Time for some new retro

Photo: Philip Brewer

For some time now, we've had good success drawing on the decades from the 1950s through the 1990s for our retro. Some bolder types have even made some use of the 1890s and 1920s--periods of wealth and excess--to inspire fashion, architecture, lifestyles, and the arts. The new economic realities, though, I think will convince us to draw on some new periods for our retro: the 1930s and 1940s.

In the United States, the 1930s are generally remembered as "the Great Depression," and not much else. In fact, it was a much more complex and subtle decade than that. Even the economics is more complex than that--there were actually two recessions in the 1930s, with a period of growth (albeit weak growth) from 1933 to 1937 in the middle.

Similarly, the 1940s are generally remembered as "the war years," even though the US didn't enter the war until 1941 and the war ended in 1945. Of course, the war had already been going on for years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and its aftermath held sway over at least the second half of the decade.

Still, I think there's a lot of retro available to be mined from those decades. To start with, there's frugality. There's also a curious blend of independence and a willingness to pull together and work for a common purpose.

So, any time in the next few years when you feel like seeking out some inspiration from the way things were done in the past, take a look at the 1930s and 1940s. There's lots of good stuff there.

That's not to say that there isn't great retro to be found in even earlier decades. The 1910s (a decade with three recessions and a war) offer plenty of art, literature, and economics to draw from. And, of course, there are useful things from decades even before that, such as Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management from 1861 (also available as a free e-text from Project Gutenberg). Besides considerable advice on hiring servants, it has numerous recipes--complete with cost estimates circa 1860--and extends as far as discussing the raising of sheep and chickens.



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Guest's picture

You said: "Still, I think there's a lot of retro available to be mined from those decades. To start with, there's frugality. There's also a curious blend of independence and a willingness to pull together and work for a common purpose." -Add the concept of sacrifice in there. The greatest generation has a lot to teach those living in this age. Let's hope a great many of us can learn those lessons, and quickly.

Guest's picture
Edgar A.

The early 1930s and especially 1933 were a pivotal time in world history, a time when many things ended and many new things began. This website


makes a similar claim and tries to document it with 258 events of 1933. Even with that number, a lot of important historic turns are omitted.

A case can be made that life as it was being lived through, say, 1980 began in 1933 plus or minus a year. And a case could also be made that many of the changes beginning in 1981 represent a falling away from the ideas and practices of the most successful period of American history.

We may hope that Obama will be able to restore some of these good ideas and sound practices. For example, his announced plans seem to suggest that he's looking to a return to such successful projects as the Civilian Conservation Corps (begun 1933).

Guest's picture

The 40's did have the best clothes....

My mom and my aunts have some great ideas they shared from growing up in the 30's and being young adults in the 40's during rationing and such.

Guest's picture

Can I go ahead and coin the term "poorpunk"? Or maybe "depressionpunk"?

Or do those sound less like aesthetic movements and more like genres of people listened to by people I don't want rubbing up against me at venues?

Guest's picture


aren't those kind of redundant? DIY vagabonds have been nostalgic for the 30s for decades! think about it:

- meatless meals
- hopping freights
- sleeping on sofas
- making music and playing for tiny audiences who are mostly friends
- tattered clothes
- lack of money
- picking through the trash

Guest's picture

It's really amazing how incredibly frugal people were in the 1910s. I'm working on a historical newspaper project with U.S. newspapers from the 1910s, and people really knew how to stretch a dollar (and a dime). During WWI, a lot of foods were banned or strictly rationed - most importantly wheat flour, meat, oil, and sugar - so that that food could go to the troops. Newspapers of the time were constantly printing recipes that taught you how to feed your family with a bit of corn meal, corn oil, and milk. There are tons of ads extolling people that milk is food - basically, that it had enough nutrition that you could include it as a side for dinner. People were tough, but I think times were tougher, actually. There was a lot of suicide and murder-suicides, I think in part because of the strain and absolutely no mental health services, not to mention the troops coming back home totally traumatized. A common reason cited for suicide was simply being "destitute". Rough - but certainly a lot of similarities to the present.

Guest's picture

In 1925 my (recently dearly departed) father was born into a family of 11 who had homesteaded in northwest Oklahoma. He grew up through the years of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. He always quipped that his family was so poor they never even knew there was a depression. During WWII, halfway through his senior year of high school, he joined the armed forces, which 2 brothers and 1 sister were already serving.

I wish he had felt comfortable retelling experiences of his childhood and the war years; but he never cared to speak of anything that could bring up unpleasant memories for him.

He was never a tightwad (as my mother claims) but he knew the important things in life were not things. He purchased high quality items taking care to make them last. If it broke he would fix it. If he couldn't fix it, could it serve another purpose?

In the summer of 1969, needing to attend a series of meetings for his job, he decided to buy a new station wagon and take the whole family along. It was the first (and last) new car he ever purchased. During that trip the car was in every Pontiac service center up the entire eastern seaboard. As soon as the warranty expired he had to rebuild the engine himself and sold it before anything else could go wrong. He went back to his old habit of buying a low mileage 2-year-old car once every 10 years, driving it until the wheels fell off.

He didn't trust banks. Every payday he bought US savings bonds, keeping them in briefcases in the back of a closet. In 1977, during the worst part of that recession, our family needed to move. Using the bonds, he paid cash for the new home, the old home rented out waiting to sell the house for its full value. Much to my mother's relief, he decided to conservatively invest the proceeds from the sale of that house.

I have so much to thank him for. Lessons of frugality and of the truly important things in life are but two of them.

Guest's picture

I get a lot of inspiration from the home front in Britain during World War II. I have read lots about rationing, make do and mend, dig for victory, etc. through diaries, letters, scholarly books, etc. Rationing in Britain actually extended far past the end of the war, so the people had to get quite good at managing with less.