UW News

February 2, 2015

Documents that Changed the World: ‘Rosie the Riveter’ poster, 1943

UW News

RosietheRiveterThe famous World War II-era poster of Rosie the Riveter is less a document that changed the world than the other way around — an image the world adopted and filled with meaning.

But such turnabout is fair play in the ongoing Documents that Changed the World podcast series by Joe Janes, professor in the University of Washington Information School.

In the podcasts, Janes explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents, both famous and less known. UW Today presents these occasionally, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

“I loved this story because the poster is so well known, so iconic, and the popular understanding of it is completely wrong,” Janes said of the podcast.

“I didn’t know that the poster wasn’t Rosie until I began my research and then the real stories were actually far more compelling and revealing. Not to mention the ways in which the poster image have been appropriated and used, based on the misunderstandings of what it was originally meant to be.”

Documents that Changed the World:

What the world knows as the iconic Rosie the Riveter image was in fact one of a series of posters designed by 24-year-old artist J. Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Electric Co. and displayed in its Pennsylvania and Midwest plants for just two weeks. Fewer than 1,800 copies were printed, and the image — titled “We Can Do It!” — was mostly forgotten after its brief run in 1943, only to be rediscovered years later.

The name Rosie the Riveter, however, first showed up the year before in a song by American composers Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. Norman Rockwell created his own iconic image of the female factory worker for the Memorial Day 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. In the podcast, Janes describes Rockwell’s painting as depicting “a somewhat more zaftig Rosie, modeled by a Vermont telephone operator, munching on a sandwich, rivet gun in her lap, foot squarely on a copy of Mein Kampf.”

Joseph Janes, UW information school

Joe Janes

Westinghouse’s Rosie, however, was never meant to recruit women to the workforce, Janes said in the podcast: “She’s not calling women to the factories — she’s telling the people who are already there to stop looking at posters, work harder and follow orders.”

The image was one of a series of sharp reminders to the American workforce. Another, encouraging shorter bathroom breaks saying, was as pointed as possible: “Killing time is killing men.”

The specifics of Rosie’s rediscovery are not altogether clear, though Janes notes that the original Westinghouse image was reprinted in a 1982 Washington Post article and on the cover of Smithsonian magazine in 1994.

She’s not really Rosie the Riveter — except that now, in the world’s imagination that’s what she has become.

Janes notes, “Whoever the woman in the polka-dot turban is, if anyone, as she rolls up her sleeve to get to work, she tells us her story — from industrial pacifier, to feminist touchstone, to homefront solidarity icon, to object of cultural nostalgia for a time that may not have ever been — she was never really any of these and yet is now somehow all of them.”

  • The Documents that Changed the World podcast series is also available on iTunes, with more than 190,000 downloads there so far.

Previous installments of the “Documents that Changed the World” series