On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford and his vice president James Couzens stunned the world when they revealed that Ford Motor Company would double its workers’ wages to five dollars a day. The announcement generated glowing newspaper headlines and editorials around the world. The notion of a wealthy industrialist sharing profits with workers on such a scale was unprecedented.
In the century since, many theories have been posited for Ford’s bold move. Some suggested the increase was to justify assembly line speed-ups. Others speculated it was to counteract high labor turnover due to increasingly monotonous assembly line work. Ford admirers believed it was pure philanthropy. Cynics asserted that it was little more than an elaborate publicity stunt. As usual, the truth lay somewhere in the middle.
More Monotony, But More Money
To a large degree, Ford’s implementation of the Five-Dollar Day cannot be appreciated without first understanding his advances with the moving assembly line. Experiments through 1913 and into 1914 reduced the time required to build a Model T automobile from 12½ hours to a mere 93 minutes. Increased efficiencies lowered production costs, which lowered customer prices, which increased demand. The public was eager to buy all of the cars Ford could build.
Explosive production gains came at the cost of worker satisfaction. The very goal of the moving assembly line was to take what had been relatively skilled craftwork and reduce it to simple, rote tasks. Workers who had taken pride in their labor were quickly bored by the more mundane assembly process. Some took to lateness and absenteeism. Many simply quit, and Ford found itself with a crippling labor turnover rate of 370 percent. The assembly line depended on a steady crew of employees to staff it, and training replacements was expensive. Ford reasoned that a bigger paycheck might make the factory’s tedium more tolerable.
If the need to retain workers was a partial motivation for the Five-Dollar Day, then the solution may have worked too well. Within days of the announcement, thousands of applicants came to Detroit from all over the Midwest and entrenched themselves at the Ford’s gate. The company was overwhelmed, riots broke out, and the crowds were turned away with fire hoses in the icy January weather. Ford announced that it would only hire workers who had lived in Detroit for at least six months, and the situation slowly came under control.
Those who did have jobs at Ford soon discovered that there were even more conditions. Lost in the headlines was the fact that the pay increase was not a raise per se, it was a profit sharing plan. If you made $2.30 a day under the old pay schedule, for example, you still made that wage under the Five-Dollar plan. But if you met all of the company’s requirements, Ford gave you a bonus of $2.70.
Part of Henry Ford’s reasoning behind the Five-Dollar Day was that workers who were troubled by money problems at home would be distracted on the job. If higher pay was intended to eliminate these problems, then Ford would make sure that his employees were using his largesse “properly.” The company established a Sociological Department to monitor its employees’ habits beyond the workplace.
To qualify for the pay increase, workers had to abstain from alcohol, not physically abuse their families, not take in boarders, keep their homes clean, and contribute regularly to a savings account. Moral righteousness and prudent saving were all well and good, but they were not generally an employer’s business—at least not outside of working hours. In contrast, Ford Motor Company inspectors came to workers’ homes, asked probing questions, and observed general living conditions. If “violations” were discovered, the inspectors offered advice and pointed the families to resources offered through the company. Not until these problems were corrected did the employee receive his full bonus.
Modifying manufacturing methods was one thing. Modifying the people who carried out those methods was quite another. Henry Ford and his supporters may well have seen the Sociological Department as a benevolent tool to benefit his employees, but the workers came to resent the intrusion into their personal lives. Ford himself eventually realized that the Sociological Department was unsustainable. By 1921, it was largely dissolved.
Wages Up, Sales Up
As for charges that Ford raised pay in pursuit of publicity, there’s no question that the Five-Dollar Day brought a spotlight on Ford Motor Company. But publicity is fleeting, and the Five-Dollar Day’s impact was far greater than newspaper headlines. Other automakers soon boosted their own wages to keep pace with Ford. Automobile parts suppliers followed suit. In time, workers in any number of fields were earning genuine “living wages” that afforded them comfort and security above basic food, shelter and clothing needs.
It’s no small detail that, as Henry Ford slyly observed, in the course of improving his employees’ standard of living, Ford also created a new pool of customers for his Model T. The Five-Dollar Day helped to bring members of America’s working class into its middle class. Better wages, combined with the affordable goods produced by the assembly line, are cornerstones of the prosperity that has characterized American life for so many of the past 100 years.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation of The Henry Ford.
Just a few years after cinema made its public debut in 1893, the marketing of home projectors began. Though by 1912 the market was flooded with them, the appeal had been limited. That was about to change. Soon two of the biggest companies in the movie business—one French, one American—went head-to-head, marketing their own home projectors as well as offering films for rent by mail, making them available through pioneering delivery systems. Yet only one of these companies would succeed.
Thomas Edison is considered the father of motion pictures. He invented the original movie camera, the kinetograph, which was used to film movies shot at his movie studio, the Black Maria, the foremost of its kind. His lab developed the earliest films in motion picture history, and those movies were exhibited on a peep hole-like device, the kinetoscope—yet another Edison creation. On November 30th, 1897, Edison’s Projecting Kinetoscope was used to show movies on a screen in a commercial setting for the first time. In December 1903, the Edison Manufacturing Company released The Great Train Robbery, which would go on to be the initial motion picture blockbuster. The film industry would prove to be successful, yet rocky, for Edison over the next few years, but in 1912, the year his company launched the Home Projecting Kinetoscope, optimism was in the air.
Charles Pathé, previously a phonograph importer, established the French company Pathé Frères in 1896. In 1902, the company introduced an improved movie camera, and soon it would become the leading model used in filming movies across Europe and America. The same year, they began shooting their own productions—completing them at a very fast clip—and distributing them, as well. They would soon dominate the European industry, so much so that Pathé Frères had few serious rivals. The Pathé K-O-K home projector was launched in 1912 in Europe, and the following year they introduced the device in the United States under a different name: the Pathescope. It was in this environment that home projectors finally became a product that the public could get behind.
The Pathescope and the Home Projecting Kinetoscope (also known as the “Home P.K.”) were similar products in many ways, yet had distinct differences. Both Edison and Pathé produced their own unique film size, which meant the films they rented out could be played only on their respective projectors. The companies also introduced a non-flammable film stock—a positive development in the minds of the general public—thus playing a major role in the appeal of the projectors to homeowners. The cost of the machines differed significantly, with Edison’s Home P.K. selling in the $75-$100 range (roughly $1,770-$2,360 in 2013 dollars), while the budget-priced Pathescope would set one back set one back $150 (about $3,540 today). Pathe's premium offering was priced at $250 (a whopping $5,900 in today’s dollars), making it far and away the priciest home projector available.
Kinetoscope Film "Professor and the New Hat," Thomas A. Edison Co., 1913, object ID 63.85.3.
The fact that the companies offered movies for rent was also of considerable appeal to consumers, as was the system of home delivery by mail. In order to accomplish this, both Edison and Pathé established “exchange” hubs to ship and receive their films. Owners of the Home P.K. initially had to purchase a film, which ran in the $2.50 to $20 range ($59-$472 if priced today), and then pay an exchange fee of $0.30-$1 ($7-24 in 2013) when swapping one movie for another. Pathé’s method differed, as Pathescope owners instead paid a yearly subscription of $50-$100 ($1,180-$2,360 today), fees based on how many movies were rented at a time. Edison offered 50 films at launch, a number that grew to 160 by 1914; Pathé had 700 films by that time—a momentous disparity.
Due to a number of factors, including that it was notoriously difficult to operate, the Home P.K. never caught on. Edison’s company manufactured 4,600 projectors, but in the end sold just 500 (more than 8,000 Pathescopes had been sold at that point). Pathé Frères had a huge advantage not only in the number of titles available, but because their projectors were superior. It seems quality and quantity was just too much for Edison, and the Home Projecting Kinetoscope was retired in 1914.
Fast forward to the home video era: 1972 marked the year films became available on videocassette to rent, but it would take the arrival of the DVD format in 1997 before an entity had great success with home delivery of movie rentals. That same year, a new company called Netflix was founded. Their concept of offering films for rent by mail seemed revolutionary, and for modern America it most certainly was an innovative (and appealing) model. It was also an idea whose time had come—again.
Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.
A Scrapbook Documenting the Original Interiors of the Dearborn Inn
One of the great attractions in Dearborn, inextricably linked with Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, is the Dearborn Inn. A unique historic institution, the hotel was conceived by Edsel and Henry Ford as their vision of a “real New England Inn” welcoming travelers transiting through the Ford Airport, located adjacent to the Inn, across Oakwood Boulevard. Within several years of the inn’s opening in 1931, the airport closed as Ford exited the aviation business. The inn, however, has endured and prospered, as a first-class hostelry serving visitors to The Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company and the Dearborn community. The building, designed by noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn, was created as his update of an 18th- or early 19th-century New England inn, complete with all of the conveniences necessary for the discriminating traveler in the 1930s. Henry and Edsel Ford viewed the inn very much as the “front door” of Dearborn to the rest of the world, and they gave Albert Kahn and his designers free rein to create a singular structure.
The management of the inn was contracted to the L. G. Treadway Service Company of New York City, which operated a chain of historic inns in New England. The Treadway Company was responsible for the interior arrangements, subcontracting the furnishings to a variety of sources, local and national. Most of the furnishings were reproductions of 18th- and 19th-century antiques according to Treadway’s advertisements. Today, the inn is operated by the Marriott Hotel Corporation, which maintains the high standards of décor, ambience and service set during the 1930s.
I was first introduced to the Dearborn Inn in the summer of 2008, when I interviewed for my current position at The Henry Ford. Having come from a similar curatorial position in New England, I was familiar with real 18th-century inns, including the first inn of the Treadway chain. I was charmed by the 1930s “Colonial Revival” ambiance of the Dearborn Inn and the conscientious service that the Marriott Corporation maintains. When you walk into the elegant lobby and are warmly greeted by the staff, it seems like time stands still. Now that I am a five-year resident of the community, I continue to visit the inn on special occasions and make it a point to bring out-of-town guests there.
One of the many joys of working at The Henry Ford is the opportunity to make new discoveries in our vast collections. This is a story of one of these discoveries.
In the late summer of 2012, the Museum’s Chief Registrar brought a large loose-leaf scrapbook containing a variety of photos, ledger pages, correspondence, fabric samples, design renderings, and floor plans. All of the individual samples were carefully identified as to their location in the building, the name of supplier, and item or model number. Several pages are accounting price lists for each room. The samples were meticulously arranged, most as overlays, and glued into the cardboard pages. Nearly all of the glue on the samples had dried out over the decades and the samples were loose
Even after a cursory examination it was clear that this was a careful documentation of every aspect of the furnishings to the smallest detail. Over time, the pages were shuffled out of order, making a clear examination nearly impossible. Nevertheless, our Registrar believed that this scrapbook documented the original furnishing plan of the Dearborn Inn.
Examining the scrapbook was at once a delight and a challenge – after carefully arranging and rearranging the loose items, concurrently shuffling through pages, we stumbled on the index page, which was the “Smoking Gun” identifying the Dearborn Inn. We can only surmise the original purpose of the scrapbook, perhaps as an aid to staff in reordering furniture and fixtures, carpets, wallpaper and draperies that had worn or broken through heavy use in a commercial environment The text on the index page states, “This collection of pictures, cuts, drawings, samples and swatches is to be used in connection with the complete itemized inventory of Dearborn Inn equipment and furnishings (bound separately), [sic] and file of Purchase Orders and Invoices." To date, we have not located those documents.
Once we located the index, we quickly reassembled the scrapbook into its original arrangement and began the process of evaluating this treasure.
Possibly the most interesting item included is found on the second page, following the index: A bound copy of the trade publication Hotel Monthly from August 1931, includes a feature article on constructing and furnishing the Dearborn Inn. The index describes that it “contains valuable reference material”. The article goes into great technical detail on the construction, emphasizing the modern features found in the inn.
My favorite pages are two-page spreads illustrating the original lobby in photographs and the blueprint of the furniture arrangement. What is truly amazing are the fabric and wallpaper swatches. When one compares them with the black and white photographs, one gains a true sense of the colors and textures of the lobby. On separate pages are photographs of individual pieces of furniture. This partner’s desk and the chest of drawers are still in the lobby.
The use of reproduction antiques is best seen in the guest rooms. This is described as the “Mahogany Bedroom” and contains a group of 18th-century high style pieces including a slant-front desk and tea table and wing chairs. These are mixed with vernacular Windsor and "Hitchcock" chairs. The botanical wallpaper is reminiscent of an 18th-century print.
In all, the scrapbook is a wonderful record of a truly remarkable structure. The images presented here are the highlights, intended to provide a glimpse into a genteel past. As I mentioned, the inn remains a bastion of 1930s service, décor and gentility.
For a detailed history of the Dearborn Inn throughout its history, the best source is Jennifer Czerwick Ganem’s Images of America: Dearborn Inn. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts. The Dearborn Inn scrapbook has opened up exciting new areas of research. While documenting the scrapbook, Charles discovered new stories of the Dearborn Inn's past. He continues telling these stories in future installments.
Reflecting upon Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, journalist and former news anchor Dan Rather remarked, “Mandela’s legacy is on a line with those of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King—both of whom inspired him...”
The Henry Ford owns important historical objects that convey meaning and provide relevance for this line of courageous freedom fighters.
Mahatma Gandhi—champion for Indian nationalism in British-ruled India—gave Henry Ford this spinning wheel in 1941. Gandhi’s gift represented a commitment to world peace that he and Ford shared. Mandela often called Gandhi a role model.
Mandela acknowledged others in the long struggle for human rights. He once said, “Before King there was Rosa Parks. She inspired us…to be fearless when facing oppressors.” Mandela claimed that Rosa Parks’ courageous act sustained him while in prison. He was overjoyed to meet her in 1990, soon after his release from prison. The bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955 to a white man represents a decisive moment in the American Civil Rights movement.
In noting Mandela’s passing, President Obama recounted that his first experience in political activism was a protest against apartheid, and Mandela became a personal inspiration to him. Obama reflected, “Never discount the difference that one person can make.” Such perspective may have been present as he sat on the Rosa Parks bus during a 2012 visit to Henry Ford Museum.
With humility and respect for these extraordinary leaders, we hope that these objects and stories can both remind us of all that Mandela stood for and help contribute to ongoing conversations about social justice in our country and the world.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Photo by Ted Eytan.
This year’s holiday season is definitely special. The first day of Hanukkah (25 Kislev, 5774) overlaps with Thanksgiving Day (November 28, 2013). Call it Chanksgiving; call it Thanksgivukkah; call it what it is: a rare intersection of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars. Unless either or both calendars change, 25 Kislev won’t intersect with the fourth Thursday of November until the year 79,811! To commemorate this extraordinary meeting of two holidays closely associated with food traditions, let’s look at a Hanukkah staple: latkes.
Although deep-fried turkey achieved some popularity on American Thanksgiving tables over the past decade*, foods fried in oil are much older and more symbolic traditions for many Jews during Hanukkah.
Hanukkah celebrates a 165 B.C.E. victory over Syrian-Greeks who had seized the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. According to Rabbinic tradition the Jewish victors, a rebel army known as the Maccabees, set out to purify and rededicate the defiled temple but could only find one day’s worth of ritual oil. Miraculously, the small amount of purifying oil burned in the temple’s lamp stand, or menorah, for eight days!
Remembering the Miracle of the Oil
Lighting the menorah is another Hanukkah tradition that plainly commemorates the miracle of the oil. Many Jewish families light a branch of this special candelabrum each night of Hanukkah in remembrance of the Temple’s historic rededication.
Many foods, especially desserts, are prepared with or fried in oil during Hanukkah to commemorate this miracle. But perhaps no recipe is more closely associated with the holiday than the latke – whose name can be translated to mean “little oily.”
By the mid-19th century, when German immigrants brought latkes to America, the little potato pancakes were a product of centuries of transformation. Hanukkah pancakes probably began in southern and central Europe as dairy treats: cakes of soft cheese fried in butter or oil and accompanied by sour cream. In other areas, where cooking oils were scarce and expensive, fried foods were usually prepared with animal fat. Cheese and butter were also hard to come by in these regions—besides, Jewish dietary laws forbid mixing meat and dairy products. Innovative cooks fried cakes of batter or vegetable patties instead.
Then, slowly, the potato took root in European cuisine. French and German cooks incorporated the starchy South American transplant into existing dishes around the turn of the nineteenth century. Some German Jews fried cakes of grated potato in schmaltz, or rendered poultry fat, to serve alongside a Hanukkah goose.
In the coming decades, as Europe’s population boomed and other crops failed, the inexpensive and abundant potato became an important staple across the continent. Eastern European Jews borrowed potato recipes from their German coreligionists, and the potato latke – along with applesauce, its newest consort – became the most widespread Hanukkah pancake.
Jewish Americans continued the potato latke tradition. In the early 20th century, when vegetable shortening – and, later, vegetable oil – became available, fried latkes with sour cream were once again a kosher dairy option. The versatile latke, already a cornerstone of Hanukkah tradition, only grew more popular in the United States as the holiday transitioned from a modest occasion to an elaborate domestic celebration throughout the 1900s. Not unlike fine olive oil, you’d be hard pressed to find a twentieth-century Jewish cookbook that doesn’t include latkes among its Hanukkah recipes.
Check out The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center for books that help document and preserve the latke’s traditional place on the Hanukkah table. And for more on these storied little pancakes, see Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
Hanukkah in Postwar America
Holidays numbered among the many changes Americans experienced after World War II. In this “baby boom” era, American families celebrated with new traditions and more decorations, gifts, and parties than ever before. Jewish organizations published books and manuals that suggested ways to maintain centuries-old domestic religious traditions, and the 1950s saw a revived and enhanced American Hanukkah. In addition to preparing special foods, families might light several menorahs, exchange gifts for eight nights, decorate their homes, and host gatherings.
Saige Jedele is a Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford and lover of most things potato.
*Frying has been a popular turkey preparation in areas of the Southern United States since at least the early 20th century.
The Henry Ford Museum has hundreds of pieces of silver and pewter on display. We’ve recently been making upgrades to the cases and labels in this exhibit, and as this work has progressed, we’ve also taken the opportunity to clean, conserve, photograph, and update our documentation for this material. We currently have about 50 of these beautiful objects available for you to peruse on our digital collections site—everything from this early 18th century tankard to a complex mid-19th century compote—and we will be adding more over the coming months.
October 24, 2013, was a Thursday like any other Thursday in the offices of The Henry Ford—until 5:48 PM rolled around. At 5:48 PM precisely (not that we were counting), we completed digitization of our 20,000th collections item! There was much rejoicing and taking of celebratory screenshots of our collections management system.
Having seen this goal on the horizon, we had already discussed which item should be the auspicious 20,000th. We settled on something both significant and (we felt) celebratory: a photograph of the first industrial robot, Unimate, serving a drink to George Devol, its creator.
We also arranged to have cake, celebrating the many staff in the institution who work on digitization in large and small ways.
And, we commemorated some of the notable digitization projects we’d worked on over the past few years with stickers created from our digital collections images.
Long-time photographer Rudy Ruzicska proudly showed off his stickers to Henry Ford.
There is a good reason we made such a big deal out of this milestone. Even though digitization is a relatively new process for The Henry Ford (and for many other museums and archives), the potential of getting our collections online is enormous.
Case in point, only about 9% of all the material we’ve digitized thus far is items currently located in public areas in the Museum or in Greenfield Village. About 60% of our digitized content is located in our archival stacks, previously accessible only through a visit to the Research Library in the Benson Ford Research Center. About half a percent of our digitized collections are items currently on loan to another institution, ranging from a few miles away (this Hudson, for example, is currently on loan to the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Collection) to halfway across the world (as witness this Rolls-Royce hood ornament, currently located in China). The remaining 30% or so of the collections items we’ve digitized are neither on public display nor accessible through the Research Library—they are items the public (and even many of our staff and volunteers!) would never otherwise get to see.
This is where the digital world offers a whole new way for our visitors to learn the stories behind our collections—not just by paying us a visit in person, but by making a virtual visit to the treasure trove of documents, photographs, and objects that we hold in trust for current and future generations.
We hope you enjoy viewing all of our growing digital collections. If you have a suggestion for what we should digitize next, or have thoughts on how we can make these digital collections more useful and meaningful, please let us know in the comments below!
Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford, is already counting down to our next digital collection milestone.
Many people know that The Henry Ford has in its collection the presidential limousine in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This limousine is currently on display in Henry Ford Museum.
But our Kennedy-related collections encompass much more than this limousine. They include materials that relate to such topics as his presidential campaign, inauguration, vision for a New Frontier, media coverage of his assassination, and the public commemoration after his death.
While we already had many Kennedy-related collections, the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination gave us the unique opportunity to expand upon these collections. In keeping with our interest in highlighting innovation stories at The Henry Ford, this new collecting focused on President Kennedy as a social innovator—that is, the ways in which his impact radically altered the status quo in our society. Using this approach, we focused our recent collecting upon the following topics:
Kennedy’s unprecedented use of the medium of television to influence public opinion
The reinforcement of the Kennedy image in popular magazines
President Kennedy’s establishment of a Peace Corps
Kennedy’s stepping-up of America’s space program to eventually land a man on the moon
Here is a sampling of our collections relating to Kennedy’s presidency, his role as a social innovator, and his enduring legacy.
Using giveaways like this campaign bumper sticker, Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy launched an exhaustive campaign in 1960 against Republican opponent Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. Despite charges that he lacked experience and that his Catholic background would hurt him, Kennedy eventually won the very close 1960 election.
On January 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s swearing-in as 35th President of the United States was followed by an official parade up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. As shown in this photograph, President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline rode in a 1949 Lincoln that had served Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. The presidential limousine we generally associate with President Kennedy was not completed until June of that year.
From the outset of his presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy seemed to understand instinctively how to harness the power of the new medium of television to influence public opinion. The first televised debate between Senator Kennedy and Vice-President Nixon was considered a key turning point in the 1960 Presidential election. As President, Kennedy also held live televised press conferences, like the one shown on this souvenir card.
Americans were enchanted by the Kennedy family and they wanted to know more, always more. Photographs and feature articles of young President John F. Kennedy and his attractive family fostered a sense of intimacy between the Kennedys and the American public—and, of course, sold magazines. Life and Look magazines, the popular documenters of American life at the time, often featured behind-the-scenes photo-essays of President Kennedy and his family.
Kennedy viewed his vision for a Peace Corps as an opportunity for young Americans to spread hope and goodwill across the world while also serving as a new weapon against the Cold War. By 1964 this program—which had been established March 1, 1961—had received an all-time high of over 45,000 applications. In 1966, less than three years after President Kennedy’s tragic death, Look magazine commissioned Norman Rockwell to portray Kennedy’s Peace Corps legacy for the cover of its June 14, 1966 issue.
President John F. Kennedy’s vision to explore the "new frontier" of outer space was an overt Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union, which had launched the first man into outer space on April 12, 1961. Kennedy’s bold vision for a stepped-up space program—that would land a man on the moon before the decade was out—ignited the public’s imagination. Americans cheered every new achievement. This souvenir card shows President Kennedy awarding NASA's Distinguished Service Medal to the first U.S. astronaut, Alan Shepard, three days after his successful space flight on May 5, 1961.
From the moment of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, reporters struggled to make sense of exactly what happened and how events unfolded in ensuing moments, hours, and days. Our collection of teletype dispatches, newspapers, and magazines reflect how breaking news of this tragic event was reported and how it changed over time.
Stunned and disillusioned Americans embraced commemorative items relating to President Kennedy after his death. These items, including books, magazines, phonograph records, and this postage stamp, helped people mourn and enabled them to re-connect with their charismatic—and now deceased—leader. Commemorative items recalling the optimistic era when John F. Kennedy was President and Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady are still popular today.
Check out these and many more of our Kennedy-related collections via the links below:
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, was in third grade when President Kennedy was assassinated. She would like to thank Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Prints and Photographs, and Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts, for their assistance in writing this blog post.
This month, we mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most dramatic – and traumatic – turning points in American history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. In that single instant, the perceived calm of the postwar era was shattered and “The Sixties” – civil rights legislation, Vietnam, the counterculture – began. Few artifacts from that day are as burned into public memory as the 1961 Lincoln Continental that carried President Kennedy through Dallas.
The car, code named X-100, started life as a stock Lincoln convertible at Ford Motor Company’s Wixom, Michigan, assembly plant. Hess & Eisenhardt, of Cincinnati, Ohio, stretched the car by 3½ feet and added steps for Secret Service agents, a siren, flashing lights and other accessories. Removable clear plastic roof panels protected the president from inclement weather while maintaining his visibility. The car was not armored, and the roof panels were not bulletproof. The modified limo cost nearly $200,000 (the equivalent of $1.5 million today), but Ford leased it to the White House for a nominal $500 a year.
It was a perfect marriage between car and passenger. The Lincoln’s clean, modern lines broke away from the showy chrome and tail fins of the pervious decade, and they seemed to mirror the young president’s turn toward a “New Frontier.” Kennedy used the limo many times during his thousand days in office, and it became tied to him in the public consciousness even before the tragedy in Dallas.
After the assassination, officials from the Secret Service and the FBI examined the car and removed any potential evidence, and then ordered that it be rebuilt and returned to duty. While this decision is astonishing in retrospect, it was one of simple practicality. The president needed a parade car, and it was much faster to modify the X-100 than to build an entirely new vehicle. The $500,000 project (some $3.8 million today), dubbed the “Quick Fix,” produced a true armored car. Titanium plating reinforced the doors, body panels and floor. Filters in the heating and cooling systems protected against poison gas. The now-permanent roof, fitted with bullet-resistant glass, provided a compromise between safety and visibility. In a final change, the car’s deep blue paint was replaced with a more somber black.
The rebuilt car served Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter before being retired in 1977. By then it was 16 years old and outdated in both appearance and equipment. It returned to Ford Motor Company, which in turn donated it to The Henry Ford in 1978. The limousine quickly became one of the most important pieces in the museum’s collection.
Fifty years after the assassination, the car has lost none of its power as an icon of American change. Visitors still pause to reflect on the limousine, whether they are older adults who lived through those painful November days, or young children whose parents weren’t even born when the car came to The Henry Ford.