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February 11, 2015 Archive Insight

Painting on Turtle Shell, Presented to Henry Ford, 1933.

Housed at The Henry Ford amidst many large and significant acquisitions is a small collection of quirky and one-of-a-kind items. Located mostly in storage, this group of artifacts is unofficially known as the Henry Ford Tributes. The objects range in size, materials and creation methods, but all have one thing in common – they were gifts given as tokens of gratitude and appreciation to a single man whose innovative ideas changed the lives of so many. Corporations, farm wives, Ford dealers, immigrants and civic institutions were all contributors to this eclectic group of gifts and commendations.

This collection has never been considered for a museum exhibit, but thanks to The Henry Ford’s digitization initiative, we were given the opportunity to highlight just a few in this unusual collection. For members of the Historical Resources team, this was a long-sought-after opportunity; many of us have our ‘favorites’, and as the project began in earnest, the suggestions came in at a rapid rate. It was hard to keep the online exhibit to just 76 objects!

Along with the objects themselves, many were accompanied by letters and other documentation whereby the senders attempted to express their feelings to the automotive leader. They were all addressed personally to Henry Ford. It is not known how many of these gifts he actually saw or acknowledged but the donors must have assumed that their gifts would be appreciated and admired in direct proportion to the effort and resourcefulness that had gone into creating them. Ford Bryant, in his book Henry’s Attic, wrote,

Henry’s announcement . . . that he was going to build his own museum – and the publicity surrounding that undertaking in the 1920’s – evidently triggered an emotional response in people from all walks of life all over the world who regarded Henry as an authentic American hero. Gifts of every kind poured into Dearborn from little hamlets in Michigan and from as far away as Foochow, China.

The pride with which these gifts were crafted was shown in the workmanship, especially the handmade gifts. Just a few excerpts from accompanying letters illustrate this:

The note that arrived with this painted turtle shell includes this statement: Probably my desire to put this thought [the progress of Ford] in paints was prompted by the warm spot I have in my heart for Ford’s product. I am a satisfied Ford user.”

A portrait of Henry Ford rendered in ceramic came with a presentation card, which translated, states, “That you may see how the Italian Artists know how to eternalize on clay the effigy of Those who leave as heritage to manhood an immense luminous path to progress.”


Sometimes these testimonials were incorporated into the objects themselves:

A small part of the inscription appearing on an elaborately carved walking stick states that this was “. . . presented to America’s foremost merchant and honored Citizen MR. HENRY FORD . . . as a token of high esteem and respect.” Incidentally, this was a popular gift for Henry Ford – he received approximately 100 of them.


A carved portrait of Henry Ford features an inscription, which translated, states, “To the great American industrialist in recognition and proof of manufacturing wherein workers do not strike.”


The inspiration for the title of this blog is found on upper right corner of this hand-embroidered pillow.


This wall hanging clearly states the maker’s opinion, “I’ve Tried Them All, But Give Me a Ford.”


Of course, not all gifts to Henry Ford were sent without any expectation of recompense. In the case of a hand carved mantel clock featuring an image of Henry Ford, the accession file shows several letters being exchanged between the donor and H.R. Waddell, Henry Ford’s personal assistant. As one goes through the correspondence, it turns out that creator of the clock was hoping that Mr. Ford would be so impressed with his woodworking capabilities, that he would find an opening for the Austrian wood carver in one of the North American Ford factories. The final reply from Mr. Waddell states with regret that there were no positions available, but that the gentleman’s name would be kept on file. In another instance, a Canadian woman created a beautiful rug with a Ford automobile as the subject and sent it to him hoping he would purchase it from her for five dollars. According to correspondence found in the accession file, the donor, a resident of Quebec, Canada, received the reply that there was no interest in the rug. She in turn replied that in addition to being very disappointed, she was too poor to afford the return postage, she advised that the rug be "thrown away”. On 22 September 1933 a letter was sent to the donor thanking her for the "gift" that would be placed in the museum’s collection.


But for the most part, these offerings were given freely and with great affection. To many, Henry Ford was a regular person just like they were, an Everyman, who sometimes possessed curious notions or acted foolishly or sometimes failed in his endeavors, but ultimately prevailed.

While handling these artifacts and reading their associated correspondence, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why?” What would compel someone to create these imaginative gifts? Just because they liked their Ford automobile or hoped to obtain one someday? The desire for employment? To become part of the Ford corporate family? In this day of the need for instant gratification when it comes to our use of electronics, transportation and communication, it can be difficult to fully understand what Henry Ford and his products meant to the general population in the beginning decades of the twentieth century. I think that perhaps the answer lies in Henry Ford’s ability to transform dreams into opportunities. To millions of people all over the world, Henry Ford represented freedom and success; freedom from financial worry, freedom to travel, freedom to learn. And a good idea can bring success to the innovator as well as those that benefit from an innovator’s visions.

To see all of our selected Henry Ford Tributes, you can find them at these sites:

  • Unique Gifts to an Industrial Leader
  • Likenesses of Henry Ford
  • Accolades to Henry Ford
  • Praising the Ford Automobile

    And stay tuned – in the coming months I will be highlighting some of these individual artifacts – the backstories are amazing!

    Patrice Fisher, Collections Specialist at The Henry Ford, is waiting to discover her next new “favorite” artifact.

    20th century, making, Henry Ford, by Patrice Fisher, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

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