Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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The Henry Ford’s radio collections hold a variety of strange-looking objects, many with hidden purposes, including a radio receiver that was used during “space” travelers Jeannette and Jean Piccard’s stratospheric balloon ascension near The Henry Ford in 1934. / THF155560

In my own collection as The Henry Ford’s curator of communications and information technology, there are many objects with lively backstories. The radio collections alone are rife with curiosities: a WWI-era field radio used in a 1924 experiment to “listen” to Mars. Another radio shares similarities with the 1901 Sweepstakes race car — a 1905 Telimco radio created by the eccentric science fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback was once believed to be a replica but is now understood to be an original. Espionage radios too: a muddy-looking lump of clay with a secret homing beacon inside that is meant to look like tiger scat or “dog doo.”

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T-1151 Doo Radio Transmitters, circa 1970 / THF189735

These joke shop antics may seem humorous but quickly reveal an ominous angle as further research determined that these transmitters were used for reconnaissance by the CIA during the Vietnam War.

This post was adapted from an article written by Kristen Gallerneaux, curator of communication & information technology, in the Winter-Spring 2023 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.
In the interview that follows, Kristen Gallerneaux, curator of communication and information technology speaks with curator of agriculture and the environment Debra Reid about some of the stories concerning past uses of these sites. Beyond three-dimensional artifacts at The Henry Ford, there are intriguing narratives that can be divined from the very landscapes on which our campus sits — from Oakwood Boulevard to the Ford Rouge Factory Tour. 

Jim Johnson, director of Greenfield Village and curator of historic structures and landscapes, and Debra Reid, curator of agriculture and the environment, stand in the shadow of Greenfield Village’s oldest tree, an Eastern white oak that took root over 400 years ago. The two are committed to understanding more — and discovering things anew — about the land that The Henry Ford has called home for almost 100 years. 

Kristen- As a 94-year-old institution, we have occupied this site for almost a century. But I’ve always been interested in finding ways to be more inclusive of stories about prior uses and past occupants too, especially knowing that the River Rouge oxbow flows through the back of Greenfield Village. This river was an important trade and industry route as well as an important resource for the Indigenous people who used this land before us. How do we “read” storied environments like these to understand them better today? 

Debra- Downriver from our main campus, we have the Ford Rouge Factory Tour. That site is sometimes described as being an unused “wasteland” before it was developed for the original industrial complex. But there were Indigenous people living in the eluvial bottoms who were foraging in those rich areas — and later, French-owned ribbon farms, general and market garden farms.

In my research with French records and plat maps, there is strong evidence of complex history in the area surrounding what later became the Rouge plant. By 1915 and 1917, plat maps show who owned the land, and in Henry Ford’s correspondence, we can see how he systematically began to purchase land in this area. Eventually, 1,500 acres were identified for the Rouge plant’s site. You can extrapolate interesting histories from what happens along the Rouge River, and there is much more research needed. 

Kristen- There have been so many fascinating stories connected to waterways in the metro Detroit area and across the border into Canada. But the presence of Indigenous people that preceded and coexisted in this area, alongside the founding of Detroit, has often been washed away by the dominating spotlight of industrial histories.

Debra- And also “washed away” in the sense that when industrialists acquire 1,500 acres on a river, what disappears because of that? There were also ancient mounds and sand dunes near Zug Island, which were taken down by a glass factory across the river in Delray. The sands from mounds became the raw product for the glass plant. [Editor’s note: Zug Island sits at the confluence of the Detroit River and the mouth of the Rouge River. Before European arrival, it was an ancient burial ground but was heavily industrialized in the 1890s.] Their archeological remains were disseminated.

So, if we think of industrial destruction of evidence of Indigenous presence as a typical approach for the time and we head back upriver to the Rouge plant, what, if anything, remained of an archeological record when construction began there? Images show how soil was removed down to the bedrock to put in pilings, which obliterated the archaeological evidence. But even before Ford, in 1889, the Detroit International Exposition & Fair was held not far from this site, which I discovered while researching the Detroit Central Market. There is an article that shows our market building, and it also mentions leveling mounds in preparation for the fair.

On streets not far from The Henry Ford’s campus, enormous piles of buffalo bones once sat in the late 19th century, waiting to be rendered down for use in a wide range of consumer products. / From The Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Kristen- I know of a street in Delray called Carbon Street and once found an incredible image from the late 19th century of men standing on that street on top of enormous piles of buffalo bones that were going to be rendered down for things like pigments. Once you see these images, it’s hard to forget them.

Debra- Yes! And those bones were charred — basically obliterated — and found their way into a wide range of consumer products. The buffalo were annihilated on the U.S. Plains after European arrival, and the bones of bison were shipped to places like Detroit. This was a huge stove-making city, and the blacking made from the bones was used to keep stoves black. Pharmaceutical industries also used the bones, and they were processed into bone meal fertilizer and other agricultural byproducts. So the material rendered from the bones in that image impacts farming, consumerism, medicine...

Kristen- was even used as pigment in “bone black” printing ink. Which means that people were literally receiving information and viewing printed images by “reading” buffalo byproducts. The onion layers of history keep opening. It can get quite overwhelming if you think about it too much. 

This post was adapted from an article in the Winter-Spring 2023 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

At The Henry Ford, we often undertake detective work within our own collections as we seek to deepen our knowledge of objects, their contexts, and reevaluate their histories. Sometimes our investigations leave us with more questions than when we started. But with object-based research, there are very rare and special “eureka” moments that can simultaneously reveal an answer and unsettle everything we thought was true.

A perfect example came with the reevaluation of Henry Ford’s first race car, the Sweepstakes, which is celebrated for its win at a Grosse Pointe, Michigan, racing event held on Oct. 10, 1901. This victory in turn revived Henry Ford’s credibility as a businessman and helped secure the funding that eventually led to the founding of Ford Motor Company in 1903.

In the interview below, Matt Anderson, curator of transportation, speaks with Kristen Gallerneaux, curator of communications and information technology, about how the discovery of a "replica-turned-real" was made.

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Artist Lillian Schwartz produced cutting-edge films, videos and multimedia works, including the print Boulez Conducting / THF188554

Member Preview: March 24, 2023
Open to Public: March 25-Jan. 1, 2024

Spring 2023 marks the debut of a new collections gallery in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. You can find it behind the Heroes of the Sky exhibit and by the new permanent exhibit, Miniature Moments: A Journey Through Hallmark® Keepsake Ornaments (see story on Page 64). The Henry Ford’s Lillian Schwartz collection is the first to be exhibited in the new space, which is set to host temporary exhibitions of significant collections going forward.

A donation from the Schwartz family in 2020, the material acquired from multimedia artist Lillian Schwartz’s body of work includes thousands of objects, from films and videos to 2D artwork, sculptures, personal papers, computer hardware and film editing equipment.

The approximately 1,800-square-foot gallery will be split into three sections for the Schwartz exhibition, expounding on three core themes, from the artist’s transition from childhood to adulthood, her introduction to the Bell Laboratories in the late ‘60s through early ‘70s and her penchant for pushing the media she worked with to its limits. Expect to see a newly restored kinetic sculpture, Proxima Centauri, that has not been on exhibit in a museum in decades, along with rarely shown mixed-media works, Schwartz’s early films and a humorous series about early internet web searches, among many other artifacts.

This post was adapted from an article in the Winter-Spring 2023 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine. More about The Henry Ford’s acquisition of works from groundbreaking multimedia artist Lillian Schwartz in the January-May 2022 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

Our collections sometimes surprise us at The Henry Ford, as Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable has often experienced. Using his expertise about how the stylistic attributes of art historical movements have trickled into home goods — furniture and upholstery textiles especially — Sable has become adept at using different methods to “read” the physical evidence of the objects under his care. Even the imprints of manufacturing can leave essential clues: machine-sawn wood carries marks distinct from wood sawn by hand. Nails, nuts and bolts are similarly telling.

Working closely with conservation staff, Sable has uncovered surprising origin stories and debunked long-held presumptions.

Sable sat down with Kristen Gallerneaux, curator of communications & information technology, to share his favorite "collections mysteries."

Kristen- What is an example of an especially enigmatic object you’ve dealt with recently?

Charles- There is an overmantel, a decorative structure over a mantelpiece, located above the fireplace in the Lovett Hall ballroom. In 1968, it was published in a book called The Looking Glass in America, identifying it as a piece made in Salem, Massachusetts, in the Federal period style between 1800 and 1810. This was an incredibly “high-style” example, and this is also how Henry Ford understood it when he purchased it for Lovett Hall in 1936.

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Central to understanding Western historical perceptions of the Middle and Near East in the arts is the concept of “Orientalism.” In decorative arts, Orientalism is the representation of Asian lives and arts as interpreted by Europeans and Americans. Westerners historically stereotyped these cultures as exotic, mysterious and sometimes decadent. Unlike the Far East, which was also viewed as distant, the Near and Middle East were more accessible for Europeans, and later, Americans who traveled there. In the early 19th century, European artists famously painted harem scenes and images of snake charmers for adoring audiences. By the end of the century, wealthy Americans were collecting these paintings and placing them in their parlors and sitting rooms. They also added souvenirs of travels, trade goods and even custom-made furnishings made in “Oriental” styles. Westerners could show off their worldliness, wealth and good taste by mixing and matching elements of “Oriental” culture together.

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Black wooden chair, with woven seat, painted with gold decoration
Side Chair, Created by Lambert Hitchcock, 1825-1835. /

Many people believe that mass production started with Henry Ford and the Model T. But the ideas that led to this breakthrough were already being put into practice back in the early 1800s, in mills and manufactories dotting the countryside across New England.

It was there that Lambert Hitchcock applied early mass-production techniques to turn out chairs by the thousands — uniform, durable, attractive, affordable and, for a time, wildly popular. 

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Julia Barton Hunting of Pine Plains, New York, sat on a Hitchcock chair while posing for this portrait by Ammi Phillips, about 1830. / THF95303

Invention was in the air in New England during the early 1800s. Burgeoning industries like firearms, clocks and textiles were experimenting with new machinery — to increase production and make up for labor shortages — and with new factory arrangements that integrated materials and activities under one roof. 

Furniture making had a long tradition of handcraftsmanship, and manufacturers varied in their adoption of machine production over generations-old hand processes. Handcrafted pieces were made to order, resulting in low production and fairly high costs. With water- or steam-powered machines to rough out the pieces, furniture makers could turn out more products at lower costs to sell to a wider market. Neither of these processes was right or wrong — the choice was essentially a business decision.

Lambert Hitchcock chose machine over hand production, inspired by the bustling firearms and clock industries in his home state of Connecticut. He had started out learning the craft of fine furniture making. But Hitchcock dreamed of manufacturing affordable furniture, using uniform parts that were quickly and cheaply made by machine and easy to assemble.

In 1818, Hitchcock chose a site in northwestern Connecticut where two fast-moving rivers came together. There, using the rivers’ power to operate his machinery, Hitchcock produced a line of chairs that was so affordable he basically created a brand-new market. Before long, Hitchcock’s chair factory — in the newly named village of Hitchcocks-ville — was turning out some 15,000 chairs per year.

The price, ranging from 45 cents to $1.75 (about $10.15 to $39.40 today), certainly appealed to people. Also appealing was the idea that machines could be harnessed to produce sturdy, functional chairs that everyone could enjoy. But Hitchcock did not ignore aesthetics. His characteristic stenciling across the back chair rails served as an attractive substitute to the hand carving on more expensive custom-made chairs. 

In 1825, Hitchcock went one step further. He erected a three-story factory, arranged into sections, in which specific tools and materials were associated with logical steps in the assembly process. The ground floor held areas for rough-cutting work, like sawing, turning and planing. On the second floor, the chair parts were bonded together with glue, then dried in a kiln until their joints were firm. On the third floor, the chairs were painted and decorated, using precut stencils and prearranged patterns. Each of these stencils, designed to create a different part of the overall composition, was positioned on the chair back, then carefully rubbed with bronze powders to achieve the special tone and shading.

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Lambert Hitchcock’s innovative factory in Hitchcocks-ville (now Riverton), Connecticut, as depicted in a 1955 Hitchcock Chair Company trade catalog. / Detail, THF626707 

Professional male stencilers probably cut the stencils and lent their expertise, but women did much of the actual stenciling at Hitchcock’s factory. Many had learned this skill as young women at female academies that were popular in New England at the time. There they practiced the art of theorem painting — that is, creating stylized pictures of fruits and flowers that similarly used precut stencils, metallic powders and prearranged patterns. 

Painting of bowl of fruit with other produce surrounding it
An example of a theorem painting, created in 1835 by Caroline Bennett, a young woman who would have attended a female academy. / THF119757

Women also worked as seat rushers and caners, while children often did the painting and striping. At its peak of production in the late 1820s and early 1830s, Hitchcock employed over 100 workers. 

Lambert Hitchcock was innovative in his manufacturing techniques: integrated work processes, division of labor, and application of fast and inexpensive, yet still attractive, decorative techniques. Hitchcock was also an assertive salesman, opening retail stores in Hitchcocks-ville and Hartford (the state capital), selling chairs wholesale to dealers and store owners and distributing his chairs far and wide through the network of itinerant Yankee peddlers. 

Unfortunately, Lambert Hitchcock also made some costly mistakes. He located his factory in a very isolated area, with deplorable roads to Hartford and other markets. In 1844, Hitchcock moved his factory to a town called Unionville, banking on the construction of a new canal. But, alas, the canal construction was halted, and a new railroad bypassed the town. For his tremendous contributions, Hitchcock died at the age of 57 with few assets to his name. 

But Hitchcock’s name and his chairs lived on. The chairs were so popular during their heyday that many competitors tried to imitate both their aesthetics and production techniques. To this day, chairs of this general style are referred to as Hitchcock (or Hitchcock-type) chairs. Hitchcock chairs were also painstakingly reproduced by succeeding generations of artisans, a tribute to the genius and foresight of Lambert Hitchcock, a true American innovator. 

Generations of artisans continued producing Hitchcock chairs and a range of other furniture, as shown in this 1955 brochure.
Generations of artisans continued producing Hitchcock chairs and a range of other furniture, as shown in this 1955 brochure. / THF626710 

Donna R. Braden is senior curator and curator of public life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran in March 2008 as part of our Pic of the Month series.

decorative arts, Connecticut, 1830s, 1820s, 1810s, 19th century, manufacturing, home life, Henry Ford Museum, furnishings, entrepreneurship, by Donna R. Braden

Mary Chase Perry Stratton at Pewabic Pottery
Mary Chase Perry in her “stable studio,” Detroit, Michigan, 1903. /

Before establishing what would become Detroit’s renowned Pewabic Pottery, Mary Chase Perry got her start in china painting. She was among countless women taking up the hobby as the Arts & Crafts movement gained momentum in late 19th-century America. China painting was considered a socially appropriate activity that offered women a creative and social outlet. While most china painters remained amateur artists, some managed to turn this pastime into a full-time profession. An exceptional few, including Mary Chase Perry, evolved beyond decorating blank pieces of china to become successful artists, creating, decorating, glazing and firing their own pottery. In her fearless pursuit of an ambitious vision, Perry developed the experience and confidence required to guide the successful operation of a large-scale pottery at a time when avenues to independence for American women were few.

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The study of decorative arts is not a static discipline – what scholars knew years ago is frequently revised by new research. The life and work of potter Thomas Commeraw have recently come into focus due to some remarkable findings. While Commeraw's work has resided for years in the collections of many museums, including The Henry Ford, much more about the rich and textured story behind these pieces is now known. Once thought to be French or French Canadian, research has uncovered that Thomas Commeraw was a free African American potter and entrepreneur working in the Corlears Hook neighborhood of New York City.

Through the pioneering research of two independent scholars, Mark Shapiro and Brandt Zipp, Commeraw's origins, creative output and impact are now better understood. Mark Shapiro is a noted potter, historian and biographer of ceramic artist Karen Karnes. He is co-curating an exhibit on Commeraw, opening in 2023 at the New York Historical Society. Shapiro discussed Commeraw on this episode of the podcast Tales of a Red Clay Rambler. Brandt Zipp is a principal in one of the largest ceramic auction houses, Crocker Farm, in Maryland. He recently wrote a biography of Commeraw.

The Rise of Salt-Glazed Stoneware in 18th-Century America

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Humans have traveled the edges of the iced-covered Arctic for thousands of years. Native peoples survived by harvesting the polar seas' bounty, and within the past several hundred years, explorers probed the ice-bound waters to locate quick trade routes to distant lands. (Explorers finally navigated a ship through the Northwest Passage in the early 1900s.) Around the turn of the 20th century, more adventurers — some for personal glory, others for scientific advancement — voyaged into the unexplored Arctic region to uncover its secrets and be the first to reach the North Pole. Trekking across the ice, however, was hazardous. From the late 1890s into the 1930s — before robust and reliable airplanes made it possible to fly long distances in relative safety and comfort — some explorers turned to balloons and airships to face the challenges posed by the polar icepack.

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Walter Wellman's airship America, 1907 / THF701652

Walter Wellman (1858-1934) and the America

Walter Wellman, an American journalist, adventurer, and self-styled expert on an array of topics--mounted two unsuccessful expeditions in the 1890s to reach the North Pole by trekking over the ice. Neither attempt advanced far into the Arctic, and his second expedition nearly cost him his life. But his reports of the harrowing exploits — of men battling the cold, "ice-quakes," and polar bears — enthralled readers. The public eagerly followed Wellman's progress through newspaper and journal articles. Wellman used his celebrity to secure funding, mainly from his employers at The Chicago Record-Herald, for future adventures. And those backing his expeditions used Wellman's exploits to lure readers to their publications.

After a near-fatal attempt in 1898-99, Wellman decided the best way to reach the pole was by an airship. In 1905, Wellman, funded by his employers at The Chicago Record-Herald, secured a French-built balloon. The sausage-shaped airship, which he christened America, was 165 feet long and 53 1/2 feet in diameter. A metal-sheathed car, 52 1/2 feet long by 6 feet wide, hung below the hydrogen-filled bag. It would carry the crew and equipment, including two gasoline engines to drive the wooden propellers.

The following year, Wellman shipped the America to Spitsbergen, Norway — the westernmost bulk of land in the Svalbard archipelago bordering the Arctic Ocean — to make his first attempt to fly over the polar icecap. But delays and crippling mechanical failures plagued the enterprise. When Wellman arrived at his remote outpost in July 1906, he found the hangar, that he planned to have built to protect the airship while he prepared it for flight, unfinished. The expedition's experimental motor vehicles, designed by Wellman to pull sleds over the ice, proved useless. (Wellman planned to carry these vehicles onboard the airship and use them instead of dogs if the airship failed to stay aloft.) But most damaging: the airship's engines caused problems. The engines performed well by themselves when designers tested them in France. But when Wellman's team mounted the engines to the airship in Spitsbergen, the driving gear fell apart, the propellers could not stand the strain, and the car in which the crew would work and live as they flew over the icepack could not take the vibration. Wellman's first attempt never got off the ground, but he vowed to try again.

Ernest L. Jones Early Aviation Scrapbook
The hangar for the America under construction in Spitsbergen / THF285398 [detail] Continue Reading