Take a gander at any World War II movie, documentary, book, or magazine article, and you’ll be reminded of the sheer scope. More than 50 countries participated in an expansive battle that featured more than 100 million soldiers. In total, it was the most expensive war in United States history.
WWII’s historical relevance makes for one of the most famous events of the 20th century. It also carried significant meaning as part of an important decade for many notable industries. The 1940s were a time when metalwork spiked and witnessed vast growth, thanks in large part to WWII. Below, we’ll dive into various 1940s metalwork trends and developments and provide examples of notable works. This is a continuation of our ongoing series, which started with Metalwork in the 1920s and continued with Metalwork in the 1930s.
By the 1940s, stainless steel and aluminum became more popular, cost-effective options. WWII helped take this trend to another level.
In 1941, the Lend-Lease Act went into effect, allowing the U.S. government to send food, materials and equipment to the Allied Nations. In terms of its effect on metal production, the act sent more than 30,000 planes, more than 26,000 tanks and more than 600,000 military vehicles to countries in need of assistance.
Manufacturers built tanks and ships out of steel. They used tons of it, too. In fact, a single tank weighed at least 20 tons. Battleships were constructed with hundreds of tons of steel. Aluminum was featured prominently in aircraft frames and ship infrastructure. The first half of the 1940s saw the U.S. produce 296,000 aircrafts. More than half of the planes used aluminum as one of the main components.
Metal helped change the munitions landscape, too. The Germans used tungsten carbide core in projectile missiles. These deadly weapons could pierce armor, including tanks. Tungsten has the highest melting point of all metals and is known for its strength and durability.
By the time we progressed to the back half of the decade, domestic steel mills produced more than half the world’s steel. Why? Foreign steel mills were among the many war casualties. Countries, regions and cities were wiped out and needed access to steel to eventually rebuild. Once the war ended, manufacturing increased because the nation wanted consumer goods. The automotive industry grew as new machinery was used in production.
Not everything was war-related, though. In 1948, ductile iron was developed by adding magnesium to produce a spheroidal graphite structure. The shape provides added strength and flexibility. A year later, the shell process was discovered by the U.S.. With this method, you cast metal using a resin-covered sand to form a mold.
As metalwork production surged to help fight the war overseas, the U.S. War Production Board in 1942 called for a reduction of metal used in packaging consumer goods. Many manufacturers quickly shifted from consumer goods to war products. For example, Ford and General Motors were known for mass producing automobiles, but they pivoted to building aircrafts during this time. They also manufactured tanks, guns and shells.
There was such a demand for metal that Americans were encouraged to recycle their scrap aluminum. As an incentive, free movie tickets were offered in exchange for tinfoil balls. Cities around the country held scrap metal drives where Americans would offer up anything from old license plates to bicycles and everything in between. To give you an idea of what a scrap metal drive may entail, St. Louis held its first drive in 1942 and collected 7,658 tons in less than two weeks, good enough to produce 230 Sherman tanks.
Manufacturers used copper for firearm ammunition and other equipment. A shortage ensued because large amounts of copper were used. The United States Mint in 1943 used zinc-coated steel, instead of copper and nickel, for one-cent coins to avoid any potential shortfalls. The one-off coins were 13% lighter and magnetic. Prior to production, an error occurred when a small amount of copper discs were left in the press machine. Several dozen copper coins were stuck, making it a sought after collector’s item.
The U.S. had to rely on several metal imports during the war as our country’s supply fell short. Earlier in the decade, domestic copper production reached more than 1 million tons, but witnessed a sharp decrease to 800,000 tons by 1945. Likewise, zinc fell from 770,000 tons to 620,000 tons during that same period. Nickel was among the most imported metals in the mid-1940s, as more than 75% came from outside the U.S.
Compared to the 1930s, when several notable historic buildings and landmarks were constructed, the 1940s weren’t as active — at least in the first half of the decade. As we explained above, the war had everything to do with this.
There were still some examples of how metalwork helped shape architectural design. Steel cabinets were a part of metal interior design trends in the 1930s, although that dissipated in the 1940s due to metal rationing that became prevalent with WWII. Aluminum windows first appeared in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that they became popular choices in buildings and higher-end designs. Anodized finishes on aluminum windows showed up on naval aircrafts.
In 1940, a stainless steel overdoor panel debuted above the Associated Press building in the iconic Rockefeller Center. The 22-by-17 panel was the first piece of heroic sculpture ever cast in stainless steel. This era also produced notable designs from architect Buckminster Fuller. He made geodesic domes popular by constructing them with glass panels held together with aluminum tubing as the frame.
Toward the end of the decade, stainless steel and chrome made its way into the food scene as a prominent aspect of diners. Not only were the designs new, but diners spiked in popularity out of necessity to feed hungry servicemen who returned from the war.
Additionally, modernism became more widespread. The way we think of metals changed, as they were offered in different textures, patterns and colors. Prior to the war, textured sheet metal became a popular interior and exterior use thanks to its strength and elimination of surface reflections. Since aluminum became so popular during WWII, architects found ways to incorporate it into designs. The Equitable Savings and Loan Building in 1948 featured aluminum panels.
Many of these trends and metal uses exist today, so contact us if you’re feeling inspired to start a custom metal grille project of your own. We offer linear bar grilles, perforated metal grilles or custom metal products, and we’re eager to help you find the perfect solution for your project. Download our product catalog or request a quote for more information.