Early car buyers knew what motor vehicles should look like--carriages, of course! But automobiles needed things carriages didn’t: radiators, windshields, controls, horns, and hoods. Early automakers developed simple solutions. Brass, often used for carriage trim, was adopted for radiators, levers, and horns. Windshields were glass plates in wood frames. Rectangular sheet metal covers hid engines. The result? A surprisingly attractive mix of materials, colors, and shapes.
Although the Stevens-Duryea Company claimed its cars had stylish design, most early automakers worried more about how the car worked than how it looked. / THF84913
To build a car body, early automakers had to shape sheet metal over a wooden form. Cars made that way, like this 1907 Locomobile, often looked boxy. / Detail, THF84914
Some early automobiles looked good. But even the attractive ones looked like an assembly of parts, like the Studebaker shown in this 1907 ad. / THF84915
This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
In 2019, The Henry Ford launched the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, an institution-wide initiative focused on providing resources and encouragement for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. As Project Curator for the initiative, I have been working with other curators to identify entrepreneurial stories within our collections, select artifacts to be digitized, and research and write digital content to share these stories with the public. As this project comes to an end this month, I wanted to provide a wrap-up of all the entrepreneurial stories we’ve worked on.
The first six months of the initiative focused on entrepreneurial stories from our collecting themes of Agriculture and the Environment, and Social Transformation, but my first task was to determine what exactly we mean by “entrepreneurship.” Check out the blog post "Exploring Entrepreneurship," where I discuss what it means to be an entrepreneur.
The first collection I worked with was the H.J. Heinz Company Collection. Most people associate the Heinz name with ketchup, or even pickles, but the company’s first product was actually horseradish. Young Henry Heinz learned to prepare horseradish with his mother in their family home in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, eventually selling the product to local housewives. In 1869, Heinz started his first official business selling horseradish out of his family home.
After initial success selling horseradish, Heinz’s company began selling other products like celery sauce and pickled cucumbers (pickles). Unfortunately, by 1875, the company went out of business, but Heinz learned from this failure and tried again. In 1876, Heinz persuaded family members to open a new company, F. &. J. Heinz, where Heinz could run the business behind the scenes while rebuilding his reputation. By 1888, Heinz had saved enough money to buy the company, renaming it the H.J. Heinz Company. To learn more about the rise of the H.J. Heinz Company, check out this Innovation Journeys Live! program where I discuss H.J. Heinz’s journey through the lens of our Model i habit “Learn from Failure.”
One characteristic of an entrepreneur is being a creative thinker. H.J. Heinz was a master of marketing, finding creative ways to advertise his products. With elaborate store displays and other strategies, the Heinz brand became a household name. In viewing advertisements and salesman catalogs, I learned about the many varieties of products that the H.J. Heinz Company produced. Did you know that Heinz sold heat-to-serve spaghetti and macaroni products? I sure didn’t!
Streetcar Advertising Poster for Heinz Spaghetti, circa 1930 / THF292241
H.J. Heinz recognized that the success of his business relied on his employees. Heinz was at the forefront of the employee welfare movement, offering amenities and conveniences for his workers, such as a swimming pool, gymnasium, and self-improvement classes.
Advertising Layout Photograph of Heinz Company Employee Swimming Pool and Baseball Team, circa 1912 / THF292794
One of my favorite parts of this job is that I have gotten to research individual artifacts and discover interesting facts about them. Ever wonder how we do this work? Check out the blog post "The Secret Life of a Heinz Recipe Book," where I discuss how we researched an employee recipe book found in the Heinz Collection. You can also check out the expert set "H.J. Heinz: His Recipe for Success," to learn more about H.J. Heinz’s entrepreneurial journey.
The next collection I examined was the Label Collection, and specifically, fruit and vegetable labels from the early produce industry. Labels distinguished one brand’s products from another and the artwork on them was meant to stand out and entice potential customers. Early product labels were made by a process called lithography, where skilled artists drew their images on flattened, smooth pieces of stone—traditionally limestone—to be inked and then transferred to paper via a printing press. The artists who worked in this medium are called lithographers. To learn more about lithography and the history of labels, click through to the post "Unpacking the History of Labels."
Lithography companies created label designs for growers, packers, and distribution companies, often including a “signature” so others knew who created the design—like “Schmidt Litho. Co.” in the example below. Schmidt Lithograph Company was a recurring company name among the labels in the collection. I researched this company further and uncovered how Max Schmidt became one of the most well-known lithographers in the industry by 1900. Explore his entrepreneurial journey with the blog post "Max Schmidt: A Leader in Lithography."
The Label Collection also tells the story of entrepreneurial companies that packaged and distributed produce. This led me to the story of Joseph Di Giorgio, founder of the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation. Through research and reading oral history transcripts from Di Giorgio’s relatives and former employees, I discovered how hard work and determination led Di Giorgio to be known as “The Fruit King.” Learn more about his story by reading the blog post “'The Fruit King': Joseph Di Giorgio."
Crate Label, “Oh Yes! We Grow the Best California Fruits,” 1930-1940 / THF293029
This collection also gave me the opportunity to examine the entrepreneurial farmers who grew and harvested produce. For this, the Detroit Publishing Company Collection was extremely useful. From 1895 to 1924, the Detroit Publishing Company produced, published, and distributed photographic views from all over the world. Photographers captured special events and everyday activities, as well as views of cities and countryside. Photographs showing the harvesting and crating process, like this one of grapefruit being picked and crated for shipping, provided a unique look into the entrepreneurial farming industry.
Picking and Crating Grapefruit for Riverside Fruit Exchange, Riverside, California, circa 1905 / THF295680
To learn how these products and crops were marketed to and used by the general public, I delved into the Recipe Booklet Collection. Recipe booklets were a great source of marketing for companies, offering creative uses for products. With so many different companies represented in this collection, I was able to research the history of some of America’s well-known brands and compiled the expert set "Recipe Booklets from the Early 20th Century" so you can discover these histories. Within the booklets, you’ll also find recipes to try!
Recipe Booklet, “Kraft-Phenix Cheese Corp., Cheese and Ways to Serve It,” 1931 / THF294910
I found myself particularly drawn to the colorful and vibrant recipe booklets from the Jell-O Company. I was both delighted and surprised to find recipes ranging from beautiful and delicious-sounding creations to quirky and unusual flavor combinations (corned beef loaf, anyone?). Jell-O was first invented by Pearle Wait in 1897 when he combined fruit flavoring and sugar with gelatin powder. Unfortunately, Wait was unable to market the product, selling it to Orator F. Woodward two years later. By 1902, the Jell-O business was a quarter-million-dollar success. To learn more about this entrepreneurial enterprise, check out the blog post, “America’s Most Famous Dessert.”
Page from the recipe booklet, “Jell-O, America’s Most Famous Dessert,” 1916 / THF294400
The final step in the agricultural chain is public consumption, particularly in restaurants. In 2019, The Henry Ford acquired the largest collection of materials related to American diners, donated by leading diner expert Richard J.S. Gutman. Within the Gutman Diner Collection, photographs, trade catalogs, menus, and other items tell stories of innovation and entrepreneurship—from the craftspeople and designers who built the dining cars to the owners and operators who served customers every day. Learn more about the history of diners and how the industry embodies innovation and entrepreneurship in "Diners: An American Original," written by Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life Donna Braden.
Leviathan Grill, Newark, New Jersey, circa 1930 / THF296786
As part of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, The Henry Ford launched an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program. Melvin Parson, founder of We The People Grower’s Association and We the People Opportunity Farm, was our first EIR, participating in programs to encourage entrepreneurs in urban farming. Driven by his mission for equality and social justice, Farmer Parson uses vegetable farming as a vehicle to address social ills. He works to educate those in his community about farming and provides employment and training for individuals returning home from incarceration. You can view clips from the interview we did with Melvin Parson about his entrepreneurial journey at his urban farm in Ann Arbor in this expert set: "Melvin Parson: Market Gardener and Social Entrepreneur."
Melvin Parson during the Entrepreneurship Interview, 2019 / THF295361
This year, The Henry Ford and Saganworks, a technology start-up from Ann Arbor, Michigan, have partnered together to create a new virtual experience where people from around the world can interact with our digitized collections in a curated virtual space. What we created was a Sagan: a virtual room experienced like a gallery. The Henry Ford’s Entrepreneurship Sagan highlights the artifacts we digitized from the collections previously mentioned related to Agriculture and the Environment, and Social Transformation. To learn more about our Sagan you can watch this narrated walkthrough or read "Exploring Entrepreneurship, Virtually: The Henry Ford’s Sagan." You can also interact with an embedded version of the Sagan in this post: "Tour Our Entrepreneurship Sagan."
A view of the barn section of The Henry Ford’s Entrepreneurship Sagan, featuring items from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, the Label Collection, and Melvin Parson’s EIR program. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Johnson)
The second six months of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship focused on our collecting themes of Design & Making, and Communications & Information Technology. The first entrepreneurial story I delved into here was the Everlast Metal Products Corporation. Experienced metalworkers and brothers-in-law Louis Schnitzer and Nathan Gelfman immigrated to the U.S. and entered the silver housewares business in the early 1920s. Soon, the Great Depression caused them to turn to a more affordable metal: aluminum.
Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Yours from Everlast, the Finest—Bar None!” 1947 / THF125124
In 1932, the pair formed Everlast Metal Products Corporation and began producing high-quality, hand-forged aluminum giftware. In an era of growing uniformity via factory production, the “made by hand” products (like this bowl) held an aesthetic appeal for consumers. Even with its initial success, by the 1950s, aluminum housewares were seen as old-fashioned compared to consumer interests in materials like ceramics and plastics. As an attempt to reinvent its products, Everlast produced a line of “modern” giftware, like coasters. If I could choose any Everlast piece to use at my house, it would definitely be this three-tier tidbit tray from the “modern” line.
Despite attempts to modernize, advances in technology and rapidly changing consumer interests led to the downfall of the aluminum industry. Schnitzer and Gelfman’s entrepreneurial journey ended in 1961 but they experienced undeniable success in Everlast’s 30-year history. Interested in learning more about this company? Check out "Forging an Enterprise: Everlast Aluminum Giftware," or click here to view over 100 items from our collection of Everlast products.
The next collection I worked with was the Trade Card Collection, filled with all kinds of entrepreneurial stories. As color printing became popular in the late 19th century, trade cards became a major means of advertising goods and services to potential customers. Cheap and effective, trade cards promoted products like medicine, seeds, food, stoves, sewing machines, and notions. Americans often saved these little advertisements found in product packages and distributed by local merchants
Trade Card for John Kelly’s Fine Shoes, 1879-1890 / THF296402
Companies employed a variety of methods to make their trade cards stand out, like using vibrant colors or endearing images. One of the most popular image themes throughout our collection, and Victorian trade cards in general, is the depiction of children (for example, in this trade card for Ayer’s Sarsaparilla). Another common theme is cute – and sometimes silly – animals. Something about the expressions on these dogs reading the newspaper always makes me laugh.
Trade Card for the Standard Rotary Shuttle Sewing Machine, Standard Sewing Machine Co., 1891-1900 / THF296692
I found trade cards that offered an optical illusion especially intriguing. When you hold this card up to a light, the woman’s eyes appear open and the logo for the company’s Garland Stoves and Ranges appears in the open window. But my absolute favorite trade card is the one below, for Nick Pettine’s tuxedo rental and tailoring service. These two figures came in an envelope. They are the same size when placed side-by-side (see first image), but when you put one figure’s nose on the collar of the other, one appears smaller!
Mr. Smyley and Mr. Happy’s Optical Illusion Trade Card for Nick Pettine Tuxedo Rentals, 1924 / THF298632, THF298633
I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so I was excited to have the opportunity to research early Grand Rapids companies found within the Trade Card Collection, which you can check out in the expert set "Trade Cards from Early Grand Rapids Businesses." To learn about other entrepreneurial companies represented in the Trade Card Collection, check out "Trade Cards Catch the Eye."
While researching the trade cards, I became fascinated with the story behind one particular entrepreneurial company: the Larkin Company. In 1875, John D. Larkin established a soap manufacturing company. Its first salesman, Elbert Hubbard, adopted a marketing strategy to offer a premium (a free giveaway) with the purchase of a product such as Boraxine.
By 1883, as the company’s product line expanded, finer premiums were offered, such as silver-plated eating utensils. Larkin & Hubbard saw this promotion’s potential. They eliminated middlemen (including the salesforce) and entered the mail-order industry. In 1885, Hubbard developed “The Larkin Idea,” incorporating his promotion of offering giveaways with purchases into mail-order catalogs. The money saved by eliminating middlemen went towards creating desirable premiums available to customers with purchases. By 1910, product offerings expanded to include foodstuffs, clothing, and housewares, with over 1,700 premiums to choose from, ranging from children’s toys to clothing to furniture. This cover from a 1908 catalog advertises “stylish wearing apparel given as premiums.”
Cover for Larkin Company Catalog, “Stylish Wearing Apparel Given as Premiums with the Larkin Products,” Spring/Summer 1908 / THF297766
While looking through Larkin catalogs, I was amazed at all of the product and premium offerings and the fact that you could literally furnish your entire house with Larkin premiums. I was most shocked to find this premium: a singing canary! However, despite tremendous success, by the mid-1920s, the company was faltering, making the decision to stop manufacturing products and premiums in 1941. However, due to an abundance of inventory, the company was still able to fill orders until 1962. To learn more about this incredible story, check out “The Larkin Idea.”
Page from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The World’s Greatest Premium Values, Larkin Co. Inc.,” Fall and Winter 1930 / THF298067
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were digitizing some of the materials The Henry Ford acquired in 2017 from the now closed American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. (Read more about this acquisition in the blog, "Collecting in the 2010s", under the “Throstle Spinning Frame” entry.) In the collection are many sample books from various companies—records of fabrics produced by that manufacturing company within a given year or season. They are strikingly beautiful, offering a glimpse of the evolution of fabrics and patterns over time. This book from the Cocheco Manufacturing Company in New Hampshire, for example, notes the date (1880), fabric, and pattern information, and the page below is from the Fall 1927 sample book for Lancaster Mills’ “Klinton Fancies.”
Page from Sample Book for Lancaster Mills, “36 Inch Klinton Fancies,” Fall 1927 / THF299920
I wasn’t sure what patterns or colors I was going to find in these sample books, but I was completely surprised when I saw this one from Hamilton Manufacturing Company from 1900. These colors are so vibrant and the patterns seem so modern. Beyond the zigzag pattern below, it contains what look like modern-day animal prints, and printed patchwork that resembles a pieced quilt pattern, similar to a crazy quilt. Crazy quilts consist of fabric of irregular shapes and sizes sewn onto a backing, with decorative embroidery patterns covering the seams. These fabrics gave you the look of a crazy quilt—without all the effort.
Page from Sample Book for Hamilton Manufacturing Company, April 9, 1900 to May 27, 1901 / THF600027
The next collection I researched, the Burroughs Corporation Collection, is related to the Communications & Information Technology theme. This company might sound familiar to those in the Detroit area, as Burroughs had its main plant in Plymouth, Michigan. William S. Burroughs was a banker who wanted to ease the work of figuring mathematical calculations by hand. His solution led to his patented adding machine and the creation of his company in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1886, first known as the American Arithmometer Company.
Advertisement for the Burroughs Adding Machine Class 1, 1901-1907 / THF299361
By 1904, the company had outgrown its St. Louis facility, moving operations to Detroit. In 1905, it became the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, and by the 1930s had over 450 models of manual and electric calculation devices, bookkeeping machines, and typewriters.
The company’s focus shifted in the 1950s to include defense and space research, banking and business technology, and advanced computer and electronics research. To reflect this diversification, the company was renamed Burroughs Corporation in 1953. Having contracted with the National Defense Program during WWII, Burroughs was awarded additional government and defense contracts throughout the 1960s. A Burroughs transistorized guidance computer was deployed to launch the Mercury and Gemini space flights.
One of my favorite artifacts from the Burroughs Collection is this copy of a custom “baby calculator” presented to Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. They made two calculators for the Queen’s children, Ann and Charles. This blue one was made for Charles (note the “C” on the front). On the inside of the case, you can see the Royal Stewart tartan, the personal tartan plaid of the Queen.
Copy of a Custom “Baby Calculator” Presented to Queen Elizabeth II for Prince Charles, 1953 / THF170191
From the adding machine to office equipment to computers that helped to send people into space, the Burroughs Corporation adhered to its founding principles – to respond to human problems with relevant technologies. Learn more about the company (now Unisys) by reading “Wherever There’s Business There’s Burroughs.”
The Fall 2019 Entrepreneur in Residence was Rich Sheridan, CEO and co-founder of Menlo Innovations, a software development company. Sheridan is known for his unique approach to the office environment, emphasizing teamwork and encouraging joy in the workplace. During an interview, Sheridan shared how visits to Greenfield Village—specifically Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park lab—sparked an idea to re-imagine the software industry’s work environment in a similar way to how Edison ran his lab. Listen to Sheridan talk about this in the clip, “Creating Menlo Innovations.” You can also check out Sheridan’s entire interview in the expert set "Rich Sheridan: Re-imagining Workplace Culture."
Video screenshot of Rich Sheridan, 2019 / THF600469
The third phase of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship was dedicated to the collecting themes of Power & Energy, and Mobility. Unfortunately, the pandemic curtailed our ability to digitize new materials, but we were grateful to have completed the digitization project for one mobility-related entrepreneur story before we were quarantined: the story of McKinley Thompson, Jr.
Photograph of McKinley Thompson, Jr., undated (Photograph Courtesy of McKinley Thompson, Jr.)
Thompson broke barriers by being the first African American to attend the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles for automotive design (having won a scholarship to the school as the grand prize in a design contest). After graduating, Thompson was hired by Ford Motor Company to work in its Advanced Styling Studio, breaking another barrier to become the first African American automobile designer. There he contributed to concept cars like the Allegro and Gyron, and he collaborated on production vehicles like the Mustang and Bronco. While at Ford, Thompson recognized the important role mobility played in the growth of developing nations. Specifically, Thompson believed an affordable, reliable vehicle would stimulate the economies of third-world countries in Africa, much in the same way that the Model T revolutionized American transportation and contributed to the economy via Ford’s Five Dollar Day. Thompson’s vision gave way to an all-terrain vehicle he dubbed the Warrior.
The Warrior was made in part from a plastic-composite material known as Royalex. In fact, the Warrior was only one part of Thompson’s larger “Project Vanguard,” where he envisioned a facility to fabricate Royalex, a building to assemble Warrior cars, a facility to build marine transportation, and eventually a place to build plastic habitat modules for housing. Ford Motor Company was initially supportive, but ultimately passed on the project in 1967.
Despite this setback, Thompson believed his vehicle had potential. Hoping to garner interest for investment in the program, he gathered some friends and produced a prototype to demonstrate the possibilities of his unique application of Royalex. Unfortunately, while every potential investor he approached told him it was a good idea, Thompson was unable to secure the funding, eventually shutting down the project in 1979.
McKinley Thompson and Crew Testing the Warrior Concept Car, 1969 / THF113754
Our third and final Entrepreneur in Residence for the Initiative for Entrepreneurship was Jessica Robinson, co-founder of the Detroit Mobility Lab, Michigan Mobility Institute, and Assembly Ventures, a venture capital firm. With dramatic new transportation technologies on the horizon, Robinson encourages technological education and understanding for the benefit of our increasingly mobile society. Throughout her time with The Henry Ford, Robinson had the opportunity to delve into the history of electric vehicles and share her expertise through several programs, including this Innovation Journeys Live! program. As quarantine restrictions relaxed a bit, Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson and I had the opportunity to interview Jessica. The entire interview is coming soon to our website, so stay tuned!
Jessica Robinson during an Interview for the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, 2020 (Photograph courtesy Brian James Egen)
During the final months of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, I had the opportunity to delve into the fascinating world of patent medicine. A popular option for treatment throughout the 1800s, patent medicines were readily available and relatively inexpensive. They were often advertised as "cure-alls," with packaging and advertisements listing all of the illnesses and complaints that the product was believed to "cure." This trade card for Brown's Iron Bitters claims that it cures such ailments as indigestion, fatigue, and even malaria, among other things.
Trade Card for Brown’s Iron Bitters, Brown Chemical Co., 1890-1900 / THF277429
The popularity of patent medicines encouraged entrepreneurs to manufacture their own remedies and enter the industry. Some of the entrepreneurs were practitioners-turned-businessmen. Others were savvy businessmen with a flair for marketing. Dr. John Samuel Carter, maker of Carter's Little Liver Pills, was actually a pharmacist before establishing his patent medicine business. Unfortunately, other entrepreneurs were con artists, concocting their own remedies that either did absolutely nothing or were harmful to those who consumed them. As time would tell, many popular patent medicines were found to contain harmful ingredients such as morphine, cocaine, or dangerous levels of alcohol. This trade card advertises Burdock Blood Bitters, which was found to contain 25.2% alcohol by volume.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn & Co., circa 1885 / THF215182
While there were hundreds of patent medicines created during this time, the most popular were the ones that were heavily advertised. Trade cards of the era inform us of the major players in the industry and allow us to examine the advertising tactics used by manufacturers to entice potential customers. To learn more about patent medicines and the entrepreneurs behind some of the most popular companies, check out the post “Patent Medicine Entrepreneurs: Friend or ‘Faux’?”
The Initiative for Entrepreneurship, funded by the William Davidson Foundation, has given The Henry Ford an amazing opportunity to analyze our collections through an entrepreneurial lens and highlight the stories of entrepreneurs from the past so that they might inspire the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. To learn more about what The Henry Ford is doing to support and encourage entrepreneurship, please visit the initiative’s landing page.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to all of the curators who have worked with me to share these stories over the last two years, and to the Initiative for Entrepreneurship digitization staff for making the collections accessible to the public.
From the kitchens of Greenfield Village to yours at home, this year’s collection of Holiday Nights recipes are inspired by our own historic recipe bank. Try our 2020 recipes and then dig deeper into our online collection of historic recipes. Thanks to our supporting partners at Meijer for making this year’s recipe collection possible.
Card and text versions of the recipes follow, or access a high-res PDF, suitable for printing, of all four recipe cards here.
(Please Note: These recipes are taken from original historical resources and contain spellings and references that will be unfamiliar to today’s cooks. These were retained for accuracy and are explained where possible.)
Weigh out a pound of sugar, three-quarters pound butter, stir them to a cream, then add three beaten eggs, a grated nutmeg, a spoonful of extract of lemon and a pint of flour; dissolve a teaspoonful of saleratus [baking powder] in a teacup of milk, strain and mix it with half a teacup of cider and stir it into the cookies; then add flour to make them sufficiently stiff to roll out. Bake them as soon as cut into cakes in a quick oven [375-400º F] till light brown.
May Perrin Goff, Detroit Free Press Cook Book (The Household and Ladies Cyclopeadia), p. 43.
2 cups sugar 1 cup sweet milk ½ cup butter 3 cups Five Roses flour 3 teaspoons baking powder 5 eggs (whites)
Mix and beat well. Bake in deep square tin. Cut in 2 inch squares. Remove outside. Frost on all sides, then roll in freshly grated cocoanut.
Confectioner’s Frosting: Two tablespoons boiling water or cream and a little flavoring essence of vanilla, lemon, or almond. Add enough confectioner’s sugar to the liquid to make of right consistency to spread.
Lake of the Woods Milling Company Limited, The Five Roses Cook Book, 1915, p. 86, 121.
Take five half pints of thick cream, half a pint of Rhenish wine, half a pint of sack, and the juice of two large Seville oranges, grate in just the yellow rind of three lemons, and a pound of double-refined sugar well beat and sifted; mix all together with a spoonful of orange-flower water; beat it well together with a whisk half an hour, then with a spoon take it off, and lay it on a sieve to drain, then fill your glasses: these will keep about a week, and are better made the day before. The best way to whip syllabub is, have a fine large chocolate-mill, which you must keep on purpose, and a large deep bowl to mill them in: it is both quicker done, and the froth stronger; for the thin that is left at the bottom, have ready some calf’s-foot jelly boiled and clarified, there must be nothing but the calf’s-foot boiled to a hard jelly; when cold take off the fat, clear it with the whites of eggs, run it through a flannel bag, and mix it with the clear which you saved of the syllabubs; sweeten it to your palate, and give it a boil, then pour it into basins, or what you please: when cold, turn it out, and it is a fine flummery.
Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1796, p. 179-80.
One and a half pounds of wheat flour, quarter of a pound of butter, one pint of molasses, one pint of brown sugar, ten eggs, ginger to the taste, one teaspoonful of pearlash [1/2 tsp. baking soda] dissolved in warm water; stir all together, and bake in pans or patties. Currants and raisins may be added.
Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847, p. 198.
Although it wasn’t the most expensive car of its day, the 1937 Cord was pricey. But its Depression-era buyers were well-off and didn’t mind a stylish car that attracted attention. The Cord’s swooping fenders, sweeping horizontal radiator grille, and hidden headlights were unlike anything else on American highways. And although it wasn’t the first, the Cord was the only front-wheel-drive production car available in America for the next three decades.
This 1937 Cord catalog shows the sedan version of the car. THF83512
The company’s definition of luxury included not only the Cord’s styling but also its comfort, its ease of driving and parking, and the advantages of front-wheel drive. THF83513
Customers who wanted even more luxurious touches could buy accessories from the dealer. The Cord Approved Accessories catalog for 1937 included some items now considered basics, such as a heater, a windshield defroster, and a compass. Image (THF86243) taken from copy of catalog.
This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Before modern pharmaceuticals and medical practice came to be widely accepted, people had essentially three choices to try to cure what ailed them, none of which was perfect. The first choice was to be treated by a doctor, if one was available, affordable, and trustworthy. The second option was to try a home remedy, found in cookbooks or periodicals or passed down through a family member. The third choice was patent medicines. Readily available and relatively inexpensive—though often suspect and sometimes downright dangerous—patent medicines were a popular option for treatment throughout the 1800s.
The popularity of patent medicines encouraged entrepreneurs to manufacture their own remedies and enter the flourishing patent medicine industry. Some of these entrepreneurs were licensed doctors who decided to become businessmen instead of practitioners. Others were businessmen with a flair for marketing who saw an opportunity to use their skills to peddle an acquired formula or small medicine business they purchased. Unfortunately, some entrepreneurial manufacturers were complete con artists concocting their own remedies that either did absolutely nothing or were quite dangerous to whomever consumed them. Through this blog post, we'll explore the stories behind various entrepreneurial patent medicine manufacturers.
Trade Card for Brown’s Iron Bitters, Brown Chemical Co., 1890-1900. Patent medicines were often advertised as “cure-alls” with packaging and advertisements listing illnesses and complaints that the product was intended to “cure.” This trade card for Brown’s Iron Bitters claims that it cured “indigestion, dyspepsia, intermittent fevers, want of appetite, loss of strength, lack of energy, malaria and malaria fevers,” and other things. / THF277429
The term “patent medicine” is misleading as the medicine advertised was very rarely patented. It originally referred to medicine in which the ingredients were “granted protection for exclusivity,” meaning that the same composition could not be sold by another manufacturer. While it was relatively simple to obtain a patent for medicine, most manufacturers didn’t apply for one because it meant that they would have to divulge the remedy’s ingredients. More often than not, these medicines contained dangerous substances like morphine, cocaine, and high levels of alcohol.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn & Co., circa 1885. A study conducted by the American Medical Association in 1917 found that Burdock Blood Bitters, a popular patent medicine, contained 25.2% alcohol by volume. This medicine, and others like it, would most likely dull any pain (thanks to the alcohol) but its contents also increased the likelihood of developing dependency or addiction in adults, and could be fatal to children. / THF215182
Having originated in England in the 17th century, patent medicines made their way to America in the 18th century and were a major industry by the 1850s. The last half of the 1800s is considered the “golden age” of American patent medicine, with hundreds of products flooding the market. A number of factors led to this boom in the industry. For one, advances in industrial and manufacturing technology made the process of producing bottles, containers, labels, and the medicine itself more efficient. As the century progressed, advanced transportation methods opened new markets across the continent. Additionally, the introduction of color printing created an advertising frenzy with thousands of newspaper, magazine, trade card, and poster advertisements. And finally, there were essentially no regulations imposed on the drug trade at this time, meaning that individuals could put whatever they wanted into a remedy and advertise it however they pleased. All of this culminated to ensure that the patent medicine trade was highly lucrative, encouraging enterprising individuals to launch their own brand of medicines regardless of medical knowledge or background.
Trade Card for Dr. Harter’s Iron Tonic, 1875-1890. Trade cards were the most popular method for advertising patent medicines. This puzzle card for Dr. Harter’s Iron Tonic featured hidden figures within a drawing for customers to find. / THF214474
While there were hundreds of patent medicines created during this time, the most successful were the ones that were heavily advertised. Consumers encountered many advertisements and brand recognition became extremely important with so many patent medicines on the market. Trade cards of the era inform us who the major players were in the patent medicine industry. They also allow us to examine the advertising tactics used by patent medicine manufacturers to entice potential customers.
Foster, Milburn & Co.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn, & Co., circa 1885. / THF215179
Orrin Foster and Thomas Milburn were patent medicine manufacturers and distributors. They organized their first business in the 1870s in Toronto before opening a distribution office in Buffalo, New York. The company’s best-known product was Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil, which the pair had purchased from Dr. Samuel N. Thomas in 1876 and marketed heavily to the general public. The back of this trade card for Burdock Blood Bitters—another well-known product by the company—features a popular strategy for advertising patent medicines: testimonials. Testimonials provided prospective buyers with “first-hand experiences” of those who had tried the product. With praises sung by doctors, reverends, and members of the general public, testimonials instilled confidence in the products, persuading consumers to buy. Whether the testimonials were truthful or fabricated is up for debate.
Humphreys’ Homeopathic Medicine Company is an example of a patent medicine company that actually had a proprietor in the medical field. The company was founded by Frederick K. Humphreys in 1853. He graduated in 1850 from the Pennsylvania Homeopathic Medical College with a Doctor of Homeopathic Medicine degree and established a successful medical practice. Homeopathy is an alternative medical practice based in the belief that the same substances that cause disease in healthy people can be used to treat those who are sick with similar symptoms. According to the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors, Humphreys helped “form the New York State Homeopathic Medical Society and became an important member of the American Homeopathic Institute.” In 1854, Humphreys began manufacturing and selling homeopathic remedies. Witch Hazel Oil—for curing itching, pain from cuts and burns, chapped hands and feet, bug bites, sunburns, etc.—became one of Humphreys' most popular products over time.
Lydia E. Pinkham’s Medicine Company
Trade Card for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, 1880-1890. / THF298977
Lydia E. Pinkham was one of the most prominent names in the sector of the patent medicine industry that catered to “female complaints.” Before entering the business, Pinkham was a teacher and mother. It is said that she was known among her neighbors for mixing her own herbal remedies, keeping a personal notebook she called “Medical Directions for Ailments.” Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound is believed to have been a secret formula given to Lydia’s husband as payment for money owed to him. The couple began producing the compound in 1875, thus entering the patent medicine business. Their sons, Will and Dan, were tasked with marketing the product. In 1879, Dan came up with the idea of using Lydia’s portrait in advertisements—the first woman’s likeness to be used in advertising. Attaching her likeness and signature to advertising was a huge hit, providing women with a friendly and “knowing” face, which instilled confidence in the product.
Carter Medicine Company
Trade Card for Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Carter Medicine Company, 1880-1890. Trade cards were generally printed as small rectangles but unique shapes, like the painter’s palette shape of this card, were also created and were a beneficial advertising tool. / THF297541
The Carter Medicine Company provides another example of a patent medicine manufacturer with a background in the medical field. Pharmacist Dr. John Samuel Carter began selling “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” out of his pharmacy in Pennsylvania for those with “digestive distress.” The product gained popularity throughout the 1850s and in 1880, Carter formed a partnership with New York businessman Brent Good to establish Carter Medicine Company. By World War I, "Carter's Little Liver Pills" had become such a staple in American households that the company remained in business despite a global economic downturn.
C.I. Hood & Co.
Trade Card for C.I. Hood & Co. with Hood’s Photos of the World, “Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris,” 1890-1910. Trade Cards from Hood’s Photos of the World series gave customers views of faraway places, providing a window to the broader world. / THF297455
C.I. Hood & Co. was one of the most recognized names in the patent medicine industry. In 1875, Charles Ira Hood opened his drug store, C.I Hood & Company, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Within a few years, Hood’s was one of the largest patent medicine producers in the United States. The thing that set Hood’s company apart was its state-of-the-art factory, which included its own advertising department. Hood’s factory produced all sorts of ephemera, including calendars, trade cards, and even cookbooks, which helped make it one of the most successful patent medicine manufacturers.
Seth Arnold worked in a series of industries before entering the patent medicine business in the late 1840s. Following a venture in hotel management, Arnold took several years off due to his health, beginning in 1835. He was said to have used this time to create a remedy for his illness, a medicine that came to be called “Dr. Arnold’s Balsam.” In the New England Union Directory of 1849, Arnold was cited as an “eclectic physician and patent medicine manufacturer” in Smithfield, Rhode Island, where he was also a physician for cholera. In addition to his balsam, two additional products were created—“Cough Killer” and “Bilious Pills”—to be sold by his company, known as Dr. Seth Arnold’s Medical Corporation. Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer was believed to be his most popular product, but the others were successful as well. If the testimonial on the back of the trade card above is to be believed, customers as far away as Nebraska used Dr. Seth Arnold’s Bilious Pills.
Sterling Remedy Company
Trade Card for “No-To-Bac” Tobacco Habit Cure, Sterling Products Co., circa 1894. / THF298541
Sterling Remedy Company provides an example of a businessman entering the patent medicine industry without any medical knowledge or background. H.L. Kramer was a self-made businessman who established a publishing and advertising company in Lafayette, Indiana, and held interest or managerial positions in the Humane Remedy Company and the Universal Remedy Company (both manufacturers of patent medicines). One of Kramer’s advertising clients was John W. Heath, a local Indiana banker who owned Sterling Remedy Company. Heath also consulted with Kramer on a project to develop a local health spring into a medicinal spa. Following Heath’s death in 1890, Kramer bought out his widow’s interest in the Sterling Remedy Company and the medical springs. By the mid-1890s, Kramer had launched the springs as a “fashionable Midwestern health resort” known as “Mudlavia” because of its specialty mud bath cures. Under Kramer’s leadership (and with thousands of dollars spent on advertising yearly), Sterling Remedy Company gained popularity. Universal Remedy Company’s “No-To-Bac,” a popular tobacco habit cure, was merged with Sterling Remedy Company’s product line. A common side effect of No-To-Bac was constipation, so the company produced Cascarets to help with this inconvenience. Cascarets became the company's most popular product. Despite success, Kramer sold the company in 1909.
Dr. J.C. Ayer & Co.
Trade Card for Ayer’s Hair Vigor, circa 1885. Ayer’s Hair Vigor became a popular hair restorative following its introduction in the 1860s. Examples of packaging for this patent medicine are on display at the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village. / THF297658
James C. Ayer was one of the most recognized names in the patent medicine industry. This is largely due to the fact that Ayer was an advertising genius, producing thousands of advertisements in the form of trade cards, almanacs, posters, and newspaper and magazine ads. Young Ayer apprenticed for several years at Jacob Robbins’ Apothecary Shop in Ledyard, Connecticut, and studied under Dr. Samuel Dana. Within a few years, Ayer purchased the apothecary shop and began manufacturing his own medicines, including Cherry Pectoral. His medicine was so popular that he was forced to find a larger manufacturing facility, moving operations to Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1855, Ayer entered into a partnership with his brother to form J.C. Ayer & Company, manufacturing patent medicines. Additional remedies created by Ayer since introducing Cherry Pectoral included Cathartic Pills in 1853, Sarsaparilla and Ague Cure in 1858, and restorative Hair Vigor in 1867. In 1860, the Philadelphia Medical University awarded Ayer with an honorary medical degree, leading to the addition of “Dr.” to the company’s name.
While trade cards were certainly one of the most effective advertising methods for patent medicines, major manufacturers printed their own almanacs as well. Dozens of almanacs littered the counters of local general stores and urban pharmacies. In an average year, J.C. Ayer & Co. produced roughly 16 million almanacs. In 1889, Ayer’s distributed 25 million almanacs in 21 languages.
While the masses were content to self-prescribe patent medicines for themselves, there were some who questioned the effectiveness of the products and the legitimacy of their proprietors. As previously mentioned, relatively few restrictions were placed on the drug trade at this time and manufacturers were not inclined to provide a list of ingredients for their products. Some reputable doctors took it upon themselves to conduct studies to see what some of the most popular patent medicines were made of, and the results were often startling.
Many medicines were found to contain dangerous levels of alcohol. For instance, one study found that Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound contained roughly 20% alcohol. Other remedies were found to contain morphine (like Dr. Seth Arnold's Cough Killer) and cocaine. With reports such as these making the general public aware of dangerous substances in some of their favorite medicines, and growing concern against the manufactured food industry regarding sanitation practices and food additives, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, placing federal regulations on these trades. For patent medicines, the passage of the act called for manufacturers to list any harmful ingredients on their containers and prohibited any false or misleading advertising.
Page from “Ayer’s American Almanac, 1907” noting that its products do not contain alcohol. / THF285178
Following the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, there was a significant decrease in the number of patent medicines on the market, but there were some companies that were able to remain in business. One of the most successful was Carter Medicine Company. It sustained its legitimacy even with the passage of the Act, and throughout the 20th century, the company diversified its products, leading to research in anti-perspirants and deodorant. The company is still in business today as Carter-Wallace, with well-known products such as Arrid, an antiperspirant and deodorant, and Nair, a hair remover for women.
Two other manufacturers previously mentioned—the Lydia Pinkham Company and Humphreys' Homeopathic Medicine Company (now Humphreys' Pharmacal, Inc.)—also remain in business today with their products available for purchase online.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Donna Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and resources on the patent medicine industry and for reviewing this content.
Christmas tree in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we really enjoy showing how Americans would have celebrated Christmas in the 19th century. In almost all the houses, we use historical primary sources to try to glean out descriptions of what people may have done—but we have almost no concrete visual evidence. However, one huge exception is the Wright Home, the family home of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
We know from various sources that in 1900 there was a big homecoming in Dayton, Ohio. Reuchlin Wright, one of Wilbur and Orville’s older brothers, was returning home from living apart for a very long time, slightly estranged. In celebration, the family decided to put up their first Christmas tree. Wilbur and Orville, who were amateur photographers but probably as good as any professional of the time, documented some of that process.
Within the last decade, we have been able to access a very high-resolution image of the Wright family Christmas tree image from the Library of Congress, and the details just leapt out at us. This photograph, which we know was taken in 1900, documents exactly how the Wright Brothers designed and put up their Christmas tree. We examined all the minutiae in the photo and have attempted to recreate this tree as exactly as possible.
Wright Home Parlor Decorated for Christmas, Original Site, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF119489
The toys, the various ornaments—it's all in line with what's typical in the time period. So if you look at the tree in the Wright Home, you’ll see it lit with candles—this is not an electrified house yet in 1900. There's a variety of ornaments designed to hold candies and similar things. It has strung popcorn, which would have been homemade, but it also has store-bought German tinsel garland, glass ornaments (either from Poland or Germany), and all kinds of additional decorations that may have been saved from year to year. There's a homemade star on top that has tinsel tails coming off it.
For many years, we just had a low-resolution, fuzzy photograph of the tree, and we reproduced things as faithfully as we could—for example, what appeared to be a paper scrap-art angel. The first glimpse of the high-resolution photograph absolutely flabbergasted us, because front-and-center on the tree is a little scrap-art of a screaming, crying baby. It must have been some sort of inside joke within the family. We were able to reproduce it exactly as it would have looked on the tree.
The screaming baby scrap-art on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
In keeping with tradition, the tree is also covered with gifts for different members of the family. It seems that the adult gifts were hung unwrapped on the tree, whereas many of the children's things were either wrapped or just placed under the tree, based on the photograph. For example, on the tree, we see a pair of what are known as Scotch gloves—you would have found examples of these in Sears catalogues of the early 1900s. There's also a fur scarf, toy trumpets, and even a change purse, all hung on the tree.
Scotch gloves hanging on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
Beneath the tree, the arrangement of toys and gifts is quite fun. There’s a pair of roller skates, a little toy train, tea sets, furniture sets, and all kinds of different things geared specifically toward all the Wright nieces and nephews who would have come to visit on that Christmas morning.
There's also a wonderful set of photographs associated with the tree after Christmas. For example, there’s one of Bertha Wright, one of Reuchlin’s middle daughters, in the next room over, sitting playing with her toys. She's clearly been interrupted in her play, and you can see that in the expression on her face: “Okay, let's get this over with.”
Bertha Wright, Age Five, Niece of the Wright Brothers, Daughter of Reuchlin Wright, circa 1900 / THF243319
There are also photos outside the house, featuring the sleigh (which is prominent under the tree in the high-res photograph, stacked with books). Behind them in all these photographs is a little fir tree—the tree that was inside the house for Christmas has now been placed out there and propped up in the corner, probably for the winter season.
Milton, Leontine, and Ivonette Wright at Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF243321
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we have a wonderful large high-resolution blow-up of the tree photograph set up in the Wright Home for our guests to compare-and-contrast with the recreated tree in the corner. Be sure to stop by the Wright Home to see it on your next Holiday Nights visit!
The original historic photo of the Wright family Christmas tree, displayed in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Brian James Egen)
This post was adapted from the transcript of a video featuring Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
In 2017, The Henry Ford acquired a significant collection of materials from the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) when financial challenges forced that organization to close its doors. Founded in 1960, ATHM was located in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city key to the story of the Industrial Revolution and to the American textile industry. For decades, ATHM gathered and interpreted a superb collection of textile machinery and tools, clothing and textiles, and an extensive collection of archival materials. The Henry Ford was among the many museums, libraries, and other organizations to which ATHM's collections were transferred. The Henry Ford acquired textile machinery, clothing, and textiles, as well as archival material that includes approximately 3,000 cubic feet of printed materials and fabric samples from various textile manufacturers, dating from the early 1800s into the mid-to-late 1900s. As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, The Henry Ford has digitized many sample books, as well as product literature, from the archival material within the ATHM collection.
So, what is a sample book? Textile manufacturing companies – commonly referred to as mills or print works – kept a record of fabrics produced by the company within a given year or season. These records typically consist of a fabric sample attached to a blank page in a bound book, and are often accompanied by information including pattern name, inventory number, dyestuffs, and in a few cases, the retail company for which the fabric was made.
The pages of these books offer a rich look at the broad range of fabrics produced by an increasingly mechanized textile industry, allowing researchers to see the evolution in textile design, materials, and manufacturing techniques. They also allow a glimpse into the various methods of recordkeeping among the many companies represented in the collection. Finally, the books—and the fabric samples within them—provide us with a broad view into the rich color palate of American textiles of the 1800s and 1900s. This is especially helpful for exploring clothing and textiles in the era before widespread color photography, where our understanding of the period is dulled by black-and-white depictions. The sample books are strikingly beautiful, offering an intriguing glimpse of the evolution of styles and patterns over time.
In addition to the sample books, we had the opportunity to digitize several examples of product literature from the 1900s, including catalogs and brochures. The product literature was used for marketing and sales, rather than as a record of production. These materials offer insight into the fabric and designs available for clothing or domestic use during the 1900s.
Have I piqued your interest? Below are a few favorite items I’ve come across in this collection.
Cocheco Manufacturing Company (Dover, New Hampshire & Lawrence, Massachusetts)
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, 1876-1877 / THF670738, THF670787, THF670757
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, November to December 1877 / THF670668, THF670707, THF670697
Sample Book, January 9, 1880 to April 22, 1880 / THF600226
Hamilton Manufacturing Company (Lowell, Massachusetts)
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford for sharing her expertise of the textile industry and for reviewing this content.
Comic book super heroes can now be found pretty much everywhere: movies, TV shows, handheld games, action figures, and other merchandise. For those of you unfamiliar with the universes and the multiverses, it’s easy to get confused about the plethora of super heroes that are out there today. But if you’re trying to make sense of it all, here’s the single most important thing you need to know. Is it a DC or a Marvel super hero?
To help you understand the differences between these two comic book companies’ approaches, here’s a little personality test. (If the embedded quiz below doesn't work for you, you can also access it here.)
The Henry Ford has long explored creative ways to share our world-renowned collections and provide our guests and visitors with exciting new ways to interact with them. Earlier this year, we launched a new virtual experience that we created in partnership withSaganworks, a technology startup from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
What we created is a Sagan: a virtual room capable of storing content in a variety of file formats, and experienced like a virtual gallery. The Henry Ford curated this Sagan to highlight some of the work the museum has done under the auspices of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, which focuses on providing resources and encouragement for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. Our Sagan highlights entrepreneurial stories and collections, displaying a sampling of objects we’ve digitized and content we’ve created, all in one place.
As a startup, Saganworks is continuously adapting and evolving its product, and we are happy to announce that we now have the ability to embed our Sagan right here within our blog for you to interact with. (Though please note that this is best experienced on desktop—to experience the Sagan on your phone, you’ll be prompted to download the Saganworks app.) Continue Reading
The auditorium at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference before guests arrive. / THF610598
The setting is sparse. The downward sweep of theatre curtains, a man seated stage left, backed by a hinged office cubicle wall. Technology in this image is scarce, and yet it defines the moment. A video camera is perched on top of the wall, its electronic eye turned downwards to surveil a man named Douglas Engelbart, seated in a modified Herman Miller Eames Shell Chair below. A large projection screen shows a molded tray table holding a keyboard at its center, a chunky-looking computer mouse made of wood on the right side, and a “chording keyboard” on the left. Today, we take the computer mouse for granted, but in this moment, it was a prototype for the future.
The empty auditorium chairs in this image will soon be filled with attendees of a computer conference. It is easy to imagine the collective groan of theater seating as this soon-to-arrive audience leans a little closer, to understand a little better. With the click of a shutter from the back of the room, this moment was collapsed down into the camera lens of a young Herman Miller designer named Jack Kelley. He knew this moment was worth documenting because if the computer mouse under Douglas Engelbart’s right hand onstage was soon going to create “the click that was heard around the world,” this scene was the rehearsal for that moment.
Entrance to the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco Civic Auditorium. / THF610636
“The Mother of All Demos”
On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) hosted a session at the Joint Computer Conference at the Civic Center Auditorium in San Francisco. The system presented—known as the oNLine System (or NLS)—was focused on user-friendly interaction and digital collaboration.
Douglas Engelbart demonstrates the oNLine System. / THF146594
In a span of 90 minutes, Engelbart (wearing a headset like the radar technician he once was) used the first mouse to sweep through a demonstration that became the blueprint for modern computing. For the first time, computing processes we take for granted today were presented as an integrated system: easy navigation using a mouse, “WYSIWYG” word processing, resizable windows, linkable hypertext, graphics, collaborative software, videoconferencing, and presentation software similar to PowerPoint. Over time, the event gained the honorific “The Mother of all Demos.” When Engelbart was finished with his demonstration, everyone in the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Fixing the Human-Hardware Gap
In 1957, Engelbart established the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at SRI to study the relationship between humans and machines. It was here, in 1963, that work on the first computer mouse began. The mouse was conceptualized by Engelbart and realized from an engineering standpoint by Bill English. All the while, work on NLS was percolating in the background.
Douglas Engelbart kicks back with the NLS at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). / THF610612
While Engelbart was gearing up to present the NLS, Herman Miller Research Corporation’s (HRMC’s) president and lead designer Robert Propst was updating the “Action Office” furniture system. Designed to optimize human performance and workplace collaboration, Action Office caught Engelbart’s attention. He was excited by its flexibility and decided to consult with Herman Miller to provide the ideal environment for people using the NLS. Propst sent a young HMRC designer named Jack Kelley to California so he could study the needs of the SRI group in person.
Jack Kelley and Douglas Engelbart testing Herman Miller’s custom Action Office setup at Stanford Research Institute. / THF610616
After observing and responding to the needs of the team, Kelley recommended a range of customized Action Office items, which appeared onstage with Engelbart at the Joint Computer Conference. One of the items that Kelley designed was the console chair from which Engelbart gave his lecture. He ingeniously paired an off-the-shelf Shell Chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames with a molded tray attachment to support the mouse and keyboard. This one-of-a-kind chair featured prominently in The Mother of All Demos.
An unobstructed view of Jack Kelley’s customization of an Eames Shell Chair with removable, swinging tray for the NLS. The chording keyboard is visible at left, and the prototype mouse is at right. / THF610615
During the consultation, Kelley also noticed that Engelbart’s mouse prototype had difficulty tracking on hard surfaces. He created a “friendly” surface solution by simply lining the right side of the console tray with a piece of Naugahyde. If Engelbart was seen to be controlling the world’s first mouse onstage in 1968, Kelley contributed one very hidden “first” in story of computing history too: the world’s first mousepad. Sadly, the one-of-a-kind chair disappeared over time, but luckily, we have many images documenting its design within The Henry Ford’s archival collections.
A closer view of the world’s first mousepad – the beige square of Naugahyde inset into the NLS tray at bottom right. / THF610645
The computer scientist Mark Weiser said, “the most profound technologies are the ones that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” If this is true, the impact of Engelbart’s 1968 demonstration—supported by Kelley’s console chair and mousepad—are hidden pieces of the computing history. So as design shaped the computer, the computer also shaped design.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.