I don’t mean to dishonor the dead as I’m sure that Geraldine Hoff Doyle, the recently deceased model for the now-iconic poster of Rosie the Riveter was a very admirable person. Nevertheless, historian that I am, I feel compelled to point out that there were, in fact, hundreds of different images representing Rosie the Riveter circulating during World War II. My favorite is the Norman Rockwell above which was a cover for the Saturday Evening Post, and therefore was undoubtedly seen by many more people during the war than the one we remember today.
So why is the one that Doyle modeled for the best-known now? It’s not because it was widely displayed at that time. The original of that one is at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and here’s how they describe it:
Artist J. Howard Miller produced this work-incentive poster for the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. Though displayed only briefly in Westinghouse factories, the poster has become one of the most famous icons of World War II.
Now, notice the Washington Post‘s very deliberate phrasing in their obituary of Doyle:
For millions of Americans throughout the decades since World War II, the stunning brunette in the red and white polka-dot bandanna was Rosie the Riveter.
My theory has always been that since Doyle’s Rosie is in the Smithsonian collection, the image could be duplicated by t-shirt makers, doll manufacturers, etc. without paying royalties. Rockwell’s, on the other hand, isn’t owned by the government so it hasn’t been distributed nearly as widely.