New York City’s Riveting Rosies
“I worked ten hours a day, seven days a week. We all wanted to help the war.”
Adapted From Over Here! New York City During World War II (Smithsonian Books)
As men streamed into Penn Station and Grand Central on their way to training camps, they left behind service jobs that were vital to run the city and jobs that were supporting the massive war industry. Women stepped up to take their places: They operated elevators; they were page “girls” or “Centerettes” at Rockefeller Center and bus “girls” at the Waldorf. At Penn Station and Grand Central they announced train arrivals and departures, sold tickets and collected them on trains. At La Guardia they were part of the police patrol, controlling pedestrian traffic and watching for suspicious packages. They flew planes for the Civil Air Patrol. They drove trucks and taxis, tended bar, delivered mail, answered calls at local police stations, helped run subways, buses and trolleys. They were messengers, milkmen…sorry, milkwomen, and machinists—riveting, welding, and working assembly lines in war plants and in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
By 1941 Grumman Aircraft in Bethpage, Long Island, was producing the Wildcat, a plane that would be critical in the Philippines and the Battle of the Atlantic. They had begun work on the Sto-Wing, a plane with folded wings designed for aircraft carriers. Then came Pearl Harbor. The company jumped into wartime mode, scheduling two daily ten-hour shifts and a seven-day work week. (Photo, left, shows four women assembling an Avenger torpedo bomber at Grumman.) Families needed an extra paycheck and war plants needed workers. Women could bring home money by working for Uncle Sam and do their bit for the war effort. “I decided I had to help my country, so I quit my job and went to Republic,” recalls 20-year-old Josephine Rachiele, who was working in a coat factory when war broke out. Connie Mancuso had five brothers in the armed forces. “I wanted to join, but I knew that would give my mother a heart attack. [Instead] I became a riveter.” Sophie Sarro also had five brothers in the service and four sisters at home. “My sisters and I all decided to take jobs to help the war effort. We all felt it was the patriotic thing to do.”
But it wasn’t just airplane manufacturers who needed women workers. Sylvia Buscaglia sewed parachutes in a Manhattan factory, then switched to soldering in another factory when she found sewing too tedious. Eighteen-year old Evelyn Margulies drove a tractor. “I tried to get a job with Sperry Gyroscope—they had just opened a plant in Fresh Meadows—and the woman interviewing me told me straight out they were not hiring Jews.” Even a war with a common enemy did not eradicate the blatant anti-Semitism that existed in the city. “I was furious,” said Margulies. “Then I saw this army poster and I signed up. ”We worked on the piers in Bay Ridge, loading ammunition.”
Not far from the Army’s Port of Embarkation was the massive Brooklyn Navy Yard, where during the war 75,000 workers patched up more than five thousand bombed and torpedoed ships. Many workers were women. “We built landing craft. I did tak-welding and I helped measure,” recalled newly-married Mimie Liepzig. Sidonia Levine, whose husband was overseas, worked a ten-hour day, six-days a week, making templates from blueprints of ship sections. “They were wood and we worked on the floor. We were dirty all the time.”
Working in a man’s world had its challenges. “We had bathrooms that were only for men,” recalls Mimi. “We had the signs changed for women but we couldn’t change the plumbing. We always told the new girls the urinals were foot showers.” The war also made their world a whole lot larger. At Grumman Aircraft three young women—Teddy Kenyan, Barbara Jayne and Elizabeth Hooker, each weighing no more than 110 lbs—took Hellcat fighter planes and Avenger torpedo bombers for test runs over the North Shore. Women on the ground built and repaired planes. Anne King, a riveter at Republic Aviation who weighed just 92 pounds, could fit into the air ducts of a new secret jet aircraft. “Men could get in but their shoulders were so wide they weren’t able to do the work,” she recalls.
But working long hours was not easy. Two Y.W.C.A’s had blacked-out rooms and lounges where women who worked late shifts could eat and sleep. Mothers of young children had it particularly hard; without day-care centers, nannies, and take-out food they had to rely on whatever caregivers were at hand. When they did get home, they had to shop for food that was not always available because of rationing and then start cooking. Grumman was one of the few plants that organized car pools and had a Little Green Car service available to run errands for women workers. Two ten-minute breaks were included in every shift and, in an effort to cater to female sensibilities, bathrooms were held to a different standard of cleanliness. By January 1943 public nurseries were set up in Harlem and Brooklyn; other boroughs quickly followed. After-school programs were started and special services were provided for women who worked the graveyard shift. During the summer, play schools opened in settlement houses, churches and synagogues, private and public schools, community centers, and housing projects. Women who didn’t do men’s jobs became part of an army of civilian volunteers.
Once a week, Elinore Leo—one of 250 ground observer volunteers from Port Washington—would leave her two children with a neighbor and climb a 100-foot tower, sometimes braving freezing rain and steep winds to look for enemy aircraft. Some women manned telephone switchboards, ready for the call that told them an unidentified plane had been spotted. Young women were urged to correspond with servicemen. Joan Harris sent holy medals to each of her four uncles, hoping the metal would catch enemy bullets. Young women danced with soldiers at hotel parties. Georgette Feller was one of 50 women selected by her local newspaper for a date with a sailor at Radio City Music Hall. “When we got to Radio City 50 sailors were standing on the grand stairway with numbers in their hands. We got to spend the afternoon with the sailor who had our number. They gave us a luncheon, then we sat around talking to the boys. After that we saw a movie and the stage show.”
A New Utilitarian Fashion
Skirts, high-heeled shoes, and most jewelry were barred from the Navy Yard, replaced by slacks, coveralls, caps, and turbans so long hair didn’t get caught up in the machinery. Sidonia Levine kept home made butter rolls in the pockets of her blue overalls. At Republic Aviation women wore shirts and pants. Saks Fifth Avenue carried a line of Civilian Defense clothing for women who were air raid wardens. Bonwit-Teller featured culottes and slack suits for women bicycling to work or digging in their victory gardens, warm dinner jackets, long-sleeved nightgowns, and fleece-lined slippers for heatless homes. Bergdorf Goodman featured “Dance for Defense” evening gowns and “Cuddle for Victory” lounge wear. Macy’s introduced the “Suit Bride” featuring a model wearing a short white veil and a tailored navy suit on the arm of a serviceman. To accommodate working women, most Fifth Avenue stores stayed open until 9 pm on Thursday evenings.
With the government restricting fabric to 3.5 yards per garment, and with wartime restrictions on wool, rayon, and cotton, skirts got shorter, dickeys replaced blouses, and a single piece of jewelry substituted for banned ruffles on collars and cuffs. Designers who had no metal for zippers or buttons replaced both with bows and stressed durable fabrics. Since there was no rubber for corsets or garter belts and no nylon for stockings, one enterprising manufacturer came up with “leg-stick,” a makeup that substituted for nylon stockings. Women became adept at drawing straight “seams” on the backs of their legs. But with corsets, bras and nylons in increasingly short supply, women were easy prey for slippery salesmen who sold defective nylons. Raincoats made from shower curtains, jumpers made from awnings, and outfits fashioned from the upholstery of abandoned cars were some of the fashions exhibited in June 1942 at the Hotel Astor.
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On June 11, 1942, a blustery Saturday, New York City held a unique “all-women” parade. Ten thousand women air raid wardens, Red Cross workers, volunteers and other wartime workers marched down Fifth Avenue from Eighty-Sixth to Sixty-Second Street. Mayor La Guardia was there, joined by thousands of spectators. The war changed the face of the city and the roles of the women who lived here. Instead of lunching at Schrafft’s they were staffing booths around town, recruiting WAVES and WACS. In the wee hours of a Sunday morning, a small group gathered at 99 Park Avenue, headquarters of the Defense Recreation Committee, to find hotel rooms for servicemen. Every day at noon, Ann Fehety sat behind a plate glass window at Pershing Square, recruiting Civil Defense Volunteers. Five other women recruited auxiliary firemen from a fire truck that drove through city streets. When called upon, women could do almost anything. “I worked ten hours a day, seven days a week,” remembers Sophie Sarro. “We all wanted to do something to help the war.”
Lorraine B. Diehl writes about New York City and is the author of The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station, Subways: The Tracks That Built New York City, and other books. She has also written for The New York Times, New York, and other publications.