Sometimes, the objects we find in storage surprise us.
Imagine this: the IMLS project team is working in the Collections Storage Building, selecting objects to be conserved as part of our grant-funded work. From the top level of pallet racking, about 15 feet above the ground, we remove some pallets of boxes and bring them down to ground level to unpack. We then climb the moveable stairs to take a peek at the area that we have exposed. The sight that greets us is confusing, but intriguing: a giant, golden-toned teapot, sitting in the center of the racking, far enough back that it was not visible from the ground. It was almost like revealing a magic lamp! We test-lifted it and realized that it was very light for its size, and must be hollow, so we carefully moved it off of the racking and to ground level
The giant teapot trade sign as we found it in the Collections Storage Building (after we had moved it down from the top shelf).
From the bracket that we found on the handle, it quickly became apparent that this was some sort of a trade sign, likely for a tea shop or coffee house. The body of the teapot occupies a space about three feet on every side – it would have been a very eye-catching sign! A little bit of research led us to some other interesting examples, including one that currently hangs above a Starbucks in Boston and is set up to blow steam out of its spout!
Our teapot has some mysteries, though – the golden paint has some texture to it, as if there were at one point a stripe along the widest part of the teapot’s body, with vertical stripes reaching from that stripe to the lid. Was the teapot originally painted a different color, or with a pattern? We did some minor tests to see if we could isolate different layers of paint, but we were not successful. We might decide in the future to do a more thorough analysis, but that would be after discussion with the curators. We also noted that our giant teapot does not have a hollow spout, and therefore, despite being hollow, probably never had the mechanism to blow steam in the same way as some others.
The giant teapot on the table in the lab - you can really get a sense of how large it is!
Ultimately, we don’t know a lot about where the giant teapot was originally used, or where it may be displayed in the future. We treated this object with nothing more than a simple cleaning – it was overall very stable to begin with, just dusty and dirty from being in storage. By minimizing treatment to the point of only stabilizing the object, we are leaving the option open for a future conservator to do more work while still ensuring that it’s going to be safe and sound in storage. It also allows us to treat more objects from storage as we progress through the grant. Maybe someday in the future we’ll see the giant teapot again, but for now it’s safe and sound in the Main Storage Building!
The giant teapot after treatment, ready to go back to storage. Louise Stewart Beck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.
Keystone Stereograph #149 “Harvesting Celery Blanched by Boards, in Michigan’s Famous Celery Fields, Kalamazoo, Mich. THF 145691
What comes to mind when you think of celery (Apium graveolens L. var. dulce)? The essential ingredient in chicken soup, an attractive tomato drink garnish, a low-calorie and healthy snack (with peanut butter added!), or all of the above? The low-calorie nutritious vegetable (in the same family – Apiaceae -- as the herb, parsley) can also lead you on a journey through local history, consumer demand, patent medicine promotion, and commodity chains that spanned the globe.
The ancient Greeks and Romans harvested seeds from wild celery, also called smallage (Apium graveolens L. var. secalinum). It grew best in temperate climates and in moist soils. The plant stalk and leaves had curative properties and seeds had a strong flavor and scent when dried and when processed into essential oil. Europeans included celery seed into tincture recipes in pharmacopeia and cultivated the crop in gardens by the mid-1600s. Over centuries plant-breeders created celery varieties with taller tastier stalks. Thus, celery shifted from a landrace (a plant evolving in a location over time) to a market garden crop by the mid-19th century. Celery growers in the Grand Rapids area helped make it an international commodity.
The Celery Fields near Grand Rapids, Michigan Agricultural stories start with land access (or lack thereof).
The introduction and expansion of celery cultivation in west central Michigan began in the decades following removal and confinement of indigenous people. Maps indicate the rapid changes that occurred as lands once tended by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi became the property of Euro-Americans.
John Farmer published this map in 1831 and marketed it as “The Emigrant’s Guide; or, Pocket Gazetteer of the Surveyed Part of Michigan.” It included “An improved map of the surveyed part of the Territory of Michigan.” THF136462
The wetlands that once sustained indigenous agriculture became a commodity that other entrepreneurs used to build a celery empire. The map that J. H. Young produced in 1835, “The Tourist’s Pocket Map of Michigan,” implies a leisurely pursuit, but instead, developing land into productive farms consumed time and money, and it required brute force. Yet, settlement equated to “progress” and economic growth in the expanding nation and in the territory of Michigan.
J. H. Young, “The Tourist’s Pocket Map of Michigan,” 1835. THF136466
Celery Entrepreneurs Different individuals, all migrants to the area, receive credit for launching the celery enterprise. George Taylor, a Scottish market gardener, reputedly introduced commercial celery growing in the United States when he settled in Kalamazoo in 1855.
Other individuals, all well-heeled citizens of the area received credit as celery pioneers. Joseph Dunkley, an immigrant from Somersetshire, England, established celery fields by 1866 north of Kalamazoo and began shipping his crop via rail in 1880 to eastern and southern markets. Glenn Douglass Stuart received most acclaim -- “Were the lovers of this esculent herb to have a voice he would be crowned what he is already, ‘The Celery King’.” Stuart arrived from Gowanda, New York, via Oberlin, Ohio, in 1883, and by 1892 his biography in the 1892 Portrait and Biographical Record claimed that his firm (based in celery) employed one-quarter of the Kalamazoo population.
Joseph Dunkley’s nursery business, Kalamazoo, Michigan, “Portrait and Biographical Record of Kalamazoo, Allegan andOttawa Counties” (1892), pg. 935.
Lands further west developed as celery fields later. Celery pioneer George Hudson introduced the crop to Grand Haven around 1878, according to the 1892 history of Ottawa, County, Michigan. Hudson immigrated from Devonshire, England, worked as a market gardener in New York, and a lumberman in Spring Lake before settling down to celery in the Grand Rapids area.
Advertisement of George Hudson, “Historical and Business Compendium of Ottawa County, Michigan” (1892), pg. 30; with information on Mr. Hudson (pgs. 192-193).
Laborers in the Fields While some immigrants received accolades for establishing the industry, other individuals received little recognition for the labor they performed. Families who migrated from The Netherlands did the bulk of the work turning wet soils into fertile celery fields between Kalamazoo and Hudsonville. Stereographs and postcards depict the intense physical labor that farm owners and laborers performed.
Keystone Stereograph #149 “Harvesting Celery Blanched by Boards, in Michigan’s Famous Celery Fields, Kalamazoo, Mich. THF145692
Growing Celery Before celery growing became concentrated in the area near Grand Rapids, market gardeners raised the spring vegetable and sold it directly to customers in public markets. The May 15, 1849 issue of The Michigan Farmer included growing directions from an English gardener. He advised planting the seeds in January in a greenhouse (and following with additional plantings in February and March to stagger harvests and meet market demand). Then growers should transplant the seedlings to the garden and protect the plant with a “hand glass.” Growers then earthed up the celery, setting the plants in trenches and hilling the soil around them to shield stalks and leaves from the sun. This reduced the acidic taste and stringiness of the stalks.
Such intensive cultivation practices yielded a crop that met the demand of wealthier customers seeking a spring tonic. A speaker explained the advantages of celery to members of the Kalamazoo Agricultural Society in 1850 -- celery was “peculiarly acceptable because it comes when our horticulture has no other fresh supplies to offer us.” The only other vegetables available at the time included potatoes, turnips, and cabbage. Such intensive
After Harvest Wealthier families displayed the fresh leafy celery stalks in glass vases like this one. The vase held chilled water that helped keep celery stalks fresh during formal dinners. Diners consumed the carefully cultivated stalks raw.
Heinz wagon with Celery Sauce advertising, circa 1879. THF 117121
Celery, the vegetable grown around Grand Rapids, attracted the attention of health food entrepreneurs like Dr. Vincent C. Price (1832-1914). He purchased Tryabita Celery Food Company in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1902 and operated it as Price Cereal Food Company. He also produced and marketed Dr. Price’s Wheat Flake Celery Food as essential for the health of vegetarians and the infirm.
Advertising Poster, "Dr. Price's Food, Nature's Food for Man, the Only Wheat Flake Celery Food," circa 1910. THF 96676
Celery growers in the Grand Rapids area helped establish the crop in Sanford, Florida, in 1895. Growers planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. By 1898 they started shipping their crop via refrigerated railcars to northern markets including Philadelphia and New York City. California growers also established celery fields from Kalamazoo stock by the late 1890s, but their harvest reached market during the fall, thus theoretically avoiding direct competition with other growing areas.
Celery did not appear on lists of common garden vegetables because creating a tasty crop required more work than most hobby gardeners wanted to commit to the crop. Thus, celery did not usually appear in photographs or graphic arts that depicted garden baskets laden with potatoes, beets, cabbage, turnips, and other vegetables. This poster from World War I proves an exception, featuring a schoolboy with a healthy bunch of celery in his basket (on the left side, between the onions and the beets).
World War I Poster, "Raised 'Em Myself in my U.S. School Garden," circa 1918. THF112810
As salads became a more common element of American dinners, fresh celery gained more visibility. This advertisement for Heinz vinegar (an essential salad-dressing ingredient) included a bunch of celery, along with another relatively new addition to American dinners, iceberg lettuce (behind the celery and the vinegar bottle).
Advertising Layout Drawing for Heinz Vinegar, 1924. THF292743
Celery reached consumers in packing crates. Storekeepers usually displayed the crop in the crate, as this image of J. F. Ryder’s Market in Maine, shows.
Grower cooperatives helped expand markets during the early 20th century. The Celery Growers of Michigan existed at least by 1935, the year that growers specified six standard packages for celery. This container was a "square" at the ends (8 inches by 8 inches) and it held celery bunches laid flat that were 10 inches to 18 inches in length.
This “square” packing crate likely came full of celery from the farm operated by Ralph Schut, a descendant of Dutch immigrants in Georgetown Township/Hudsonville, aka “Celery Center.”THF173353
Historically, celery was much more than a garnish in your favorite tomato-juice drink.
Heinz Tomato Juice Advertisement, “Talk About Your Aristocracy!,” circa 1935. THF252238
Why are there more tulips in Holland and the Grand Rapids area today than celery? Growers responded to disease affecting their crops and increased competition reducing their market dominant by concentrating their resources on horticulture. Many celery growers already had green houses and operated nurseries, so they diversified their production by adding bedding plants and flowers to their market crops.
Melville and Anna Bissell, husband and wife entrepreneurs, solved their own “sweeping” issues--then “swept” the market with their mechanical carpet sweeper.
Needed: A Better Way to Clean Housework has always been physically demanding and time-consuming--including keeping floors free of dust and dirt. For centuries, people used brooms to tidy their homes. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first mechanical breakthrough in sweeping would appear.
This trade card illustrates a more elaborately furnished--and more challenging to clean--home of the late 19th century. While brooms worked well enough on bare floors, they were much less effective at removing tracked-in dirt or coal dust from heating stoves that settled in carpets. THF208366
As house size grew and furnishings increased, people needed more effective methods of cleaning. Carpeting became very popular in middle- and upper middle-class homes during the last half of the 19th century--and it was more challenging to clean than bare floors. Going after dust and dirt with a broom on a carpeted floor wasn't terribly effective--it tended to just spread dust around. “Deep cleaning” one’s carpets was an elaborate process. Carpets had to be taken up once or twice a year, carried outside, and beaten with a carpet beater. The carpet then had to be reinstalled in the room.
Mechanical carpet sweepers made their debut in America during the mid-19th century. Carpet sweepers had a rotary brush connected to a pair of driving wheels. As the sweeper was pushed, the brush revolved, sweeping up and depositing dirt into a container that could be emptied easily. The United States Patent Office granted the first flurry of carpet sweeper patents in the late 1850s--five in 1858 and nine in 1859. Other patents would follow in the coming decades.
The fashionably dressed middle-class housewife in this circa 1880 Goshen Sweeper Company trade card “demonstrates” the company’s product. (She reminds me of June Cleaver from the 1950s television show, “Leave it to Beaver”-- who vacuumed while wearing high heels and pearls!) THF184126
Sweeping the Market Grand Rapids businessman and inventor Melville Bissell would design his own carpet sweeper in 1876.
Melville Bissell was a serial entrepreneur. In 1862, at the age of 19, Melville opened a grocery store with his father Alpheus in Kalamazoo, Michigan. By 1870, the Bissell family had moved to Grand Rapids where father and son operated a successful crockery and glassware store. Melville Bissell had married 19-year-old Anna Sutherland in 1865. Anna would prove to be an astute business partner.
The Bissells’ crockery and glassware stock arrived at their Grand Rapids store packed in sawdust or straw. Unpacking this merchandise before placing it on store shelves created a hard-to-clean-up mess-- sawdust and straw escaped the wooden crates and collected in carpet fibers. While the Bissells owned a mechanical carpet sweeper, they found it just wasn’t up to the task. Melville solved the annoying problem by developing a much better mechanical carpet sweeper and patenting it in 1876.
Anna Bissell quickly recognized this improved sweeper’s marketability--American housewives could keep their homes clean even more effectively, reducing the drudgery of housekeeping! She became the driving force of sales and marketing. The Bissells decided to distribute their product through houseware retailers, rather than door-to-door salesmen. Anna made many sales calls to stores in the Grand Rapids vicinity, succeeding in getting shopkeepers to purchase and display their carpet sweeper. Soon, hired workmen were turning out 30 sweepers a day on the second floor of the Bissell’s crockery shop to meet demand.
The left side of this circa 1880 Bissell trade card shows a vexed couple using a broom to clean their carpets. The right side depicts the couple--much happier now--using a Bissell carpet sweeper. (When holding the two-sided card up to the light, the entire message and images appear.)THF184124; T184125
An image of the Bissell company factory and a list of Bissell carpet sweeper products appear on this 1888 invoice. THF184432
In 1883, Melville Bissell organized a stock company with a paid-up capital of $150,000 and built a five-story factory for manufacturing their carpet sweepers. When the factory burned the following year, the Bissells mortgaged the family home and other property to finance its reconstruction. Soon, the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company was on its way to dominating the field as carpet sweepers grew increasingly popular in the 1880s.
It was essential to not only have a good product--but be adept at marketing it effectively to potential customers. This Bissell trade card lists the many advantages of Bissell carpet sweeper--making it unquestionably better than sweeping with a broom! THF213981
This "Christmas Bissellisms" advertising brochure suggests that a Bissell carpet sweeper would be a welcome Christmas gift for any woman. THF277410
Tragedy struck when Melville died of pneumonia in 1889 at the age of 45. Anna--now a widow with four children age 21, 7, 4 and 1--stepped in to lead the company. From the company’s beginning, Anna had been intimately involved in business affairs. Anna Bissell served as president of the Bissell company from 1889-1919--the first female CEO in the United States--and then as chair of the board from 1919-1934. She successfully managed the business, defending the company’s patents and marketing the sweepers throughout North America and Europe.
This circa 1891 Bissell carpet sweeper was sold by J.C. Black & Son at their store, The Fair, in San Jose, California.THF17277
By the 1890s, the company had an international presence and was producing 1000 sweepers per day. In addition to the company’s branch office in New York, the Bissell company established factories in London, Paris, and Toronto, with agencies in 22 foreign countries. A progressive employer, Anna Bissell was among the first business leaders of the time to provide her employees with pension plans and workers compensation.
Melville and Anna Bissell took a risk and thought big. They might have chosen to remain focused on their crockery business. But their collective vision for success went beyond. Bissell carpet sweepers would dominate the mechanical sweeper market, as people “bisselled” their way to cleaner carpets and rugs.
Bissell, Inc. is still a privately-owned, family-led company today, selling a wide range of home care products.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
What measures do you use to judge whether food is “healthy”? What connections do you see between healthy food and healthy communities? Today the concept of “food security” links nutritious food to individual and community health. This blog features historical resources in the collections of The Henry Ford that help us explore the meaning of “food security.” Many relate to the work of Black agricultural scientist George Washington Carver with Black farm families in and around Tuskegee, Alabama, between the 1890s and 1940s.
What Does "Food Security" Mean to You? A big meal often symbolizes food security. You can almost smell the roast goose (once preferred to turkey) and taste the fresh apples, oranges and bananas in this centerpiece on a family’s holiday table!
Family Seated at Dining Table for a Holiday Meal, circa 1945. THF98738
But does having a big meal on special occasions mean that a person, a family, or a community is “food secure”?
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) explains that a person is “food secure” if they have regular access to safe and nutritious food in amounts required for normal growth and development and in quantity and calories needed to maintain an active and healthy life.
Students at this South Carolina school all appear healthy. This implies that they have access to a quantity of nutritious food necessary for normal growth. It also implies that they consume it consistently which helped keep them healthy and better able to complete their schoolwork.
School Teacher and Her Students, Pinehurst Tea Plantation, Summerville, South Carolina, circa 1903. THF115900
Historically, many farm families raised much of the food they needed to survive, including meat, vegetables, grains, and fruit. The Mattox family farmed their own land, and they dedicated time and energy to tending their garden and raising their own beans and sweet corn (as pictured in this photograph). Being responsible for your own food supply required careful planning and hard work year-round because families had to grow, process, preserve, and then prepare and consume what they (and their livestock) ate. As long as everything went according to plan, and no disasters arose, a family might be food secure.
Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991. THF45319
Many factors led to food insecurity. This indenture for three orphaned children, William (7 yrs old), Dennis (5 yrs old) and Henry (18 months old), specified that they receive “a sufficiency of food.” What did “sufficiency” mean? Consuming calories might provide energy to work, but calories alone did not (and do not) ensure a healthy life. Furthermore, being unfree made these indentured children dependent on someone else who might have other ideas about what “sufficiency of food” meant.
Indenture for "...Colored Children Named William, Dennis & Henry," July 20, 1866. THF8563
Cotton and Food Insecurity Southern farm families often grew cotton as their cash crop. Farm families could not eat cotton though the seed yielded byproducts used in livestock feed, and oil that became a popular cooking ingredient. Landowners and tenant farmers could strategize how much cotton to grow, and could plant corn to feed their hogs, and could dedicate land for a garden. Yet, many families across the rural South, Black and white alike, farmed cotton, and they received a share of the crop they grew as payment for a year of labor. Owners expected these sharecroppers to focus their energy on the cash crop – cotton - and not spend valuable labor on raising their own food. Instead, families became even more economically insecure by buying inexpensive food on credit.
Many sharecroppers and agricultural laborers in the South lived on a diet of meat (pork), meal (cornmeal) and molasses (processed from either sugar cane or sorghum) – the 3M diet. While pork in its many forms (including lard sandwiches) and cornbread with molasses provided much needed calories, the 3M diet did not deliver nutrients needed to maintain health. Niacin deficiencies led to the debilitating disease, pellagra, which afflicted impoverished people across the South and beyond.
Trade Card for Silver Leaf Lard, Swift & Company, 1870-1900. THF225588
Inadequate supplies of food, and diets lacking in nutrients, undermined food security. Racism also undermined access to adequate foods. Graphic arts advertising southern staples often reinforced racist stereotypes rather than reality – that Black women often held positions of authority as Black cooks who prepared meals for others who could afford fresh foods and a varied and nutritious diet.
Advertising Poster, "Old Fashion Molasses," circa 1900. THF8044
Improving rural health required a revolution that reduced the dependency on cotton and increased the types of crops grown for market. George Washington Carver, the first Black American to hold an advanced degree in agricultural science, used his knowledge to try to convince farmers to improve soils to increase cotton yields, but to also raise additional crops such as sweet potatoes and peanuts.
George Washington Carver's Graduation Photo from Iowa State University, 1893. THF214111
George Washington Carver’s Work with Peanuts Many associate Carver with peanut butter, but his relationship to peanuts far exceeds peanut butter.
A man in Montreal, Canada, secured a U.S. Patent for peanut candy – a paste sweetened with sugar – in 1884. At that time George W. Carver had been living for five years in Kansas working as a cook and laborer. Between 1886 and 1888, after being refused entry into a college in Kansas, Carver homesteaded near Beeler, Kansas.
Alabama, the location of Tuskegee Institute, where Carver went to work in 1896, ranked fourth in peanut production in 1900 behind Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Farmers in these states raised most of the raw product that Northern food processors like H.J. Heinz dry roasted and ground into peanut butter. This Heinz peanut-butter packaging features a blond blue-eyed girl in a grain field holding lilacs. This did not accurately represent southern farm families raising the high-quality crop that Heinz depended on for its “choicest peanuts.”
Trade Card for H.J. Heinz Company, “Mama’s Favorites,” circa 1905. THF215296
As consumer demand for peanut butter increased, production increased. Nutritionists understood the value of peanuts and of peanut butter as an inexpensive source of plant-based protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. Farm families could eat their own home-grown peanuts but could also find a ready market for them.
Women grinding peanuts into peanut butter at Heinz. THF292973
Tuskegee, Alabama was located just north of the peanut-growing region of southeastern Alabama. Carver set about to convince Black landowning farmers in and around Tuskegee to take advantage of the market opportunity. Orchestrating a more complete overhaul of cotton-dependent Alabama agriculture required convincing white landowners to free sharecroppers from requirements to grow only cotton. Others sought a revolution in civil rights through legal means. Even though many criticized the self-help message, families who ate better could channel new-found energy toward securing civil rights and social justice.
Carver appealed to his constituents in writing. He linked concerns about health and nutrition to economic independence in his May 1917 pamphlet, “How to Grow the Peanut.”
Bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, 1917. THF213329
Carver described the peanut as having “limitless possibilities.” The “nuts possess a wider range of food values than other legumes.” THF213331
Carver described 105 ways to prepare the peanut – ground, boiled, roasted, and as a main ingredient in soups, salads, candy, and replacement for chicken, and other meats. THF213335
Crop Innovations Carver applied his life-long fascination with plants to identify crops in addition to the peanut that had the potential to displace cotton. He used this weeder to collect specimens. He studied their molecular composition, extracted byproducts, and devised new uses for them.
Weeder Used by George Washington Carver at Greenfield Village, 1942; Gift of Henry and Clara Ford. THF152234.
Carver promoted crops through short publications that stressed financial and food security.
Some crops occurred naturally, the wild plum, for instance, which landowning farmers might have on their property but that they undervalued as a food source.
Bulletin, “43 Ways to Save the Wild Plum Crop,” 1917. THF288049
During World War I, Carver promoted crops that Alabama farmers grew, but that could be processed into alternatives to wheat flour. THF290275
During the 1920s, Carver urged farmers to grow even more crops that they could eat, such as sweet potatoes.
How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes, 1925. THF37735
During the 1930s, as economic conditions worsened during the Great Depression, Carver published a pamphlet focused on growing the tomato, a vitamin- and mineral-rich food source.
Bulletin, “How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table,” 1936. THF288043
Carver, Food Byproducts, and Food Security Carver’s research into plant byproducts and new foods from farm crops caught the attention of Henry Ford.
Carver and Clara and Henry Ford corresponded about topics as practical as gravy made from soy and peanut flour, and as personal as digestive systems.
Letter from George Washington Carver to Clara Ford, March 19, 1940. THF213553
Henry Ford recognized Carver’s inspiration by naming the Nutrition Laboratory in his honor on 21 July 1942.
George Washington Carver and Edsel Ford at the Carver Nutrition Laboratory, Dearborn, Michigan, 1942. THF213823
Peanut Oil: A Byproducts Many Uses Carver explained that peanut oil (separated from peanut paste) was “one of the best-known vegetable oils.” You can see oil, sitting atop the peanut paste, if you look for “natural peanut butter” at your local grocery store. Food chemists experimented with how to prevent the oil from separating from the ground peanut paste. Preventing separation requires hydrogenation, which changes the chemical composition of unsaturated fats and turns them into saturated fats. Heinz drafted advertisements to promote the new hydrogenated peanut butter to consumers as this example indicates.
The varied uses of peanut oil that Carver promoted increased market opportunities for impoverished farmers which increased their food security. To that end, Carver experimented with peanut oil as a rub to relieve the discomfort that polio patients suffered. While science could not link the peanut oil itself to positive benefits, the process of messaging the oil into the patient reduced pain by manipulating the muscles.
Photographic print, Austin Curtis, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Wilbur Donaldson and Frank Campsall Inspect Bottles of Peanut Oil, Tuskegee Institute, March 1938. THF213794
Healthy Communities Building healthy communities started with individuals but grew through collective effort. Farm families, schools, businesses, church groups, and investors each committed resources to the cause. National intervention furthered local goals. The 1946 National School Lunch Act increased access to good food for all school children, not just those who could help themselves.
Photographic Print, Cafeteria at George Washington Carver School, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947. THF135671
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Alexander Girard’s Redesign of Braniff International
Braniff Airliner with "Jelly Bean" Orange Livery Designed by Alexander Girard, circa 1965//THF275594
Let’s set the scene: it’s the late 1960s, you need to book a flight, and you fancy yourself a stylish and forward-thinking consumer. Which airline do you choose? One airline in particular catered to just such a savvy passenger. Flying with Braniff International Airways in the late 1960s into the 1970s was a fashionable—and colorful—experience.
In 1965, Braniff International hired designer Alexander Girard to completely and comprehensively redesign its image and each step of the airline passenger’s experience. Girard was a trained architect who became one of those Modernist designers to try his hand at everything—textiles, furniture, objects, interiors, toys, graphics, and more. He was known for a humanistic approach to design. Departing from the white-walled minimalism of the earlier Modernists, Girard valued color, folk art, and designs that evoked joy and delight. In 1965, he was known primarily as the director of design for Herman Miller Furniture Company’s textile division, as well as for his encyclopedic 1960 design of La Fonda del Sol restaurant in New York City’s Time & Life Building. For La Fonda del Sol, Girard designed everything from the matchboxes to the menus, the dishware to the large-scale murals and sculptural objects.
Left: Set of Braniff International Airways Playing Cards, circa 1973//THF175414 Right: Braniff International Airways Bar Soap, 1965-1975//THF172360
Girard’s approach to the Braniff redesign was similar. Braniff named the campaign “The End of the Plain Plane.” It was an absolutely appropriate name, too—Girard implemented over 17,000 design changes in total. Girard wanted to “destroy the monotony” of the traditional airplane and instead, “do something to make the performance lively and interesting.” The exteriors of the airplanes were perhaps the most immediately obvious change. There were seven exterior paint colors: yellow, orange, turquoise, dark blue, light blue, ochre, and beige—each with a black nose, white wings, and white tail. Girard explained, “The idea was to make a plane like a great racing car—with the fuselage painted a solid color clearly expressing its shape.” The airplane interiors featured seven different coordinating color palates. Girard designed 56 new upholstery fabrics for the project, featuring solids combined with patterns of checks and stripes. Television ads for Braniff boasted, “you can fly with us seven times and never fly the same color twice…”
Undigitized textile samples by Girard for Braniff International Airways in The Henry Ford’s Collection.
The changes didn’t stop at the airplane’s paint scheme and upholstery. Girard designed a new logo, ticketing areas, and airport lounges which featured furniture designed by his friends and colleagues Charles and Ray Eames as well as new furniture that Girard himself designed. His new line was futuristic and colorful with contrasting upholstery, rounded edges, aluminum legs, and cantilevered arms. A plethora of small objects—soap packaging, blankets, playing cards, sugar packets, ticket holders, dishware, luggage tags, litter bags, and more—rounded out the comprehensive redesign.
Ottoman Footstool, 1966-1967, from The Girard Group Series//THF93606
To top it all off, Girard suggested the commission of Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci to create a line of uniforms for Braniff pilots and flight attendants. The futuristic space age-themed uniforms were colorful and included go-go boots and translucent plastic helmets. Braniff International’s new flying experience was no longer simply travel between two points, but instead it became an immersive journey. As one television advertisement concluded, “Braniff International announces the end of the plain plane. We won’t get you where you’re going any faster, but it’ll seem that way.”
Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.
Throughout its history, the Burroughs Corporation adhered to the founding principles of William S. Burroughs – to respond to the human problems of the times with relevant technologies. As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we had the opportunity to delve into the Burroughs Corporation Collection, which consists of machinery, photographs, publications, and marketing materials for the business equipment that Burroughs manufactured.
William Seward Burroughs – grandfather to the Beat Generation author sharing the same name – was a banker from Auburn, New York. He was also an inventor with an aptitude for mechanical design. Burroughs suffered from tuberculosis and moved his family to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1882 on the suggestion of his doctor, who thought the warmer climate would be better for his health. While there, Burroughs rented bench space from a local machine-shop owner, Joseph Boyer, and began designs on a machine that could ease the work of figuring and re-figuring mathematical calculation by hand – work that proved tedious for bankers and shopkeepers alike. In 1886, with a working machine complete, Burroughs formed the American Arithmometer Company with co-founders Thomas Metcalfe, RM Scruggs, and William R. Pye, to produce and market his machine.
The company’s first device was a simple addition and subtraction machine. Unfortunately, the machines didn’t work as well as planned. It was quickly discovered that accurate calculations required a specific amount of pressure to be applied to the handle. This was an unforeseen mechanical flaw that produced inaccurate calculations and caused bankers to lose faith in the machine, nearly causing the fledgling company’s failure. Burroughs was incredibly disappointed. In fact, he was in the process of quite literally throwing the machines out the window of his second-story workroom when he had the idea to use a dash-pot. A dash-pot is a mechanical device which resists motion – for instance, preventing heavy doors from slamming. This provided a uniform motion for the handle regardless of the force exerted upon it, regulating the mechanism.
With the handle problem solved, bankers renewed their trust in the machines and bought them with enthusiasm. In the first decade, the company grew in staff and sales, increasing their product line to four models by 1898. Unfortunately, William S. Burroughs died the same year, but his company was left in good hands. Under President Joseph Boyer, the company experienced significant growth. By 1904, the company had outgrown its St. Louis facility, moving operations to Detroit, Michigan, where a 70,000-square foot factory was built. In 1905, the company was renamed the Burroughs Adding Machine Company as a tribute to its late founder.
In the 1920s, the company continued to expand its operations, establishing worldwide sales in 60 countries and production in South America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. In the mid-1930s, recognizing the potential for additional advanced equipment, the company’s product line diversified to include over 450 models of manual and electric calculation devices, bookkeeping machines, and typewriters.
During World War II, Burroughs’ production was halted as the company collaborated with the National Defense Program to enter into military and war contracts. Its most influential contribution to the war effort was the development of the Norden bombsight in 1942. According to the Burroughs’ “History” booklet, this apparatus made “accurate, high-altitude bombing possible, and was considered by some military authorities as the single most significant device in shortening the war.” This same bombsight was used on the Enola Gay to accurately drop the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
Burroughs’ work throughout the war launched the company onto a different trajectory once military production was no longer required. Wartime needs had accelerated computer and electronics research, becoming a significant part of the company’s focus in the 1950s, along with defense, space research, banking, and business technology. In 1952, Burroughs built the core memory system for the ENIAC – the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer.
The 1950s were a time for diversification for Burroughs as the company acquired many other entities in order to expand its product capabilities. In 1953, to reflect its increasingly diverse product and service offerings, the company was renamed the Burroughs Corporation, and was recognized as a single outlet for a variety of business management products. One of the most significant acquisitions came in 1956, when Burroughs acquired ElectroData Corporation of Pasadena, California. This allowed Burroughs to further expand into the electronic computing market and led to the development of the B5000 series in 1961, which was celebrated as a groundbreaking scientific and business computer.
Successful collaboration during wartime prompted Burroughs Corporation to be awarded additional government and defense contracts throughout the 1960s. The company provided electronic computing solutions in the Navy’s POLARIS program, the Air Force’s SAGE, ALRI, ATLAS, and BUIC air defense networks, and the NORAD combat computing and data display system. According to the Burroughs’ “History” booklet, during the Cold War Burroughs computers were being “used to make split-second evaluations of threats to the North American continent using input from satellites and radar throughout the world.”
Burroughs also produced a transistorized guidance computer in 1957, which was used in the launch of Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – this same system was deployed in the 1960s to launch Mercury and Gemini space flights.
By the 1970s, Burroughs had emerged as a major player in the computer industry, but was still in the shadow of powerhouses like IBM. To further its influence and market potential, the company began thinking about office automation and information management in a holistic way, providing all scales of computers from mini- and micro-computers to networks and large modular systems – along with the software and peripherals (printers, communications systems, displays, and keyboards) to complement them.
Throughout the early 1980s, additional acquisitions were achieved in order to fill technology voids and strengthen areas targeted for future growth. The company also developed joint ventures to strengthen business relationships. Despite this growth, IBM continued to dominate the market as the unrivaled leader of the computer industry. Hoping to challenge IBM, Burroughs embarked on a substantial entrepreneurial undertaking with Sperry Corporation in 1986. Combining the market positions, talent, and resources of both corporations, the merger was meant to signal a new era of competition. What resulted was one of the largest mergers ever to occur in the computer industry, and the creation of the new entity in information technology, Unisys.
From the adding machine to office equipment to computers that helped to send people into space, the Burroughs Corporation was steadfast in its pursuit of the latest research and in its development of cutting-edge technology. To view additional items we’ve already digitized from our Burroughs Corporation Collection, check out our Digital Collections page!
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communications & Information Technology, for sharing her knowledge and resources to assist in the writing of this post.
A Look at Accessibility at The Henry Ford on the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act
Signage welcomes guests to a sensory-friendly day at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
July 26, 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This landmark civil rights law seeks to guarantee equal access for people with disabilities to all areas of public life, including employment, government programs and services, public accommodations, transportation, and communications. Its purpose is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
Before the ADA, museums in the United States had varying levels of experience with, and approaches to, accommodating people with disabilities. However, after the passage of the ADA, museums started more consistently planning, budgeting for, and implementing facility improvements and accommodations to enhance accessibility for people with a range of abilities. Additionally, and especially in more recent years, museums have also begun developing and implementing more specialized accessibility programming for a wide range of audiences, oftentimes doing so in ways that go beyond the legal obligations of the ADA. Though there have been great strides made for accessibility at museums across the country since the passage of the ADA, there is still much work to be done. This blog post focuses upon our work toward enhancing accessibility at The Henry Ford, particularly the strides that we had been making prior to closing for the COVID-19 pandemic and how our work has continued to evolve since that time.
A guest on a tactile tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation touches the Rosa Parks Bus.
At The Henry Ford, we are committed to providing the highest-quality visit for each and every guest to the extent that we are able to do so. Since the passage of the ADA, we have incorporated accessibility considerations and improvements in a wide range of ways, including: making facility improvements, such as the addition of ramps into several of the historic buildings in Greenfield Village; providing accommodations, such as sign language interpreters; and – more recently – developing more specialized accessibility programming. To help ensure that the work that we are doing is benefiting those for whom it is intended, we rely heavily upon the insights and expertise of people with disabilities and organizations serving people with disabilities.
A quiet zone set up during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village in 2019 included calming lighting and sensory toys/fidgets. Quiet zones such as this are designed for use by individuals with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder and their families.
The audiences that we serve through our accessibility offerings include people who: have limited mobility; are blind or have low vision; are deaf or hard of hearing; are on the autism spectrum; and are living with dementia and assisted by their care partners. Our offerings are both onsite (such as wheelchairs and motorized scooters, noise-canceling headphones and earplugs, and a resting room for anyone who needs a quiet space) and online (such as social narratives for people with autism and a Memory Walk for people living with dementia and their care partners to do together).
Participants to a program for people living with dementia and their care partners at The Henry Ford learn ragtime dance steps from Greenfield Village presenters.
We have also developed an extensive array of specialized accessibility programs. For example, we offer sensory-friendly events for individuals who are on the autism spectrum that include such offerings as designated quiet zones, sensory-friendly maps showing areas with loud sounds and bright lights, noise-canceling headphones and earplugs, and exclusive access times to some of our events and exhibits. We also have held tactile tours over the past few years for people who are blind or have low vision, with opportunities to touch artifacts and models of artifacts, and Deaf Days with presentations interpreted in American Sign Language. And, monthly for the past three years, we have collaborated with the Alzheimer’s Association on a program for individuals living with dementia and their care partners. With all of our offerings, we aim to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the same opportunities as everyone else.
The front cover of a map created for a Deaf Day at The Henry Ford, which included the locations of sign language-interpreted presentations.
Adding New Offerings During the Time of COVID-19 Prior to the closure of The Henry Ford due to COVID-19 in March, we had a full slate of accessibility programs and events planned for the year. Sadly, as time went on, each of our scheduled programs was delayed or canceled. It became uncertain what these programs would look like when we reopened, particularly upon checking in with some of our audiences and hearing their hesitation about visiting in person. However, true to the spirit of the ADA, we aimed to still find ways to provide opportunities for people with disabilities even if the ways in which we would be providing these opportunities were different than before.
This is where virtual programming comes in, as joining the trend of other museums across the country, we began planning virtual accessibility opportunities in addition to onsite offerings. Our first foray into virtual accessibility programming was a program designed for people living with dementia and their care partners – an audience whose age puts them in a high-risk category, yet also an audience for whom isolation is prevalent, with few opportunities for enrichment and engagement. This program, which was themed around comic books and superheroes and designed to coincide with our new temporary exhibit, Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes, featured a string quartet of Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians playing superhero music from their homes, which was synced together after being recorded separately. Though it was our first virtual accessibility program, the participants really enjoyed it. Moreover, virtual made the program even more accessible by allowing people to join from all over the country while also being safe and comfortable at their own homes. And, even though it was virtual, the conversation with and between participants was still quite lively.
Following the success of this program, we now have other virtual dementia programs planned. Additionally, we plan to start adding virtual accessibility offerings for other audiences as well, thus expanding upon our offerings and accessibility in ways that we could not have foreseen before COVID-19, but which – true to the original intentions of the ADA – will allow for people with disabilities to have the same access and opportunities as everyone else.
At the same time that we are continuing to plan this array of virtual programs, we are also enhancing our onsite accessibility through infrastructure improvements. For example, while The Henry Ford was closed from March to July, two new “companion care” restrooms were completed in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. These restrooms each have a height-adjustable adult changing table – the first time that we will have such an offering, in addition to a power-operated door for entry, toilet, sink, shelves, and a wide enough space for mobility devices such as wheelchairs and strollers to turn around. These restrooms have been in the works for a long time and we are excited to have them open and available for your next visit to The Henry Ford.
Signage outside of a new companion care restroom mentions that the restroom is equipped with an adult changing table.
Looking Ahead As we move ahead, we look forward to continuing to grow (and regrow) our accessibility offerings – both onsite and virtually – for all of our guests, while also ensuring that our offerings benefit those for whom they are intended. In doing so, we aim to stay true to the spirit of the ADA and the important foundation that it laid for guaranteeing equal access for people with disabilities. On this 30th anniversary of the ADA, we reflect upon that foundation, while also reaffirming our commitment to continuing to enhance accessibility for all of our guests, both now and into the future.
Caroline Braden is Accessibility Specialist at The Henry Ford.
Luther Burbank overcame nature’s limitations to create more than 800 plants the world had never seen.
Burbank experimented with plant reproduction to change the traits of plants. He considered himself a student in “Nature's school” and a lifelong learner. Through the power of observation, Burbank overcame the limits of nature to create new varieties of plants.
Luther Burbank’s plant hybridization experiments led him to develop a plumcot: a cross between the plum and the apricot. THF275310
Luther Burbank used methods like selective breeding, cross-pollination, and hybridization in his experiments. In one famous example, he crossed a plum and an apricot to create a brand-new fruit: the plumcot. In another, he created a cactus with no spikes!
Burbank’s plant creations brought him fame. He amazed more formally trained scientists, and crowds of people showed up at his experimental gardens. The media described Burbank as a “plant wizard,” but he rejected that label. He argued that anyone could do what he did.
An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Luther Burbank, Rachel Carson, and George Washington Carver.
Learn more about Burbank’s life and work in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit explores
Grafting – a technique Burbank used to clone fruit varieties
The process of creating the famous Russet Burbank potato
Tools used by Luther Burbank in his work
Burbank’s work tracing the origins of corn to an ancient wild grass
Brochure for Chicago Merchandise Mart Exhibit, "Herman Miller Modern for Your Home," 1935-1940 (THF229429)
West Michigan is known for its furniture. Furniture factories-turned-apartment or office buildings can be seen throughout Grand Rapids and its surroundings—some with company names like Baker Furniture, John Widdicomb Co., and Sligh Furniture still visible, painted on the brick exterior. While fewer in numbers today than in 1910, West Michigan still boasts numerous major furniture manufacturers. One of these, the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, is known around the world for its long history of producing high quality modern furniture—but the Herman Miller name was not always synonymous with “modern.”
A young man named Dirk Jan (D.J.) De Pree began working as a clerk at the Zeeland-based Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1909, after graduating from high school. It was a small company and De Pree excelled, partly due to his appetite for reading books about business, accounting, and efficiency. Just a decade after starting with the company, he was promoted to president. In 1923, De Pree convinced his father-in-law, Herman Miller, to go in with him to purchase the majority of the company’s shares. The furniture company was renamed the Herman Miller Furniture Company in honor of De Pree’s father-in-law’s contribution, although Miller was never involved in its operation. Renamed, rebranded, and under new ownership, D.J. De Pree pushed a new culture of quality and good design that, he hoped, would help the company stand out amongst a competitive and crowded West Michigan furniture industry.
Dressing Table, ca. 1933 (Object ID: 89.177.112), Image copyright: Herman Miller, Inc.
At the time, many West Michigan furniture companies were producing stylistically similar pieces that were essentially reproductions of historic forms, especially Colonial and European Revivals. Most of the manufacturers “designed” furniture by copying from books or authentic vintage furniture found in museums. The best designers were known to be the most faithful copyists. The Herman Miller Furniture Company manufactured primarily reproduction furniture until the early 1930s. Their furniture lines were typically very ornate and sold in large suites—and following in the footsteps of other West Michigan companies, Herman Miller released new lines with each quarterly furniture market, despite the undue pressure this placed upon them.
As the Great Depression crippled industry across America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Herman Miller Furniture Company struggled to survive. With bankruptcy on the horizon, D.J. De Pree reflected on the shortcomings of the furniture industry and issues within the company. A devoutly religious man, he also prayed. Whether by divine intervention or regular old coincidence, Gilbert Rohde—a young designer that would leave an indelible mark on the Herman Miller Furniture Company—walked into the company’s Grand Rapids showroom in July of 1930, bringing with him the message of Modernism.
The Herman Miller Furniture Company, Makers of Fine Furniture, Zeeland, Michigan, 1933 (Left: THF64292, Right: THF64290). Herman Miller continued to produce historic revival furniture, like the above Chippendale bedroom suite, even while embracing the more modern Gilbert Rohde lines, like the above No. 3321 Dining Room Group.
Born in New York City to German immigrants in 1894, Gilbert Rohde (born Gustav Rohde) showed aptitude for drawing at a young age—he claimed to have drawn an identifiable horse by the age of two-years-old! He was admitted to Stuyvesant High School in 1909, which was reserved for gifted young men. There, he designed covers for the school’s literary magazine, won drawing contents, and began to experiment with furniture design. While he had aspirations (and demonstrated aptitude) to become an architect, he began working as an illustrator and later, a commercial artist. He was successful in this venture for years and learned invaluable lessons about advertising and marketing which would help him—and his future clients—tremendously in the years to come. With determination to become a furniture designer, in 1927 Rohde departed on a months-long European tour of sites associated with the modern design movement. Among his stops, he visited the Bauhaus design school in Germany and the Parisian design studios that featured the modernist ideas exhibited in the breakthrough Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. Returning to the United States months later, he began designing furniture with a clear European modern influence and soon began to focus on designing mass-produced furniture for industry, namely for the Heywood-Wakefield Company of Massachusetts.
Dresser, 1933-1937 (THF156178). An early example of Rohde-designed furniture manufactured by Herman Miller, this dresser was designed for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair’s “Design for Living Home.” The house and its furniture garnered broad public acclaim, benefitting the budding Rohde and Herman Miller partnership.
By 1930, Rohde was looking for more clients. He visited the Herman Miller showroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan—at the end of a long day of denials by other manufacturers—and met D.J. De Pree. Rohde argued that modern furniture was the future and told him, “I know how people live and I know how they are going to live.” This confidence, despite few years of actual furniture design, convinced De Pree to give Rohde a chance at designing a line for Herman Miller. Further, Rohde was willing to work on a royalty arrangement with a small consultation fee instead of all cash up front. In combination with Herman Miller’s already-precarious financial situation, these factors helped to offset some of the risk in producing this forward-thinking furniture. Herman Miller began selling Rohde’s first design, an unadorned, modern bedroom suite in 1932, but still played it safe by continuing to sell historic revival lines alongside Rohde’s modern furniture. As design historian Ralph Caplan notes, in those early years, Herman Miller was “like a company unsure of what it wanted to be when it grew up.” But Rohde’s furniture sold. By the early 1940s, Rohde’s modern lines made up the vast majority of Herman Miller’s output.
Left: Coffee Table, 1940-1942 (THF35998), Right: Rohde Sideboard, 1941-1942 (THF83268). Gilbert Rohde admired the Surrealist Art Movement. In his early 1940s Paldao Group, the forms and materials pay homage to the work of the Surrealists—and were the first biomorphic forms used in furniture manufactured in the United States.
Tragically, Rohde’s tenure at Herman Miller was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1944, but his impact is lasting. Rohde’s emphasis on simplicity and functionality of design meant the materials and the manufacturing had to be of the highest quality—this honesty of design and emphasis on quality appealed to De Pree’s Christian values. It remains a hallmark of Herman Miller’s furniture to this day and undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of Rohde’s furniture sales. Sales of Rohde’s furniture did not slow the season after it was introduced, like many of the historic reproductions. The Laurel Line, Rohde’s first coordinated living, dining, and sleeping group, remained in production almost his entire tenure with Herman Miller. D.J. De Pree recounted that his lines often sold for 5-10 years instead of the 1-3 that was typical of the historic reproduction styles. Rohde’s design work for Herman Miller extended far beyond furniture and into advertising, catalogues, and showrooms, and he advised on the manufacture of his furniture too. This expansion of the designer’s role and the creative freedom allowed by D.J. De Pree came to define Herman Miller’s relationship with designers and then the company itself.
Rohde Modular Desk, 1934-1941 (THF159907). This Laurel Group desk was part of one of Rohde’s early—and most successful—lines for Herman Miller. It was part of a coordinated modular line, which meant that new pieces would be added regularly over years. This was in opposition to the new lines for each quarterly furniture market approach that D.J. De Pree counted as an “evil” of the furniture industry.
Cover and interior page from Catalog for Herman Miller Furniture, "20th Century Modern Furniture Designed by Gilbert Rohde," 1934 (left: THF229409, right: THF229411).Gilbert Rohde expanded the role of the designer during his tenure at Herman Miller. In this 1934 catalogue, he was educator as well as designer, explaining to the consumer that “Every age has had its modern furniture…When Queen Elizabeth furnished her castles, she did not order her craftsmen to imitate an Egyptian temple…”
Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree transformed the Herman Miller Furniture Company—from one manufacturing reproductions at the brink of bankruptcy, to one revolutionizing the world of modern furniture. George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard and countless others were able to make incredible leaps in the name of modernism, largely due to the culture and partnership developed by Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree. In George Nelson’s words, “we really stood on Rohde’s shoulders.”
Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.
Disneyland was created from a combination of Walt Disney’s innovative vision, the creative efforts and technical genius of the team he put together, and the deep emotional connection the park elicits with guests when they visit there. Walt Disney himself claimed, “There is nothing like it in the entire world. I know because I’ve looked. That’s why it can be great: because it will be unique.” Here’s the story of how Walt created Disneyland, the first true theme park.
Disneyland is much like Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida, but it’s smaller and more intimate. To me, it seems more “authentic.” It’s like you can almost feel the presence of Walt Disney everywhere because he had a personal hand in things.
Walt Disney posing the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1940. THF 109756
In creating Disneyland, Walt Disney challenged many rules of traditional amusement parks. We’ll see how. But first…since he insisted that everyone he met call him by his first name, that’s what we’ll do. From now on, I’ll be referring to him as Walt!
DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Do you know where Walt Disney’s inspiration for Main Street, USA, came from? ANSWER: Born in 1901, Walt loved the bustling Main Street of his boyhood home in Marceline, Missouri. Marceline later provided the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street, USA.
Map and guide, “Hollywood Movie Capital of the World,” circa 1942. THF 209523
After trying different animated film techniques in Kansas City, Walt left to seek his fortune in Hollywood.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Valentine, 1938. THF 335750
There, he made a name for himself with Mickey Mouse (1927) and—10 years later—the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White. Walt innately understood what appealed to the American public and later brought this to Disneyland.
Walt claimed the idea of Disneyland came to him while watching his two daughters ride the carousel in L.A.’s Griffith Park. There, he began to imagine a clean, safe, friendly place where parents and children could have fun together!
DISNEY INSIDER INFO: That carousel in Griffith Park was built in 1926 by the Spillman Engineering Company—a later name for the Herschell-Spillman Company, the company that made the carousel now in our own Greenfield Village in 1913! Here’s what ours looks like.
1958 Edsel Bermuda Station Wagon Advertisement, “Dramatic Edsel Styling is Here to Stay.” THF 124600
The decline of these older amusement parks ironically coincided with the rapid growth of suburbs, freeways, car ownership, and an unprecedented baby boom—a market primed for pleasure travel and family fun!
Young Girl Seated on a Carousel Horse, circa 1955. THF 105688
Some amusement parks added “kiddie” rides and, in some places, whole new “kiddie parks” appeared. But that’s not what Walt had in mind. Adults still sat back and watched their kids have all the fun.
Chicago Railroad Fair Official Guidebook, 1948. THF 285987
Walt’s vision for his family park also came from his lifelong love of steam railroads. In 1948, he and animator/fellow train buff Ward Kimball visited the Chicago Railroad Fair and had a ball. Check out the homage to old steam trains in this program.
After the Railroad Fair, Walt and Ward visited our own Greenfield Village, where they enjoyed the small-town atmosphere during a special tour. At the Tintype Studio, they had their portrait taken while dressed up as old-time railroad engineers.
Walt Disney and Artist Herb Ryman with illustration proposals for the Ford Pavilion, 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. THF 114467
DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Walt Disney used the word Imagineers to describe the people who helped him give shape to what would become Disneyland. What two words did he combine to create this new word?
ANSWER: Walt hand-picked a group of studio staff and other artists to help him create his new family park. He later referred to them as Imagineers—combining the words imagination and engineering. This image shows Walt with Herb Ryman—one of his favorite artists.
Postcard viewbook of Los Angeles, California. THF 7376
Walt continually looked for new ideas and inspiration for his park, including places around Los Angeles, like Knott’s Berry Farm, the Spanish colonial-style shops on Olvera Street, and the bustling Farmer’s Market—one of Walt’s favorite hangouts.
Times Square – Looking North – New York City, August 7, 1948. THF 8840
Walt also worried about how people got fatigued in large and crowded environments. So, he studied pathways, traffic flow, and entrances and exits at places like fairs, circuses, carnivals, national parks, museums, and even the streets of New York City.
Studying these led to Walt’s first break from traditional amusement parks: the single entrance. Amusement park operators argued this would create congestion, but Walt wanted visitors to experience a cohesive “story”—like walking through scenes of a movie.
Another new idea in Walt’s design was the central “hub,” that led to the park’s four realms, or lands, like spokes of a wheel. Walt felt that this oriented people and saved steps. Check out the circular hub in front of the castle on this map.
Disneyland cup & saucer set, 1955-1960. THF 150182
A third rule-challenging idea in Walt’s plan was the attractor, or “weenie” for each land—in other words, an eye-catching central feature that drew people toward a goal. The main attractor was, of course, Sleeping Beauty Castle.
To establish cohesive stories for each land, Walt insisted that the elements in them fit harmoniously together—from buildings to signs to trash cans. This idea—later called “theming”—was Walt’s greatest and most unique contribution.
DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Which came first, Disneyland the park, or Disneyland the TV show?
ANSWER: To build his park, Walt lacked one important thing—money! So, he took a risk on the new medium of TV. While most Hollywood moviemakers saw TV as a fad or as the competition, Walt saw it as “my way of going direct to the public.” Disneyland the TV show premiered October 27, 1954—with weekly features relating to one of the four lands and glimpses of Disneyland the park being built.
Disneyland, the park, opened July 17, 1955, to special guests and the media. So many things went wrong that day that it came to be called “Black Sunday.” But Walt was determined to fix the glitches and soon turned things around.
Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom guidebook, 1988. THF 134722
Today, themed environments from theme parks to restaurants to retail stores owe a debt to Walt Disney. Sadly, Walt Disney passed away in 1966. It was his brother Roy who made Walt Disney World in Florida a reality, beginning with Magic Kingdom in 1971.
Torch Lake steam locomotive pulling passenger cars in Greenfield Village, August 1972. THF 112228
DISNEY INSIDER INFO:In an ironic twist, a steam railroad was added to the perimeter of Greenfield Village for the first time during a late 1960s expansion—an attempt to be more like Disneyland!
Marty Sklar speaking at symposium for “Behind the Magic” at Henry Ford Museum, November 11, 1995. THF 12415
In 2005, The Henry Ford celebrated Disneyland’s 50th anniversary with a special exhibit, “Behind the Magic: 50 Years of Disneyland.” The amazing and talented Marty Sklar, then head of Walt Disney Imagineering, made that possible.
DISNEY INSIDER INFO: Check out this blog post I wrote to honor Marty’s memory when he passed away in 2017.
During these unprecedented times, Disneyland has begun its phased reopening. When you feel safe and comfortable going there, I suggest adding it to your must-visit (or must-return) list. When you're there, you can look around for Walt Disney's influences, just like I do.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.