75 Years of Rosie the Riveter: Stories, Stories, and More Stories

by Matilda Butler on March 7, 2017

Post #79. Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

The Story of the Poster That Continues to Inspire Us


“December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened his speech to the joint session of Congress with those words, asking for a declaration of war. The Pearl Harbor attack was 75 years ago last December. FDR gave his speech one day later on December 8, 1941. Within months of the tragedy–the worst naval disaster in our history–women began to move into the workforce to replace men leaving for war. Although factories and companies cautiously hired women at first, soon women were actively recruited to help America win the war.

On multiple occasions, I’ve been to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor–built over the remains of the sunken battleship of that name. If you have ever been there–watching droplets of oil still rising to the ocean surface from the fuel tanks that were full on December 7–you also will have felt the emotional tug that is as real today as it must have been 75+ years ago. 
 
As you know, Kendra Bonnett and I are big fans of Rosie the Riveter. We honor her and her efforts throughout our entire Rosie Legacy Gear product line. Today, we want to share with you some of the information we’ve gathered about her.

Back at the Beginning
We’ll start at what might be considered the beginning of the story about Rosie the Riveter and ask the question:

The chicken or the egg…which came first?

The Origins of the Poster That We Now Love

There are a lot of stories floating around about Rosie the Riveter so let’s see where the facts lead us. There are three main characters in our drama
– J. Howard Miller,
– Redd Evans/John Jacob Loeb,
– and Norman Rockwell.

Which one is responsible for a poster that is often called Rosie the Riveter and who thought up her name and occupation?

It seems to go this way: An artist from Pittsburgh by the name of J. Howard Miller was hired under the guidance of an advertising agency to create a series of posters for the war effort. The company paying his salary was Westinghouse Electric Company and they had multiple factories engaged in production during World War II. Miller’s role was to motivate the workers and to keep morale high. He created posters and a new one was put up every two weeks. The date he created the Rosie poster is unknown but thought to be in late 1942.

We do know that one of his posters (he created a total of 42 during the war) showed a woman in a red-and-white polka dot bandana, blue factory clothing, employment badge on her collar, with the words We Can Do It! captioned above her. About 1800 copies were printed and posted in the Westinghouse factories beginning on February 15 and taken down on February 28. That was the humble beginnings of the now famous poster. 

And what were the women making in these factories? Westinghouse had invented a resin that they used to make helmet liners. Women working there helped manufacture more than 13 million helmet liners. When and if anyone mentioned the poster, it was simply called the “We Can Do It!” one. 

So now we have a poster headed for the dustbin of time and no mention of Rosie.

The We Can Do It! Poster Gets Some Unlikely Help

Rosie Who?
The original J. Howard Miller’s poster had nothing to do with a Rosie. It took a song to give us a name and an occupation. 

And where did the music come from? Redd Evans was a lyricist popular in the 40s and 50s. Over the years, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and numerous others recorded his songs. But back in 1942, he teamed up with John Jacob Loeb, a composer. If you recall the musical score from “Annie Hall,” then you’ve heard Loeb’s work. 

Evans and Loeb worked together during World War II and wrote a song they called “Rosie the Riveter.” Although written in 1942, it wasn’t published until 1943, just about the time that J. Howard Miller was posting his We Can Do It! poster in the Westinghouse Electric Company factories in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. However, there was no link between these two events–at least not then.

Here’s the beginning of the Evans/Loeb song:

“While other girls attend their favorite
cocktail bar
Sipping Martinis, munching caviar
There’s a girl who’s really putting
them to shame
Rosie is her name.

All the day long whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history,
working for victory
Rosie the Riveter
Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage
Sitting up there on the fuselage
That little frail can do more than a
male will do
Rosie the Riveter”

The song became a national hit, fitting the mood of the nation as it went into the second year of the war when women were needed in factories, offices, and government agencies more than ever.

So at this point, we have a poster that still might end up in the dustbin of time and a pop song that would probably fade away as do most such tunes. 

Who will bring this all together and yet not produce the most popular image? Not surprisingly, it’s a question of money versus fame.

Putting the Story All Together
At this point we have lyrics and a tune written in 1942 and a poster drawn in 1942. By early March 1943, the We Can Do It! poster was off the walls of Westinghouse Electric Service factories — discarded into what would likely become history’s garbage heap — and the Rosie the Riveter song was beginning to wane in popularity

You may not be familiar with the name Miller, Evans or Loeb. But the next story involved an artist whose name you will recognize.

Finally, a Pose, a Rosie, and…

Norman Rockwell is a name you know as the illustrator who worked for The Saturday Evening Post. During WWII, he created many magazine covers including the famous Four Freedoms based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address to Congress in 1942 when the President presented his postwar vision of a world with Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion (that Rockwell renamed Freedom of Worship), Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Kendra and I traveled to Rockwell’s museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts a few years ago and saw the original oil paintings of the Four Freedoms. Inspiring.

Norman Rockwell\'s Rosie the Riveter

Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter

Rockwell’s well-known Saturday Evening Post cover appeared on May 29, 1943. This was after the Evans/Loeb song was popular and it’s widely believed that Rockwell put the words “Rosie” on the lunch pail of his riveter to go along with the song words.  

The Question
So if the Rockwell Rosie was seen on perhaps three million magazine covers, why didn’t it become more popular and famous than a poster that only a few thousand people saw? I’m not saying that his Rosie isn’t known. But we all love having the We Can Do It! poster.

The Answer
The answer? This is where copyright and money come into the story. Curtis Publishing owned Saturday Evening Post and wanted to promote the upcoming May 29, 1943 issue of the magazine. They distributed a poster that included the caption “Rosie the Riveter” to news dealers. Then they got nervous. Probably their lawyers told them that Evans/Loeb or the publisher of their song, Paramount Music Corporation, might file a lawsuit for copyright violation. Rockwell’s Rosie would have been widely distributed, but the Post was apparently concerned with violating the copyright held by the song writers.

So Curtis Publishing required a signed affidavit from each news dealer stating that all copies of the poster had been destroyed before they were ever distributed. If this decision had not been made, today we would probably want or own a copy of Norman Rockwell’s Rosie rather than J. Howard Miller’s. Along the way, probably in the 1970’s with the rise of feminism, it was J. Howard Miller’s work that became known as the Rosie the Riveter poster.

We’re Celebrating 75 years of Rosie…
Kendra and I are celebrating 75 years of Rosie the Riveter since the song was written in 1942 (although it wasn’t published until 1943) and the We Can Do It! poster was drawn and possibly even printed in 1942 (although it wasn’t hung on factory walls until February 15, 1943).

And we’ve even tucked the designation of 1942 into one of our Rosie Gear products.

1942!!

Each employment badge worn in factories during WWII had an employee number. When we developed our Rosie the Riveter badge, historically accurate based on one of the few remaining Westinghouse Electric Service badges from that time, we needed an employee number. 1942 was the obvious choice.

We have just released our all new Rosie Employment badge–a Historic Limited Edition Employment Badge Collar Pin. Not a button…but a real metal pin with raised lettering and hand-applied red enamel. This is a keepsake for you, your mother, your daughter, or grandmother, or a friend. It is the perfect way to celebrate this Women’s History Month — acknowledging the strength, courage, and empowerment of women.

This limited-run of 300 individually numbered and documented pins sell for $25 each.

[UPDATE]We are no longer offering our limited-run, numbered Rosie the Riveter Employment Badges/Collar Pins.

But the GOOD NEWS is that we now have the same, high-quality metal pin but in an unnumbered series. This allows us to offer our exclusive Rosie the Riveter pin at a lower price — $20 each.

Here’s what you get:

–Molded and embossed 3-dimensional metal pin.
–1.25″ diameter size (same size as the original Westinghouse Electric Service pins).
–Authentic red hand-painted enamel cloisonné background.
–Image of Rosie in the middle that’s a photo-etched screen print, covered with a thin acrylic coating to recreate the acetate that would have covered the actual photo back in 1942.
–Pin post attachment with a butterfly clutch fastener.
–Full-color, commemorative card.

This Rosie the Riveter Historic Edition Pin is a true Americana collector’s item you’ll want to wear, share with a friend, and pass on to your daughter or granddaughter.

Click here to get your Rosie the Riveter Employment Badge.

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