Rare Photos From The 1940s Give Us An Eye-Opening Glimpse Into The Past
The 1940s was possibly one of the most tumultuous times in American history. World War II forced the U.S. to climb out of the Great Depression — but it decimated the population and left the men who returned home forever changed. On the home front, though, women flooded the workplace in greater numbers than ever before. Yet even after the war ended and everybody tried to move on, the Cold War began to heat up. These astonishing images give us a glimpse of what it must have been like to live through this historic time.
All hands to the mill
The Library of Congress revealed that the woman in this eye-catching color photo is Mary Louise Stepan. She was 21 years old and working a hand mill for the Consolidated Aircraft Corp. in Fort Worth, Texas. Mary Louise had been a waitress before taking the job, and her brother had joined the war effort for the air corps, too.
Home on the range
The 1940s is generally a period we think of in black and white — and that makes the rare color photos from this era so arresting. This one was part of the United States Farm Security Administration’s efforts to capture a snapshot of American life during the early years of the decade. The shepherd seen here was pictured on Gravelly Range in Madison County, Montana.
Fresh faces for the police
The police force was one of the many things that World War II would change forever. The labor shortage naturally forced the police to boost their ranks in ways they may not have considered before. After all, a worldwide conflict didn’t mean internal security could afford to rest on its laurels. In this picture, we can see women in New York preparing to join the force in 1940.
The home front
The United States Farm Security Administration (FSA) initially commissioned its photographers to capture how much America had changed since the Great Depression. This shot of a house in Texas was likely part of an official effort to get people to back the government’s relief plans. As the U.S. entered World War II, though, the FSA’s photographers joined the Office of War Information and began to zero in on the war effort.
Catching a show
The Vermont State Fair started in 1846, and it’s still going strong today. But while the 2023 event is a four-day affair, the 1941 version was just a one-day deal — thanks to World War II. Yet the Rutland State Fair — as it was known then — still found time for a “girlie show” featuring these lovely ladies. There are no details about what the show entailed, though.
Gazing at the City
There are few skylines more iconic than New York City’s. And this unknown woman is no doubt enjoying the view as she rides a bus over the 59th Street Bridge heading into Queens. The skyscrapers she can make out include the Daily News Building, the Chrysler Building, and, of course, the Empire State Building.
Satan the tiger
Don’t worry: this image kind of makes sense when you give it some context. The woman pictured is Mrs. Richards, and she is holding onto Satan the tiger outside of the World Jungle Compound. This complex in Thousand Oaks, California, billed itself as the “home of the motion picture animal actors” because the owners trained the animals to appear in Hollywood productions. Mrs. Richards was probably pretty safe, then.
Photographer Jack Delano captured Mr. LeRoy Dunn leading his family as they chop cotton in Georgia in 1941. LeRoy Dunn was a tenant farmer, meaning he’d likely rented this land in Greene County on the proviso he’d share his crops with the owner. Many photos from the Library of Congress picture workers laboring in a similar deal to this one.
The eyes have it
We’ve all had to sit behind a phoropter — the device used to test the strength of your eyes — but it’s been a long time since they looked like this. Model Ruth Martin is likely showcasing the “Additive Effective Power 589 Phoroptor,” first introduced in 1934. And yes, it was this device that forever compelled eye doctors to ask, “Better one or better two?”
Harleys on the Beach
The Daytona 200 began life as the Handlebar Derby in 1937, and it actually saw bikes racing across Daytona Beach. It seems likely that the man shown here, representing the Harley-Davidson Racing Team of Jacksonville Florida, was getting ready to take part in the event’s 1948 race. He’s on a Harley-Davidson WR flathead racer, while the lady is on a 1947 FL Knucklehead.
Climbing the gargoyle
People have been clamoring to climb to the top of the Chrysler Building for the past 50 years. The original observation deck — known as the Celestial — opened up in 1945 and then shut down for good in the 1970s. What took its place? Office space, of course. But these workers took their chance to enjoy a rarely-seen view of New York City while they could.
Catching rays on Coney Island
Even though the British Ministry of Information implored women to “make do and mend” during rationing in World War II, we can’t imagine they ever thought of this. In this picture, Janice Cooper, Marilyn Connor, and Gloria Ellexson are showcasing their homemade bathing suits. And if you look closer, you can see they’ve been crafted out of the Air Force escape maps that their lovers had sent home during World War II.
Working on the railroad
The Chicago and Northwestern railroad was a significant — and busy — hub during the 1940s. Since its creation in 1848, the railroad has provided the best way for America’s businesses to haul freight across the country. You can only imagine how important this would become when the U.S. prepared to enter World War II.
Arthur Rothstein was the man who photographed these wannabe pilots learning about parachutes in 1942. And apparently, Rothstein’s time working with the Farm Security Administration made a big impression on him. In 1976 — 34 years after this photograph was taken — Rothstein tried to get a book of his images published under the title A Lens on FDR’s New Deal.
All about the dough
If you ever needed proof that the 1940s really were “another time,” then look no further than this image. The women gathered here had all applied for the role of a “doughnut-dunking waitress” at the Mayflower Doughnut Exhibit at the New York World’s Fair. The successful applicants were told to display “enthusiasm for doughnuts” while attending the event at the Hotel McAlpin.
The CDC no longer recommends having a routine typhoid shot. So scenes like this — unless you happen to have exceptional circumstances — are pleasingly rare. Even in the 1940s, cases of typhoid fever were falling. According to the CDC, incidences were down to eight per 100,000 population in the 1940s, compared to 33.8 per 100,000 in the 1920s.
Women at the FBI
The FBI wouldn’t allow women to become special agents during World War II — that didn’t really happen until 1972 — but female workers did earn employment at the agency. Here we can see the FBI’s female support staff getting the job done. And women all around the country were also answering the call to fill the positions that the men had left behind to fight in the war.
Rosie the Riveter
Images like this one would have been rare — if not entirely implausible — prior to the 1940s. But as the United States entered World War II, and the production of war materials increased exponentially, many women found themselves on the production line. The female worker here was working at an aircraft factory in Nashville, Tennessee, putting together a Vengeance dive bomber.
Women at work
The Transportation Corps formed a vital part of the war effort during World War II. The division would ultimately be responsible for moving more than 30 million troops around America and some seven million abroad. And that’s not to mention the incredible amount of cargo it shifted. Corporal Beth Haddow and Pfc. Dorothy Hamilton from the Women’s Army Corps helped with the effort.
A human sundial
Press agent Jim Moran is widely known for creating the “publicity stunt.” In this hilarious picture, for instance, Moran is apparently trying to discover whether you would get a better tan in California or Florida. To find out, he covered half of his body and left the other half exposed to the California sun. Then he flew to Florida, covered the California-tanned half of his body, and sunbathed in Florida. The winner? Unsurprisingly, it was a tie.
Got the hump
There are few titles we’d like more than “Hump Master,” and this guy certainly seems satisfied with his role. He was working at a railroad in Chicago and Northwestern in December 1942. According to the Library of Congress, he was “operating a signal switch system [that] extends the length of the hump track.” This way, he could push “the train over the hump from his post at the hump office.”
Let’s all go to the beach
There was a heatwave sweeping New York in the summer of 1940. The New York Times reported in June that temperatures hit a high of 91 °F and left two dead. But for those who could enjoy some time in the sun, it seemed that Coney Island was the place to be. This crowd gathered in July, and we only hope that they applied some sunscreen.
Searching for cents
Summers in New York in the 1940s could get unbearable. In 1948, for instance, the mercury rose to a frightening 100.8 °F. So it perhaps wasn’t an entirely unusual sight to see children playing or cooling off beneath street sprinklers. In this case, the kids are on Jacob Street, and onlookers had thrown change into the water so that the children could scramble to find them.
A sight for sore eyes
The USS North Carolina served with distinction in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Japanese forces claimed that she had been sunk half a dozen times, but the battleship is still thriving — albeit as a tourist attraction — to this day. For the sailors on board the North Carolina here, the New York City skyline must have been a welcome sight.
Stop, look, and listen
Not everything is as it seems in this eye-catching photo. After all, the woman apparently caught jaywalking is likely part of an advertising campaign. The original caption for this image reads, “According to a study of hazard ratios by Northwestern Life Insurance Company, ‘Jaywalking’ across a busy American city street... is almost exactly as dangerous as if she were to spend the crossing time... in a European air raid.” So we better buy some insurance from the Northwestern Life Insurance Company, right?
The everything store
“Groceries, Cold Meats, Fruit; Make mine Falstaff Beer.” The sign draped over the entrance of the Eagle Fruit Store in 1942 was no doubt enticing to its customers. But it’s the automobiles lined up out the front of the store that captures the eye today. Closest to us is a 1938 Studebaker Commander, and next to that is an early-1930s Ford Fordor.
The image of “Rosie the Riveter” still stands as a symbol of female empowerment in the 1940s. Two illustrations spring instantly to mind when you say the name: the famous poster created by J. Howard Miller and the popular painting by Norman Rockwell. But here we get an equally powerful image of real-life female riveters working on the home front.
The future president
Academy Award-winner Jane Wyman shared the screen many a time with her husband and future president, Ronald Reagan. The pair seem to be getting on like a house on fire in this picture — although their on- and off-screen union wasn’t to last. The pair divorced in 1948, some 33 years before Reagan became the 40th president of the United States.
Teddy the wrestling bear
The International Center of Photography praised photographer Jack Delano’s pictures because they “elevate the ordinary individual to heroic status.” And he has certainly enlarged “the strength of character” of this barker at the Vermont State fair in 1941. Surrounded by signs for a wrestling bear and an incredibly large snake, this fellow has taken on almost mythic status.
He loves Lucy
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz became the power couple of 1940 after they eloped to Greenwich on November 30. Apparently, Lucy and Desi both lied on the marriage certificate to avoid breaking one of the era’s social taboos. They adjusted their birth dates so the general public — and their adoring fans — wouldn’t discover that Lucy was actually six years older than Desi.
The conga line
La Conga is apparently the club that popularized the conga line. It opened in New York City in 1929, and the dance craze had gripped the city by the end of the 1930s. In this picture, prolific children’s author Lilian Garis is seen dancing with one Carlos Molian in La Conga on New Year’s Eve. They don’t appear to be doing the conga dance, mind you!
Strutting her stuff
Majorette Mary Vader announced the opening of the 1940 American Legion National Convention in Kansas City in exciting style. But the American Legion — originally set up to help World War I veterans — would soon be forced to change its constitution. In 1942 the word “war” in the preamble to the constitution was changed to “wars” to reflect America’s involvement in World War II.
Phys Ed. for all
We largely have Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent to thank for our physical education classes. This educator established the Sargent School of Physical Training in 1881 and pioneered the idea that everybody should be able to work out. His school joined the Boston University ranks in 1929, and this is what it looked like in the 1940s. It’s still around now, too.
A helping hand
As a sign of the changing times, this picture shows a female railway porter helping a sailor with his luggage. The Brits entered the war in 1939, and in less than a year they had more than 80,000 women working on the railroads. But it wasn’t an easy transition for the female population. Even putting aside the lousy pay and the adverse attitudes they encountered, women didn’t even have their own restrooms on the railways.
Possibly the most famous — and long-lasting — slogan to come out of the British Ministry of Information during World War II was “keep calm and carry on.” This is despite the morale-boosting catchphrase never actually being displayed to the public at the time. But if anybody embodied this chin-up attitude, it was surely this milkman. He was delivering milk to a bomb-blasted street in London in October 1940.
According to Early Music America, accordions were quite hard to get a hold in America of during World War II. The same went for harmonicas, too. Apparently, the problem was that these instruments were mostly made by producers in Germany and Japan — the country’s enemies at the time. But these two unknown souls had managed to get their hands on one, even if they seem to be playing a sad tune.
Migrant workers in the field
This photo is one of a series of images captured by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration. The reality was that by July 1940 — when the photos were taken — some people put out of work and homes during the Great Depression had migrated to find jobs in the fields. This woman and others, including young children, were picking strawberries in Berrien County, Michigan.
Dancing at the Savoy
A plaque on Lennox Avenue in Harlem, New York City, tells us that the Savoy Ballroom was once a “hothouse for the development of jazz in the Swing Era.” The plaque also claims that the Savoy was “one of the most culturally and racially integrated” institutions of international renown. Alas, the “home of happy feet” shut down for good in 1958.
Ballet after the bombs
The Royal Ballet was used to help boost morale during the war years — and not even the bombs of the Blitz could stop them. “We never thought of stopping,” Beryl Grey told The Guardian in 2007. “We didn’t feel afraid. The war was like that for everyone, of course; one got on with things and didn’t stop to analyze how one felt.”
February 1949 marked the first time that a motorist in America had ever been taken to court after being caught out by a speed gun. The device was developed during the war and put to good use in Glastonbury, Connecticut. “This is the latest scientific method of gathering evidence against speeding motorists,” Captain Buckley of the state police boasted to The Day at the time.