Quinnipiac University’s John Thomas has a full-time job as a law professor focusing on medical issues and a hobby and side career as a blues and ragtime guitarist. But he still felt something was missing in his life. “I was yearning for something different,” Thomas said.
He began doing free-lance writing for magazines such as Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar. He even got one small piece published in Rolling Stone.
About five years ago, while writing a piece on old wood instruments, he came upon a 1944 photo of the mostly female workers in front of the Michigan factory that made the legendary Gibson guitars. The image, Thomas said, “was sort of haunting.”
That photo led him to uncover a piece of World War II history that, apparently, no one had chronicled before. The project turned into a book called “Kalamazoo Gals: The Story of the Extraordinary Women, (and a Few Men), Who Built Gibson’s WWII Guitars.”
“I think this is the best story of my life,” Thomas said.
The book is coming out this fall. So is an accompanying CD, of music from the 1940s played on the Gibson guitars and introduced by the factory workers. “The instruments tell a big part of this story,” Thomas said.
The Gibson company was founded in 1902. It was in the forefront of innovation in acoustic guitars, especially in the big band era of the 1930s, and later pioneered some of the earliest electric models. It’s Les Paul model, named after a famous country and jazz musician, is one of the most iconic instruments of the rock era, played by legends including Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.
But Thomas’ tale begins well before that. During World War II, many American factories swittched from their regular products to making military supplies and weaponry. Official histories of Gibson state that the company turned out very few guitars during that period, but made other wood products for the war effort. Thomas now believes that’s not true. His research indicated that 9,000 “Banner Gibson” guitars, and a total of 25,000 instruments, were made during the war years.
And, Thomas, said, the guitars were made mostly by women.
Why did Gibson try to hide these facts? Patriotic issues aside, Thomas suspects that the company didn’t want it known that women were making the instruments (most male factory workers had gone to war) because if feared that musicians would doubt the craftmanship skills of the female workforce.
That is ironic because, Thomas claims, the women turned out an amazing product. He found this out by taking digital X-rays of a wide range of the company’s instruments. After examining guitars from 1930 through 1946, he concluded the guitars made during the war were the most refined.
First off, the bracing — the wooden struts that support the soundboard and affect the tone of the instrument — was thinner. “They were sanded more smoothly,” said Thomas. “From a scientific perspective they were demonstrably different. From a musical perspective and in my opinion, they were demonstrably better.”
When researching the book, Thomas wanted to talk to the craftswomen themselves. So he took ads out in newspapers in and around Kalamazoo. Eleven women responded. Thomas flew out to Michigan and hosted a tea, at which he spoke to most of the women. He met others at their homes.
“I asked them ‘what kind of training did you get?’” Thomas said. “They said ‘Just watched the women next to me.”’
One woman, who had been a guitar inspector, “reinspected a guitar I had in the car. You could tell she did something interesting,” said Thomas, who was a commercial litigator in Arizona before coming to Connecticut, where he worked in medical malpractice defense before becoming a law professor.
In general, said Thomas, the women were conflicted about their place in history. When he started interviewing, the would say, “‘Why me? I’m just a regular person.’” But it was evident that many had realized they were part of something significant. Some had saved mementoes from that part of their life, including newspaper clippings, old guitar strings and instrument-making tools.
Thomas said the project made history come alive for him. “It made me connect with my parents,” he said, adding that his parents endured wartime rationing of goods. At the time the guitars were made, they cost from $45 to $100. Today, Thomas estimates, they are worth between $3,000 to $30,000.
Thomas thinks the company’s stance on the war era guitars is softening.
Recently, he heard from Gibson company officials, who said that they would like to make a public appearance with him on his book tour. Thomas said if he is able to get the company to acknowledge that women did indeed make the guitars, he would be very happy. It would be important “for the company to recognize the work of those women,” he said.n