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14 Vintage Photos of Real-Life Rosie the Riveters

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
photo & video

Rosie the Riveter was based on a real woman — actually, a lot of them. The US cultural icon represented the many American women who found factory work during WWII, producing war supplies and other munitions, including aircraft. During this time, the female workforce more than doubled, as women moved into roles from which they were previously discouraged or outwardly barred. However, the labor of the women was necessary as men left the country to fight, making Rosie the Riveter a symbol not only of patriotism, but of pioneering female spirit and hard work.

For Memorial Day weekend, we’re looking back at the real-life Rosies who, while not technically members of the service, still served the country during a time of need.

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The Library of Congress writes of this photo: “This girl in a glass house is putting finishing touches on the bombardier nose section of a B-17F navy bomber, Long Beach, Calif. She’s one of many capable women workers in the Douglas Aircraft Company plant. Better known as the ‘Flying Fortress,’ the B-17F is a later model of the B-17 which distinguished itself in action in the South Pacific, over Germany and elsewhere. It is a long range, high altitude heavy bomber, with a crew of seven to nine men, and with armament sufficient to defend itself on daylight missions.” The photographer of this and many of these shots was Alfred T. Palmer.

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Another Palmer photo, this one shows women at work on a bomber at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, California.

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“Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, C. & N.W. R.R., Clinton, Iowa,” notes the Library of Congress of this photo by Jack Delano.

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“Painting the American insignia on airplane wings is a job that Mrs. Irma Lee McElroy, a former office worker, does with precision and patriotic zeal,” writes the Library of Congress. “Mrs. McElroy is a civil service employee at the naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas. Her husband is a flight instructor.”

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This machinist was one of many during WWII. Here’s some more background on one of the women who served in this capacity during the 1940s.

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The Library of Congress notes that women like these two were “trained to do precise and vital engine installation detail,” which was essential to the American armed forces during the war.

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In many of the photo captions, the Library of Congress seemed more concerned about the aircraft than the women making them. From the image description: “A girl riveting machine operator at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant joins sections of wing ribs to reinforce the inner wing assemblies of B-17F heavy bombers, Long Beach, Calif. Better known as the ‘Flying Fortress,’ the B-17F bomber is a later model of the B-17, which distinguished itself in action in the south Pacific, over Germany and elsewhere. It is a long range, high altitude, heavy bomber, with a crew of seven to nine men — and with armament sufficient to defend itself on daylight missions.”

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Several of the men of this women’s family were headed to the service. According to the caption, she had “one brother in Coast Guard, one going to Army.”

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Factory work wasn’t just a way to serve the country at home; it was also a financial necessity for many of the women who took on these jobs. The woman featured in this photo was “formerly a sculptress and designer of tiles,” writes the Library of Congress.

“Dorothy Cole converted her basement into a workshop to tin plate needles for valves for blood transfusion bottles prepared by Baxter Laboratories, Glenview, Ill. She turns in her profits to war bonds to provide a college education for her young nephew.”

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The factories of WWII were extremely diverse places, with workers of all socio-economic statuses and races. The woman was pictured “operating a hand drill at Vultee-Nashville,” in Tennessee, according to the Library of Congress.

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“With careful Douglas training, women do accurate electrical assembly and installation work,” the Library of Congress notes in the caption for this photo. That kind of electrical work went on to be an important skill for many of the women who, while they may not have stayed in the workforce, were able to do home repairs and even work for friends and neighbors.

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Here’s another caption which mostly focuses on the machinery: “Capping and inspecting tubing: two women are shown capping and inspecting tubing which goes into the manufacture of the “Vengeance” dive bomber made at Vultee’s Nashville division, Tennessee. The “Vengeance” (A-31) was originally designed for the French. It was later adopted by the R.A.F. and still later by the U.S. Army Air Forces. It is a single-engine, low-wing plane, carrying a crew of two men and having six machine guns of varying calibers.”

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This 1944 photo shows a woman working on an airplane motor.

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Howard Hollen captured this young woman in Texas drilling on a bomber.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.