News / Arts & Entertainment

Women Kept Guitars Strumming During WWII

This 1944 wartime staff portrait, taken at the Gibson guitar factory in Michigan, piqued author John Thomas' curiosity about the women's role in making the iconic instruments. (Courtesy of John Thomas)
This 1944 wartime staff portrait, taken at the Gibson guitar factory in Michigan, piqued author John Thomas' curiosity about the women's role in making the iconic instruments. (Courtesy of John Thomas)
Tom Banse
As American men went off to war during World War II, women stepped in to fill the jobs they left behind, keeping the factories and shipyards running, and the economy humming.

While most were praised for their patriotism, one unheralded group of women worked in the shadows building Gibson guitars. The maker of the famous instrument never confirmed that women crafted its guitars during the war, and in an official company history, even reported it stopped producing instruments for those years.

Almost 70 years later, author and guitar aficionado John Thomas is finally telling their story.

He was intrigued by a wartime photo taken at the Gibson guitar factory in Michigan.  The 75 people in the black-and-white staff portrait are nearly all women. Irene Stearns, now age 90, spent several of the war years working at the factory.
Women Kept Gibson Guitar Playing During WWII
Women Kept Gibson Guitar Playing During WWII i
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

"I got out of high school and everybody is looking for a job, and there were no jobs," Stearns remembers. "Then one day, they called and I started at Gibson. I suppose it was because of the war."

Stearns is one of a dozen former Gibson factory workers Thomas tracked down in the Kalamazoo, Michigan area. She made guitar strings for some of the thousands of instruments the factory produced in the 1940s.

"All the celebrities and people who were buying the guitars would come," she says. "They would be on the other side of the wall from where I sat making strings. So, it was really nice in that part. I could hear them playing all these beautiful guitars."
Women workers inside the Gibson guitar factory during World War II. (Photo by Margaret Hart)Women workers inside the Gibson guitar factory during World War II. (Photo by Margaret Hart)

Thomas calls Stearns and her former co-workers the "Kalamazoo Gals," which is also the name of his new book about the female guitar makers. In it, he suggests the company kept them a secret because executives believed guitar buyers of the day would not embrace instruments built by women.

It dawned on Thomas that a musical recording would enhance his story. He collected three of the Word War II Gibson guitars and borrowed a dozen more. Then a mutual friend introduced him to professional musician Lauren Sheehan.

"Certainly I'm a champion for a story about women excelling at work that is traditionally a man's domain," Sheehan says. "When he said, 'I'm thinking about making this record and wouldn't it be cool if a woman played the guitar because since it's a women's story,' I thought, this gets better and better; this would be a great project. Then he invited me to do it, completely by surprise. We had known each other for about 20 minutes and he had never heard me play."

Sheehan and Thomas say it's easy to pick out the guitars from the era when women staffed one of the nation's premier instrument factories. The giveaway?  A decorative flourish on the headstock.

This banner logo appeared on the headstock of Gibson guitars only during World War II when women workers replaced the men who'd gone off to war. (VOA/T. Banse)This banner logo appeared on the headstock of Gibson guitars only during World War II when women workers replaced the men who'd gone off to war. (VOA/T. Banse)
"Right across the upper third of the guitar, there's a little golden banner that says, 'Only a Gibson is good enough,'" Sheehan says. "That banner is only on these World War II guitars, hence the name 'Banner' guitars. And then the banner disappears."

The banner disappeared after the men came home from war and took up their old jobs making Gibson guitars.

Thomas, who believed the temporary female workforce built more refined guitars, even though they had to deal with raw material shortages, had the vintage guitars x-rayed to support his claim.  

He says the state of the art technology measured all of a guitar's components, tops, backs, sides, as well as the internal bracing which reinforces the guitar.

He compared a group of the women-made guitars with groups of guitars made by their male predecessors and successors both before and after the war. The results showed the components of the women-made guitars were all measurable thinner, even for precisely the same models built just after the war by men.

In short, Thomas says, the women's work was more refined which was revealed in the tone of the instruments.

For the new CD that accompanies Thomas’ book, Sheehan played a dozen songs that would've been heard a lot during World War II, each tune on a different vintage Gibson "Banner."

After she finished the recording sessions, Sheehan purchased a restored vintage Gibson 'Banner' for herself, so she too could own a bit of America’s newly-revealed musical heritage.

You May Like

Multimedia US Defense Secretary: Iraqi Forces Lack 'Will to Fight'

Ash Carter criticizes Iraq's reaction to Islamic State; National Security Advisor Susan Rice echoed Carter's concerns in an interview on CBS More

Boko Haram Surrounds Havens With Land Mines

Chad and Cameroon say huge numbers of land mines planted by Boko Haram fighters along Cameroon's border with Nigeria are a danger to people, livestock and soldiers More

Women Peace Activists Cross Korean DMZ

Governments of Koreas give international delegation of women peace activists permission to pass through heavily fortified border, but some critics say symbolic crossing only benefits Pyongyang More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: rocker@64 from: california
March 16, 2013 9:45 AM
I have a 1932 Gibson round hole guitar with the logo 'only a gibson is good enough' !
In Response

by: Ross Costa from: california
March 16, 2013 3:01 PM
thanx chris...my grandmother gave me this guitar & told me she bought it in 1932...i have the sales slip somewhere...i also have a '32 gibson L7 which i am currently listing on ebay...if you are interested !
In Response

by: Chris from: Reno
March 16, 2013 11:05 AM
You have been misinformed about the guitar's age. The banner appeared only on WWII guitars--a fact you could easily research online: http://www.bannergibsons.com/

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”