By Nora Sawyer
Rosie the Riveter is an American Icon from WWII. In Norman Rockwell’s painting, she perches comfortably on a stool, loafer-clad feet resting on a copy of Mein Kampf, one arm curled to hold a ham sandwich. In a song by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, she’s “making history, working for victory.” And most famously, she stares determinedly from J. Howard Miller’s propaganda poster, declaring “We Can Do It!”
I’m a practical woman. So I got to wondering recently just how she did it. Rosie and her ilk were often new to the workforce. In San Francisco, the number of working women nearly doubled during the war. Nationwide, the number of working wives grew from under 14 percent in 1940 to 25 percent in 1945.
Sausalito’s Marinship had plenty of women like Rosie. The first was welder Dorothy Gimblett, a mother of three who started work in the summer of 1942. Others soon followed, and by November of that year, there were more than 500 female employees working in the Marinship, 53% of whom were married, and half of whom had kids.
Starting in January 1943, the Marin-er, Bechtel Corporation’s in-house newsletter for workers, started publishing “The Home Shift,” a column geared toward “you women and girls who work here at Marinship, and the wives and mothers at home.” The bulk of the column was devoted to meal-planning. Eating well was “just as important to shipbuilding as good steel and good welding,” and the menus reflect the need to keep the workforce in peak condition, while dealing with the practical concerns of women working outside the home.
The column’s peppy, can-do attitude and in-depth nutritional advice had me curious. What could I learn about Rosie by eating from her lunchbox?
So I decided to try it, starting with the column’s inaugural menu. A “low meat” dinner for “days when there just isn’t any,” the suggested meal (lima beans with wieners served with baked squash, cornbread, and a “peppy cabbage salad,” with a dessert of fresh fruit) was attributed to “a woman welder who carries the torch for Uncle Sam during the day and runs the home shift for her rigger husband.” All this in “only 45 minutes, actual kitchen time.”
I began my quest at Driver’s Market, housed in what was once Marinship’s hiring hall. Shopping for dinner provided my first revelation about Marinship workers: they ate a lot. Hard, physical labor requires a lot of fuel, and each meal featured a smorgasbord of filling, nutritious food.
Graveyard workers especially needed meals that were nutritious, appealing, and could stand up to “cold reality.” An April 1943 issue of the Marin-er recommends five meals for night-shift workers. The meals were designed to be light, appealing (since working nights might diminish workers’ appetites), and extra nutritious. These suggested “light meals” include a breakfast of grapefruit, wheat cereal, and baked eggs and bacon served with toast, cocoa and milk. This was followed by a “wake up snack” of vegetable juice, a fried ham sandwich, a baked apple, and coffee.
The second revelation: it required planning. Running out the door, I nearly forgot to set beans to soak for that night’s dinner. Instead of relaxing after my epic dinner, I needed to start preparing the next day’s meals. No wonder women workers in Marinship had higher absentee and turnover rates: running “the home shift” on top of a day’s work outside the home must have been exhausting.
Rationing was another factor. In a May 1943 Marin-er column, “Prudence Penny” lays out a week’s worth of lunch and dinner menus designed to maximize a family’s ration points. Tuesday’s unexpected point hog was, to my mind, the least exciting thing on the menu: one can of string beans, at eight ration points (that’s three more than the pound of beef for Wednesday’s stew).
But after a few days of cooking like a Marin-er, simply opening a can was a welcome respite. One less thing to worry about was eight ration points well spent.
Still, some of the suggested meals provided quick, easy and simple pleasures. The suggested “remedies for lunch box blues” -- including cream cheese and radish sandwiches on rye bread -- suggesting a tea room more than a shipyard. Many of the salads, including tomato and olive aspic and stuffed prunes, proved both simple and delicious, evoking a dinner-party elegance.
These sophisticated, tasty meals provided my final insight into Rosie and her fellow working women: food could be more than fuel. A good meal was something to savor. Undoubtedly, planning and cooking added to women’s workload. But food also could be a respite from both shipyard and war, a moment of peace.
Nora Sawyer is a docent at the Sausalito Historical Society’s Research Room, which is open to the public Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10:00 to 1:00, or by appointment (send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org, including the subject you’d like to research).