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The Hidden History of Laura the Luthier

Illustration by artist Vivian Shih for She Shreds Magazine, 2015.

You’ve heard of Rosie the Riveter but what about Laura the Luthier? In addition to producing munitions during World War II, some women were also building guitars, the largest concentrated workforce among them being the over 200 who created the line of Gibson "Banner" guitars at the company’s original factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Known for their distinctive golden “banner” featured on the headstock with the slogan “Only a Gibson is Good Enough,” the singular craft and tone of these guitars has become legendary, making them some of the most sought-after Gibsons ever made.

Gibson’s “official” history states no musical instruments were built during this period, or at most, a handful by “seasoned craftsmen” who were “too old for war." This untruthful narrative written by the company's historian Julius Bellson in his 1973 self-published book “The Gibson Story” continues to be supported by Gibson today.

1944 staff photo in front of the original Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Working at the Kalamazoo factory in 1944. (Credit: Margaret Hart)

At a Gibson party (undated).

In 2012, John Thomas released his book "Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson's WWII 'Banner' Guitars," and brought to light a wartime secret that had been kept for 70 years, sharing his discovery that the company’s own records revealed that nearly 25,000 musical instruments (including over 9,000 “Banner Gibsons”) were constructed by these women between January 1942 and December 1945, keeping the company afloat during wartime. John refers to these hidden craftswomen as "Laura the Luthier" in the spirit of their patriotic dutifulness symbolized by the popular "sister" allegory, Rosie the Riveter.

The Gibson Guitar Corp. factory was built in 1917 and operated until 1984 when production was relocated to Nashville. Some of the longtime Gibson employees decided to continue their work at the historic factory in Kalamazoo and reopened it as Heritage Guitar, Inc. that same year, as it remains today. Ownership changed during the building’s centennial in 2017 and it is currently undergoing both restoration and rehabilitation with the aim of returning it to its original condition with select modernizations. John has spearheaded a campaign to get a plaque installed at the site to recognize the extraordinary contributions of the Kalamazoo Gals.

Stay tuned as I share updates in my next post from John who will be attending the Kalamazoo Fretboard Festival this weekend along with Irene Stearns, the last-surviving Kalamazoo Gal!

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