Rosie the Riveter Was a Cellist

A beautiful story came to an end late last year, when Geraldine Doyle passed away at age 86.


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A beautiful story came to an end late last year, when Geraldine Doyle passed away at age 86. She was the model for the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” recruitment poster during World War II.

Her story perhaps says more about the World War II generation than it does about manufacturing. She worked in a factory as a “metal presser” for only two weeks during the war. A photographer took her picture during that time. Learning that a coworker was injured, she quit for a safer job. But the photo became the inspiration for the poster’s artist. 

Forty years later, Ms. Doyle saw the original photo in a magazine article, and learned only then that she had been the poster’s model. By then, she had raised five children. Amused, she autographed some copies of the poster, but never asked for compensation. Her contribution to the war effort had been her likeness.

As I say, her story perhaps says more about World War II than manufacturing—yet I think there is something to say about manufacturing within her life as well. 

You see, she quit that job specifically because the coworker had suffered an injury to the hands. Ms. Doyle was a musician. She played the cello. The prospect of losing this love posed too great a risk for her to continue in the factory.

Today, manufacturing still consists of manual labor in many cases, and still poses physical hazards. However, the repetitive manual work and persistent risk to safety characterize manufacturing’s past. The modern manufacturing facility replaces hand labor with attention to a controller or computer. Risks to safety or health are engineered out of both the equipment and the procedures around it. What’s more, manufacturing personnel in modern facilities are often asked to coordinate various steps in a process that perhaps includes various pieces of equipment running simultaneously. The timing and precision of a musician are not that far from the aptitudes appropriate to overseeing a complex production process. Perhaps the factory today would be a far more fitting place for a cellist.