The burgeoning interest in 1940s American culture has recently borne the TV series Homefront, which focuses on the postwar scene in a small Ohio city; last year’s “Art of the Forties” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; and Loyola University’s recent conference on “The War in American Culture.” Fiftieth-anniversary commemorations of World War II are probably only part of the explanation. The rest may be due to nostalgia for that era’s sense of unity, national purpose, and industrial expansion with jobs for everyone–all so notably lacking in the 90s.

The latest participant in this survey is, appropriately enough, the Chicago Historical Society. Their “Chicago Goes to War” exhibit offers a ready index to the era–and a few surprises, too.

What immediately leaps out is the large role that Chicago played in the national war economy, and the ramifications this had for the city and its citizens. The $1.3 million spent in factory construction during the war was the biggest investment in this city’s history within a like time span; the result was a period when, in the words of the show’s catalog, “more jobs were held by more Chicagoans in more new factories that paid more money than at any other time in the twentieth century.” The unemployment rate dropped to 1 percent by 1944 and the number of derelicts on Madison Street fell by over half as over 1,400 area companies became involved in war production, most reconverting for the purpose. For instance, the Chicago Roller Skate Company turned out nose sections of bombers while the big jukebox manufacturer Rock-ola began making M-1 carbines. Other plants were newly built, mostly in outlying areas (thus sparking some of the first suburban industrialization). McCook became the site of a huge ALCOA rolling mill that produced aluminum “skins” for bombers, and the lumbering C-54 cargo plane was made in a plant situated on what is now the military area of O’Hare airport.

These facts and figures are represented by artifacts, simulations, pictures, clothing, company manuals, security badges, a montage of company films, and a shop-floor re-creation. One of the more interesting items is a mural painted at the end of the war for Amertorp, a company that made torpedoes in a plant on the site of the present-day Forest Park mall. Showing people at work, and painted in the style of 1930s social realism, all the machines and workers look very cozy and cooperative in what looks like an impossibly small working space.

This section is called “The Production War”–one of four parts of the exhibit. Others focus on the household, the neighborhood, and Chicago’s role as a crossroads and “liberty town.” Household artifacts are amply displayed–ration stamps, V-mail forms, war toys for kids, novelties for grownups (a Hitler pincushion, for example) and exhortations to conserve. (“Vicky Victory, your Hair Aid warden, says Save Steel, use your victory hair pin kit again and again,” reads the cover of a hairpin package. “Take it to the beauty salon every time you go.”)

More evocative are some simple home movies, silent scenes of parting and celebration, spliced together and shown on video. There are soldiers leaving and saying good-bye, or home on leave, posing with family members, mugging and hugging with mothers and grandmothers in those ubiquitous housedresses, doing the grinning fake-punching thing with a brother, standing with a girlfriend, or getting married. There are also shots of women who’ve become Wacs or Waves, standing stiff and proud in their uniforms, turning to display the insignia on their upper sleeves–a moving montage, made more so by the silence.

Other videos feature recent interviews of people recounting their memories, interspersed with personal pictures from the war years. One man remembers when schoolmates lost their fathers: “Everyone said, ‘Don’t talk about it, because it’ll upset them.’ And so you never knew what to say.” Another woman tells how schoolmates would bring in a brother’s or uncle’s name, and then the class would write them letters: “I can’t remember getting any feedback on that, but I just wonder what those fellows thought–I mean, letters from a bunch of 11- and 12-year-olds.”

According to the society’s Pat Kremer, “This is really the first time we’ve used oral history as primary artifacts.” The museum is trying to dispel what Perry Duis, cocurator of the exhibit, calls “the vaccination syndrome”–“You know, you’ll be hauled here when you’re a kid and exposed to it, and if you were lucky it would never happen to you again.” The method is to present material with a sense of theater, striving for drama through layout and design. Chicago Goes to War is laid out, Duis says, like a city by alternating broad thoroughfares with tight-packed blocks and the occasional cul-de-sac.

One of those cul-de-sacs provides some little-known history of Japanese Americans in this city. When the U.S. entered the war, perhaps 350 people of Japanese ancestry lived in Chicago. Most Japanese Americans lived on the Pacific coast, where they were rounded up wholesale and shipped to internment camps in a shameful act of racism. After a few months, some internees–those considered most employable–were resettled, many in Chicago because it was well inland, had a labor shortage, and enjoyed a reputation for tolerance. Here the new residents met with little hostility (one government program described the attitude of Chicago’s citizenry as a “cloak of indifference”). By war’s end Chicago had the largest Japanese community in the country, numbering about 20,000, mainly because west-coast cities had been effectively depopulated.

“My father always said, ‘Consider this a part of your war effort’–that we were moved, that this is part of your expression of loyalty,” says one Japanese American man in a taped interview. “I didn’t question it then. Maybe he was trying to protect us.” On the same video a woman recalls, “When I came here, people would always ask me where I was from, naturally thinking that I was either going to say I was from China or whatever, and when I’d say I was from Portland, Oregon, they’d invariably ask me, ‘Why would you want to live in Chicago?’–since Portland is such a beautiful place–and do you know, I could not tell them why. I couldn’t tell them I had been evacuated, I’d been put in a camp, and I’d been forced to leave Portland. I shouldn’t have been ashamed. But I was.”

There’s much more, of course–neighborhood memorials, mammoth scrap drives, Chicago as transportation crossroads and recreation center, what the war meant for African Americans, and the changing roles of women. For many older Chicagoans, the war may have been the high point of their lives. “It’s sad in a sense but it may be true,” says Duis, “because for a lot of people it was the only time they ever went abroad, and in part because of the contrast with the depression, which was an emotionally depressing as well as an economically depressed experience. And this was a time when everybody felt like he or she was doing something important.”

“Chicago Goes to War, 1941-45” is scheduled to remain on display at the Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, through August 1993. The Society is open daily, 9:30-4:30, Sundays noon to 5. Suggested admission is $3 for adults, $2 for senior citizens and students aged 17 to 22, and $1 for children aged 6 to 17. Free for members and children under 6, and for everyone on Mondays. For further information call 642-4600.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.