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Kalamazoo Gals: Gibson produced banjos, guitars, mandolins during WWII

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Jul 28, 2021 - 3:23:23 AM
2670 posts since 12/31/2005

Don't know if anyone has read this book.  I'll have to pull my copy of Spann, but I don't remember hearing of banjos being produced during the war, but the "hidden" nature of this history is the point of the book.  Apparently, Gibson official history only discusses the war time usage of its plant for military purposes.  At 6:50 of this podcast, the book's author claims he has copies of shipping records, showing 25,000 guitars, mandolins, and banjos were shipped.  He advertised and got witnesses in the form of the women who did the work.  Unfortunately, that part of the podcast focuses on guitars.  Interesting stuff:  https://omny.fm/shows/the-atlas-obscura-podcast/the-kalamazoo-gals-of-the-old-gibson-guitar-factor

Edited by - Brian Murphy on 07/28/2021 03:35:06

Jul 28, 2021 - 4:27:46 AM
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2867 posts since 12/4/2009

Hello,

That was pretty cool. Maybe, the information collected for John Thompson’s analysis would be a treasure trove of banjo models produced and shipped. Reviewing 4000+ images would be daunting in of itself. I find that the ledgers existed pretty cool. But, the unnamed Gibson Executive may not be around anymore. Takeovers and the flood leaves little hope this information is still available. Digital images could be scanned from the photos. Then they could be searched.

Jul 28, 2021 - 5:44:23 AM
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302 posts since 8/11/2007

My understanding is that the United States had a very healthy black market throughout the 2nd World War. 

One Army Air Corps veteran I knew told me that by 1944 the U.S. was "back to business as usual" in a way that surprised soldiers visiting home on leave. Rationing was still enforced, but this was done more out of decorum than necessity. 

I think this may explain some of the myriad bogus names stenciled on pegheads during the 1940s--they had to get around the restrictions.

Jul 28, 2021 - 7:12:09 AM

3920 posts since 5/29/2011

I would love to read that book. I wonder if it is available anywhere besides Amazon?

Jul 28, 2021 - 7:47:28 AM

2203 posts since 1/4/2009

There are certainly war era guitars , I have a friend who's grand
Mother worked at the Gibson plant and he has a guitar she worked on during the war. My understanding is that the manufacturing was devoted to war production but the finishing department still shipped the occasional instrument from the stock of non finished and parts they had on hand. It would make sense to me that guitars and mandolins would be made but banjos I doubt since metal was in demand for war efforts more than tonewoods etc.

Jul 28, 2021 - 8:38:44 AM

524 posts since 2/21/2005

I would guess that Gibson had sufficient metal and wood banjo parts already in stock to assemble and ship out a banjo during the war with less effort than it would take to assemble a guitar or mandolin.

Jul 28, 2021 - 8:49:03 AM

2203 posts since 1/4/2009

quote:
Originally posted by Bronx banjo

I would guess that Gibson had sufficient metal and wood banjo parts already in stock to assemble and ship out a banjo during the war with less effort than it would take to assemble a guitar or mandolin.


A lot off metal was melted and reused for other parts. The tone rings have a large copper content so I'm guess if they had them in Bulk they would have been melted down. I don't know about the pot metal parts. Also the banjos popularity by the start of ww2 had died off so i doubt there was much demand for banjos to leave the factory in any large number. The fact that there are many examples of tracable ww2 era Gibson guitars and few to no Gibson banjos from the era says a lot too. I know many dream of there

being this lost era of Gibson banjos in the hopes they might find one.. but I think that it's pipe dream.

Jul 28, 2021 - 9:47:38 AM
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2867 posts since 12/4/2009

Hello,

The replies seem to suggest that new revelations are rubbish. John Thompson’s work was substantiated by his photography of 4000 pages. True, the focus was on guitars. His ownership and interviews of former worker owners backs his claim of guitars.

Maybe we should invite him to identify which ledgers had specific models. If anything, they might have been orders just before the conflict escalated to full war. Dates would be helpful also.

A nameless Gibson Executive has the goods about Gibson. Gibson, as we knew it, is gone. 4000 pictures are nothing to sneeze at.

Jul 28, 2021 - 9:58:26 AM

2670 posts since 12/31/2005

Found this site devoted to the book:  http://kalamazoogals.com/ I am going to reach out to him to see if he will join and discuss.

Edited by - Brian Murphy on 07/28/2021 10:01:37

Jul 28, 2021 - 10:00:27 AM
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2670 posts since 12/31/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Culloden

I would love to read that book. I wonder if it is available anywhere besides Amazon?


https://www.americanhistorypress.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1&products_id=26

Jul 28, 2021 - 10:24:55 AM

rcc56

USA

3706 posts since 2/20/2016

Gibson did indeed ship banjos during WWII. Most were lower end models. If you look up wartime factory order numbers in Spann's, you will see quite a few batches of non-Mastertone models, mostly style 00 and style 11. As the factory order numbers get into the higher ranges, the number of banjo batches decreases. We do see a few batches of Mastertone models during this period; most of these are styles 7 and 75. We do not know the number of instruments included in these batches, but we do know that if an order for a low demand instrument came through, a batch might consist of only one or two instruments.

We know from observing guitars made during this period that there were materials shortages. In 1943, metal parts were in short supply, and guitars were being shipped with tuners with riveted shafts, no tuner bushings, and no truss rods. We also see substitutions in the woods that were used for making the instruments. As an example, many flat top guitars were shipped with necks that were roughed out for archtop guitars.

The environment at the plant during this time is pretty clear. Instruments were built with whatever materials were available. The number of instrument models was limited. In-stock parts meant for one type of instrument were sometimes re-purposed for use on instruments of a different type.

As far as banjos were concerned, the public demand for banjos had already shrunk dramatically well before the entrance of the US into the war. Were there unused parts on hand?  At the beginning of the war, there were probably quite a lot.  Were new metal parts easily available midway through the war? No.  Is there any credible evidence that many banjo parts were left in stock after the war?  No.

But war or no war, Gibson would have devoted most of their effort and resources into building guitars, because the demand for guitars was high and the demand for banjos was low. The possibility of large numbers of undiscovered Mastertone banjos springing into existence is virtually nil.

Edited by - rcc56 on 07/28/2021 10:36:36

Jul 28, 2021 - 11:40:28 AM
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JT1

USA

8 posts since 7/28/2021

Hello, all!

Thanks for caring about the story of the Kalamazoo Gals. And thanks, Brian Murphy, for alerting me to this thread.

John

Jul 28, 2021 - 12:23:59 PM

2670 posts since 12/31/2005

Thanks for joining, John, and welcome to the Hangout.   Can you give us at least some highlights regarding what you learned about banjo production during this time?

Edited by - Brian Murphy on 07/28/2021 12:24:28

Jul 28, 2021 - 1:58:08 PM
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JT1

USA

8 posts since 7/28/2021

Hi Brian,

Unfortunately, I was focused on guitars when I interviewed the women. Only one still survives--she turns 100 in January! (and, yes, I'm working on organizing an event in Kalamazoo). She was a string maker and doesn't know much about instrument making.

One thing that I can confirm is that the "floor sweep" model was a real thing. One of the Gals told me that she worked in repairs. When times were slow in her department, her instructions were to wander the factory looking for enough parts to assemble into a complete instrument.

Jul 28, 2021 - 3:34:39 PM

358 posts since 10/8/2018

quote:
Originally posted by JT1

Hi Brian,

Unfortunately, I was focused on guitars when I interviewed the women. Only one still survives--she turns 100 in January! (and, yes, I'm working on organizing an event in Kalamazoo). She was a string maker and doesn't know much about instrument making.

One thing that I can confirm is that the "floor sweep" model was a real thing. One of the Gals told me that she worked in repairs. When times were slow in her department, her instructions were to wander the factory looking for enough parts to assemble into a complete instrument.


I have a 1941 gibson L-30 which is an arch top, but seems to have been made during this time, though it is certainly not a "banner" guitar. Since learning of these wonderful ladies I've often wondered if my guitar could have been made by them. Mine has the 2 digit sequence number written in red pencil next to the fon number which, from what I have learned, was only used during WWII.

Jul 28, 2021 - 4:32:38 PM

rcc56

USA

3706 posts since 2/20/2016

Willie, I'm afraid someone gave you incorrect information about sequence numbers in red pencil. The practice was not exclusive to WWII. They are seen in instruments made from at least the mid 1930's through the 1940's. But to complicate matters, red pencil numbers are not visible on all instruments during a given period. Sometimes they were not used, and sometimes they are faded or unreadable.  If anything, they are more commonly seen in '30's instruments than in '40's instruments.  I don't remember for sure whether red pencil numbers might have still been in use on some instruments made in the 1950's.

L-30's were in production from 1935 until approximately 1943.

Starting in 1935, some, but not all instruments have a letter in the factory order number, beginning with "A" in 1935, "B" in 1936, and ending up with "E" in 1939. The use of the letters F,G, and H was inconsistent, and while those letters indicate a build in the early 1940's, they do not necessarily indicate a specific year.

A reverse lettering system appears in the 1950's, beginning with "Z" in 1952 and ending up with "Q" in 1961.

I'm tickled to hear that the old stringmaker is still with us.  I've heard her interview, and she is quite a woman.

Edited by - rcc56 on 07/28/2021 16:44:38

Jul 28, 2021 - 4:47:01 PM

JT1

USA

8 posts since 7/28/2021

quote:
Originally posted by rcc56

Willie, I'm afraid someone gave you incorrect information about sequence numbers in red pencil. The practice was not exclusive to WWII. It is seen in instruments made from at least the mid 1930's through the 1940's. I don't remember for sure whether red pencil numbers might have still been in use on some instruments made in the 1950's. To complicate matters, red pencil numbers are not visible on all instruments during a given period. Sometimes they are faded or unreadable, sometimes they were never there to start with.

L-30's were in production from 1935 until approximately 1943.

Starting in 1935, some, but not all instruments have a letter in the factory order number, beginning with "A" in 1935, "B" in 1936, and ending up with "E" in 1939. The use of the letters F,G, and H was inconsistent, and while those letters indicate a build in the early 1940's, they do not necessarily indicate a specific year.

A reverse lettering system appears in the 1950's, beginning with "Z" in 1952 and ending up with "Q" in 1961.


This.

The penciled-in number represents the place of your guitar in a batch. For example, my LG-2 has FON number 7080H-2, with the 2 being in red pencil. So, it's batch 7080H, second guitar in that batch.

Our Banner registry ("our" in that it was my idea, but vintage guitar expert Willi Henkes has done all of the heavy lifting) concurs with the accepted notion that the "H" indicates 1942. But I know from the original owner's wife that the original owner purchased the guitar in 1943 and I have tracked it through the ledgers to confirm that. So, those accepted dates may not be accurate; we have no independent confirmation of the accuracy of the dates ascribed to the letters.

Oh, and yes, the Gals did work on archtops like yours.

Jul 28, 2021 - 6:32:22 PM
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2559 posts since 10/17/2013

quote:
Originally posted by JT1

Hi Brian,

Unfortunately, I was focused on guitars when I interviewed the women. Only one still survives--she turns 100 in January! (and, yes, I'm working on organizing an event in Kalamazoo). She was a string maker and doesn't know much about instrument making.

One thing that I can confirm is that the "floor sweep" model was a real thing. One of the Gals told me that she worked in repairs. When times were slow in her department, her instructions were to wander the factory looking for enough parts to assemble into a complete instrument.


My imagination is conjuring up an image of a slender woman in a denim skirt, going from bin to bin and rack to rack, searching for parts. 

This was undoubtedly in the pre-“my wife hates banjos” time period.

Jul 28, 2021 - 10:50:05 PM

358 posts since 10/8/2018

quote:
Originally posted by rcc56

Willie, I'm afraid someone gave you incorrect information about sequence numbers in red pencil. The practice was not exclusive to WWII. They are seen in instruments made from at least the mid 1930's through the 1940's. But to complicate matters, red pencil numbers are not visible on all instruments during a given period. Sometimes they were not used, and sometimes they are faded or unreadable.  If anything, they are more commonly seen in '30's instruments than in '40's instruments.  I don't remember for sure whether red pencil numbers might have still been in use on some instruments made in the 1950's.

L-30's were in production from 1935 until approximately 1943.

Starting in 1935, some, but not all instruments have a letter in the factory order number, beginning with "A" in 1935, "B" in 1936, and ending up with "E" in 1939. The use of the letters F,G, and H was inconsistent, and while those letters indicate a build in the early 1940's, they do not necessarily indicate a specific year.

A reverse lettering system appears in the 1950's, beginning with "Z" in 1952 and ending up with "Q" in 1961. 

I'm tickled to hear that the old stringmaker is still with us.  I've heard her interview, and she is quite a woman.


Thanks Bob for the information!  Mine FON is 5123G (then red pencil very clear) -39 , so I assumed it was late 1941 from what I had read. Dates sound about a easy to nail down as that of a Bucbee banjo!  LOL!   I do love my L-30! 

Jul 28, 2021 - 10:57:06 PM

358 posts since 10/8/2018

quote:
Originally posted by JT1
quote:
Originally posted by rcc56

Willie, I'm afraid someone gave you incorrect information about sequence numbers in red pencil. The practice was not exclusive to WWII. It is seen in instruments made from at least the mid 1930's through the 1940's. I don't remember for sure whether red pencil numbers might have still been in use on some instruments made in the 1950's. To complicate matters, red pencil numbers are not visible on all instruments during a given period. Sometimes they are faded or unreadable, sometimes they were never there to start with.

L-30's were in production from 1935 until approximately 1943.

Starting in 1935, some, but not all instruments have a letter in the factory order number, beginning with "A" in 1935, "B" in 1936, and ending up with "E" in 1939. The use of the letters F,G, and H was inconsistent, and while those letters indicate a build in the early 1940's, they do not necessarily indicate a specific year.

A reverse lettering system appears in the 1950's, beginning with "Z" in 1952 and ending up with "Q" in 1961.


This.

The penciled-in number represents the place of your guitar in a batch. For example, my LG-2 has FON number 7080H-2, with the 2 being in red pencil. So, it's batch 7080H, second guitar in that batch.

Our Banner registry ("our" in that it was my idea, but vintage guitar expert Willi Henkes has done all of the heavy lifting) concurs with the accepted notion that the "H" indicates 1942. But I know from the original owner's wife that the original owner purchased the guitar in 1943 and I have tracked it through the ledgers to confirm that. So, those accepted dates may not be accurate; we have no independent confirmation of the accuracy of the dates ascribed to the letters.

Oh, and yes, the Gals did work on archtops like yours.


Thanks so much for all of this information! I'm glad you took the initiative to locate all those wonderful women and interview them before they were all gone and we lost all that first person history!  Awesome! I will now imagine my L-30 arch top as having been put together by these lovely ladies! (Who could prove other wise??)

Jul 29, 2021 - 2:49:38 AM

JT1

USA

8 posts since 7/28/2021

quote:
Originally posted by okbluegrassbanjopicker
quote:
Originally posted by JT1

Hi Brian,

Unfortunately, I was focused on guitars when I interviewed the women. Only one still survives--she turns 100 in January! (and, yes, I'm working on organizing an event in Kalamazoo). She was a string maker and doesn't know much about instrument making.

One thing that I can confirm is that the "floor sweep" model was a real thing. One of the Gals told me that she worked in repairs. When times were slow in her department, her instructions were to wander the factory looking for enough parts to assemble into a complete instrument.


My imagination is conjuring up an image of a slender woman in a denim skirt, going from bin to bin and rack to rack, searching for parts. 

This was undoubtedly in the pre-“my wife hates banjos” time period.


There was a pre-"my wife hates banjos" time period?  :)

You've pictured her just about perfectly! What a thrill it was for me to have this little window into that time.

A couple of months ago I had the extraordinary opportunity to play some music in the old building (under renovation). I'm playing my 1944 SJ that the Gal reinspected. Mandolinist extraordinaire Scott Napier, who wrote the tune for the occasion, is playing a 1939 mandolin that did not ship until 1941,

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/podcast-the-kalamazoo-gals-of-the-old-gibson-guitar-factory

Jul 29, 2021 - 5:01:56 AM

2867 posts since 12/4/2009

Hello,

I thought the music of jazz hated banjo because it was too bright and cheery. Jazz and blues are somber and complex tones. 4 and 5 stringed instruments cannot reach the tones needed to meet jazz and blues music.

A different genre of music was needed to keep the banjo alive. Using small snippets from jazz and blues, Bluegrass or Blues-grass was defined by Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys in 1946. 7th cords and short pentatonic phrases defined Bluegrass. 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 timings were its musical constructs. 6/8 and beyond is done long after 1946. Still, the banjo is bright and cheery.

Maybe some wives “hated the banjo” because the radio was playing dance music. You can’t dance to Bluegrass.

Jul 29, 2021 - 5:16:44 AM

JT1

USA

8 posts since 7/28/2021

quote:
Originally posted by Aradobanjo

Hello,

I thought the music of jazz hated banjo because it was too bright and cheery. Jazz and blues are somber and complex tones. 4 and 5 stringed instruments cannot reach the tones needed to meet jazz and blues music.

A different genre of music was needed to keep the banjo alive. Using small snippets from jazz and blues, Bluegrass or Blues-grass was defined by Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys in 1946. 7th cords and short pentatonic phrases defined Bluegrass. 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 timings were its musical constructs. 6/8 and beyond is done long after 1946. Still, the banjo is bright and cheery.

Maybe some wives “hated the banjo” because the radio was playing dance music. You can’t dance to Bluegrass.


Good points!'

I'm simply envious of banjo players. I'm still struggling to be a mediocre guitar player! I'd love to add banjo to my repertoire!

Jul 29, 2021 - 7:37:54 AM

2867 posts since 12/4/2009

quote:
Originally posted by JT1
quote:
Originally posted by Aradobanjo

Hello,

I thought the music of jazz hated banjo because it was too bright and cheery. Jazz and blues are somber and complex tones. 4 and 5 stringed instruments cannot reach the tones needed to meet jazz and blues music.

A different genre of music was needed to keep the banjo alive. Using small snippets from jazz and blues, Bluegrass or Blues-grass was defined by Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys in 1946. 7th cords and short pentatonic phrases defined Bluegrass. 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 timings were its musical constructs. 6/8 and beyond is done long after 1946. Still, the banjo is bright and cheery.

Maybe some wives “hated the banjo” because the radio was playing dance music. You can’t dance to Bluegrass.


Good points!'

I'm simply envious of banjo players. I'm still struggling to be a mediocre guitar player! I'd love to add banjo to my repertoire!


Hello John,

Good news! You are nearly there. Don Reno played guitar first. He adapted his guitar playing to banjo which developed his own style of playing the banjo. I certainly enjoy his playing style. 

Jul 29, 2021 - 1:48:57 PM

62 posts since 5/8/2021

quote:
Originally posted by Aradobanjo

Hello,

I thought the music of jazz hated banjo because it was too bright and cheery. Jazz and blues are somber and complex tones. 4 and 5 stringed instruments cannot reach the tones needed to meet jazz and blues music.

A different genre of music was needed to keep the banjo alive. Using small snippets from jazz and blues, Bluegrass or Blues-grass was defined by Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys in 1946. 7th cords and short pentatonic phrases defined Bluegrass. 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 timings were its musical constructs. 6/8 and beyond is done long after 1946. Still, the banjo is bright and cheery.

Maybe some wives “hated the banjo” because the radio was playing dance music. You can’t dance to Bluegrass.


You do realize that there is a section of this website called Playing Advice: 4-string (Jazz, Blues, and Other Trad Styles)?

Before the guitar was amplified, the 4 string banjo was a regular member of the rhythm section in jazz groups. 

Jul 29, 2021 - 2:01:57 PM

JT1

USA

8 posts since 7/28/2021

quote:
Originally posted by Aradobanjo
quote:
Originally posted by JT1
quote:
Originally posted by Aradobanjo

Hello,

I thought the music of jazz hated banjo because it was too bright and cheery. Jazz and blues are somber and complex tones. 4 and 5 stringed instruments cannot reach the tones needed to meet jazz and blues music.

A different genre of music was needed to keep the banjo alive. Using small snippets from jazz and blues, Bluegrass or Blues-grass was defined by Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys in 1946. 7th cords and short pentatonic phrases defined Bluegrass. 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 timings were its musical constructs. 6/8 and beyond is done long after 1946. Still, the banjo is bright and cheery.

Maybe some wives “hated the banjo” because the radio was playing dance music. You can’t dance to Bluegrass.


Good points!'

I'm simply envious of banjo players. I'm still struggling to be a mediocre guitar player! I'd love to add banjo to my repertoire!


Hello John,

Good news! You are nearly there. Don Reno played guitar first. He adapted his guitar playing to banjo which developed his own style of playing the banjo. I certainly enjoy his playing style. 


Thanks! I love Don's playing.

I'm a fingerpicker who uses a thumbpick. The banjo shouldn't befuddle me as much as it does. But the thumb on that high string is a challenge for my head, largely because I've probably lost as many brain cells as hair follicles over the years.

A friend recently gave me a tenor banjo. Yep, I'm gonna fingerpick the thing. :)

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