Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Searching the 1940 Census for Famous People? How about Rosie the Riveter?

In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s both of my grandfathers worked at the United Shoe Machinery Corporation in Beverly, Massachusetts. One worked there until the 1960s, after 40 years there as a glazier.   Three of my four great grandfathers worked at “The Shoe”, and lots of uncles, cousins and in-laws.  Even my Dad worked there as a security guard in the 1950s when he was a college student.  I expect to see some of these men listed in the 1940 census when the records are made public in April 2012.   All these relatives were men, until World War II started.  Then my grandmother became a "Rosie the Riveter", and went to work in the factory.

This was quite a new thing for Grammy, although she had worked hard since she was 12 years old growing up in England.   But it was new for women to work on the factory floor at “The Shoe” and at many other manufacturers across New England, and across the United States.  But the factories were re-tooled to produce war supplies, and someone had to run the machines when all the men were called to war. 

My grandmother, Bertha Louise Roberts, was born in 1897 in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, and came to America in 1915 with her family.  She married my grandfather, Donald Munroe Wilkinson, in 1926, and had three sons.  My father was the baby, and when Pearl Harbor was attacked he was seven years old.  I don’t know when Grammy began to work at “The Shoe”, but since Dad was in school and old enough, she went to work.

In her own words:
Because there was a war going on and I had to go in as a matron, and I worked as a matron for a while and then I got transferred down to the sheet metal department.  I worked there on the night shift.  It wasn't too easy though because I would work from eleven to seven in the morning.  I got a ride back and forth but it wasn't too good for me health wise and I was sick after a while.  I had my veins stripped in my legs and ... they were stripped. [a treatment for varicose veins] And I had to walk as soon as I could after they were stripped.  So I went back to work soon after that and my boss let me go to the tool department and do errands for him so I could walk.” [transcribed from an audio tape of Bertha Wilkinson recorded in the 1970s.]

At that time the matron was a woman working in the factories that watched out for the welfare of the female workers, and supervised the lady’s washrooms and dressing rooms.  There was much hostility shown towards the women who came to work in the factories, and there were no laws against sexual harassment.  Some women had never worn pants, and changed into them only for work, never wanting to be seen on the street in slacks.

Factory jobs for women paid more than traditional female jobs, but still less than men on the same jobs. They took the jobs out of patriotism, or for independence, or out of boredom while their husbands were away. During the war there were 2 million women working in defense plants, more than 10 percent of all women working, and millions more worked in other traditional jobs vacated by men at war.  Less than a quarter of these women had two years experience in the workforce. Nearly all these women were unemployed when the war ended.

I can imagine Grammy as a matron, but it is still hard for me to believe she worked in the sheet metal shop.  Although she was much younger then, I still can’t imagine her making munitions or parts for war machinery!  This is a fascinating part of her life I never really discussed with her. Grammy passed away in 1990.

How would you know if your ancestor or family member worked as a “Rosie” during World War II?  Since the war happened between the censuses, her occupation wouldn’t show up there. Perhaps the factory or occupation your grandfather or great grandfather held in the 1940 census will give you a clue?  Did your grandmother take over in the family store or family business?  Did she fill in at your grandfather’s job when he was drafted?  You can try looking at tax records for extra income earned between 1942 and 1945 by women in your family.  A town history or historical society can tell you if there was a 1945 defense plant, or a factory retooled for defense supplies in your grandparents hometown found in the 1940 census.  Letters, journals, and oral histories are the best way to tell if your grandmother or great aunts worked as a “Rosie” since these women’s names were rarely recorded anywhere else.


World War II, by Carol J. Schneider and Dorothy Schneider, New York: Facts on File Press, 2003, pages 103 – 105.

Rosie the Riveter: Women Working during World War II http://www.nps.gov/pwro/collection/website/rosie.htm

Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and at the Front during World War II, by Emily Yellen, New York: Free Press, 2004

Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Thanks, Heather, for this great look back at anothera era. You've reminded me to check out my family work history during those war years, altho I don't think I have anyone as colorful as your Grammy in my tree.

  2. Thanks for the lookback. This is the era when my mom and dad were growing up and my grandparents were living through the depression. Getting to know about my grandparents more is what got me interested in genealogy in the first place. They died when I was young or before I was even born.

    Regards, Jim