Listen To The Story

A cultural icon turns 80 Monday. Donald Fauntleroy Duck made his debut on June 9, 1934, in a seven-minute short called “The Wise Little Hen.”  The rest, as they say, is history.

But about that history… We wondered what life would have been like for someone who, like Donald Duck, was born eight decades ago. 

When Donald Duck debuted, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a year into his first term, the New Deal was taking hold, and the U.S. economy had begun to improve.

“There was a certain sense that a recovery was possible,” says Kathy Peiss, the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History at Penn.

Donald and many of his contemporaries – white men, especially – were in what demographer Bill Frey calls “the perfect place to benefit from the American dream.”

“He probably had that traditional family,” Frey says. “Two-point-two ducklings, I would guess he would have had.”

Of course, so far as we know, Donald had no children, though he does have three nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, but we digress.

Someone who is 80 today, or a little younger, probably would not have fought in World War II, but that person would have benefitted from the post-War recovery.

“By the time he was age 40, the time you would have bought a house, the time you would have gotten your job in place, those were really successful years in the United States,” Frey says.

Odds are you would have retired before the bottom fell out – maybe with a full pension. Sounds pretty good, right?

“You know, life was never that simple,” says John Bodnar, co-director of the Center for Study of History and Memory at Indiana University. He says that, depending on your politics, you could have been blacklisted. “I guess you could have theoretically fought as a young man in Korea,” he adds. There were also big domestic conflicts – housing, schools, integration.”

Follow David Gura at @davidgura