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Top Books, Movies and New Delights of 1940 America


by M. Ruth Myers

Since my mystery series is set in the 1940s, I accumulate lots of research that can’t fit in the books, but is fun nonetheless.  Enjoy a little time-traveling with these snippets on books, movies and new additions to everyday life that ordinary people were enjoying in 1940.


An official bestseller list didn’t come into being until 1945. Books whose popularity would have put them in the running for that label in 1940 included How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley, Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Another contender was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, which won that year’s Pulitzer Prize.

Academy Awards

Best picture award went to Rebecca, based on the wonderful gothic romance by Daphne du Maurier. (Alfred Hitchcock directed.) Jimmy Stewart was named best actor for his role in The Philadelphia Story. Best actress honors went to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle.

New Daily Pleasures

In May of 1940, nylon stockings went on sale to the general public, following their introduction late the previous year at the World’s Fair. Dupont, the chemical company that developed nylon, decided not to trademark the name in hopes the word “nylon” would become synonymous with hoisery.
Bugs Bunny made his screen debut in 1940, as did Woody Woodpecker, but my favorite innovation of 1940, hands down, was the arrival of soft-serve ice cream. Dairy Queen opened its first outlet in Joliet, Illinois.


— Here’s the Deal —



Shamus in a Skirt, Maggie Sullivan Mystery #4, is 99c now through 8/29.  Hey, it just happens to be set in 1940,  as the war in Europe crosses the Atlantic to draw Ohio private eye Maggie into a case of murder and jewels slipping in and out of the safe at an upscale hotel.   Amazon   Apple   Nook   Kobo

Problems Facing America’s Working Women in WW2

Today I’m a guest of author Suzanne Adair on Relevant History, where I describe some of the lesser known hardships faced by American women who flooded into the workplace during World War II. These went beyond scarcity of hosiery and unavailability of new girdles. (If you can imagine not wearing a girdle being a hardship.)

US Army poster of civilian workers

US Army poster of civilian workers

Stop by. There’s a book giveaway. While you’re there, have a look at Suzanne’s historical mysteries, including her Michael Stoddard series featuring a young redcoat officer during the American Revolution.

Horses, Votes for Women … and Lipstick

When the pace of change, especially in technology, makes you dizzy, consider  changes American women went through from the eve of World War I to the eve of World War II. A few of those changes become “accidental characters” in the mystery Don’t Dare a Dame, when a private eye in Ohio is hired to learn the fate of a man who vanished before she was born.

The detective is Maggie Sullivan, and she’s hired for this particular case in the fall of 1939. The disappearance — and suspected murder — she investigates took place during the chaos of the great 1913 flood. In the interval between, these changes occurred:


Transportation – In the spring of 1913 apart from a few motorcycles, the Dayton police department owned a single motorized vehicle, a “utilitarian wagon”. By the fall of 1939, the department had a fleet of patrol cars and two ambulances. Most transportation, for civilians and law enforcement alike, depended on horses.

In the flood’s aftermath, a young patrolman named Rudolph F. Wurstner was put in charge of moving some 1,400 horse carcases out of the city for disposal. Left unattended, they could spread cholera and typhoid fever. By 1922, Rudy Wurstner had become the city’s chief of police, a position he would hold until 1949.

Communication – In 1913, America had no radio stations. When telephone lines went down, terrified Dayton residents had no way to communicate with each other. When the Gamewell system of police call boxes succumbed as well, face-to-face communication was all that remained, and rumors spread.

The country’s first commercial station would air in 1920, and Dayton’s first station in 1921. By 1937 national radio networks had been established, allowing Americans to hear President FDR’s first fireside chat in 1933, and his announcement of the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

Votes for Women – In 1913 these were still a dream for America’s women. In 1920 they became a reality. In 1922 one woman was serving in the U.S. Senate. By 1923, four were serving in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Lipstick – In 1913 the use of “lip rouge” by respectable women was still frowned on by many. If it was used, it had to be applied with a brush or fingertip. It came in small pots or paper tubes — no pushing it up and down. The range of colors was limited, mostly red, redder and dark red. In 1915, lipstick in a metal tube came to market. The stick of color inside was raised by raising a nub of metal in the side of the tube. During the 1920s, swivel tubes appeared, and in the 1930s manufacturers began to create a variety of shades of lipstick.

Of all these advantages enjoyed by women, lipstick was the one which would suffer the most negative impact from World War II.


99c thru 4/3/16

Private eye Maggie Sullivan risks her detective license, and life, to solve a quarter-century old murder.

Maggie Sullivan mysteries #3 a 2014 Shamus Award finalistAmazon     Other e-readers

Early Women Detectives & Policewomen

Occasionally – perhaps once in 150 reviews – a reader expresses doubt that a woman PI like Maggie Sullivan could have existed in the late 1930s or 40s. Admittedly they were a rare breed, but women private detectives and policewomen were around in that era and well before.

The best known among them is without doubt Kate Warne. She is widely listed as the first woman private eye, having been hired by the famous Pinkerton agency in 1856. Described in their records as slender and of medium height, she presented herself as a widow, age 23, when she applied to work there. She went on to become one of Pinkerton’s most valued agents. Among her accomplishments was helping to foil an assassination attempt on the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1861.

Read more about Kate Warne on the Library of Congress blog.


Cora M. Strayer operated her own private detective agency on the South Side of Chicago in the early 20th century. She first ran an ad for her services in 1902 and used her four-room apartment over a tavern as her office. (The tavern downstairs was home to illegal gambling and bookmaking operations.) In 1905 she ran an ad for her agency in Chicago’s city directory. It included her photo – and what a nice Victorian lady she appears. With some ups and downs and colorful detours, she continued to advertise her services as a private detective until 1930.

See what Cora looked like, as well as her ads, in a rollicking 2012 blog post by Paul Reda.


Policewomen in Dayton, OH, circa 1918. Lulu Sollers is on the left.

Policewomen in Dayton, OH, circa 1918. Lulu Sollers is on the left.

Dayton, Ohio, where my Maggie Sullivan series is set, established its “women’s police force,” in 1914. Officially titled the Bureau of Policewomen, it reported directly to the Director of Public Safety. Previously the city had employed jail matrons to interact with female prisoners. When policewomen came on the scene, they were another breed entirely. They handled probation cases, conducted some forms of surveillance and gave talks to community organizations. With time their duties expanded to checking dance halls, investigating juvenile crime and more. They wore badges like their male counterparts, except that the women’s badges were two-thirds the size.

In 1914 Annie R. McCully, who already was working as a matron, became Dayton’s first full-fledged policewoman. She was put in charge of organizing the new Bureau. That same year, Lulu Sollers pinned on her badge as well. Four years later she became supervisor of the Policewomen’s Bureau, a position she held until 1944. In 1929 the city hired its first African American policewoman, Dora Burton Rice.

Policewoman's badge, also known as a 'shield', from Dayton, OH.

Policewoman’s badge, also known as a ‘shield’, from Dayton, OH.

Photos are courtesy of the Dayton Police History Foundation.


Down the road in Vinton County, Ohio, voters in 1926 elected the state’s first female sheriff. Her name was Maude Collins, and she was elected “in a landslide”. She filled the vacancy left when her husband, Sheriff Fletcher Collins, was shot and killed at close range. A mother of five, she carried a gun and had impressive detective skills. Her solving of a double homicide got her a write-up in the national Master Detective magazine.

See a photo of this attractive young sheriff and read a fuller account of her accomplishments at the Vinton County Convention &Visitors’ Bureau website.


Good historical fiction often is inspired by real-life women such as these, women who though few in number actually existed. One thoroughly fun example is the new Laurel Private Eye series just launched by Shannon D. Wells about a woman Pinkerton detective in Texas in the 1930s. It came into being because a several-generations-removed relative of the author was — you guessed it — a woman Pinkerton in Texas in the 1930s.



Now through Dec. 6 A Touch of Magic is discounted to 99c on Amazon, B&N, iTunes and Kobo.  It’s not a Maggie Sullivan mystery, but it’s a fast-paced thriller of romantic-suspense originally published by Dell.magic-amazon

A dazzling sleight-of-hand artist is recruited by the State Department to pit her skills – and wits – against a master terrorist.

Women Clash on Eve of WW2

In the two years before the Pearl Harbor attack, Americans were divided over whether the country should get involved in the war against Hitler. Nowhere was this split more evident than among American women.

In 1940 and ’41, when politics was still largely a man’s game, women who never before would have done something as indecorous as marching with signs — let alone acting up in public — took to the streets. Others took to the airwaves of that new medium, radio. Some testified before Congress.

On one side were the Isolationists, women who believed America should stay out of the war in Europe. Under the umbrella term the ‘Mothers Movement’, they organized local groups with various affiliations across the country. Dressed in black and wearing veils, they screamed and spat on members of Congress who didn’t share their views. They held vigils and wailed. In Washington, DC, they hanged an effigy of Sen. Claude Pepper (who supported helping Europe) in front of the Capitol.

On the opposite side were the Interventionists. They believed America had a duty to help allies, defend democracy and fight fascism. Among their numbers, in addition to ordinary women, were women educators and journalists. One of the most prominent was Dorothy Thompson, who wrote a newspaper column as well as one in Ladies Home Journal and had a weekly radio program on NBC. In September of 1939 Thompson testified before a Senate committee, urging them to sell arms to Great Britain and France.


This clash of positions split families.

  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author and wife of the famous aviator, was an ardent Isolationist and the darling of the Mothers Movement.  She and her husband had been guests of top Nazi officials.
  • Her mother, Elizabeth Cutter Morrow, a noted educator who served as first woman head of Smith College, was an active Interventionist. She did a radio speech in favor of American involvement in World War II, and was the target of threats from the Mothers Movement.
  • Anne’s older sister, Elisabeth, likewise strongly supported the Interventionist cause.

For women, one particular issue added fuel to the disagreement: efforts to enact the country’s first ever peacetime draft. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s military advisors, alarmed at how ill-prepared the country was for war, wanted to start peacetime conscription so at least some trained fighting men would be available if needed.

On Sept. 14, 1940, both houses of Congress passed the Selective Service Act. At the end of the following month, one week before Election Day, the first draft numbers were drawn. Isolationist women continued to rally. If only they could prevent FDR’s re-election, they thought, their sons and other loved ones would never be thrust into battles on the other side of the world.

But he was and they did.

Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration



99c thru 11/9

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Maggie Sullivan mystery Number 4

Maggie Sullivan mystery Number 4

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