Mrs. Potts type flatiron made by A. C. Williams Company of Ravenna, Ohio, 1893-1910. THF171197
A "Cool Hand" Who Always Came to the "Point"
In the early 1870s, a young wife and mother had a better idea for making the arduous task of ironing easier. Her name was Mrs. Potts.
At this time, people smoothed the wrinkles from their clothing with flatirons made of cast iron. These irons were heavy. And needed to be heated on a wood stove before they could be used—then put back to be reheated once again when they began to cool. (Automatic temperature control was not to be had.)
Mary Florence Potts was a 19-year-old Ottumwa, Iowa, wife and mother of a toddler son when she applied for her first patent in October 1870, one reissued with additions in 1872. Mrs. Potts’ improved iron had a detachable wooden handle that stayed cool to the touch. (Conventional irons had cast iron handles that also got hot as the iron was heated on the stove— housewives had to use a thick cloth to avoid burning their hands.) Mrs. Potts’ detachable wooden handle could be easily moved from iron to iron, from one that had cooled down during use to one heated and ready on the stove. This curved wooden handle was not only cool, but also more comfortable—alleviating strain on the wrist.
Mrs. Potts’ iron was lighter. Rather than being made of solid cast iron, Mrs. Potts came up with idea of filling an inside cavity of the iron with a non-conducting material like plaster of Paris or cement to make it lighter, and less tiring, to use. (Florence Potts’ father was a mason and a plasterer, perhaps an inspiration for this idea.)
Previous iron design had a point only on one end. Mrs. Potts’ design included a point on each end, to allow the user to use it in either direction.
Mrs. Potts appeared on trade cards advertising her irons. This one dates from about 1883. THF214641
Mrs. Potts’ innovations produced one of the most popular and widely used flatirons of the late 19th century. It was widely manufactured and licensed in the United States and Europe with advertising featuring her image. Mrs. Potts’ iron was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Millions of visitors attended the exhibition.
The Potts iron became so popular that by 1891, special machines were invented that could produce several thousand semicircular wood handles in a single day, rather than the few hundred handles produced daily with earlier technology. Mrs. Potts' type irons continued to be manufactured throughout the world well into the twentieth century.
Though Mrs. Potts proved her inventive mettle with her innovative flatiron design, it appears that she did not reap spectacular financial rewards—at least by what can be discerned from census records and city directories. By 1873, the Potts family had moved from Iowa to Philadelphia, where her daughter Leona was born. They were still living there in 1880, when the census mentions no occupation given for any family member. Perhaps, if Mrs. Potts and her family became people of leisure, it was only for a time. Whether through need or desire, the Potts family had moved to Camden, New Jersey by the 1890s, where Joseph Potts and son Oscero worked as chemists. Joseph Potts died in 1901. By 1910, Florence and Oscero were mentioned as owners of Potts Manufacturing Company, makers of optical goods.
Mrs. Potts’ creativity made the tough task of ironing less onerous for millions of women in the late 19th century. And—though most are unaware—the story of the inventive Mary Florence Potts lives on in the many thousands of irons still found in places like antique shops and eBay.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
A special section of The New York Times this month compiled a list of the 10 coolest museums in the world. With shout-outs to the Lego House in Denmark and the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., we were excited and honored to see Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation kick off the list.
Visitors to the museum have long known what makes it such a cool destination, as The New York Times pointed out – we're "chock-full of inventions, machines and pieces of Americana to explore, including a 1952 Wienermobile."
But what else makes our museum so cool? Take a look at just a few of the well-known artifacts, exhibits, and experiences that inspire our younger visitors every day and challenge them to think differently.
The Rosa Parks Bus Inside this bus on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a soft-spoken African-American seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white man, breaking existing segregation laws. Today you can step inside the bus yourself and take a seat as you immerse yourself in the courage of Rosa Parks.
Driving America Driving America is an opportunity to look at America’s favorite mode of transportation in a different way. Stand back in awe as you explore some of the earliest automobiles to take to America's roads, and then immerse yourself in our interactive exhibits to dive deep into our digital collections.
Build a Model T Do you think you could build a Model T just like Henry Ford? Pick up a wrench and see if you could build a quality product in 2018.
Dymaxion House Enter Buckminster Fuller's circular aluminum dwelling, and sample a suburbia never realized. To some people Dymaxion is a giant Hershey’s Kiss. Others sense a kinship with the Airstream travel trailer. Painstakingly restored, it’s the only remaining prototype in the world.
Steer the Allegheny What does it look like from the conductor's perspective on the Allegheny, one of the largest steam locomotives ever built? Step up to seat and see for yourself.
Maker Faire Detroit Which event is a wild two-day spectacle of maker inventions and creations at the home of American innovation? Maker Faire Detroit, housed inside and outside of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Who else made The New York Times list? Take a look.
THF233334 / Advertising Process Photograph Showing the 1963 Ford Mustang II Concept Car.
The 1963 Mustang II (not to be confused with the Ford Pinto-based production Mustang II of the 1970s) surely is one of the most unusual concept cars ever built. Industry practice (and common sense) tells us that an automaker builds a concept car as a kind of far-out “dream car” to generate excitement at car shows. Most never go past the concept stage, but a few do make it into regular production. (Chevrolet’s Corvette and Dodge’s Viper are notable examples.) The Mustang II previewed the production Ford Mustang we all know and love, but the concept car was designed and built after the production Mustang project already was well underway! Why? It’s a case of managing public expectations.
Most Mustang histories start with the 1962 Mustang I, but devoted pony fans know that Mustang I was an entirely separate project from the production car. Ford built the “Mustang Experimental Sports Car” (its original name – the “I” was a retrospective addition) to spark interest in the company’s activities. Ford was going back into racing and looking for a quick way to create some buzz about the exciting things happening in Dearborn. The plan worked a bit too well. When Mustang I debuted at Watkins Glen in October 1962, and then hit the car show circuit, the public went crazy and sent countless letters to Ford begging the company to put the little two-seater into production.
At the same time Mustang I was being built, another team at Ford was working on the production Mustang that would debut in April 1964. Mustang I’s popularity created a problem: Everyone loved the two-seat race car, but would they feel the same about the four-seat version? The solution was to build a new four-seat prototype closely based on the production Mustang’s design.
Enter the 1963 Mustang II.
The new concept car wasn’t just based on the production Mustang’s design – it was actually built from a prototype production Mustang body. Ford designers removed the front and rear bumpers, altered the headlights and grille treatment, and fitted Mustang II with a removable roof. While the car looked different from the production Mustang, a few of the production car’s trademark styling cues were retained, including the C-shaped side sculpting and the tri-bar taillights. Mustang II also consciously borrowed from Mustang I, employing the 1962 car’s distinct white paint and blue racing stripes. Conceptually and physically, the four-seat Mustang II formed a bridge linking the 1962 Mustang I with the 1965 production car. Mustang II was a hit when it debuted at Watkins Glen in October 1963, and when the production version premiered six months later, there were few complaints about the four seats instead of two.
Fortunately, Mustang II is one “link” that isn’t “missing.” The Detroit Historical Society acquired the car in 1975 and has taken great care of it ever since.
When Thomas Edison decided to develop a commercial lighting system he had to do far more than design a light bulb and generator: he and his collaborators had to devise the entire system -- right down to the wire insulation and fuses. Even the electrical measuring instruments that were needed to chart the progress of experiments had to be sought from other fields such as telegraphy.
Edison demonstrated his lighting system to the public for the first time in December 1879, but the system was hardly a workable commercial product. Many refinements -- to increase durability, reliability, and cost-effectiveness -- would be needed before his lighting system could be described as a competitive product. One of the most important missing elements was a meter for keeping track of customers' electricity usage. The electrical meter that Edison and his collaborators devised was an ingenious device -- an arrangement that allowed the amount of electricity a customer used to be weighed.
The meter, known as the Edison Chemical or Electrolytic Meter, was in essence a laboratory apparatus installed in the basements of customers' buildings. It consisted of two glass jars filled with a zinc sulphate solution; immersed in each jar were a pair of electrodes -- matched pairs of zinc plates. The operation was deceptively simple. A portion of the current flowing into the customer's electrical system passed through the plates, causing an electrolytic reaction. The more electricity a customer used, the more zinc would be transferred from one plate to the other. It was this difference in weight that allowed the electrical bill to be determined. Usage was calculated on a monthly basis: an Edison employee would replace the previous month's plates with a new set whose weight had already been carefully recorded. The old plates were taken away to have their weight checked and a bill calculated. The body of the meter had to be tough and tamper-proof -- hence the term "ironclad" that was used to describe this all-metal meter. Later units were wooden boxes with a metal door. In either case, the enclosure was secured with the kind of lead seal that is still used to guard modern electric or gas meter mechanisms.
Meters like this remained in service in some installations well into the 1890s. Many customers were distrustful of this metering method, asserting that the plate removal and remote calculations allowed them no way of checking whether the company was padding their bills. Modern numerical meters allow consumers to see a read-out of their electricity, gas, or water usage. However, the meters' settings -- and indeed the consistency of different meters -- is still something we trust to the utility company.
Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Senior Director, Historical Resources, at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.
Front cover of original edition of book, 1900. THF135495
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story so familiar to us that it seems to have always been around, like an old folktale passed down from generation to generation. But, in fact, it does have an author—an American one at that—and it isn’t even that old.
In 1900, L. Frank Baum drew upon real-life experiences to write this strange but compelling fantasy tale for children. Incredibly popular even in its time, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became known as America’s first fairy tale.
Baum himself admitted that he didn’t know where the story came from. But Wizard of Oz enthusiasts (and there are many of them) have spent a great deal of time tracing the influences in Baum’s life that they claim led to the creation of his endearing characters and fantastic settings.
Print featuring “The Original General Tom Thumb,” 1860. THF286368
The story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz starts way back when L. Frank Baum was a child. Baum grew up enchanted by the fantastic and sometimes scary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. So when the diminutive Tom Thumb came to town as part of P. T. Barnum’s traveling circus, Baum was astounded. Not only did Thumb seem to come right out of these fairy tales but he made children like Baum feel less small and somehow more important. Thumb may also have provided the inspiration for the Munchkins.
Trade card for artificial limbs, 1893-1917. THF286362
When Baum was just 12 years old, he witnessed Civil War veterans returning home with missing or prosthetic (artificial) limbs. These wizened vets—with their misshapen or missing limbs—also connected to fairy tales Baum had read and are believed to have provided the inspiration for the Tin Man.
Baum had long complained of scarecrows haunting his dreams, coming alive and chasing him. The Scarecrow in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is thought to be related to this ongoing nightmare, as well as a reference to the farmsteads he observed while living out in Dakota Territory as a young newlywed. (This experience, of course, also provided the inspiration for the Gales’ farmstead in Kansas.)
Hot-air balloon featured on cover of card game box, 1880-1910. THF91796
Hot-air balloons, which existed earlier, had greatly advanced by the time of the Civil War, as a way for the military to observe enemy battle positions. During the 1870s, aeronautical showmen demonstrated their skills with death-defying stunts before crowds of awestruck onlookers. Witnessing these demonstrations inspired Baum to give the Wizard a hot-air balloon in which to help Dorothy return to Kansas.
Souvenir Book, Chicago World’s Fair, 1893. THF123529
After trying (and failing) to make a living in Dakota Territory, Baum and his young wife moved to Chicago, just in time for the city’s first great World’s Fair in 1893. This so-called “White City” boasted 200 gleaming white “palaces,” which encircled a series of manicured waterways. Over a period of six months, an astounding 27 million visitors witnessed the fair—nearly 1/4 of the entire American population! Visitors to the fair described it in fantastic terms, like wonderland, dreamscape, and mind-boggling spectacle. Occurring at the same time as one of America’s worst economic depressions, the Chicago World’s Fair was an escape from reality and has been identified as the inspiration for Baum’s Emerald City.
Trade card for Dolly Madison Bread featuring Mother Goose nursery rhyme, 1922. THF286364
While attempting to make a living selling household goods for a department store in Chicago, Baum spent many hours on the road—staring out of railroad cars and staying overnight in nameless hotels. To pass the time, he started writing stories, drawing from those he recounted to his sons back home. Among these was a series of stories based upon old Mother Goose nursery rhymes, which was ultimately published.
Inside cover of original 1900 edition.
While moving in new social circles with other published authors and with artists, Baum met talented illustrator William Wallace Denslow. Denslow, who had also attended the Chicago World’s Fair, created a series of vibrant, wildly imaginative illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that helped readers visualize Baum’s fantastic descriptions. When Baum attempted to turn his book into a theatrical production soon after its publication, Denslow was again brought in to consult on sets and costumes.
A one-time actor himself, Baum could both work within the confines and see the imaginative possibilities of the theater. So, it didn’t take much to convince him to attempt to turn his book into a staged musical extravaganza. His many ideas for special effects and illusions dazzled crowds (and some were later used in the movie). But he was inevitably unhappy with his choice to hand over the script to an independent theater producer, who changed many parts of the story.
Record album and cover for original movie, 1961-2. THF157515
In 1938, MGM, a major film studio, decided to turn The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a blockbuster musical film. Baum’s story of hard times—based upon the hardscrabble lives of prairie homesteaders in the late 19th century—lent itself perfectly to the hard times that had returned during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Denslow’s drawings again served as the model for the costumes, and many parts of the story and production stuck to the original. But the filmmakers decided to revise a few things—including changing out Dorothy’s silver slippers for ruby red slippers to take advantage of the new technology of Technicolor.
The 1939 film was groundbreaking but it was the TV showing of the film that truly catapulted it into Americans’ lives and hearts. In 1956, the uncut Hollywood film was first shown in one evening on commercial TV. Only audiences with color TV’s at the time could witness the drastic transformation from the dreary black-and-white Kansas settings to the full-color spectacle of the Land of Oz. Beginning in 1959, “The Wizard of Oz” film was shown annually on TV and watching it became a beloved family tradition.
Today, the continued publication of Baum’s original book, the annual featuring of the film on TV, film festival showings of the classic film on the big screen, several animated versions of the story that were produced later, and scores of related merchandise have kept The Wonderful Wizard of Oz at the forefront of American popular culture. Successive generations of new fans have embraced its fantastic, yet somehow familiar, themes and characters with unabated enthusiasm.
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, is still astounded to see the Land of Oz in all its colorful splendor, as she grew up watching the movie on her family’s black-and-white TV.
She acknowledges the book, The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, by Rebecca Loncraine (New York: Gotham Books, 2009), as inspiration for this blog post.
Writer demonstrating proper posture and hand-holding position, c. 1800. THF286087
In her recent article, “Cursive: Dead or Alive?” (The Henry Ford Magazine, June-December 2017), author Anne Trubek asserts that, today, cursive writing “is becoming retro-cool, more interesting precisely because its utility has largely passed.”
Indeed, the importance of penmanship—as cursive writing was once called—has radically declined as part of school curricula in recent years. It is no longer required in most states’ Common Core standards—due to increased technology use, the rejection of repetitive drills as teaching tools, and the higher importance placed on reading and math in government-issued tests. However, not everyone agrees that eliminating it from the curriculum is desirable, arguing that mastery of cursive writing helps with hand-eye coordination, long-term memory, problem-solving, and idea generation.
The heated debate about the need for young people to learn cursive writing—or not—raises the question of how we got here. In fact, the story of handwriting in America is one of continual adaptation to technological and social change, and in no small part the influence of two innovators whose names have been largely forgotten today—Platt Rogers Spencer and Austin Norman Palmer.
A trained engrosser transcribed the original 1776 version of this document—the Declaration of Independence—from Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft. THF92259
In the 1700s, as more people learned to read and printed materials became more available, reading became a desirable skill. But writing? That was reserved exclusively for the wealthy and for those whose profession required it—like merchants, bookkeepers, legal clerks, and engrossers (those trained to transcribe the final draft of a document in a large, clear hand).
Handwriting in those days was tedious and difficult, including learning how to fashion quills from goose feathers, mix ink, rule lines on paper, and use the ink-filled quill without spotting or smudging the paper.
Writing became a more widely accepted and embraced skill during the early 1800s, as self-trained writing masters traveled around the country offering courses of instruction. In more populated urban areas, they offered private writing courses in what were in essence the first business colleges.
To motivate students, teachers often bestowed awards for good penmanship, like this 1877 example. THF286089
In small towns and villages, writing masters taught the rudiments of handwriting to students in the growing number of common, or public, schools. Learning to write came to be considered as important a skill as reading and arithmetic for schoolchildren (actually, boys) in preparation for their future roles in industrial America.
The word “Penmanship” on the cover of this 1867 Spencerian writing book exemplifies that very writing method. THF286020
One particular writing master, Platt Rogers Spencer, would become so successful that his approach to handwriting almost completely dominated penmanship education during the post-Civil War period. Spencer realized that, to truly influence how most Americans learned to write, he needed to go right to the source. So he brought penmanship lessons directly to teacher-training schools. From there, the popularity of his writing method spread to public and private education at all levels—from business colleges down to primary schools. So pervasive and dominant was his influence that Spencer became known as the “Father of American Handwriting.”
This fancy trade card gives an idea of the level of expertise in penmanship that students of the Toledo Business College would attain. THF225626
Spencer’s unique approach to handwriting reduced the alphabet to a few elemental principles, equating each letter—and parts of each letter—to natural forms like waves, sunbeams, clouds, and leaves. In this way, he could claim that his approach was not just a series of mechanical movements but also a “noble and refining art.” At the same time, his handwriting lessons emphasized order and precision. With students from different walks of life—rural and urban, rich and poor, obedient and unruly, foreign- and American-born—all practicing exactly the same lessons, Spencer could claim that learning his handwriting method would mold America’s young people into reliable citizens and obedient future workers.
The Ford Motor Company logo is an example of Spencerian writing, which Henry Ford learned in school. THF104934
Spencerian became the dominant handwriting method in America from the 1860s into the early 1900s. It seemed to fit everything that Americans strived for. That was, until penmanship entrepreneur Austin Norman Palmer came along, claiming that Spencerian handwriting was all wrong for Americans. He argued that Spencerian script was too ornate, too meticulous, too slow, too tiring, even too feminine. What Americans wanted and needed, he argued, was a “plain and rapid” style adapted to “the rush of business,” a style that was masculine and unsentimental.
As shown in this 1920s language composition book, students learning the Palmer method were taught to pride themselves on their penmanship, which was considered a judge of good character. THF247435
Palmer introduced a new approach—one which forced the muscles to move in certain patterns—over and over and over, with the idea that the muscles would imprint the memory of these movements into the brain and become habit. Though the approach was radically different, Palmer’s goal—like Spencer’s—was ultimately about social control. Disciplining the body, he asserted, would also force students to conform to the conventions of society. He came down particularly hard on left-handedness, which he considered deviant, and he insisted that left-handers learn to write with their right hand.
Students of Henry Ford’s Edison Institute school system hard at work practicing their writing skills, 1944. THF126142
The Palmer method began displacing the Spencerian method of handwriting by the 1890s and, by the second decade of the 1900s, millions of Americans had become “Palmerized.” In truth, given the limited resources and lack of teacher training in many communities—as well as negative attitudes by both teachers and students toward the rigorous requirements of this method—the Palmer method was not strictly enforced in most school systems and it was often combined with other handwriting methods.
This type of school desk, made in the 1940s but used well into the 1960s, contains a hole for an ink bottle to be used with a dip pen. THF158363
Paralleling new studies in child psychology and new approaches to childhood education, two trends emerged in the 1900s. First was the realization that young children simply did not possess the motor skills to learn cursive writing, leading to a new emphasis on learning printing first and cursive writing later. Second, a new attitude emerged that writing could be more than a mechanical movement—it could become an outlet for self-expression.
The brightly colored images on this early 1970s school box, used for holding writing implements and other school supplies, were inspired by those of Peter Max and other psychedelic designers of the era. THF169170
Coinciding with these trends were new forms of technology—from typewriters to word processors to personal computers—that, by the end of the century, displaced the need for handwriting in our society. Meanwhile, ink-dipped steel pens of the early 1900s were replaced by ballpoint and rollerball pens later in the century, and by Smartphones and iPads today.
As Americans, we tend to romanticize and revive that which we have lost. So it comes as no surprise that, as computers have replaced the necessity of handwriting, so handwriting has become an art, a craft, the province of “makers”—equated with creativity and self-expression.
We’ll see what lies in store for handwriting into the future.
For further reading on this topic, take a look at, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (by Tamara Plakins Thornton, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford and handwrote this blogpost—believing that putting pen to paper helps her think more creatively than typing on a computer keyboard.
In 19th-century America, sturdy waterproof stoneware pottery became popular for utilitarian items such as crocks, jugs, and butter churns. The rough-textured outer glaze was created when common rock salt was thrown into the kiln during firing, which vaporized and combined with melted silica from the pottery.
The blue decoration--made with a cobalt oxide glaze mixture--lent variety and artistry to these otherwise plain pieces.
The pottery is one of the few manufacturers in the world that continues to employ the centuries-old technique of glazing ceramics with salt during the firing process. The application is difficult to control, giving each piece of stoneware a unique texture and distinctive colored finish.
See their pottery inspiration examples in "A Type of Learning" in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and learn more about the ongoing artistry of salt-glazed stoneware in our digital collections.
"Seedy Weeds," Fabric Sample Designed by Ruth Adler Schnee, 1953. THF169002
Walking through the House Industries "A Type of Learning" exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation you're sure to notice the attention given to printed textiles, from kitchen tea towels to handmade dolls.
The textiles created by the House Industries team are just one of their popular offerings and make us think about other well-known textiles that reside within our collections.
Another set of bold textiles that have broad appeal are those created by pioneering modern designer Ruth Adler Schnee. Her furnishing and drapery fabrics were favorites of the everyday consumer and leading architects alike, including Minoru Yamasaki, Paul Rudolph, and Buckminster Fuller. Adler Schnee’s textiles, which feature vivid color and abstracted organic forms, added whimsy and depth to the sleek, minimal aesthetic popular in the mid-century period.
Take a look at a few of Adler Schnee's pieces in The Henry Ford collections in this expert set.
In the early 19th century, lined paper was generally used only in business ledgers and account books. And the ruling was done by hand using cylindrical rulers and dip pens. Imagine the tedious hours that went into ruling just one book, with multiple colored lines as well as many stop lines, cross lines and sets of double as well as single lines.
In the 1840s, William Orville Hickok got to work on improving this by-hand paper-ruling process, inventing a machine that had a moving belt running beneath a set of pen nibs held in place by a crossbar. Cotton threads, dipped into a trough of ink containers, kept the overhead pens moist. Ink was applied from the mounted pens to the paper fed through the machine — an exercise in perfect positioning and synchronicity.
Learn more about William Orville Hickok and his contributions to the paper-ruling business, and see the 1913 Hickok Paper Ruling Machine for yourself in Made in America at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. The Hickok paper-ruling machine was donated by Carl H. Dubac of Saginaw, Michigan, in 1986. Dubac’s father, who bound books by hand for more than 60 years, used the machine to line paper for ledger books.
When the 29 millionth Ford came off the assembly line in 1941 there was no doubt who the owner would be - a group of American Red Cross volunteers were waiting for the keys as the car rolled into sight. The donation of the vehicle was just a small part of the role Ford Motor Company undertook with the American Red Cross during World War II. Both Henry and Edsel Ford not only made large monetary donations and sponsored blood drives and fundraisers at Ford plants, but they also gave space, teachers, supplies, and vehicles to the Detroit Chapter of the American Red Cross Motor Corp.
Edsel Ford Presents the 29-Millionth Ford to the Red Cross, April 29, 1941. THF270135
The Motor Corp., which was started during WWI in 1918, was a segment of the American Red Cross made up of women civilian volunteers. They were responsible for transporting wounded and sick soldiers to various hospitals; conveying donated blood, supplies, and food to airstrips for over overseas transport, and also driving hospital volunteers, Red Cross personnel, and visiting military family members to hospitals, recovery centers, and funeral homes. The Motor Corp. served the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Blood Blank, various social agencies, and the USO. These women provided their own vehicles, gas, time, and tools and also had to purchase their uniform, and insignias for their cars.
Not only were volunteers in the Motor Corp. required to provide their own vehicles but they had to perform their own maintenance as well. Many of the volunteers had never been called on to service a car, and with wartime restrictions on materials, auto repair was even more difficult. Ford Motor Company stepped in to offer mechanics training courses to Detroit Chapter Motor Corp. volunteers. The Company provided trained mechanics, free of charge, to teach groups of volunteers the basics of car maintenance. According to the National Red Cross Motor Corp. Volunteer Special Services Manual, the mechanics course should cover how to “change a tire, apply chains, replace light bulbs, check gas flow at carburetor back through fuel pump to tank, check battery, check loose electrical connections, check spark plugs, and check electrical current at generator and distributor.” Volunteers didn’t have it easy, instructor were encouraged to “disconnect various electrical wires and parts of the gas pipe system” so members could analyze what was wrong and fix it. Ford opened up rooms in Highland Park for many of the training classes in 1941, and dealerships all over Detroit were made available for evening classes. The classwork included both informational lecture instruction and hands-on training on automobiles. The company also provided trucks for driving tests, and other equipment needed by the local Corp.
Red Cross Women's Motor Corps Workers Learn about Auto Maintenance, March 1941. THF269991
The first vehicle Ford donated to the Red Cross during WWII was an important vehicle to the company. The car was a Super Deluxe Ford Station Wagon, but this was no ordinary car, it was the 29 millionth Ford car produced in their 38 year history. The car sported the Motor Corp. insignia on the front door and carried a ceremonial license plate of "29,000,000." The morning of April 29th, 1941 found Edsel Ford with a group of volunteers from the Motor Corp. of the Detroit chapter of the American Red Cross. A dozen or so representatives of the Motor Corp gathered with Ford as the car rolled to the end of the line. Edsel handed off the keys to the Captain of the Detroit Motor Corp, Barbara Rumney, who took the wheel as Edsel joined her for a ride in the new car.
Edsel Ford Presents the 29-Millionth Ford to the Red Cross Women's Motor Corps, April 29, 1941. THF270143
By 1942, the Detroit Chapter of the Motor Corp. had over 1,300 trained volunteers, and after Ford’s donation of the 29 millionth car, had added 22 other pieces of equipment to broaden their reach and impact. Barbara Rumney wrote Ford stating “We realize that if it had not been for your generous response, we could not have attempted many of the things that we are doing to serve our country in its crisis.” Over the course of World War II 45,000 women volunteered for the American Red Cross Motor Corp. driving 41 million miles to support the war effort.
Red Cross Women's Motor Corps Worker Learning about Auto Maintenance, November 1941. THF270091
Kathy Makas is a Reference Archivist for the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford. There’s plenty more in our collections on Ford Motor Company and the war effort. Visit the Benson Ford Research Center Monday-Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Set up an appointment in the reading room or AskUs a question.