An Unexpected Story of Love, Marriage, Life and Living It (1945-1950)
Plus a Then and Now comparison
By: J. Marlando
Life in the U.S. had actually been difficult for a great many Americans before the Second World War. There had been World War I, then prohibition. We all know about the “roar” of the 20s! Then the depression unfolded with its soup lines and joblessness followed by the dust storms that swept across the Mid-West…after all this, WW II!
Hard times in pre-World War II America:
When at last the war ended in 1945, Americans gave simple home life and the American Dream new importance. But this is understandable. America was suddenly populated by men returning home from the war. Military men in both war time and peace time who are isolated with other men began missing the feminine in their lives. This is much deeper than a mere response to unfulfilled sexual desires. This “missing the feminine” includes moms, aunts, sisters and other female friends and relatives; even female strangers on the street who make up the other half of society are missed by men on battlefields. Indeed, ask just about any service man who has found himself in a situation of being in an all-male environment for very long and most probably he will agree that one of the greatest anxieties he endured was missing “femaleness” in his world; the scent and touch of a woman so to speak.
This incidentally is why the pinup girls were so important to the military. Not because of the obvious reasons although they counted too but because most men have a deeply seated psychological need for the expression of the feminine in their lives; a desire to have their own coarseness softened by the other half of humanity.
With this in mind, it is important to grasp the strong desire for home life that the returning military men had longed for during the war. Indeed, things that he once had taken for granted were, by then, precious to him like home, mom and yes, apple pie. He was simply ready for marriage and family devotion; he wanted kids and family ties, all the stuff of life that he could have so easily lost forever.
Most certainly this desire for returning to normal and putting the pieces of family life back together belonged to women ever as strongly. As a result, love and marriage was placed at the top of America’s menu for creating a happy, content and secure life.
When Johnnie Came Marching Home
Before the war married life and the roles of husbands and wives were well defined—Men ruled the purse strings and the marital roost; men ruled society and, by and large, women were raised by their own parents to believe this was just as it should be. There was a fly in this ointment, however. During the war a great many women began handling their own finances, making their own decisions and, for those with children, taking the place of father when it came to
As a result, the “little lady” that Johnnie had left behind had change and was no longer so “little” when he returned. What I mean by this is that she wasn’t about to let loose of her equality in making financial decisions or, for that matter making any other decisions for the family. And, there was something else: Although most men anticipated their superior position in the home was waiting for them after the war, the truth was that many husbands were not apt at handling household affairs and less capable in finance than their wives were. Before the war such men were in charge anyway because, well, they were men. But for the vast majority of postwar women, maleness was no longer enough to subordinate them. Women were determined that husbands and wives would not only be in a marital relationship after the war, but would also be in a marital partnership.
Some men welcomed this while others didn’t but American women, in general, would not back down from their desire for equality both privately and publicly; they would have their say especially in their own home environments and that was all there was to it.
There had been lots of changes after the war. For example, postwar America offered real opportunity to those who had served with the major benefit being the Readjustment Act of 1944. The G.I. Bill of Rights provided unemployment benefits, education assistance and low interest loans for homes, farms and small businesses. This not only gave real help in rebuilding America and so American lives but reestablished a greater trust and admiration for government in the country. In fact, for the first time in a very long time, people felt cared about by their elected leaders and that feeling was passed down to their children. (There would, however, be many who would grow up to abandon that positive view in the wake of the future’s civil rights movement and the Vietnam disillusionment but nevertheless, God, Home and Country were the cornerstones of Americanism during the 40s).
In a quick digression, superheroes prevailed after the war years:
In any case, along with the G.I. Bill of Rights, unlike it had been after World War 1, World War II vets found little difficulties in finding work. For one thing, after the war President Truman’s administration acted immediately to lift government controls on the economy as quickly as possible. However, there was a stiff inflation after the war which inspired a great many strikes by a great many workers. And those strikes hit some of the most important sectors of the country’s
industries—railroads, coal, steel, oil and automobiles!
This began to divide Americans between pro and anti-labor unions. While President Truman was sympathetic toward labor he had tried to veto the Taft-Hartley Act which placed restrictions on labor unions including the “closed shop.” That is shops that could only hire union members. The truth is that unionization of America’s workers became necessary because of unfair conditions of industry and other big business. More often than not, they did not pay enough for a family man to keep food on his table and there had even been the cruel overworking of women and children employees before unionization began. (One of the most productive and successful Union organizers was a woman—Mary Jones also known as Mother Jones beloved by thousands of
workers and especially coal miners).
The truth is that many unions (not all) were indeed fingers of communism when they were formed but on the other side of that coin, the unions that lasted quickly became self-serving and self-enriching and if there had been communist motivations they almost immediately went by the wayside. Indeed, all union motivations quickly became capitalistic in the extreme when it came to profiting not to mention being “mob” connected in many instances. In regard to the positive results of unionization, however, a good example are the 500,000 steel workers who went on strike during the late 40s gaining much deserved pensions fully funded by the steel firms—this was a tremendous victory for both the union and the union worker.
Anyway, after the war, unions set out to make up for the wage freezes that occurred during the war and by and large they did in major industries and smaller industries as well. But even beyond union work, employment was up after the war with so many women leaving the workplace and the returned soldiers replacing them as soon as they did. Some women went right on working but, mostly, women wanted to return to domestic life and being housewives and mothers was appealing to the majority of them.
There was, however, a change in American lifestyle during the immediate postwar years that was destined to change the course of American life itself.
Changes for the American Way
Before the ending of the war most Americans had done without for a very long time—as said earlier there were the depression and dust bowl years with the world war following. During the war years there had been massive shortages from food to clothing; just about everything! By 1946 America was quickly recovering from it all—employment was up, wages were acceptable and thanks to the G.I. bill home ownership was expanding and new suburbia was growing with a new middle class.
In this view, life can be said to have been positive for the majority of postwar Americans—even the poor were better off than they had been and poverty itself—except in extreme cases—was comfortably fed and housed. But, at that time, even unskilled labor was earning at least 25% more than minimum wage which was 40 cents an hour and so $48.00 a week bought a lot during the second half of the 40s.
What had changed, however, is American desire to have a lot of stuff. After the war, consumerism began peaking and both men and women desired to have lots of food, lots of clothing, lots of household conveniences, nice cars and other luxuries like refrigerators, washing machines and vacuum cleaners, etc. It was the “popup toaster” era of technology and most people wanted the convenience—and the prestige—of it. And, for practically the first time in U.S. history people were willing—even anxious—to go into (deep) debt to get what they wanted.
Before the war both Practicality and Frugality ruled but in the WW II postwar years, Possession was king. The rich, as always, had just about everything they wanted materially but now the lower and middle class wanted just about everything they could have…and then some. Even in rural America catalogs like Sears (then Sears and Roebuck) and Montgomery Wards were called “dream books” because they offered such a vast selection of…stuff; toys to tools to appliance and dresses to washing machines. The home front had quite suddenly turned into a world of stuff.
Husbands and wives were equally product hungry and so consumerism shot up boosting the economy and paving the way to the (mostly) prosperous 1950s.
As with everything there were exceptions but for a great many Americans life had suddenly turned from dark and gloomy to bright and cheerful—And, at least in the west, lots of families still went on Saturday or Sunday picnics either to the mountains or to the local park, took Sunday drives or, in winter, spent time playing board games at home or just sitting together around the radio. And, in summer, while the sudden growth of inexpensive housing was shooting up in clusters making porches obsolete in prefab architecture, married couples who had porches still sat in porch swings (or on porch steps) to spend romantic evenings talking and stealing a kiss or two after the children had been put to bed. The point is that the postwar years were, by and large, marriage and family life orientated.
At the time television was already creeping into popularity but most people had not even heard or imagined it; that “movies” and shows could be seen in one’s own living room was just too unbelievable for the average Jane and Joe. However, as said, back then family spent a lot of time gathered around the radio
Listening to great shows Mr. and Mrs. North (two amateur detectives solving crimes) or The Shadow an intriguing mystery or the fun of
The Lucy Show or Burns and Allen for comedy or Abbot and Costello for the kids.
And when a family’s favorite show wasn’t on then music became the focus in the evening. In pop music there was Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters to name singing stars of the time. They had two very different styles but who would “hook up” to record together at least once during those heydays of radio. And, as far as country music, Hank Williams, Eddie Arnold, Jimmy Wakely and Earnest Tubb were the super stars of the day.
This was American home life, simple, cohesive and for most committed couples, loving. Back then it was still considered a failure to divorce and so most couples gave their all to keeping their togetherness in repair and so their families together. However…a serious trouble-maker was entering American married life—with families buying a lot of all that stuff on time, money problems became a major part of middle class lifestyles. I say middle class because most of the poor could not obtain credit and the rich didn’t need it. As a result, credit became a middle class malady for which there is yet no cure.
While the credit card was mostly only an experiment during the 40s they were destined to flood across the country by the mid-1960s becoming a fabric of American lifestyle. Indeed, over debt would soon enough become a way of life for…well, for countless people. Yes, there were a great many people who remained sensible in their buying and so charging. Folks who were conscientiousness about keeping their good credit but a great many others began risking their tomorrows to come on what they wanted today and, in the long run, paid a much heavier price for their “stuff” than they had anticipated—like the additional cost of anxiety and unhappiness!
There is something else that is hardly talked about when it comes to the postwar years—the last half of the 40s and all the 50s were basically eras of social conformity by the vast majority. People wanted to be stylish, keep up with the Jones and “fit in” the center of their society. Anyone who chose to live outside the “center” or, in other words, lived on the fringes of acceptable society, was called oddballs, losers, lunatics or beatnixs; even the poor were looked at with a certain distain from the safety of the middle.
As a result, there was a strange arrogance in the U.S. after the war that was demonstrated in a one-ups-man-ship attitude by the growing middle class; a judging others by oneself and oneself by others. (What I call the most self-destructive of all human faults and frailties). I suppose that this was a natural result after so much poverty and doing without so many things for so many years but, on the other hand, one would think that those experiences would have given people empathy as opposed to pomposity but, in general, they hadn’t. Indeed, a certain social-Darwinism had spread its wings over a lot of suburban life and suburban life was Americana of the times.
By the time that 1949 rolled around the vast majority of Americans had pushed America’s “hard” years out of their minds and settled comfortably in the present with positive hope for the future. Then, in early 1950s the dangerous Cold War arrived with the two superpowers in a massive nuclear arms race. The threat of the planet’s annihilation became a reality that was destined to change just about everyone’s worldview. Indeed, the thought that humans were in control of death over life as we knew it would play its role in creating the fury and frustrations of the 1960s, that decade of non-conformity and social upheaval.
After the years of world war, only five years had passed before we were fighting in Korea in yet another war. Most Americans at home feared that the fighting would escalate into China but while China supported the North with arms and men, their involvement was contained and thankfully that war ended in 1953.
By 1953 home life was never to be the same—television had stolen away the togetherness of home life; the kitchen table where meals had always been eaten and games were played was abandoned by family’s leaving the kitchen and going into the living room to eat off T.V. trays. Those became the final days of home life as it had traditionally been. And, by then the supermarket had replaced the corner grocery store with virtually countless items to choose from. Chain stores such as hardware stores to toy stores, clothing stores to sporting goods stores and book stores to variety stores began creating shopping mall mania casting most downtown mom and pops’ into a competition they could not survive. And with all the consumer items made available, people just kept buying more and so charging more. The more they charged the more interest they paid and the more interest they paid the deeper in debt they went. By the end of the 1950s the two-income family was on the social horizon and home life, as it had always been known, was to be changed forever.
The postwar years of the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s were the closing years of American traditionalism; the death of the Norman-Rockwellian past. The burial, however, would not occur until the 1980s but that is yet another history to be told.
Special Section: Then and Now
The 1940s are called the most romantic years in American history and they were—not in spite of the terrible war but because of it. Young love was the key to that decade of despair and determination—young men and women met, fell in love and, in many instances, did not wait for marriage to consummate their devotion through ritual and intimacy. They found themselves in a kind of desperate love affair never knowing if they would see each other again or not. In war time, especially for those in the military the unforeseeable future holds little importance—no one makes many plans on the battle field.
After the war was over in 1945, people were anxious to return to normalcy—not as it was before the war but rather how they imagined it being before the war. Actually as said in the above, American had virtually had hard times for a very long time but, even at that—those hard times looked appealing from the prospective of the war-time view.
In 1940 the average cost of:
A new house………………. $6,500.00
A gallon of gasoline………. $ 15 cents
A new car…………………..$1,300.00
A loaf of bread……………..$ 13 cents
Women’s hair styles—see below
Credit: An Unexpeted Sotry of Love, Marriage, Life and Living It (1945-1950)
Women’s hairstyles to day—see below
Menswear today—See below
The 1949 Ford
The 2012 Mustang
Singing stars—see below
Singing stars today—see below
Women’s dress then—see below
Women’s dress now—See below
As we think back to the past we can more easily comprehend our present but, as always, the fture remains uncertain.