Though the movie Holiday Inn takes place in the early days of the United States’ entry into World War II, the stage version of Holiday Inn is set just after the war, from August of 1946 through 1947. The post-war years were a time of adjustment in the United States, as the nearly 16 million men and 350,000 women who had served in the military returned home and wartime government regulation of the nation’s economy ended. The average American lifestyle changed markedly in the years just after the war, and in many ways these changes created the present-day nation.
THE POST-WAR ECONOMY
WWII transformed the United States’ economy for the better. Despite concerns about returning soldiers flooding the job market, the late 1940s were a time of economic prosperity. The United States was the only major economy that was stronger after the war than before.
The United States formally entered WWII in December 1941. Full scale warfare required a coordinated national effort to manufacture and transport more goods and supplies than ever before. The federal government, which had become a strong economic force during the Great Depression, created “mobilization agencies” that directed the production of industries and imposed wage controls and price ceilings to limit inflation.
In 1940, 9.34% of the GDP was government spending; In 1945, it was 41.56%.
Increased demand for war materials created jobs, many in Union workplaces, and people moved across the country for work. As millions of men volunteered for or were drafted into the military, the manufacturing industry was opened to women and African-Americans for the first time. Wages rose an average of 65% during the war. Federal income tax was levied at a higher rate and on a greater percentage of the population in order to support the war effort. These factors combined to create the Great Compression, an era of greater income equality between the rich and the poor than ever before.
Unemployment, which peaked at 24% in 1932, the height of The Great Depression, and hovered around 10% in 1941, dropped to 1.2% in 1944.
THE G.I. BILL
On June 22, 1944 the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, was signed into law by President Roosevelt. The bill was designed to help returning servicemen and women transition into civilian life by providing loan guarantees for the purchase of housing,farms, or businesses and paying for veterans’ college, vocational, and technical education. Eight million service members—far higher than original projections—used the G.I. Bill to obtain an education. 2.2 million attended college or graduate school, and 5.6 million pursued vocational or technical training. In one generation, a college education ceased to be only for the children of the elite. Groups that had been excluded from higher education, including Catholics, Jews, those from rural areas, the children of immigrants, and the poor, suddenly had access to a university education. African-American veterans were also covered by the G.I. Bill’s education provision, and when historically black colleges and universities became overcrowded, many sought an education at all-white schools, forcing integration of some institutions.
The G.I. Bill’s loan guarantee made homeownership possible for millions of veterans, spurring the growth of suburbs. African-American veterans, while eligible for the loans, were largely excluded from their benefit because banks wouldn’t back mortgages in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and discrimination in housing sales was still legal.
AN END TO RATIONING
Cooperation of the entire American population was needed to win the war. Foods and materials needed for the war effort were rationed: civilians were entitled to a limited amount each month. Sugar, coffee, butter, cheese, canned fish, canned milk, fats, canned and frozen vegetables and fruits, other bottled foods, and meat were rationed, requiring home cooks to carefully plan meals in advance. Tires and gasoline were rationed. A “Victory speed limit” of 35 miles per hour was imposed in hopes of lessening wear on tires. Scrap metal, paper, fabric, and fat were collected.
In 1942, Regulation L-85 was introduced due to fabric shortages. Hemlines and skirt circumference were limited by the regulations. Nylon and silk stockings became unavailable, as both fabrics were used in parachutes and ropes. Overall, wartime clothing was simpler and more functional than that of earlier eras. The number of women employed in industry and agriculture created a demand for women’s work pants, suits, and jackets. Womenswear took on a more masculine look.
Some attribute the rationing of fabric to the rise in popularity of backless, tea-length dresses.
By the end of the war, Americans were worn down by years of sacrifice and eager for a world of material abundance that, thanks to the improved economy, they could afford. There were 25 million registered automobiles in 1945; 21 million more were produced by 1950. This desire was also reflected in the famous “New Look” from fashion designer Christian Dior, which premiered in February 1947. Long, swirling, voluminous skirts were paired with jackets that emphasized women’s curves. Shoes were no longer sensible, but slender and delicate. Femininity was paramount in both color and cut. Dior described the look as “a return to an ideal of civilized happiness.”
FAMILY AND LIFESTYLE
The nation’s marriage rate was at an all-time high in the post-war years, and a “baby boom” soon followed. Couples who had been separated by the war were reunited, and a strong economy made it possible to support a large family. Women and men in their twenties and thirties at the end of WWII had struggled through the Great Depression, survived a terrifying world war, and faced a future threatened by nuclear warfare. Scholar Elaine Tyler May suggests that these events contributed to the nation’s unprecedented rise in marriage and birthrates: "Americans turned to the family as a bastion of safety in an insecure world... cold war ideology and the domestic revival [were] two sides of the same coin.” The percentage of women in the workforce grew during the war, from 28% in 1940 to 34% in 1945. By 1947 it was back to pre-war levels, despite the fact that 75% of working women wanted to remain at their jobs. This decline in female employment was due in part to factories refusing to rehire women after they returned to producing peacetime goods, as well as their desire to ensure jobs for returning soldiers.
The idealized image of the happy post-war housewife grew out of both the urgency to push women out of the workforce, the psychological need to create a happy, secure home as a bulwark against the forces of a frightening world, and the higher wages brought on by the war, which made it possible for a sole working or middle-class breadwinner to support a family.
Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical is now playing at Studio 54. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
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