Last year I was invited to serve as a guest judge for the CASI Cup at the Detroit Autorama, the signature hot rod and custom car show that comes to Cobo Center every March. I’m happy to report that the Autorama team invited me back this year, but with a nice amendment – this time I got to give out an award created and sponsored by The Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford’s members and visitors know that our institution is dedicated to American innovation, a commitment reflected in our mission statement. Hot rods and custom cars were born of the time-honored American traits of ingenuity and individuality, and the Detroit Autorama showcases the finest examples of creatively modified automobiles. The Henry Ford’s Past Forward Award celebrates these traditions. Winning cars are those that best evoke the spirit of hot rodding and customization. These vehicles:
Combine traditional inspirations with modern innovations
Exhibit a highly skilled technique
Show a decided sense of whimsy
Capture the “anything goes” attitude behind the rodder’s and customizer’s craft
With these criteria to guide me, I hit the show floor in search of potential winners. To be sure, there was no shortage of candidates. The show seems to get bigger each year, and more than 1,000 exhibits filled Cobo Center for 2014. While pre-war Fords, post-war Mercurys and late 1950s Chevrolets were all present in big numbers, I was struck by the number of more recent cars. Fieros, Camaros and Mustangs from the 1980s all appeared. It seems that rodders from my generation are drawing on the cars from our youth for inspiration, just as the Boomers have done for years. While I haven’t seen a chopped Plymouth Horizon yet, it seems there’s hope.
After a few trips around the floor, I settled on three possibilities. With only one award to give, though, I let the crowd help me make my final choice. While every car had its admirers, there was a steady stream of people drawn to “Orange Crush,” a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle owned by Joseph Messina of Fair Haven, Michigan. The Chevy had presence – even beyond that electric orange paint. What really struck me in talking to Joe, though, was the pride he took in the small details. He boasted about the car’s stainless steel bolts, explaining that he spent 20 minutes grinding and polishing each one personally. The companion washers were all laser-cut to exacting specifications. It was the perfect blend of new technology and old fashioned craftsmanship that the Past Forward award is all about. Plus, I loved the double meaning in the name. Sure, the car’s color looked a lot like the soft drink, but it’s also clear that Joe had a deep “crush” on his car and was rightfully proud of his work. I hope he’s proud to be our 2014 Past Forward Award winner, too.
And so another great Autorama came to a close. It was a much-appreciated reminder that, despite all the bitter cold and snow this winter, it won’t be long before these cars come off of their mirrored platforms and start hitting the streets as cruising weather returns.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford
In March of 1938 Zenith Radio Corporation introduced a remarkable product—an elegant listening device, priced at $19.95, designed to allow parents to monitor their children after bedtime.
The idea for the Radio Nurse originated with Zenith’s charismatic president, Eugene F. McDonald Jr. Like all parents, McDonald was concerned about his baby daughter’s safety—especially in the wake of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s young son. As a result, he had experimented with an ad hoc system of microphones and receivers that allowed him to keep an ear out for his daughter’s well-being.
Once he was satisfied with his improvised system’s workability, he handed it off to his company’s technicians to create something more reliable and marketable. The device they engineered could not have been simpler. The transmitter, called a "Guardian Ear" could be placed close to the child’s crib or bed; the receiver, called the ‘Radio Nurse” would be set close to wherever the parents happened to be spending their time; both components would be plugged into electrical outlets, the house wiring acted as the carrier for the transmitted sound. The final finished product however was much more than a marriage of concerned fatherhood, ingenuity, and engineering; the presence of another creative mind—that of sculptor Isamu Noguchi—resulted in a product now regarded as an industrial design classic.
Noguchi was responsible for the styling of the system’s most visible, and audible, component—the Radio Nurse receiver. Minimally, he had to create a vessel to house and protect a loudspeaker and its associated vacuum tubes, but actually his task was much more challenging: he had to find a way to soften a potentially intrusive high tech component’s presence in a variety of domestic settings.
Noguchi’s solution, remarkably, was both literal and paradoxical: he created a faceless bust, molded in Bakelite, fronted by a grille and backed by the suggestion of a cap—an impassive abstract form that managed to capture the essence of a benign, yet no-nonsense, nurse. Shimmering in a grey area where the abstract and figurative appear to meet, it strikes a vaguely surrealist note—it wouldn’t be out of place in an image by Giorgio de Chirico or Man Ray. A touch of whimsy is incorporated: adjustment of the concealed volume control wheel amounts to a kind of tickle under the unit’s chin—subtly undermining the effect of the stern Kendo mask-like visage. Still, with its human yet mechanical features, the Radio Nurse remains slightly sinister and finally inscrutable.
But was it neutral enough to sit close at hand without, in silence, striking its own discordant note? Sales never did take off, but it was a technical problem—rogue broadcasts picked up or transmitted by the house wiring—that gave cause for customer complaint. Alarming as the Radio Nurse might be when provoked into voicing one of junior’s broadcasts, the possibility that some other unknown voice might start to speak through that blank grille would surely have made the unit’s presence aggravatingly suspenseful.
"The Saturday Evening Post," June 20, 1903, featuring the first installment of "The Call of the Wild" (Object ID: 2014.0.5.1).
In 1903, Jack London was a young writer still in the early stages of his career. He was 27 years old when he published The Call of the Wild, the story that was destined to become an American classic and earn him a place in the canon of American literature. Drawing upon London’s experiences in the Klondike Gold Rush, The Call of the Wild is the story of Buck, a dog who is kidnapped from his idyllic home in northern California and thrown into the harsh life of a sled dog in the cold wilderness of the Yukon.
The Call of the Wild was first published in The Saturday Evening Post, a popular weekly magazine that featured a variety of content including articles on current events, editorials, illustrations, cartoons, poetry, and fiction. The magazine paid Jack London a sum of $750 for his story, the equivalent of almost $20,000 today. The Call of the Wild was published in five consecutive issues from June 20, 1903 to July 18, 1903. The first two of these issues are held in the collections of The Henry Ford, including the initial issue which features The Call of the Wild on the cover.
The Saturday Evening Post had widespread circulation; in fact, even Clara Ford had a subscription. Several of The Henry Ford’s issues from around 1903 bear an address label for Mrs. H. Ford at 332 Hendrie Ave., the address of the Fords’ residence in Detroit at the time. Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903, just four days before The Call of the Wild was first published. When the final installment of The Call of the Wild was published a month later, Ford Motor Company had just sold their first car for $850, as recorded in their first checkbook. Coincidentally, the base price of the Model A car was $750, the same amount that Jack London received from The Saturday Evening Post for his story. (Ford Motor Company’s first customer paid an extra $100 for a tonneau, or backseat compartment, bringing the total for the car to $850.) I imagine that Henry Ford was quite busy building his fledgling company and didn’t have much time for leisure reading. However, it is interesting to think that he or his wife Clara might have read The Call of the Wild when it was first published, especially at a time when both Henry Ford and Jack London were on the verge of success that would lead them to become icons in American industrial and literary history, respectively.
"The Saturday Evening Post," June 27, 1903, addressed to Mrs. H. Ford; although it is not featured on the cover, this issue includes the second installment of The Call of the Wild. (Object ID: 18.104.22.1684).
From the beginning of the movie business, American wanted to know about the movies and their stars. Thousands of letters flooded the movie studios and the public relations' departments tried to accommodate that interest. By 1910, the demand for information was out of control. In February, 1911 J. Stuart Blackton, head of Vitagraph Studios, helped to organize Motion Picture Story Magazine which was soon shortened to Motion Picture Magazine, the first movie fan magazine.
Movie fan magazines were filled with stories and photos of the movie stars, informed readers about the new films being introduced, answered questions about how movies were made, provided synopses of current melodramas, offered recipes of the stars, featured the latest Hollywood fashion styles, provided tips on scenario writing, and offered contests with prizes like trips to Hollywood, and tours of the movie studios.
In 1912, Photoplay was introduced and by the early 1920s, more than a dozen such magazines crowded the newsstands with names like Cinema Art, Film Fun, Motion Picture Journal, Movie Weekly, Picture Play, and Screenland. The cover art captured the glamour of the times and featured beautifully detailed renderings of the popular stars of the day. The illustrators were some of the best in their field. By the late 1930s however the illustrated cover art was replaced by photographs which were cheaper to produce.
Most of the movie magazines relied on the movie studios for information and access to stars. The stories that appeared were carefully controlled by the studio's public relations staff. It was a strange marriage between the studios, who needed the support of the magazines, and the magazines, whose existence depended on the success and good will of the industry. The tendency was to create articles that reflected the movies as a hard working business and the stars as professionals. The magazines were filled with stories about actors like tough guy Edward G. Robinson and lover Rudolph Valentino, actresses like Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn, as well as articles about social and moral issues created by the movies.
Beginning in the teens, movie magazine advertising appealed to men and women from all social classes. By the early 1920s, the ads began to focus on young, middle-class men and women who, like today, were viewed by advertisers as having greater disposable incomes.
In 1924 Photoplay promoted itself as the young generation's favorite periodical. By the later 1920s, that demographic had shifted further to focus heavily on women. Soon stars were making forays into the world of commercial advertising. Movie star endorsements of commercial products, considered taboo in the teens and 1920s became an accepted way of selling both stars and products by 1935. The emphasis, in most cases, was on beauty and hygiene products, and cigarettes.
"Photoplay" Magazine for October, 1974, "Streisand's Man Reveals Why They Love So Well" (Object ID: 97.38.44)
The post World War II era produced a more cynical moviegoer whose interests were inclined to scandals and gossip and were no longer satisfied with the carefully crafted stories put out by the studios. Movie magazines changed with the mood of America but it wasn't enough. Increasingly, readers turned to the "scoops" and scandals handed out by "scandal sheets" like Confidential and Hush Hush. Television talk shows reduced the need to simply read about the stars when the information and the stars themselves were beamed directly into America's living room each day. In an attempt to survive, some magazines merged; others broadened their coverage to include music, television and other areas of entertainment. Slowly, the movie magazines vanished from the newsstand, with Photoplay lasting the longest, finally fading away in 1980. The movie magazines didn't really vanish, they just assumed a different form such as People, Premiere, and Soap Opera Digest.
Fuller, Kathryn H. At The Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.
Gelman, Barbara. Photoplay Treasury. New York, Crown Publishing Co., 1972.
Terry Hoover is Chief Archivist at The Henry Ford.
In early 1964, young Beatles fans might have listened for their favorite hits with an inexpensive, hand-held transistor radio like this “Zenette” model, made by the Zenith Radio Corporation. THF102582
For those who had been paying attention, the groundwork for the Beatles’ conquest of America had actually been laid before President Kennedy’s assassination in November. Through the summer and fall of 1963, the Beatles had slowly gained a following. A few radio deejays, intrigued by the Beatles’ sound and the attention they were getting over in Europe, occasionally managed to veer from the usual playlist to sneak in an airing of an imported copy of one of their British hits.
At the end of 1963, listener interest reached a crescendo with airplay of the Beatles’ British hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Taking notice, Capitol Records decided to move up its own U.S. release date of this record. Rather than mid-January 1964 (to coincide with the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan Show appearances), Capitol debuted this single on December 26, 1963. The timing was perfect. In New York City alone, this single sold 10,000 copies every hour over the first three days of its release! In only 10 days, a million copies of it had been sold. Four additional Beatles singles and two albums were hastily produced and were flying off the record shelves just in time for the Beatles’ visit.
A Day in the Life
Certainly the most memorable and significant part of the Beatles’ visit to America in February 1964 was their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” As story has it, Sullivan, who had great instincts as a talent scout, happened to be at London’s Heathrow Airport on October 31, 1963, when the Beatles returned from Stockholm, Sweden, to a mass of screaming fans. Intrigued, he investigated further and ended up negotiating with the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein for not just one, but three shows.
The first of these aired live on Sunday, February 9 in New York City. An estimated 74 million viewers turned on their TVs to watch Ed Sullivan’s show that night—the largest recorded audience for an American television program to date! While Beatles music was becoming familiar to the public through both the radio and their records, television had the power to add visuals—and to bring these visuals directly into people’s living rooms.
And what visuals they were! The Beatles were like no other performers Americans had ever seen. They dressed and acted like courtly gentlemen, wearing matching suits with collarless jackets and bowing together at the end of each song. But their defining feature was their shockingly long hair, which shook and bounced around their faces as they sang.
The American press was not kind to the Beatles after that first Ed Sullivan Show appearance. An article in The New York Times called them “young men with heads like unmade beds.” The audience was “filled with wild-eyed girls” who “bounced like dervishes and began a wild screaming as if Dracula had just appeared on stage.” But, not surprisingly, young people—especially girls—thought very differently about the experience. Historian Susan Douglas, who—as a teenager—had watched the Beatles on TV during that first Ed Sullivan Show, captured the thoughts of many like her:
While I didn’t scream (because I was recording them on my dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder), I sure felt like it. I was elated—actually filled with joy. I couldn’t stop smiling while they performed. They made me so happy, the kind of happy that overflows all the breakers in your neural system and makes you feel free. This was a happiness I could barely contain, the kind that made me want to shake my best friends and jump for joy.
The Beatles’ second appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” took place the following Sunday, February 16—live from the Deauville Hotel’s Napoleon Ballroom in Miami Beach, Florida. It drew an estimated 70 million television viewers. During this show, Ed Sullivan described the Beatles as “four of the nicest youngsters we’ve ever had on the show.”
Their final appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was back in New York City on February 23, a show pre-recorded on February 9. By this time, the Beatles had already returned home to England.
The Beatles’ 15-day visit to America also included press conferences, rehearsals, and concerts. At their first American concert—which took place in the Coliseum in Washington, D.C.—the Beatles had to turn and reorient themselves after every few songs because the stage was at the center. At their two concerts in New York City’s Carnegie Hall—considered America’s great shrine to classical music—they appropriately started off with Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”
This souvenir button was purchased by Stephen Majher, who happened to share an elevator with the Beatles at the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, during their stay there to prepare for their second appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Stephen Majher was in Miami attending a convention and was unaware of the famous quartet's identity until the elevator landed and the Beatles were met by screaming fans. He commemorated the occasion by purchasing some Beatles-related souvenirs—including this button—to take home to his 14- and 7-year old daughters back in Bay City, Michigan. THF8627
Here, There and Everywhere
The Beatles’ conquest of America in February 1964 was, in fact, thoroughly planned and strategized—even if the Beatles themselves were pleasantly surprised by it all. In the end, victory was soundly declared.
But during their brief visit, the Beatles had opened a door that would forever change American musical tastes, fashion, group behavior in public places, and teen culture. The conquest was complete. But the invasion had just begun.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Was there a group better than The Beach Boys to write so longingly about the automobile? (Object ID: 87.170.1)February is upon us and, with Valentine’s Day in the offing, our thoughts turn to love. Red roses and paper hearts are fine, but to me nothing is quite as romantic as a love song. Whether it’s from an old master of the Berlin-Gershwin-Porter variety, or from one of today’s stars, a simple love song communicates emotion in a wholly unique way. Anyone who has explored the “Car Tunes” activity in Driving America knows that automobiles have been a staple in popular songs from the start. It was inevitable, then, that the car song and the love song would blend. In the spirit of the holiday, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites.
Many words have been written on the automobile’s effects on our courtship rituals. (See John Heitmann’s The Automobile in American Life for a good discussion.) Prior to the car, a young man “called” on a young woman at her home under her mother’s watchful eyes. The couple might find a few moments of privacy on the front porch, but that was about it. The automobile threw the old rules out the window and gave couples a literal escape from the confines of the home. It either took them somewhere where they could, ahem, be affectionate, or was itself the place for their amorous activities.
Kenny Roberts, the Yodeling Cowboy, voices this shift in his 1949 hit “I Never See Maggie Alone.” As the title suggests, Kenny can’t get a private moment with Maggie – her large family is always there. He buys a car for a little seclusion, takes Maggie for a ride, but… Well, I won’t spoil it for you, but you probably know what happens. Fast forward 30 years and you’ll find Robbie Dupree covering the same ground in “Hot Rod Hearts” from 1980. Times have changed, though. While Kenny and Maggie were merely “huggin’ and kissin,” Robbie has “young love born in a backseat.” One suspects there’s more than innocent necking at play.
How do you listen to your favorite song in your car today? (Zenith "Zenette" Transistor Radio, 1960-1963, Object ID: 92.46.2).
When the car isn’t providing young lovers with a means to get away together, it’s often the means to bring them together. Many tunes tell of someone driving through the night to reach a significant other. Cyndi Lauper made a big hit out of this very scenario with 1989’s “I Drove All Night.” It’s been an enduring song, with subsequent hit versions from Roy Orbison and Celine Dion. (Celine’s version even backed a series of Chrysler commercials in the early 2000s.)
Classic Rock fans recognize the “drive to romance” concept from Golden Earring’s 1973 smash “Radar Love.” While the title refers to the lovers’ seemingly telepathic connection, the opening couplet is pure road song: “I’ve been drivin’ all night, my hands wet on the wheel / there’s a voice in my head that drives my heel.” Country fans, meanwhile, might be reminded of Dave Dudley’s 1963 cut “Six Days On the Road.” In this case, the narrator is a professional truck driver longing to get home, but the sentiment is the same: “Well it seems like a month since I kissed my baby goodbye… My hometown’s comin’ in sight / If you think I’m happy you’re right / Six days on the road and I’m a gonna make it home tonight.”
Tom Waits puts a nice spin on the situation with his 1973 song “Ol’ 55” (memorably covered by the Eagles in 1974). Instead of driving his car to his lover, he’s driving back home from his lover. So warm is the afterglow that traffic is a “parade” as he rides “with lady luck.” In the song itself, Waits never identifies his vehicle beyond a model year. In subsequent interviews, he’s pegged it as a 1955 Buick Roadmaster, but I still picture a Chevrolet.
Chuck Berry is often cited as “rock and roll’s poet laureate.” His witty lyrics helped to establish rock’s very structure during the formative 1950s. It’s no surprise that Berry created some memorable car songs. His very first hit, 1955’s “Maybellene,” is one of the genre’s best. We find Chuck cruising in his hot rod Ford V-8 when he spies the eponymous Maybellene in her Cadillac Coupe de Ville. They race down the highway, “bumper to bumper, rollin’ side to side.” An overheated engine threatens to end Chuck’s race, but a well-timed cloudburst cools his flathead and allows him to catch the Caddy at 110 miles per hour. While the race goes Chuck’s way, the “Why can’t you be true” chorus suggests that the romantic relationship doesn’t work out so well.
Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are rightfully credited as the masters of the car song. They gave us “Little Deuce Coupe,” “I Get Around,” “Custom Machine,” “This Car of Mine,” “Shut Down” and a host of other hot rod hits. (And really, who else but the masters could have written a song – and a good one at that – inspired by engine displacement?) But Wilson & Co.’s genius with the genre is perhaps most evident in the haunting “Don’t Worry Baby.” Casual listeners will hear the oft-told tale of a man who draws strength and support from his significant other. Those who listen more closely, though, will hear a song about… a car race! Brian boasts about his car, talks himself into a race, and shares his apprehensions with his love. She reassures him – makes him come alive, makes him want to drive – when she shares the titular advice. One of my favorite things about the song – apart from that deft modulation from E to F# between verse and chorus – is the ambiguity in the ending. We never do find out if Brian wins his race, but I suppose that’s beside the point. “Don’t Worry Baby” is the rare track that thick-skinned gear heads and sensitive poets can both embrace.
Among the most atmospheric car/love songs has to be 1984’s “Drive” by the Cars. (And, by the way, how’s that for title/artist synergy?) While the song is open to wide interpretation, I think of it as being about a relationship strained by chemical dependency. The central question, “Who’s gonna drive you home,” is rhetorical. The narrator pleads that his lover “can’t go on / thinkin’ nothing’s wrong” as he watches her self-destruct. If he leaves, then who will be left to care for her? “Drive” isn’t a roll-down-the-windows and rock-down-the-highway hit, but it is a reminder that car songs can be subtle.
Maybe the best twist on the car song/love song style is when the car itself is the object of the singer’s affections. Dan Seals’s 1985 country hit, “My Old Yellow Car,” is the perfect example. It’s a sentimental ballad in which, despite all of his fame and fortune (he’s “got a Mercedes-Benz with a TV and bar”), the thing Dan pines for most is his first car. Even though “she weren’t much to look at / she weren’t much to ride,” this yellow car made young Dan the king of the world: “There was no road too winding / there was nowhere too far / with two bucks of gas in my old yellow car.” It’s emotional stuff, and by the end of the song we realize just what that first car represents. It’s more than empowerment and independence; it’s a talisman of lost youth. There’s a reason we all get nostalgic about our first rides, no matter how humble they were.
Enjoy your Valentine’s Day everyone. Light a few candles, open a bottle of wine, and put together your own playlist of favorite car-related love songs. It’ll put you in a romantic mood – and tide you over until its time to pull the classic out of winter storage.
Like the songs you heard here? Watch them on YouTube or log into Hypster and listen to the whole list.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford
Andy Williams was off by a month. Auto industry insiders and enthusiasts know that January is the most wonderful time of the year, as it brings the annual North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). Since 1907, automakers have used the event to showcase fresh designs and innovative technologies. New models are introduced with suitable razzmatazz, and concept cars tantalize us with possibilities for the future. I set out to Cobo Center this year excited for everything, but with three particular must-sees on my checklist.
Chevrolet wowed crowds last year with the return of the Corvette Stingray (it took “Car of the Year” honors at this year’s event). For the 2014 show, the Bow Tie gives us the 2015 Corvette Stingray Z06. With 625 horsepower surging from its 6.2 liter V-8, the Z06 is a legitimate supercar. No, it’s not going to sell in any significant quantity, but these halo dream machines are what make NAIAS so much fun.
Chrysler is making headlines with its introduction of the next generation 200. This car could be a coup for the Pentastar. There’s a lot of money to be made in the mid-sized segment, and Chrysler wants to increase its take. The 200 also builds on shared design and technology from parent Fiat – efficiencies that can help the company thrive. Analysts will keep a close eye on the 200’s sales, but what really caught my eye is the 200’s rotary dial transmission shifter. I’m a fan of the traditional floor-mounted lever, but buttons and paddles have their supporters, so why not a dial?
Ford made its 2015 Mustang splash last month, so its NAIAS presence is heavily focused on the aluminum-bodied F-150. This is a big play by the Blue Oval. The venerable F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the United States for close to 20 years (and the best-selling pickup forever – well, at 43 years, practically so!). But fuel efficiency is vital for environmental and economic reasons. With the 2015 F-150, Ford improves gas mileage by converting much of the truck’s body structure from steel to aluminum and dropping 700 pounds of curb weight in the process. It’s a breakthrough, but it surely takes courage to invest in expensive new metalwork and try major experiments on your most popular product.
The F-150 gets the headlines, but don’t think that the Mustang is ignored. Prototypes of the 2015 model are there for ogling, and The Henry Ford’s own 1962 Mustang I concept car and 1965 Mustang Serial Number One production car are on prominent display. Best of all, though, Ford has created a sort of museum to Mustang’s place in popular culture. Head upstairs into the gallery and you’ll find everything from die-cast models, to Avon cologne bottles, to movie posters. (Yes, Bullitt is there.) There’s trivia too. Who knew, for example, that “Mustang” is one of the most popular computer passwords? Or that a Mustang was one of the original 16 Hot Wheels cars? My favorite display consisted of a jukebox playing nothing but Mustang-related songs, from Wilson Pickett to Vanilla Ice. “Rollin’ in my 5.0” indeed.
On a final note, there is a real treat in seeing Cobo Center itself this year. The new atrium and Grand Riverview Ballroom (fashioned from the old Cobo Area) are absolutely breathtaking. Detroit has much to be proud of this year – on both sides of the NAIAS showroom doors.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford
Did you know Henry Ford had his own personal librarian? Rachel MacDonald joined Ford Motor Company in 1925 to catalog objects acquired by Henry Ford for the educational center and history museum he envisioned--the Edison Institute, what we know today as The Henry Ford. She stayed on to build up a library of 25,000 volumes, including a complete set of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, a favorite of her boss. She also collected, on Henry's behalf, volumes of Noah Webster's dictionaries and the McGuffey readers, and she started a compilation of verified Henry Ford quotations, among other useful resources. Many of these materials were transferred to the archives shortly after Henry Ford's death. These materials, which became part of the Ford Motor Company Archives, were later donated by the company to The Henry Ford, in 1964, and form part of our collection today.
MacDonald's first library at Ford was in the Highland Park plant. There she met visiting friends of Henry Ford including Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, actor Mickey Rooney, and author Damon Runyon, when they paid calls on Henry, who thirsted after interesting conversation. Mickey Rooney, who came to Dearborn to film a movie about Edison's life, was a particular favorite of Henry's, who enjoyed the young actor's energy and high spirits.
As time went on, Ford's aides increasingly limited access to the mogul, even going so far as to call ahead to places they knew Henry was going to be visiting--including the library--warning employees to hide. (By this time MacDonald was working at the Engine and Electrical Engineering or "EEE" Building now known as the POEE building, where the library had moved.) As the isolation and formality around Henry increased, he became a very lonely man, MacDonald recalled feeling. Henry turned to square dancing as a social outlet, with dances in the library every Wednesday. MacDonald often danced with Henry and observed that he would chat with her the whole time they were dancing.
Besides notable visitors from around the country and the world, the Ford grandchildren were frequent visitors to the library. MacDonald remembered that Henry II and Benson liked to slide around on the highly polished floors (Henry always liked to keep things in fine finish) as though they were at a skating rink.
Both Henry and Clara Ford were avid birders, and they created a bird sanctuary on their Dearborn estate, Fair Lane. One of MacDonald's favorite anecdotes to relate about her days at Ford was the time Henry called her with an urgent request for information on the "correct size for a hole in a wren house." She found the answer (⅞ of an inch) and promptly informed him. She later learned that Henry had been inspecting the wren houses built on his grounds by his staff and thought that the holes were too large. A larger hole would allow other bird species, including the ubiquitous sparrow, to invade. Upon learning that the holes were not the correct size, Henry, ever the stickler, had them all recut.
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press given around her retirement, MacDonald had more recollections about Henry Ford and the library she helped him amass. Ford was not popularly thought to have had much use for books, but MacDonald countered that he was in fact very interested in them. Henry wanted have a collection of books on hand on all manner of subjects should the need arise for him--or his staff--to look something up. He was, according to MacDonald, a frequent visitor to her library and would spend time there skimming through books, often walking off with one in his pocket. (According to her and others at Ford Motor Company, it was at Henry's insistence that many company publications were pocket-sized, reflecting his preference for portable reading material. Think what he might have done with a smartphone or an e-reader today!) Another useful resource that she and other Engineering Library staff created and kept available at the library for their knowledge-hungry boss was a vertical file on the many topics he was interested in. It is still available for research today as the Engineering Library Vertical File, in many ways a window into Henry Ford's mind.
As an interesting aside, though MacDonald was her married name, Rachel MacDonald was always referred to within the company as "Miss"--perhaps a reflection of different times and moeurs, when a married woman was not expected to remain in the workforce (or indeed, was expected not to remain there).
MacDonald, who had studied library science in Massachusetts before moving to Michigan, kept active professionally and was a charter member and president of the Michigan chapter of the Special Libraries Association. She retired in 1963 after long career as a librarian at Ford (37 years). MacDonald died at the age of 83 in 1981, in Florida, where she had moved after she retired.
As Neil Gaiman has famously noted (to the extent that it has become an Internet meme), "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one." While today, the answer to the "wren question," and many others, is available at our fingertips, Rachel MacDonald's work at the Ford Engineering Library shows how important both amassing a wealth of resources and deploying the expert knowledge to use those resources were in the time before online search. Today, the field is more democratized in terms of the knowledge and resources that are available, but experts (like my colleagues in the archives, library, and museum professions) are still needed to help identify, collect, preserve, and promote access to important information and artifacts--and in this digital age, to ensure that more and more resources are made available online for all.
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.