Jewel Flowers: Lumberton's Pinup Girl
Jewel Flowers: Lumberton’s Pinup Girl
Lumberton native Jewel Flowers became a national celebrity as a pinup/calendar girl in the 1940s and 50s. On the 100th year of her birth, several of her famous images are now on display at the Robeson County History Museum.
It is one of the most unlikely success stories in local history. Some of her contemporaries, as young as nine, labored long hours in the mills of East Lumberton where Flowers grew up.
For reasons that can only be explained as a parents’ desire to improve their daughter’s lot in life, Calton and Lillian, sent a 17-year old to New York City in 1940. What happened next is pure serendipity.
Answering an ad in the New York Times for a model, Flowers met artist Rolf Armstrong, and a long relationship ensued. She had a “girl next door” appeal and a vivacious personality that Armstrong translated into art.
A favorite of World War II soldiers, Flowers’ image appeared on bombers and tanks. She was so famous that servicemen could write to her proposing marriage simply by addressing the envelopes: Jewel Flowers, New York City. President Roosevelt enlisted her to help the nation’s war effort to promote Liberty Bonds.
Armstrong died in 1960 ending Flowers’ illustrious modeling career. The artist, who was 20 years Flowers senior, left the bulk of his estate to her.
She married twice, returned to Lumberton for a short time and lived her final years in Myrtle Beach investing in real estate. When she died in 2006, a South Carolina newspaper called her “probably the number one pinup girl of all time.”
That’s saying a lot because the competition in this popular genre included Hollywood starlets like Rita Heyworth, Betty Grable and, somewhat later, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren.
The new exhibit is not the History Museum’s first interest in Flowers.
For the Robeson Remembers series, Don Floyd wrote an article on Flowers. As a child, Floyd lived across the street from her parents.
Floyd first encountered the pinup queen during visits with her parents. Once, she gave him a silver dollar to play with her son.
Flowers rise to fame is an extraordinary story. East Lumberton was home to several large cotton mills, including the National Cotton Mill, Dresden Cotton Mill and Lumberton Cotton Mill, and rows and rows of company-owned cottages.
There was a school in East Lumberton, but many of Flowers contemporaries went to work in the mills at a very early age. Child labor was a fact of life in industry and agriculture in Robeson and nationally.
There is a display in the History Museum of child labor in Lumberton. Lewis Hine’s photography documented child labor here and across the nation. His photos of Lumberton mill workers included some under the age of 12, including Flossie Britt.
Britt was nine when she was photographed with a group of workers at the Dresden Cotton Mill. At the time of the photo, she had been employed for several months making 30 cents a day.
Hine’s work for the National Child Labor Committee was part of a long national dialogue on child labor that continues today.
Jewel Flowers escaped a life of drudgery to become a gem in the history of Robeson County. Her images may be viewed at the Museum on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon and Sundays 2-4 p.m.