Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Barn at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 8, 1991.

Barns are one of the best ways to tell where you are when you are traveling—especially if you happened to be traveling through the United States 150 years ago.

Barns are generally the largest man-made feature of the rural landscape. They can tell you a lot about the type of farming that is going on, as well as the cultural background of the family that built them. Unlike houses or commercial buildings, barns generally lack stylistic adornment. Since building a barn was often a community undertaking, the general form and the details of barn construction often changed slowly—barn-builders were limited to construction techniques that everyone in the community knew how to do. As a result, until the late 1800s, barns tended to differ more from place-to-place, than they did over time.

The barn at the Firestone Farm tells us that the Firestone family was of German ancestry, that people from the Germanic sections of Pennsylvania settled the community where the family lived in Ohio, and that their farm was the typical mix of livestock and grain crops found in the northeast and upper Midwestern United States.

What physical clues tell us this?

This photograph (left) of the Firestone Barn on its original site in Columbiana County , Ohio , shows the earthen bank built up as a ramp to the upper level. On the right, the projecting forebay is visible in this photograph of the Firestone Barn taken in 1898. (Photos courtesy of the Firestone Archives)

The Firestone barn is of a type known as a Pennsylvania-German bank barn, or “Sweitzer” barn, one of the primary barn types found in the United States before 1880. Bank barns are large, multi-purpose structures that combined several farm functions under a single roof. Two-story and rectangular in form, they have a gable roof with a ridgeline running the length of the building. They are called bank barns because one side of the barn is built into the bank of a hill, allowing wagons to be driven into the upper floor of the barn. The opposite side of the barn has an overhang, known as a projecting forebay. Livestock were kept in the lower story of the barn. Continue Reading

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Jenny Young Chandler (1865–1922) was a 25-year-old widow in 1890, when she began to support herself and her infant son by working as a photojournalist for the New York Herald. Her images were captured on glass plate negatives via a heavy camera, and intimately depict everyday life on the streets of Brooklyn, New York. We’ve just digitized over 200 images from the collection, including this one of marionette-makers at work. Other noteworthy subjects for Chandler include children at play and work, ethnic minorities (such as gypsies), and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (which still exists today, though undoubtedly in much different form). See all the Chandler images digitized thus far on our collections website, and check back in as we add more over upcoming months.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford

The Henry Ford's 1929 Packard 626 Speedster at the Concours d'Elegance of America.

The Henry Ford is privileged to participate in a number of concours auto shows each year, but I have a particular soft spot for our “hometown” event: the Concours d’Elegance of America at St. John's, held each July in Plymouth, Michigan. This past Sunday marked the show’s 36th year. With more than 250 cars in attendance, it’s clearly as strong as ever.

Among the featured automobiles this year was a class entitled, “The Evolution of the Sports Car, 1900-1975.” Our 1929 Packard 626 Speedster, a trim eight-cylinder roadster capable of 100 miles per hour, fit quite nicely alongside racy models from Alpha Romeo, Ferrari, Jaguar and Porsche, together with less exotic – but no less exciting – cars from Chevrolet, Ford, Nash and Studebaker. Continue Reading

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You might have heard that we are partnering with Litton Entertainment to create a brand-new TV show, The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, premiering on CBS later this year. As we worked with Litton to develop story ideas that might be featured on the show, we also wanted to make sure we digitized a variety of artifacts from our collections related to those stories.  To that end, we’ve just digitized a couple dozen photos of the Rosa Parks Bus before and during its 2002 restoration. As former curator Bill Pretzer relates online, the bus had been left in a field and used as a storehouse for decades, leading to the significant condition issues that you can see in this photo of the driver’s seat. See more newly digitized photos of the restoration process by visiting our collections website, and learn more on Innovation Nation this fall!

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation

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This 1920s ice cream parlor tray says it all: ice cream was not just a passing fad—it was here to stay!(Object ID: 83.21.250)

“America is the only country in the world where ice cream is a staple article of food.” - New-York Daily Tribune, July 1902

Ice cream may have originated elsewhere, but Americans embraced it as their own with a passion akin to baseball games, outdoor picnics, and July 4th parades. The story of ice cream in America is actually comprised of multiple stories—stories of individual enterprise, invention and accidental discovery, short-lived novelties and industry-wide changes—all leading to the plethora of ice cream choices we indulge in today. Continue Reading

Lord Mountbatten at The Henry Ford

Arriving, apparently via helicopter (Object ID: P.B.61779.6).

The Henry Ford has always attracted famous visitors—some of my favorites that are documented in our digital collections include H.G. Wells, Neil Armstrong, and Rosa Parks. But while searching our collections database for something else, I found a name I wasn’t expecting: Lord Mountbatten.

Lord Mountbatten (1900–79) is a fascinating and controversial figure in British and Asian history. The great-grandson of Queen Victoria, he was commissioned as a naval lieutenant in 1920, and held several naval posts during World War II. As supreme allied commander of the Southeast Asia Command, he took Burma from Japanese control, which resulted in an honorary title, Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Continue Reading

In this late 1800s trade card, a young girl in her Sunday best demonstrates the ease of operating a Chadborn & Coldwell Manufacturing Co. lawn mower. (Object ID.89.0.541.430).

A large expanse of manicured lawn was once something only the wealthy could afford. It was necessary to have full-time gardening help to cut the grass evenly by hand with a scythe and then roll the grass flat to achieve a perfect look.

An automatic sprinkler, like this one shown in an 1877 Beardsley & Co. catalog, would have appealed to those living in large cities rather than in smaller towns and on farms. In the 1870s, few American communities had the municipal water systems needed to operate a device like this. (Object ID: 88.423.2)
The introduction of a practical automatic lawn mower in the 1870s made it much easier for the average homeowner to maintain his or her own neatly trimmed lawn with minimal labor. Soon, a flawless lawn became a sign of the arrival into the middle class.

Keeping a lawn lush and green in the hot summer months could be accomplished with a range of sprinkling devices. Sprinklers were very popular when they first became common in the late 1800s. Of course, only people living in cities and towns that had water systems could use these “lawn fountains,” since they required constant water pressure to operate. By the 1930s, lawn sprinklers came in a variety of imaginative shapes. The iron figures helped to anchor the device, while being amusing as well as decorative.

This American fascination with a well-kept, velvety green lawn would develop into a near-obsession after World War II, as suburban homeowners spent many weekend hours and much money on fertilizers and herbicides—trying to create the perfect lawn.

By Henry Prebys, Former Curator at The Henry Ford.

Summertime is fast approaching, and that means it is ice cream season. The Henry Ford’s collections contain ice cream containers, ice cream makers, sundae dishes, and more related to this icy treat. We’ve just digitized some of our holdings related to ice cream, including this mid-20th century tub intended to hold Velvet ice cream.

"The Theremin Played by Vera Richardson” Program Issued for Her Concert Series at the Dearborn Inn, c. 1935. (Object ID: 86.12.2.149).

Vera Richardson Played Out-of-This-World Instrument at the Dearborn Inn

Owosso, Michigan, native Vera Richardson (born 1891) was a musician of considerable talent, evident from an early age, and by age 10 she was singing and playing the piano publicly. Formative performances took place in the neighboring Shiawassee County city, Corunna, where she appeared as part of the entertainment assembled for club gatherings held in local residences. She attended Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) and was the pianist for her own graduation ceremony in 1914. She continued her education after college, including an advanced piano course in New York. In August 1919, she married fellow Owosso native Leigh H. Simpson, a high school teacher, and the couple settled in Detroit.

Though the young Vera was obviously gifted, her modest early years gave little indication of the unique path her life would take.

It wouldn’t be long into her professional career before Vera Richardson was known as a highly skilled musician and performer. In the June 7, 1922, edition of The Detroit News, the paper could barely contain their praise of her “in all departments of the difficult art of piano playing,” noting her “ready facility which makes a technical achievement seem quite simple,” adding, “life and vigor are in the tones she achieves,” and “a real sincerity makes her work vital.” She was backing singers for the WWJ broadcast, but listeners responded so strongly to her playing—lighting up the station’s switchboard with requests for more—that the pianist closed out the evening with three solo pieces.

In addition to her piano virtuosity, Richardson was also a composer, arranger, and recording artist, laying down piano rolls for the Duo-Art player piano in the mid-to-late 1920s. At an April 1930 event held at the Women’s City Club in Detroit, she seemingly concluded the performance by turning on a Weber Duo-Art baby grand, which started to play one of her own piano rolls—but she wasn’t done yet. For the conclusion, she sat at another piano and began playing as the automated Duo-Art rolled on. The audience, blown away by such an unusual duet, insisted on an encore. Once again, she obliged.

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Ford Tri-Motor Airplane Flying over Dearborn Inn, 1931. (Object ID: P.833.56398.1).

In the mid-1930s, Richardson began a weekly residency at the Dearborn Inn. Envisioned by Henry and Edsel Ford, the hotel incorporated design elements from New England inns built during the colonial period. A stone’s throw from the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, the inn opened in 1931 and quickly gained a stellar reputation for its elegance and colonial charm. It was in this environment that Vera Richardson performed her Sunday concerts, which were likely held in the hotel’s cocktail lounge. This time, though, it wasn’t her piano skills that she shared with the audience. Instead, the instrument she manipulated was unfamiliar to most. It was a device that didn’t exist in the not-too-distant past, and was seemingly from a world that did not yet exist. With just a wave of her hands, Richardson was able to produce otherworldly sounds, both beautiful and frightening.

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The Theremin, Model AR-1264, Made and Marketed by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) from 1929-1935. (Object ID: 68.62.4).

The theremin was the world’s first electronic instrument. Invented in 1920 by Russian-born Lev Sergeyevich Teremen (better known as Leon Theremin), it is the only instrument played without ever being touched. The theremin consists of oscillators, housed in a wood cabinet, which stands on four legs. A vertical metal rod is to the right, a metal ring to the left. Once turned on, the theremin emits an electromagnetic field, so when a person enters that field the unit produces noise. Moving one’s right hand near the metal rod influences the pitch, while gesturing with the left hand near the ring controls the volume. When operated by a skilled player, the sound of the theremin is similar to such string instruments as the cello and violin, while the musical tone emanated can vary significantly. A piece might begin in a soothing or lovely fashion and then escalate into moods that are alternately haunting, suspenseful, or hair-raisingly alarming. During performance, the musician operating the instrument—depending on the spectator’s perspective—might resemble a conductor or even a magician.

RCA began manufacturing the instrument in 1929. Though the company boasted that “anyone can play” the theremin, it is actually quite difficult to master. So much so that even a musician as capable as Vera Richardson felt she could learn a thing or two about the instrument and returned to New York in the mid-1930s to study theremin development and technique with Leon Theremin himself.

The theremin was featured in the popular radio program, The Green Hornet. The instrument was used in the show to create an ominous buzz, representing a monstrous bee that sounded like it was about to fly right through the speakers. It marks the first time most of the public heard the theremin used in such a way—if at all. The thereminist, from day one in 1936 until the series ended in 1952, was none other than Vera Richardson.

Around the time of her Dearborn Inn concerts, she opened her music studio in Detroit. Located on Ferry Avenue west of Woodward, in the apartment she shared with her husband, she offered demonstrations of the theremin and taught piano. Richardson continued performing with the theremin, including such notable dates as her return to Owosso for a solo performance on July 3, 1936, as part of her hometown’s centennial celebration; and the October 25, 1936, appearance at the Women’s City Club, where she was backed by the Detroit String Ensemble. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, she had a radio show on WWJ, playing the organ and the Novachord, an early synthesizer. She was also the organist at the Detroit Institute of Arts every Sunday morning from 1935 to1950, and beginning in 1946 she performed monthly organ recitals at veteran’s hospitals across Michigan. Her last known public appearance took place on September 17, 1957, at a home in Grosse Pointe. Performing as one of four pianists at a “get acquainted tea” social for a local organization, the event was similar to her humble beginnings in show business over fifty years prior.

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The cocktail lounge at the Dearborn Inn, c. 1930s, the area in the hotel where Vera Richardson likely performed her theremin concerts in the mid-1930s.

Vera Richardson Simpson died in September 1977 in Santa Barbara, California. She is buried near her hometown of Owosso, in Corunna, the same city where those youthful performances took place.

In July 1986, the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor received Richardson’s theremin from her estate. In January of the following year, the Vera Richardson Simpson Memorial Scholarship was announced. The scholarship was to benefit 18-to-22 year-old college students majoring in music. In this way, Vera Richardson’s legacy as a community-minded individual, musician and pioneering electronic music performer continued for new generations.

Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.

The collections of The Henry Ford contain several hundred quilts. As an earlier blog post noted, 120 of these can be cross-searched with other quilt collections on The Quilt Index. We have also been adding our quilts to our own collections website, including this striking red and white Lady of the Lake patterned version from around the turn of the century. View our quilts on the Quilt Index or our collections website, and watch for more to be added!

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford.