Ford Motor Company Checkbook, 1903

Summary

Ford Motor Company's first checkbook kept by Secretary James Couzens, shows the struggling company's transition. Their bank account started with $14,500 on June 26, 1903. It sunk to $223.65 by July 10 after 60 checks. Then on July 15, they sold their first car for $850. From then on, the balance kept increasing and the company was off and running.

Ford Motor Company's first checkbook kept by Secretary James Couzens, shows the struggling company's transition. Their bank account started with $14,500 on June 26, 1903. It sunk to $223.65 by July 10 after 60 checks. Then on July 15, they sold their first car for $850. From then on, the balance kept increasing and the company was off and running.

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

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 26 one of the investors [and Secretary of the Board of Directors], 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 $14,500 in its checking account on June 26, 1903.

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.

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.

 

Detailed Description
Artifact

Checkbook

Subject Date

26 June 1903-20 August 1903

Location

Not on exhibit to the public.

Object ID

64.167.120.2

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Material

Paper (Fiber product)

Color

Black-and-white (Colors)

Dimensions

Height: 8.438 in

Width: 5.625 in

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