rosie the riveter, meet laura the luthier

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JENNIFER BAUM | MAY 30, 2013

By day, John Thomas is a law professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law in Connecticut. But his hobbies outside of work mostly revolve around music and musical instruments: the guitar, to be exact.

It was an old photograph that caught Thomas’ attention, ultimately bringing him to Kalamazoo, Mich. to do some research that would lead to the writing of his new book, “Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s ‘Banner’ Guitars of WWII.”

The photo dates back to 1944 and depicts 70 women in front of the Gibson Guitar Company’s factory building in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Thomas, an old Gibson guitar fan, knew WWII-era Gibson guitars had a reputation of being the finest ever crafted. It made Thomas scratch his head. After all, men went out to fight the war, and it was men who were the craftsmen who built Gibson’s guitars, but the picture Thomas held in his hand was of women.

“I just wanted to know what this was about,” Thomas explained. He started researching Gibson during the war and found out that, officially, the company built no instruments during the war.

“Among the guitar aficionados, war-time Gibson guitars were grails,” Thomas said. He knew Gibson had shipping ledgers, so he kept trying to make a contact at Gibson who would let him see them, until finally he did.

“I spent three days photographing hundreds of shipping ledgers, and as it turned out, 24,000 guitars were sold and shipped during the war. At this point, I really wanted to find one of these women in the photograph, so I took out advertisements in newspapers in Kalamazoo and surrounding communities, asking for women who worked for Gibson during WWII,” he said.

Thomas ended up finding 12 of the women in the photograph. “I was excited but didn’t yet realize I had uncovered a tiny piece of unknown American history.”

The women ranged in age from about 82 to 97 years old.

“I asked them a question: what kind of training did you get? No training. I knew these guitars, even though they’ve been denied to exist, are really great guitars.” Thomas made the connection that these women had experience in sewing, needlepoint, crochet, knitting and so on. So, in January 1942, when the women walked through the doors, they already had developed superb fine-motor skills. “It was the best workforce Gibson had ever had.”

Thomas decided to put as many WWII-era Gibson guitars as possible to the test. Since he works at a university with a diagnostic imaging facility, it was a logical place to start.

“You can measure everything to the 2,000th,” Thomas explained. “I called them and said I’d like to x-ray guitars, then contacted people to find guitars made just before the war, during the war, and after. I was able to prove that the guitars made by women are slightly more refined. The tops, backs and sides are just a bit thinner, internal bracing is sculpted more smoothly, every component is sanded just a little more.”

From the start of 1942 until the end of 1945, Gibson put a tiny, gold “Only a Gibson is good enough” banner on the top of each guitar. That’s an easy way to distinguish the guitars made by women.

As Thomas continued working on the research for his book, the title, which is somewhat serendipitous, became clear. The song, “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” was the number one hit when the women started working at the factory. The book also has a companion CD that features 12 different songs, each recorded with a different WWII guitar.

On guitar making in general, Thomas noted that it is a skilled profession that requires a lot of care to create a long-lasting guitar.

“There are lots of people who tried to make good guitars and failed. It’s a happy accident. That’s one of the things that intrigued me about this story,” he said.

For more information, visit www.Kalamazoogals.com.

6 Responses to rosie the riveter, meet laura the luthier

  1. John Thomas says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for writing such a nice article about my book.

  2. David Greenberg says:

    Great find! And good that you dug into this while you could still find your ‘digital dozen’ still around. The take-away for me is that Gibson denied that instruments were made in the war years because of some presumed deficiency (which, ironically, turned out to be upside-down). I know in hindsight the prejudice seems ridiculous, but my impression is that other producers of the era did not suffer this particular mental illness. Or was Rosie the exception.

    • ArtServe Michigan says:

      Thank you for your comment David! This is a tale of irony and inspiration.

  3. cjo says:

    LOVED THE ARTICLE as a musician and a woman of 63 i still find it incomprehensible that there was discrimination against females would love to see a movie or play about this story and other related stories of women durng wwii p.s. i was music director for 1940s Radio Hour at our local playhouse

    • ArtServe Michigan says:

      Thank you for your comment CJO! We agree! A movie/play on such a topic would be great.

  4. John Thomas says:

    Thanks for the kind comments about my book’s topic. Please check out the audio clips to the companion CD here: http://kalamazoogals.com/the-cd/

    I’ll be certain to heed your advice about a film of stage adaptation.

    Thanks, again.

    John Thomas