American Cultural History 1940 – 1949

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.

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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.

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!

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Art & Architecture | Books & Literature | Fashion | Fads | Historic Events | Music & Radio | Sports |  Television | Theater &  Film

Albert City (Iowa) High School senior class 1941


War ration coupons The 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, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower commanded the troops in Europe. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz led them in the Pacific. The successful use of an antibiotic, penicillin, by 1941 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. Shopping downtown Houston in 1940's, Rice Hotel in background 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.

Sailor with cow - 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.

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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. Nurse in front of typical 40s car. 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.


  • American History 1860 to the present   |  Lone Star College – Kingwood Library history page for this period.
  • World War II   |  Historical text archive.
  • Women and the Home Front during World War II | Rosie the Riveter, WASPS, WAVES and nurses.
  • Historical Atlas of the 20th Century   |  Collection of maps and stats of the 20th century.
  • Biography Index   |  Biographies of over 25,000 famous persons, from the History Channel.
  • Genealogy Guide   |  Helpful in locating past people, places and events.
  • The 1940’s | Film, fashion, radio and music, with video clips.


REF E169.12 .A419   American Decades 1940-1949
Business, government, education, arts, science and sports .
REF E178.5.A48  Album of American History  Vol V and VI
This is a great book to give the reader the real flavor of the decade because it is made up of photographs, captions, and brief entries.
REF E174.D62  Dictionary of American History
From very brief to multi-page signed entries on topics in American history. Also available through NetLibrary.
 REF E740.7 .E53  Encyclopedia of the United States in the Twentieth Century
Articles evaluating the trends in American politics, people, economics, culture.
REF E169.1 A471872  America in the 20th Century 
1940-1949 is covered in volume 5.  Information is readable and concise, covering the War, the homefront, labor and the arts. 
REF E173.A793 The Annals of America
Use volume 16.  Set contains essays and excepts from important writers and on important topics of the time.  Most valuable for this research.

ART & ARCHITECTURETypical early ranch style house during the 40s


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.


  • Skyscrapers  |   A look at some of the skyscrapers in New York City.  While not necessarily designed in the 1940’s, they are a result of the 1940’s innovations. Twentieth Century Art Links    |    Worldwide
  • Great Buildings Online | Important architecture of the 1940s. Descriptions included.
  • Library of Congress. American Memories | Interiors and exteriors of American homes, stores, offices, factories and historic buildings; photographs taken from 1935-1955


NA712 .L 20th Century American Archicture
Photographs and descriptions of the key buildings of the era.
REF NA6512 .A578 American Artists
Brief entries and representational pictures of the artists’ work.
ND213.5 .R4 W36 American Realist Painting 1945-1980
Post-war trends
REF N6490 .O94 Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Art
Medium length entries on the major artists of the century, worldwide.
REF NA680 .E495 Encyclopedia of 20th Century Architecture
People, places and trends, worldwide.



Like art, music reflected American enthusiasm tempered with European disillusionment. While the European émigrés George Szell, Bela Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, and Nadia Boulanger introduced classical dissonance, American born composers remained more traditional, with Aaron Copland’s Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944). 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 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.


REF ML200.H15 A Chronicle of American Music 1700-1995
Arranged by year, historical highlights, world cultural highlights, American art and literature, music – commercial and cultural. 
REF ML197.S634 Music Since 1900 
Arranged by day, includes important premiers and musical events.
REF ML128.S37L4 The Great Song Thesaurus
Arranged by year, summary of world and musical events, list of important songs.
REF ML390.S983 Show Tunes 1905-1985
Features important composers.  Lists their shows and the published music for each show.
REF ML102 .M88 H593 Oxford Companion to the American Musical.
Brief entries on the best known shows and entertainers
REF ML200 .C36 Cambridge History of American Music
Several volumes.
REF ML128 .P63 T95 Hit Songs 1900-1955
Interesting background about popular tunes.


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

  • Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead
  • Irwin Shaw’s Young Lions
  • John Hershey’s A Bell for Adano
  • William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy
  • Richard Wright’s Black Boy
  • Dr. Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care


Books About Books

REF PN50 .L574  Literature and its Times
Examines literature in light of the events and prejudices of the day.  Vol. 4 covers works about,  but not necessarily written during, the forties.
REF PS21 M34   Magills Survery of American Literature
Gives author background and a synopsis of significant works, including those listed as “defining the time.”
REF PS221 .T835 Twentieth Century American Literature 
An 8 volume set with long essays and criticism of twentieth century works.
REF PS350 .A53 American Playwrights since 1945
Gives an overview of each playwright’s life and works, including criticism.

Children’s Book Award winners of the forties:

Newbery 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 twoKilroy was Here 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.

Vale-Rio Diner in Phoenixville, PA. Boy Scout Troop 164, Portsmouth, NH 1949 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.


REF E169.1.P19   Panati’s Parade of Fads, Follies and Manias 
Arranged by decade, includes fads, dance crazes, radio, TV, popular books and songs.
E 69.1.R7755 Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America 
Important essays analyzing mass culture in American history. 


  The Zoot Suit was the height of fashion among daring young men until the War ProductionPopular Sweater and hairstyle of the forties 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. 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.


  • Solemates: Century in Shoes | Shoe styles and other fashion trends of the 1940’s.  Includes film clips.
  • Vintage Blues – History of Fashion 1940-1950
  • The Costume Gallery – Women’s Fashions 1940’s


GT615 .H86  The Way We Were: Styles of the 1930’s and 1940’s
Clothing of the decade worn on screen by actress Marsha Hunt.  Hairstyles and hats are also featured.
GT605 .W5  Five Centuries of American Costume
Chapter 9 discusses the dress of men and women from 1940-1949.  Illustrations included.
GT605 .H35 Common Threads: A Parade of American Clothing
Includes an overview of the 20th century,  then chapters on contributors to changes in fashion. It has photographs of people at work, in college, and at play.


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-disillusionment 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).

Dance competition entry in the early 1940's 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.


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. Its 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.


  • Broadway 101 – History of theater on Broadway, by decade
  • E-Online movies and stars
  • Starbuzz: Guide to Stars Online
  • Television History – The First 75 Years
  • Movie Timeline – Search for “current events” in the movies by date


REF PN2189.L65 Twentieth Century Theatre 
A theater buff’s bible.  This book lists and describes by year premiers, productions, revivals, events, births/death/debuts in both America and Great Britain.
REF PN1992.18 .E53 Encyclopedia of Television
Photographs and information about the stars and the shows.
REF PN1993.5 .U6 H55 History of the American Cinema: Boom and Bust.
Stars and trends. Volume 6 covers the forties.
REF ML390.S983 Show Tunes: 1905-1985
Limited because it only covers only Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin  from this era.  Worth a look for these two – because it lists plays, performances, theater information, and published songs.



World War II had its effect on sports as all able-bodied men between 18 and 26 were expected to serve in the military.  Rubber went to the war effort; consequently, balls were soggy and unresponsive.  Wood was in short supply, leading to a shortage of baseball bats and bowling pins.  Even so, professional sports were encouraged to continue, to improve the morale of the troops.  President Roosevelt signed the Green Light letter, supporting baseball.  Baseball games were considered so important to troop morale that the Japanese tried to jam radio broadcasts.  By 1943, half the baseball players had enlisted.  Teams used older veterans and even a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray of the St. Louis Browns.  In the All-American Girls Baseball League, players wore dresses and had to attend charm school.  After the war, television and easier transportation changed the face of American sports.  In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black professional baseball player – in fact, the first black professional athlete outside of boxing.  Baseball players negotiated for a minimum salary of $5500 a year.  By 1950, the top earning player, Stan Musial, was making $50,000. Postwar baseball names included Ted Williams, Ralph Kiner and Joe DiMaggio.

High School football team. Notice the padding and helmets.Before 1941 when two-platoon football was allowed, all eleven players on a football team played the entire game.  Only injury was an excuse for substitution.  That changed in 1941, when free subs were allowed, enabling weakened college teams to continue playing.   Because of travel restrictions, the 1942 Army Navy game was played in Annapolis, and half the midshipmen were assigned to cheer for West Point.  Sixty years later, Bill Williams, a Navy midshipman (Class of 1945), remembered that game. “We yelled the cheers and sang the songs but I don’t remember being very energetic. Also when Navy scored, we forgot whose side we were supposed to be on.  We won fourteen to nothing.”  The penalty flag, first used in 1941, became official in 1948.  Elaborate playbooks were introduced by Paul Brown, turning football into a game of strategy. Some of the northern college football teams began to integrate blacks.

Basketball was less affected by the war than other sports because a player’s height often made  him ineligible for military service.  The Basketball Association of America formed in 1946, merged in 1949 with the National Basketball League to form the NBA.  Joe Fulks of the Philadelphia Warriors had a record high score of 63 points in a game when most whole teams didn’t score that high.  The 1940’s were the heyday of boxing.  Boxing was big money, mainly because of gambling, and was ruled by gangland boxing czar Frankie Carbo.  Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1948, in part because major boxing titles were frozen from 1941 to 1946 as four thousand professional boxers joined the military.  Louis not only enlisted, he donated over $100,000 to war relief efforts in 1942.  Sugar Ray Robinson, Ike Williams and Willie Pep were other big names in boxing.  The Indianapolis 500 was closed duirng the war and the racetrack deteriorated.  In the first postwar race in 1946, twenty-four cars dropped out due to wrecks and mechanical difficulties.  NASCAR, a stock car racing club that purportedly ran cars that you could buy from a dealer’s showroom started the Grand Nationals in 1949.  The Women’s Professional Golf Association formed in 1946, and the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1949.  Babe Didriksen Zaharias and Patty Berg were the stars, with Byron Nelson the men’s champion.  Jack Kramer dominated men’s tennis.



Organization of American Historians – Baseball and World War II


REF GV861.12 .A2 P76 Professional Sports Team Histories
Four volumes one each on baseball, football, basketball and hockey.