Photos That Show What Life Was Really Like In The 1940s

Around the world, the 1940s were some revolutionary and history-making years. Not only did the divisive Second World War occur during some of these years, shaping the course of the world, but society began taking larger strides towards the modern civilization that we know today. The decade paved the way for the years and times ahead. Take a trip decades into the past to see what life was really like during the 1940s and the differences and similarities between then and now.

Women Took Over The Workforce

Woman working
McNeill/Getty Images
McNeill/Getty Images

During the tumultuous years surrounding World War II, the United States saw a vast number of able-bodied men leaving their jobs, homes, and families to go fight overseas.

Not only did this leave a massive gap in the workforce, but because of the war effort, more jobs opened more than ever. This resulted in women joining the workforce to support their families to help fill the gap and ensure that the Allies were victorious.

Hanging Around In The Barracks

Men in the barracks
Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

One thing that some people don’t know about the military is that there can be a lot of downtime when not in action.

This photo is a perfect example of just that. In 1940, the number of soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, had a massive increase, going from just 5,400 to 67,000 men in just one year! With such close quarters, the men didn’t have any other choice than to befriend their fellow soldiers surrounding them.

Tenement Housing Was The Norm

Family outside home
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

During the 1940s, more and more people began immigrating to the United States for a variety of reasons, with World War II being one of them. The increase in population led to the further development of affordable housing.

Because housing was so cheap, it meant that the homes weren’t the greatest. Referred to as tenement homes, these housing developments were small, and usually had no plumbing or proper lighting. Folks would typically try to fit as many people in one as possible.

Riding In Airplanes Was Like Flying In A Five-Star Hotel

People on a plane
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Unless you’re flying first class, and even if you are, many people still dread going on airplanes. They’re cramped, the food is bad, you’re packed in like sardines with strangers, and the whole process is stressful.

However, back in the 1940s, riding in an airplane was a luxurious experience, at least for those who could afford it. Passengers traveled in style and were treated like royalty, having all their needs met by a finely-dressed crew.

Cars Weren’t The Norm

Women at a bus stop
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

While most people today have cars to get around (even if they don’t have all that much money), in the 1940s, cars were primarily owned by the wealthy. For the most part, people relied on public transportation.

Yes, that meant scheduling their days around the times of buses, trains, and other modes of transportation. This picture shows a group of commuters waiting for the train in Lowell, Massachusetts, for the ride home after a long day at work.

When Wireless Was Only In Science-Fiction

Women on wires
Charles Fenno Jacobs/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
Charles Fenno Jacobs/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

On top of all the mechanics, logistics, and skills that go into getting a fighting aircraft off the ground, it’s easy to forget all of the electrical work that has to be done back on the base.

Here, women receive and send messages to control all of these electronic components while working at their posts on a PB2Y patrol bomber. This was certainly no easy job, and we should all feel lucky we don’t have to do it.

Schools Weren’t Like They Are Today

Children at school
John Vachon/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
John Vachon/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Back in the 1940s, the school system was not nearly as organized or important as it is today, especially in rural areas. In these specific parts of the country, children were lucky to go to school instead of staying at home and helping out with the work in the fields.

Pictured here are students attending one of these rural schools in San Augustine Country, Texas, in 1943. More than likely, they still had work to do that evening.

A Barrage Balloon Overhead

Picture of a barrage balloon
Flying Officer W Bellamy/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images
Flying Officer W Bellamy/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

A barrage balloon is a kite balloon that was utilized to defend ground targets against enemy aircraft. They were tethered to the ground using steel cables, which posed a major risk to aircraft that made an attempt to fly through them.

Taken from the design of the initial kite balloon, this new shape meant that it could be operated even if there was wind, unlike the regular circular balloon. These were heavily used during World War II.

Don’t Be On The Other Side!

People in France
Robert Capa/Getty Images
Robert Capa/Getty Images

Following World War II, those not on the side of the Allies or who helped the German forces were publicly shamed, particularly in Europe. To have sided with the Axis may as well have been heresy, and those that did were treated as such.

Here, in a town in Europe, women that corroborated with the German oppressors are being marched through the streets in front of everyone. This image was taken in Charters, France.

Ride At Your Own Risk

Picture of a ride
Jack Delano/Library Of Congress/Getty Images
Jack Delano/Library Of Congress/Getty Images

Although today, there are rollercoasters that appear to be the most dangerous thing you could strap into, in reality, they’re quite safe. Intense inspections and codes are set in place to ensure nothing bad happens.

In the ’40s, let’s just say the rules were a little more relaxed. Rides were basically set up and operated on the spot without much outside management. Regardless of the risk, plenty of people were still eager to ride.

Fairs Were A Popular Attraction

Man at a fair
Jack Delano/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Jack Delano/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Unfortunately, most state fairs ended up being closed during World War II in order to focus on the war effort. However, at the end of the decade, they experienced an explosion in popularity, bringing them back to the forefront of the entertainment industry.

Featured here is a fair attendee in Vermont about to try his hand at ringing the bell with the hammer. It’s safe to assume he’s trying to impress someone that’s watching on the sideline.

Elizabeth II Wasn’t Always Queen

Picture of Queen Elizabeth
Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Getty Images
Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Getty Images

Although for many people, Queen Elizabeth II of England has been the monarch of England and a bit on the older side, of course, that’s not who she’s always been.

Featured in this photograph is the original Queen Elizabeth and her two daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Little does Elizabeth know just what an extensive reign her future held! Even at a glance, we can tell this is Elizabeth!

Just Like Our Ancestors

Woman plowing fields
MisMaeers/Fox Photos/Getty Images
MisMaeers/Fox Photos/Getty Images

If only the wealthy had cars in the 1940s, you could imagine that only the richest of farmers had access to a mechanical tractor. Back then, horses and mules were still used to plow fields, as they have been for thousands of years.

At the time, farmers probably didn’t know what farming would look like in the future or imagine a life without their trusty livestock. While this picture might as well have been taken back hundreds of years, it’s actually the 1940s!

Anything To Make A Dime

Man with sign
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

After the discovery and production of penicillin it helped to cure countless people of their ailments. However, during the 1940s, in order to attain it, you still needed a doctor’s prescription, and it had to be administered by an actual physician.

This picture shows a man putting up a false advertising sign because penicillin was yet to be made available over the counter. We can assume this gentleman made a pretty penny from this lie.

All-Natural Ice Skating

People ice skating
GHI/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
GHI/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although it’s safe to say that ice skating has decreased in popularity in recent decades, when we typically do see people ice skating, it’s usually on constructed rinks and during the holidays.

Rewind back to the 1940s, and not only was ice skating popular, but people just did it wherever the ice was thick enough to skate on! This may have seemed like no big deal at the time, but you wouldn’t catch most people doing that these days!

Women Served In The Military Then Too

Women having a picnic
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Although when we think of World War II, we usually envision men fighting in both the European and Pacific theaters, women were involved too! Not only were they helping back at home, but some also joined the ranks of the military.

Pictured here are two women enjoying a picnic who are serving as members of the Women’s Land Army. Mostly, they were made up of domestic servants, shop assistants, housewives, teachers, and other similar jobs at the time.

A Growing New York

Picture of roofer
Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Featured here is roof spotter Benjamin Franklin as he takes a break and admires the budding New York skyline at the end of a long day of work. Not only has the city evolved over the decades, but clearly so have safety procedures.

It doesn’t seem like Franklin is wearing any safety gear at all that might prevent him from a long fall to the bottom of the street. Little did he know this snapshot would become a famous picture one day either!

What Happens In Vegas, Stays In Vegas

Picture of hotel
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

After the ending of World War II, and leading up to the 1950s, the economy began to boom, and people became more accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle. Pictured here is the famous Hotel Flamingo located in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1949.

At the time, it was considered to be one of the most beautiful establishments of the world and welcomed the rich and famous to come and lay out by their pool, shaded by the palms.

Being A Sailor Was Dirty Work

Men on a ship
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Being out on the open seas has never been the cleanest of jobs. You’re stuck on a ship in the middle of nowhere, crammed in with a bunch of other men, with no place to go.

Even in the 1940s, it is clear that this was a job not for the faint of heart. Pictured here are a group of grease-faced sailors as they share water from a bucket (or something else) on a ship in 1940.

Surfin’ U.S.A.

Girl with surfboard
Camerique/Getty Images
Camerique/Getty Images

At the end of the 1940s and leading into the 1950s, the United States wasn’t as on guard as it was during the war. This gave people the opportunity to spend time doing the things that they enjoyed doing and inventing some hobbies of their own.

During this time, beaches began seeing the emergence of surfing and the surf culture that would soon come to dominate many California shorelines in the coming decades.

Danny Kaye Giving The People What They Want

Picture of Danny Kaye
Harold Clements/Getty Images
Harold Clements/Getty Images

In the 1940s and the 1950s, Danny Kaye was a signature in the entertainment industry. Not only was he talented, but he was a jack of all trades, being an actor, dancer, singer, comedian, musician, and philanthropist.

Over the course of his career, he starred in 17 films and was known for his pantomimes, novelty songs, as well as performances of songs such as “Inchworm” and “The Ugly Duckling.” Here, he is pictured performing at the London Palladium.

Free-Climbing A Skyscraper

Man on a girder
Ben McCall/FPG/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Ben McCall/FPG/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Being a construction worker in New York City during the 1940s certainly had its perks. Here, we see a man scaling a vertical girder with the Empire State Building in the background.

Although this worker may have had one of the most breathtaking views of the city at the moment, he probably was more focused on the task at hand. While this may look cool, this man is definitely putting his life on the line performing whatever he is doing.

There Was Too Much Food At One Point

Girl with food
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

In the 1940s, there was a big surplus of food held by the Department of Agriculture as part of the United State’s government’s price support program to make sure food didn’t go to waste.

Here, a young student is showing off her full plate of food, specifically potatoes that her school received during the surplus. This was toward the end of the decade when all of the efforts were no longer going towards the war.

Gather Around For The Radio Show

Family listening to radio
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Before television was perfected and boomed in popularity between the 1950s and ’60s, individuals and families turned to the radio as a source of their news and entertainment.

The airways in the ’40s were always alive with radio shows and broadcasts that people could listen to weekly, just like people follow their favorite television series today. Pictured here is a family in Provincetown, Massachusetts as they gather in the living room to listen to their favorite program together.

Dancing Was The Thing To Do

Teenagers dancing
(Bettmann/Getty Images
(Bettmann/Getty Images

While dancing is still an extremely popular past time today, back in the 1940s, it was a community-wide event, with establishments clearing an area for a dance floor. Usually attended by a younger crowd, it allowed the youth to cut loose and have some fun on a weekend.

While these were meant to be wholesome events for teenagers, things didn’t always go as planned. This picture was taken during a dance in Los Angeles, California, in 1943.

We Were Still Tunneling Underground The “Old Fashioned” Way

Picture of miners
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Even during the 1940s, some people were still mining the earth the same way that it had been done for hundreds of years. These workers did their jobs in extremely hostile and hazardous conditions, leading to many of them not living very long lives.

Here, two miners are wheeling a cart out from a mine shaft that’s held together with nothing but pieces of wood. This picture is estimated to have been taken back in 1941.

Comics! Comics! Comics!

Boy reading a comic book
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

A major preoccupation, especially for young boys, was diving into as many comics as they could get their hands on. Not only were they accessible, but they were cheap, provided tons of entertainment, and new ones were always coming out.

During the 1940s, many comic companies, such as DC Comics, began to make a huge impact on the entertainment industry, with some of the most popular comic book heroes ever coming into existence.

Interior Design Became More Widespread

Picture of a living room
Hedrich Blessing Collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
Hedrich Blessing Collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Following the Great Depression and World War II, the 1940s also saw an increase in interior design, not only for the rich but also for the middle class. Not all families were struggling to put food on the table, so they could afford to spruce up their homes.

Incredibly, some of the popular designs back then can still be seen in some homes today that are going for a unique look. Pictured here is the interior of a home in Chicago, Illinois, from 1946.

Train Wheels Needed To Be Replaced Sometimes

Picture of tire
Jack Delano/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Jack Delano/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

By the 1940s, trains were one of the biggest modes of transportation for people, livestock, and other goods. Of course, they could still be temperamental at times and needed repairing, such as changing the driver’s wheel!

This is a picture of a locomotive driver wheel that’s being ready to be fitted on a new tire. The process involves heating the tire with gas until it expands enough to fit over the drive wheel. Interesting stuff!