Archive for the ‘1940 US Census’ Category

It seems we “girls” are forever trying to be thinner, fatter, lighter, darker, anything but what we naturally are. But the ways we torture ourselves have certainly changed. These machines were popular in the 1930s and -40s. I admit I kinda wish they really worked – this is the type of exercise I could commit to!

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Superhero Fantasies

Born during the Great Depression and in the shadow of World War II, is it any wonder Superman was so popular? (Source: Seattle Daily Times; March 5, 1940; p1)

Imagine a quarter of a million American teenagers living on the road, fleeing abuse, forced to drop out of schools that had closed, or just trying to find work to help their families. This was the situation during the Great Depression, when two teenage boys created “The Man of Steel.” Is it any wonder Superman became an overnight phenomenon?

In 1940, Superman was beginning to appear in newspaper comic strips across the country. It’s easy for me to imagine my grandfather at the breakfast table, 35 years old and the father of four children, reading the comics and wishing for a real-life superhero. He and his wife worked for the Volunteers of America, trying to make life better for the down and out while they themselves struggled. On the day the 1940 US Census was taken, Superman was laying a trap for thugs who were loaning money to poor people, enticing them to gamble it away, then making them repay it at huge interest rates. It was a complicated story line – Superman hadn’t yet become the Biff! Boom! Pow! type. But a mythical superhero, stronger than any evil, must have been a welcome fantasy for desperate people living with hunger, poverty, and the growing menace in Germany.

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In the Mood for 1940

On April 2, 1940, the New York Times reported that the 1940 census would start that day, reassuring those nervous about personal privacy that they would be ground up into a kind of statistical sausage.
NY Times; 2 Apr 1940

Elsewhere that same day:

  • The US Government awarded Aircraft Pilot’s Certificate Number One to 68-year-old Orville Wright.
  • Two-time Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling wrote a letter about U.S. reluctance to join the war in Europe.
  • First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote her daily column while traveling through Beverly Hills, California.
  • Glenn Miller was ripping up the charts with his #1 hit:

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Uncle Elmer could fly, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He was a big man, not much for small talk, with feet planted solidly on the ground. Like his sister – my grandmother – he was made of equal parts honey and vinegar, and fools quaked in his presence. Including me. As a 13-year-old girl I was by definition foolish, and so he rarely paid attention to me. Except at the roller rink. The women his age weren’t too keen about strapping wheels onto their feet and spinning under a disco ball. I was only too eager, though.

Uncle Elmer was a strong and confident dancer on skates, while I was scrawny and awkward (read “easy to push around”). My only job was to hang on for the entire glorious flight. It was impossible to fall – sheer momentum kept me moving forward. But if I let go I would surely go sailing into a wall.

Much later I learned that Elmer Mason had been a professional roller skater in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. By day he worked in a shoe mill. At night he performed with “The Whirlwind Trio” at fairs and festivals throughout Maine, with unlimited practice time at the nearby rink managed by his brother, my Uncle Roy. But there are gaps in my knowledge. How close did he live to his brother? To the rink? Did he make much money at it? Was he consistently employed at the mills, or was his wife – a nurse – the more stable breadwinner?

This is why I am volunteering to help index the 1940 US Census:  I want to know more about the man who could fly.

The Whirlwind Trio of Lewiston, Maine (newspaper unknown).

The Whirlwind Trio, circa 1940. (Photo courtesy of private family collection.)

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