Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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In 1984, Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation acquired an old, dilapidated diner. When Lamy’s Diner—a Massachusetts diner from 1946—was brought into the museum, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Was a common diner, from such a recent era, worthy of restoration? Was it significant enough to be in a museum?

Happily, times have changed. Diners have gained newfound respect and appreciation. A closer look at diners reveals much about their role and significance in 20th-century America.

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Diner, Wason Mfg. Co., interior, 1927-9. THF228034

Diners changed the way Americans thought about dining outside the home. A uniquely American invention, diners were convenient, social, and fun.

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Horse-drawn lunch wagon, The Way-side Inn. THF38078

Diners originated with horse-drawn lunch wagons that came out on city streets at night, providing food to workers. They also attracted “night owls” like reporters, politicians, policemen, and supposedly even underworld characters!

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Peddler’s cart: NYC street scene, 1890-1915.
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Most people agree that horse-drawn lunch wagons evolved from peddler’s carts, like those shown here on this New York City street.

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Cowboys at the Chuck Wagon, Crazy Woman Creek, Wyoming Territory, 1885
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Some people even think that cowboy chuck wagons helped inspire lunch wagons. Here’s a cool scene of a group of cowboys in Wyoming from 1885. Take a look at the fully outfitted chuck wagon in the picture above.

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The Owl Night Lunch Wagon.
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The Owl Night Lunch Wagon in Greenfield Village is thought to be the last surviving lunch wagon in America!

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Visitors at the Owl Night Lunch Wagon.
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Henry Ford ate here as a young engineer at Edison Illuminating Company in downtown Detroit.  In 1927, Ford acquired the old lunch wagon to become the first food operation in Greenfield Village. Notice the menu and clothing worn by the guests.

In this segment of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, you can watch Mo Rocca and me eating hot dogs with horseradish at the Owl—just like Henry Ford might have done back in the day!

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Walkor Lunch Car, c. 1918.
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When cars increased congestion on city streets, horse-drawn lunch wagons were outlawed. To stay in business, operators had to re-locate their lunch wagons off the street. Sometimes these spaces were really cramped.

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County Diner, 1926.
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By the 1920s, manufacturers were producing complete units and shipping them to buyers’ specified locations. Here’s a nice exterior of one from that era.

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Hi-Way Diner, Holyoke, Mass., ca. 1928.
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These units were roomier and often cleaner than the by-now-shabby lunch wagons. To make them seem more upscale, people began calling these units “diners,” evoking the elegance of railroad dining cars.

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Ad with streamlined diner, railroad, and airplane, 1941.
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As more people got used to eating out in diners, more diners were produced. By the 1940s, some diners took on a streamlined form—inspired by the designs of the new, modern streamlined trains and airplanes.

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Lamy’s Diner.
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By the 1940s, there were so many diners around that this era became known as the “Golden Age of Diners.” This is where our own Lamy’s Diner comes in. It was made in 1946 by the Worcester Lunch Car Company of Massachusetts. You may not be able to get a cup of coffee and a piece of pie inside Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation right now, but you can visit Lamy’s virtually through this link.

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Move of diner from Hudson, Mass., 1984.
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The Henry Ford acquired Lamy’s Diner in 1984, then restored it for a new exhibition, “The Automobile in America Life” (1987). Here’s an image of it being lifted for its move to The Henry Ford.

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Lamy’s Diner on original site. THF88966

Lamy’s Diner was originally located in Marlborough, Mass. Here’s a photograph of it on its original site. But, like other diners, it moved around a lot—to two other towns over the next four years.

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Snapshot of Clovis Lamy in diner, ca. 1946. THF114397

Clovis Lamy was among other World War II veterans who dreamed of owning his own business when the war was over, and diners promised easy profits. As you can see here, he loved talking to people from behind the counter. From the beginning, Lamy’s Diner was a hopping place all hours of the day and night. You can read the whole story of Clovis Lamy and his diner in this blog post.

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Lamy’s as a working restaurant in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

In 2012, Lamy’s became a working restaurant again—inside Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Nowadays, servers even wear diner uniforms that let you time-travel back to the 1940s. A few years ago, the menu was revamped. So now you can order frappes (Massachusetts-style milkshakes), New England clam chowder, and some of Clovis Lamy’s original recipes. Read more about the recent makeover here.

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View of a McDonalds restaurant and sign, 1955.
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Diners declined when fast food restaurants became popular. McDonald’s was first, with food prepared by an assembly-line process, paper packaging, and carry-out service.  Check out this pre-Golden Arches McDonald’s.

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Mountain View steel diner, Village Diner, Milford, PA, c. 1963.
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The 1982 movie Diner helped spur a new revival in diners, as some people got tired of fast food and chain restaurants.  Here’s an image of a Mountain View steel diner, much like the one used in that movie.

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Dick Gutman in front of a Kullman diner, 1993.
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One person was particularly instrumental in documenting and helping revive the interest in diners.  That’s diner historian Richard Gutman. Here he is in 1993 with camera in hand—in front of a diner, of course. We are thrilled that last year, Richard donated his entire collection of historic and research materials to The Henry Ford—including thousands of slides, photos, catalogs, postcards, and diner accouterments!

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Modern Diner, Pawtucket, RI, 1974 slide.
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Richard not only documented existing diners but helped raise awareness of the need to save diners from extinction. The Modern Diner, shown here, was the first to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1978).

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Robbins Dining Car, Nantasket, Mass., ca. 1925.
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Be sure to check out our Digital Collections for many items from Richard’s collection already online.

Diners continue to have popular appeal. They offer a portal into 20th-century social mores, habits, and values. Furthermore, they represent examples of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship that connect to small business startups and owners today.

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

This post was originally part of our weekly #THFCuratorChat series. Follow us on Twitter to join the discussion. Your support helps makes initiatives like this possible. 

Driving America, Henry Ford Museum, food, #THFCuratorChat, by Donna R. Braden, restaurants, diners

Travel has changed a lot over the past 150 years, from something that only the wealthy could afford to something for everyone. This post looks at the relationship between forms of luggage and methods of transportation, from stagecoaches through airline travel.

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THF206455 / Concord Coach Hitched to Four Horses in Front of Post Office, circa 1885.

In the 19th century, travel was relatively uncommon. People who traveled used heavy trunks to carry a great number of possessions, usually by stagecoach and rail. The traveler didn't usually hand his or her luggage, porters did all the work. As late as 1939, railway express companies transferred trunks to a traveler's destination.

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THF288917 / Horse-Drawn Delivery Wagon, "Express Trunks Transferred & Delivered, We Meet All Trains"

A typical 19th century American trunk, this example was used by Captain Milton Russell during the Civil War.

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THF174670 / Carpet Bag, 1870-1890

People used valises or other types of lighter bags in the 19th century. This is a carpet bag made of remnants of "ingrain" carpet.

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THF145224 / Trunk Used for File Storage By Harvey S. Firestone, circa 1930

In the 19th and 20th centuries, "steamer trunks" were used on ocean-going vessels in your state room. It was literally a closet in a box. This example was used by Harvey Firestone to hold important papers.

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THF105708 / Loading Luggage into the Trunk of 1939 Ford V-8 Automobile

With the rise of automobile travel, more people had access and suitcases (as we know them) became the norm. Much easier to manager than steamer trunks, they fit a car trunk.

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THF166453 / Oshkosh "Chief" Trunk, Used by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, 1920-1955

This is a standard 1920s/1930s suitcase made by the Oshkosh Suitcase Co. of Oshkosh, Wisc. This was for auto travel, etc. It was for everything! This belonged to Elizabeth Parke Firestone.

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THF285021 / Passengers Entering Ford Tri-Motor 4-AT Airplane, 1927

With the rise of air travel, passengers were limited to lighter-weight bags due to weight restrictions.

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THF169109 / Orenstein Trunk Company Amelia Earhart Brand Luggage Overnight Case, 1943-1950

Famed aviator Amelia Earhart licensed her own line of luggage beginning in 1933. It was marketed as "real 'aeroplane' luggage." It was lightweight and made to last. (Learn more about the famed aviator as an entrepreneur in this expert set.)

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THF318431 / Postcard, Plymouth Savoy 4-Door Sedan, 1961-1962

By the 1960s, fashionable Americans bought luggage in colorful sets, like this lady directing the porters. Notice she also has a steamer trunk!

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THF154923 / Travelpro Rolling Carry-On Suitcase, 1997

With the explosive growth of air travel in the '80s & '90s, & the growth of airports, travelers needed light and portable bags. Roller bags were the answer. They could be carried on or checked.

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THF94783 / American Airlines Duffel Bag, circa 1991

Flight attendants need to carry extremely light bags. This American Airlines tote bag was used by a flight attendant in the 1990s.

How have your luggage choices and preferences evolved over time?

Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. These artifacts were originally shared as part our weekly #THFCuratorChat series. Join the conversation! Follow @TheHenryFord on Twitter.

If you’re enjoying our content, consider a donation to The Henry Ford. #WeAreInnovationNation

design, #THFCuratorChat, by Charles Sable, travel

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A new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in our What We Wore exhibit, this time examining how fashion trends can highlight, or manipulate, the human form.

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Dress and Pelerine, 1830-1835

(Purchased with funds from the Eleanor B. Safford Memorial Textile Fund)


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What makes these sleeves puffy?
A stiffened underlining--pleated muslin fabric--helps support the sleeves. Sometimes a “sleeve plumper” was used--down-filled pads that tied on at the shoulder under the dress.

The wide silhouette created by these “leg-of-mutton” sleeves and matching pelerine (small cape that covers the shoulders) not only drew attention to the wearer’s arms, but also emphasized the smallness of her waist!

Who wore this dress?
During the 1830s? We don’t know. Later, Tasha Tudor (1915-2008), author and illustrator of children’s literature, owned the dress.

Tudor admired the objects and rural lifestyle of the early 19th century. She lived in a secluded New England farmhouse with no plumbing or electricity, surrounded by an orchard, rambling garden, and lively farm animals. Tasha Tudor also collected antique clothing--and wore it.

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Dress, 1884-1885
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Gift of Ruth W. Crouse)

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What supported the elaborately draped fabric at the back of this dress?
A bustle--a support of parallel horizontal slats made of wood or steel bent in a half circle. The bustle attached to the body around the waist. A tightly laced corset helped create her extremely small waist.

But how did she sit down? The slats would all collapse together as she sat, then spring back in place when she stood up--maintaining her fashionable silhouette.Between the fabric of the dress and the bustle, garments of this period could be quite heavy to wear!

Who wore this dress?
Mary Stevens (1861-1910), the daughter of wealthy capitalist. The Stevens family lived on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, a street lined with the homes of prosperous Detroiters.

Mary Stevens had a privileged lifestyle. She had the money to purchase finely made fashionable clothing. And led a social life that gave her opportunities to wear it. A few days before Christmas 1884, Mary’s mother gave an elegant reception at the Stevens home--complete with elaborate floral decorations, refreshments, and a full orchestra. Could this be the dress that Mary wore that afternoon?

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Dress, 1927-1929
(Gift of Audrey K. Wilder)

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What undergarment helped achieve this slender, youthful silhouette?
A straight-line, one-piece garment called a corselette. It de-emphasized the bust and smoothed the natural curves of the body--emphasizing the straight, unbroken line of that era’s “boyish” silhouette.

The movement of the uneven hemline, while walking or dancing, would subtly call attention to the wearer’s legs.

Who wore this dress?
Audrey K. Wilder (1896-1979) likely owned this dress.  Audrey attended college--quite unusual for women of her time. She graduated from Albion College, then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1921.

In the late 1920s, Audrey Wilder was appointed Dean of Women at Ohio Northern University. One of her first projects was the creation of the first social hall for women on campus--a place where female students could hold teas, receptions, musicals, and dinners. Those who knew her described Audrey as a “dynamic dean” and a woman “of exquisite grooming.”

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Cocktail Dress by Christian Dior, 1952
(Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr.)

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What undergarment helped create the “hourglass” silhouette of the 1950s?
Christian Dior’s “New Look”--with its close-fitting hourglass silhouette--dominated the 1950s. This look emphasized a tiny waistline and feminine curves. Longline bras helped slim the waistline and create a smooth line under garments.

This dress, Dior’s “Sonnet” design, also accentuated the waist through the angled side bodice seams, bows at the waist, and rounded skirt.

Who wore this dress?
This dress was custom-made for Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990), wife of tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone, Jr. Elizabeth felt it her duty to represent her husband, family, and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company with dignity and grace. She was always flawlessly dressed--whether for informal camping trips, world travel, business functions, or society parties.

Elizabeth had a fine eye for fashion and favored New York and Parisian designers, including Christian Dior. These designers created garments to her specifications, including perfect fit, style, color, fabric, and construction. During the 1950s the New York Dress Institute named Elizabeth one of the "Best Dressed Women in the World.”

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

women's history, fashion, Henry Ford Museum, by Jeanine Head Miller, What We Wore

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An image from the set of
The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.

For many people—especially those who grew up between the decades of the 1970s through the 1990s—the sight of a boombox often prompts the thought: “I wonder how heavy that thing would feel, if I carried it around on my shoulder?” Boomboxes are infused with the promise of human interaction, ready for active use—to be slung from arm to arm, hoisted up on a shoulder, or planted with purpose on a park bench or an empty slice of asphalt in a city somewhere.

Here at The Henry Ford, we recently acquired a trio of classic boomboxes to document stories about the growth of mobile media and the social communication of music in American culture.

The Norelco 22RL962 was developed in the mid-1960s by the Dutch company, Philips. A combination radio and compact cassette player, it had recording and playback functions as well as a carrying handle. While it was generally thought of as the first device that could be accurately called a “boombox,” the Norelco failed to gain mass traction. The core issue wasn’t due to poor performance from a technological standpoint, but rather the bad sound quality of the tapes. In 1965, the American engineer Ray Dolby invented the Dolby Noise Reduction system, which led to clean, hiss-free sound on compact cassette tapes. His invention sparked a revolution in hi-fi cassette audio.

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The ubiquitous compact cassette tape.

In the early 1970s, Japanese manufacturers began to make advancements in boombox technology as an outgrowth of modular hi-fi stereo components. Living spaces in Japan were typically small, and there was a desire to condense electronics into compact devices without losing sound quality.

Later that decade, the improved boombox made its way to the United States, where it was embraced by hip hop, punk, and new wave musicians and fans—many of whom lived in large cities like New York and Los Angeles. In many ways, the boombox was a protest device, as youth culture used them to broadcast politically charged music in public spaces.

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An early image of the Brooklyn Bridge and New York Skyline. THF113708

Boomboxes literally changed the sonic fabric of cities, but this effect was divisive. By the mid-1980s, noise pollution laws began to restrict their use in public. The golden years of the boombox were also short lived due to the rising popularity and affordability of personal portable sound devices like the Sony Walkman (and later, the MP3 player), which turned music into a private, insular experience.

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The JVC RC-550 ”El Diablo” boombox. THF179795

JVC RC-550 “El Diablo”

This boombox was built for the street, and it is meant to be played loud. Its design is rugged, with a carrying handle and protective “roll bars” in case it is dropped. Many classic photos from the early years of hip-hop depict fans and musicians carrying the El Diablo around cities and on the subway in New York.

The JVC RC-550 is a member of what sound historians refer to as the “holy trinity” of innovative boomboxes. While the origins of its “El Diablo” nickname are uncertain, it is believed to stem from the impressive volume of sound it can transmit—or its flashing red sound meters. It is a monophonic boombox, meaning that it has one main speaker and it is incapable of reproducing sound in stereo. A massive offset 10-inch woofer dominates its design, coupled with smaller midrange and tweeter speakers. As with most boomboxes of this time, bass and treble levels could be adjusted.

An input for an external microphone led to the RC-550 being advertised as a mobile personal amplifier system. Brochures from the Japanese version show the boombox being used by salesmen to amplify their pitches in front of crowds, as a sound system in a bar, and by a singing woman accompanied by a guitarist. Recording could take place directly through the tape deck, or through the microphone on top, which could be rotated 360-degrees.

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JVC 838 Biophonic Boombox. THF177384

JVC 838 Biphonic Boombox
The JVC 838 is important for its transitional design. It was one of the first boomboxes to incorporate the symmetrical arrangement of components that would become standard in 1980s portable stereos: visually balanced speakers, buttons and knobs, and a centered cassette deck.

As boombox designs evolved, they began to include (almost to the point of parody) sound visualization components such as VU meters and other electronic indicators. In many cases, these were purely for visual effect rather than function. The needle VU meters on the JVC 838 however, were accurate.

A unique feature of the JVC 838 boombox is its “BiPhonic” sound—a spatial stereo feature that creates a “being there” effect through its binaural speaker technology, resulting in “three-dimensional depth, spaciousness, and pinpoint imaging.” The box also includes an “expand” effect to widen the sound even further.

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Sharp GF-777 “Searcher.” THF177382

Sharp “Searcher” GF-777
The Sharp “Searcher” GF-777 is an exercise in excess. Often referred to as the “king of the boomboxes,” it was also one of the largest ever produced. Weighing thirty pounds (minus ten D-cell batteries) and measuring over one foot tall and two feet wide, it took a certain amount of lifestyle commitment to carry this device around a city.

The Searcher played a key part in the performance and representation of hip-hop music. Its six speakers include four woofers individually tuned for optimal bass transmission and amplitude. It appeared in a photograph on the back cover of the first Run-DMC album, found its way into several music videos, and was photographed alongside breakdancing crews. 

Many people used this boombox as an affordable personal recording studio. Two high quality tape decks opened the possibility for people to create “pause tapes” – a way of creating looped beats through queuing, recording, rewinding, and repeating a short phrase of music. A microphone input and an onboard echo effect meant people could rap or sing over top of music backing tracks.

Much like Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the boombox came full circle, allowing people to record and play back music for public and communal consumption. And while they may not mesh with our ideas of what a “mobile” device is in our age of smartphones and streaming services, their reach permeated popular culture in the 1970s well into the 1990s. Sometimes acting as portable sound systems, sometimes used as affordable personal recording studios—carrying a boombox through the streets (wherever you happened to live) was as much a fashion statement and lifestyle choice as it was a celebration of music and social technology.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

portability, technology, communication, music, radio, by Kristen Gallerneaux, popular culture

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The Mattox Home in Greenfield Village
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Through furnishings and presentations, the Mattox Home in Greenfield Village tells the story of one family living in rural Georgia in the 1930s. Read on to discover more about the community in Bryan County (where the house was originally located), learn about the Mattox family, and get an inside look at how they lived.

Amos and Grace Mattox
Amos Mattox, probably born around 1889, grew up in this house during the harsh years of Southern segregation. He and his wife, Grace, married in 1909.

The home in Greenfield Village is shown as it would have been during the 1930s, when the entire country was in the grip of the Great Depression. Low prices and little demand for farm products created a crisis for farmers throughout the country, and many abandoned their land. Amos and Grace Mattox maintained their resourceful lifestyle, keeping up a vegetable garden, livestock, and fowl to feed themselves and two young children, Carrie and Amos, Jr. To supplement the family’s income, Amos worked at various jobs—as a laborer for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and Seaboard Air Line Railway and at the local sawmill, and as a shoemaker, carpenter, and barber. He also served as a deacon at the Bryan Neck Baptist Church. The church had been founded by his grandfather Amos Morel, a formerly enslaved steam engineer who, in the 1870s, purchased the land the Mattox home stood on. Like his grandfather, Amos Mattox sold parts of his family’s land when he needed cash.

Grace Mattox is remembered by her children as a busy and meticulous homemaker. In addition to daily chores, she canned fruits and vegetables, cared and provided for elderly and sick neighbors, crocheted, did “fancy work” embroidery, and made her home as cozy and attractive as possible. A devoted mother, she encouraged and supported the education of her two children, walking a mile to and from their school daily with a “proper hot lunch” for them.

Although life was hard, the Mattox family proudly affirmed that there was "always enough."

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A copy of the only known photograph of Amos Mattox, Sr. THF135142

African American Community Life in 1930s Bryan County, Georgia
Sixty-five years after the Civil War, coastal Georgia was a land of sleepy towns, cypress swamps, moss-hung trees, oxcarts, horse-drawn wagons, and a few cars. Among long-abandoned crumbling mansions stood small farmhouses scattered about on what were once extensive holdings of plantation land but were now mostly small individual farms—some privately owned like the Mattox home and property, but most rented on the share system. Following the breakup of the large plantations after the Civil War, members of the same family tended to settle close together on the same land where they had lived when they were enslaved. A generation later, this was still true of the Mattox family. Amos Mattox, Jr., remembers his Uncle Henry living within “hollerin’ distance” and his Uncle Charlie living 5 to 10 minutes’ walk away. In the absence of telephones, close neighbors could be hailed by shouting.

What we know about the Mattox family comes from record searches and oral interviews. When Henry Ford acquired the Mattox home in 1943, there were still many people alive who could recall their youth on the very land on which their descendants lived. Elderly, formerly enslaved neighbors like “Aunt” Jane Lewis were links to the past for children like Carrie and Amos Mattox, Jr.

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Henry Ford moved the Mattox Home to Greenfield Village in 1943. He can be seen in this photograph (far right) with Grace Mattox (in the doorway) and others at the home on its original site. THF123296

Like 89 percent of rural homes in 1930, the Mattox home lacked electricity and running water; kerosene lamps provided light. However, the Mattoxes owned a battery-operated radio and a hand-cranked phonograph. Amos, Jr., and Carrie could recall few leisure activities, but many occasions when the family worked together, farming, gardening, canning, and doing the wash. Most work was done outside, with seats provided on porches and under grape arbors. Houses were hot and close inside, and were used mainly for sleeping, bathing, or as shelter from the rain. In the evening the Mattoxes read from the family Bible.

Neighbors allowed their livestock, cattle and hogs, to range freely on common ground in the forest (families notched their animals’ ears with distinctive markings to prove ownership). After butchering a hog, the Mattoxes would smoke the hams for a few months in the chimney of their home. According to Amos, Jr., the chimney, made of clay and sticks, occasionally caught fire. To extinguish the fires, a member of the family climbed on the roof and poured water down the chimney.

Health care was poor and infant mortality high. Grace Mattox gave birth to six children, only two of whom survived past infancy. Often, community members would take shifts caring for a sick person night and day. Grace Mattox was instrumental in organizing home nursing for her local community.

The Mattox family’s social life, like that of their neighbors, centered around the Bryan Neck Baptist Church and the prayer house associated with it. The prayer house was about 150 feet from the Mattoxes’ home. They attended prayer meetings in Bryan Neck Baptist Church every other Sunday morning at daybreak. On alternate Sundays and Sunday evenings, as well as on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, they walked to the prayer house. The whole community was thought of as one family, including mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, and close friends. They celebrated holidays together, cared for one another in times of sickness and crisis, shared their surplus produce, and encouraged and supported one another in their daily lives.

The Mattox Home in Greenfield Village
In 1943 Henry Ford brought the Mattox home to Greenfield Village. After the purchase he agreed to let the Mattoxes continue to live on the property, built the family a new house, and bought new furnishings for it. Since no written agreement was found regarding the continued use of the property after the death of Henry Ford (1947) and his wife, Clara (1950), the Mattoxes were, sadly, evicted by the new owners, the Southern Kraft Timberland Company.

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View of the Mattox Home in Greenfield Village, showing the vegetable garden and the birdhouses made from gourds THF45319

Exterior and Grounds
Bryan County, Georgia, lies in a swampy region of the Low Country. People living in this area usually maintained yards of swept dirt to prevent the growth of vegetation and keep mosquitoes and snakes away from the houses. Residents swept fancy designs into the dirt to make the yards more attractive, especially around holidays. People also fashioned birdhouses from gourds to attract purple martins, which feed on mosquitoes and other flying insects. The birdhouses at the Mattox home, as well as the roof repaired with a cast-off sign, are examples of the family’s ingenious use of available resources.

Vegetable Garden
Most of what the Mattox family produced was for their own use. In their vegetable garden the Mattoxes raised corn, sweet potatoes, rice, peas, beans, tomatoes, and okra, as well as collard, mustard, and turnip greens.

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Rear view of the Mattox Home in Greenfield Village (the grape arbor is visible at right) THF1967

Grape Arbor
In the warm climate of coastal Georgia, families spent much of their lives outdoors. The Mattoxes’ grape arbor provided a cool, shady space for household chores like laundering or food preservation. Amos Mattox made wine from the native Southern scuppernong and muscadine grape varieties grown there.

Chicken Yard
The Mattox family raised chickens, hogs, and goats for their own use. The chickens and goats were confined in the yard near the house, while the hogs were allowed to range freely.

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Interior of the Mattox Home in Greenfield Village THF53390

The Home
That Mattoxes covered their interior walls with newspaper for both insulation and decoration. Photographs taken in the 1930s and 1940s show that this was the norm rather than the exception in small rural homes in the South.

Much of the furniture now in the home was owned by the Mattox family. The mirror on the wall originally belonged to Amos Mattox’s grandfather, Amos Morel. Needlework scattered through the rooms represent Grace Mattox’s sewing and decorating skills. Over the mantel is a copy of the only known photograph of Amos Mattox, Sr. Pictures and fans with representations of religious themes and the family Bible reflect the strong religious grounding of the family. A checkerboard with bottle caps as game pieces and homemade dolls show how the family overcame the constraints of limited means.

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Mattox Home kitchen THF53400

The room attached to the rear of the home contains the kitchen and dining room, often used as the children’s bedroom. On the woodburning cookstove, Grace Mattox prepared meals for her family and dishes to bring to church suppers and community celebrations. The family worked together to prepare canned goods that could be stored on shelves in the kitchen for use throughout the year.

Explore the Mattox Family Home for yourself in the Porches & Parlors district in Greenfield Village.

Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, African American history

As with many entrepreneur stories, this one begins with immigrants coming to the United States to pursue the American dream. That dream was to create stylish, attractive silver housewares, but a national economic crisis forced them to get creative with a new material – aluminum – and resulted in the creation of the Everlast Metal Products Corporation. This blog highlights the company’s nearly 30-year history.

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Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Yours From Everlast The Finest – Bar None!” 1947 THF125124

When the Great Depression gripped the nation during the 1930s, demand for consumer products fell as many people struggled to get by in the faltering economy. Up to this point, silver had been the primary material used for creating fashionable housewares. With few buyers able to purchase silver products, manufacturers turned to aluminum. One of the most prolific manufacturers of aluminum giftware was the Everlast Metal Products Corporation of New York City.

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Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Everlast Hand-Forged Aluminum, So Beautiful – So Versatile!” 1948-1949 THF295633

Everlast founders Louis Schnitzer and his brother-in-law, Nathan Gelfman, were experienced metalworkers in their homeland of Kiev, Russia before immigrating to the United States in the 1910s. In the early 1920s, the two men created a silver housewares business in New York City called Western Silver Works, Inc., where they polished and plated silver. By 1930, Schnitzer and Gelfman began producing silver- and chrome-plated items under the name Western Silver Novelty Company.

Affected by the decline of buyers for silver products during the Great Depression, Schnitzer and Gelfman decided to adapt, attempting to work with the modern and more affordable metal, aluminum. Aluminum was more costly than gold from its discovery in the 1800s until the first smelting methods were invented in 1886. Inexpensive aluminum cookware and kitchen utensils were manufactured in the 1890s, but poor manufacturing quality made customers skeptical of the new material. During the first World War, aluminum’s light weight and rust-resistant properties made the metal ideal for use in soldiers’ canteens and military vehicles. From this, aluminum gained wider acceptance, and consumer confidence in the metal led to a surge in aluminum products in the next few decades.

In 1932, Schnitzer and Gelfman formed Everlast Metal Products Corporation and began producing high-quality, hand-forged aluminum giftware. Hammered aluminum giftware products were, at once, both “old” and “new.” In an era of growing uniformity via factory production, the “made by hand” aspect of these products held an aesthetic appeal for consumers, while their aluminum material made them seem decidedly modern.

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Everlast “Forged” Gravy Boat, 1938-1950 THF125117
Everlast’s first product line, “Forged Giftware,” was introduced in 1933 and continued until the company closed. Featuring Colonial Revival- and Neoclassical Revival-inspired designs, this line – with items like this gravy boat – appealed to customers with traditional tastes.

 

Schnitzer, the creative force behind the company, recognized the necessity of increased marketing to promote Everlast’s products. Around 1935, Jack Orenstein was brought on as National Sales Manager. Orenstein, skilled in merchandising techniques and in building relationships with clients, was essential in the success of the company. Already successful in the giftware industry before joining the company, Orenstein organized a highly effective sales force which gave Everlast a national presence in the decorative aluminum giftware market.

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Everlast “Forged” Tray, 1933-1936 THF144106

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Everlast “Forged” Tray, 1938-1947 THF144107
Through innovative manufacturing and creative marketing, Everlast was able to expand its “Forged Giftware” product line. Instead of creating new product forms each year, the company combined new handles and design motifs with previous years’ product forms to create “new” pieces. This cost-effective method for product development enabled Everlast to introduce new items regularly while also keeping up with rapidly changing design trends. The two trays pictured here have the same form, but the second piece now features handles and a different motif.

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Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Yours from Everlast for ‘Dining Out’ at Home!” THF295629  

When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the production of aluminum for consumer goods was halted to focus on the production of military equipment. While some aluminum houseware companies struggled to adapt, Everlast rose to the challenge, securing government contracts and upgrading their facilities to produce military equipment under the name Browning Precision Tool Co.

Throughout the war, Everlast created partnerships with various businesses in the floral, woodworking, and ceramic industries, enabling the company to remain in the public awareness, despite not producing consumer goods itself. As the war was winding down, Everlast turned its focus back to manufacturing consumer products. The upgrades made to its facilities during wartime put the company in a better position to manufacture mass-produced giftware in a more cost-effective manner – just in time for increased consumer spending during a time of post-war prosperity.

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Everlast “Bali Bamboo” Ice Bucket, 1953-1959 THF125114
Everlast’s most successful line, “Bali Bamboo,” was a direct result of America’s fascination with the South Pacific following World War II. More than 60 different items, produced between 1946 and 1959, featured raised bamboo shoots and a satin finish. Together these features provided the added advantage of hiding scratches.

Following the war, Everlast resumed its advertising and marketing strategies. To increase its accessibility to consumers in the Midwest, the company also established a showroom in Chicago in 1946. Unfortunately, despite the initial post-war momentum for aluminum housewares, the industry and company struggled throughout the 1950s, experiencing setbacks that ultimately led to its demise.

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Everlast “Silvercrest” Tumbler, circa 1952 THF125119
In 1952, Everlast introduced a line called “Silvercrest,” featuring a highly polished aluminum finish. By this time, as a cost-cutting measure, the products’ “hand-forged” hammer marks were actually produced by a machine.

The first blow to the Everlast company came in 1951 when the Korean War initiated a restriction on the use of aluminum for consumer goods once again. Soon after, Jack Orenstein left the company to pursue a career in the new era of modern housewares – ceramics and plastics. Compared to these materials, which were colorful and lacked ornamentation, aluminum was beginning to be seen as old-fashioned and outdated. Despite several attempts to reinvent its products, Everlast floundered, failing to revive consumer interest in aluminum housewares.

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Everlast “Modern” Three-Tier Tidbit Tray, circa 1953 THF125116
In an attempt to reinvent its products amidst the growing popularity of plastics, Everlast introduced a contemporary line in 1953 called, “Everlast Modern.”

Like other manufacturers of the time, the company also chose to forego quality in favor of machine-made, mass-produced goods. This ultimately over-saturated the housewares market and crushed any interest in “hand-forged” household items. After nearly thirty years in business, Louis Schnitzer and Nathan Gelfman closed Everlast in 1961.

The two men from Russia had forged their American dream, adapting early on to pursue their entrepreneurial vision. It can be said that advances in technology and rapidly changing consumer interests secured the downfall of the aluminum industry. It cannot be said, however, that Everlast’s founders went down without a fight. Though their entrepreneurial journey came to an end in 1961, the founders experienced undeniable success during their company’s thirty-year history to become one of the eminent manufacturers of aluminum housewares and giftware.

To see more artifacts from the Everlast Metal Products Corporation, visit our Digital Collections.

Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from the Pic of the Month from April 2007, written by Donna Braden and Kira Macyda. Special thanks to Constance Levi for sharing her knowledge of the company and for reviewing this content.

immigrants, entrepreneurship, design

The Ford Fleet

February 3, 2020 Archive Insight

Beginning in 1915, Henry Ford, began developing the Rouge property in Dearborn, for a new Ford Motor Company plant on the east side of the Rouge River. The plan was to utilize the river to transport raw materials from coal mines and lumber mills to the factories. By 1923, the “river navigation project” was complete. The Rouge had become such a large facility, however, that one ship could not handle transporting the huge quantities of raw materials needed for production. Mr. Ford began acquiring his own fleet of ships for the company by ordering two ore carriers to be built. These ships, the Henry Ford II and Benson Ford– named after Mr. Ford’s grandsons – and would remain in service for over 50 years.

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Ford Freighter
Benson Ford docked at the Rouge River Factory, 1924.

The freighters Benson Ford and Henry Ford II were the two most modernized ships on the water at the time. Ships of the day were mainly powered by coal fired steam propulsion engines, however, the Ford ships were each equipped with a British designed 3,000 horsepower diesel engine.

Operations for the fleet were growing so rapidly that by 1925 it was necessary to establish a Marine Department within Ford Motor Company. Under the direction from Mr. Ford, the department began building out the fleet, adding the East Indian later that year. By the 1930s, Ford Motor Company expanded overseas into Europe, Asia, and South America with export plants established on the east coast. During this time, Mr. Ford purchased 200 surplus World War I merchant vessels from the United States government. Of these ships, twenty-two were converted to barges, ocean-going ships and canal carriers; the rest were scrapped for the Rouge’s steel furnaces.

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Ford Freighter East Indian docked at Jacksonville, Florida, 1935.

After the East Indian was purchased in 1925, it was reoutfitted from a steam powered engine to a diesel, like the Henry II and Benson before her. At 461 feet long, and with her new engines totaling 3,000 horsepower, the East Indian quickly became the most powerful merchant motorship under the American flag.

At the start of World War II, the fleet carried less ore and fewer finished parts to Ford factories forcing the company to cut back on operations during the lake shipping seasons, placing more emphasis on non-Ford cargoes. By June 1942, 500 American ships were sunk by submarines in the Atlantic ocean with casualties of over 5,000 crewmen. During this time, almost the entire Ford Fleet was recruited by the United States government for war service.

In November 1941, the Green Island, the third of the Ford ships to go to war, was put on a maritime commission in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, only six months later, the Green Island was hauling sugar from Cuba to the United States when a German submarine came upon her and ordered her crew into lifeboats. After all the crew members were safely away from the ship, the ship was torpedoed and sent her to the bottom of the ocean. After being held prisoner by the Germans, the entire crew was rescued, the only Ford crew to be so lucky.

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Ford Freighter
Green Island arriving at New York City dock, August 4, 1937.

A month before the sinking of the Green Island, two of Ford’s ocean-going lakers, Oneida and Onondaga, were turned over to the government in June 1942. Only one month later, on July 13, 1942, the Oneida was on a bareboat charter when it was sunk by a German submarine off the east coast of Cuba; six of the crew were lost. The Onondaga was sunk just ten days after that, about 200 miles west of where her sister vessel was lost; fourteen of the crew, including the captain were lost along with one passenger.

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Ford Freighter Oneida at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1924.

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Ford Freighter Onondaga docked in Los Angeles, California, March 16, 1925.

In early 1942, the freighter East Indian was commissioned by the WSA for a time charter in Capetown, South Africa. The ship and her crew left Capetown on November 2, 1942 on a planned out-of-the-way course that was meant to avoid German submarines. Unknown to them, German submarines had spotted the ship shortly after they left port; at 5 o’clock in the afternoon on November 3, a torpedo struck the ship, sinking it within two minutes. The crew who were able to get aboard lifeboats did, but remained at the mercy of the Nazis and the ocean.

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Report of Marine Casualty or Accident for Sunken Ford Freighter East Indian, February 15, 1943.

Report submitted February 15, 1943 detailing the sinking of the East Indian on November 3, 1942. Details include information about vessel and master of ship; information about last port of departure and trip; type of cargo ship was carrying; purpose of trip; and information on lost crew members.

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Letter from Harold Axtell to Ford Motor Company regarding the Sunken Ford Freighter East Indian, July 1, 1943.

Harold Axtell's son was aboard the East Indian when it sank Nov 3, 1942.  In this letter he is still inquiring about his son's fate.  He also enclosed a newspaper clipping about 6 men from the East Indian who were found on a raft in Maceio, Brazil, and wonders if his son might be one of the men.

 

According to Murdoch MacLean, a survivor of the ordeal, reported that, once the ship was sunk, a German officer told the crew that “I got a beam on you at nine this morning. Had we fired then, we would have saved you 100 miles…I’m sorry, for you had a beautiful ship. However, this is war” (Snyder 57). The crew were stranded in lifeboats, with no supplies, for thirteen days after their ship sunk. A British ship, the “Durando” came upon the survivors, bringing them safely back to port in Capetown. There were 74 men aboard the East Indian with only 40 survivors. Additionally, the British rescue ship, the Durando was sunk on its way back to England, with loss of all hands.

By 1950, the Ford Fleet only delivered a fraction of the cargoes received at the Rouge Factory. In 1953, the “new Ford Fleet” was launched, which consisted of eight new additions to the fleet, including the William Clay Ford, freighter By 1975, the entire fleet was capable of hauling regular cargoes of raw materials and excess vessel capacity was available. Ford began chartering the fleet to carry cargoes for other companies through the latter half of the twentieth century. By the early 1990s, most of the original fleet was decommissioned through scrapping projects or rechristened to other companies or private buyers. The pilot house of the William Clay Ford was rehoused as part of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle State Park while the pilot house of the Benson Ford was purchased by a private owner and is now a private residence on Put-In-Bay island.

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Ford Freighter
William Clay Ford docked at Rouge Factory, 1953.


Cory Taylor is an Imaging Technician at The Henry Ford.

by Cory Taylor, Ford Motor Company

As Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, I research objects within The Henry Ford’s collections that tell entrepreneurial stories. Most recently, I delved into the Label Collection’s food labels – a collection of beautiful labels from canned food and West Coast fruit crates. This post will highlight the story of “Fruit King,” Joseph Di Giorgio.

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Crate Label, “Oh Yes! We Grow the Best California Fruits,” 1930-1940, used by the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation THF293029

Giuseppe “Joseph” Di Giorgio (1874-1951) was introduced to the fruit business at a young age. His father grew lemons and grapes, among other seasonal crops, in Sicily. In 1888, at the age of 14, Di Giorgio immigrated to the United States. When he arrived in New York, speaking little-to-no English, he found work as a fruit jobber, a middleman who would buy large quantities of goods from fruit packers and sell those goods to retailers or merchants.

After a short time of learning the business, Di Giorgio moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he set up his own store selling lemons. By the age of 16, he had become one of the most successful fruit receivers and distributors in Baltimore. But lemons were a seasonal crop. To supplement his income in the off-season, he began importing bananas from the West Indies – a prosperous endeavor that eventually became a year-round business.

His good fortune allowed him to invest in other business ventures, including partnerships with investors to open auction houses for fresh produce in various cities across the United States. Shipments of produce were brought into the auction houses and sold quickly at fair prices to merchants who would gather daily for their pick of the products. It was a profitable business. Owners of the auction house received money from packing and shipping companies for hosting the sale, and received commission on the sold goods. By 1904, Di Giorgio owned auction houses in New York and Baltimore, and had partial interests in others along the East Coast and throughout the Midwest. 

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1924 Railroad Refrigerator Car, Used by Fruit Growers Express THF68309

Refrigerated rail cars, like this one, allowed meats and produce to be shipped for long distances without spoiling. This innovation allowed farmers to reach new and distant markets, and it provided tastier, healthier foods to consumers.

Joseph Di Giorgio recognized that a direct influence in the growing and packing business would allow him to control every aspect of the fresh produce business – the orchards where the fruit was grown, the harvesting and packing of the produce, shipment to the auction houses he already owned, and the final sale to merchants. In 1911, Di Giorgio seized the opportunity to make his vision a reality by purchasing Earl Fruit Company, the dominant packing company in California.

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Men Loading Fruit Boxes onto Horse-Drawn Wagons, circa 1905 THF205612

By the time Joseph Di Giorgio purchased the Earl Fruit Company in 1911, it had packing houses in every important fruit center across the state of California. The company shipped its produce across the country to eastern markets by rail and to local markets by horse-drawn wagon. In this photograph, taken in 1905 before Di Giorgio purchased the company, men load crates of oranges bearing the name “Earl Fruit Company” onto wagons heading for market. 

With the profits he made through this lucrative acquisition, Di Giorgio was able to expand even further. His first land acquisition came in 1918 when he purchased citrus groves in Florida. The following year, he developed open desert land in California’s San Joaquin Valley, turning it into a thriving oasis for various fruits. By 1920, Joseph Di Giorgio was the leading supplier of California’s deciduous fruit (that is, fruit that grows on vines, trees, and bushes, excluding citrus fruits.) He also owned apple orchards in Oregon and Washington, plum orchards in Idaho which produced prunes, and citrus orchards in Florida that yielded oranges and grapefruit. At this time, Di Giorgio still owned an operation in the banana industry as well, but he abandoned this venture in the 1930s as he turned his focus to his domestic interests.

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Crate Label for Blue Flag Brand Pears, 1920-1994 THF293053

Upon arrival at an auction house, merchants were given a catalogue of the produce available. With so many companies and brands to choose from, it was important for fruit packers to make their products stand out. Companies often adopted a signature image or brand to help loyal customers recognize their products. One of Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation’s widely used brands was Blue Flag Brand, which featured a flag within its label design.

In December 1920, Di Giorgio established the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation, combining all of his holdings – close to 50 by one estimate – into one company. Throughout the next several decades, the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation would venture into the vegetable and canning industries. In the 1930s, the company entered the wine business and by mid-century had the largest winery in the state of California.

At the time of his death in 1951, Joseph Di Giorgio was at the peak of his career as a grower, and his company was the largest fruit-packing enterprise in the country. The success of his company can be attributed to Di Giorgio’s leadership. His experience in all aspects of the fruit industry allowed him to recognize potential problems and adapt appropriately. A brilliant and personable man, Di Giorgio earned respect and loyalty from employees and clients alike – an aspect of the business Di Giorgio was proud of. But above all, he was confident and dedicated to seeing his vision through, propelling the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation to national recognition and appropriately earning himself the media-given nickname, the “Fruit King.”

Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford.

food, immigrants, entrepreneurship

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This full-color, large-format book is a compilation of Buster Brown comic strips that originally ran in the
New York Herald in 1903 and 1904. THF297428

You may not know his name, but you’re likely familiar his work. Richard Outcault, a talented comic illustrator with a keen eye for marketing, found his ultimate success with the character Buster Brown in the early 1900s.

Born in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1863, Richard Felton Outcault showed an early interest in art. As a teenager, he attended the McMicken School of Design (now the Art Academy of Cincinnati) and found work painting decorative scenes for a Cincinnati safe manufacturer. By 1889, Outcault had taken a position as an artist at Thomas Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory, working primarily on corporate exhibitions.

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Richard Outcault created this illustration for Edison’s exhibit at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It depicts the Menlo Park laboratory complex in 1879, when Edison first demonstrated his experimental lighting system. THF236600

Around 1890, Outcault left West Orange for New York City, where he began contributing mechanical drawings to technical publications like Electrical World and Street Railway Journal. He also submitted comic illustrations to some of the popular weekly humor magazines that had emerged in the 1880s, including Judge, Life, and Puck.

As public interest in comic publications grew, new advances in color printing technology became available, and newspaper publishers saw an opportunity to cash in. In 1893, the New York World introduced a weekly color comic supplement that, at first, reprinted illustrations from the humor magazines it mimicked. Richard Outcault joined the staff of the World as a cartoonist and published his first original comic for the paper in September 1894.

The Yellow Kid
By 1896, one of the recurring characters in Outcault’s comics – a little baldheaded boy wearing a bright yellow nightshirt – had become a sensation. World readers began buying the paper every Sunday to check in on the adventures of the “Yellow Kid,” who the paper also licensed for merchandising. The Yellow Kid became the face of a wide range of products, from cigarettes and packaged foods to fashion accessories and household appliances.

The Yellow Kid’s popularity demonstrated the commercial value of comics and helped establish the medium as a newspaper fixture. Richard Outcault likely never benefitted directly from the licensing of the Yellow Kid – at that time, newspapers owned the rights to the images published in them, and copyright law didn’t protect characters – but he noted the marketing potential of a popular comic character.

Buster Brown
With the success of the Yellow Kid, Outcault himself became something of a commodity. Demand for his comics kept him busy, and Outcault continued illustrating for several newspapers and magazines through the turn of the century. In 1902, he introduced Buster Brown, a mischievous 12-year-old boy from a well-heeled Manhattan family. Readers went crazy for Buster Brown’s shenanigans (and for his pet dog, Tige). Outcault had another hit on his hands.

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Richard Outcault was a pioneer in the strip style of comic illustration, with sequential image panels and accompanying text (often in speech bubbles) that contributed to the narrative. By about 1900, this format had become standard for comics. THF297493

This time, he managed to profit from it. Though he never owned the legal rights to Buster Brown, Outcault licensed the character’s name and face to hundreds of companies. Buster Brown promoted everything from bread and cigars to toys and – perhaps most famously – shoes.

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This bank is just one example of the hundreds of products manufactured during the first quarter of the twentieth century that bore Buster Brown’s likeness. Buster’s canine companion, Tige, sits at the horse’s feet. THF304975

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The St. Louis-based Brown Shoe Company (now Caleres) is probably the best-known Buster Brown licensee. Buster and Tige promoted the Brown company’s shoes – commonly called “Buster Browns” – into the 1990s.
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Americans purchased these branded products for decades after Outcault introduced Buster Brown. The character became a household name that outlived its comic strip, which was last published in 1921. By then, Richard Outcault was focusing less on illustrating and more on marketing. Eventually, he stepped away from comics altogether, returning to painting before his death in 1928. Eighty years later, the comic industry formally recognized Outcault’s important career, inducting him into its hall of fame at the 2008 San Diego Comic Convention.

Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford

popular culture, newspapers, drawings, communication, by Saige Jedele

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One of the comic book titles that came under attack in the 1950s
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The popularity of comic books has always ebbed and flowed.  But there was a time when their very survival was at stake.  Back in the 1950s, Cold War hysteria and the fear of Communist infiltration into American society led to a deep concern about, and intense scrutiny of, comic books.  This was the one medium at the time that went directly from manufacturer to child, bypassing adult supervision. 

An American psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham fanned the flames of adult concern at the time.  Dr. Wertham worked with juvenile delinquents and found that the one thing they all seemed to have in common was their devotion to comic books.  Beginning in 1948, he went on an anti-comic book crusade, writing and speaking out against the detrimental effects that he claimed comic book reading had on young people.  

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Dr. Wertham’s
Seduction of the Innocent book, 1954 THF277193

Dr. Wertham summed up his arguments in his 1954 opus, Seduction of the Innocent.  This 400-page indictment of the comic book industry warned parents and educators that comic books were not only a harmful form of popular literature but also a serious cause of juvenile delinquency.  In the book, as in his lectures, he cited examples of violence, sexual themes, drug use, and other adult fare that he had found within the pages of actual comic books—asserting that reading this material encouraged similar behavior.  According to Dr. Wertham, these examples were especially evidenced in the extremely popular crime and horror titles published by the EC comic book company at the time. 

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Comic books with covers like this one, showing violence and scantily clad women, were among those that Dr. Wertham denounced. THF141552

Seduction of the Innocent created a sensation, as Dr. Wertham put forth a potent combination of professional expertise and moral outrage.  It confirmed the growing fear by many parents that their children’s attachment to comic books was permanently harming their willingness to conform to societal rules and hindering their ability to become law-abiding citizens in America’s democratic society.

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1951 Superman comic book predating the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of approval THF141569

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1965 Superman comic book with its Comics Code Authority stamp of approval in the upper right corner THF305329

The national attention focused upon the comic book industry led to a simultaneous U.S. Congressional inquiry in 1954.  As things were looking bleak for the comic book industry, the publishers decided to band together and self-censor their own titles by adopting a new Comics Code Authority (or CCA).  According to CCA regulations, each company was required to include a Stamp of Approval on the cover of every one of its issues as a sign that it had met compliance with the Code.

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December 1954 issue of Mad when it was a comic book, just before it was converted into a magazine THF141567

As a result, EC titles were soon taken off the shelves.  In fact, this company would have been completely wiped out except for its popular Mad magazine, which became highly successful in its own right.  Even though the other comic book companies honed their stories closely to the guidelines of the Code, the damage had been done.  Comic books were held in disdain for years to the point that, by the early 1960s, their very survival was at risk.  We can thank, in large part, Marvel Comics’ new approach to stories and superheroes for their remarkable comeback.    

Dr. Wertham was later discredited for “manipulating, overstating, compromising, and fabricating” evidence.  And, before long, parents found that comic books were minor in their concern about harmful influences on America’s youth, as they seemed like nothing compared to the new Hollywood teenage films, paperback novels, and rock ‘n’ roll music!  Only later did people better understand that teenage angst and rebellion were very normal parts of growing up.

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Teenage movies like the one shown in this 1959 poster made comic books seem tame by comparison. THF109455

Through the ensuing decades, few comic books dared veer from the Code’s regulations that forbade depictions of graphic violence, advocated alignment with societal norms, and dictated that all comic book stories end on an upbeat note.  But by the late 20th century, these norms had changed enough that the earlier regulations had lost much of their relevance.  The two major comic book companies—Marvel and DC—finally dropped the CCA in favor of their own rating systems—in 2001 and 2011, respectively.

For a time, comic books went on trial.  But they managed to survive and adapt.  Ironically, later studies revealed that comic books actually played a positive role in enhancing literacy, inspiring imagination, providing new career outlets, and leading to lifetime hobbies.

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.  See her other blog posts, Hooked on Comic Books and Battle of the Superheroes: DC vs. Marvel.

books, popular culture, by Donna R. Braden, comic books