The decade of the 1940s was a period of radical transformation for the North American consumer product industry, and can be thought of as three distinct time periods; a brief post-depression era of streamlined optimism about the future, the grim austerity of the war, and the exuberant post-war period of explosive consumer growth.
This theme of a transformation and focus on the future, especially coming out of the hardships of the depression, is supported by the package design images throughout this post. Each is selected to illustrate a brand’s design evolution during the decade of the 1940s. In each case the image on the left is from the beginning and the image on the right is from the end of the decade. Frankly, I won’t bore you with a visual critique or individual interpretation of each. In some cases the changes are subtle yet purposeful, but there is an obvious move by each brand away from the decorative and towards modern simplicity, that speaks for itself.
The New York World’s Fair of 1939, was “The Fair of The Future”. Envisioned by Walter Dorwin Teague, Gilbert Rohde and a seven member design board as a vehicle to highlight their design inspired “victory” over the depression, and to lead the American citizen towards an optimistic technological new day. The streamlined modernist movement was at its peak, and exhibits like General Motor’s Futurama supported this theme.
Early in 1939 Vogue magazine described the team of designers tasked with creating the fair as “men who shape our destinies and our kitchen sinks, streamline our telephones and our skyscrapers, men who brought surrealism to the department stores and the be-Tryloned Perisphere to Long Island . . . know all about the problems, the dreams, and the realities the future has in store for us. They are trained to think ahead; they know tomorrow like their own streamlined pockets . . . Let them have some fun”.
In many ways, the new post war consumer of the late 1940s and the growth of the design industry that served it, established many of the precedents that would go on to define the retail marketplace for the rest the 20th century.
Many have said, and the modernist theme of the World’s Fair seemed to support the notion, that industrial design was a discipline that received its elevated image, and almost heroic status, because of its role in helping to stimulate the consumer demand that hastened the end of the great depression. As the depression eased toward the end of the 30s, work by designers like Henry Dreyfuss, and Raymond Loewy were looked at as an optimistic enlightened way forward.
Again transformation is a major theme of the decade, which began with the stirrings of growth and optimism, supported by the victory of the war, and ended with the massive growth of an expanding middle class suburbia, young families, and the retail culture made possible by automotive mobility.
In 1940 Norman Bel Geddes book, Magic Motorways promoted the idea of advanced highway design, and built on his theme of streamlining and futuristic design. Frank Sinatra had just recorded one of his early hits, “All or Nothing at All”, and had gotten his first big break touring with the Tommy Dorsey Band. Alexander Calder created Eucalyptus, a continuation of his sheet metal mobiles.
Also in 1940 Raymond Loewy refined the Lucky Strike pack. His design, a continuation of the basic red circle on a green field theme that had been used since the 19th century, is shown in the middle of this image. It is a slightly simplified look made more “modern and streamlined” with the elimination of the large decorative “Cigarettes” type which had incorporated the art nouveau and art deco inspired typography made fashionable in the 20s and 30s. The addition of the thin white rule in the round target also adds to the sense of modernity and lightness.
The third white Lucky Strike package was designed in 1942, and shows the influence the war had on all consumer products. It eliminated the green color background, and the use of the heavy metal pigments required for the ink, a precious commodity for the war effort. The famous “Lucky Strike Goes To War” ad campaign was developed to highlight this package change to white.
Perhaps the most infamous package of the decade was the C-Ration, a basic utilitarian set of cans, boxes, and bags that our GIs loved to hate.
As designers began to support the war effort Charles and Ray Eames, who had been experimenting with molded plywood, worked for the U.S. Navy developing molded plywood designs for leg splints. From this experience they developed the inexpensive and iconic LCW chair after the war. In 1942, Artists for Victory was started. With an eventual membership over 10,000, it acted as the chief liaison between artists and government, and sponsored competitions the first of which was at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in December 1942
In 1943 Rogers & Hammerstein produced Oklahoma, celebrating American optimism. Most of the musical theatre world took little notice of the war, until the end of the decade with R&H’s South Pacific from the James Michener book about his experiences during the war. In 1944 Aaron Copland and Martha Graham collaborate on Appalachian Spring – again celebrating American values. Also that year The Society of Industrial Designers, a forerunner of the IDSA, was formed by 15 prominent designers, including Bel Geddes.
As the war ended in 1945, George Orwell wrote Animal Farm, E. B. White wrote Stuart Little, and Charlie Parker hired Miles Davis to replace Dizzi Gillespie at The Three Deuces on 52nd Street.
In 1946 Tupperware was introduced to a growing consumer product market, while Jackson Pollock painted Full Fathom Five in 1947, one of the earliest of his drip technique masterpieces.
The decade of the 1940s ended with some interesting events that foreshadow key developments later in the 20th century. The birth of suburbia was clearly demonstrated in 1948 as the iconic Levittown community was built on Long Island.
Also in 1948 the role of the designer in helping support modern technology was demonstrated with Elliot Noyes designing the first IBM Model A typewriter, and the Polaroid Model 95 camera, was designed by Walter Dorwin Teague Associates.
Transformation in lifestyle was a dominant theme in the 1940s. For most Americans, this decade acted as a bridge from the desperation of the 1930s to the incredible sense of unbridled optimism of the 1950s. Much of the package design work of this decade also acted as a bridge to a simpler more optimistic time. More on that in our review of the package design of the 1950s.
McCracken, Grant. 2005, Culture and Consumption II. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Pulos, Arthur. 1988. The American Design Adventure. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Jankowski, Jerry. 1992. Shelf Life, Modern Package Design 1920-1945. San Francisco. Chronicle Books.
Jankowski, Jerry. 1998. Shelf Space, Modern Package Design 1945-1965. San Francisco. Chronicle Books.
Haskell, Barbara. 1999. The American Century, Art & Culture 1900-1950. New York. W. W. Norton & Company.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. 1996. Visual Arts in The Twentieth Century. New York. Harry N. Abrams