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

China May Be Biggest Winner From Ukraine Crisis

Missile sales, oil and gas shipments are among many areas that may drive Beijing and Moscow closer together in coming years More

Obama Faces Chaotic World, Limits of Power

Current foreign policy issues bring into focus challenges for US policymakers who are mindful of Americans' waning appetite for overseas military engagements More

SADC Meeting Lesotho Officials to Resolve Stalemate

Official says regional bloc has been engaged with leaders in Lesotho to resolve political disagreement that led to coup attempt 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.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Pianist Myra Melford’s new CD “Life Carries Me This Way” features solo piano interpretations of drawings by modern artist Don Reich. She performs songs from the album, talks about turning art into music, and joins host Eric Felten in some Chicago boogie-woogie on "Beyond Category."