The Trades Through The Years

In honor of our event on the U.S.S. Midway we are going back to the 1940s!

Your Trades In The 1940s

By Jim Olsztynski

The decade of the 1940s represented the worst of times and the best of times for the American people, and the experience of skilled trade workers in the plumbing-heating-cooling-electrical fields reflected that of our society at-large. The worst of times of course refers to global warfare with history’s unsurpassed casualties of both combatants and civilian populations worldwide, along with enormous disruption of hopes, dreams and day-to-day lives. The decade can also be called the best of times because our side prevailed in that global conflict. Only in our nightmares can we experience what our society today would be like had the Nazis and Japanese militarists been the winners.

image of schumacher and farley in nyc

Schumacher & Farley in NYC in the 1940s.

The best of times also refers to the fact that the 1940s brought economic recovery from America’s longest, most debilitating economic depression, aka “The Great Depression.” As of 1940 the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 14.6%, a high number but winnowed down significantly from the Great Depression peak of 25%. By the middle of the war years, virtually everyone was either serving in the military or at work, usually in a job related to the war effort.

That recovery was driven by World War II. Although the U.S. would not officially become a participant until December 1941, fierce fighting had been taking place overseas ever since the mid-1930s. Our closest ally, Great Britain, stood alone against the Nazi war machine following its invasion of Poland in 1939. This sparked the Lend Lease Act of 1941 through which U.S. factories supplied military and quasi-military goods to Great Britain and other allies engaged in the fighting. Even before then, gathering war clouds sparked the U.S. to start rebuilding its own military capabilities that had been allowed to wither after the conclusion of World War I. Factories were humming and millions of unemployed Americans went to work building the weapons of war.

When America finally joined the war after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many of those male factory workers enlisted or were drafted into military service. The Selective Service Act of 1940 established a broad range of classifications for draft status and was amended after Pearl Harbor to allow for service until the end of hostilities. The U.S. armed forces numbered 1.5 million when we entered the war. That number grew to an astounding 12 million men and women in uniform by the time the war ended. This gave rise to the fabled image of “Rosie the Riveter,” as some 6.5 million women took over their jobs, many of them entering the work force for the first time. In the construction trades, however, women remained largely on the sidelines throughout the 1940s. (Click here to read more about women in the trades in the 1940s)

Wartime deprivations put a damper on prosperity in the years 1942-45. Automobile production was halted as car makers turned to building tanks and other military vehicles. Refrigerators and other consumer appliances were not produced. Food supplies were rationed. Americans were issued books of stamps for key items such as gasoline, sugar, meat, butter, canned foods, fuel oil, shoes, and rubber. The Boy Scouts and other groups organized scrap metal drives. The public was urged to grow their own food in “Victory Gardens,” which ended up producing an estimated 8 million tons of food. Non-military construction came to a virtual halt.

Military needs generated plenty of work for the civilian population and pay was generally good. The Great Depression had been put to rest. Anyone who wanted a job could find one. But civilians found their lives disrupted in numerous ways. To get those jobs millions of people had to move, many of them long distances, to centers of war production. These migrants often found themselves crowded into poor housing that got worse as the war years went on due to reduced maintenance and repairs as landlords dealt with wartime material and labor shortages. The federal government mounted campaigns exhorting the public to “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Transportation, even commuting to work, became difficult because no new cars were being produced and used cars were hard to come by. Many were sold on the black market at elevated prices; gasoline and tires were rationed. People who owned cars were asked to minimize travel in order to conserve fuel and make tires last longer. Public transportation was crowded and inconvenient and frequently pre-empted by the military authorities. Many factory workers walked miles to get to and from their jobs each day, and they put in long hours on the job.  Data shows that the average work week in manufacturing increased from 38.1 hours in 1940 to 45.2 hours in 1944. Many factories operated around the clock with three shifts of workers.

The postwar 1940s also represented the “best of times.” Thanks to shortages, rationing and price controls during the war years, many households found themselves with more money than goods to spend it on. This enabled families to build savings and after the war ended people had money to spend on homes, autos, appliances and other household goods, such as window air conditioners. The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the “G.I. Bill,” granted returning servicemen money to go to college, along with guaranteed mortgages and small-business loans. All this set the stage for a housing and commercial construction boom that lasted for decades, from which skilled trade workers benefited enormously.

Recovery was slow for the first couple of years after the war as the government kept price controls in place and slowly managed the transition from a wartime to peacetime economy. But by late in the decade all that pent-up demand unleashed in America the greatest economic growth any society in recorded history had ever enjoyed.

Let’s take a closer look at how Nexstar’s trades fared during that decade.

Click on a link below to read more about the 1940s:

To sum it all up, the 1940s was a decade of monumental historical importance. The outcome of World War II shaped the world we live in today, and set the stage for the greatest construction boom in the history of mankind in the decades that followed.

Interested in ‘getting into the swing’ by learning more about life in the 1940s? Click below:

1940s Slang

Come back in time with us to the 1940s with the humdinger of a slang list below:

Take a powder – to leaveEager beaver – enthusiastic helperShare crop – sexually promiscuous girlKiller-diller – good stuffBathtub – motorcycle sidecar
Fuddy-Duddy – old-fashioned personArmored heifer – canned milkDoll dizzy – girl crazyHi sugar, are you rationed? – are you going steady?Pennies from heaven – easy money
Gobbledygook – double talk, long speechIn cahoots with – conspiring withDucky shincracker – a good dancerStompers – shoesAmeche – to telephone
Fat-head – stupid or foolish personSnap your cap – get angryAbove my pay grade – don’t ask meFlip your wig – to lose control of yourselfGone with the wind – run off (with the money)
Chrome-dome – word for a bald headed manActive duty – sexually promiscuous boyCook with gas – to do something rightDead hoofer – poor dancerLettuce – money
Jits - JitterbugGas – either a good time or something that was really funnyGrandstand – to show offBrainchild – someone’s creative ideaWhat’s buzzin’, cousin? – how’s it going?
Khaki wacky – boy crazyHen fruit – eggsHi-de-ho – helloPass the buck – pass responsibility forMotorized freckles – insects
Swing a wing - Dance SwingSwell - GreatSwabbie - SailorStrictly from Dixie - Corny, not coolSpecs - Eyeglasses
Slack happy - Dumb and happyPeepers - EyesOn the beam - Cool, A-oneOff the cob - Corny, goofyMitts - hands
Lay off - Leave alone, quit botheringLay an egg - Be BoringLamb - Nice personKopescetic - Fine, okayKnockin it out - Dance amazingly


Side Notes

Population demographics: The U.S. population in 1940 was 132.2 million, according to the 1940 U.S. Census, compared with an estimated 311 million today. It was a much younger population, with a median age of 29.0, compared with 37.2 in the 2010 Census. Here’s an age distribution comparison:

Age Distribution           1940                 2010
Under 18                       30.6%               24.0%
18-44                            42.8%               36.5%
45-64                            19.8%               26.4%
65+                               6.8%                13.0%

Home Ownership: In 1940 only 44% of America’s population owned their own homes, according to the 1940 U.S. Census. That number declined from 48% in the 1930 Census, owing to people losing their homes in the Great Depression. The 2010 Census showed home ownership at 65%, a slight decline from 66% in 2000, no doubt also an effect of the “Great Recession” that started in 2008.

Military Buildup: The U.S. Navy had fewer than 5,000 vessels prior to the attack at Pearl Harbor. By 1945, they had over 90,000. In addition, over 86,000 tanks and nearly 300,000 aircraft were produced during the war years. More than 17 million machine guns and rifles and 41 BILLION ammunition cartridges rolled off American production lines, along with 315,000 artillery guns and mortars and 4.2 million tons of artillery shells between 1940 and 1945.

Major Sources:

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

Plumbing & Mechanical

The ACHR News

Popular Mechanics


Eric Institute of Educational Sciences

Duke University

Answering the Call







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