Big Shoulder Pads, Part One

Old magazines fascinate me. Especially those from World War II and the 1950s recovery period. The period during which the United States transformed itself from a player on the world’s stage to one of the top two or three strutters and shapers. We’re such a vast country (though hardly the largest in square miles), yet sometimes we can galvanize ourselves into united action. That was the effect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the beautiful harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, where the American fleet was drawn up.

The attack on December 7th, 1941, brought the United States population to its radios listening en masse to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s call to arms. As a nation, we have an extraordinary ability to carry on rather blissfully while the rest of the world is going up in flames. It’s a legacy bestowed by our double ocean isolation from Europe and Asia and by a policy of neutrality laid down at the very start of the nation. So we watched German and Japanese aggression from a distance until Pearl Harbor.

But oceans, we learned from the Japanese aerial bombing of American ships in Pearl Harbor, could no longer protect us. We had to enter the war, which was exactly what President Roosevelt announced by radio to a nation of listeners. During the subsequent war years from late 1941 to the U.S. dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 45, and the signing of the armistice in the Pacific, Life Magazine kept us informed with an exceptionally vivid photographic and advertising portrait of the U.S. at war. Photographs of war zones showed bombed cities, refugees, camps in the jungle, GIs smoking cigarettes, both at ease and ready for action, and huge ships going up in flames. But for depicting what was happening at home, the advertisements were the most revealing.

Though American women had served as teachers and social workers for a century, they entered the manufacturing and urban work force in droves during the war. Secretaries wore pencil-thin skirts and thick shoulder pads. Their shoulder-length hair was pulled away from their faces into two wings; their high-heeled shoes had open toes but rather sturdy heels. In an ad for Mimeograph duplicator with the title “When Man Power goes to War,” (Life Magazine, June 22, 1942) a cheeky sailor leans across a mimeograph machine and flirts with a big-shouldered, short-sleeved lass working the machine. The lead sentences read: “We’re telling a lot of the boys good-bye these days. Women and girls are taking over in offices–with a march song on their lips, courage in their hearts, ability in their hands.” For the duration of the war, with Rosie the Riveter manufacturing airplanes, war ships, guns, bullets, and parachutes, American women left home, crossed country, and joined the war effort.

Even the dinner plate was considered a war zone with Campbell’s Soup advertizing “This Summer…More than Ever…Soup Makes the Meal!” We learn that “One Hot Dish for summer meals is the rule….” Though nothing more specific is said, it’s evident that the War Office had counseled American families to conserve energy. Everything from sugar to meat, tires to gas was rationed, and families and individuals had to present ration books to purchase these items. No one bought new cars: there were none for sale. American the steel went into planes and ships. And mother, aunt, sister, wife drove the rather short distances allowable with gas rationing. It was probably the largest four-year transformation even enacted in the United States. But once the war was won, the country began another immense shift. This too was evident in Life Magazine’s advertisements.

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