Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Lunch With Rosie the Riveter's Father


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.

Naomi Parker Fraley, credited with being the true "Rosie the Riviter." 
Naomi Parker Fraley died January 20, 2018, at the age of 96.

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.


  1. What an interesting story. I am fascinated by merchandising and how needs and desires are created. I think that the 40s, 50s, and 60s were the golden age of American advertising (and also of illustrated children's books), and made everything look so appealing.

    I have friends, of European origin, living in North America, who came here because of the ads and images they saw in the Saturday Evening Post and similar iconic American publications.

    You are right to treasure the Christmas card. It is so modern (is it dated?), yet quietly suggests the religious significance of the holiday. This alone is worthy of a post next Christmas. Look how he used dark marker for the sky, leaving uncoloured bits for the snow on the tree branches. And the way he left an irregular margin of white forming a sort of frame. How neat is that?

    The illustrations he did when he had a tremor are interesting and very beautiful in a way different from his earlier work, much in the way that the face of an elderly person has a beauty it didn't when younger.

    Enjoyed this post so much!

  2. Hi, Scott and Terry. Howard was fun to know, and his self-portrait is exactly the way I remember him.

  3. Yes, very fascinating indeed. To think that all those artists would work on just one picture, all the different styles (and egos!) working in harmony. I've always loved that image of Rosie. So nice to know more about her father! I adore the Christmas card he sent you.


  4. Thanks, H.H.! At the very end of illustrated car ads, which I would put in the late 1960s, the background style was more purposefully different and arty, a contrast to the car painting. In Howard's time, the ad was meant to look of one style, though you can see different hands at work if you look for it.

  5. Mark how fascinating! Rosie the Riveter is so iconic a figure!!

    Art by Karena

  6. Mark, Thanks for sharing the memories. I never knew that so many artists worked on a single painting.
    Thanks for the pun "... one person might have had sole responsibility for painting shoe laces." Though it made me wonder if one's career had much of a future being tied to so narrow a specialty.


  7. Thanks for visiting, Karena and Joe! Joe, I guess there were lots of shoes to sell. Years ago, I had an elderly neighbor who had worked in the Garment District of New York City. I learned that his entire career had been spent cutting gloves by hand! When you meet somebody like that, you realize the scope of jobs eliminated by automation.

  8. Hi Mark, Great Blog, very up close and informative. As you may have heard, Geraldine Doyle is not the woman in the iconic photo that is widely believed to have inspired the poster, that woman is Naomi Parker-Fraley, who's my step mother and is still living. I'd really like to pick your brain, as you have incite very few possess. If you Goggle "Naomi Parker Fraley" and see what is there, i very much to hear your thoughts.

    1. Dear John,

      Thank you for your comment, and please excuse me for not answering sooner. I have Googled your stepmother and enjoyed reading about her. And, as you will note, I have edited this posting and provided a link for readers to also read more about her. My thanks for your kind comment, and best wishes to both you and your stepmother, "Rosie the Riveter."

    2. I thank you sir. I will print this and Naomi will be reading by this afternoon. Thank you again, for your reply.

  9. very interesting .. thanks for sharing


  10. Hi Mark,

    I enjoyed reading your post and thanks for the link to my blog :-)

    You are very fortunate to have known Mr. Miller, and it's great that you've updated the post to include the emerging information about Naomi Parker Fraley. While we don't know for sure if Miller was inspired by the famous UPI photo, we do know that the woman in it was Naomi.

    Penny Coleman, author of "Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in WWII," has stated, "...the archivist and historian at Westinghouse, Charles A. Ruch, who had worked at the Pittsburgh plant during World War II and who was friend of Miller, told me that Miller never worked from photographs; he only used live models for his posters, including “We Can Do It.”

    This didn't ring true to me as an advertising old-timer from Detroit. In my pre-internet 80s experience, all illustrators and many art directors kept a "reference file": literally a file cabinet full of photographs & clippings of people, animals, poses, face, hands, textures, lighting, and objects that could serve as a starting point for an illustration or clear up a question of detail. I never knew of an illustrator that worked from life, unless his girlfriend helped him out, since a model would cost him a part of his commission. Were budgets more extravagant in Miller's day?

    Since we know Naomi's photo ran in the Pittsburgh paper in spring of 1942, I can easily imagine it wound up in Miller's reference file, or perhaps the Office of War Information sent it to Westinghouse as part of their own frequent reference and messaging packages. And the photo was snapped and publicized in plenty of time to cross Miller's path before he began work on the February 1943 Westinghouse poster.

    Of course,Im just speculating... I'd love to know your thoughts on this, Mark!


  11. Hi, Jeannette!

    I too was a pre-internet illustrator, and I worked at an art studio (not an ad agency) in Pittsburgh. The studio had a library and the sort of filing cabinets of reference that you describe, and I maintained a personal one as well. If I didn't have good reference, I'd usually take Polaroid shots, but the studio also had a darkroom for more formal sessions.

    I visited (J.) Howard Miller's house, but I was never in his own studio. I'm quite sure, however, that you're correct in all your speculating.

    A great read is Norman Rockwell's autobiography, My Adventures As An Illustrator, by Doubleday. Rockwell, as you probably know, used his own photographer, and Ron Schick published a 2009 book, Behind the Camera, which juxtaposes Rockwell paintings to their reference shots.

    As a young man, Rockwell thought it was important to work from life because that was the method of his own idol, J. C. Leyendecker. That changed when Rockwell attempted to paint a chicken from life! While Leyendecker worked almost exclusively from live sittings, it's worth noting that his primary model, Charles Beach, was also his live-in apprentice and life partner.

    Thanks for visiting, Jeannette!

    1. I guess we'll never know, mark, about Miller and the famous press photo, but thanks for indulging my speculation! And, glad I wan;t the only one with a bulging reference file cabinet.

      It was fun looking up Leyendecker; what beautiful illustrations. Charles Beach was a spectacular model. And I cannot even imagine trying to draw a chicken from life :-D