You probably don't know the name J. Howard Miller, but you've seen his work. During World War II, Miller created a poster that captured the nation's imagination, and after that, helped to inspire women's movements. The woman in the poster came to be called "Rosie the Riveter."
In Pittsburgh, back in the 1970s, I belonged to a weekly lunch group of advertising artists. We'd meet at our own table every Wednesday at Stouffer's. At 20+, I was the youngest, and Howard, at 80, was the dean of the group. Our circle included Frank Webb, Paul Rendel and Norton Peterson, all great artists. The five of us were regulars, and other advertisers would occasionally drop in, so our lunches had the feel of the Algonquin Round Table.
Conversation would cover politics, history and art, and when talk turned to advertising, Howard, who was a supreme raconteur, always had interesting stories to tell. He had started as an advertising illustrator in the 1920s, and his career grew with the industry. One evening he showed me his portfolio pieces from the 1920s and 1930s and they were staggering in their detail and technique. I remember in particular one ink drawing of a stadium completely filled with spectators, and every single little body had a well-delineated posture and expression, its own personality. Interestingly, Howard's war posters were a footnote in his life, and I never even heard him talk about them. What he really enjoyed recalling were his days as a creator of car ads, in Detroit.
This is not an illustration by Miller, but it is in the genre of his work — it's something he might have done. Howard explained that in the days when ads like this were created, such a painting would be the group effort of a staff of specialized illustrators. One artist would draw the car, one would specialize in painting metallic reflections, one would paint the background, and one would paint human figures. An ad like this might have been the work of four or five people, and when you know that, you can easily see it. There were even artists in Detroit whose forte was to realistically expand car interior perspectives so that they looked more roomy. Howard said that such collaborative work was the norm in the early days of advertising. There were art studios, for example, that specialized in painting shoe ads, and within that studio one person might have had sole responsibility for painting shoe laces! Howard was very proud of his auto ads, and he must have been very good, because for many years, an auto company would gift him with a new car on Christmas Day.
By the time I knew J. Howard Miller, he had developed a tremor in his hands. Another artist would have put away his pens and brushes, but Howard continued to draw every day into his 80s. And then an interesting thing happened. Clients looked at his shaky lines and saw character and style. To Howard's delight, a second career was born.
Iron City Beer even commissioned a series of Pittsburgh landmark cans.
Howard hand-made his Christmas cards,
and I count his work amongst my treasures.
At the time that I first posted this (January 4, 2011), I gave credit to Geraldine Hoff Doyle for being the model for "Rosie the Riveter," as shown below. I have since heard from John Fraley, my ninth commentor, who has graciously corrected me, and encouraged me to further research the subject. All evidence in fact points to Naomi Parker Fraley as Miller's model. To read more about Naomi Parker Fraley, click here.
Note: One can find a short biography of J. Howard Miller on Wikipedia, but his birth and death years are off by about twenty years. J. Howard Miller was a working professional by the 1920s, and we celebrated his 80th birthday well before 1979.