After suffering The Great Depression, the U.S. was hit with a very different hardship in the 1940’s. The U.S. involvement in World War II would define the decade and alter the trajectory of companies and consumers alike. The demands of wartime production and rations stretched some industries to the breaking point, yet the creation of millions of new jobs dragged the economy out of a depression and ushered in a boom that we have not seen since.

1940 and 1941 were still stained by the economic drought of The Great Depression; however, a transformation occurred in every industry when the U.S. decided to enter World War II in December of 1941. With so many men shipping out there were suddenly vacant positions in everything from factories to supermarkets, and restaurants. Many of these industries were being repurposed to aid the war effort and they had to turn to a new group of workers, women. The same women that were encouraged by advertisers to stay home during The Great Depression were now instrumental in ending it by filling every kind of position imaginable. Unemployment fell by almost 10 million and private employment rose by 10 million.

Despite the improvement in the economy that would follow World War II, many U.S. businesses were put in a bind during the decade. The Federal Government exerted control over the private sector and handed out war contracts to big businesses. Prices and wages that had traditionally been set by the market were now being set by elected officials in Washington D.C. Private companies in every industry no longer had total control of their products or the direction their company was headed in. This was worsened by the strategic allocation of resources and rationing of essential products. Companies who did not comply with government directives risked being taken over completely.

The development of technology that would have aided companies or society was instead directed towards the war effort. Similarly, advertising took a major step backwards and became geared around encouraging citizens to ration and purchase war bonds. Rations were an especially difficult blow to industries like foodservice and grocery. Fears about the outcome of the war and scarcity often led to shortages of basic goods at grocery stores. Restaurants are rarely seen as essential businesses and they suffered for it in the 1940’s. Foodservice distributors were redirected for the war which left restaurants with a limited inventory and fewer potential patrons. The industry was able to survive this though, and by the end of the decade the newfound buying power of women and the return of enlisted men meant a boom was ahead.

Perhaps the biggest loser of 1940’s was small business. Government contracts went to large corporations and chains and those companies were better suited to weather the blow of losing so many employees. Smaller chains struggled to replace lost employees and, in some cases, lost all of their workforce to deployment. Rationing made it difficult for consumers to focus on the non-essentials and small businesses were often a secondary purchase option. Thankfully the end of the war opened up the opportunity for new small businesses to begin later in the decade

The 1940’s was a turning point in American history. It began by continuing the hardships of The Great Depression, was followed by the outbreak of a World War, and ended by setting up the greatest economic rise we have ever seen. Join us next month as we examine what happened in America’s Golden Age.