Victory And Beyond Home From War And Ready To Shop End Of War Ushered In An Era Of Consumerism
Car dealers can offer rebates, knock interest rates down to nothing, inflate balloons and bring in clowns for the kids.
They’ll never come up with a promotion like the one Chud Wendle hatched sometime around V-J Day.
The Spokane car dealer had just received his first new 1945 Mercury and announced a drawing to pick the person who would drive it home.
People went crazy. More than 4,500 put their names in a box, and Spokane Mayor Otto Dirkes drew one as a crowd watched breathlessly. To the disappointment of many, the winner was a Rhode Island man passing through town.
The most stunning part of the promotion was that Wendle wasn’t giving the car away. He wasn’t even cutting a deal. The hopeful entrants were competing for the chance to pay full price.
“I’d say a prayer every minute hoping that the guy who won would have a trade-in,” said Wendle. If not, the showroom would be bare.
The end of the war that changed the world gave birth to a consumerism that transformed the nation. It ended a decade and a half of sacrifice that was forced first by the economy, then by the Axis.
It sparked a culture that treats shopping as a pastime, not a necessity. It created a generation that takes vacations to the Mall of America and reads catalogs as if they were best-sellers.
The desire to spend had been building since 1929, when the Great Depression began. There was plenty to buy, but most families couldn’t find money for food, let alone luxuries like cars and books. Merchants did more dusting than selling.
Then came Pearl Harbor, and Americans went to work in factories that made weapons, uniforms and K rations.
They had money, but it did them no good since most everything went to the troops. A wad of bills couldn’t buy a new car, a decent set of tires or a gallon of gas if it wasn’t your day to go to the pumps.
At Huppins clothing store in Spokane, clerks filled shelves with luggage and trunks because it made the place look well-stocked even when when it wasn’t.
Then the war ended and for the first time in 16 years, supply and demand began to merge. Americans had saved a quarter of their income during the war - far more than the 10 percent that is typical during peacetime. Companies scrambled to convert factories to products that would tempt that money away.
Car manufacturers, which had churned out tanks, guns and planes, went back to making cars. New Yorkbased Grumman Corp. started making aluminum canoes when it lost its government contract to make Wildcat and Hellcat fighter planes.
“Americans went on a spending spree. … The sacrifice was over,” said LeRoy Ashby, who teaches contemporary American history at Washington State University.
The Spokane Daily Chronicle reported in 1946 that local stores had made at least one-third more money than the previous year. By 1951, Spokane firms had seen their sales swell threefold since the war ended.
Americans wanted - and felt they deserved - luxuries.
Cosmetics sales more than doubled between 1937 and 1947, then nearly doubled again by 1954, according to U.S. Department of Commerce figures. Sales of buttons, the foundation of the clothing industry, also boomed.
Refrigerator sales went through the roof, along with the market for frozen foods. Sales of ice cream alone increased fivefold between 1937 and 1954.
All those refrigerators meant bad business for ice companies, which saw sales slump from $264 million in 1947 to $133 million seven years later.
War innovations created new demands and new products at home.
Huppins sold footlockers to veterans who had used them in barracks and wanted them for college dorms.
Ray Kroc introduced his first McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines, Ill., in 1955, the same year Swanson sold the first frozen TV dinner.
Acceptance of those dinners, some sociologists say, came because of packaged meals and fast food on battleships and in foxholes.
“Several years of living off C rations gave them a penchant for eating on the run,” said Ashby.
If you were a kid in Spokane, your greatest hope was that your parents might stop at Acme Electric, RATELS or Electro-Mart and bring home a Philco or Hoffman Easy-Vision television set.
Television was in its infancy at war’s end. By 1954, Americans were spending $2 billion a year snapping up 7 million sets.
Spokane got its first station, KHQ, in 1952. Viewers watched test patterns from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., when the screen went black for an hour. At 7, it was “Time for Beany,” which lasted 15 minutes. There were two more programs, “Hollywood Screen Test” and “Robert Montgomery Presents,” before the broadcast day ended at 9 p.m.
“All the kids used to come over after school … and everyone would stand around and watch the test pattern. How in the world did they do that?” said Jim Hanley, whose late father, Arch Hanley, owned Acme Electric.
Like today’s computer buffs, there appeared to be no limit to what some people would pay for the latest technology.
In 1955, when Boeing advertised in Spokane for mechanics who could start at $1.35 an hour, Acme sold its first RCA color television for $1,100 - just $400 less than an economical car like the Nash Metropolitan.
“That set took an average of three hours on delivery to set up,” said Hanley. “And you never moved it. If you did, you had to call a serviceman to adjust it. It had a zillion knobs.”
As quickly as Americans were moving televisions into their living rooms, they were parking new cars in their driveways.
Car makers produced only 785,000 civilian cars in 1945. It was not nearly enough to meet the demand - especially since Congress had allocated $1.5 billion to build interstate highways.
“The price of cars went up so fast, people would buy a car at any price and then go out and sell it and make money,” said David Bunting, an Eastern Washington University economics professor. “They were actually bribing dealers to move their names (up) the waiting lists.”
Wendle opened his dealership in 1943, but didn’t have new cars to sell.
“I had a ‘41 Ford and my partner had a ‘41 Chevrolet,” Wendle said. “We put them on the showroom floor, and got people right in.”
New cars remained scarce for a year or two after the war, so dealers made most of their money selling used cars. A customer with a trade-in was greeted warmly at any lot; otherwise, his name was placed on a waiting list.
By 1950, automakers were cranking out 8 million cars and trucks a year. Business remained good for dealers, but the boon was over.
“It (selling) just got harder and harder,” Wendle said.
The postwar era was a heady time for entrepreneurs, the most successful of whom have become familiar names.
Estee Lauder started her cosmetics company in 1946.
Conrad Hilton was the world’s premier hotel owner by 1955, the same year Walt Disney opened his California theme park.
RCA chairman David Sarnoff had predicted big things for television in the early 1920s. He saw his predictions come to fruition in the 1950s, and oversaw development of the first color TV.
Typical of regional success stories was the former Army Air Corps navigator who gambled that customers’ desire for variety was stronger than their loyalty to individual brands. Les Schwab stocked tires from several manufacturers - a new concept at the time.
“I had never fixed a flat tire in my life,” said Schwab, who now has 261 stores in the Northwest and Northern California.
The good life didn’t reach every corner of America. Life remained tough in the inner cities and the backwoods.
If you were black or a woman with a factory job, there was a good chance you lost it - or were demoted - when the GIs returned.
“The ‘Leave It to Beaver’ family is sort of a myth,” said EWU’s Bunting. “It looks like it represents society, but it doesn’t. It’s a creation of television.”
Still, there were plenty of Ward Cleavers who came home from the war anxious to start a family and better their lives. The GI Bill gave them the chance to attend college and own homes with plumbing and electricity - goals only the wealthiest Americans had achieved before.
As the spending spree continued, the accumulated savings couldn’t keep up. No matter; banks and stores taught soldiers who had charged into Europe and Asia how to charge at home.
Flatbush National Bank in Brooklyn, N.Y., introduced its “Charge It” plan in 1946, issuing script customers could use to make purchases in select stores. By the early 1950s, consumers were carrying Diners Club and American Express cards.
“GIs came back, often married, then went to school and lived very austere lives,” said Eugene Fram of the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. “Once they graduated, jobs were plentiful. They started to buy on credit. They felt very secure in the future.”
How long did the good times last? That depends on your outlook.
Maybe it ended in 1950, when North Korea invaded the south and weary Americans went back to war.
Maybe it ended in the 1960s, when yet another war tore apart the nation and a new generation questioned their parents’ values.
Maybe it ended in the 1970s, with the oil crisis and the realization that industrial productivity was tough on the earth.
Maybe it ended in the 1980s, when it took two incomes for most families to buy the minivans, VCRs and splitlevels they wanted.
Or, maybe it hasn’t ended.
EDK, a newsletter that tracks female consumers, says 31 percent of American women fit its definition of a “shopaholic.” More than a third of Consumer Reports readers say shopping is their hobby.
“America, by most standards, is the richest nation on earth,” noted Bunting.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo