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Celebrate the Century: Search the Web for U.S. History of the 1940s

Search the Web to learn more about the stories behind the stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service commemorating the people, places, events, and trends of the fifth decade of this century. Explore Web sites related to the advent of television and antibiotics, to the big-band sound and the baby boom, and to Rosie the Riveter and Harry the president! Included: An Internet scavenger hunt for students!

World War II, Jackie Robinson, the jitterbug, and the Slinky were honored in early 1999 when the U.S. Postal Service unveiled in a USO-style ceremony 15 postage stamps commemorating the century's fifth decade. The stamps are part of the Postal Service's landmark Celebrate the Century stamp and education program.

"The 1940s stamps pay lasting tribute to a decade that began with a World War and ended in victory and the beginning of prosperity," said Einar V. Dyhrkopp, chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors, who dedicated the stamps. "By the end of the 1940s, America was on a new path. The world had found some peace and we were world leaders."

THE '40s

The following text is from the 1940s Celebrate the Century stamp sheet.

"After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II. More than 16 million American men and women served in the military while millions of housewives worked to help keep the economy running.

"The U.S. emerged from the war as the world's most powerful nation. Americans, after surviving years of depression and war, eagerly started families, causing a surge in the birthrate and the beginning of the postwar baby boom.

"Movie fans enjoyed the films of Bing Crosby and Betty Grable, and when commercial television was launched, Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan became household names. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and became one of the league's brightest stars. For the first time people played with Slinkys and Silly Putty. Nylon stockings were the rage for women, while teenagers sported socks with loafers or saddle shoes and rolled-up blue jeans. The jitterbug was popularized by music from live bands and jukeboxes. And new words coined during the period included hot rod, pinup, bikini, and self-employed."


So sets the stage for the 15 stamps commemorating the 1940s.

The activities that follow will engage students in exploring Web sites as they search for information related to ten of the 1940s stamps. For each stamp, a question is posed and a Web site URL is presented. Challenge students to use the listed Web sites to answer all ten questions. Click here for the answers to the questions.


WWII Stamp

More than 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II, and more than 405,000 lost their lives. U.S. intervention proved decisive in the Allied victories in Europe and in the Pacific.

Question 1:
You've probably heard the expression "Loose lips sink ships." That expression originated during World War II. Why were there rules for what a soldier could write in a letter to his or her family?

The Web site:

To find the answer to that question, go to the Eyewitness: World War Two Web page.


Antibiotics Stamp

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. Penicillin, derived from mold, as shown in the stamp art, saved the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers during World War II. Postwar streptomycin has been highly effective in combating tuberculosis, a serious, highly contagious lung disease.

Question 2:
Penicillin gained widespread use during World War II. The 1928 discovery of penicillin by British scientist Sir Alexander Fleming is often called the "happy accident." Why is that?

The Web site:

To find the answer to that question, go to the Then and Now: Historic Penicillin Web page.


Jackie Robinson Stamp

Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Voted Rookie of the Year that season, he earned the National League's Most Valuable Player award in 1949.

Question 3:
At the time that Jackie Robinson broke into the big league, many players didn't believe he'd make it. Among those players was Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller. What did Bob Feller say about Jackie's chances of success? (They were words that Jackie would prove so wrong!)

The Web site:

To find the answer to that question, go to Major League Baseball's Jackie Robinson Page and read his bio.


President Truman Stamp

Harry S. Truman, the 33rd U.S. president, guided the nation through the end of World War II and the beginning of the cold war, the conflict of ideas between the United States and the Soviet Union. A sign, which reportedly sat on his desk at the White House, read: "THE BUCK STOPS HERE!"

Question 4:
Harry Truman's middle initial -- S -- doesn't stand for any name. His middle name is simply "S"! Why did his parents give him the middle name "S"?

The Web site:

To find the answer to that question, go to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum Web page and click on Truman Trivia.


TV Stamp

Commercial television formally began July 1, 1941, and by the end of 1949, more than 3 million American homes had sets. Many early programs, including dramas, variety shows, news shows, and comedies, were adapted from popular radio programs.

Question 5:
Which scientist is widely credited as the inventor of the "television system"?

The Web site:

To find the answer to that question, go to the National Inventors Hall of Fame Index of Inventions Web page.


Abstract Expressionism Stamp

Abstract Expressionism was marked by a range of individual styles of modern painting and sculpture. Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) created some of his most famous abstract works of art by pouring paint onto canvas laid on his studio floor.

Question 6:
Jackson Pollock is one of the painters frequently associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement in this United States. Why did Pollock prefer to work on his paintings on the floor rather than on easels?

The Web site:

To find the answer to that question, go to the Web Museum: Jackson Pollock Web page.


Big Band Stamp

Big-band music, popular on recordings and radio and in ballrooms and concert halls, distracted Americans during World War II. Led by Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and others, the bands usually had 14 to 18 musicians.

Question 7:
Big-band leader Glenn Miller's favorite quote came from another band leader, Duke Ellington. What was that quote?

The Web site:

To find the answer to that question, go to the Glenn Miller Orchestra History Web page.


Baby Boom Stamp

The detail from the November 2, 1946, cover of The Saturday Evening Post foretells this country's baby boom. With the end of World War II, returning soldiers married and started families, resulting in 75.9 million births from 1946 through 1964.

Question 8:
In which baby boom year (1946-1964) were the most births recorded?

The Web site:

To find the answer to that question, go to the Boomer Statistics Web page.


Slinky Stamp

Naval engineer Richard James watched a torsion spring bounce off a table, and the idea for a toy was born. The Slinky, coiled wire that can "walk" down stairs, caused a sensation when first marketed in 1945.

Question 9:
How many feet of wire does it take to make a Slinky?

The Web site:

To find the answer to that question, read the Detroit News story headlined Coiled Again: Slinky Still Takes the Stairs After Turning 50.


We Can Do It! Stamp

When millions of men joined the armed forces, millions of women took over factory jobs and made up more than one-third of the civilian workforce. Millions of women also served as volunteers.

Question 10:
What was the average weekly pay a woman factory worker earned in 1944? How did her pay compare with the average pay men received?

The Web site:

To find the answer to those questions, see the Rosie the Riveter and Other Women World War II Heroes Web page.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1999 Education World

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