Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam: Two Portraits, Two Methods of Persuasion

Kim Sajet, director of the Portrait Gallery, says that while Uncle Sam orders, Rosie inspires collective action

Rosie the Riveter by J. Howard Miller, 1942; Uncle Sam by J. M Flagg, 1917 NMAH/Wikimedia Commons

Much has been written about the power of Rosie the Riveter to serve as a beacon for women’s empowerment. While photographer J. Howard Miller initially was commissioned by Westinghouse Electric to create the poster to rally just the spirits of its employees, in recent decades, his 1943 We Can Do It! Rosie the Riveter has become an emblem of female labor.

With the recent death of Naomi Parker Fraley, a possible model for Miller’s poster, there’s been an outpouring of new reflections on Rosie’s role and significance. But little has been said about how the Rosie the Riveter served as the female counterpoint to Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam, specifically the J.M. Flagg version of 1917, was based on a rendition of the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchner. The image first appeared on July 6, 1916 as the cover of Leslie’s Weekly, with the caption “What are you doing for Preparedness?” Flagg was the one who had the character famously declare “I Want YOU for the U.S. Army.” Claiming himself as the model, Flagg demonstrated such a level of practicality that an impressed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt speculated about the artist’s ancestry with open approval, “I congratulate you on your resourcefulness in saving model hire. Your method suggests Yankee forebears.”

Flagg’s Uncle Sam poster may have relied on the features of his 39-year-old self, but the white hair, bushy eyebrows and stern patrician bearing has a long history dating back to the War of 1812, when an actual person called Uncle Sam Wilson supplied food to the American troops in containers branded ‘U.S.’ Known to everyone as “uncle” due to family ties that seemed to include large portions of his community, Sam Wilson’s initials on his packaging mirrored the initials of the country, with the result that Uncle Sam Wilson's service became synonymous with the organization of the U.S. government. As early as 1813 the Troy Post reported that “This cant name [Uncle Sam] for our government has got almost as common as John Bull,” the moniker attached to the personification of Great Britain.

In the early years, Uncle Sam was depicted as clean-shaven, amiable and even slightly goofy, clad in a stars-and-stripes dressing gown and liberty cap. But during the Civil War, under the influence of cartoon satirist Thomas Nast in particular, Sam acquired a beard, lanky frame and gaunt features that closely resembled President Abraham Lincoln. A no-nonsense ‘elder statesman’ in a top hat, tails, and matching red and white striped pants, Uncle Sam during the 1860s became a symbol of the Union cause, dispensing advice and exhorting citizens to do their patriotic duty. After the war, and into the 20th century, his persona broadened to represent the federal government in general. In some circumstances, Uncle Sam was nonpartisan; in others, he wore the attitudes of the prevailing party.

Muscular Rosie the Riveter with her hair swept up in a red and white polka-dot bandana in J. Howard Miller's 1942 poster is mirrored in photographs taken of Fraley working at the naval air station in Alameda, California, wearing the telltale bandana, and overalls. Amusingly, what the Miller portrait  left out is the fact that "Rosie" apparently did it all in heels.” Fraley is wearing a nice pair of pumps beneath her overalls.

Miller's 1943 poster is a part of the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and currently on display in the exhibition The Sweat of their Face: Portraying American Workers at the National Portrait Gallery. As the curators point out, women were convinced by President Roosevelt to do their patriotic duty during World War II by seeing imagery developed by the Office of War Information. Suggesting that women already had all the skills to work in factories and still retain their femininity, advertisements created by teams of artists and copy-editors reasoned, "Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.” Their direct appeals to women helped increase the domestic labor force by 6.5 million as men left to serve in the military.

Old, white, male and patrician, Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam recruited soldiers in both World Wars by telling Americans what to do. Complemented by the intimate, confrontational language of “I want YOU For U.S. Army,” Sam’s piercing blue eyes and firm finger —pointed directly at the viewer —made it very clear that what was being conveyed was not a request, but an order.

Rosie the Riveter, by contrast, used inclusive language to inspire a collective call to action. “We Can Do It!,” she cries, looking you directly in the eye and inviting you to join her (and others like her) and roll up your own sleeves. Rosie was a friend, Sam a stern uncle; where he wears a top hat befitting a member of the ruling class, she has her hair up in a simple kerchief that marks her as a member of the working class. Is it no wonder, then, that women across the country identified with Rosie and continue to emulate her passionate model of female empowerment, while Uncle Sam, always impressive but also a tad scary, is now little more than a favorite Fourth of July costume?

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