From the Richmond CA. museum and archives. “On the morning of December 7, 1941 military forces of the Empire of Japan attacked the United States Naval Fleet and ground bases at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. On December 8, 1941, one day after the “Day of Infamy,” the United States declared war against the Empire of Japan and on December 11, 1941 Japan’s ally, Germany, declared war on the United States. Ten million Americans, mostly young working age men, would serve in the military during WWII, out of an overall United States population of 113 million. While an unprecedented number of young men would serve in World War II, the country would drastically increase its war production on the Home Front, serving not only the needs of the armed forces of the United States but her allies as well – what President Franklin Roosevelt called “The Arsenal of Democracy.” The combination of so many serving in the military, during a period of necessary and drastic increases in production, led to unprecedented social changes on the American Home Front.”
The year was 1944. World War II was raging in Europe, and patriotism surged across the land. America’s automobile manufacturers were building motors for sleek fighter planes instead of the family car.
Hollywood, America’s barometer on current events, was mass producing movies with wartime themes and messages. Since You Went Away, featuring Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, had American families transfixed at the local theaters. Juke boxes rumbled at the corner soda shops with the wartime boogie-woogie beat, blasting out the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie, Woogie, Bugle boy of Company B” and the plaintive sounds of Harry James’ trumpet, wailing, “It’s been a Long, Long Time.”
The war was in full swing and patriotic Americans wanted to do their part to help the cause. Every American family was limited to certain food products and commodities, but families were willing to make the small sacrifice for the American fighting man.
Life for the American people was changing now, somewhat subtle at first, but later in a way most families would never forget. Every man, woman and child wanted to do their part to “fight the good fight” for the war effort. But not everyone could join the military. Women that were left behind, many of them with young children to care for, were anxious to do their part. Knowing they were needed to fill the void, created by the wartime draft, America’s wives, mothers and daughters, volunteered for the tough jobs of assembly line work on shipyards and airplane factory lines.
It was around this time that Life magazine commissioned artist Edna Reindel to create a series of paintings that featured women of every age and background donning goggles and overalls while they drilled holes in junction boxes for the PV-1 bomber, welded the intake duct on a P-38 fighter plane, cut the edge on a wheel well and tightened the screws on the gunhood of the p-38 and made final checks of the Lockheed corporation’s Ventura bomber.
Working side by side with the men in the factories, they wore heavy denim overalls, badge numbers and their hair tied in kerchiefs. Reindel depicted these women working side by side, enthusiastically, alongside factory men. With these paintings, Rosie the Riveter was born, the mythical icon who captured and represented the American woman’s fighting spirit.
There were other artists, too, who captured the essence of the American factory woman’s spunkiness. Norman Rockwell’s version was among the most popular. He created a cover for Post magazine that conveyed a superbly muscular “Rosie” sitting on a crate – striking a pose that was borrowed from Michelangelo’s Prophet Isaiah on the Sistine ceiling. Goggles at her brow, a halo above her head and wearing an imperious expression. A heavy riveting machine rests in her lap, in her hand, a huge sandwich. Under her durable penny loafers was a crumpled book of Mein Kampf. Rockwell had captured the true grit and enthusiasm of these hardworking American women.
In other posters, “Rosie” was featured dressed in gray overalls, her arm bent at the elbow and her fist clenched. A slogan above her stated, in red, white and blue Letters, “WE CAN DO IT!”
Local diners, near the ship yards, catered to factory workers. It was a common sight at these eateries to see the hat racks filled with men’s drab factory caps, fedoras, and military hats – and, alongside them, an abundance of lady’s brightly colored factory kerchiefs. The wearing of headbands and kerchiefs was a rule enforced by the government when it was discovered that female workers were wearing their hair over one eye, ala movie star Veronica Lake, obstructing their view on the factory lines.
At home these same factory woman were planting Victory gardens, growing their own vegetables to subsidize the economy. They used lard, tinged with a touch of yellow food coloring to replace the rationed butter.
Nylon, needed for more important things like military parachutes, had become a wardrobe luxury. Cruising around in the family car, once a favorite Sunday afternoon ritual for these ladies had to be curtailed now until the war ended. Gasoline was strictly rationed and wasting it on joy riding was prohibited.
Magazine ad campaigns were tinged with military appeal and wartime pride. Coca-Cola ads depicted a young soldier returning from the war to his hometown malt shop to enjoy a refreshing glass of coke with his childhood friends. The Campbell Soup’s kids got in on the act with this wartime slogan: “We dig and hoe with all our might; the food we grow will help the fight.” Wartime magazine articles and stories ended with this patriotic message: “Keep America strong – buy war bonds.”
After the war, women were supplanted by men in the work place but gender roles would forever change because of the wartime work force of women like “Rosie the Riveter.” Rosie gave America its first real glimpse of the working woman and just what she could accomplish.