1940 1949

The U.S. was fully engulfed in World War II for the first half of the decade, especially after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The first computers appeared in the 40s, along with the first televisions that were sold to the public. Popular music included swing and music from crooners, while fashion saw inspiration from Hollywood.


  • Swing
  • Jazz
  • Big Band


  • Casablanca
  • Tarzan
  • Ed Sullivan Show


  • American designers
  • Artificial fibers
  • Zoot suit


  • Dual speed wipers
  • Automatic transmission
  • Power windows


  • Vinyl records
  • Tractors
  • Transistors


  • Pearl Harbor
  • Testing of the atomic bomb
  • Bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima
  • President Truman re-elected

Defining Decades Webpage

A diamond is forever. (1948) DeBeers


Popular music in the 1940s comprised of swing, jazz and big band music early in the decade.  These styles suffered in popularity due to musicians’ strikes in 1942 and 1948 and eventually gave way to crooners later in the decade. 

Swing music typically involves a lot of brass instruments that are led by a strong rhythm section.  Its origins were decades earlier, but the genre was in its prime early in the 40s.  Swing music started to decline in part because of the war:  many musicians were directly involved in the war effort, and other bands suffered due to the cost of travelling with so many members and so much equipment.  

Big band music is called such because of having a large ensemble of 12-25 musicians playing various instruments.  Big band music is also considered a form of jazz.  Glenn Miller and The Dorsey Brothers were leaders among big band musicians.  

“Crooners” was a term used to describe male vocalists that often had powerful, professionally trained voices and maintained a specific posture or stage presence that could be described as intimate.  Successful crooners include Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Dean Martin, among many others.


Many of the films from the 1940s were influenced in one way or another by war, whether drawing plot lines from the experiences of World War I, or the ongoing World War II.  A few examples include The Great Dictator, Casablanca, and To Be Or Not To Be.

There were often a number of films that sought to provide an entertaining escape for their audience, such as The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers.  Other films were turned into franchises following their initial popularity.  These included the Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan (which debuted in the 30s) franchises.

Other notable films from this decade include Madam Curie, Samson and Delilah, Oliver Twist, Rebecca, Hamlet and All the King’s Men.

1939 marked the year that television was first available for purchase by the American Public.  Many broadcasts were limited or discontinued during World War II, as were the production of televisions which involved cathode ray tubes.  1940 saw the first broadcast of ice hockey and basketball, while later in the decade saw popular shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and Texaco Star Theater (later The Milton Berle Show) emerging.


During the 1940’s fashion fell to the background as the majority of the decade was overshadowed by WWII. Though most of society was preoccupied with the impending war and instability of world power, some trends were seen even in this dark era. “Because of the war, European fashion was no longer available in the United States. Therefore, American designers, who were often overlooked, became more popular. Another result of the inaccessibility of European designers was that American designers were able to make improvements to sizing standards and began to use fiber content and care labels in clothing.”

As noted, one major factor to impact fashion was the accessibility of fabrics. Most fabrics were not available due to the war, which limited the production of new clothes. “For instance, starting in 1942 there was a limited supply of wool; so, instead artificial fibers such as viscose and rayon were used, which were derived from wood pulp.” Nylon, the fabric used to make stockings, was also part of the synthetic fabrics that were popular during the 1940’s. However, as WWII progressed, “the use of these fabrics was for military purposes, such as making parachutes.” Most of the colors seen in the 1940’s reflected the darkened wartime atmosphere; colors such as black, navy and other dark colors were mainly used.

Since fabrics and money were limited, most of trends from the 1940’s wartime era represented the practicality and utilitarian way of life. Many magazine and newspaper articles encouraged women to utilize items and clothing that they already owned. Sewing, stitching and knitting, were popular ways to create new clothes from fabrics and items around the house; and, darning was a popular way to mend socks with holes.

Men’s fashion during the 1940’s was also reflective of the ominous tones of the wartime era. For special occasions, “men wore suits made of rationed materials, or V-neck sweater vests or knitted waistcoats over a shirt and tie. An iconic men’s suit to emerge in the 1940’s was the illicit zoot suit. This suit was usually worn at nightclubs and consisted of an oversized jacket, wide lapels, broad shoulders, low crotches, and the pants narrowed toward the ankles.” The darkness looming over the wartime 1940’s fashion persists until the end of the war. Then, once the war ended, new fashion trends emerged, such as Christian Dior’s “New Look,” which became popular in America during the 1950’s.


Early in the 1940’s, cars were becoming a sensation, though they were not considered a necessity. Instead, they were luxury items and sought after status symbols. The 1940s cars had a lower, longer, broader, and more massive look, and some companies offered a combination automatic clutch with a semi-automatic transmission; the driver could select either the manual or semi-automatic shift with buttons on the dash. However, in 1942, with the advent of WWII, cars stopped being produced for a period of 3-4 years, and production for civilians did not resume until 1946.

As a result of WWII, many of American car plants converted to making military vehicles. In addition to this conversion, some companies created safety features that were later implemented on civilian cars. During this wartime, “the department of war came up with a one-quarter ton four-wheel drive military vehicle called the Jeep,” which continues to be produced today. Additionally, “Chrysler, introduced a safety rim wheel that kept the tire on the rim in case of a blowout, and also offered two-speed electric windshield wipers.”

Some of the major vehicles manufactured during the 1940’s are the Ford, the Plymouth, and the Oldsmobile. The 1940 Plymouth had engineering far and above anything else offered in the low priced field. The Plymouth was built solid, handled smoothly, and had popular styling. It was advertised as “The Low Priced Beauty With the Luxury Ride," and delivered what it promised. The 1940 Plymouth came with the All Weather Air Control System. This system combined a heating and ventilation system provided fresh air, and circulated to all parts of the car. The Plymouth came with an option of the model Roadking and Deluxe.”

Along with the Plymouth, the Buick was also popular, and though they had stopped production, once WWII was over innovations helped boast their sales when production resumed. In1948, Buick introduced Dynaflow, the first torque converter-type automatic transmission offered in U.S. passenger 1940s cars.” Following the war, Ford introduced the legendary Thunderbird. The Thunderbird offered performance and luxury features like power windows, which made this car a hit.
Some other trends set during this period were, by 1946 the first radio telephones were used in 1940s cars, and, as seen in the Thunderbird, the first power-operated windows were introduced. Other innovations to come out of the 40’s are the new method of starting the engine with an ignition key, and turn signals.


Although not widely available until 1948 vinyl was used as a record material as early as 1940, Victor produced some early vinyl 78 rpm records. Record sales increased after the end of World War II with the advent of 10" or 12" 33⅓ rpm vinyl long play records which could contain an entire symphony. The other standardized format was the 7" 45 rpm vinyl record which usually contained a radio hit on one side with another lesser known song on the "flip" side. The larger records have a small hole in the center and the smaller ones a larger hole. There's an interesting controversy over why there are two styles and two speeds for vinyl records, a good summary can be found on The Straight Dope. Some claim that a vinyl record produces better sound than today's CD.

Tractor technology development, both during and after the war, changed rural America dramatically. During the war the average farmer was expected to produce more with much less manpower. Because of wartime production quotas on farm machines they were hard to find even though the new technology was crucial for increasing food supplies to feed the troops. Often the only solution was to keep old machines running or turn to the black market. When the war ended the world had to make a difficult transition to a peacetime economy. War industries found civilian uses for the technologies they had developed, thereby agriculture was transformed. New technologies produced by the wartime effort revolutionized agriculture, there was an unprecedented increase in productivity because farmers could do so much more work in many fewer hours.

The first tractors were just an engine on wheels, an operator's seat and a place to attach plows, planters, rakes or harvesters. They were huge, heavy, had limited power and were too expensive for small farmers to buy. The new machines were affordable, smaller, had enough horsepower for any job, and attachments were better mechanically designed. Counting the old machines that farmers were forced to keep running during the war and and the new machines produced from wartime technology the number of tractors on U.S. farms increased by two-thirds - from almost 1.6 million tractors in 1940 to 2.4 million tractors in 1945.

Perhaps the most important electronics event of the 20th century occurred in December 1947 when the first transistor was invented at Bell Laboratories by William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. This innovation made possible the integrated circuit and microprocessors that are the basis of modern electronics. The name transistor comes from TRANSfer resISTOR. Before its invention the only way to produce electrical current regulation and switching was with the vacuum tube. Miniaturization of vacuum tubes definitely has limits and they waste a lot of energy in the form of heat. Video was possible with vacuum tube equipment, but without the transistor video products would never have gotten very small.


December 7, 1941

Just before 8am hundreds of Japanese planes attacked the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory, killing more than 2,300 Americans and wounding at least 1,000 more. The attack lasted two hours and destroyed eight enormous battleships, nearly a dozen other naval vessels, and almost 200 airplanes. On December 8th President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan; Congress approved his declaration with one dissenting vote. Japanese allies Germany and Italy declared war on the United States three days later, Congress reciprocated. America had joined World War II two years after the conflict began.

July 16, 1945

Detonation of "The Gadget" in a test with the code named "Trinity" signaled the start of the atomic age. Six years of research culminated in a test that left the creators with mixed feelings. The Atomic bomb was a success, but what did that mean to the world?

August 6 - 9, 1945

It was not long until the power of the destructive force was proven at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan offered to surrender on August 10, 1945 bringing World War II in the Pacific to an end.

November 3, 1948

President Harry S. Truman holds up a copy of the Tribune "early edition" after he'd been declared the winner in the presidential election, surely one of the most infamous headline mistakes ever. Harry S. Truman had fought the media, the commentators, and everyone else, and won the election when none of the pundits thought he could. The 1948 Election shows the agenda of the media and how it conflicts with that of the average American. In his final campaign speech, Truman said, “The smart boys say we can’t win. They tried to bluff us with a propaganda blitz, but we called their bluff, we told the people the truth. And the people are with us. The tide is rolling. All over the country. I have seen it in the people’s faces. The people are going to win this election.” Give em hell Harry!

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