This 1996 art deco illustration of John Henry, featured on postage stamps, illustrates the beginnings of integration and positive racial relations that were hallmarks of the 20th century. John Henry is pictured alongside a seemingly modernized rail, smiling contently toward the horizon with his iconic hammer. Although the illustration takes the style of an earlier era, it was printed in the 90’s, a much more integrated period than that of the style it attempts to emulate. That being said, even despite the significant social change between the early 20th century and the time of that art style and the 1990’s, the beginnings of said change were already evident by the 1920’s with employment opportunities slowly but surely opening up for black Americans.
In the traditional style of a John Henry depiction, as described by Scott Nelson’s, “Who Was John Henry?”, Henry is shown holding a hammer alongside an operating rail, seemingly implying his contribution toward its construction. As prescribed by John Henry’s eponymous folk tune, the hammer is shown prominently in the frame; Further allusions to the folksong can be found in the orientation of the train in the background, climbing a vague structure that could easily be interpreted as being “in these mountains”, as described by the song.
The image harkens back to 20th century industrial propaganda, a common occurrence in most western nations through the 1950’s. A colorful, confident, and nationalistic depiction of white men helping to build their countries was common in the United States, Europe, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union all throughout that time. This illustration of Henry almost flips that archetypical painting on its head by depicting a black man as responsible for American prosperity– truly a sign of the times for the progressive 1990’s. Although this illustration makes few allusions to the potentially true stories of John Henry, it rings very true to his myth, and shows how the archetype of his character has remained relevant into the present day.
To me, the more and more I read on Maureen Honey’s “Creation of the Myth” on Rosie the Riveter, the more I began to question Rosie as a true American Icon and more of an American Farce. Defining an American Icon in the beginning of the semester we learned that an iconic image is “wholly exceptional and has levels of widespread recognizability; moved beyond its original purpose; is in fact original and moved to a point of celebrity; and has the attraction of a cult following”. While I think that most may agree that Rosie possesses these types of characteristics, I believe she does so in the sense that she was specifically made TO BECOME an icon, which to me breaks the #1 rule of iconicity- she isn’t original or authentic. Rosie the Riveter, in my opinion, was just a successful advertising campaign.
In “Creation of the Myth,” we obtain a very detailed understanding of how Rosie came to be. During WWII, we see that the Office of War Information (OWI), the Bureau of Campaigns, and War Advertising Council (WAC) work to create a “Women in the War” campaign in 1944 that encourages women to enter the work force in an array of different jobs. A man instrumental in pushing government officials to this idea was Chester La Roche, the chair of the WAC. Now, La Roche isn’t your typical Don Draper; his intent was to get the rest of the government on board to wage psychological warfare via all media outlets and “threaten the public with the loss of loss of political freedoms”. (I know sounds American right? ) He truly believed that if the government didn’t use these types of methods that the American public wouldn’t cooperate. From here we then see the launch of a nation wide advertising campaign set with a
manipulative manual War Guide for Advertisers that outlines where and how to advertise. In 1942 the campaign took off and La Roche’s plan of utilizing all media outlets really set sail with the addition of Magazine Bureau. Propaganda in magazines was present in the photos, the storylines, and articles on women in different industries and basically the whole magazine. Fiction writers were a huge addition into the OWI campaign efforts in order to make “war work sound attractive to women readers.” For years, media industries worked solely to convince women in every way that working during the war was a glamorous and fun thing to do through these magazines.
When government and fiction align is when we should start to realize there is a problem. La Roche and the WAC probably created one of histories most strategic, elaborate, and effective advertising campaigns. And Rosie was all a part of that manipulative plan.
As an advertising student, I see Rosie the Riveter as successful art direction. I don’t see her as an American Icon because she is based off of a propaganda media blast in order for the government to control citizens. America is supposed to be land of the free and home of the brave, where citizens work hard because they want to not because they are manipulated to. Everything about this ad campaign points to a dictatorship of citizens through media rather than a democracy. To me, she is no truer than those tabloids you see about celebrities in the grocery store. Yes, her image was made famous but not in an honest or American way. She doesn’t truly represent the feminist women either because she was enacted as a plan to control women psychologically. Iconicity lends itself to being formed through a societal need, but Rosie was created to be an icon in order to sell the government’s product (the workforce) during that time.