Life in the 1940s

This is a list of items describing life in the 1940s, mainly in the Los Angeles, California, USA, area.

  1. The 1940s was dominated by World War II (1939-45) and its aftermath.  The decade was a transition from the radical 1930s to the conservative 1950s.

  2. The U.S. economy recovered from the depression of the 1930s.

Price Comparisons 1940 1949
gasoline (average price per gallon) 18Ę 27Ę
Dow Jones Industrial Average 150 200
minimum wage (per hour) 30Ę 40Ę
postage (first class letter)
Gross Domestic Product ($ billions) 97 271
Consumer Price Index (1977 = 100) 23.1 40.9
Inflation (1940 = 1.00) 1.00 1.70
  1. Telephones were mostly black, and had dials. The phone company owned all the telephones; you had to pay extra to have an "extension" phone, and extra for a color telephone.Large companies had PBX operators; you had to dial the switchboard number, and ask for the extension.
  2. Until 1964, City Hall was the tallest building in Los Angeles, having 32 floors.  Other buildings were limited to 150 feet in height, or 13 floors. (The height ordinance was repealed in 1956.)  Most downtown banks were located on Spring Street, as was the Los Angeles office of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange.  The major department stores were located on Broadway.  Many department stores had hidden cash registers.  When a customer made a purchase, the clerk would write up the transaction, send the paperwork and money through a pneumatic tube to the cashier, and in about a minute, the customerís change and receipt would come back to the clerk by pneumatic tube.
  3. There was no Amtrak; the railroad companies operated their own passenger trains. Almost all intercity passenger travel was by train: gasoline was rationed and no automobiles were manufactured during the war years, and air travel was expensive and only resorted to if the traveler was in a big hurry.  Some of the famous named trains terminating in Los Angeles were:
  4. There were no ZIP codes until 1963. From 1943 to 1963, large cities were divided into numerical zones. Before World War II, most mail was carried on Railway Post Offices, which were special cars designed for carrying and sorting mail, and often delivering and picking up mail on the fly.
  5. The postage for a first class letter was 3Ę per ounce from 1932 until 1958.  Air mail cost more (until 1977), and unsealed greeting cards could be sent at the post card rate, which was 1Ę/oz. less.
  6. There were many airlines that no longer exist, including Eastern, Western, Braniff, Bonanza (formed some time in the í40s), Continental, TWA (Transcontinental and Western Air; called itself The Trans World Airline beginning in 1946), National, and Pan American. Three airlines operating entirely in California were Condor, Wilmington-Catalina Airline, and PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines, founded 1949).
  7. Jet travel did not exist. The airlines operated propeller planes, but because air travel was expensive, most business and leisure travelers went by train.
  8. Aviation grew during the decade. In 1941 Mines Field was named Los Angeles Airport.  In 1946, most of the airlines moved from Lockheed Air Terminal (now Burbank airport) to Los Angeles Airport, which was renamed Los Angeles International Airport in 1949.
  9. Smog was a growing problem in Los Angeles.  In 1946 the Los Angeles Air Pollution Control Board was established. Backyard incinerators were common until banned in 1951.
  10. Smoking was permitted indoors, and even in airplanes; there were not even separate smoking sections. Trains, though, had some cars designated NO SMOKING, and buses usually only allowed smoking in the last few rows. Cigarettes were advertised on radio and television.
  11. Polio was a significant concern in the 1940s. The Salk vaccine wasnít introduced until 1953.  People were routinely vaccinated for smallpox.  The last case of (wild) smallpox occurred in the United States in 1949, but people were routinely vaccinated until 1979.
  12. Gasoline prices were between 15 and 30 cents a gallon.
  13. There were more gas stations and more brands:  Chevron Dealers and Standard Stations; Texaco; Union 76; Hancock; Mobil; Wilshire (which became Gulf); Shell; and Richfield.
  14. Roller skating was popular, both in rinks and on sidewalks.  Steel skates that could be attached to your own shoes were popular.
  15. Radio was only AM.  Some of the most important radio stations in L. A. during the decade were:
  16. Most home music systems consisted of an amplifier & radio (with tubes!) and a phonograph.
  17. The Polaroid Land Camera was introduced in 1948.
  18. Fashions in clothing were much simpler during the war years, because of the need to conserve materials.
  19. Major League Baseball had had eight teams in each league from 1900 until 1953. In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues.  (The expansion of the major leagues began in the 1960s.)  After the integration of the major leagues, the negro leagues faded into oblivion:  the Negro National League disbanded in 1948; the Negro American League ceased to be a competitive league after 1950, and operated as barnstorming teams.
  20. There was no major league baseball west of St Louis. There were two Pacific Coast League (AAA minor league) teams in the L. A. area: the Los Angeles Angels (1903-53), who played in Wrigley Field, and the Hollywood Stars (1938-57), who played in Gilmore Field.  The quality of play in the PCL was about as high as in the Major Leagues; many players prefered to play on the west coast because of the milder weather.  Other PCL teams were the Oakland Oaks, Sacramento Solons, San Francisco Seals, Portland Beavers, San Diego Padres, and the Seattle Rainiers.  (Read more about the PCL in this Wikipedia article.)
  21. Because so many able-bodied men were fighting the war, to satisfy the desire for baseball, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed in 1943.  The league lasted until 1954.
  22. Because of the shortage of men, free substitution was allowed in football starting in 1941.  This allowed for separate offensive and defensive platoons on each team.  The penalty flag was also introduced in 1941.
  23. The Los Angeles Rams moved from Cleveland and played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, from 1946 to 1980.  They were the first major league franchise to play on the west coast.  (Monday night football didnít begin until 1970.)
  24. The Basketball Association of America (now the NBA) was formed in 1946. There was no team in Los Angeles until 1959.
  25. Most professional men wore suits and ties to work, and white shirts and hats.
  26. Congress had passed the Wagner Act in 1935, leading to large scale organizing of labor unions. Most unions were solidly behind FDR and the Democrats.  But the outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to some disunity.  The majority were sympathetic to Great Britain and her allies, but those with communist leanings were opposed to Britain.  After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, all unions supported Britain.  The United Mine Workers went on strike in 1943, with little sympathy from the general public. The warís end brought many workers back into industry, and increase in union membership.  The United Auto Workers struck in 1946, under their president, Walter Reuther, who had previously purged communists from the CIO.  There was a threatened rail strike in 1946, which would have seriously hampered the U. S. economy.  Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, over President Trumanís veto; the act outlawed the closed shop and secondary boycotts, and other practices that were felt gave unions too much power.
  27. Presidents of the US were Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) (1933-45) and Harry S Truman (1945-53).
  28. Other world leaders included Stalin (d. 1953) in the Soviet Union; Winston Churchill (1940-45) and Clement Atlee (1945-51) in the UK; De Gaulle in France, Peron in Argentina, and Mao in Communist China (1949).  Others included:  W. L. Mackenzie King (to 1948) and Louis St Laurent (1948-57), PMs of Canada; Chiang Kai-Shek in Nationalist China (only Taiwan from 1949); Nehru in India; Ben Gurion in Israel; Nasser in Egypt; Tito in Yugoslavia; and Adenauer in West Germany (after 1949, when the allied occupation ended).  The pope was Pius XII (1939-58).
  29. The Cold War started in 1947 with the United States taking over for Britain aiding anticommunist forces in Greece and Turkey; and the Soviet Union withdrawing from Iran under strong pressure from the United States and Great Britain (the "Iran Crisis").  The Chinese civil war ended with a complete victory for the communists; the government of Chiang Kai-Shek was left only Taiwan.  The Soviet Union attempted to starve West Berlin in the Berlin Blocade, 1948-9.  The western powers responded with the Berlin Airlift.  (The Berlin Wall didnít exist yet: it was built in 1961.)  N.A.T.O. was formed in 1949.
  30. After the warís end, resident aliens were required to file an address report every January.
  31. The American Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s.  Most of the South was strictly segregated.  But some important events took place during the 1940s.  In 1941, the president of the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters planned a massive march on Washington to demand an end to discrimination by defense contractors and an end to segregation in the armed forces.  President Roosevelt issued an executive order ending discrimination in government agencies and defense contractors, but not in the military.  The march was called off.  In 1948, President Truman ordered the armed forces desegregated.
  32. Because of the war, many more women began working in industrial jobs, as symbolized by Rosie the Riveter.  The armed forces accepted large numbers of women for non-combat roles: WACs in the army, WAVES in the navy, and WAFs in the army air forces.  At the end of the war, many women were happy to return home, and let their men do the work. But many women discovered the independence that a job can bring.
  33. Many teenagers found work during the war, with so many men off fighting.  This led to teenagers having their own money, with advertisers catering to them.  Seventeen magazine was founded in 1944.
  34. The Interstate Highway system was not established until 1956, but plans were underway in the 1940s. The Los Angeles freeway network was begun in the íforties. At the start of the decade, only parts of the Pasadena Freeway (then called the Arroyo Seco Parkway) was built.  During the decade, parts of the Santa Ana, Cahuenga [Hollywood], and Ramona [San Bernardino] Parkways (as they were called then) were constructed.
  35. There were many US numbered highways in Los Angeles: 6, 60, 66, 70, 91, 99, and 101.  Pacific Coast Highway was numbered Alternate US 101 (now California 1). Until 1955, US 101 followed Whittier Blvd to Orange County.  There was US 101 By-pass along Telegraph Road, Lakewood Blvd, and Firestone Blvd, meeting US 101 in Anaheim.  State highway shields were black on white (rather than white on green).  Many highway numbers were changed in 1964.  Manchester Avenue and Firestone Boulevard were state route 10.  Olympic Boulevard was state route 26.  Artesia Boulevard was California state route 14. There was also an Alternate US 66 along Figueroa Street north of downtown Los Angeles.  Placing of highway number signs was done by the Auto Club until 1956.
  36. Some streets have changed names since the forties.  Artesia Boulevard was known as Gould Avenue in Hermosa Beach, Gould Lane in Manhattan Beach, and Redondo Beach Boulevard in Redondo Beach.  La Cienega Boulevard was known as Freeman Boulevard in Inglewood, and Anza Avenue in Los Angeles city and county.  Anza Avenue in Torrance did not connect with either 190th Street or Pacific Coast Highway.
  37. There were still orange groves in Orange County and northern San Fernando Valley.  And there were still dairy farms in the area around Artesia and Bellflower. Much of Los Angeles county was agricultural at the start of the decade.  But after the war much farmland became suburban developments seemingly overnight, in areas like West L. A., Westchester, and the San Fernando Valley.
  38. No cities or towns were incorporated in Los Angeles County from 1939 to 1954, because the new city would have to assume all municipal services.  Most communities were content to let the county government continue to provide municipal services.
  39. Beginning in 1941, the government began rationing tires, gasoline, sugar, coffee, meat, fats and oils, cheese, and shoes.  In order to purchase such goods, ration stamps were required.  In order to make more food available for the war effort, people were encouraged to grow victory gardens in their back yards.  By warís end, about one third of all vegetables were home grown.  In order to make more material available for military uniforms, civilian clothing styles were simpler, blouses without ruffles or pockets and coats without lapels. Buttons replaced zippers in many cases.  Because of the need to curtail gasoline use, the phrase "Is this trip necessary?" was popularized, and even became a joke.
  40. Mass in the Roman Catholic Church was celebrated in Latin.  Before the war, the United States was pretty much seen as a Protestant country.  But because of camaraderie during the war, after the war Lutherans, Catholics, and Jews were seen as equally American to Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Baptists.
  41. Church attendance was not particularly high during the decade.  But the public attitude toward religion was different from today.  The day after D-day (January 7, 1944), the New York Times had stories about President Rooseveltís prayer for the nation, Governor Deweyís prayer, and a prayer service held in Madison Square Garden at which Mayor LaGuardia spoke.
  42. Microgroove recordings were introduced in the1940s.  In 1948, Columbia introduced the LP (33-1/3) format.  In response, in 1949, RCA introduced the 45 format. 78s had been the standard before, and continued to be available until about 1960. There were snap-in inserts for playing 45s on players lacking a large spindle.
  43. In the 1940s, there were two evening newspapers in Los Angeles: the Mirror-News, and the Herald-Express, and two morning papers, the Times and the Examiner. This situation lasted until 1962
  44. Milk delivery was common in the decade.
  45. Seat belts were not required on automobiles in the U.S. until 1968.
  46. There were more grocery chains: in addition to Ralphs and Vonís there were Market Basket, Shopping Bag, Thriftimart, Mayfair, Food Giant, and many more independents.
  47. Some companies that existed at the time were: Douglas, Hughes Aircraft Company (actually a part of Hughes Tool Company), Conair (Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Company, formed the 1943 merger of Consolidated Aircraft and Vultee Aircraft), AeroJet, Northrop, Lockheed, Garrett AiResearch, Honeywell, Boeing, and North American Aviation. 
  48. There were more department stores, including Robinsonís, I. Magnin, Joseph Magnin, Bullockís, Ohrbachís, The May Company, and The Broadway.  Both J. C. Penney and Sears had retail stores that have since closed.
  49. There were dime stores, including F. W. Woolworthís, J. J. Newberryís, and S. S. Kresge Co. (later to become KMart).
  50. Penicillin became available in 1941.
  51. Significant inventions of the decade include transistors, radar, the Slinky, microwave ovens, Velcroģ, Tupperwareģ, the Frisbeeģ, and hydraulic fracturing ("fracking").
  52. Instant coffee was relatively new in 1950.
  53. Ballpoint pens were first marketed in the U. S. in 1945.
  54. The bikini swimsuit was first marketed in 1946, named for bikini atoll, where nuclear tests were being conducted. (The suit was expected to have an "explosive" impact on those used to seeing women in one-piece bathing suits.)
  55. Corneal contact lenses were invented in the 1950s, making contact lenses popular.  Before, the lens covered the entire eye.
  56. The first polio vaccine wasnít introduced until 1955.
  57. There were no new automobiles produced during World War II, so there had been a hunger for new cars. (Gasoline was rationed. As a result, trains, street cars, interurban cars, and buses were very crowded. Read more about this history.) The Big Three auto makers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) had been producing tanks and other vehicles needed for the war effort, began price wars to gain new business.  This left such makers as Packard and Studebaker out.  Packard specialized in luxury autos, and did not do well after World War II.
  58. Automobile assembly was an important industry in the Los Angeles area, with these plants: Chrysler (East Los Angeles), Studebaker (Vernon), Nash (El Segundo), Ford (Long Beach), GM--Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac (South Gate), and GM--Chevrolet (Van Nuys).
  59. There were also tire manufacturing plants in the Los Angeles area:  Firestone in South Gate, Goodyear in south central Los Angeles, and U. S. Rubber in East Los Angeles.
  60. The movies were made according to the Hays code (until 1967). Feature film production was dominated by the five major studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, 20th Century-Fox, and RKO), which produced the films and showed them in their own theaters.  In 1948, the Supreme Court, in the "Paramount Decision", ordered the studios to separate from their theaters.  Beginning in 1940, film noir became popular. Notable films of this genre included  The Maltese Falcon (1940); High Sierra (1940); Laura (1944); Double Indemnity (1944); The Big Sleep (1946); Notorious (1946); The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); The Stranger (1946); Dark Passage (1947); The Lady from Shanghai (1947); Key Largo (1948); White Heat (1949); and Sunset Boulevard (1949). Other notable movies of the 1940s included: 
  61. The Broadway musical changed for ever with the first real blockbuster Oklahoma! (the first collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein) in 1943.  Most msucial shows up to that time were more like "plays with music", the chorus numbers having nothing to do with the story, but merely an excuse to have scantily-clad girls on stage.  For the next twenty years, the "RH factor" would dominate Broadway. Notable Broadway musicals of the 1940s included: 
  62. In the 1930s there was a fusion of popular music and jazz in swing music, with big bands.  The most popular dance was the lindy, a form of jitterbug.  Some of the most popular band leaders were Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Kay Kyser, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman.  But at warís end, jazz and pop music began to diverge.  Jazz became dominated by smaller ensembles featuring brilliant improvization and incredibly fast tempos, in a style not intended for dancing that was called bebop.  The new sound was led my such musicians as Charlie "Bird" Parker, "Dizzy" Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.  The most popular "pop" singer after the war was Frank Sinatra.  Some young women would swoon on seeing him in person.  Other popular singers included Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Rudy Vallee, Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, and Dinah Shore. A new genre of music appeared in the 1940s, which came to be called rhythm and blues.  This was black popular music, which before had been marketed as "race" music. The R&B term was used as a catch-all term for popular music by and for black people.  The basic form combined the 12-bar format of blues with boogie-woogie and a back beat. White artists began to cover R&B songs (to make them more marketable to white people), they were marketed as rock and roll.  Top hits in popular music of the 1940s included these (For more hits of the 1940s see this page):
  63. Although television broadcasting had begun in the 1930s, regular network programming broadcasts did not begin until 1946.  TV was black and white until 1953; there was no UHF TV until 1952.  Notable television shows of the 1940s include: ABC Barn Dance; ABC Television Players; The Admiral Broadway Revue; The Adventures of Oky Doky; The Al Morgan Show; Arthur Godfrey and His Friends; Author Meets the Critics; CBS Evening News; CBS Television Quiz; Camel News Caravan; Candid Camera; Captain Video; Cash and Carry (TV series); Chesterfield Supper Club; The Toast of the Town (later called The Ed Sullivan Show); Face to Face; The Family Genius; Faraway Hill; Fireside Theater; Ford Theatre; The Fred Waring Show; Gillette Cavalcade of Sports; The Herb Shriner Show; Hopalong Cassidy; Howdy Doody; Kraft Television Theatre; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; The Life of Riley; The Lone Ranger; Magic Cottage; Mary Kay and Johnny; Meet the Press; The Morey Amsterdam Show; NFL on NBC; One Manís Family; Original Amateur Hour; The Philco Television Playhouse; Ripleyís Believe It or Not!; Serving Through Science; Sky King; Stained Glass Windows; Texaco Star Theater; These Are My Children; Think Fast; The Voice of Firestone; The Wendy Barrie Show; and A Woman to Remember.

This list is intended to be similar to the "Mindset List", published each year by Beloit College. For more information about social, political and cultural trends in the decade, see the Wikipedia article on the 1940s. For suggestions, additions, and corrections to this list, please email me: tf_mcq {at} yahoo {dot} com.


See also: