Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Man in suit and hat slightly leaning over towards a clock and wall with many slots for cards
Thomas Edison Punching the Time Clock at His West Orange, New Jersey Laboratory, August 27, 1912. Read on for more on this provenance research story! / THF108339

As my colleague Laura Lipp discusses in her blog post on cataloging, The Henry Ford’s registrar’s office sometimes “plays detective” by engaging in provenance research to determine the history of the ownership of an artifact – and to deepen our knowledge of the stories behind our artifacts.

First, a little background on our early collecting.

In the 1920s and 1930s, The Henry Ford received thousands upon thousands of artifacts from sources all over the country. Staff at that time attached paper and metal tags to the artifacts, writing their source information (either the donor or the point of purchase) on the tags. They also typically included the geographic location of the source and a date. In the 1950s, staff began to catalog the collection, assigning object identification numbers (“object IDs”) and creating files that held any documentation or correspondence about the artifacts. The object ID is the unique number assigned to an artifact that indicates what year the artifact came in, and links it to its “provenance”—the source it came from and any associated stories.

On occasion over the years, staff encounter artifacts that have lost their tags, or the tags have crumbled or become illegible, so the artifacts have been disassociated with their histories. At this point, the detective work begins, to figure out the artifact’s provenance. We have many internal resources at hand to perform provenance research – our catalog database, our files and correspondence, photographs of artifacts, inventories, original cataloging cards, and more. We also use the Internet, oftentimes turning to online genealogical databases of census and demographic records.

An example of disassociated artifacts came up one day when someone wanted to know what artifacts we had related to Alexander Hamilton (can’t imagine why). Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable and I started looking into it. Upon searching our database, we discovered that we had received some silver that descended in the Hamilton family to Alexander and Eliza’s great-great granddaughter, Mary Schuyler Hamilton: a “sugar bowl” and candlesticks. Unfortunately, the lost tags meant we had to work through all our silver records to see what might match.

We looped in Image Services Specialist Jim Orr and he found a photo of these silver artifacts taken around the time they arrived at our museum. Now we at least knew what they looked like! The sugar bowl was not a sugar bowl – with its pierced sides, the sugar would have leaked out. We expanded our search to other silver bowls and dishes, and the curator and I came across a record for a “sweetmeat” dish that sounded promising. The record had a silver project inventory number and a location. After a quick trip to one of our storage rooms, lo and behold, the “sweetmeat dish,” a bit tarnished, matched the artifact in the image! One down, candlesticks to go.

Silver dish with basket-like shape and handle
Sweetmeat Dish, Used by Alexander Hamilton, 1780-1800 / THF169541

After an unsuccessful stop in a storage area where there are many candlesticks, I returned to my desk and started going through all our silver candlestick records. Just as I was getting ready to call it a day, I reached a record, took a double-take, and called the curator over from his office to look at it. “OH MY …!” was the exclamation all my co-workers heard, “YOU FOUND THEM!” We reunited the candlesticks with the sweetmeat dish, had them photographed, and they are now viewable online. I can easily state that was one of my proudest days.

Tall thin silver candlesticks with broad square base, many decorative elements
Candlesticks, Used by Alexander Hamilton, 1780-1800 / THF169539

Most of the time, we know who donated artifacts, and where the donors lived. When looking to further document these artifacts in our collection, we do research into the donors to fill in information that wasn’t originally captured. While working on a project related to agricultural equipment, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid and I were interested in learning more about some artifacts that were donated by Iva and Ruby Fuerst, such as this potato digger and this hand dibble.

Machinery with wheels, gears, and what appears to be a conveyor belt
Potato Digger Donated to The Henry Ford by Iva and Ruby Fuerst / THF97302

Digging into the Internet and genealogical records, I was able to reconstruct a small family tree. Ruby and Iva’s grandparents, Lorenzo and Barbara Fuerst, immigrated from Germany and were farmers in Greenfield Township (now Detroit) starting in the late 1850s. After the passing of Barbara in 1905, Iva and Ruby’s father Jacob, who had an adjacent farm, continued farming in that area until he sold it in 1918 and bought a farm in Novi Township. We now know that some of the equipment was likely used first on the farms in Detroit and later in Novi. Ruby and Iva, with no heirs to pass the land to, sold most of the Novi farm to the city around 1970. It is now known as Fuerst Park, and you can find a photo of young Ruby and Iva in this brochure.

Wooden implement with broad handle and pointed end
Hand Dibble Donated to The Henry Ford by Iva and Ruby Fuerst / THF171836

It's not just 3D artifacts that need provenance research, but also some of our archival holdings. One day, staff encountered some timecards in the archives that appeared to have been used by Thomas Edison. Curious to know more and hopeful to verify that exciting association, Registrar Lisa Korzetz investigated the matter and was able to find correspondence with the donor, Miller Reese Hutchinson, chief engineer at Edison’s West Orange Laboratory. Hutchinson details in his letter that the four timecards he was donating were the first four cards used by Edison in 1912 after Hutchinson had installed a new time clock at the laboratory. He also donated a photograph of Edison using the timecards at the time clock. Hutchinson was determined for a week to try to capture Edison using the timecards and clock, and finally succeeded on the last day of the week!

Card with printed form filled out with typed, handwritten, and stamped text.
Time Card Punched by Thomas Edison at His West Orange Laboratory, for the Week Ending August 27, 1912 / THF108331

Today, when cataloging new artifacts for the collection, we document the provenance via the background information that the curator gleans from the donor or point of purchase. We do additional research to verify and fill in any historical background. We apply the object ID directly to the artifact in a manner approved by Conservation – different methods on different materials. We also make sure the number is discreet and easily reversible – meaning it can be removed without any adverse effects to the artifact. By using these standard museum practices to document and identify artifacts, we assist our curatorial colleagues in their pursuit to interpret and exhibit our collections to the public.

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digitization, collections care, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, research, by Aimee Burpee

My name is Shannon Rossi, and I’m a Collections Specialist, Cataloger, for archival items. I started at The Henry Ford as a Simmons Intern in 2018, and have been a Collections Specialist since March 2019. Anyone who knows me knows that I love The Wizard of Oz. It is my favorite film. I collect Oz memorabilia and am a member of The International Wizard of Oz Club.

The artifact I’m going to talk about here is related to The Wizard of Oz. But it’s not the artifact you might expect.

Green, red, and beige cover with illustration of lion and text
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first edition, 1900 / THF135495

On my second day as a Simmons intern in 2018, Sarah Andrus, Librarian at The Henry Ford, showed me a beautiful first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The little girl who used to dance around the house singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” rejoiced when I was able to hold that book in my hands. In my own collection of Oz memorabilia, I have a 1939 edition, but this was another experience entirely.

Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the 1939 musical starring Judy Garland. I signed up to do a History Outside the Box presentation to commemorate the anniversary. History Outside the Box allows us to showcase some of our archival items that visitors to The Henry Ford might not otherwise get a chance to see. In addition to the first edition book, I knew we had some fantastic Oz artifacts in our collection. We have copies of the special edition TV Guides that came out in July 2000, each with one of the main characters on the cover. We have sheet music for “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and “Over the Rainbow,” a coloring book from the 1950s, an original 1939 advertisement for the film an issue of Life magazine, and a photograph of Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) when he visited Greenfield Village in the 1960s.

Older man in hat and sweater with three boys
Bert Lahr Signing Autographs during a Visit to Greenfield Village, August 22, 1966 / THF128032

The artifact I want to talk about isn’t as famous or recognizable as anything I listed above. You pretty much have to be a diehard Oz fan (or have worked on acquiring, cataloging, or digitizing this item—which I did not) to even associate much meaning with it.

While browsing our collections for archival items to use in my History Outside the Box presentation, I found a theater program from the 1903 musical production of The Wizard of Oz at the Boston Theatre. (Be honest, how many of you knew that the 1939 film wasn’t the first musical production of Oz?)

Program cover with text, image of lion, floral border
Theater Program, "The Wizard of Oz," Boston Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts, 1903 / THF93092

We’ve established that I am a huge Oz fan. I knew about this production, as well as several of the early film productions (check them out if you get a chance!), but I had never seen a program from the show. This program is not visually spectacular. It is black and white. The vivid colors and magical illustrations from W.W. Denslow that are featured in the Oz first edition are conspicuously absent. In fact, the only illustration that anyone might associate with Oz is on the cover, which features a beautiful illustration of the Cowardly Lion about to fall asleep among a field of poppies that create a border around the page.

The story and lyrics for this musical adaptation was written by L. Frank Baum, but not all of it would seem familiar. We’d see, of course, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Wizard. The Cowardly Lion, however, cannot speak, as he does in the book and almost every later adaption, nor does he ever befriend Dorothy. Dorothy’s house doesn’t land on any Wicked Witch. Nor does she receive any magical slippers (silver, as in the book, or ruby, as in the movie). Even our favorite precocious Cairn Terrier, Toto, is missing from this story. Toto is replaced by a cow named Imogene, who serves as Dorothy’s Kansas companion.

Two pages with "List of Characters, Act I," and ads with images and text
The cast list for Act I in the program includes Dorothy Gale and “Dorothy’s playmate,” the cow Imogene. / THF141760

The action in Oz has to do with political tensions between the Wizard and Pastoria, the King of Oz (who does appear in later Oz books). In fact, even real-life politicians and notable members of society at the time, including Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, were mentioned in the script.

The Boston Theatre production that audiences saw in November 1903 featured songs by composer Paul Tietjens, who had approached L. Frank Baum about creating an Oz musical as early as March 1901. Tietjens wasn’t exactly famous, but the play did feature some well-known actors of the early 20th century.

Most importantly, there are two names in the program that stand out: Fred Stone and David Montgomery. The two actors were paired on stage in many vaudeville shows. The pair played the Scarecrow and Tin Man in this musical adaptation. Later, when Ray Bolger was cast as the Scarecrow in the 1939 musical, he would credit Stone with inspiring his “boneless” style of dance and movement as the character.

Program with text and ads with text and/or images
Page seven of the program lists actors Fred A. Stone as the Scarecrow and David C. Montgomery as the Tin Woodman / THF141761

I’m grateful that this artifact was digitized. It’s not something you see or hear about very often, but it has a lot of power for Oz fans like me. That’s the power of digitization—the impact of a digitized artifact doesn’t have to reach huge audiences, if it reaches a smaller but enthusiastic audience. Digitization can allow us to marvel (slight pun about Professor Marvel in the 1939 musical definitely intended…) at an object we know exists somewhere out in the world, but have never seen before.

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actors, acting, popular culture, archives, books, #digitization100K, digital collections, digitization, by Shannon Rossi

As a Collections Specialist in the Registrar’s Office, I help catalog The Henry Ford’s collection. If you have used our Digital Collections, then you have seen a small part of what we capture when cataloging.

Cataloging is the process of documenting collections objects by recording information in a computer database. We record such information as who made the object, where it was used, what its measurements are, what it is made of, how it may have been used, and any related stories. In order to fully flesh out catalog records, we often must become detectives to figure out an object’s past. This could be as simple as searching patent records, or as complex as using Ancestry.com to learn more about the people behind the object.

Graphic with text
This graphic shows how cataloging fits into our larger digitization process.

So how do we catalog? Using standards that have been informed by the Getty Research Institute’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus, Library of Congress, and Nomenclature 4.0. We have adapted these standards and developed our own to ensure that each cataloger is on the same page. These standards guide us when describing the objects we are cataloging to ensure we use the same language—for example, whether or not to spell out the Saint in Saint Louis. This consistency will make sure the records are easily retrievable, both in our database and online.

Each object is assigned a number that enables us to track it in the collection, both physically and digitally (in our database). We record as much information as we can from the object itself. Unfortunately, most objects do not tell us when they were made, even if they do have manufacturer information. If it has patent information, that does not necessarily mean it was made in that year, either. We cross-reference catalogs, primary source documents, and sometimes other objects in the collection to narrow down date ranges.

Piece of equipment with many wires or cables
Model of Van Depoele Rotating Pole Motor, circa 1885 / THF165665

Sometimes we have to dig through genealogical records to figure out when an object was made. One such object, the motor model shown above, was documented as made by “Feigo,” but when the typo was corrected, I used Alexander J.R. Fiego’s entire professional history (from city directories available on Ancestry.com) to figure out when he made this motor model. It was fascinating tracking all of his professional changes throughout the years, as well as seeing advertisements in the city directories. Catalogers often fall down interesting rabbit holes while researching objects. Sometimes such research tangents help us connect previously unrelated objects in the collections, or we just learn more about the past – fun adventures we share with our co-workers!

page with text
A screenshot showing some of the many records available on AncestryLibrary.com that were used when researching Alexander J.R. FIego.

Brass cylinder with turnkey on side
Key Socket, circa 1885 / THF181206

Ensuring that our cataloging information is accurate can mean poring over United States patent records to help with narrowing down dates or finding manufacturers. While researching a light socket with the inscription: PAT. MAY 6 - 84 APR 21 - 85 JUNE 16 - 85 / U.S. / SYSTEM, patent records helped not only to narrow down when the object was created, as it would not be associated with any patent taken out after June 16, 1885, but also to identify the creator. Any company with “United States” in its name, like the “United States Electrical Lighting Company,” is likely going to be a challenge to find unless they are in a niche industry. Thankfully, the light socket had full patent dates that allowed me to easily search through patent records with the help of Google Patents; the ones that helped me identify the creator of this socket are linked above, and a screenshot, below, shows one of the June 16, 1885, patents.

Drawing labeled with numbers
One of the three patents that was used during the course of research on 00.1164.6.

Even with all of our due diligence, objects can sometimes be disassociated from their number over time. We refer to these objects as “found-in-collections,” and when researching them, go through the same process as above. However, since we do not know when the object was donated or how the donor used it, this is where we really become detectives. If we cannot uncover its actual number using our files, then it receives a found-in-collections number in the hopes that one day we can reunite it with its provenance.

(As an aside, provenance research is a very important part of our process and can take a long time. Look for an upcoming blog post by my colleague Aimee Burpee highlighting some interesting stories we have uncovered via provenance research.)

Once cataloged, if an object is requested for digitization, it is photographed and then the object record is put through a review process. After these steps are completed, the artifact is flagged for our Digital Collections and harvested by automated processes for release online—where you can search and view it!

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by Laura Myles, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digitization, research

Black box with knobs and text; two batteries at side

Pocket Radio, circa 1925, manufactured by the Auto Indicator Company of Grand Rapids. / THF156309

Today, the portability of audio entertainment has become second nature to most people around the world. With relative ease, a person can put in/on a pair of headphones, wirelessly connect to a handheld device of their choosing and pick from a wide variety of options, including music, podcasts, audio books, etc. While we have become accustomed to this comfort and convenience today, in the early 1920s, “portable” and “wireless” tech, like the battery-powered “Pocket Radio” manufactured by the Auto Indicator Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was considered cutting edge in the audio entertainment industry.

The roots of the portable nature of the Pocket Radio can be traced back to Thomas Edison’s 1877 unveiling of his phonograph. The machine, which was the first to practically demonstrate that sound could be recorded and reproduced, proved that an audience didn’t have to be physically present in order to enjoy a listening experience. By the 1910s, subsequent improvements of the phonograph by other inventors and companies had brought a booming audio entertainment industry to the masses.

Three men in suits, two standing and one seated, around a piece of equipment
Thomas Edison, Charles Batchelor and Uriah Painter with Edison's Phonograph, April 18, 1878. / THF111744

Consumers grew used to the idea that the sounds they enjoyed could be listened to on their own time and in their own space – all with the help of their own personal phonograph. When World War I broke out, portable versions of phonographs found their way to the front lines not only for military use in the training of recruits, but also to entertain troops. The much-needed musical reprieve provided through a phonograph boosted morale by helping soldiers, individually or in groups, briefly escape the terror happening around them.

Wooden cabinet with four thin legs and decorative elements; top open to show machinery
Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph, 1919. In the years just after World War I, Americans loved listening to music on their phonographs. Thomas Edison's Diamond Disc Phonograph Company was at its peak of production. / THF63458

Wartime also provided an opportunity to explore another cutting-edge technology that had gained traction before the war – wireless communication in the form of radio waves. During World War I, the U.S. government took over the fledgling radio industry and instituted a ban on civilian use of radio in order to further their wartime experimentation. After the war, the ban was lifted in 1919, and by mid-1922 a “radio craze” was sweeping the nation, as Americans became infatuated with the new technology. Around the country, broadcasting stations began to spring up to serve the thousands of listeners seeking to tune in to hear music, news and more.

Man at a microphone is surrounded by many people with various noise-making items
Behind the Scenes of a Radio Drama, 1923 / THF120581

In 1924, partners in the Auto Indicator Company of Grand Rapids sought entry into this market with their Pocket Radio. As one of the first companies to patent and manufacture signal lights for automobiles, their demonstrated business savvy showed they understood that the increasing affordability of the automobile and a booming post-war economy meant more consumers on the go – and these consumers wanted to take their audio entertainment with them.

Small group of people in a field with two cars and a table covered in gear
Like many Americans during the 1920s, these two couples, their children, and a family dog, answered the call of the open road. The families have set up in an open field while auto touring. / THF105461

By today’s standards, the four pound (12 x 3 x 3 inches) “Pocket Radio” would not be considered “pocket-sized.” But in 1924, the summer tourist or picnicker that bought this radio for $23.50 would have understood that “pocket” referred to the pocket door of an automobile, where the radio could be stored. Without having to worry about bringing physical records to play on a portable phonograph or lugging around an early battery-powered table-top sized radio, a Pocket Radio owner could tune in to any broadcast station within five miles, and, with the addition of an aerial or ground receiver, could listen to a broadcast station that was 1,000 miles away.

Piece of equipment
Operadio 2 Portable Broadcast Receiver, 1923-1927. The Operadio 2 was among the first generation of commercial portable radios. While a "mobile" device weighing 30 pounds may be laughable to us now, the Operadio was a groundbreaking device. / THF160275

A seemingly smart product, the Pocket Radio didn’t bring the business partners of the Auto Indicator Company much success. By the mid-1920s, they had given up on the radio and molded their former business into the Multi-Selecto Phonograph Company, an unwise decision in a turbulent time. Throughout the 1920s, while the phonograph remained a viable product, the industry underwent significant strain with the changes brought on by the advent of the “Golden Age of Radio.” While companies tried to stay afloat by selling hybridized products that combined the radio and the phonograph, like many other phonograph companies of the time, the Multi-Selecto Phonograph Company wouldn’t make it out of the Great Depression.

Wooden cabinet with knobs and machinery inside
Victor Electrola, 1927. By the late 1920s, radio tuners, phonographs, amplifiers, and loudspeakers began to condense into one unit. Manufacturers housed this technology within attractive wooden consoles, accepted as furniture within consumer's living rooms. / THF159418

Today, the Pocket Radio serves as documentation of an exciting time in the history of technology, where new ideas met at a crossroads to provide the consumer with more personal freedom in how and where they enjoyed their entertainment choices.


Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

portability, technology, radio, Michigan, communication, by Ryan Jelso

Crowd of people outside a building
A crowd gathers outside the news office of the San Francisco Examiner to await the outcome of the 1920 presidential election.  Reporters used loudspeakers to announce the results to the throng of voters and spectators. / THF610502


On Election Day, November 2, 1920, Americans waited anxiously for news of who would be the next President of the United States.  In the evening, many voters milled around newspaper and government offices waiting to hear from election officials and reporters the latest results that were streaming across telephone and telegraph wires; others waited to read about the outcome in the next day's newspaper. But in 1920, a growing number of Americans could stay at home and listen to election returns announced over the expanding wireless media -- radio.  During the next decades, radio would become an essential link in the political life of Americans -- not only for Election Day results, but for news of campaigns, conventions, and inaugurations; reports on the life of the President; and for the calm reassurance of leadership articulated in fireside chats.

Equipment with dials and wires on table in windowed room
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, radio station KDKA broadcast the election returns in between musical interludes to hundreds of listeners on Election Day.  The station was the first federally licensed commercial radio station in America. This photograph shows the studio in 1920. / THF120670


Andy Stupperich is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

communication, radio, voting, by Andy Stupperich

Boxy blue vehicle in doorway; one person on hands and knees looking underneath; 2 other people standing nearby
The Mcity Driverless Shuttle arrives at The Henry Ford.

Thanks to a generous gift from the University of Michigan (U-M), The Henry Ford recently acquired its second autonomous vehicle: a driverless shuttle used by U-M’s Mcity connected and automated vehicle research center. Readers may recall that we acquired our first AV in 2018 – a 2016 General Motors Self-Driving Test Vehicle. While the GM car was an experimental vehicle focused on technology, the Mcity shuttle took part in an intriguing project more focused on the psychology of consumer trust and acceptance of driverless vehicles.

From June 4, 2018, through December 13, 2019, Mcity, a public-private research partnership led by U-M, operated this driverless shuttle at U-M’s North Campus Research Complex in Ann Arbor. The project’s purpose was to understand how passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers interacted with autonomous vehicles. In effect, the project was a way to gauge consumer acceptance of a decidedly unconventional new technology.

The shuttle donated to The Henry Ford is one of two fully-automated, electrically-powered, 11-seat shuttles Mcity operated on a fixed route around the research complex throughout the course of the study. The shuttles were built by French manufacturer Navya. In late 2016, Navya had delivered its first self-driving shuttle in North America to Mcity, where it was used to support research and to demonstrate automated vehicle technology. In June 2017, Mcity announced plans to launch a research project in the form of an on-campus shuttle service that would be open to the U-M community.

The Mcity Driverless Shuttle operated on a one-mile loop around the North Campus Research Complex at speeds averaging about 10 miles per hour. The service ran Monday-Friday from 9 AM to 3 PM. While its route avoided heavy-traffic arteries, the shuttle nevertheless shared two-way public roadways with cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. It operated in a variety of weather conditions, including winter cold and snow; but was not used in more extreme weather, such as heavy snow or rain.

Side view of boxy blue shuttle with large windows and several people visible inside; grass in foreground and building in background
The Mcity Driverless Shuttle on its route at the University of Michigan’s North Campus Research Complex. (Photo credit: University of Michigan)

While the shuttle and its technology are impressive enough, the impetus behind its use is arguably more important to The Henry Ford. The Mcity research project was the first driverless shuttle deployment in the United States that focused primarily on user behavior. Mcity’s goal was to learn more about how people reacted to AVs, rather than prove the technology. The two shuttles were equipped with exterior video recorders to capture reactions from people outside the shuttle, and interior video and audio recorders to capture reactions from passengers inside. On-board safety conductors, there to stop the shuttle in case of emergency, also observed rider behavior.

Mcity staff monitored ridership numbers and patterns throughout the project, and riders were encouraged to complete a survey about their experience that was developed by Mcity and the market research firm J.D. Power. Survey questions ranged from basic inquiries about age and relationship to the university, to more specific inquiries about reasons for riding, degree of satisfaction with the service, interest level in AV technology, and – most significantly – degree of trust in the shuttle and its driverless capabilities. The survey data was then analyzed by J.D. Power. You can learn more about the results through Mcity's white paper, "Mcity Driverless Shuttle: What We Learned About Consumer Acceptance of Automated Vehicles."

Along with the shuttle itself, U-M has kindly donated examples of the special signage installed by Mcity in support of the shuttle project. There are no current government regulations – at the federal, state, or local levels – for signage along a driverless vehicle route. Mcity developed its own signs to alert other road users to the shuttle’s presence. Samples include signs proclaiming “Shuttle Stop” and “Attention: Driverless Vehicle Route.”

Autonomous vehicles are coming to our streets – it’s no longer a question of “if,” but of “when.” Indeed, the Mcity shuttle project proves that AVs are, to an extent, already here. These driverless vehicles promise to be the most transformative development in ground transportation since the automobile itself. Self-driving capabilities will fundamentally change our relationship with the vehicle. The technology promises improved safety and economy in our cars and buses, greater capacity and efficiency on our roads, and enhanced mobility and quality of life for those unable to drive themselves. The Mcity Driverless Shuttle represents an important milestone on the road to autonomy, and it marks an important addition to The Henry Ford’s automotive collection.

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autonomous technology, technology, research, Michigan, by Matt Anderson, alternative fuel vehicles


Graphic containing textual images and #AskAnArchivist hashtag
Promotional image for #AskAnArchivist Day 2020 from the Society of American Archivists.

One day every October (American Archives Month), archivists flock to Twitter for #AskAnArchivist Day. The event, organized by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), allows archivists to explain what they do and answer questions from the public in real-time.

This year, four representatives from our Archives--Sr. Manager, Archives & Library, Brian Wilson; Reference Archivist Kathy Makas; Processing Archivist Janice Unger; and Processing Archivist Hilary Severyn--took shifts answering questions from The Henry Ford's Twitter account. Between the four of them, they covered topics ranging from the availability of research assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic to our Ford Motor Company records to mustache-related puns. Below are some highlights from the day's Q&A.


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research, by Ellice Engdahl, archives, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

GIF rotating through many comic book covers
Comic book covers from the collections of The Henry Ford. See them in our Digital Collections here.

Comic books, like all things, change as they age and not necessarily for the better. Whether from the golden, silver or modern age, comic books are all printed on paper that is made from wood pulp. Lignin (a substance found in wood) breaks down and causes the paper to become increasingly acidic, discolored and brittle. Those of you who collect comic books have certainly seen and handled extremely brittle and discolored books. Conservators refer to this the inherent instability of wood pulp paper as “inherent vice.”

If you wish to preserve your comics, you need to take measures to combat this inherent vice by minimizing factors that accelerate deterioration. Steps that you can take to fend off inherent vice include:

  • Limiting exposure to high levels of moisture, either in the form of water or high humidity. Both can damage comics and accelerate degradation.
  • Avoiding exposure to ultraviolet and visible light, which can cause inks to fade and paper to become yellow.
  • Using inappropriate non-archival storage or display materials, such as PVC vinyl plastic bags or boxes, inexpensive wood pulp cardboard boxes, wood pulp mat boards, wooden boxes or wooden frames. Contact with these can cause discoloration.
  • Avoiding frequent handling.

 

In this video, recorded live in the conservation lab at The Henry Ford, Chief Conservator Mary Fahey demonstrates how to store, display, repair, and preserve your comic books.

What can be done to preserve comic books?

Take measures to limit exposure to moisture by placing books in archival bags or sleeves made from polypropylene, polyethylene or polyethyleneterephalate (Mylar).

Never store comic books directly on the floor.

Avoid storing books in attics, basements or other damp areas. If no alternative is available, use watertight polyethylene or polypropylene boxes and add a few silica gel packets conditioned to 45-50% relative humidity. The packets will need to be changed periodically.

Limit exposure to light including visible and invisible ultraviolet light. If you wish to display your comics, consider display methods that limit light exposure by avoiding display near windows and turning off the lights when you are not in the room. If you choose to display your books in a lighted showcase case, LEDs on a timer are the best option since they emit minimal ultraviolet light and minimal heat. At The Henry Ford, we have noticed that Mylar covers appear to block some of the damaging effects of light, providing some protection from fading.

All books should be bagged and boarded or encapsulated (see image below) for storage, display and handling. This protects them from dirt and moisture, minimizes flexing and stress of the fragile paper, and protects from the oil and salt in people’s hands. The use of archival materials and methods for storage and display can have a big impact on the longevity of your collection.

Hand sliding comic book onto a board with plastic over top

The use of acid-free, lignin-buffered mat board, boxes and paper inserts are recommended. These products are made from cotton, and generally contain calcium carbonate, which helps to neutralize the acid that is formed in the comic books as they age. They do cost a bit more, but are well worth it. The Henry Ford uses a variety of display and storage methods for comic books. Some examples include:

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popular culture, conservation, comic books, collections care, by Mary Fahey

In the early 1930s, tensions were running high between two competing news sources: newspaper publishers were feeling the strength of their monopoly slipping away as the public’s appreciation for radio news broadcasts grew. This time of conflict in communications history is known as “The Press-Radio War.”

Publishers felt especially threatened by the nimbleness of radio networks. Broadcasters could share breaking news immediately over the airwaves, rather than having to wait for the next day’s run of newspapers to be printed and distributed. At first, newspaper companies tried to boycott radio’s ability to grow into something more than just an entertainment medium by asking wire services to block the flow of newsworthy information to radio stations. But eventually, the two media formats settled into a truce by the late 1930s, partly owing to the demand for reliable information-sharing as the threat of World War II grew. 

Aircraft flying over towers and buildings
The Detroit News “autogiro” aircraft flies over the WWJ transmitter towers on the roof of the Detroit News building. The autogiro used a swiveling camera to take aerial photos of newsworthy events and quickly transported reporters to the sites of developing stories. / THF238502

Some newspapers saw the financial benefit in blending formats and went so far as to cut out the competition by starting their own radio news stations. The Detroit News was one of the first newspapers in the United States to incorporate a commercial radio station into its operations. In August 1920, WWJ (then owned by the Detroit News) launched its program of nightly broadcasts under the call sign 8MK. As of 2020, WWJ has been on-air for 100 years!

Aircraft flying over tall buildings
In this image, the Detroit News autogiro flies over downtown Detroit. The Penobscot Building—site for the News’s experimental W8XWJ station—appears in the foreground. The original vertical “whip” antenna is just visible on the ball that tops the metal tower. / THF239963

In 1936, the Detroit News launched experimental audio broadcasting station W8XWJ from the 47th floor of the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. W8XWJ was formed under the FCC’s ultra-high short-wave “Apex” station program, an experiment designed to provide listeners with higher quality AM signals. The station’s original 100-watt AM vertical “whip” antenna was attached to the beacon sphere that tops the metal tower perched on the roof of the Penobscot Building. The height of the Penobscot—the tallest skyscraper in the city at that point—helped to disperse the radio waves over the entire city. Many people are familiar with the glowing red beacon at the top of the Penobscot, but its connection to the growth of radio in the city is not as well known.

From 1938-1940, W8XWJ ran a fascinating but ultimately short-lived experiment with an emerging technology called “radio facsimile.” Customers would hook a special “radio printer” up to their own radio, which would print the news overnight while they slept. In the morning, the news would be ready to enjoy with morning coffee – no need to deliver a physical newspaper!

Piece of equipment next to image of woman
One of the original Finch Facsimile Transmitters from W8XWJ, complete with original station badge visible and a sample of a radio fax. / THF160295

At W8XWJ, a Finch Facsimile Transmitter was used to convert images and text into audio tones. These signals would arrive in customer’s home via radio waves, where their “radio printer” would translate the tones into human language. Everything would print out onto continuous rolls of thermal paper.

Wooden box with machinery inside, paper strip with images of three faces, paper reels
A Crosley “Reado” Radio Printer. / THF160315

This is a Crosley Reado Radio Printer – the type of device that people would connect to their home radio and would receive their faxed newspapers on. When The Henry Ford conserved this artifact through an Institute for Museum and Library Services grant, our conservators were excited to find an example of a facsimile still on the drum inside the machine. In this image, you can see an original radio facsimile portrait of Boris Karloff, who was famous for his 1931 portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster.

The Henry Ford’s collections also include the original transmitter and amplifier that powered the W8XWJ station.

GIF showing two metal cabinets with dials, one open to show mechanism inside
W8XWJ’s Western Electric 500 Watt Ultra Shortwave Transmitter and Amplifier. These two devices are visible in their original installation here. / THF173159, THF173165

The idea behind W8XWJ’s radio facsimile experiment was revolutionary, but the process was slow and fussy. It could take over 20 minutes to print a single page of news, and signal reception became unreliable beyond a mile or two away from the transmitter. In 1940, W8XWJ ended its radio facsimile project.

While the original “whip” antenna for W8XWJ was replaced by a FM antenna in the early 1940s, if you look toward the top of the Penobscot building today, there is a tangle of communication equipment visible from street level. And in the interesting way that the new and the old can merge and converge within the histories of technology, some of this contemporary equipment fulfills radio facsimile’s promise to provide easily accessible information—the top of the Penobscot now serves as an important hub for Detroit’s wireless Internet network.


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

newspapers, radio, printing, Michigan, Detroit, communication, by Kristen Gallerneaux, #THFCuratorChat

Green card with text and image of woman in wispy dress with wings
Trade Card for the Larkin Soap Company, 1900 / THF224516

As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we had the opportunity to delve into the history of the Larkin Company. What began as a small soap manufacturing business in 1875 became one of the nation’s leading mail-order businesses by 1900. This post highlights the Larkin Company’s rise to popularity under the multi-faceted, ingenious marketing strategy known as “The Larkin Idea."

While the Larkin Company sold its products throughout the country, the company had special appeal for rural customers, offering a broader range of product choices than stores in nearby villages and towns. The company would eventually develop a distribution system, contracting with local deliverymen to deliver Larkin products right to customers’ doorsteps – rather than customers having to pick them up in town. In the early 21st century, people today welcome this same opportunity for conveniently delivered goods!

Cat and ducks around feed dish, also contains text
Trade Card for “Boraxine” Soap, J.D. Larkin & Co., 1882 / THF296340

In 1875, having worked in the soap business for more than a decade, John D. Larkin created his own soap company in Buffalo, New York, called J.D. Larkin, Manufacturer of Plain and Fancy Soaps. This would later become known as the Larkin Company. The first product, made for laundry use, was a yellow bar known as Sweet Home Soap. Boraxine, a flaked laundry soap, quickly followed, and continued to be a signature item in product lists throughout the company’s history.

Blue, orange and white box with text
Boraxine Soap Powder, 1925-1940 / THF155045

The first salesman for the company was Larkin’s brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard was a skilled promoter and successful salesman, devising advertising strategies and boosting sales. In 1878, Hubbard was made a partner in the business, resulting in the company’s name change to J.D. Larkin & Company. With this partnership, Larkin oversaw the manufacturing of the products and Hubbard was placed in charge of advertising and promotion. One of the first strategies Hubbard adopted was offering a chromolithograph (color print) as a premium, or free giveaway, in each box of Boraxine. By 1883 – after additional products were added to Larkin’s line – Hubbard began offering finer premiums, such as a Japanese silk handkerchief in each box of “Elite” Toilet Soap.

Card with text
Back of a Trade Card for J.D. Larkin & Co.’s “Elite” Toilet Soap, 1882 / THF296327

After years of “slinging soap,” Hubbard noted that direct sales to housewives were more profitable than selling to local merchants. The company was doing quite well – having distributors in every state east of the Rocky Mountains in its first decade – but Larkin and Hubbard believed that the company had even greater potential. In order to maximize profits, the company decided to eliminate all middlemen (including the sales force), thus entering the mail-order industry. The mail-order business was not new – Montgomery Ward & Company had made this popular a decade earlier. But in 1885, Hubbard developed a plan, called “The Larkin Idea,” that offered giveaways with the purchase of particular items from the company’s mail-order catalogs.

Two-page spread with images of rugs and text
Page advertising Rugs as Larkin Premiums, in Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan: Factory-to-Family,” Fall and Winter 1917-1918 / THF298153

“The Larkin Idea” was simple: In cutting out all middlemen and selling Larkin products directly to housewives, the money that would have gone to the payroll of the middlemen would instead be used to create desirable premiums that would be given to customers with the purchase of Larkin products. This idea was encapsulated by the slogan, “Factory-to-Family,” and the tagline of “The Larkin Idea” became, “Save All Cost Which Adds No Value.”

Man standing with hands on hips on porch or gazebo with woman and two children on swing nearby; also contains text
Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Factory-To-Family Plan,” Spring and Summer, 1915 / THF297907

The first iteration of “The Larkin Idea” came in 1886 with the introduction of a Combination Box. By this time, the company was offering nine different soap products. At first, the Combination Box sold for $6, but a few years later, a $10 option emerged, offering enough products to last a family the entire year. The $10 Combination Boxes quickly gained popularity as customers could receive 142 products – 100 of those being Sweet Home Soap – and a free premium worth $10. Larkin also introduced a 30-day policy in which customers had 30 days to try a product before paying for it. This gave peace of mind to customers who wanted to try a product, risk-free, and also developed trust between the company and consumer. The public embraced “The Larkin Idea” with enthusiasm, ordering nearly 91,000 Combination Boxes a year! 

Images of a number of household items and text
Advertisement for Larkin Premiums, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298080

By 1892, the company changed its name once more, to Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company. As the popularity of the Combination Boxes grew, Larkin sought to expand its product and premium offerings. In 1897, Larkin offered 16 products – including 14 different soaps, a cold cream, and tooth powder – and that number increased every year. This led to the company eventually dropping “soap” from its name to become the Larkin Company in 1904.

Did You Know?
After leaving the Larkin Company, Elbert Hubbard would go on to found the Roycroft community of East Aurora, New York, in the mid-1890s. At the Roycroft community, hundreds of artisans came to live and work as part of an Arts and Crafts utopian community. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged quality craftsmanship of handcrafted works of simple form as a reaction to poorly made factory produced goods. With his marketing prowess and passion, Hubbard led the Roycrofters to become one of the most successful communities of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Explore more on the Arts and Crafts movement on our blog and in this Expert Set.


With the success of the Combination Box and the increasing number of customers nationwide, the company introduced another facet of “The Larkin Idea,” which would prove to be invaluable: Larkin Clubs. Women across the country were encouraged to become Larkin Secretaries, and as such they would gather friends and family to purchase products together. A Club-of-Ten was encouraged to have all members buy $1 worth of products each month, and a different member of the club would receive a premium of their choice every month.

Images of women and text
Advertisement for a Larkin Club-of-Ten in the Trade Catalog, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298079

Beige fabric forming a type of hammock, suspended from rectangular frame and four ropes
This Larkin Company infant swing/bed, was given to a woman by her sister, who sold Larkin products. (Gift of Ellen J. Adams) / THF174549

Women found a sense of pride in their participation in the clubs and enjoyed the social aspect of monthly meetings. At its peak, there were 90,000 Larkin Secretaries around the country. The Larkin Clubs were such a tremendous promotional force that the company stopped selling Combination Boxes in order to focus on its ever-increasing product and premium offerings. By 1905, the company began offering teas, spices, and additional foodstuffs among its products. Five years later, the company had added paints and varnishes, as well as rugs, clothing, and other textiles to its product line – along with 1,700 premiums to choose from, ranging from children’s toys to clothing to furniture. In 1915, the catalog featured 700 Larkin products spread over 33 pages, and offered 131 pages of premiums. One of the company’s advertising campaigns involved the idea that customers could furnish their entire house with Larkin products. This catalog for Larkin Wallpaper is an example of this idea in action.

Images of products and text
Page showing a variety of Larkin products from the Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Home-Helper,” circa 1910 / THF297831

Text and images of household items and furnishings
Larkin Premiums advertised in the publication, “My Larkin Clubs Earned These for Me,” circa 1912 / THF298076

Text and images of birds and birdcages
Page from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The World’s Greatest Premium Values,” Fall and Winter 1930. The catalog from 1930 included one of the more unusual premiums Larkin offered - Hartz Mountain Canaries (guaranteed to sing) or a pair of mated Love Birds. Click here to view the 1930 catalog! / THF298067

As “The Larkin Idea” continued to gain popularity, the Larkin Company sought to bring those companies that produced the premiums under the Larkin umbrella. At its height, Larkin had over 30 subsidiary companies, and had furnished seed money to establish such businesses as the Barcolo Manufacturing Company, to produce furniture, and Buffalo Pottery to produce pottery and kitchenware. Since 1896, the company had begun expanding its manufacturing complex. This process continued through 1912, with 21 new structures built to accommodate the rapidly growing product and premiums list.

Multicolored pottery candlestick with botanical and other designs
Deldare Candlestick, produced by Buffalo Pottery, 1911 / THF176916

Images of office workers and building, along with text
Page from Larkin Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908. The Larkin Administration Building, completed in 1906 in Buffalo, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. / THF297783

Beginning in 1905, the company established branches and warehouses – first in Cleveland, and then in Boston, Chicago, New York City, Peoria and Philadelphia. With this expansion, Larkin was able to better serve its customers across the country. Despite experiencing significant growth, by 1918 the company found it had a surplus of food products far exceeding demand. Unable to move the product fast enough through mail order or the Secretary system, Larkin created retail establishments called “Larkin Economy Stores” as a way to sell these products. By 1922, there were 103 stores in Buffalo and northwestern New York, as well as others near the additional branches.

Images of buildings with text
Back cover from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908 / THF297811

“The Larkin Idea” had taken the company to significant heights. By the mid-1920s, however, the company was beginning to falter for a number of reasons. National chains like A&P grocery stores and Woolworth’s presented stiff competition. Automobiles made going shopping easier, causing mail-order businesses to become less popular. Perhaps the greatest influence in Larkin’s demise was World War I, which had brought many Larkin Secretaries out of their homes and into the workforce, weakening the Larkin sales structure. The crippling economy during the Great Depression also impacted the company.

Between 1924 and 1926, all of the company’s top leadership either retired or passed away, including Larkin himself. Having failed to pass along knowledge and nurture younger leadership, the company was left with little expertise, leading to the company’s gradual closing.

Man, woman, and little girl with table and lamp; also contains text
Cover for Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan, Factory-To-Family,” Fall & Winter, 1917-1918 / THF298101

In 1939, the decision was made to stop manufacturing soap products, and two years later the manufacture of all products and premiums ceased as well. With an abundance of remaining inventory of both products and premiums, the Larkin Company was still able to fill orders until 1962.

What had started as a small soap manufacturing company became prominent enough to hold its own despite the tremendous popularity of mass-marketers, like Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward & Company. Through innovative marketing strategies and an entrepreneurial spirit, the Larkin Company experienced significant growth in a short period of time, finding its way into households across America. 


Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and for reviewing this content.

mail order, shopping, home life, furnishings, entrepreneurship, by Samantha Johnson