Everyone knows Rosie the Riveter from the propaganda poster inspiring and representing the more than six million women who stepped into the American workforce during World War II. Of those, more than 300,000 were literal riveters in the aircraft industry, and one of them continued in the craft until 2014 when she was laid off by Boeing at the age of 95.
Now 103, Elinor Otto is believed to be the oldest living riveter, and in 2017 she became the only civilian to ever receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Air Force Association.
Now, she has a handbag named after her in celebration of Women’s History Month and “Rosie the Riveter Day” on March 21.
U.S. handbag company R. Riveter released a $268 limited-edition premium denim and leather version of its best-selling Otto Tote ahead of Rosie the Riveter Day. The special edition embroidered with Otto’s signature sold out within hours.
“I’m so thrilled about those purses,” Otto told Rivet. “I sent them to all my friends I’ve loved and who’ve done so much for me with a note and everything, as a legacy, and they’re all so thrilled about it. I just think this purse is so beautiful, and then to have my name on it, that was just the best.”
Made from denim sourced from Cone Denim to represent the overalls worn by Rosie, and from leather to represent her boots, the tote also comes with a chiffon bandana as an accessory and tribute to the famous poster.
Lisa Bradley and fellow military wife Cameron Cruse started R. Riveter as an homage to and in solidarity with what the poster’s iconic model—believed to be an amalgam of a handful of working women of the time—stood for. In 2016, Mark Cuban backed their business venture to the tune of $100,000 in exchange for a 20 percent share on Shark Tank and R. Riveter was off and running.
“The women of that day, they didn’t stand on the sidelines, they dove right in to help their country and my co-founder and I were so proud of our husbands’ service, as well,” Bradley said. “We wanted to be able to serve back in our own way, and so we really took inspiration from Rosie the Riveters of that timeframe and applied it to the modern-day Riveter.”
The R. Riveter business model is unique in that it employs military spouses even as they move from post to post, base to base and camp to camp. Bradley said R. Riveter has nearly 45 employees at its factory in Wauchula, Fla., where all of the material is cut and sent out to about 35 military spouses coast-to-coast who construct and assemble it into finished products. Each piece comes with a signature yellow ribbon and an ID tag that identifies who worked on the bag.
“It’s a trade, it’s a skill, much like Elinor learned,” Bradley said. “We are trying to keep that alive and keeping jobs here in America.”
R. Riveter sources its materials domestically as much as possible. Partners help them find access to raw materials from all over the country from private, government and medical groups to keep costs in line.
“[The riveters] were a disruptive kind of technology of the time. They went into factories and worked when it wasn’t normal to do at the time,” Bradley said. “So we’re doing kind of the same thing where we’re taking and making a different type of manufacturing system so that it works for, really, the modern-day woman.”
For Otto, drilling rivets into aircraft was supposed to just be a temporary job. After the war ended the men returned for the jobs they left behind, and women like Otto were supposed to go back into jobs women of her day were supposed to do.
“I went back to work in 1951 and I did car-hopping, typing in an office, which I didn’t like, but the car-hopping, they put us on skates and that’s why I retired from that,” she said. “I just did little things like that—I was busy.”
Soon enough, rivets came calling and she was back in aeronautics, working first for Ryan Aeronautical in San Diego and later with McDonnell Douglas (later bought by Boeing), where she worked until 2014 when she was laid off, having worked on every C-17 at the Boeing plant in her 49 years with the company.
Otto was hoping to make it to her 50th anniversary, but the Boeing plant was being phased out and “when they started layoffs, they didn’t go by seniority, they went by department. We were done first, so we were out first,” she said. “That was the best team I’ve ever worked with. We’re still friends. Some of my co-workers, I sent them the purses and they were so thrilled.”
Each bag in the R. Riveter collection is named for a female worker during the war, including the Naomi Signature Camel Leather Zipper Clutch, named for Naomi Parker Fraley. Fraley was 20 when she worked at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif. and a newspaper photographer took her photo with a polka-dot headscarf holding up her hair.
“We really try to bring these stories to life through our handbag collection, which I think is important because the generation of today receives stories in a different way and we really believe in bridging those generations,” Bradley said.
As for her company’s name, Bradley said Rosie the Riveter was open source by the time they dreamed up the business, but they wanted to keep the throwback “subtle” so that those who get it will get it.
“I really believe the legacy of Rosie the Riveter is changing,” Bradley said. “I come from a long line of military spouses. Rosie the Riveter wasn’t necessarily a military spouse—many of them were—but, you know, we’re all in a long line of women just trying to help one another. I know I’m just a stitch in that time and hopefully I’m carrying the torch from Elinor forward. My daughter is that next generation that believes in America still and what we can do here.”