Imagine the iconic wartime image of Rosie the Riveter-her hair up in a kerchief and a rolled-up sleeve displaying a muscular arm-except she is wielding a beautifully crafted guitar whose mysterious history would almost be lost to later generations of collectors and scholars.
John Thomas, author of Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson's "Banner" Guitars of World War II, calls her "Laura the Luthier", a name that speaks for the hundreds of women behind the Gibson walls who were building guitars during the war.
In January of 1942, a month into U.S. involvement in the war, factories turned their manufacturing capacity over to government war contracts. Rickenbacker in Santa Ana, California and Gretsch in Brooklyn, New York stopped instrument production entirely after, respectively, eleven and nine years of producing guitars.
In Nazareth, Pennsylvania, C.F. Martin & Co., the first guitar manufacturer in the U.S. in 1833, remained in production during the war and had four female employees at its modest North Street plant.
According to Kalamazoo Girls, while production was slim across the board, the guitar factory with the most female employees-over 200 between 1942 and 1946-was Gibson Guitar Corporation in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
These women were hired to make munitions, but they also clandestinely created the line of "Banner" guitars.
The Gibson Banner flattop acoustic guitars had a gold banner on the headstock with the slogan, "Only a Gibson is Good Enough." They were discontinued at the end of the war and only resurfaced as reproductions in the '90s.
The six original Banner flat top models are still highly sought after by collectors: the J-50, J-45 Jumbo, LG-2, LG-3, LG-1, and the SJ Southerner Jumbo.