Mom Was a Riveter Just Like Rosie

Mom Was a Riveter Just Like Rosie

During World War II, my mother was a riveter and buckaroo, building bombers and troop ships for the Fairchild Aircraft Factory in Hagerstown, MD. If not for her and millions like her, our Armed Forces would have been hard-pressed to defeat the Nazis and Fascists. In the 1940s, when most women were expected to stay at home and have babies, a new era was born out of the necessity created by the greatest war our country has ever known. Every able-bodied man was expected to fight in the war that no one really wanted, and so the women of America had to leave their homes and families to work in factories across the land, doing “men’s work” to produce goods, ships, planes, weapons, and ammunition to feed the war machine. For the first time in American history, women were “allowed,” even required, to learn mechanical and technical skills necessary for the nation’s work. About 6 million women went to work for the first time and others, already employed, moved up to the better-paying jobs in the war industry.

To encourage women to go to work, the government sponsored campaigns emphasizing the “patriotic duty” of everyone to do the work formerly done by men. “Rosie the Riveter” became an icon for these women; the term was popularized in a 1942 song written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb and recorded by big-band leader Kay Kyser. Some of the lyrics:

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 girl will do more than a male will do. …

There’s something true about,

Red, white, and blue about,

Rosie the Riveter.”

“Rosie the Riveter” became the nickname for the millions of women from all backgrounds and across the country who worked in wartime industries and support services, including aircraft factories, shipyards, steel mills, foundries, lumber mills, warehouses, offices, hospitals and daycare centers. Norman Rockwell painted his own tribute to these brave women, which appeared on the cover of the popular Saturday Evening Post (May 29, 1943–Memorial Day). Other illustrators added their own touches as the image of hard-working, earnest women in war plants across the country became as important to morale as similar images of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Rockwell’s version is more realistic (and less flattering) than later drawings which softened the image of hard-working, yet still feminine, American women.

Sheridan Harvey, a researcher of Rosie the Riveter as WWII icon, says that Rockwell’s version of Rosie has contradictory messages:

“She is big and dirty. She’s over-sized, with working-class brawn. She wears goggles and a shield. In reality, it’s unlikely that she would have worn both.The leather arm-band provides protection on the job. She has no wedding ring. On her lapel you can see various pins–for blood donation, victory, her security badge.

She’s wearing overalls. Women didn’t wear pants in public much before World War II; but during the war it became common to see women on the way to and from work in overalls or trousers.She’s wearing loafers. Only after July 1943 were safety shoes with metal toes produced for women. There had been no need to manufacture these shoes in women’s sizes before because women didn’t customarily work in dangerous jobs where such shoes were needed. Most women wore their own shoes. She cradles a very large riveting gun in her lap, and it links visually to Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, beneath her feet. The implication is clear: through her defense job, she will help to crush Hitler.

The American flag background, red, white, and blue, adds to the patriotism of the cover. Rosie is powerful, competent, and womanly. But there are contradictions in the image: She’s masculine: look at the size of her arms, which are a real focus of the cover. She’s working with a very large and heavy riveting gun. She’s dirty; she’s doing a man’s job. She’s wearing overalls, men’s clothes. Yet she’s feminine: She’s wearing rouge and lipstick. Makeup is essential to women’s mental health, according to some articles of the time. Her compact and handkerchief peek out of her pocket; she has nail polish on; her curly red hair and upturned nose feminize her; her visor almost looks like a halo, providing an angelic side to this strong woman. She is depicted eating, like these real women, an activity linked with the home and thus showing her domestic side: women/food/home. She isn’t seen working.”

When the image appeared that 1943 Memorial Day, some viewers recognized a model for Rosie. …Michelangelo’s Prophet Isaiah from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The resemblance is remarkable.” 

Rosie became a recruitment tool aimed at getting more women into the war effort and emphasized that it was their duty to build the planes and ships to bring their men home. Of course, women in poor circumstances had always worked, but WWII was the turning point for massive employment of white, middle-class women and the first wave of feminism.

Besides the Fairchild Aircraft factory in Hagerstown, MD, nearby facilities included Glen L. Martin in Essex, MD, the Sperry Gyroscope plant in Brooklyn, NY, and the Proving Grounds in Aberdeen, MD. Working in the defense industry, women like my mother built airplanes like the C82s, C119s, and even the huge troop ships (C123s—you could drive tanks into them!) as well as wings for the PBM-3 bombers.

Mom and her coworkers were given specialized training to perform essential riveting on American planes. The rivets that held the planes together had to be placed accurately, perfectly, for the protection of the men flying them. Often, because of her small size (5’4” and weighing about 98 pounds), Mom was expected to do the riveting in tiny places the men couldn’t reach. Supervisors soon discovered that the women performing these duties were more precise and detail-oriented than the men had been.

A riveter operated the heavy tool that forced rivets into holes between sheets of metal (forming parts of the planes) to secure them. These rivets had to withstand the stresses of high-speed flying as well as high and low altitudes, not to mention bullets and rockets shot by enemy combatants. A buckaroo stood on the other side of the riveter, holding a ‘buck’ (a steel bar) against the back of the rivet to help secure it in place. Rivets went in ‘hot’ and soft, so the partners had to know how far the rivet had to go in (the length) and how flat the buckaroo had to make the other end. If it wasn’t right, they had to remove it and start over. A former Rosie explains the riveting process:

You’ve got to drill the holes. There were all different size rivets 1/4 inch, 50, er, 40, 30, you know, size rivets. You had to drill the hole, and if you made a flat rivet you had to countersink the hole. You had to countersink it. You had a tool that countersunk. Lots of different sizes, 1/4 inch, 3/16, 1/8 and all different sizes. You had to know exactly what went where before you drilled the hole. I worked in fuselages and on the wing and everything.”

Rivets could cause severe damage to the riveter or buckaroo if not placed correctly. When I was in college, I worked as a riveter making television aerials in a dirty, noisy factory and I witnessed first-hand how dangerous riveting can be. The man who had trained me on the riveting machine mishandled his device one day, shooting a rivet through his thumb, breaking a bone and causing massive tissue damage. A bloody accident–Not for the faint of heart!

The average pay for riveters in the 40s was a whopping 75¢  an hour (starting wage was 50¢ an hour, with a 5-cent bump for 2nd and 3rd shifts), but the women were given regular raises. The foremen and supervisors were all men, yet no one questioned that then. At the Fairchild Aircraft plant, women making 55¢ an hour increased from 20 % of the force to almost 70% by war’s end. Statewide, four of every five defense jobs was held by a woman. The E ribbon was awarded to every woman who worked at Fairchild; it signified Excellence in production of the planes necessary to the Armed Forces.

A Little History of Fairchild Aircraft:

In the 1920s, Sherman Fairchild invented an aerial camera that enabled pilots to take pictures of the landscape below. He partnered with a small airplane manufacturer in Hagerstown, MD (Kreider-Reisner), and built P19s. When the war arrived, Fairchild devoted every inch to the manufacture of planes for the war effort, so that as many as 30 different plants were involved in the Hagerstown area. They even produced a newpaper for the airplane workers. The first edition noted the introduction of women to the workforce:

First Girls Go to Work in Experimental on Production.” It goes on to reveal the transitions made: “From selling shoes to sheet metal work, from working on furs to working on the assembly line, from waiting on tables to welding, from being a housewife and mother to riveting, these are the transitions which women… have made.”

Later, the paper celebrated the flight of Fairchild’s first plane under the new system employing women:

“Fairchild’s giant aircraft the C82 [called the Packet] the first airplane designed exclusively to carry military cargo took off from north south runway bordering Plant 2 for its first flight test on Sunday, September 10, thus turning into reality the dreams of hundreds of men and women who have labored day and night for many months in an all out effort to get the plane into the air in record time.”

Not content to merely build planes, management insisted on safety:

“Close to 2000 women workers will blossom in the new Fairchild safety cap next Monday signaling the start of a “no accident” campaign which began in all plants on Wednesday. of this week and will continue through December.”

This 1944 story in the Fairchild paper suggests that 2000 women were employed at this one Hagerstown, MD factory. This number would grow to 10,000! Yet, skilled workers were so scarce that the factory advertised just one month before VE Day (Victory in Europe, the end of the war in Europe when Germany surrendered):

“Fairchild to boost employment drive with downtown movie and a C82 flight. Leaflets to be dropped in flight over the city. Prospective applicants, who will work on the C82 packet, are soon to get a good look at the big cargo plane and right in their own back yard if they choose. In an effort to stimulate the employment drive at Fairchild the C82 will fly over Hagerstown later this month to tell citizens of the community that many more workers are needed to build the airplane in large quantities for the army.”

America and the world owe a debt of gratitude to all the women who served in the military or in war industries during WWII, for, without them, we would not be here.

Some sources: 

http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil; The Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park http://www.nps.gov/rori/; Work & wait, Allegany County : the home front years, 1941-1945, compiled by Allegany High School Social Studies Department, Cumberland, MD : Allegany High School, c2003; Western Maryland Regional Library, 100 South Potomac Street, Hagerstown, Maryland 21740; http://www.whilbr.org/rosie/index.aspx;  .

©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD

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3 thoughts on “Mom Was a Riveter Just Like Rosie

  1. Thanks, ladies. I always admired the Rosie Riveters for, without them, we would have lost the war. I thought a story about them–and my Mom–would be particularly apt as Memorial Day approaches.

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  2. Fascinating! My “Grammy” was a Rosie Riveter. It even says so in her obituary.

    Until the same number of years had gone by after 9-11 as there had been from the end of WW2 to the year of my birth, I was ignorantly unaware of how recent that tough time in our history really was. Understanding that explained a lot about the world I was born into.

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