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Kalamazoo Gals

 

Peabody’s wartime Gibson Banner LG-2 guitar

The 1944 female workforce at Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory

It seems likely that the guitar Peabody called 'My Little Baby' is a 1944 instrument, built largely with female hands at Gibson’s original factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

 

There had always been a few women employees prior to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, at 8am, Sunday December 7th, 1941. But as men were drafted for military service, Gibson was able to maintain guitar production from 1942 to 1945 by recruiting a mostly female workforce.

 

Alongside production of radar equipment and specialist parts for the US Navy, Gibson shipped 25,000 guitars made by the Kalamazoo Gals celebrated in John Thomas’ 2013 book of the same name.

Around two-thirds of these instruments did not carry the Gibson name, and were cheaper instruments sold under the Kalamazoo, Recording King, and other brands.

 

Six top-line Gibson-branded guitar models were made in the years 1942 to 1945, all carrying the gold scroll on the headstock reading 'Only a Gibson is good enough'. These were five flat-tops, the SJ (Southern Jumbo), J-45, LG-1, LG-2, LG-3, and one archtop, the J-50.

 

The 'banner' headstock scroll was first used in 1942, and withdrawn at the end of 1945. The Gibson official history sheds little light on the period, claiming that guitar production completely ceased during these years, and making no mention of the fact that at least 200 women employees worked at the plant at some point during the US years of military involvement in the Second World War.

The denial continues to this day, despite Thomas’ discovery of minutes of War Production Board meetings in which the general manager of the period, Guy Hart, states that 'the plant is now being run almost entirely by women'.

Gibson ledgers from the period, analysed by Thomas, indicate that 9,131 Banner guitars were produced during the period. In order of total output, these were the LG-2 (4,185), the J-45 (3,420), the SJ (1,114), J-50 (144), LG-1 (139), and the LG-3 (130).

Only A Gibson Is Good Enough

On average, around two dozen guitars were being produced in the factory each day, of which nearly two-thirds were the cheaper brands.

 

Wages for women on the shop floor were around $10 a week at the time, and in 1943, the cost of an LG-2 was $42.50 at the factory door, retailing at around $47.50.

 

Lower ranks in the US armed forces were earning around the same $10 per week, so an LG-2 cost more than a month’s pay for most men under arms, as well as the women making them.

 

Dating the actual production year of banner guitars is notoriously difficult. Gibson had a chaotic system for numbering instruments (apparently based on batch production of larger wooden parts), and arbitrary starting numbers for each batch. Many instruments, especially in 1943 and 1944, bear no numbers at all. Thomas was told by his elderly interviewees that wartime company buyers travelled

Looks like glue. 1944

across the US, scratching around for timber, glues, binding materials, steel parts, and plastics. Like all instrument-makers, the company was restricted in its total production figures (which Gibson appears not to have exceeded), and restrictions by weight of components of 'critical materials', including steel brass and tin. Some materials were utterly barred from use in products for civilian use, including copper, two types of plastic, and chemical compounds often used in glues, lacquers and paints.

As a result, and as confirmed by retired Kalamazoo Gals interviewed by Thomas in 2007/8, many of the guitars produced during the war deviated from specifications advertised in catalogues. Women were often sent to scrounge around 'the basement' of the Gibson works looking for substitute pieces of wood and component parts.

 

For at least a year from the summer of 1943, steel for truss-rods could not be found, and guitars were shipped with thicker necks and internal wooden bracing in the necks.

 

Peabody’s guitar has both a fatter neck than is usual on Gibson guitars, but also has a steel truss rod. It is probable therefore that it was made towards the end of 1944, when steel truss rods were reintroduced, but possibly inserted on the fatter necks produced to the previous year’s constraints.

 

The Gibson basement housed raw materials and benches for preparation of unfinished timber parts — neck, soundbox tops and backs, and racks to steam and bend the sides. Like most of the work on the guitars, even the wooden parts were hand-tooled. Gibson only acquired a machine router in 1945, after the company was bought out by CMI (Chicago Musical Instruments).

 

The basement was mostly manned by male workers (either past call-up age or unfit for service), but trimming, sanding, bracing, bridge, fretboard and headstock fabrication, inlaying, glueing and binding was carried out on the two floors above by women workers, who seem to have outnumbered male workers by at least four-to-one at the height of the war.

 

Gibson was also making steel strings at the time for both mandolins and guitars, with a dozen women winding and packaging. Jenny Snow recalled that she was able to coil, wrap and pack twenty gross of strings by hand each day, that’s 2880 strings a day over the eight hours from 7am to 3pm. That’s one string every ten seconds in a continuous eight-hour shift.

The company was named after Orville Gibson, who began making mandolins and violins in a small workshop in Kalamazoo in the 1890s.

It seems likely he was an accomplished amateur musician, and also that he had harboured ambitions to improve the design and construction primarily of mandolins, but also the violin and guitar. By the 1890s he had a workshop producing instruments, and is no longer described in census returns as a clerical worker.

Orville Gibson in the 1890s

Gibson patented a method for carving the neck and parts of the body for his mandolins from a single piece of wood. He insisted his system gave greater resonance to his instruments. It is reported that a famous violinist of his time praised one of his carved violins.

 

His instruments were sought after, and six investors, including a local instrument retailer, backed the formation of a company to increase production.

 

Sold the patent to investors, but seems to have had money problems already — whether as a spendthrift or because the sale of the patent was to meet prior debt. At one point he managed to buy shares as a non-boardmember, but sold them shortly afterwards.

 

The company eventually abandoned Gibson’s original method, but preserved his ambition to maximise resonance and playability through a range of new patents in bracing, fretting and fixings.

 

Gibson himself moved away from the area and back to New York state where he was born. He had several spells in hospital and eventually seems to have resided at a psychiatric hospital. By the time of his death, his census records describe his occupation as 'musician' rather than 'instrument maker'. It seems possible that he spent his last years entertaining fellow patients with his life-long musical ability.

 

The popularity of mandolins declined rapidly after the First World War, and the Gibson company switched its focus on the rising appetite for guitars.

 

Interviews conducted by Thomas suggest that many of the workforce had some musical talent, and that celebrities would drop by regularly. The work was hard, pay was only marginally better than unskilled labour, but women enjoyed each other’s company.

 

Thomas argues that women of the period were all fine seamstresses, and that their dexterity and precision carried over to their instrument-making.

 

But the puzzle of Gibson’s continuing refusal to discuss the role of their female employees during the war remains unresolved.

 

If Gibson never broke any regulations of the War Production Board, why should they be so bashful? Sadly, it seems that managers at the time did not want to admit that women made the banner series, despite the fact that they are considered among the very finest ever made. Or maybe, it is precisely because the banner series are so highly revered, the boys can’t accept that women make better luthiers.

Reference: John Thomas, Kalamazoo Gals, 2013

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