Monday, 15 April 2013

The Women Who Built Gibson's Guitars During World War II

Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII is a captivating new book. It all started with a photograph of 71 women in front of the Gibson instrument factory in 1944.

Author John Thomas (a law professor, solo musician and "Banner" guitar collector) from Connecticut, USA states:

 “I can no longer recall just how I stumbled upon this photograph. But I do know that it haunted me for some years. I printed it out, pinned it up on a board on my office wall, and found my attention drawn to it more often than I care to admit. So, I took out ads in newspapers in Kalamazoo and surrounding towns and eventually tracked down 12 of those women.”

"Kalamazoo Gals" in front of Gibson Factory in 1944
Thus the author's journey began. Thomas would set out on a quest to find the female employees who posed for this photo in front of the original Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The result is a fascinating history of a relatively small group of women and much more. Wanting to contribute to the war effort, these ladies literally began walking into the Gibson Company factory in January 1942 with absolutely no experience and no training, yet ultimately built 24,000+ Gibson instruments from 1942-1945.

Some 9,000 of those instruments were the  "Banner" guitars. That term is based on the guitars with the gold color banner decal on the headstock which simply stated: "Only A Gibson Is Good Enough". This specific logo only appeared on the guitars made by this group of women during that short period during World War II.

As part of his research John Thomas uncovered thousands and thousands of files. Included in that mountain of paper were handwritten ledgers thought lost forever, but found in the Gibson company quagmire of old paperwork. He actually tracks a bit of history of some of the "Banner" guitars through these ledgers.

Thomas also coordinated a thorough X-ray project. Complete state-of-the-art X-rays were taken of several "Banner" guitars. The idea was to detect any variations in construction or technique from one guitar to another. Interesting results and details are described in the book.
Other interesting subjects covered in this book: 

  - An extensive search for personal information and history about founder Orville H. Gibson, revealing a somewhat eccentric inventor who left confusing information about his past.

  - The Gibson Company (until this book was published) never acknowledged the female workers now referred to as the "Kalamazoo Gals". As late as 1973, the company not only denied any knowledge of those women, but stated no instruments were ever built during that period when over 90% of their workforce were women.
  - Gibson's wooden toy making business. The company built toys using scraps of wood from their instrument workshops. These toys helped Gibson survive during the Great Depression of the early 1930s.
  - The author gives a detailed account of last year's "Innaugural Country Music Sale" at Christie's Auction in New York City. An historic auction which included items once belonging to Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Carl Perkins and a long list of legendary figures. Some highlights were Buddy Holly's Gibson "Banner" guitar, Hank Williams' 1947 Martin D18, Roy Rogers' guitar, Bill Monroe's original 1923 Gibson F5 mandolin Ebony faceplate from the headstock (from which Monroe had removed the "Gibson" inlay with his pocket knife). The author's recollection of that auction visit is fun to read.
  - Also a very interesting section about Woody Guthrie and Russ Barenberg's "Banner" guitars and much more.
But back to the core subjects of this excellent book; the inexperienced 'Kalamazoo Gals' who somehow rose to the occasion and miraculously produced beautiful guitars with superb tonal and playing qualities. Qualities which make these "Banner" guitar models highly sought after by savvy musicians and collectors today. If you own a Gibson guitar with that gold colored banner decal pictured below, you know it was made by a craftswoman in Kalamazoo, Michigan between 1942 and 1946.

One 'Kalamazoo Gal' told the author,
“I just watched the person working next to me and copied what she did."

Rarely does one read a more entertaining, enthralling and, at times, emotional account of music history as we do throughout this writer's journey.  

Thank you, John Thomas for sharing this "gift" that came to you. Thank you for sacrificing so much of your family time, and for investing so much of your own money into this extraordinary project. Thank you for not allowing the mounting expenses involved to stand in the way of this high quality book I now hold in my hand. Keeping the cost of this invaluable history at under $20 U.S. Dollars is another sacrifice, and we thank you for that as well.

But most of all -- Thanks for a deserving story now told to the world about an important, yet all but forgotten and unheralded group of women who posed for one mysterious single photograph in 1944. These Kalamazoo Gals who arguably saved Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Manufacturing Company when they built such unique collectible guitars, in one unpredictable four-year period of American history. 

Title: Kalamazoo Gals - The Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson's "Banner" Guitars of WWII

Author: John Thomas (Professor of Law, editor/writer Fretboard Journal, solo musician, "Banner" guitar collector)

Publisher: American History Press

Format: 6" x 9" perfect-bound paperback with hinge crease, and 20 coated pages; museum quality printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper.
288 pages, including 158 images of Kalamazoo Gals, guitars, and vintage material.

$19.95 USD  from AHP  and

ISBN 13: 978-0-9830827-8-1
LCCN: 2012954827

 Click here for information about the
'Kalamazoo Gals' Companion CD

"The Light Still Burns" by Lauren Sheehan

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The goal of this registry project is to produce a searchable online data base of historical and technical information for the 'Banner era' Gibsons. Also, an updated list of Factory Order Numbers (FON). If you would like to help with this registry project, please contact Willi Henkes in Germany at the Registry Project website with photos and information about your 'Banner' Gibson instrument. They would like full front and back photos, the tuners, the neck block and any unique features if possible. With your permission, they would like to post these photos with the FON list.