The Washington Post

With 1940 Census release, a look at the decade’s art, music and style

Now that amateur data miners are getting a chance to pick through the 1940 Census, this rare glimpse back into the lives of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents could bring a renewed interest in their lives lived outside of the census-taker’s paper — including music, art and fashion. Could the 1940s make a cultural comeback?

In this photo provided by the National Archives at College Park, an enumerator, left, interviews a family outside a rail car for the 1940 Census. (AP/AP)


Women wore knee-length skirts (making a comeback this year as “the midi”!), sweetheart and necklines, oxford shoes and loafers (also popular these days), small hats and subdued colors. Couldn’t you see a version of the dresses below at your local Anthropologie?

An enumerator interviews a woman for the 1940 Census. (AP/AP)


Big Band music like the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Bing Crosby and Artie Shaw reigned the (few and limited, in those days) charts. Another popular song from a hit movie that year — “When You Wish Upon a Star,” from Disney’s Pinocchio — was recorded by Cliff Edwards, who provided the voice for Jiminy Cricket.


• In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American actor to ever take home an Oscar, at the 12th Academy Awards, which honored the previous year’s films.

• “The Philadelphia Story” is released, later earning James Stewart a best-actor Oscar.

• “Rebecca” is released, later taking the award for best picture.


Notable artists working in the 1940s included:

Edward Hopper:

Edward Hopper. "Dawn in Pennsylvania," 1942. Oil on canvas. Terra Museum of American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collections. (Terra Museum of American Art/Chicago/Art Resource, NY)

Jackson Pollock:

Jackson Pollock, “Untitled,” c. 1945, pen and black ink on brown paper prepared with yellow gouache. (National Gallery of Art/Leonard R. Stachura Fund)

William de Kooning:

Willem de Kooning, "Seated Woman." c. 1940. Oil and charcoal on Masonite. (Copyright 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/© THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART)

Others include Andrew Wyeth, Arshille Gorky, Joan Miro (subject of an upcoming show at the National Gallery), Mark Rothko and Norman Rockwell.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.


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