World War II and “The Golden Age of Capitalism”

Patricia O’Connell
Contributor

World War II not only lifted the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression, but set the stage for a period of prosperity that radically altered both the business landscape and American society at large. During the war, American factories hummed along at record pace, manufacturing war supplies. Unemployment, which was as high as almost 25% during the Depression, was 2.2% by the time the war ended. Women and minorities found opportunity that had been denied them earlier in a workforce depleted by men who had gone to fight for their country.

The post-war period, often referred to as “The Golden Age of Capitalism,” saw a growing middle class, increased spending on infrastructure, pent-up demand for such items as automobiles and household appliances, and a housing and construction boom. Suburbs flourished as returning servicemen started families, building materials once again became available, and cheap mortgages were made possible by the GI bill.

It is little surprise that both the war and “The Golden Age” saw increased innovation and the rise of various industries in the U.S., including domestic aviation, computer technology, and automobile manufacturing. Yet other industries benefited from the war and/or flourished in its wake. Here’s a look at some of less well-known outcomes related to World War II.

FASHION

Before WWII, Paris was the undisputed center of both fashion overall and couture in particular. The war changed that. Paris’ location in German-occupied France made production and export both difficult and controversial. (Coco Chanel, arguably the most famous designer of the time, closed her atelier during the war.) A patriotic streak in British and American women favored native apparel. Shortages of such materials as silk (used in parachutes) and wool (used for soldiers’ blankets) also hampered production.

In the void, New York and Chicago became influential centers for design and manufacturing during and after the war. American designers such as Bonnie Cashin, Adrian, Norman Norell, and Mainbocher, which moved its fashion house from Paris to NYC in 1940, rose to international prominence. Also, the American aesthetic for women’s clothes seemed more in touch with the times; which called for streamlined silhouettes and hemlines and increased use of synthetic fabrics. While Paris would again find its place in the fashion stratosphere, it would never again be without worthy competitors.

FILM

Film production boomed during and after World War II. With television in its infancy both from a technology and production standpoint, film, along with radio, dominated popular entertainment. However, film, because of its visual nature, had a huge advantage over radio as a potent force for stirring patriotism, and Hollywood wasted no time in producing such classics as Mrs. Miniverand Casablancain 1942, the year after the U.S. entered the war.

From 1939 (when Britain entered World War II) to 1942, more than a third of the 1313 feature films made focused on the war. The movies had a realism that movies made during the Depression did not. Hollywood was no longer focused on escapism and entertainment, but education and engagement. No movie showed this more starkly than the 1946 movie The Best Years of Our Lives. The Academy Award-winning film dramatized the return of three servicemen to civilian life. The realism was emphasized by the casting of Harold Russell, a non-professional actor who had lost both of his hands while teaching in the Army in 1944. World War II has remained a popular subject for films since, with numerous movies achieving enormous acclaim, including From Here to Eternity, Schindler’s List, Das Boot, and Pearl Harbor.

SPAM
Before it became the catch-all word for unsolicited or undesirable email, SPAM was a staple of soldiers’ diets during World War II. The military purchased more than $150 million pounds of the much-maligned pork product. While at home it enjoyed questionable status, Hormel’s canned meat was a big hit overseas, especially in pre-statehood Hawaii and other Pacific islands, Even today, its influence can be seen in the cuisines of such countries as the Philippines and Guam. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once referred to it as a “wartime delicacy,” and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev credited the “delicacy” for allowing our one-time ally, Russia, to feed its army.

M&Ms
“Melts in your mouth, not in your hands” was more than a catchy slogan; it was a requirement for a chocolate that could be put in soldiers’ mess kits and handle extremes of temperature. The button-shaped candies with the chocolate center and colored coating, inspired by a British candy called Smarties, were first manufactured in the U.S. in 1941, exclusively for the military. Affection for the candies was so great that Mars started selling them to consumers in 1947. Today, they are one of the best-selling candies of all time and are the backbone of the Mars confectionary company.

JEEPs
The stripped-down vehicles—which had “just every essential part”—were the automobile equivalent of the streamlined women’s clothing that became both necessary and fashionable during and after World War II. The surprisingly rugged rides became highly popular after the war, and were sold commercially, serving as the precursor to the more lavish and comfortable SUVs that dominate the contemporary car market.

SILLY PUTTY
No, the War Department wasn’t looking for a distraction for anxious or bored soldiers. Silly Putty was a failed attempt at making a synthetic rubber, as natural rubber was in great demand for the production of tires during the war. Silly Putty, originally deemed a failure as a substitute for natural rubber, became a favorite children’s novelty item after it was inexpensively but imaginatively packaged in a plastic egg, and sold with the promise of being able to pick up images from comic books. It was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in May, 2001.