A new book released in January, Kalamazoo Gals, ties together several threads of mid-20th century Americana, bound together by the women who kept the Gibson guitar factory staffed during World War II.
It was written by John Thomas, inspired by a photograph he discovered that showed several dozen women posed in front of the Gibson factory in Kalamzoo, MI. Like many others, he had believed that Gibson built no guitars during the war, something the company had long put forward as the official line, until shipping records from the time proved otherwise.
With so many young men away at war, and much of the Gibson plant given over to wartime production, the company hired local women to build guitars and turn out aircraft parts for the war effort.
Thomas is a law professor at Quinnipiac University in New York, a Field Editor and blogger for The Fretboard Journal, and a finger style guitarist. He spent five years trying to find these women from the photograph, and learn their stories. Advertisements were placed in newspapers in and around Kalamazoo, and he ultimately turned up 12 of these Kalamazoo gals who were willing to share their memories of working at Gibson.
The book includes large doses of historical detail about Gibson, starting with founder Orville Gibson’s birth in 1856, through to the WWII era that forms its primary storyline. Thomas’ research turned up records of at least 9,000 guitars shipped from Kalamazoo during the war, along with the remembrances of the women that built them for the book.
Most of these were what have come to be known as Gibson “banner” guitars, so called for the gold decal with the text “Only a Gibson is good enough” displayed in a banner on the headstock. It is the author’s contention that these banner decals began being used when the women came to work at Gibson, and were discontinued after the war when the men returned and most of the ladies gave up their jobs in the factory.
Kalamazoo Gals is available from major bookstores and online retailers. A web site is available with more information about the book, and its companion CD, online.