WWII's Factory Women Who (Secretly) Made Gibson's Legendary Guitars
Gibson's "Banner" guitar is considered by some to be one the most finely-crafted acoustic guitars ever made. Artists like Buddy Holly and Woody Guthrie favored them, and they were the first in Gibson's J-45 line of guitars which, if you're not a big instrument buff, are some of the best acoustic guitars in the world and Gibson's best-selling acoustics of all time. So it's kind of shocking that, for so many decades, no one even knew that these legendary guitars were made by women.
Following WWI, people were all about that jazz. Gone was the popularity of the mandolin instrument as guitar companies, including the Gibson company in Kalamazoo, Michigan, tried to fashion new strings that could keep up with the bluesy beats of the time. At first, the guys at Gibson tried to simply redesign the mandolin, but that didn't work out too well, and by the time WWII rolled in, the men were being shipped to war, and guitar companies all over had to put down their strings and start making munitions. And with most of the men gone, they employed women to do it. But the Kalamazoo Gals, as they recently came to be known, weren't just making war bullets. They were making what would become Gibson's money-making guitars.
70 years later, law professor Dr. John Thomas came across the photo of the women posing in front of the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, and he wondered what on earth they were all doing there. He managed to dig up old records and paper trails of Gibson's production and shipments from that time and discovered that, while Gibson claimed that they weren't making any guitars during the war, as many as 24,000 guitars were in fact shipped, and they sure had a surprisingly huge amount of stock left when it was time for the boys to come home and resume their business.
Dr. Thomas actually found surviving Kalamazoo Gals and was able to learn how they secretly made these incredible guitars, thanks to their experience in sewing and other skills women were expected to learn in the days of yore. What's more impressive is that these guitars were so much more refined than most others from that time. The sanding was just that little bit thinner, the feel was just that little bit smoother, and every guitar was unique and different due to the lack of materials during wartime and the individual craftsmanship of these women.
Nobody knew about the Kalamazoo Gals for decades to come because Gibson decided to hide this fact from the world. It's believed that their reasons for this were: A) fear of judgment for not focusing solely on war munition, and B) good ol' chauvinism. Apparently, they were scared people wouldn't buy a guitar that was made by a woman. These Banner guitars were branded with a golden slogan that said, "Only a Gibson is good enough," but the company seemed to reason that "Made by a Woman" would somehow render them, well, not so good enough.
Zanandi is on Twitter.
Top Image: Freebird/Wiki Commons