As Explore Buffalo’s regular tour season will wind down at the end of October, we are happy to announce that you can still explore Buffalo’s history with us from the comfort of your own home! Registration for our online Episodes in Buffalo History course is open now. Explore Buffalo speaker and docent, Cheryl McDonald, who gives talks on Buffalo during World War II shares with us the story of Buffalo’s ‘Riveting Rosies.’
On Saturday, December 6, 1941, Buffalo women were planning their Christmas menus, ordering the turkey from the Broadway Market, or taking the children downtown to see the AM&A’s windows. But tomorrow, December 7, 1941, a “date that will live in infamy,” all that would change.
Buffalo NY would play a major role in defeating the Axis forces. The Niagara Frontier (Buffalo, Lockport, and Niagara Falls) was soon to receive over five billion dollars’ worth of federal contracts for aircrafts, ammunitions, machine guns, chemicals and much more. Although Buffalo was a large industrial area, it had suffered labor shortages for years. With manufacturers expanding and converting from civilian products to military products, this labor shortage issue was only going to get worse. It was estimated that 83,000 new workers would be required to fill the government contracts or suffer losing those contracts. The city could not afford to let this happen.
In 1933 the United States Employment Service (USES) was established to coordinate the hiring and placing of unemployed Americans due to the Great Depression. After America entered the war, USES was tasked with hiring, vetting, and placing all defense workers. As the war continued and the demand for military products and soldiers increased and all able-bodied (and even disabled) men had been hired, there was still a drastic labor shortage problem.
By May of 1943 the government advised Buffalo industries that to meet their contract obligations they would need to hire 55,000 workers by the end of the month, and 30,000 should be women. The War Manpower Commission (WMC) established a campaign to mobilize women out of the home and into the factory. Their campaign slogan, “The more women at work – the sooner we’ll win,” had a positive message, but they also took a more negative tone by telling women “A soldier may die if you don’t do your part.” No pressure there!
The more women at work – the sooner we’ll win.
The Office of War Information (OWI), basically the propaganda department, created newspaper and magazine articles distributed across the country urging women to support the war effort and become defense industry workers; to create a “slacks glad army of women.” The efforts of both agencies were highly successful, and by June of 1943 200,000 Buffalo women were working in the defense industry.
The majority of new defense workers were employed by Bell Aircraft and Curtiss-Wright. Their combined employment numbers increased from 6,500 in 1939 to 85,000 in 1945. In 1945 35% of workers at Curtiss-Wright were women. But other manufacturers were also employing women. All the “hookers” at Republic Steel were women. The “hookers” would hook large chains around heavy pieces of equipment, such as I-beams, that would then be lifted and moved to another part of the factory by a crane operator, who was most likely also a woman.
The sand slinger’s job out at Symington-Gould in Depew was so hazardous that she was required to leave her seat every 20 minutes for a break. She operated a machine that forced sand into a pattern with air pressure. The molds were then used to make tank, ships, and railroad parts. The operator wore safety goggles and a dust-proof nose guard to protect herself from ricocheting sand.
When the war was over most women were immediately furloughed.
When the war was over most women were immediately furloughed. Now the WMC’s campaign was to move women out of the factories and back into the home. Now it was a woman’s patriotic duty to give up her job for the returning soldiers. Many women were happy to do so, however, 80% of women surveyed said they would like to keep working, especially in their factory jobs. These women had had a taste of independence, money, and camaraderie and liked it! But more importantly, these “Rosies” paved the way for working women today and illustrated that “We Can Do It!” Join Explore Buffalo’s Episodes in Buffalo History Series to learn the true store behind the We Can Do It! poster, plus more about Buffalo women on the homefront.
Library of Congress
The Smithsonian Institution
You can discover more local architecture and history by joining an Explore Buffalo tour (tickets can be purchased here), signing up for the weekly email newsletter, which is filled with local history content every Monday, and by following Explore Buffalo on Facebook. In a typical year, more than 80% of Explore Buffalo’s revenue comes from tours, events, and other public programs, all of which were suspended until July 2020. You can help Explore Buffalo to continue its mission of promoting Buffalo architecture and history during this time by:
- Donating online at explorebuffalo.org/donate
- Buying a gift certificate at explorebuffalo.org/gift-shop
- Purchasing an annual Explorer Pass at explorebuffalo.org/explorer-pass