[This feature was originally published in the ninth issue of She Shreds Magazine, November 2015 and has been edited for timely accuracy. Subscribe here and receive your copy of She Shreds’ 10th issue with your subscription.]
Imagine the iconic wartime image of Rosie the Riveter—her hair up in a kerchief and a rolled-up sleeve displaying a muscular arm—except she is wielding a beautifully crafted guitar whose mysterious history would almost be lost to later generations of collectors and scholars.
John Thomas, author of Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of World War II, calls her “Laura the Luthier”, a name that speaks for the hundreds of women behind the Gibson walls who were building guitars during the war.
In January of 1942, a month into U.S. involvement in the war, factories turned their manufacturing capacity over to government war contracts. Rickenbacker in Santa Ana, California and Gretsch in Brooklyn, New York stopped instrument production entirely after, respectively, eleven and nine years of producing guitars. In Nazareth, Pennsylvania, C.F. Martin & Co., the first guitar manufacturer in the U.S. in 1833, remained in production during the war and had four female employees at its modest North Street plant.
According to Kalamazoo Girls, while production was slim across the board, the guitar factory with the most female employees—over 200 between 1942 and 1946—was Gibson Guitar Corporation in Kalamazoo, Michigan. These women were hired to make munitions, but they also clandestinely created the line of “Banner” guitars. The Gibson Banner flattop acoustic guitars had a gold banner on the headstock with the slogan, “Only a Gibson is Good Enough.” They were discontinued at the end of the war and only resurfaced as reproductions in the ‘90s. The six original Banner flat top models are still highly sought after by collectors: the J-50, J-45 Jumbo (played by Buddy Holly), LG-2, LG-3, LG-1, and the SJ Southerner Jumbo (one of Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists!” guitars).
In addition to making guitars, the Kalamazoo Gals made the strings depicted in this photo.
Gibson has alternated between claiming no guitars were made during the war and admitting that a handful were produced. According to Julius Bellson, a longtime Gibson employee and historian who wrote the 1973 book, The Gibson Story, the few guitars they admitted to were fashioned by “seasoned craftsmen” who were too old to fight in the war. Executives believed that consumers would not buy Banner guitars if word spread that they had been made by women.
John Thomas’ meticulously researched book exposes Gibson’s unjust cover-up. He chose “Kalamazoo Gals” as a nickname for the women builders after the Glenn Miller hit, “(I’ve Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo,” which was the #1 song in America in January 1942—the same month the Kalamazoo Gals began work at Gibson. “To my surprise, none of the dozen Gals I located and interviewed played the guitar,” Thomas mentioned recently to She Shreds. “I do think, though, that had Gibson not hidden the Gals’ contribution, the instrument would have had a better chance to appeal to girls and women. I still believe this.”
Originally published as book cover for Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII.
John located and interviewed 12 Kalamazoo Gals in his book, but today only two survive. We spoke with Irene Stearns, one of the remaining Kalamazoo Gals who worked in the string department, about her time with Gibson.
It reminded me of sitting at a sewing machine, an old time treadle. There was a foot pedal for my right foot. We’d put the ball of wire on the left, like you would thread the needle for a sewing machine. There was the thing [ball] at the end of the string. We’d put that on a little spindle and just pull that wire. You’d have your pliers and twist it around. You’d cut it off and hang it on a little rack and when you got a gross, you’d wind it up in a ball and just keep doing that until you had a whole bunch of them.
We liked our work. We enjoyed each other. We got a lot more pay than some jobs that were out there. At a flea market one time my daughter and I saw some Gibson strings, and they were in the little bags in the boxes like I used to put them in. We bought them, and when I looked at them they were terrible! I said, “Oh, my gosh, I would never dare to turn these strings in. They would have been thrown away, if I’d made them.’’ I am proud that I made good ones. We did good work.
Previously published 1944 workforce photo.
When given the chance to advance to the position of manager, Irene turned it down at first, but then accepted to do it with her friend Helen Charkowski:
For some reason [our manager] left. They asked me if I wanted to be the manager, and I said, “Oh no!’’ Then they said, ‘“Well, will you and Helen do it together?’’ We said, “Well, we’ll try it.’’ They would come in and tell us what to tell the girls. Neither one of us wanted to tell the girls what they told us! Some of the executives from the office came through, just checking in, and they’d seen someone just sitting there and said, ‘’You go tell them that they’ve got to keep working until the bell rings.’’ Well, this girl—I don’t blame her a bit, I would have done the same thing—she told me off! We decided right then that we could not do this with our friends. They got a guy in there that we had to teach. Well, men don’t like that! He wasn’t very happy with us, because we had to tell him where everything was and what to do. That didn’t work out too good. I guess he stayed there. I didn’t. I got fired!
Kalamazoo Gals at a Gibson party.
It was really hot in there. It’s an old crummy building—no heat hardly in the winter, no fans or anything in the summer—so we really got tired and hot. It was almost quitting time, but we had our quota in, so I think Helen said, “Boy, let’s get out of here!” I said, “Well, I think we ought to talk to somebody.” Well, wouldn’t you know, we couldn’t find anybody, so we left. Four of us. We came back in the morning and we had to start at 7:00 and the office didn’t open until 8:00. I saw one of my friends sitting on the front step of the office and I said, “What are you doing here?” and she said, “Oh, never mind. You’ll find out.” So I start to go in the door, and the guard said, “You can’t come in.” No explanation. So I went out front and sat on the step with her. It ended up four of us sitting there. Then when the office opened up they called us in and told us that we were all done. They wouldn’t let us go back in the string room or anything if we had anything in there. We said, “Well, we had our work done, but we couldn’t find anybody to tell.” One girl was pregnant and already turned in her time and she was going to be out of there in a week or two anyway. Normally I didn’t say anything. I was real quiet back then, but that made me mad. I said, “Well, fire the rest of us,” I said, “but for crying out loud, can’t you let her quit? She already turned in her time.” “Nope, nope, she’s fired too.” So the whole string room heard about it, and we went out by the tracks to wave at them…that was the end of my days at Gibson.
After the release of Kalamazoo Girls in 2013, the women at Gibson have received the due praise and attention that was neglected during World World II. Since then, there’s been a rise in women working as luthiers. When asked how she felt about the recent attention, Stearns replied, “Here I had this dumb job all those years ago, and now all this—the book and everything. I just can’t imagine all this. It’s been a lifesaver for me.”