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June 2003

Anyone who has ever balanced a checkbook is unlikely to think of that collection of numbers as exciting or even interesting. But the century-old checkbook pictured here tells a tale of hopes, dreams, risks, near-disaster, and fabulous success. It is the first checkbook of the Ford Motor Company.

MORE: Ford Motor Company's First Check Book

In 1899 Henry Ford left the only steady job he had ever had as chief engineer of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company in Detroit to start an automobile company. By 1903 that first company had failed, and he had quit a second company in a dispute with his financial backers. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Ford convinced a new group of investors that there was money to be made manufacturing automobiles designed by Henry Ford. On June 16, 1903 those investors filed articles of incorporation for the Ford Motor Company. On June 22 one of the investors, James Couzens, began keeping the checkbook.

The layout of the book is a bit unfamiliar to modern check writers. On the right hand side of the book were the checks and their stubs, three to a page. Today, of course, the checks are gone and only the stubs remain. The left hand facing page was blank, and here Couzens recorded deposits and kept a running balance.

The new company had a total of twelve investors, and they were supposed to put up a total of $100,000. Henry Ford and his principal partner Alexander Malcomson put up no cash, but each got credit for $25,500 based on plans, machinery, patents, and other work they had already done. Of the other ten investors, only a few actually made their full investment in cash. Some put up part of the money and signed a note, or promise, to pay the rest. Others simply signed a note. Thus it was that the new company began with only $19,500 in its checking account.

click checkbook to enlarge Couzens then started paying bills. The first check was for $10,000 to reimburse Malcomson for money he had already paid the Dodge brothers, John and Horace. Their machine shop manufactured the engines, transmissions, and chassis of the new Ford, based on Henry's designs. The second check went to the Hartford Rubber Company for 64 tires at $10 each. Other checks went for blue prints, rent, postage stamps, and salaries. By July 10 the checking account balance was down to $223.65 and no cars had yet been sold. Henry Ford might well have wondered about his chosen career path. He was nearly forty years old, had a wife and child, had given up a secure job with a good future, had failed twice in the automobile business, and was on the verge of failing again. Then we literally turn a page of the checkbook and the whole picture changes.

click checkbook to enlarge

On July 11, Albert Strelow, one of the investors who had promised to pay but had never actually done so, finally sent his check for $5,000. We can only assume that Ford, or Couzens, or some of the other investors pressured him to come through and keep the enterprise going. Four days later a check arrived from the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank in Chicago, on behalf of Dr. E. Pfennig. He ordered a car and paid full price, $850. He was Ford Motor Company’s first customer. Then checks for $300 and $170 arrived, deposits for two more cars. The company was over the hump. The account balance began to rise, and by August 20, when the last check in the book was written the checking account contained $23,060.67.

Some of the investors who risked their money on two-time loser Ford were better rewarded than others. A few sold out early and made thousands. Others hung on longer and made millions. Couzens, who had the nerve-wracking job of watching the fledgling company’s daily cash flow, sold his stock to Henry Ford in 1919 for $29,308,857.90. His sister Rosetta, who had loaned him $100 (half her life savings) to help make his original investment, received $262,036.67.

Further Reading:

Nevins, Allan, Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1964.

Olson, Sidney, Young Henry Ford, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1963, 1997.

print version

-- Bob Casey, Curator of Transportation



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