In 2016, six years after he began a painstaking search for a woman in an old photograph, Professor James Kimble found himself, flowers in hand, at Naomi Parker Fraley’s house in California.
He believed that Parker Fraley, who died on Saturday aged 96, in Longview, Washington, was the inspiration for Rosie the Riveter, a poster that became an enduring symbol of American feminism and one of the country’s most iconic images.
The poster, by the Pittsburgh artist J Howard Miller, depicted a wartime woman worker in a blue shirt and a red polka-dot bandanna, flexing her bicep, with the caption “We Can Do It!”. Miller’s poster is thought to have been based on a photograph of a woman standing at a lathe which was published by a number of magazines in 1943 but seemingly never captioned with a name or a date.
Mr. Miller’s poster went largely unnoticed at the time – it was displayed only in-house at Westinghouse electric plants – but it became an icon decades later, printed on everything from T-shirts to fridge magnets to the skin, and reimagined by the singer Beyonce, the New Yorker magazine and others.
But as the image became ubiquitous, Parker Fraley went unknown. Another woman, Geraldine Doyle, a wartime metal presser at a Michigan industrial plant, thought she saw herself in the original photograph and her claim was widely accepted.
When Doyle died in December 2010, obituaries were published by the BBC, New York Times, and many others.
But something about the story did not sit right with Mr. Kimble, an associate professor of communication at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He had previously researched the poster and published a paper debunking some of the myths around it.
“I had said in that research that almost everything we know about that poster is wrong,” Mr. Kimble told the BBC in a telephone interview. “So when Doyle died in 2010, and there were all these obituaries, I of course thought, how do we know she’s really the model? What’s the proof? It was the rabbit hole calling to me.”
For six years, Mr. Kimble scoured the internet, magazines, and wire services, searching for a version of the image with a caption. Then in 2015, he found another image of Parker Fraley, and via a reverse image search traced it to a vintage newspaper picture dealer.
It just so happened the dealer had a companion image from the same day, and it was the woman at the lathe. More importantly, it had a date – 24 March 1942 – a location – Alameda, California – and a caption.
“Pretty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating,” it said. The women wore “safety clothes instead of feminine frills”, it added, “And the girls don’t mind – they’re doing their part. Glamour is secondary these days.”