Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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Aeron Chair Production Model, 2005. THF152011

When asked “What is your definition of design?” Bill Stumpf, co-designer of the Herman Miller Aeron Chair, replied: “A means of creatively sustaining the arts of daily living in a technological world.”

Herman Miller’s Aeron Chair has been called the most comfortable chair in the world and the most privileged chair in the office. In a 1994 interview, co-designer Bill Stumpf shared his thoughts: “A chair is our third life after sleeping and standing… As an object, it’s alive and intimate, not static. It’s 10 times more interesting than a building and 10 times more difficult to design.” Three years earlier, when the designers Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick first entered into their collaboration, their goal was to design a chair that supported a person in any position, at any task their office job served up.

The Aeron took an iconoclastic approach to chair design: Stumpf’s deep knowledge of ergonomics, combined with Chadwick’s curiosity for materials use, they built it from the ground up. The design team conducted anthropometric studies across the country, using a specially designed measuring device to examine the relationship between sizes of people and their preference for chair size. Their studies proved that the “one size fits all” chair model was inaccurate, and so the Aeron was made available in three sizes to conform to different body types.

Over the course of three years of research and design, as the Aeron Chair came to life, so did fourteen unique patents. The Pellicle mesh fabric, developed specifically for the Aeron, was breathable, and unlike the foam cushioning of the typical office chair, allowed heat and moisture from the body to pass through. Interwoven Hytrel fibers conformed to the sitter while seated, distributing weight and pressure upon the body—but always returned to their neutral position when vacated.

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The Aeron prototypes housed in the collections of The Henry Ford—from the earliest design explorations to pre-production examples—represent a physical timeline of Propst and Chadwick’s achievements. The prototype seen on this page is “wired” for testing—once connected to strain gauges to measure load and stress. Every individual component of the Aeron Chair was sent through a rigorous engineering process, from aerated suspension to posture-fitting tilt mechanisms; recycled aluminum alloy structures to the way the mesh seating was encapsulated in the frame.

The Aeron’s history is closely entwined with the growth of the computing industry. As desktop computers became ubiquitous in the 1980s, the requirement to engage with monitors and keyboards for longer amounts of time increased. The Aeron Chair is a modern solution to the unhealthy alignment of bodies to screens. Its launch in 1994 coincided with the early stages of the “dot-com boom,” and the chair was adopted as a status symbol, populating the offices of the growing tech industry. And despite the “bursting” of the same bubble in 2000, the chair continues to be regarded among creative and information workers as a back-saving necessity.

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From collections to your living room. Take home a piece of history when you give today. Your support will spark innovation among future change makers.

Donate $150 or more* and receive a limited-edition, signed and numbered museum-quality print (while supplies last).

GIFT 5 OF 6: Inspired by the Aeron Chair
A breakthrough in manufacturing invented by Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick for Herman Miller. Captured by internationally renowned photographer Lisa Spindler; 12" x 12," unframed. To learn more about this gift as well as other Spark Innovation gifts, visit our website.

*Tax deduction = total donation minus fair market value of print.

 

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When Charles Sable, curator of decorative arts, was tasked with updating The Henry Ford's American glass collection, he accepted the challenge with enthusiasm. He envisioned creating an all-new gallery on the grounds of The Henry Ford, a place to exhibit portions of the institution's 10,000 glass artifacts currently in storage.

The gallery would also give him a strong talking point with Bruce and Ann Bachmann, private collectors of one of the most important Studio Glass collections. According to Sable, the Studio Glass Movement, which originated in the early 1960s, is recognized as a turning point in the history of glass as artists explored the qualities of of the medium in a studio environment.  Their goal was to create fine art, in place of craft or mass produced objects.

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While other museums were interested in the Bachmann Collection, it was The Henry Ford that garnered their full attention. "The Bachmanns had very specific criteria for their collection," said Sable. "They were looking for an institution that was in an urban area, preferably in the Midwest where they live, had a large visitation, and was capable of exhibiting and maintaining the collection." 

After years of hard work, The Henry Ford recently added the Bachmann glass collection to its Archive of American Innovation. "As Bruce [Bachmann] told me, it was a good marriage," noted Sable of the donation. "He felt his collection would live here in perpetuity."

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This month, the story of the Studio Glass Movement becomes a permanent exhibit in Henry Ford Museum with the opening of the Davidson-Gerson Modern Glass Gallery. "Our exhibit is a deep dive into how Studio Glass unfolded," said Sable. "It's the story of the combination of science and art that created a new and innovative chapter in the history of glass.  As a history museum we look at the impact of Studio Glass on everyday life – we will include a section on mass-produced glass influenced by Studio Glass, but sold by retailers such as Crate and Barrel, Pier 1 Imports and others." 

With donor support and fundraising, Sable's vision for an all-new glass gallery in Greenfield Village is also a reality. The Gallery of American Glass will open in the Liberty Craftworks District in spring 2017, giving thousands of visitors the opportunity to see the artistry and evolution of American glass through artifacts, digitized images and interactive displays.

Did You Know?
The Bruce and Ann Bachmann Studio Glass Collection numbers approximately 300 pieces, with representation of every artist of importance, including Paul Stankard, Harvey Littleton and Toots Zynsky. 

The all-new Gallery of American Glass is a careful redesign of the McDonald & Sons Machine Shop in Greenfield Village's Liberty Craftworks District. The Davidson-Gerson Modern Glass Gallery in Henry Ford Museum is located in the hall that once displayed the sliver and pewter collection.   

F-150 assembly inside Factory Tour

Every year, the first Friday in October brings Manufacturing Day, a time to celebrate the contribution that modern manufacturing makes to our lives. We see it not only in the countless products we use every day, but in the many jobs that manufacturing provides to American workers.

We thought it would be appropriate to mark the day with a look back at the most influential manufacturing innovation of the 20th century: Henry Ford’s moving assembly line. By combining interchangeable parts with the subdivision of labor and the movement of work to workers, Ford dramatically increased the speed with which his employees built Model T automobiles – reducing the car’s price and boosting sales as a result. The moving assembly line quickly spread to other automakers, and then to manufacturers of all types. Today, almost anything you can name is made on an assembly line, from helicopters to hamburgers.

Here, in honor of Manufacturing Day, is an Expert Set of 25 photos, documents and artifacts that tell the story of Henry Ford’s ground-breaking manufacturing technique.

Henry Ford: Assembly Line

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

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Dress, circa 1835, once owned by author and illustrator Tasha Tudor. THF49064

Way back when, making clothing was a household enterprise. Many families raised the raw materials and did much of the labor-intensive spinning, weaving and hand-sewing to produce the clothing they needed. Textiles were precious, and most people had only a few garments. Today, clothing is a massive commercial operation — it’s all about us going off-site or online and searching out ready-to-wear from hundreds of factory-made items hanging on hundreds of racks or presented as seemingly endless choices on websites. Here are some of the tools of the garment trade that got us from in-house to in-store, all part of The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation.

THE WALKING WHEEL
In the 1760s, rural families would spin wool (from sheep raised on-site) on a walking wheel inside the home, creating yarn eventually woven into cloth for making their own clothing.
Where can you see one? Walking Wheel, Daggett Farmhouse, Greenfield Village

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ROLLER PRINTING

The process of printing designs on textiles, shown above, using a cylinder made these fabrics much more affordable and fueled demand. By the 1830s, New England textile factories were producing a staggering 120 million yards of cotton prints each year.

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Howe Sewing Machine, 1854-1857. THF154874

THE SEWING MACHINE
Sewing machines began to transform the process of sewing clothing during the late 1840s. While it might take 14 hours to sew a man’s dress shirt by hand, it would only take an hour by sewing machine.

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R.S. Bailey’s New Combination System for Ladies and Children’s Waists, Basques, Sacques and Patterns, patented 1888.  THF123321


THE DRESS PATTERN
Commercial dress patterns made planning and cutting out a garment much easier. These patterns gave people a guide to making the correct cuts, sized from small child to adult. 

THE POWER LOOM
The power loom industrialized textile weaving during the early Industrial Revolution, automating the process of weaving and dramatically reducing the need for the skilled human hand. It took decades and a cast of innovators to perfect this technology.

This story originally ran in the June-December issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

The Henry Ford Magazine

“The glory of soaring above God’s Earth and the satisfaction of taking the machine up and bringing it back to the ground safely, through my own skill and judgment, has melted away the boundaries of my life. Racing opens my door to the world. Don’t cut me off from the adventure men have been hoarding for themselves in the guise of protecting me from danger.” – unnamed female aviator, 1929

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Several of the women aviators competing in the 1929 Air Derby gathered for this photograph at Parks Airport in Illinois. Included, from left-to-right, are Mary Von Mach, Jessie Miller, Gladys O’Donnell, Thea Rasche, Phoebe Omlie, Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder, and Vera Walker. THF256262

The 1929 Women’s “Powder Puff” Air Derby was the first air race in which women aviators were allowed to participate, despite air races occurring internationally and nationally since 1909. By 1929, 117 women held pilot’s licenses in the United States and were breaking records, including some set by men, left and right. Twenty of these aviators arrived at Clover Field in Santa Monica ready to compete, but perhaps the greater motivation was to show the world how truly capable women aviators were.

The derby, from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, was to be completed over nine days with the total time in flight recorded each day. The aviator with the shortest flight time overall, for both the DW (heavy aircraft) and CW (light aircraft) classes, would win the top prize.  In order to qualify to compete, the aviators, like their male counterparts in the National Air Races, were required to have completed over 100 logged hours in flight. Several of the twenty aviators did not actually meet this qualification but flew anyway. Unlike their male counterparts, however, there were restrictions placed on the women’s aircraft engine strength. One of the aviators, Opal Kunz, had her newly-purchased 300 horsepower Travel Air airplane deemed “too fast for a woman” and was forced to rent a 200 horsepower plane for use in the derby.

The nine-day derby saw multiple mishaps. Both Florence “Pancho” Barnes and Ruth Nichols crashed their planes but managed to escape unscathed. Phoebe Omlie accidentally landed in a field where the local Sheriff nearly arrested her for alleged drug smuggling, while numerous other aviators discovered suspected sabotage efforts to their aircraft. Ruth Elder, lost on the leg to Phoenix and needing directions, accidentally landed in a field of grazing bulls, causing her to panic that the red color of her airplane would incite anger. The farmer’s wife relayed her location and Elder quickly resumed flight without damages. Tragically, on the second day of the race, Marvel Crosson perished when she crashed in the Arizona desert. Despite calls to suspend the race after Crosson’s death, the remaining women decided that finishing the race would best honor their fallen friend.

On the final day, August 26, 1929, fifteen of the original twenty women crossed the finish line in Cleveland, Ohio. Louise Thaden won the DW class and Phoebe Omlie won the CW class.  As Thaden was lauded for her first-place finish, she addressed the crowd, “The sunburn derby is over, and I happened to come in first place. I’m sorry we all couldn’t come in first, because they all deserve it as much as I.”

The Henry Ford recently added over 200 artifacts related to women aviators to the Digital Collections. Of the women aviators who competed in the 1929 Air Derby, the collection includes archival materials for five of them; Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Mary Von Mach, and Ruth Nichols. Numerous other significant early female aviators that did not participate in the 1929 Air Derby are also represented in the collection.

Katherine White is Associate Curator of Digital Content at The Henry Ford.

Aviators, Katherine Stinson, The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation

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Pig Pen Variation and Mosaic Medallion Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73662

African-American quiltmaker Susana Allen Hunter turned the "fabric" of everyday life into eye-catching quilts with an abstract, asymmetrical, and often, modern feel. Created from the 1930s to the 1970s, Susana Hunter's quilts reflect her life in rural Wilcox County, Alabama—one of the poorest counties in the United States.

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Strip Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73619


Susana Hunter made handsome, unique quilts, fashioned literally from the fabric of everyday life.

Susana's quilts are pieced in a design-as-you-go improvisational style found among both blacks and whites in poorer, more isolated pockets of the rural South. People living in these more remote areas had less access to quilt pattern ideas published in newspapers or printed in books. For fabrics, rural women depended on mail order catalogs or whatever was available in the local store.  These "constraints" left quiltmakers like Susana Hunter free to use their imaginations.  

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Bedsheet Pieced Together from Commercial Sugar Sacks by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1970. THF94355

Making an improvisational quilt top required a continual stream of creativity during the entire process, as the quiltmaker made hundreds of design decisions on the fly, fashioning an attractive whole out of whatever materials were at hand.  Overall visual impact mattered most—not minor details such as whether a patch in a row had a square or rectangular shape.  Size and shape was determined by the scraps available at the time.

Creative recycling such as this was not only a means of survival. For many rural quilters, it was also a matter of pride to be able to "make something pretty out of nothing." Represented in the fabrics that make up Susana Hunter's quilts are work clothes worn from the family's toil in the fields, sacks from the cotton seed they planted each spring, scraps from the clothes Susana sewed for her family, and bulk sugar sacks from the food staples the Hunters bought in bulk at the local general store. 

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Sewing Thimble Used by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1969. THF93486

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Handmade Fan Used by Susana Allen Hunter. THF44759


For Susana and her husband Julius, life often meant hard work and few resources.  The Hunters were tenant farmers who grew cotton and corn, tended a vegetable garden, and raised hogs, chicken and cattle. They lived in a simple, two-room house that had no running water, electricity or central heat. The outside world came to them through a battery-powered radio and a wind-up phonograph. Though the Hunters didn't have much in the way of material goods or the latest 20th century technology, they never went hungry, raising much of their own food. 

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Portrait of Susana Allen Hunter, June 1960. THF125834

Susana Hunter wanted all of her quilts to be different. Some of her quilt designs have a warm, homey feel. Many resemble abstract art. Other quilts pulsate with the visual energy created by many small, irregular pieces of vividly-colored fabric sewn together. Still others incorporate cornmeal or rice sacks, often reserved for quilt backing, as part of the design of the carefully-pieced quilt top.

Susana's quilts warmed her family during chilly Alabama winters in the inadequately heated home.  They added splashes of color to the unadorned living space—a cheerful kaleidoscope of vivid pattern and design against newspaper-covered walls.  Susana very rarely bought new fabric for her quilts, she used what was at hand.  Yet the lack of materials didn't restrict this resourceful quilter's creativity.  Susana Hunter could cast her artistic eye over her pile of worn clothing, dress scraps, and left-over feed and fertilizer sacks—and envision her next quilt.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

quilts, The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation

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Raymond Taylor and E.T. Paull’s “A Signal From Mars March and Two-Step,” 1901 imagines two inhabitants of Mars using a signal lamp to communicate with Earth. THF129403  

The concept of "life on Mars" and "Martian Fever" was not incited in the pages of the tabloid magazine Weekly World News—but actually reaches much further back to 1877—with Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. The astronomer himself was not to blame: a single word in his report—canali, which is Italian for “channels”—was misinterpreted to mean "canal" once translated into English. In Schiaparelli’s time, telescopes became more advanced and powerful, allowing him to make detailed maps of the planet’s surface. At the time of this mapping, Mars was in “opposition,” bringing the planet into close alignment with Earth for easier observation. While creating his maps, however, Schiaparelli fell victim to an optical illusion. He perceived straight lines crisscrossing the surface of the planet, which he included in his records, assigning them the names of rivers on Earth. These were the canali—and the source of a misunderstanding which morphed into a self-perpetuating legend about intelligent, ancient, canal-building Martian lifeforms. 

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Giovanni Schiaparelli’s Map of Mars (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons). 

Much to Schiaparelli’s annoyance, the American astronomer Percival Lowell continued to pursue this "life on Mars" theory. Beginning in 1895, Lowell published a trilogy of books about the “unnatural features” he saw through his telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. He created his own maps of the planet, much of which Schiaparelli believed to be pure fantasy. In reality, the imagery Lowell was seeing was likely caused by diffraction illusion in his equipment. Lowell was not alone in popularizing the concept of an intelligent Red Planet. The astronomer, psychical researcher, and early science fiction writer Camille Flammarion published The Planet Mars in 1892, which collected his archival research and historic literature exploring the idea of an inhabited planet. In 1899, Nikola Tesla claimed to have tapped into intelligent radio signals from Mars; in 1901 the director of Harvard’s Observatory Edward Charles Pickering claimed to have received a telegram from Mars.

In 1901—the year that Raymond Taylor and E.T. Paull’s "A Signal from Mars" sheet music was published—"Mars Fever" had officially taken hold, as scientists and enthusiasts alike actively explored the potential for two-way communication with Mars. This piece of music, made in tribute to the planet, is a prime example of the exoticism of science, space travel, and speculation about the limits of technology (along with a few missteps) colliding with future-forward, popular, and artistic culture.

THF344586Amazing Stories, September 1950. THF344586

Speculative thinking about Mars did not end in 1901—it has continued to provide a source of inspiration and exploration for both popular and scientific cultures. The Red Planet and its hypothetical inhabitants often appeared in early pulp and science fiction magazines like
Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. The first issue of Amazing Stories was published in April 1926 by inventor Hugo Gernsback, and was the first magazine to be fully dedicated to the genre of science fiction. Gernsback himself is credited as the “father” of science fiction publishing—or, as he called it, “scientification.” The magazine introduced readers to far-reaching fantasies with journeys to internal worlds like Jules Verne’s “Trip to the Center of the Earth,” and explorations of other dimensions and galaxies, time travel, and the mysterious powers of the human mind.  Throughout its publication of over 80 years, Amazing Stories included many fictional accounts of Mars, including H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds,” Cecil B. White’s “Retreat to Mars,” pictured here, E.K. Jarvis’s “You Can’t Escape from Mars!” 

THF108523Standing left to right are H.G. Wells and Henry Ford at Cotswold Cottage, Greenfield Village, 1931. This photograph was taken 7 years before the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of Wells’s War of the Worlds. This radio-play used media as an all-too-effective storytelling device, inciting a public panic about an alien invasion in the process. THF108523

In 1924, with Mars once again in opposition to Earth, a new round of astronomical experiments and observations emerged. In order to test theories of advanced cultures inhabiting the planet, the inventor Charles Francis Jenkins and astronomer David Peck Todd were commissioned by the US military to conduct a study to “listen to Mars.” For the purposes of this experiment, Jenkins created an apparatus called the “radio photo message continuous transmission machine,” capable of creating visual records of radio phenomena on a long strip of photographic paper. Jenkins’s device was connected to an ordinary SE-950 NESCO radio receiver, serving as the “listening ear” in this experiment. Any incoming signal would trigger a flash of light on the paper, creating black waveform-like lines and thus revealing any chatter of alien radio waves.

The Army and Navy proceeded to silence radio activity for short periods over the three days of Mars’s closest course, believing that anyone who was bold enough to defy military-ordered radio silence would surely be extraterrestrial in origin. The Chief of US Naval Operations, Edward W. Eberle, sent this telegram on August 22nd:

7021 ALNAVSTA EIGHT NAVY DESIRES COOPERATE ASTRONOMERS WHO BELIEVE POSSIBLE THAT MARS MAY ATTEMPT COMMUNICATION BY RADIO WAVES WITH THIS PLANET WHILE THEY ARE NEAR TOGETHER THIS END ALL SHORE RADIO STATIONS WILL ESPECIALLY NOTE AND REPORT ANY ELECTRICAL PHENOMENON UNUSUAL CHARACTER AND WILL COVER AS WIDE BAND FREQUENCIES AS POSSIBLE FROM 2400 AUGUST TWENTY FIRST TO 2400 AUGUST TWENTY FOURTH WITHOUT INTERFERRING [sic.] WITH TRAFFIC 1800[1]

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Radio Receiver, Type SE-950, Used by Charles Francis Jenkins in Experiment Detecting Radio Signals from Mars. THF156814

When the paper was developed, the researchers were surprised to find that it contained images. These graphics were interpreted by the public to be “messages” composed of dots and dashes and “a crudely drawn face” repeating down the thirty-foot length of film. Jenkins, however, feared that his machine would be perpetrated as a hoax, so when the films were released he did so with this caveat: “Quite likely the sounds recorded are the result of heterodyning, or interference of radio signals.” While the popular press used these images as confirmation of life on Mars (in fact, this 1924 experiment
has appeared as “evidence” in the tabloid, Weekly World News), the scientific community provided logical explanations: static discharge from a passing trolley car, malfunctioning radio equipment, or the natural symphonic radio waves produced by Jupiter. The SE-950 radio used by Jenkins in this experiment is now part of The Henry Ford’s collection: a simple rectangular wood box with knobs and dials that easily hides its deeper history as part of an experiment to communicate with Mars.

From Schiaperelli to Lowell; from the adventure tales of H.G. Wells to the first science fiction magazines of Hugo Gernsback; from a curious piece of turn-of-the-century sheet music to an even stranger experimental radio—Mars has acted as an inspirational and problematic site for creative and scientific pursuits alike. In July of 1964, the fly-by images gathered by the spacecraft Mariner 4 put an end to the most far-flung theories about the planet. As Mariner 4 transmitted images back to Earth, there were no signs of canals, channels—or a populated planet. And finally, in recent years, technological innovation has allowed our knowledge of Mars to grow at a rapid pace, with NASA’s on-planet rover missions and SpaceX’s Falcon and Dragon vehicle programs. Martians or not, despite the fact that the Red Planet lingers an average of 140 million miles away from Earth, it continues to broadcast an inspirational signal of astounding strength, which reaches straight into the human imagination.

Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communication and Information Technology, The Henry Ford. 

([1]  Telegram from the Secretary of the Navy to All Naval Stations Regarding Mars, August 22, 1924, Record Group 181, Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments, 1784-2000, ARC Identifier 596070, National Archives and Records Administration.) 

Mars

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From November 20, 2016, through March 5, 2017, our colleagues at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) are presenting an exhibition called Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate. The exhibit will trace the impact of these beverages in Europe, beginning in the late 16th century. One set from The Henry Ford’s collections—this late 18th century tea service—will be on loan to the DIA, helping visitors understand what a formal tea setting would have looked like.

As we learned more about the exhibition, we saw additional parallels between the DIA’s goals and our own collections’ artifacts and themes, and ways our collections can extend the messages of the exhibit. The DIA will help explain how these new tastes spawned a design revolution and entirely new industries devoted to creating specialized tableware; our Made in America exhibit in Henry Ford Museum covers how British innovations in power and production machinery made way for the increasingly precise manufacture of porcelain and other mass-produced goods to support these needs, beginning the Industrial Revolution. Bitter|Sweet will focus on Europe, but The Henry Ford’s collections explore how the craze for these new beverages spread to America—including the tale of early American artisan and entrepreneur Paul Revere. 

The exhibit will be interactive, allowing guests to explore via all five of their senses, which is similar in approach to Greenfield Village—for instance, being able to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of historic chocolate-making in our Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village program. And last, coffee, tea, and chocolate all remain popular today, allowing us to bring the past forward and show how these historic drinks fit into life in modern America.

Over the course of the exhibit, we’ll be adding links to this post that explore some of these themes in our collections. We hope these will provide a deeper understanding of the impact these three once-exotic drinks have had, from the earliest days of our country’s history right on through to the takeout coffee in your hand.

Drinking Chocolate, American-Style
Chocolate beverages in the collection
Coffee in the collection
Tea in the collection
Paul Revere and The Henry Ford's Tie to Tea

Made in America

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The Wawona Tunnel Tree was a popular early tourist attraction at Yosemite National Park. THF130220

At the dawn of the 20th century, horseless carriages were still untested novelties.  They were prone to mechanical breakdowns over long distances and likely to get mired in the muck of bad or non-existent roads. Yet, despite these challenges, the lure of taking them out to view the scenic wonders of America’s national parks was irresistible. 

The first adventurous motorists showed up at Yosemite National Park in 1900 and at Yellowstone two years later. They shocked everyone and were promptly ordered to leave. For more than a decade afterward, automobiles were banned from the parks.  After all, these newfangled contraptions endangered park visitors, spooked the horses who regularly pulled tourist carriages and wagons, and seemed out of keeping with the quiet solitude of the parks.  It would take the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 and the vision of its first director, Stephen Mather, to wholeheartedly embrace automobiles as an asset to the parks. And perhaps no other single decision would have more impact on both the parks themselves and on Americans’ attitudes toward them. 

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Stagecoach loading well-to-do tourists in front of Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel at Yellowstone National Park, part of a package tour offered by the Northern Pacific Railroad. THF120284

Slowing down acceptance of automobiles in the parks was the control of the railroads, who early on realized the profits that could be made by providing exclusive access to the parks. Railroad companies not only brought tourists from distant cities and towns but also financed many of the early park hotels and operated the horse-drawn carriage tours inside the parks. The long railroad journey, hotel stays, and park tours were all geared toward wealthy tourists who could afford such extended and expensive pleasure trips.

Despite the railroad companies’ lobbying efforts and park managers’ arguments that they spoiled the experience of being in nature, automobiles entered the parks in increasing numbers. Mount Rainier National Park was the first to officially allow them in 1907. Glacier allowed automobiles in 1912, followed by Yosemite and Sequoia in 1913. Motorists to the parks still faced long lists of regulations: written authorization to enter, time restrictions on the use of their vehicles, strict attention to speed limits, and rules about pulling over for oncoming horses and honking at sharp turns.

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Advertising poster promoting Metz “22” automobiles, winner of the American Automobile Association-sponsored Glidden Tour of 1913—a 1,300-mile endurance race from Minneapolis to Glacier National Park. THF111540

As automobile clubs exerted increasing pressure on local and state governments, Congress slowly began taking steps to improve park roads to make them safer for motorists. The advent of World War I—sharply curtailing travel to Europe—coupled with an aggressive “See America First” campaign by highway associations like the Lincoln Highway Association encouraged more Americans than ever to take to the open road. By 1915, so many motorists stopped at Yellowstone National Park on their way to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that in August of that year, automobiles were finally officially allowed entrance to that park.

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The scenic Cody Road to Yellowstone National Park, which opened in 1916, offered eastern motorists a more direct route into the park than the original north entrance used by tourists arriving by the Northern Pacific Railroad and the west entrance used by those taking the Union Pacific Railroad. THF103662

In just 15 years, automobiles in the national parks had grown from a trickle to a steady stream. But the real turning point came with the creation of the National Park Service on August 25, 1916, and the vision of its first director, Stephen Mather.  Mather wanted all Americans to experience the kind of healing power he himself had found in the national parks. So he aligned himself with the machine that was dramatically transforming people’s lives across the country—the automobile.  Mather knew how to appeal to motorists, promising them “a warm welcome, good roads, good hotels, and public camps.” Furthermore, he innately understood that the point-to-point travel of horse-drawn carriage tours would not work for motorists, who wanted to travel on their own schedule and stop where they wanted. Scenic highways with turnouts, lookouts, and trailheads would be oriented to the understanding that, as Mather’s assistant Horace Albright maintained, “American tourist travel is of a swift tempo. People want to keep moving [and] are satisfied with brief stops here and there.”

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So many early motorists arrived at the parks prepared to camp that public campgrounds were soon created to ensure safety, order, and control. THF128250

Mather’s ceaseless promotion worked.  In 1918, the number of tourists coming to Yosemite by automobile outnumbered those arriving by train by a ratio of seven to one.  In 1920, for the first time, the number of people visiting the national parks exceeded one million during a single year.  Mather could happily declare that the American people “have turned to the national parks for health, happiness, and a saner view of life.”  And the automobile, he concluded, “has been the open sesame.” 

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As the parks officially opened to automobiles, motorized touring cars rapidly replaced horse-drawn vehicles—in 1917 for both Yellowstone and Yosemite and in 1919 for Rocky Mountain National Park. THF209509

Numbers rose dramatically from that time on.  In 1925, yearly visitation to the parks exceeded two million and in 1928, three million.  With increased visitation came more willingness by Congress to support the parks.  Annual appropriations went toward improvements geared to motorists, including campgrounds, picnic areas, parking lots, supply stations, and restrooms.  Newly paved roads were designed to harmonize with the landscape and offered plenty of scenic turnouts and vistas.  At the same time, the majority of land would remain wilderness for backcountry hikers and campers. 

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Roads for motorists were designed to heighten the experience of the parks’ scenic wonders, as shown by this view next to the Three Sisters Trees in Sequoia National Park. THF118881

When automobiles entered the national parks, the foundation was laid for the ways in which we experience them today.  Mather believed that there was no better way to develop “a love and pride in our own country and a realization of what a wonderful place it is” than by viewing the parks from inside an automobile.  Everyone did not agree, of course.  Some argued that cars were a menace, a nuisance, an intrusion.  Either way, the automobile was destined to become the “great democratizer” of our national parks.

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This 1929 guidebook offered automobile tours not only along the rim of the Grand Canyon but also to the outlying, lesser-known Navajo and Hopi reservations. THF209662

For more on automobiles in the national parks, check out:

Donna R. Braden is the Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.  She’s looking forward to visiting two more national parks on her bucket list soon—Mount Rainier and Olympic.

camping, auto touring, national parks