun by Walter Edmonds
1943: Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray
1944: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
1945: Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
1946: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski
1947: Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
1948: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
1949: King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry
Caldecott Award Winners - Began in 1938 (award for the most distinguished child's picture book of the previous year)
1940: Abraham Lincoln by Ingri & Edgar Parin d'Aulaire
1941: They Were Strong and Good, by Robert Lawson
1942: Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
1943: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
1944: Many Moons, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin; text: James Thurber
1945: Prayer for a Child, illustrated by Elizabeth Orton Jones; text: Rachel Field
1946: The Rooster Crows by Maude & Miska Petersham
1947: The Little Island, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard; text: Golden MacDonald, pseud. [Margaret Wise Brown]
1948: White Snow, Bright Snow, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin; text: Alvin Tresselt
1949: The Big Snow by Berta & Elmer Hader
In popular dancing, 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 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 a stationary, 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 phenomenon arose - the juvenile delinquent.
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. Glamorous 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 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, and Destination Tokyo. Citizen Kane, not fitting the template, was one of the masterpieces of the time. Leading actors were Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine 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 (1943).
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.
Kukla, Fran & Ollie kicked off children's television as Junior Jamboree in 1947,
followed by the Howdy Doody
The sitcom made its appearance in January, 1949, with The Goldbergs.
Organization of American Historians - Baseball and World War II