What’s there to say about this decade so chronicled in books and media? Think of all the novels that feature women walking arm in arm on the cover. Those are WWII books and they’re everywhere. I’ll be honest, I had trouble writing this week. What can I share that you don’t already know about the 1940’s?
This is the decade that gave us Captain America (1941) and kidney dialysis (1943) and Goodnight Moon (1947). Mount Rushmore was finished in 1941 after nearly 15 years of carving. Then, on February 15th, 1946, ENIAC (pictured above), the first programmable electronic computer, was unveiled at the University of Pennsylvania. So, yeah, it was a pretty incredible decade.
Kids These Days:
One of the fads that probably drove parents crazy were pea shooters. Sort of like a marshmallow shooter you may have used at camp, these sent dried peas into the air at unsuspecting kids, parents, and teachers. Luckily for other kids, they probably had theirs on hand for retaliation ‘cause many kids didn’t go anywhere without them.
Kids too old to shoot peas were probably swing dancing -maybe even wearing zoot suits like these guys. Remember when swing dancing came back for a hot minute in 1998? I do because my husband and I went to a swing dance for our first date. I wish we would have read the flyer a little better though. We thought it was for college students, but we were the only people under 75 there. The swing dancers at our dance were using vintage moves from the actual 40’s and they were all trying out their new hips. Needless to say, we didn’t stay the whole time. I was new to swing dancing, but not big band music. I’d been unapologetically listening to the music of the 40’s all through high school. In fact, when I got my senior pictures taken, I was told I could bring my favorite music so I’d feel more comfortable during the photo shoot. When I pulled "The Anthology of Big Band Swing" (a 2 disc set) out of my bag, the photographer said, “Well, that’s a first.” By the way, he totally loved it.
Kids during the 40’s also huddled around the radio. It was good for music and war updates, but also sports broadcasts, quiz shows, and soap operas. If they weren’t huddling around a radio, maybe they were huddling around a person. A game called Buck Buck or Johny on a Pony was wildly popular. Don’t get too excited, they basically just piled onto one kid’s back. (Don’t tell my kids, because I can absolutely see them trying this.)
As a young person, it was important to keep up with the latest trends. And one of those trends was weird slang. There are times my kids say things I don’t quite understand, but they have nothing on the amazing slang of the 1940’s. Here are some terms people don’t use anymore. But feel free to bring them back.
Active duty: A promiscuous male
Crumb: A jerk
Doll dizzy: Girl-crazy
Ducky shincracker: A good dancer
Flip your wig: Lose control of yourself
Gammin’: Showing off
Going fishing: Trying to get a date
Hen fruit: Eggs
Hi sugar, are you rationed?: Do you have a steady boyfriend?
Khaki wacky: Boy-crazy
Off the cob: Silly or goofy
This is me doing my best with this wonderful slang:
I don’t care if you’re a ducky shincracker, that’s no excuse to be on active duty. I had some hen fruit so good the other day, I about flipped my wig. Seems off the cob to have a popsicle, especially if it’s for gammin’. I met this doll-dizzy crumb, wearing cheaters and going fishing. He said, “Hi sugar, are you rationed?” I said, “Yes, and even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be khaki wacky for you. Now, move your stompers and get going so I can enjoy my mud.”
Of course, we know this decade wasn’t all swing dancing and silly games. On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into World War II. American women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers during the war, as widespread male enlistment left gaping holes in the labor force.
We Can Do It!
Rosie the Riveter was the star of a campaign aimed at recruiting female workers for defense industries and she became perhaps the most iconic image of working women. The strong, bandanna-clad Rosie became one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history and the most iconic image of working women in the World War II era. By 1945, nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home. The aviation industry saw the greatest increase in female workers. More than 310,000 women worked in the aircraft industry in 1943, making up 65 percent of the industry’s total workforce (compared to just 1 percent in the pre-war years).
Rosie’s prototype was created in 1942 by a Pittsburgh artist named J. Howard Miller, and was featured on a poster for Westinghouse Electric Corporation under the headline “We Can Do It!”
Early in 1943, a popular song debuted called “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, and the name went down in history.
The true identity of Rosie the Riveter has been the subject of considerable debate. For years, the inspiration for the woman in the Westinghouse poster was believed to be Geraldine Hoff Doyle of Michigan who worked in a Navy machine shop, but it doesn’t really matter who she was. She represented women everywhere who stepped up when we needed them most.
Kilroy Was Here!
Another image people would have recognized during the war was this one. But who was Kilroy? James J. Kilroy was as an inspector at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts and he checked the rivets that hold the shipsvvvvv together. (You know, the ones Rosie put on.) They had to be put in properly and fastened solidly. As Kilroy made his inspections—often going into tight spaces and down into tanks—he counted the blocks of rivets as he went. Then, he used a waxy chalk to leave a checkmark on the area he had approved. Riveters’ pay was calculated by the rivet. After Kilroy left for the day, the workers sometimes erased the mark so that the inspector on the next shift would come through and count their work for a second time. This would increase their pay. After a time, one of the shipyard supervisors called Kilroy in to discuss the circumstances. The count of ship parts completed seemed below what it should be, considering the number of rivets inspected.
Kilroy thought through the circumstances. He realized someone must have been tampering with his checkmarks. He continued to leave his checkmark but also wrote “Kilroy was here” in over-sized letters to make the tampering more difficult. Later he added the sketch of the long-nosed man peering over the wall. This addition got a message through to the riveters: don’t tamper with the inspection count. Some of the planes were hurried into battle, and therefore, didn’t have the marking removed. Servicemen everywhere began seeing the signature and drawing but they didn’t know what it meant.
“Kilroy was here” soon became a popular message to leave at various destinations. Before long, Kilroy’s mark had been noted throughout Europe and in the South Pacific. The men soon found it a favorite amusement to see how many places Kilroy could appear. Some believe that “Kilroy was here” was a morale-builder as well. It seemed to give strength to the G.I.’s when they arrived at a new location and discovered that American soldiers already had been through the area. After the war, the graffiti became so popular that it is said to have been written in places as varied as Mount Everest and the Arc de Triomphe. It is occasionally still written in random places today.
The war affected all aspects of life in the states. In addition to a labor shortage, there were supplies chain shortages a well. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? In the 40’s, companies stopped making toys made out of tin or metal (which were very popular before and after the war). These materials were needed for airplanes, weapons, and machinery. For girls, paper dolls and cardboard houses were very popular. Remember the green army men? The ones in Toy Story who run away because “When the trash bags come out, we’re the first to go”? They hit stores for the first time in the 40’s. Maybe, because they were new and people felt a kinship with those fighting in the war, moms didn’t throw them out as quickly.
Two popular toys, invented in the 40’s, happened by mistake. Richard James, a mechanical engineer was working with springs for a feature to go on ships, bumped a few of the springs off his desk and watched them bounce and crawl down the stairs. That’s how we got the slinky, which was wildly popular in the 40’s and is still a favorite today. Another happy accident was silly putty which was a failed synthetic rubber experiment. Kids in the 40’s played boardgames like Chutes and Ladders and Candyland for the first time. Also, the Yakkity-Yak Chattering Teeth toy became popular. Like a one-year-old playing with a box instead of her birthday present, kids will play with just about anything even if it is a creepy set of chattering teeth.
42 in 47:
The events of the 1940’s can be broken into two parts: the war and after the war. And these two parts couldn’t have been more different from each other. We tend to think of the baby boom as something from the 50’s, but it started pretty much as soon as the G.I.’s came home. People got married, bought houses, and suburbs grew up around big cities. Everything was business as usual, but was it really?
My Nora wouldn’t forgive me if I wrote about the 40’s and didn’t mention a certain baseball player. Obviously, America in the 1940’s was still very much racially segregated. That was especially true in professional sports.
In 1920, Jackie Robinson’s father abandoned his family and they moved to Pasadena, California, where his mother, Mallie, worked a series of odd jobs to support herself and her children. Though Pasadena was a fairly affluent suburb of Los Angeles at the time, the Robinsons were poor, and Jackie and his friends in the city’s small Black community were often excluded from recreational activities.
That began to change when Jackie enrolled at John Muir High School in 1935. His older brother Mack, a silver medalist in track and field at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, inspired him to pursue his interest in athletics, and the younger Robinson ultimately earned varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football and track.
Robinson broke the baseball color barrier when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. His inclusion in baseball’s top league signaled the end of segregation in professional baseball, but it’s important to remember that Robinson, like all Civil Right Activists, put up with his share of hateful treatment during his career. He changed the sport of baseball forever, and it’s easy to think of this as just a heartwarming story, but we must remember that the owners, coaches, and other players benefitted greatly from his success. Not everyone was motivated to make these changes because of Jackie’s courage and talent. Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and his story is inspirational to so many (including my little girl who has a collection of books about him).
I know some of you missed the recipes last week. Like the 30’s, there were ingredients that were hard to come by in the 1940’s. Housewives were awesome at finding substitutions for things like meat, sugar, and dairy which often went to the troops first. However, some recipes we still use today became popular during the 40’s. The first is Grandma's Corn Flake Peanut Butter Cookies. I always see these on Christmas cookie platters and they remind me of peanut butter fudge. Peanut butter was a staple in the 40’s because it was cheap, a good source of protein, and had a long shelf life. Just talking about these cookies makes me want to make them.
One recipe I’d like to try is Victory Chocolate Cake. The bright red cherries on top remind me of the “victory” red lipstick women wore during the war to boost morale. This recipe substitutes corn syrup for some of the sugar and it’s flavored with brewed coffee. Yum!
A dessert that became popular during the war was this one for Peach Brown Betties. Fruit cobblers or buckles weren’t new and people still make them today. But the Brown Betty was different because they used breadcrumbs on top since flour and oats might not have been available. This “use what you have on hand” kind of baking was typical during the war.
Like during The Great Depression, people in the 40’s had to make due with what they had. Kids played with paper and synthetic rubber. Housewives baked with whatever they had on hand, and joined the workforce. Men left home to fight and some never returned. It was a decade of sacrifice, of perseverance and ingenuity that we can look back on with pride.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check and see if I have enough hen fruit to make a victory chocolate cake. I have a feeling it’ll be so good my family will flip their lids.