This image was making the rounds in some of my social media art groups, so I thought I would dig into the story behind it for World War Wednesday!
Titled, "Lunch Break," and painted by commercial artist Arthur Sarnoff, the painting features a beautiful blonde woman in a red headscarf (a la Rosie the Riveter), a yellow blouse, and blue overalls using her welding torch and tongs to toast what appears to be a cheese sandwich. Another lays in her lap in a white paper wrapper, on top of her welding gloves. A green metal lunch box featuring a thermos, an apple, and orange, and another paper wrapped bundle of what appears to be more sandwiches sits on the bench before her.
Although not quite done in pinup style, the painting is far more romanticized than, say, Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter," with her smudged face, dirty attire, and muscley arms.
Sarnoff painted "Lunch Break" for Argosy magazine. Founded in the 1880s as a pulp short fiction magazine, by the Second World War it was shifting more towards a men's magazine, with some fiction interspersed with "true tales" of men doing heroic things. The style of art reflects that shift, with a pretty, dainty blonde using her blowtorch to make cheese sandwiches on her lunch break, rather than depicting her doing actual work. Her makeup, hair, and red-painted shaped fingernails are pristine, and the gloves in her lap look scarcely used, clean and with sharp creases still on the cuffs.
I was not able to find a full-size image of the Argosy cover, so I don't know the date it was published. And while the badge on her overalls is large in the painting, the "words" are just gibberish brush strokes. I can only guess at its meaning.
Although Rosie gets most of the attention, "Winnie the Welder" (sometimes also "Wendy the Welder") was in many ways more important than riveters. Women welders during the Second World War made up as much as 65% of welders in the country and were crucial to shipbuilding efforts for both warships and cargo and freight vessels. Women of all ages were thrown into welding with some cursory training, but for the most part their dedication and skill allowed them to adapt quickly to the new, often dangerous environment.
As for the toasted cheese sandwich - although aged cheese like cheddar was officially rationed, cheese was often touted as a meat substitute during the Second World War. That bread doesn't precisely look like a whole wheat Victory loaf, though! And even holding it that far away, you'd have to be quick about toasting with an oxy-acetylene torch - they can get up to temperatures of 5,600 F.
The fantasy depicted in "Lunch Break" is mostly just that - fantasy. But regardless of its historical accuracy, it's a striking image of concepts about women, work, and food during the Second World War.
To see some women at work (albeit in steal manufacturing, with just a glimpse of riveting and welding), you can watch the short documentary film below, "Women of Steel" (1943).
The film is an odd mix of feminism and can-do attitude mixed with patriarchal ideas of what happens "when the boys come home." What a mixed message for women to be receiving during the war! Interestingly, however, it does depict the women using a factory's cafeteria, which was probably preferable to bringing your lunch from home.
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.
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