Scanning Around With Gene: Being a Boy in 1939

The 1930s were interesting times. The impacts of the Great Depression were considerable, which made for hard times for many Americans. But it was also a time of great progress — many big projects including the Empire State Building, Hoover Dam, and the Golden Gate Bridge all came to life during the decade. It was a great period for the arts too, particularly the coming of age of photography and film.

I use to hear stories about the period from my own mom and dad, who would have been teenagers for much of the decade. So I was glad to find a couple of issues of Boys’ Life magazine, the publication of the Boy Scouts of America, from 1939. My dad would have been an Eagle scout at the time and I imagine him reading Boys’ Life, though I don’t know if his family had the extra 10 cents to buy a magazine at the time — money was really tight back then. Click on any image for a larger version.

Boys were pretty much boys back then — playing football, swimming at the local water hole, experimenting with chemistry sets, eating candy, and the like. And since Boys’ Life was geared toward boy scouts, many of the stories are about heroism, bravery, responsibility, and hard work.

1939 was one of the great years for movies, and I imagine families saving up a few dimes to go and see any number of the now classic films that came out that year — Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and plenty of others (including one of my favorites, Ninotchka).

But boys tended to make their own entertainment, which focused a lot around riding bikes, playing sports, and learning new skills. I was glad to see that there were several ads for home printing equipment — you could buy a small toy press with rubber type for $3.00 and a real table top press for as little as $8.25.

It was a time of great world political turmoil, but fortunately that didn’t seem to be on the minds of young boys — kids have a tendency to overlook the follies of the adult world. But in a few years many of the boys reading Boys’ Life would be off to war, growing up too fast.

I love the fact that many of the ads were for candy, which was considered a good source of energy back then.

I think it’s great that the editors of Boys’ Life managed to keep the focus on fun, even though world conditions were very threatening and soon many boys would lose their innocence quickly on the battlefields of World War II. It’s the responsibility of parents and adults to shield kids from the drudgery of hard times, a lesson we often need to be reminded of.

Posted on: May 4, 2012

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

6 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: Being a Boy in 1939

  1. Thanks for sharing that snapshot of 1939. Interesting how some eras are more creative than others.

  2. Thanks for sharing these pictures. There’s a certain innocence to the images that we have lost.

  3. I find nostalgia as rewarding as many others, but the previous comments caught my attention with their suggestions that the 30’s were “more creative” or more “innocent”.

    My father, now 92, remembers the 30’s almost as well as he remembers the 90’s, and his take on the times suggests that the (by definition, lost) innocence we now perceive was more accurately termed “willful naivete”, and he insists that creativity blooms just as colorfully now as it did all those years ago; our current view simply lacks any historical distance, a difference in perception that is both subtle and vast.

    Since my dad was also my Scout Leader during most of my time in the Boy Scouts, this piece resonated deeply for me.

    Thanks again, Gene.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Sanity is a relative concept.
    If you don’t believe me,
    let me introduce my relatives.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

  4. I remember my great grandma would scold me not to use too much sugar in my tea when I was about 10 years old. My dad explained to me that she went through that Depression era and food was very valued during that time. It seems she still clung to that idea ever since. It must have been a devastating time at that time.

  5. The 1930s were hard times for the society in USA. The pictures of the boys at this age now are considerably more different from those shown above. The boys here look innocent and brave.


  6. Apart from this being an interesting piece and a look back at the design of the day (I love the “Candy Is Delicious Food” copy), I finally figured out where the expression (however outdated) “you don’t know s**t from Shinola” comes from. 😉

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