When World War II ended, it seemed like the end of a long, dark night. The world had been through 10 years of depression during the 1930s and five years of war in the 40s.
Sammy Cahn caught the mood in his lyrics for a song that became a Number 1 hit for Bing Crosby in 1945 –
“Kiss me once, then kiss me twice
Then kiss me once again
It’s been a long, long time.”
After the war, the thoughts of people all around the world turned to getting back to some sense of normalcy and fun. Harry Hankel (both left and right) remembers “there was no homecoming, really.” But that was all right with him. He didn’t want any parties or parades. “I never even thought about it to tell you the truth.”
There were many service men and women who simply wanted to forget the worst experiences of the war. Winton Wright knew soldiers who never talked about the war. “Veterans’ Day the other day there,” Winton says, “Why, my neighbor [we found out] had two purple hearts. Most people didn’t know that… I don’t think they wanted the family know what they’d been through.” In many ways, they just just wanted to get on with normal life.
But, the war had changed what was “normal.” What happened next, in the late 40s and 50s, changed the business of farming.
People’s eating habits had changed. Almost no one wanted to spend the entire day in the kitchen. Drive-In restaurants sprang up on main streets across the country. In the grocery stores, prepared and frozen foods were the new rage. Farmers had to respond by changing some of the crops and livestock they grew. They also had to learn how to sell to these new food-processing companies.
The pursuit of post-war fun became serious business. There was a new mass medium – television – and by 1955, two out of every three families in the U.S. owned a set. Those statistics included rural households. As most farms were finally wired by the REA to the electric grid, most farm families got their own television set. Rural residents no longer needed to feel isolated from the mainstream culture.
- Games and toys: The Slinky, Leggo Building Blocks, and Silly Putty were first sold during the 1940s. Scrabble was the new, popular board game. Many children played with toy soldiers and miniature tanks, imitating the battles they heard about on the radio. Slumber parties were popular among teenagers. Families spent time at home playing games or visiting neighbors to play card games like Pitch or Bridge. Men played horseshoes in backyards.
- Jazz & Dancing. During the war, the swing era was still in full swing (no pun intended), even though many of the big bands of the 30s had been broken up or drafted into the war. In addition, there was a strike by musicians against the recording industry. So, to bolster morale of the troops, the Army paid popular musicians to record “V-Discs” to distribute to the troops. Art Tatum was just one of the famous musicians who cut V-Discs. Also, some bands re-formed in the military and played for troops just behind the frontlines. Bandleader Captain Glenn Miller lost his life flying to newly liberated Paris to arrange for a Christmas concert.
Back home, the music and dancing continued. Mildred Optiz, who says she would rather dance than eat traveled all around the country to dance to bands like Woody Herman who played in Grand Island. Other big bands performed in the huge airplane hanger at the nearby Fairmont Air Base. “Sammy Kaye, Guy Lombardo, and Lawrence Welk, all those bands would come in here,” she says. “There was a lot of those guys [soldiers] down there could dance!”
Inventors and engineers improved amplifiers and speakers, and the electronic guitar was invented during the 1940s – these inventions changed music in the 50s and 60s.
- Jukeboxes: If you couldn’t see the bands, you could hear the music in your local restaurant. By 1946, RCA and Decca record companies had sold 100 million records. With the invention of plastic records in the late 1940s, jukeboxes (coin-operated record players with colorful lights and chrome) were in thousands of soda shops and restaurants after the war.
- Classical Music: Aaron Copland composed “Appalachian Spring.” In the city and country, people were humming songs from popular Broadway musicals such as “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” Brigadoon” and “South Pacific.”
- Movies: Girls put on their bobby socks and loafers and went to the movies in the 1940s. War-related movies such as “Casablanca,” “Desert Victory,” “Prelude to War” and “Twelve O’ Clock High” drew big crowds. But there were a host of classic movies produced during the war and just after, like “Citizen Kane,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Dumbo,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Pride of the Yankees,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
- Reading: Comic book publishers were selling 25 million comics per month, including Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. People were reading books, such as A Bell for Adano and Hiroshima by John Hersey; The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCuller; All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren; The Diary of Anne Frank; George Orwell’s 1984; Collected Stories by Dorothy Parker; Norman Mailer’s novel of World War II, The Naked and the Dead; and Richard Wright’s coming-of-age novel, Black Boy. Poets Ogden Nash, and W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, T.S. Elliott were popular.
Yet, with all the attention to world events, many rural areas kept alive a sense of community and their ties with the past. Local Sports teams flourished in the post-war period.
In large part, this interest in fun happened because there were many service men and women who simply wanted to forget the worst experiences of the war. Winton Wright knew some soldiers who never talked about their experiences. “Veterans’ Day the other day there,” Winton says, “Why, my neighbor [we found out] had two purple hearts. Most people didn’t know that… I don’t think they wanted the family know what they’d been through.”
The war changed a lot, but people found ways to have fun and connect with others in their communities.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.