Cultural References of the 1940s and 1950s

NEWS: My love for the past may be seen in my new movie (in development) through Clean Slate Films.

It's called The Purloined Millstone by E. A. Sprechmann

Here is a list of references that you might run across when watching old movies or cartoons, or listening to old time radio programs.

Occasionally I will repeat a word using alternate spellings, this is to help anyone searching to find something more easily. This page is constantly expanding, so check back frequently.

I will provide an example of the original usage, if possible, and then an example of the cultural usage.  For example, in the radio show "Fibber McGee and Molly" the main character, Fibber McGee, often tells tongue-twister stories.  I will give an example of a tongue-twister story, and then an example of a reference to those stories.

It takes a lot of work to track down and isolate the audio/video examples, so they will be added slowly.  Check back often.

Please note: Many times someone becomes associated with a persona, and then that persona gets exploited by writers and comedians.  This work is concerned only with the personae or characters as they are portrayed by popular culture. I don't claim to have any knowledge about the actual lives of the people listed on this page. We are also dealing with historical media that occasionally has content that has become controversial. I do not condone or support the racial, gender, sexual, or political attitudes that were sometimes reflected, but I will still notate the facts.

Feel free to contact me with any questions, or to suggest a topic. See the paragraph at the bottom of this page for hints about searching for hard-to-find references.

If you have a large quantity of files, (like OTR Shows, or digital photos,) A Better Finder Rename is a GREAT program for cleaning up the filenames and renaming them easily. You can get it for Mac or PC.

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23 Skiddoo: It was a popular phrase in the 1920s, but also heard in the 40s and 50s when referring back to the 20s. It was an instant way to establish, and at the same time poke fun at, the period. (Much like putting characters in bell bottom pants or polyester leisure suits and having them say "groovy" to establish the 70s today.) The origin of the phrase most likely refers to the giant vents in the sidewalks on 23rd street in New York City. The vents would occasionally emit bursts of air. The air would lift the dresses of any woman passing over them. Boys would often mull around hoping to catch a glimpse of a bare ankle. (These were victorian times, remember!) Police would often have to chase or escort the voyeurs from the area, giving them the old "23 skiddoo."

A

Allen, Fred: Actor, Comedian

B

Benny, Jack: Comedian who may be referred to for any number of reasons. Jack's persona was so well developed that it was easy for others to use him as a joke for their own purposes. Some of the references you might hear are:

Bergen, Edgar: Ventriloquist

Berle, Milton: Very popular on early television. Famous for stealing jokes from other comedians.

Bobby Soxer: A teen-age girl. (from the "bobby sox" that were popular for teen girls at the time.)

Bones, Mr.: See Minstrel Shows.

Bum's Rush: Giving someone the "bum's rush" is to take them by the coat collar and seat of the pants and escort them quickly out of the building.

Bushman, Francis X.: Extraordinarily popular actor and heartthrob in the 1910s and 20s.

C

Chicken: Slang for a young, attractive woman. Also occasionally shortened to "Chick" which is still in use today.

Chicken Inspector: Common novelty badge in the 1920s. It was a self-imposed title for men who liked to look at attractive women. (or inspect "chickens")

Chloe (Song of the Swamp): A 1927 song about a man searching for Chloe (his lover or wife) through a swamp. The musical motif between the cries of "Chloe" was often mimicked.

Cigars: Cigars were an important part of culture at this time.

Competitiveness: There was a notable amount of competitiveness in certain fields, especially singers and comedians.  For example, most singers were jealous of the new up-and-coming singer named Frank Sinatra, and since Bing Crosby was already the top singer in the country, Sinatra and Crosby were often pitted against each other in the minds of the audience.  Similarly most comedians strove to be as popular as Bob Hope.  This led to numerous jokes and references about these ad hoc feuds.

Cooper, Gary: Actor. Noted for being very tall and speaking very little.

Crosby, Bing: Singer, actor.

Crosby, Gary: One of Bing Crosby's many sons. He became quite successful on his own as a singer and actor.

Cry of the Wild Goose: Popular cowboy song. Lyrics include "I must go where the wild goose goes."

D

Democrats: In the 1930s and 40s the democrats had a long run of success in the White House, especially with Franklin D. Roosevelt who was elected to 4 terms. Dwight Eisenhower (R) was elected in 1952, which broke the streak of the Democrats, and ushered in a wealth of comments pertaining to the change.

Denmark: Since the words "rotten" and "stink" was slightly taboo in the early-to-mid twentieth century, (see my upcoming book Polite Company for more on this,) writers would sometimes use a reference to Denmark and count on the audience to make the connection to Shakespeare's Hamlet to complete the thought.  If the reference is about a change, especially regarding gender, it probably refers to Doctors in Denmark.  See below.

Doctors in Denmark: Euphemism for a sex change (trans gender) operation. Christine Jorgensen was literally front-page news after having received a sex change operation in Denmark in December of 1952.  This was a highly taboo subject in this era, yet comedians and writers were still able to reference the event by mentioning only the doctors.

Don't You Believe It: Very popular phrase to imitate. Especially due to its distinctive use of an echo chamber and a monotone delivery. It originates from a radio show by the same name:

Listen to the introduction to the "Don't You Believe It" episode of January 4th, 1947.

Dragonet, Jessica: Singer. Famous for having a very high voice.

Drinking Euphemisms: It was slightly taboo to talk about drinking in this time period. (And a bit more taboo to discuss being drunk.) Usually, to get the point across, writers would use euphemisms. Here is a list of some that would have been understood by an audience of the time, but not necessarily one today:

E

Edwards, Ralph: Master of ceremonies for the quiz show Truth or Consequences. When someone missed a question he would say: "You didn't tell the truth so you have to pay the consequences." See Truth or Consequences

Esquire Magazine: Esquire was a magazine for men. It discussed topics for men, but it was more famous for the pictures of women. Although it didn't contain nudity, it was known for having photos of scantily-clad women in "exotic" poses.

Listen to an example from Fibber McGee and Molly.

F

Fibber McGee and Molly: Radio show

Fink's Mules: Fink's Mules are often referred to when talking about vaudeville. Mr. Fink had a vaudeville act of trained mules doing tricks.

Fulton: Invented the steamboat. The phrase, "they laughed at Fulton" became so common that Fulton began to be a parallel for laughing.

G

Governor of Georgia: On December 21st 1946, the death of the governor-elect of Georgia caused three different men to claim they were the rightful Governor. It was finally settled in March of 1947. This caused quite a stir, and was the source for quite a few jokes. You can read about it here.

Greenstreet, Sidney: Actor, often referred to because of his girth.

La Guardia, Fiorello: Mayor of New York City. He was well-liked and was elected to 3 terms. He was very short, between 5'0" and 5'2" (1.52 - 1.54 meters).

H

Hadacol: A vitamin supplement. Vitamins were supposed to be the cure-all in this era, and give you strength and vitality. Incidently, Hadacol was 12% alcohol.

Hairbrush: Iconic reference to spankings. Adults would use hairbrushes to spank children.

Hard Way, The: Phrase that comes from dice games, especially craps. When each die has the same number, you have gotten the sum of the numbers "the hard way." Two fours are "eight the hard way", two threes are "six the hard way," and so on.

Harris, Phil: Bandleader for Jack Benny. Known for: Heavy drinking, being unable to read or write--not true in real life, and songs: "That's what I like about the South," and "The Thing." Later lent his voice to several Disney cartoons, including the part of Baloo the Bear in "The Jungle Book."

Hen: Slang for an older, unattractive woman.

Hope, Bob: Actor, comedian.

Hot Foot: A prank. To give someone a hot foot, (or hotfoot,) is to light a match and heat their shoe and/or foot with it.

Housing Shortage: After World War II there was a major housing shortage because of all the men coming home from the war. This became fodder for many radio writers.

Hudson: This make of car had a famous advertising campaign: "The Car You Step Down Into."

Hughes, Howard: Click here for the Wikipedia entry on Hughes. For our purposes here: He was very, very rich. Produced many movies. Involved with the aviation industry.

I

I'm From Missouri: Missouri is the "Show Me" state. Someone who says "I'm from Missouri" is saying, "Prove it!"

J

JELL-O: Sponsered many radio and television shows in the early days of broadcasting, and became part of the American culture.

Job: Slang for a woman. Usually used for an attractive woman one hasn't yet met.

John's Other Wife: A daily radio soap opera.

Jolson, Al: Singer, actor

K

L

Lamour, Dorothy: Actress, known for her road movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Her characters often wore a sarong.

Liberace: Pianist

Life can be Beautiful: Daily radio soap opera.

Lombardo, Carmen: Singer and composer

Lombardo, Guy: Bandleader

Lucky Strike: Lucky Strike cigarettes were heavily advertised on some of the most popular television and radio shows of the era.

M

Milland, Ray: Actor who portrayed an alcoholic writer in the film "The Lost Weekend." Milland won an Oscar for his portrayal, and his name, rather than the name of the character in the film, became synonymous with alcoholism.

Minstrel Shows: Minstrel shows were rare in professional performances in this era, however they were still fresh in the public's mind. References might include the "end man" (endman) in blackface who would play a dumb character, often named Mr. Bones or Mr. Tambo, (Mr. Bones is the most commonly used in references,) who would exchange jokes with the interlocutor, a sort of master of ceremonies.

Missouri: Could be referring to: I'm from Missouri, or Harry Truman.

Money Slang:

Mule Train: Wildly popular song featuring such colorful phrases as "clippity clop, clippity cloppin' along," and "get along".

Music Motifs: Sometimes you will hear short clips of tunes used to evoke an emotion, draw a comparison, or establish a scene.  Some songs are still familar today, but others have gotten a little dusty.

N

O

Oh You Kid: This comes from the wildly popular song of 1909 "I Love My Wife, but Oh, You Kid". Parodies of the song abounded, and "oh you kid" became the catch phrase of the next decade.  It then became a reference back to the era of the 1910s and 20s, much like "23 skiddoo".

Outlaw, The: A western film directed by John Hughes and starring Jane Russell's cleavage.

P

Penicillin: "The Wonder Drug." Although it was an important medical discovery, its usefulness was often exaggerated in the entertainment media of the times.

Policeman's Gazette: For our purpose here, a magazine where one could find pictures of women in skimpy clothing, a rare commodity in the earliest part of the century.  Usually this was in reference to the turn-of-the-century times.  Later, Esquire magazine would fill this role.

Powell's Elephants: A vaudeville act with performing elephants.

Pre-War: When the United States entered World War II supplies and raw materials were directed to war uses. This, added to war rationing forced people to use lower-quality goods.  They harkened back to the good-old days when things were of better"Pre war quality".

Q

Quiz Shows: Quiz show popularity skyrocketed in this era.  They were known for offering incredibly valuable prizes. Even their consolation prizes were valuable. For example, the winner of the "walking man" contest on Truth or Consequences won approximately $23,000 in prizes.  (Adjusted for inflation that's nearly a quarter of a million dollars.)

R

Ray, Johnny: Singer, songwriter, known for crying during his songs. Signature Song: The Little White Cloud that Cried.

S

Serutan: A laxative product who's advertising slogan was "read it backwards." Notable here because it launched innumerable references to spelling a product name backwards. (Tags: read it backwards, spelled backwards, spell it backwards)

Sex Symbols: Female: Marilyn Monroe, Heady Lamarr, Dorothy Lamour, Jane Russell, Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner. Male: Alan Ladd, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Victor Mature, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra, Frank: Of course famous for being a singer, but in his younger days he was the source of a few jokes for other reasons.

Snerd, Mortimer: One of Edgar Bergen's most famous ventriloquist figures, (or dummy.) He is notable for his dim-witted nature.

Sold American: See Lucky Strike

Spike Jones and his City Slickers: Novelty band.

Stopette: A deodorant spray.  It's famous slogan was: "Poof! there goes perspiration."

Strippers: or "Strip Teasers" as they were known, were occasionally referred to during this era. There were several icons of this phenomenon, including:

 

Suspense: Radio show. The show's often-imitated introduction is: "... a show well calculated to keep you in... (musical sting) ...suspense!"

T

Television: Television was being talked about in the mid-1930s, but it really boomed in the early-to-mid 1950s. Therefore in the 40s you'll hear characters say "when television comes," or "once television gets here."  When television did arrive on the scene, it began to take revenue away from the radio and motion picture industries. This began a bit of a backlash, and television became a subject of some ridicule in these other media.

Transcription / Transcribed: The process of recording a radio program, usually so it could be broadcast later.  In the early days of radio, if a show--or even part of a show--was transcribed, the announcers were sure to let the listeners know. You would often hear an announcement at the end of the show that said: "This program has been transcribed."

Truman, Harry: Our 33rd president.

Truth or Consequences: Extremely influential audience participation radio quiz show where the master of ceremonies, Ralph Edwards, asked trivia questions in the form of riddles.  If the contestant didn't guess correctly, Edwards would say "you didn't tell the truth, so you have to pay the consequences," and they had to perform some stunt.

U

V

Vigaro: Name brand of garden fertilizer. (Rarely, but occasionally, used as a euphemism for manure.)

W

Walking Man, The: An extraordinarily popular contest on Truth or Consequences. People had to guess the identity of a celebrity. They had only the sound of his footsteps and a enigmatic poem to help. The contest continued on for several weeks until a woman from the Chicago area guessed the correct answer.  It was Jack Benny.

Welles, Orson: Film director who got his start on the stage and then radio.

Whistler, The: Popular radio show.

Whiteman, Paul: Bandleader, known for his girth.

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Searching Suggestions:

Since jokes may be in many forms you may have to do a search on this page several times before you figure it out. For instance, one old promo for the Hudson automobile was "The Car you Step Down Into." Suppose there is a joke about a canoe sinking into Hudson Bay, for example. The punch line may be "the boat I sunk down into." Since the joke is based on substituting a boat for a car, a search for "boat," "canoe" or "sunk" on this page wouldn't yield worthwhile results. You wouldn't know to search for "car," "hudson" or "step down into." Therefore the only search that would give you the result you were looking for would be "down into." That search would automatically give you the answer, even though it would not be the first thing you would think to search for.

email me if your question isn't answered here, or if you know of another reference that should be included!

Feel free to cite this web page. It is the work of Brian Boswell and written in 2010-2012.

copyright Brian Boswell 2010-2012