After Hours

Geek Trivia: A Rosie by any other name

On which famous painting did Norman Rockwell base his image of "Rosie the Riveter"?

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic's Geek Trivia e-newsletter. Automatically sign up today!

On May 22, 2002, Norman Rockwell's famous World War II-era painting "Rosie the Riveter" sold for more than $4.9 million, the highest price ever garnered by a Rockwell painting at a public auction. That's not bad for arguably the second most popular image of this American pop-culture icon. And it's certainly nothing to blush at considering that Rockwell illustrated some of the most revered images in the 20th-century American visual lexicon.

For those unfamiliar with Rosie the Riveter, this mythical lady of Americana came to symbolize the role of women in the U.S. war effort during World War II, specifically those women who took on previously male-dominated industrial positions. Just as images of Uncle Sam called upon American men to enlist in the armed services, Rosie appealed to American women to fill the suddenly empty positions on U.S. assembly lines.

However, the version of Rosie the Riveter perhaps best known today-with a bandana-sporting gal flexing a muscular bicep beneath the exclamation, "We can do it!"—was not a Rockwell creation. In fact, Westinghouse artist J. Howard Miller crafted this well-known image in 1942.

Originally, the sassy lass in the image didn't sport the name Rosie—or any other name, for that matter. It wasn't until Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb wrote a popular song titled "Rosie the Riveter" in 1942 that the U.S. women's war effort received a named mascot.

It's little wonder then that when Rockwell painted his famous image for the 1943 Memorial Day cover of The Saturday Evening Post, he depicted the name Rosie on his iconic lady's lunchbox. While Rockwell's painting was perhaps more popular and widespread during the 1940s, Miller's version has largely usurped it in the public consciousness, thanks to a very basic phenomenon: repetition.

The Rockwell Rosie is a guarded copyright item, complete with all the royalty entanglements that go with protected intellectual property. The Miller Rosie, so far as anyone can tell, never received a copyright and remains in the public domain, where one can find reproductions of it in all manner of products and media.

Thus, Miller's Rosie is arguably better known, precisely because the Rockwell Rosie was a protected image. That's particularly ironic, considering that Rockwell openly borrowed from an even more iconic image when he crafted his version of Rosie.


What famous painting did celebrated American illustrator Norman Rockwell base his famous "Rosie the Riveter" cover image on for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943?

It's hard to fault Rockwell's taste, since he borrowed from one of the undisputed greats; Rockwell found inspiration for his Rosie in Michelangelo's Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. If you're trying to accord an image with a certain amount of iconic weight, borrowing from a Renaissance genius' depiction of a religious prophet is never a bad way to go.

Typical of Rockwell, the Rosie image includes plenty of meticulous symbolic details, a likely reason why the U.S. government used the painting in its propaganda efforts to help increase the sales of war bonds.

The most obvious example is the fact that Rosie is standing on a side-turned copy of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, the racist treatise wherein the Fuhrer outlined his brutal Nazi philosophy. Rosie's "stance" on Nazism is pretty obvious: It's only fit to wipe her shoes on.

Speaking of shoes, it's also worthwhile to note that even though Rosie's uniform includes overalls, goggles, and (redundantly) a face shield, she is nonetheless wearing loafers. It wasn't until the latter stages of World War II that steel-toed work shoes were available in women's sizes—the demand had never previously existed—so it's both a feminizing touch and historically accurate detail that Rockwell's Rosie is sporting such casual footwear.

It was also a critical point of propaganda that doing "a man's work" would not defeminize a woman. Rockwell walks a fine line here; even though Rosie has Isaiah's masculine arms, she is nonetheless wearing rouge, lipstick, and nail polish. The historical accuracy of that little visual flourish is probably up for debate, but Rockwell's point is still clear.

Today, Rockwell's take on Rosie recurs less than J. Howard Miller's version in pop culture, and it's less famous than Rockwell's own Four Freedoms painting series. But nonetheless, it holds an important place in Americana, American history, and—of course—Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This quibble comes in response to the Nov. 10 edition of Geek Trivia, "Spark of inspiration." TechRepublic member Father Bob Popichak disputed my description of famed electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla as a native Yugoslavian.

"Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia—his father was a Serbian Orthodox priest, and his mother also [was] Serbian Orthodox. Yugoslavia was not 'invented' until many years after his birth—as a political entity, it did not exist in the 19th century."

That's a fair point, sir—especially since Yugoslavia doesn't formally exist anymore. Thanks for keeping me geopolitically correct!

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox