Happy Labor Day | Meet the Real Rosie the Riveter

We often think of Labor Day as a last chance to catch some sun, fun, and fellowship before cold weather seems to sweep the world. Did you know, however, Labor Day has a much richer and important meaning than saying goodbye to summer?

Labor Day was originated in the late 1800s by a New York Labor union to commemorate the hard work and dedication by blue collar laborers who helped promote the prosperity, strength, and integrity of the nation. A day of picnics, parades, and speeches to celebrate the American worker became the norm as states and municipalities quickly established a legal holiday on the first Monday of September.

It was not until World War II that an iconic image emerged as the face of the labor movement and as a paragon of the American work ethic and relentless drive for prosperity and security. A female munitions laborer, a common woman doing her part to help the war effort, posed for an illustration by Saturday Evening Post illustrator Norman Rockwell, and cemented the mental portrait of the personification of hard work, persistence, and sacrifice.

That image, so familiar to many of us, was Rosie the Riveter. “Rosie” was a real woman, and her innocuous lunch break modeling stint for Rockwell would cement her image, or a near likeness, into the social and historical fabric of American life.

Her name was Mary Doyle Kelly, and although she only worked as an actual riveter for two weeks, she inspired Rockwell to manifest her likeness to the world as his vision of the backbone of the war effort. Although of late she has been adapted as an icon of rockabilly style, her legendary status as the symbol of the inner strength of successive generations of American laborers is far more extraordinary than tough women in bandannas, rolled jeans, and cherry red lipstick.

This image is the “real” Rosie the Riveter:


And not this:


The second image is a morale-boosting ad commissioned by Westinghouse, a monumental munitions and war materials manufacturer. It is assumed Westinghouse wanted to “soften” the woman in the image, desiring less realism than Rockwell’s illustration, and hoping to appeal to the housewife and well-bred women to join the workforce. (As an interesting sidenote, Rosie the Riveter was soon joined by Wendy the Welder and Peggy the Plumber.)

The US government requisitioned the iconic image for its own war ads, and according to the website of the US Department Labor, it is still the single most successful advertising campaign the government ever undertook. Due to the mammoth advertising reach of the government, Americans have come to know the second image as “Rosie the Riveter,” and the first image has all but been forgotten.

However, the effect was the same: we hold “Rosie” dear to our collective heart as a figure who inspires endurance during trials that test the mettle of our nation. We cherish her as a reminder that we have come through the worst mankind has thrown at us, and come out the other side, not wholly unscathed, but stronger for our tribulations.

Are you a Rosie the Riveter fan? Do you love WWII-era design? Share your pics of your rockabilly look or your 40s-era design here for all our fans!

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