Ask most Americans today to describe Rosie the Riveter and they’ll think of the young woman from the “We Can Do It!” poster, her right arm flexed, her blue work shirt’s sleeves rolled up, her black hair pulled back under a red, polka-dot headscarf, her gaze resolute. She’s a pop-culture icon, an immensely popular feminist image, our symbol of the women who joined the nation’s workforce during World War II.
But the “We Can Do It!” poster was unknown to the American public in the 1940s. Produced for Westinghouse Electric Corp. by graphic artist J. Howard Miller, it was displayed only in the company’s helmet-liner factories, and only for two weeks, in 1943. The “We Can Do It!” worker didn’t have a name, and she wasn’t widely seen until her discovery in a 1982 Washington Post Magazine article about patriotic posters in the National Archives.
Still, Americans 75 years ago did know Rosie the Riveter — as a character in a pop song and a magazine cover painted by Norman Rockwell. Thanks to them, by Labor Day 1943 “Rosie” was America’s most popular nickname for female factory workers, especially the many women who worked in shipyards and bomber plants to contribute to the war effort.
Rosie the Riveter, the character, was invented in 1942 by songwriters John Jacob Loeb and Redd Evans. Loeb was a prolific songwriter who went on to write for bandleader Guy Lombardo. Evans’ music career included stints as a singer and as a clarinetist and saxophonist in dance orchestras. They wrote the song “Rosie the Riveter” in New York City’s Brill Building, the most famous location in American songwriting, home to music studios and song publishers’ offices.
“I was there — in fact, it was probably written on my office piano,” music historian Robert Lissauer, a business partner of Loeb’s, recounted in a 1994 interview with author Penny Colman. “They wanted to write a song about women who were working for the war effort for the country. So they just made up the name ‘Rosie the Riveter.’ You pick a name for the alliteration and you go ahead and write it.”
The song celebrates a woman who works all day, driving rivets on a bomber factory’s assembly line:
“She’s making history,
“Working for victory,
“Rosie the Riveter.
“Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage
“Sitting up there on the fuselage.”
By “working overtime on the riveting machine,” the song says, Rosie protects her boyfriend, a Marine named Charlie who’s fighting in the war. She even wins an “E” — the Army-Navy Excellence in Production award.
The song, published as sheet music late in 1942, was recorded by the Four Vagabonds. An African-American vocal quartet from St. Louis, they were “one of the classic pioneer vocal harmony groups to record in the 1940s,” according to Jim Dunn of allmusic.com. The Four Vagabonds spent much of the 1930s singing on radio programs in St. Louis and Chicago before cutting their first singles in 1941. “Rosie the Riveter” was one of several patriotic songs they recorded during World War II, along with titles such as “A G.I.’s Wish” and “Comin’ In on a Wing and a Prayer.”
The Four Vagabonds recorded “Rosie the Riveter” in January 1943, and it was released on Bluebird Records a month later. Billboard reported on Feb. 20, 1943, that the single was “already ‘going strong’ in the music boxes.” The quartet often imitated musical instruments with their voices. For “Rosie the Riveter,” they not only mimicked trumpet and trombone solos (while accompanied by a real ukulele), they also imitated Rosie’s rivet gun in the chorus: “Rosie — brr-rrr-rrr — the Riveter!”
Three months later, on May 29, 1943, the Saturday Evening Post published a cover image by Norman Rockwell: a painting of a red-haired woman in denim work clothes, eating a sandwich on her lunch break, cradling an enormous rivet gun in her lap. It’s safe to assume the song inspired Rockwell.
“ROSIE,” reads the lettering on the woman’s black lunchbox, tucked behind the rivet gun. The painting casts Rosie as patriotic: She’s wearing a V for victory pin, and she’s posed with an American flag as backdrop. Rockwell painted Rosie in the same stance as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel image of the prophet Isaiah, a clever compare-and-contrast between soaring religious devotion and down-to-earth hard work.
Rockwell’s Rosie is stouter and more tomboyish than Westinghouse’s mascaraed “We Can Do It!” worker. Her rolled-up denim pant legs are huge and baggy, her biceps fierce and bulging. Her penny loafers are crushing a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Although she’s wearing a denim work shirt and a double-band leather watch strap, a few clues hint at her after-work softer side; her fingernails are polished red, and a white compact and handkerchief peek out of her pocket. Rosie’s last name appears to be Baldwin – at least, that’s the name on what appears to be her red-white-and-blue employee badge.
With a circulation of about 3 million, the Saturday Evening Post had immense influence in midcentury America. So Rockwell’s painting — which now hangs at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas — made Evans and Loeb’s “Rosie the Riveter” character into a national symbol. A shipyard in Hingham, Massachusetts, referred to Rockwell’s Rosie painting in its classified ad in the Boston Globe’s July 5, 1943, “Female Help Wanted” section, exhorting “patriotic women” to work as welders and electricians.
“Probably the most popular pet name around the country for a woman factory worker is ‘Rosie the Riveter,’” King Features Syndicate writer Alice Hughes declared in a story datelined July 17, 1943.
Hughes’ story profiled “Rosalind Palmer, 19, a dark-tressed society doll who has just finished a year of hard work as a night-shift welder at the Sikorsky aircraft plant at Bridgeport, Conn.” Palmer, now Rosalind P. Walter, is 94, living in Manhattan, and a prolific donor to public broadcasting. She’s among several women from the World War II generation whom modern journalists have associated with Rosie the Riveter’s origin story.
In recent decades, as the “We Can Do It!” poster has replaced Rockwell’s Rosie and Loeb and Evans’ song in popular memory, many women have been cited as the original Rosie the Riveter. Some worked in wartime factories, were photographed for newspapers, resembled the woman in the Westinghouse poster and maybe, just maybe, could’ve caught J. Howard Miller’s eye.
If any one woman could claim the honor of being the “real” Rosie, it was Rockwell’s model: Mary Doyle Keefe, a redheaded, 19-year-old telephone operator who was a neighbor of the painter in Arlington, Vermont. Keefe, who died in 2015, said in an interview for the Norman Rockwell Museum that Rockwell called her to apologize for making Rosie so large. “Except for the red hair I had at the time and my face, the rest I don’t think is me at all,” she said.
But the hunt for a “real” Rosie is not only a historical thicket, it’s beside the point. After all, she represents roughly 6 million American women who surged into the workforce between 1940 and 1944 as men went overseas to fight. About half of them left the workforce after the war. Many were laid off as soldiers returned.
“What is the need to have a particular person identified?” asks Colman, author of the 1995 book “Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II.” The “We Can Do It!” poster, she notes, isn’t about a single person. “It’s a collective concept of empowering all women.”
Erick Trickey is a Boston-based freelance writer who teaches magazine journalism at Boston University.
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