Laura the Luthier kept Gibson strumming during WWII

Mar 17, 2013

During World War II, a popular song called "Rosie the Riveter" turned female assembly workers into icons.  Women filled in at places like the Boeing airplane factory in Seattle and the Kaiser shipyards in Portland while the men went off to war. 

But one famous guitar company allegedly tried to hide the fact that it was using female replacements to keep making its musical instruments. Now, seven decades later, a Portland guitarist is helping tell that story.

We’ve got to hop-scotch across the country to fully capture this story.  It starts in New Haven, Connecticut.  That's where author and self-described "guitar geek" John Thomas lives. 

He was intrigued by a wartime photo taken at the Gibson guitar factory in Michigan.  The 75 people in the black-and-white staff portrait are nearly all women. And there's the rub. 

The picture contradicts company lore that Thomas had heard: either the famous instrument producer stopped making guitars during World War II, or kept the line alive with just a few senior craftsmen.

In reality, production was humming with new hires like Irene Stearns, who is now 90.

The ‘Kalamazoo gals’ of Gibson

Inside the Gibson guitar factory during WWII.
Inside the Gibson guitar factory during WWII.
Credit Margaret Hart

“I got out of high school and everybody is looking for a job, and there were no jobs,” Stearns says. “Then one day, they called and I started at Gibson. I suppose it was because of the war.”

Stearns is one of a dozen former Gibson factory workers who Thomas tracked down in the Kalamazoo area of Michigan.  She made guitar strings in the factory for several years.

"All the celebrities and people who were buying the guitars would come. It was really nice in that part. Where I sat making strings, I could hear them playing all these beautiful guitars,” she says.

Thomas calls Stearns and her former co-workers the "Kalamazoo gals." That's also the name of his new book about the female guitar makers. He jokes Rosie the Riveter had a secret sister, “Laura the Luthier."

Finding a female guitarist to help tell the story

It dawned on the author that a musical recording would enhance his story. Thomas collected three of the WWII Gibson guitars and borrowed a dozen more.  Then he needed to find an accomplished guitarist to play them and sing.

That's when a mutual friend introduced him to Lauren Sheehan of Portland.  Sheehan says she was quickly smitten by the story.

"When he said, 'I'm thinking about making this record,' and wouldn't it be cool if a woman played the guitar because since it's a women's story, I thought, this gets better and better; this would be a great project,” she says.

“Then he invited me to do it, completely by surprise. We had known each other for about 20 minutes, and he had never heard me play.

"Certainly, I'm a champion for a story about women excelling at work that is traditionally a man's domain,” says Sheehan.

The sweet sound of ‘Banner’ guitars

This banner logo appeared on the headstock of Gibson guitars only during World War II when female luthiers replaced male craftsmen.
This banner logo appeared on the headstock of Gibson guitars only during World War II when female luthiers replaced male craftsmen.
Credit Tom Banse

Sheehan and Thomas say it's easy to pick out the guitars from the era when women staffed one of the nation's premier instrument factories. The giveaway: a decorative flourish on the headstock.

"Right across the upper third of the guitar, there's a little golden banner that says, 'Only a Gibson is good enough.'  That banner is only on these WWII guitars, hence the name 'Banner' guitars.  And then the banner disappears (when the boys come marching home),” says Sheehan.

Thomas had the vintage guitars X-rayed to support his claim that the temporary female workforce built more "refined" guitars, even though they had to deal with raw material shortages. 

Sheehan says the proof is in the sound. A 1943 Banner guitar, compared to a modern Collings guitar, has a brighter and sweeter sound, she says, adding the younger guitar, by contrast, has a louder and more resonant voice.

For the new CD, the Portland-based musician played a different vintage Gibson Banner on each of the dozen tracks.

"I arrive a couple of days before studio time and start meeting the instruments,” says Sheehan. "I guess it is a little bit like meeting a new person, really seeing what I have to work with here."

After she finished the recording sessions, Sheehan got word that a luthier in Beaverton had restored a vintage Gibson Banner (1943), and was willing to sell. Sheehan bought the instrument, and plans to play it at upcoming CD release concerts. 

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Watch Lauren Sheehan play Blind Boy Fuller’s “My Baby’s So Sweet” on a Gibson Banner guitar: