TV Turns On

Film Studio graphicIn the 1940s, television started, stopped, started again and then took off. In the process, the new medium turned on the lives of rural residents connecting them to the rest of the world even more than newspapers or radio.

The first practical TV sets were demonstrated and sold to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The sets were very expensive and New York City had the only broadcast station.

When World War II started, all commercial production of television equipment was banned. Production of the cathode ray tubes that produced the pictures was redirected to radar and other high tech war uses.

After the war television was something few had heard of. That changed quickly. In 1945, a poll asked Americans, “Do you know what television is?” Most didn’t. But four years later, most Americans had heard of television and wanted one! According to one survey in 1950, before they got a TV, people listened to radio an average of nearly five hours a day. Within nine months after they bought a TV they listened to radio, but only for two hours a day. They watched TV for five hours a day.

In 1947, President Harry Truman’s state of the union address and the baseball World Series were televised. A year later, CBS and NBC networks started 15-minute nightly newscasts. In the late 1940s there were 98 commercial television stations in 50 large cities.

By 1949, prices of TV sets had gone down. Americans were buying 100,000 sets every week.

Farm families were not far behind their city brethren. Entrepreneurs hurried build television stations to reach every part of the country. Even if there was only one, snowy, black and white station on the air, farmers and their children wanted that TV set. The first family in the neighborhood to get a TV would invite friends and neighbors to come over and watch.

early tvThe 1940s TVs didn’t look like today’s televisions. Most had picture screens between 10 and 15 inches wide diagonally, inside large, heavy cabinets. And, of course, color broadcasts and sets didn’t arrive until much later, in 1954.

Looking back now, Mildred Hopkins is surprised at her own excitement for their first TV. “The picture was little bitty,” she says. “And we thought that was wonderful. Isn’t that something?”

Harry Hankel was impressed by the “newness” of it
. “We take it for granted today,” he says. “Then, why, we didn’t because it was something that never had happened before.”

Kelly Holthus remembers that he and his wife went out to his folks’ farm most nights when they got a television set
. “It was so fuzzy you could hardly see it,” he says. Yet, they were still fascinated. “Every so often, we’d say, ‘Oh, that’s a good picture.”

What did families watch on those little picture tubes? Well, for a time, the most watched thing on TV was the test pattern that was broadcast before and after the station signed on. TV programming did not run all day and night. Most parts of rural America had to make do with a single television station.

The demand for television sets and programs in the late 1940s set the stage for a revolution that would expand in the 1950s and 60s and change American family life, business, politics, economic, and society.

Today, rural areas still get only two or three local stations broadcasting over the air. So, satellite dishes have sprouted in farmyards across the country, and folks in rural towns have cable TV boxes, just like their urban counterparts. The information gap between urban and rural is not as pronounced as it was when the 1940s began.

Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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