Cliff Notes for the 1940’s

   A recent request was “something on how to keep people who have little historical knowledge on the same page as those who have a lot – with a side of how to make things seem historically-flavored without large amounts of work” – also known as “how to run a game that is, at least initially, set in an actual historical period without teaching a history course”. I’m not sure that there really is any quick-and-easy solution to ignorance – but the next best thing is the old Cliff’s Notes idea; a quick summary of the major themes and background elements of a setting that the players are likely to find unusual.

   Of course, that means sorting out what they are. In this case, the requested setting was the second World War, mostly from the American and western European view. So what were some of the major items of that period that really differ from the present?

   News traveled slowly. There were telegraph services, a fair number of telephones (at least in town), newsreels, serials, and regular radio broadcasts from stations established in the 1920’s – but television was pretty much non-existent, major movies were events, and “data services” meant sending for a mail-order book on the topic.

   The fastest way to get the news was through the newspaper – and the local newspaper might be days or even weeks behind if the news was from a remote location or was being run past a censor and highly biased to boot. Getting a long-distance phone call through was an adventure in itself (1), and most personal news traveled by letter at best, by occasional contacts with relatives and friends at worst. If something was really urgent, your best bet was a telegram: it cost a fair amount, but the company would send someone out to find the person you wanted. Of course, personal news from out of town was rarely good. Good news could usually wait.

   In a military situation, where information was being intentionally restricted, you’d be lucky to know much of anything. Given the difficulties of scouting, inaccurate maps, and enemy attempts to hide things, the commanding officers might not be much better off. Most of the time, the troops were sent in virtually blind by today’s standards.

   As a consequence, things often seemed safer. A murder, disappearing child, or accident was big local news – but it never really impinged on the consciousness of people who lived a few towns away, so they never suffered the inverted risk assessment syndrome so common today, in which people obsess over rare (and thus extensively-reported) risks while ignoring those which are so common as to not be national news.

   Travel and transportation was difficult. Roads were poor; the major highway systems were still to come. Commercial air travel was in its infancy; “flying boats” made irregular overseas trips – but lighter-than-air systems had waned in popularity with the Hindenburg. Comfortable and reliable trains were the way to go for overland travel, although the canal network was (and is) the cheap way to move large cargos. Still, trains and canals ran on other people’s schedules and on limited routes. Cars were hard to find parts, mechanics, or fuel for (and weren’t for teenagers unless their parents had far more money than sense). Horses were still widely used. When you had something shipped “express”, it might still take weeks – or months if it was particularly large or bulky.

   Given the transportation difficulties, most basic production was necessarily local – and agricultural production directly employed just under 20% of the labor force (currently 1.9%), close to 25% of the total population lived on farms, and better than 50% of the population was rural. Most of those farms, and much of the rural population in general, had no electricity. They often didn’t have phones, they normally didn’t have sewers, and they often drew their water directly from streams and classical wells or from rainwater cisterns.

   Travel would not become easy until after the second world war, when renewed prosperity would usher in the age of the automobile and the commercial application of wartime aviation advances would open up the skies to the casual traveler – a situation that would eventually lead to the transitory lifestyle, relationships and loyalties typical of the current day.

   Communities were small, closed, and tight-knit. People might well be born, live, and die, without ever moving more than a few miles or getting out of the county. “You’ll never live that down” really meant something. On the other hand, people tended to know each other, support each other, visit each other (parties, dinners, dances, and many other events), and invest their time in their communities. Life revolved around churches and church events, sunday school, church picnics, local parks and entertainments, clubs, children’s sports (professional baseball was rising, but the great days of commercial sports were still to come), company events, and casual socializing – if only because there wasn’t that much else to do. If you wanted entertainment, you made your own or you called in someone who played an instrument or told stories or something. Strangers were notable, and everyone could be expected to know everyone else’s business; “privacy” was often close to nonexistent in town.

   Of course, people really tended to know their areas. They’d know how to interpret police whistles, fire alarms, and similar signals. They’d know what was going on without having to look. They’d know the reputations of local businessmen, who was a volunteer fireman, who produced most of their food, who baked the bread, and who produced various local goods. They’d know where in town you could buy various items – and there weren’t usually more than one or two places for any given item, since there wasn’t that much call in a small community for any single item. Of course, they’d also know the back alleys, the places to go and not to go, and where to find the tolerated vices and illegal services.

   By default, you’d probably live out your life with your neighbors, relatives, and (usually presumed to be life-long) employer – so personal loyalties and “character” (whatever that meant locally) tended to trump other considerations. The best experiences of your life, the best places you’d ever seen, and the best food you’d ever eaten tended to be local – if only because all your experiences tended to be local – and thus where you lived, and the country you were a part of, were the best ever. The upside of that was loyalty, civic pride, patriotism, and social stability. The downside was narrow-mindedness, rigid social rules and formalities, unwritten codes that “everyone knew”, and the belief that everyone who “wasn’t one of us” was necessarily inferior. People of other races and nationalities were generally ignored or marginalized. There was prejudice on a massive scale – and it was accepted to the point that most people never even really noticed it. There was no notion of cultural relativity (you saw the primitives of “other cultures” in National Geographic) – and no real awareness that those attitudes would ever be subject to change. Women tended to be treated as weak prizes, to be kept safely at home to produce and care for children (2). The “Master Race” idea was just a slightly-exaggerated version of what most people believed anyway – as a little research into “Eugenics” will easily demonstrate.

   Information was limited. Even major libraries – to say nothing of local ones – were generally quite limited. In the United States in 1940, just under 25% of the population older than 25 had graduated from high school. Many had never gotten beyond elementary school, although only 13.4% had less than four years of schooling (from the US census records). Compared to today, you wouldn’t know much – and you wouldn’t be able to find out much more for a long time.

   Doctors understood a good deal of of what was going on with many illnesses and injuries – but there often still wasn’t all that much they could do about it beyond sun, exercise, and diet. Simple infections and what are now easily-treatable or preventable diseases often meant death – or a restricted life as an incurable carrier. Drugs and medicines were very limited, early vaccinations were only partially effective (and tended to leave scars), and there was little that could be done if your body started to fail. A quarantine – whether for measles, chicken pox, or tuberculosis – was taken seriously; it meant lives at serious risk. “Birth Control” meant condoms (at best), which you had to hunt for – and would certainly become a topic of gossip.

   History books often stopped with the industrial revolution. Everything after that was “current events”.

   Food was simpler. Spices were more expensive, and less well-known. Foods tended to be purchased in bulk, and made “from scratch”. Freeze-dried foods were non-existent, frozen foods – except for ice cream, which was a special treat – were unheard of, and home canning (and the occasional fatality therefrom) was a normal thing. The odds were good that you produced some of your own food; a kitchen garden and a few chickens (that you slaughtered yourself) were a common household element, and became even more common during the war. Milk was delivered daily in town, and groceries could be delivered regularly as well. Refrigeration was a luxury, and “Fast Food” meant buying something (at your own risk) from a pushcart vendor.

   Things were bulky and awkward – and life called for a lot more casual physical labor. The age of high-tech consumer convenience items, of the wide use of aluminum and stainless steel alloys, of electric gadgets and electronic gizmos, and of “lighter and cheaper”, was yet to come. This was the time of bulky backpack and cabinet radios, of expensive lenses and optics, of crank phonographs (and a limited selection of things to play on them), of heavy woollen trousers, of thick cotton, and of push lawnmowers. Watches and compasses were expensive, clocks need to be wound daily, and you were often cold and damp; drying your clothes by the fire or steam radiator was the best that could be done on cold or rainy days.

   When it came to the war, people threw themselves into things. Their homes were threatened – and they identified with their homes very strongly indeed. Rationing did inspire black markets, but most people accepted the call with good grace. They accepted blackouts and air raid drills, watched for spies, scrimped and saved to support the war effort, entertained the soldiers on leave (albeit normally with proper chaperones – which did not always work), and participated in scrap drives and similar events (some useful, some more for the sake of morale). A fair number of people lied about their ages to get into the military or tried to cover up disqualifying defects. Of course, people being people, others tried to avoid serving – but that was unusual enough to be notable. They recycled old parachutes into new dresses and reused every scrap they could. At least in the United States they were glad to see the country rising from the great depression and were filled with a national spirit – in part inspired by the notions of national unity and action underlying the “new deal” and the belief that there was “nothing which could stop America”.

   You wouldn’t find velcro on anything and plastics were far less ubiquitous. Things were made of wood and iron. They didn’t eat pizza, use cell phones and microwave ovens, or casually listen to news about the personal lives of prominent individuals; many Americans never found out that the President suffered from the complications of Polio. Most had never really thought about what was out in space – although there were those who loved the “science fiction” craze. They usually went to bed shortly after sunset and rose around dawn, since artificial lighting was limited.

   Now, all of this was starting to change – with what earlier generations would have considered unthinkable speed – but no one would know that for years to come. Whether that change was good or bad, and what it means and will lead to, is a matter for debate as well – but that goes well beyond the topic here.


   (1) A fact which is still having an impact: why do casual calls from acquaintances – who only had to press a button to reach you – seem to automatically take priority over speaking with people who have actually taken the trouble to come in person? It’s a cultural legacy of the period when people dropped by casually – but reaching you on the phone required a good deal of work and was pretty unreliable.

   (2) In general, outside of Russia and a few other countries, you wouldn’t find women serving in the armed forces (at least not anywhere near actual violence), in important positions, or in charge of men. The fact that there had to be a “Rosie the Riveter” campaign at all shows that women working outside the house (at least after they were married) was considered a wild aberration.

   Now, even in real life, there were partisans and spies – although the institution of physical exams put an end to the civil war trick of pretending to be a man – and locals could always get involved. While, in a game setting, exotic connections, knowledge, circumstances, or abilities can justify almost anything, if you want to portray anything like the 1940’s American and Western European culture, female PC’s – just like characters of minority races and faiths – are going to have to put up with a lot of restrictions.