What was making news in America in 1939

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American farmer cartoon
The American farmer fencing the European wolf away from his sheep. (From the October 1939 issue of Farm Journal magazine)

October, 1939; Poland was desperately fighting the German Wehrmacht in the west and the Red Army in the east, vestiges of the Great Depression lingered in this country, FDR was well into his 2nd term as President and your author was in his second month of 1st grade at Court School, a one-roomed frame building in western Pennsylvania.

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The October 1939 issue of Farm Journal magazine offers a look at what American farmers were doing and thinking that long ago fall. To catch the farm wife’s eye were ads for Kalamazoo coal, oil, gas and electric kitchen ranges, Coleman oil space heaters, Philco radios, Pyrex ovenware, Bon Ami cleanser, Rinso laundry soap and Lux toilet soap, Arm & Hammer baking soda and Calumet baking powder, Pillsbury’s best flour, Post’s 40% Bran Flakes, Morton’s iodized salt, Karo syrup (the Dionne quintuplets carve a jack-o-lantern in the ad) and Heinz strained baby foods.

For illness, women were told the advantages of Pinkham’s Compound for “weak, rundown, and nervous women,” Feen-A-Mint or Ex-Lax for constipation, Vicks VapoRub for colds and Jayne’s Vermifuge for round worms.

Hemlines

Farm women’s letters included one from “Disgusted” in Nebraska complaining about the slavery to hemline ups and downs imposed by stylists. She writes, “We women are like a herd of sheep waiting for some distant stylist to tell us our fate. What can we do about it? I suppose just pick up our needles again next season.”

Fashion

There were articles on window treatments, how to choose the right costume jewelry, the new fall dresses (and how to get the patterns to make them), how to plan a whole week’s meals ahead, how to fight children’s colds, and recipes for making tasty tidbits to serve when having “friends in for tea” (I doubt that many farm women ever did such a frivolous thing back in ’39).

Roadside taverns

There was a story about the evils of rural roadside taverns (they were said to lead to the selling of obscene literature and contraceptives, prostitution, drunkenness and even white slavery) and how to eliminate these dens of iniquity.

Articles for men

For the men was a feature article about “What Europe’s War Means to Farmers,” as well as opinions from a number of agricultural leaders on what “the wisest course for farmers in the face of Europe’s war” should be. They all counseled: Avoid speculation, keep calm, keep operating costs low, try to increase production, and above all, America must stay out of it!

Corn prices

Short news items from around the country included: A huge rat increase in the Corn Belt that was blamed on the cribbed corn from the last two harvests which was kept in the cribs due to low prices.

Thanksgiving

Turkey and cranberry growers were in a dither because President Roosevelt had just changed the official date of Thanksgiving from Nov. 30 to the 23rd.

A total of 24 states went along with the new date, but 15 vowed to stick with Nov. 30.
The tail. At threshing time on Lee Peeble’s Crawford County Pennsylvania farm, a horse hitched to a wagon unloading beside the separator switched his tail at a fly, the tail was caught in the thresher and torn off, damaging the machine so it had to be shut down for repairs.

Meanwhile, Iowa’s tallest corn stalk was 23 feet 10 inches, but it didn’t win a prize because it lacked a mature ear; the winner was just 18 feet 2 inches.

Silkworm

Convicts at Alabama’s Atmore State Prison farm were planting mulberry trees and building trays in preparation for growing silk worms. Silkworm culture had been tried in the U.S. several times before but never worked out.

Potatoes

Maine was projected as digging 49,300,00 bushels of potatoes that fall and rival Idaho, 28,290,000 bushels.

In Washington, Ag Secretary Henry Wallace’s emergency war advisory council was scheduled to meet to set policy, but for now he was advising “business as usual” for farmers.

Emergency

Also, the President had declared a “limited emergency” and FJ’s editor opined that whether limited or not, it still was an emergency.

FDR had already undertaken the expansion of the armed forces under his limited emergency powers and the editor wondered how far he might exercise them in the future.

Truck advertisements

There were ads for the D-30 International truck, Willys sedans and pick-ups, Williard and Delco batteries, Havoline motor oil, Prince Albert and Union Leader tobacco, Firestone and Goodyear tractor tires,

Remington and Western ammo, Savage and Iver Johnson shotguns, Plumb axes, Prestone anti-freeze, Champion spark plugs, the new Flambeau Red Case DC tractor, Papec hammer mills, New Idea husker-shredders and Oliver Superior manure spreaders.

Letters to the editor complained mostly about government spending and the WPA, with an Ohio woman writing: “(Relief) rears a shiftless, weak-minded class that the government must support from the cradle to the grave.”

WPA workers

My folks would have agreed; I remember them complaining about the lazy WPA workers always leaning on their shovels. However, the WPA did pave the previously mud and gravel Pennsylvania State route 168 that ran through our farm.

Under “Now Is The Time To:” heading are listed these chores:

“Blanch celery; Insulate the attic; Gas peach borers; Build a septic tank; Buy a few bred ewes; Cut back peony tops; Mow weedy pastures; Poison pocket gophers; Treat wheat seed for smut: Catch up on fence building; Prune late flowering shrubs; Sow tree seeds and plant crop trees; Feed cull potatoes to dairy cows; Dig gladioli bulbs and store them; Get traps in shape for winter pelts;

Install a tamper proof burglar alarm in the poultry house; Top dress pastures with nitrogen before the fall rains;” and “Be patient with soybeans; let the pods fill and lower leaves turn yellow before cutting for hay.”

Movies

Movies were Jamaica Inn with Charles Laughton, “Must see this’n.” Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland. “Many adults will enjoy.” Golden Boy with William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck. “Very good.” Lady of the Tropics with Hedy Lamarr and Robert Taylor. “Rubbish, but a feast for the eyes.” And Dust Be My Destiny with John Garfield. “Dubious.”

On the joke page was this gem: Momma-‘I don’t think the new neighbor likes music.”
Poppa-“Why not?”
Momma-“This morning he gave our Johnnie a knife and asked him if he knew what was inside his drum.”

“And that’s the way it was,” to crib a line, 76 years ago this month.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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