I am currently an archaeology student. One cool thing about my studies is that as I approach the end of my program I have some flexibility in choosing research topics. One of the things I chose recently was to study the material culture of pin-up art in WWII. This entailed looking into avenues of the production and distribution of pin-up art as well as asking questions about what purpose it served and who consumed it. Because of this research, I would argue that the iconic “cheesecake” style that we commonly tag as “pin-up” today has its roots in WWII. During the war, pin-up imagery was wildly popular. It could be found in many places, from playing cards to magazines, and so much more. Men serving in the military had pin-ups hung alongside family photos and they provided a comfort in times of great uncertainty.
One this I did not know when I started my investigation into this topic was the in WWII, the USA had an “official” pin-up. In 1943, the US government launched a campaign that was meant to encourage soldiers to be careful with their money; this campaign featured the likeness of Margie Stewart. The campaign was exceedingly popular.
Before being recruited to be “Uncle Sam’s Poster Girl”, Margie had been cast by RKO – usually uncredited – in some 20 movies. Margie’s images for the US pin-up campaign were taken by photographer George Hurrell; the concept was dreamed up by retired army major-turned ad executive Russell Stone, who felt that troop morale would be boosted by receiving some pin-ups in their pay packets. The images of Margie were not the typical pin-up style: she did not pose in a bikini or flash peeks of lingerie – instead, she was fully clothed and rather wholesome. Margie pin-ups are even more modestly clothed than the typical “cheesecake” style pinup images which often depict women flashing a bit of stocking or other lingerie as they get caught up in humorous situations (such as getting caught in a stiff breeze, or having their underpants fall off at inopportune moments). Margie’s images were a bit more serious and often accompanied by a letter which urged servicemen to buy war bonds to save money to buy homes after the war, and they pleaded the men to, “Please… get there and back!” and to “Be careful what you say or write.”
Despite the relatively tame nature of these images, they were immensely popular. A series of twelve different images of Margie were produced, and 94 million of the posters were printed and distributed to soldiers inside their pay packets. When examining Margie’s pin-ups, it is apparent that she is approachable, pretty and wholesome. In most of the images, part of the frame is occupied by a letter she is writing to her partner abroad; many soldiers apparently felt that she was extremely relatable and were heartbroken when she married. She toured Europe in 1945 – London’s Daily Telegraph reported that her appearance in the city caused gridlock. Margie later wrote a reflective essay telling her story, noting that she had not expected to end up in the situation she did. After the success of the initial poster, she had been delighted to be part of creating more of them. She had received many letters from “her boys” asking for more of them and she felt it her duty to oblige. Margie also notes that the “response to the posters was so strong that Eleanor Roosevelt tried to stop distribution because she feared they were making the GIs too homesick”.
Through Margie the US government was able to easily get out a message to the soldiers to be financially conservative; I doubt that many people whose lives are on the line are necessarily worried about saving for the future, but with the gentle coaxing from a pretty girl, the government was able to encourage that behaviour. Further, in a time of great social change for women, they were able to reinforce (in a reassuring fashion) traditional gender roles.