A Moment in Union Printing History

The first in a series of explorations into the history of great printing and print design.

What comes to mind when I say “Rosie the Riveter?” Either an image has instantly popped into your head, or you have no idea what I'm talking about. If you're in this second group, don't worry about it, because one of the most famous pieces of full color printing in history isn't famous because of its name. It's famous for what it represents.

“Rosie the Riveter,” to jog those brain grapes for you, is also known as the “We Can Do It” poster. This iconic image was painted by J. Howard Miller during World War II. It represented the role of women in the war effort, more than six million of whom left their domestic kingdoms to take jobs in factories and munitions plants while their men were at war.

This image was replicated on full color printing of all types, from posters and flyers, to magazines, newspapers, and even stamps. The painting of this strong, tough-looking woman, declaring that “We Can Do It,” captured our collective imagination, then and now. Since its creation, this iconic image has been reproduced again and again in political printing and union printing.

The woman in the image has come to be called “Rosie the Riveter.” She is, so the story goes, based on a woman named Rose Will Monroe, who worked as a riveter at an aircraft factory in Michigan, building B-24 and B-29 bombers. The image encouraged many women to enter the workforce at this time, and the world has never been the same, has it?

But what made Miller's rendition of muscly Rosie so compelling? The image was, particularly at the time, extremely unconventional. A woman in a factory uniform, showing her strength, might have been off-putting at an earlier time in history, but this image came along at a time when we needed to change the way we thought about the world in order to survive. Rosie didn't just show that women could be physically strong, but that they could have economic strength, as well.

Call me biased, but I think a large part of the impact comes from the use of full color printing, as well. The brilliant yellow, the bold blue, the fiery streak of red bandana – all of these make this image pop, and covey, through this use of color, strength, balance, and hope almost as well as does the image itself.

The copy on this poster, too, cannot be faulted. When Rosie said “We Can Do It,” she spoke to the embattled American mindset on many levels. First, she way saying, “Women Can Do It,” meaning that we could do anything that men could do, and that we could hold down the fort and do our part while they were off fighting overseas.

Second, she way saying, “We, As a People, Can Do it.” That is, survive the war, emerge triumphant, and ultimately build a better world. This layered message was perfectly tuned to bring optimism and strength to anyone, in almost any situation, which is perhaps why it continues to be used in union printing to this day.

Although Rosie the Riveter was not originally designed as a piece of union printing, her image and message speaks to the union effort in this country. A recent blog post about Rosie on the AFL-CIO weblog put it this way: “Unions were in the center of social change, in some cases promoting integration, in other cases not; but through the unions, many barriers were broken long before Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers or schools were integrated. Unions were, in many ways, the origin of the civil rights movement.”

Unions, like the idea of Rosie herself, have a history of demanding and creating equality and fairness in the workplace for ALL workers, and that's why we see this image reproduced so often in union printing.

I'll conclude this foray into printing history with this thought: Sometimes, I will see black and white photocopied posters of Rosie. These photocopies remind me of why full color printing is so important. The strong primary colors of the original are key to its intensity. Understanding the impact of color and using it to its best advantage has been a cornerstone of good print design and smart advertising since the days when we were still working with paints and canvases. At Hotcards, we strive to make the amazingness of full color accessible to all by offering our customers inexpensive full color printing for all their important, potentially history-making projects.


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