by William Van Vugt.
Everyone knows about Rosie the Riveter, the iconic woman immortalized in the famous Norman Rockwell painting. She’s taking a lunch break, her muscular arm holding a sandwich, her heavy steam-powered riveter resting on her lap, and her foot resting on a copy of Mein Kampf. You didn’t mess with Rosie, who represented the millions of women working the home front while so many men were overseas. Rosie the Riveter helped win the war, and she is justifiably famous. But have you ever heard of “Lucy the Luthier”? I didn’t think so. But you should.
A brief background: During World War II the famous Gibson guitar company of Kalamazoo, Michigan, like most companies, saw many of their workers go off to fight. In addition, Gibson proudly announced that they would completely re-tool their entire factory for war production, and they informed their dealers that they would take no orders for the duration of the war. Officially, Gibson would produce no more guitars while the world was at war. But there were back orders to fill, so Gibson quietly hired young women to do the job.
The new female workers were trained by a few retired luthiers, and soon there were about 70 women crafting acoustic guitars, even while Gibson stuck by its statement that they were not making any guitars. After all, they had declared their commitment to retool for the war; but more importantly, Gibson did not want word to get out that young women were making their guitars. Girls making the famous Gibson guitars? Outrageous! The quality would suffer and Gibson’s reputation would never recover. Better just to deny it, hope that the girl-made guitars would be forgotten, and wait for the men to return. Only men could craft the finest guitars.
Now comes the interesting bit: the guitars that the Gibson women — Lucy the Luthier — made during the war are widely acknowledged to be the best guitars that Gibson has ever produced. Lucy’s guitars are now legendary, in great demand, and consequently, very pricey, to say the least.
What happened? Recent interviews with the surviving Gibson women, now well into their 80s, reveal that they were experts in cross-stitching, sewing, and crocheting. Their extreme precision and sensitivity, and their smaller, more delicate fingers, enabled them to “feel the wood” more fully, carve the braces more finely, shape the soundboards to higher tolerances, and take the wood down to the most responsive specifications possible. By making everything more slowly, and carefully, the Gibson women made more refined and responsive guitars that brought out the full potential of the woods. Recent x-rays of Lucy’s guitars confirm their finer detail and construction: Lucy even carved the dovetail joints (which connect the body to the neck) with more precision and lightness, thus enhancing the sound and projection. Also, because of war restrictions on materials, Lucy had to improvise at times—substituting maple for Adirondack spruce, cutting the braces ever more carefully to reduce waste, and ingeniously coming up with other creative ideas.
But there was something else at play: Lucy knew she was part of something far bigger than crafting guitars. While the war raged without a certain outcome, civilization itself was hanging in the balance. Lucy was doing her part, rising to the occasion, and in a sense pouring her soul into her guitars. Today, guitar connoisseurs agree that a truly special quality and magic came out of these women, and somehow made it into their guitars. The war brought out the best in Lucy, as it did for many other women working on the home front — including Rosie.
So, earlier this year I finally got one of Lucy’s guitars: a J45 made in early 1943. I managed to afford it by trading in my 1946 Gibson J45 — a great guitar made by men right after the war, but not as great as Lucy’s — and pooling other resources. It was worth every penny. Lucy’s guitars are indeed special: they have a dark, deep, dry, and clear “woody” tone that sparkles and can cut through any ensemble. They actually engage the player by thumping the ribcage. They are so sensitive and responsive that, when you sneeze, they literally pick up the vibration from across the room and respond by gently ringing their strings. Lucy raised the level of the craft of guitar making in every way.
In a sense, Lucy the Luthier actually does Rosie the Riveter one better (not that we’re keeping score). Rosie could indeed rivet as well as any man. But Lucy, she upped the ante. She raised the game and no one has yet been able to surpass her. Many luthiers, and even Gibson itself (now run by a bunch of talented guys in Bozeman, Montana) have dissected Lucy’s guitars and analyzed them with computers in an attempt to duplicate them. They just can’t do it.
The sound and feel of the guitar that Lucy made for me is magical. Every time I pick it up, I thank the Gibson women who defied the assumption of their inherent inferiority, and who put their very selves into my fantastic instrument. I am also reminded of the fact that prejudice of any kind is not only wrong but just plain stupid.
You can find out more about Lucy the Luthier in Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII by John Thomas (American History Press, 2013).
And no, the guitar is not for sale.
William Van Vugt is Professor of History at Calvin College, where he teaches courses in English and American history. The focus of his research is British immigration to the United States. He is recently exploring the migration of English music to the American frontier, and has produced a record of his own music, “The Veil of Time,” which is inspired by his research and travel in England.