Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Glass case with four dress forms, each containing a garment, labels in front and additional artifacts on a low table

Another group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut in “What We Wore” in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Who knew that a company that made toilet tissue and paper towels would start a fashion sensation?

In April 1966, the Scott Paper Company launched a promotion for its new line of colorful paper products. Along with two proofs of purchase and $1.25 for shipping, customers could redeem a coupon for a paper dress, choosing from a red paisley bandana pattern or a black-and-white op art print.

The media took immediate notice. So did the public. Scott’s “Paper Caper” dresses became a surprise hit. Soon fashion enthusiasts were wearing not only Scott’s dresses, but paper apparel created by other manufacturers and designers who quickly joined in the trend.

The 1960s was an era of exploration and pushing boundaries. It was the space age--people envisioned an exciting future where everything was conveniently automated. New materials and disposability were in.

Paper apparel promised convenience--you could simply discard it after one wearing. Altering the hemline was a snap--all it took was a pair of scissors and a steady hand. A tear? You could do a quick repair with sticky tape.

The A-line shape and trendy prints of the paper dress fit perfectly with the youthful “Mod” look and aesthetic sensibilities of the 1960s. You could be up-to-the-minute at little cost--clothing could be quickly and cheaply replaced as trends shifted. There was a paper dress for every budget--from those on the shelves of mass-market retailer J.C. Penney to the chic creations carried by Manhattan boutiques.

People bought over a million paper garments between 1966 and 1968. Some envisioned throwaway clothing as the wave of the future. Yet, by early 1968, the craze was beginning to cool. Paper clothing was not really practical or comfortable for everyday use. And the hippie movement--with its back-to-nature values and strong anti-pollution message--was changing public opinion. What had seemed hip and modern now seemed frivolous and wasteful.

A bit of novelty in an era of experimentation, the paper dress fad was fun while it lasted.

The Dress That Launched a Fashion Craze


Red sleeveless shift dress with yellow paisley pattern
Label with small image of woman in black dress and text
Scott Company’s “Paper Caper” Dress and label, 1966. / THF185279, THF146282

When the Scott Paper Company created the first paper dress in 1966, they intended it as a promotional gimmick to help sell their products. But their “Paper Caper” dresses--a paisley bandana design or an Op art print--swiftly and unexpectedly caught on with the public. The publicity the dresses brought Scott far exceeded the company’s expectations. By the end of the year they received nearly a half million orders for dresses they sold at near cost.

The company made little money from sales of the dresses--but that wasn’t the point. Inadvertent fashion innovators, company executives had no intention of continuing the paper dress venture in 1967, leaving the market to eager entrepreneurs.

Woman in black-and-white geometric-patterned dress in front of what appears to be a papier mâché sculpture of a person in a landscape
Scott’s “Paper Caper” black and white Op art dress (geometric abstract art that uses optical illusion) appeared in Life Magazine in April 1966. / THF610489

“Waste Basket Boutique”


Sleeveless jumpsuit in green, red, and orange floral pattern with ties at the shoulders
Paper Jumpsuit by Waste Basket Boutique by Mars of Asheville, 1966-1968. / THF185294 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Cathy Weller.)

The Scott company’s success started a trend for disposable fashion--so other companies quickly jumped in. Mars of Asheville, a hosiery company, launched a paper fashion line in June 1966 under the label, Waste Basket Boutique. They sold colorful printed-paper dresses and other garments for adults and children in a variety of strap, neckline and sleeve styles, as well as “space age” foil paper clothing. In September, Mars debuted plain white dresses that came with watercolor paint sets for “doing your own thing.” Pop artist Andy Warhol painted one to promote the new line.

Mars of Asheville became the leading manufacturer of disposable fashion, producing over 80,000 garments each week at its height.

Three women pose in floor-length boldly geometrically patterned sleeveless dresses; styles and colors vary; also contains text
Designers embraced the trend, creating unique disposable couture for a wealthier crowd. Tzaims Luksus designed these hand-painted $1000 balls gowns for an October 1966 fundraiser at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Life Magazine, November 1966. / THF610492

Walking Ads/Walking Art


Sleeveless dress with a pattern of red-and-white Campbell’s soup cans
Campbell’s “Souper” Dress, 1967. / THF185289 (Given in Memory of Thelma D. Nykanen)

The advertising potential of these wearable “billboards” was huge. With coupons clipped from magazines, women could buy dresses from a variety of companies, including Green Giant vegetables, Butterfinger candy bars, and Breck hair care products. While some companies offered motifs that reflected their products, others followed fashion with flower power, paisley, or geometric designs.

In Spring 1967, the Campbell Soup Company produced what became the most famous paper garment of the era--this dress with its repeating soup can image. The dress not only advertised Campbell’s products--it also cleverly referenced Pop artist Andy Warhol’s iconic early 1960s depictions of the Campbell’s soup can that elevated this ordinary object to the status of art.

Two images of the same man (in a suit) and woman (in two different dresses); in the first, the woman appears pregnant; in the second, the man holds a baby; also contains text and a cutout coupon at the bottom
In 1968, the Mennen Company, makers of Baby Magic infant care products, offered women stylish paper maternity and party dresses “fashion-approved” by designer Oleg Cassini. / THF146023

Disposable Dresses Go Political


White dress with a large stylistic eagle in blue, red, and white stars, with text “Romney for President” forming part of the body
George Romney presidential primary campaign dress, 1968 / THF185284

Bumper stickers, buttons, and brochures--those were the standard things that political campaigns were made of in the 1960s. Beyond “standards,” campaigns also latch onto things that are hot at the time—and during the 1968 presidential campaign, that meant paper dresses. Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy and Republicans Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and George Romney all had versions.

This George Romney campaign dress may have been “hip,” but it didn’t do the trick for him--Romney’s bid for the nomination was unsuccessful. Nelson Rockefeller’s too.

Blue bumper sticker with white text “ROMNEY”
Two circular blue buttons with wide white band containing blue text “ROMNEY” across center
George Romney bumper sticker and campaign buttons, 1968. / THF146376, THF8545 (Buttons gift of Mr. & Mrs. Charles W. Kurth II)

When You Care Enough to WEAR the Very Best


Hot pink package with drawing of woman with short dark hair, wearing dress with pattern of holly leaves and berries; also contains text
Green package with drawing of woman with pink hair, wearing multicolored floral dress; also contains text
Hallmark Cards, Inc. paper party dresses, “Flower Fantasy” and “Holly,” 1967. / THF185309 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Diane K. Sanborn), THF185307 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Jane Crutchfield)

In the spring of 1967, the Hallmark company embraced the disposable clothing trend, marketing a complete party kit that included a printed A-line shift and matching cups, plates, placemats, napkins, and invitations. While matched sets of disposable tableware had been around for decades, a matching paper dress was a new idea.


In this era of informal entertaining, festive paper tableware (and paper fashion) made hosting parties more convenient and cleanup easier. After guests left, the hostess could simply toss everything into the trash--rather than into the dishwasher and washing machine.

Seated woman wearing floral dress with matching floral tableware, decorative honeycomb paper flower and wrapped gift nearby
With Hallmark products, a hostess could have every element of her party perfectly matched--including her “swinging new paper party dress,” 1967. / THF146021


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

What We Wore, popular culture, home life, Henry Ford Museum, fashion, by Jeanine Head Miller, advertising

Woman in candlelit kitchen with a variety of bowls and plates containing food on kitchen table


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.)


FORD HOME, 1876


Recipe card with text

New's [New Year's] Eve Cookies 

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.


EDISON HOMESTEAD, 1915


Recipe card with text

Snow Balls

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.


GIDDINGS FAMILY HOME, 1760


2020 Holiday Nights Recipe Cards_3_Syllabub

Everlasting Syllabub

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.


SUSQUEHANNA PLANTATION, 1860


Recipe card with text

Lafayette Ginger Cake

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.

Greenfield Village, food, recipes, holidays, Holiday Nights, events, Christmas

Decorated Christmas tree in corner of room with wrapped and unwrapped items underneath

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.

Decorated Christmas tree in corner of room with wrapped and unwrapped items underneath
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.

GIF cycling through two images, one black-and-white and one in color, each showing part of a Christmas tree with a large ornament of a screaming baby
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.

GIF cycling through two images, one black-and-white and one in color, showing part of a Christmas tree with plaid gloves hanging on it
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.”

Girl in white dress sitting cross-legged with somewhat grumpy expression on her face
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.

Two children sit on a sleigh in snow in front of a door; another boy stands nearby in front of a tree
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!

Large framed black-and-white photograph showing a Christmas tree on an easel in a room
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.

photographs, home life, Wright Brothers, events, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, by Jim Johnson, Holiday Nights, holidays, Christmas, research

Virtual room with wooden floor and white walls covered with images; stacked barrels in the center of the room

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 with Saganworks, 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.)
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Saganworks, entrepreneurship, by Samantha Johnson, technology

Arriving at the holiday season in true 2020 fashion, the Museum experience will be different this year. Santa is focusing his time at The Henry Ford on the physically distant experience at Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. We will miss seeing the joy of personal visits at Santa’s Arctic Landing and the exploration at seasonal hands-on opportunities. While we regret our inability to offer these programs to guests, there are still many festive offerings in the Museum between November 21st and January 3rd.

A towering 25’ Christmas tree as the centerpiece of the Plaza.

Tall Christmas tree decorated with golden ribbon and white lights, behind an elevated concrete platform

Historic dollhouses decorated for the season. Look for three Marvel characters inviting themselves to these miniature vignettes!

Large model house decorated with tiny Christmas trees and wreaths

Celebrating the Jewish Holiday of Hanukkah was a favorite in 2018. This year, it includes new acquisitions (face masks and a battery-operated menorah) to bring the display right up to the minute.

Exhibit case holding various items and textual cards

Della Robbia (Colonial Revival decorative items using fruit and foliage) on the façade of the Museum and within the Clocktower.

Brick wall with large white double doors topped by an arch of fruit

White-and-light-blue room with staircase and elaborate chandelier, decorated with Christmas trees and greenery

Our model train layout is once again decorated with festive lights and holiday happenings.

Model train layout with train tracks, train car, greenery, and houses, with Christmas decorations

The Michigan LEGO Users Group (MichLUG) has brought us yet another knockout layout. While we usually ask them for a Detroit cityscape, this year they approached us with the idea of also adding Hogwarts. Why not?

Extensive LEGO layout with boats and castle in foreground, buildings in background, and unrelated museum artifacts behind the layout

Though the Years with Hallmark: Holiday Ornaments is back with 136 ornaments in a new location. Look for this sampling of our enormous collection of Hallmark ornaments in the awards alcove in the Promenade, between the Museum Store and the Clocktower.

Cabinets with blue curtains, with hanging Christmas wreath and ornaments on stands

In short, there are still plenty of reasons to feel the cheer of the season in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—and you can explore even more of our seasonal events and stories on our holiday round-up page.


Kate Morland is Exhibits Manager at The Henry Ford.

COVID 19 impact, by Kate Morland, Hanukkah, Christmas, holidays, Henry Ford Museum, events

Various shapes and designs of holiday labels on a wood table with tape, scissors, and tiny Christmas trees

My name is Cheryl Preston, and I’m a graphic designer and design director at The Henry Ford. What I get to do here is design graphics for print and online use—design to educate teachers and learners, market events, support the stories we tell, sell food experiences, tempt shoppers, and guide visits around the museum, village and factory tour. I get to combine two passions, history and design, in one job.

clear and white glass ornament, sitting on table with excelsior, tiny Christmas trees, and a gift tag
2020 Ballotini Ornament, combined with a gift tag.

We all know 2020 has been crazy and difficult in many ways. I have been working on this year’s digital-only holiday retail campaign, where we are featuring a lot of new and old favorite signature handcrafts, along with fun, innovative toys. This has been a bright spot in tough pandemic times for me right now.

It got me thinking how we still love to gift friends and family. After you’ve found the perfect collectible glass candy cane, or an overshot woven placemat set, made in the village weaving shop, which will look great on your friend’s table, you have to wrap it!

Red-and-white woven placemat on a piece of gift wrap with gift tags; window with red-and-white checked curtains and tiny Christmas trees on windowsill in background
Overshot Placemat, combined with gift tags.

I wanted to create a tiny bit of “happy" to give our supporters, with these free printable gift tags to bring the cheer. We all need even the tiny smiles, right? You can preview the gift tags below, or click here to download a PDF version of them for printing at home.

Holiday gift tags in a variety of shapes and styles
Holiday gift tags in a variety of shapes and styles

I’m in awe of the handcrafts from our Greenfield Village artists, and the products we offer to bring the past forward, and hope these tags help you share the fun!


Cheryl Preston is Design Director at The Henry Ford.

shopping, COVID 19 impact, Christmas, holidays, by Cheryl Preston, making, design, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Throughout the month of November 2020, we’ve been celebrating reaching the milestone of 100,000 digitized artifacts by sharing out blog posts and fun facts, hosting Twitter chats with our digitization staff, and counting down the 20 most-viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections. In case you missed any of these great resources, we wanted to share them all here for easy reference.

If you follow us on social media, you might have seen the “top 20” countdown of our most-viewed digitized artifacts of all time, but if you’d like to get a broader look, you can check out the top 100 in this Expert Set. Fans of The Henry Ford will recognize many of the artifacts, but there may be some on the list that surprise you.

GIF that runs through 20 slides with text and images
The Henry Ford's all-time top 20 most-viewed digitized artifacts. Do any of them surprise you?

Here, also, are all of the fun facts about our digitization program and our Digital Collections that we shared out on social media.

GIF that runs through slides with text and background images of collections
Twenty fun facts about digitization and our Digital Collections.

During the first week of November, we provided a general introduction to our Digital Collections, our digitization program, and our workflows.

  • First was our announcement that we had just digitized our 100,000th artifact, and were kicking off the month-long celebration. You can also read our press release here.
  • If you’re interested in becoming an expert in using our Digital Collections, or just not sure where to start, this blog post will give you a run-down of the ways you can search, view, and use our digitized artifacts.
  • Associate Curator, Digital Content Andy Stupperich shared how we add context to artifacts in our Digital Collections in this post.
  • Saige Jedele, also an Associate Curator, Digital Content, took us behind the scenes with The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation to discover how digitization helps shape the stories we cover on the show--and helps you to learn more afterwards.
  • Like many other people around the world, a lot of our staff have spent time this year working from home. Find out how we continued to digitize artifacts despite the closure of our campus this spring in this post.
  • As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we've digitized nearly 2,500 artifacts from our collections. Find out more about the team and the process from Project Curator Samantha Johnson here.
  • In our first live Twitter chat on November 5, I discussed our digitization program, digitization workflows, and a bit about what you'll find in our Digital Collections.


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conservation, research, collections care, photography, by Ellice Engdahl, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digital collections, digitization

My name is Jillian Ferraiuolo and I’m a Digital Imaging Specialist at The Henry Ford. In that role, I work with our institutional photographer in our Photo Studio, taking photographs of artifacts and preparing those for use in our Digital Collections.

Graphic with text
This graphic shows where photography fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.

Every once in a while, our job requires us to step out of the studio, equipment and all, and photograph artifacts on location. Whether it’s taking photos of cars in one of our storage buildings or taking photos in (or of!) one of the buildings in Greenfield Village, if it can’t fit inside the studio, then we pack up and go to it. For example, the geodesic truss pictured below is in storage, but we needed to photograph it. You can see from the photo below how large it is, so instead of trying to find some way to get it to the Photo Studio in the museum, we went to it.

Camera on tripod in foreground pointing toward white paper with metal truss in front of it alongside a large red brick building
Photography staff and volunteers shooting the geodesic truss on location at a storage building.

Trapezoidal structure made of metal bars
The finished product: Geodesic Dome Test Module, Designed by R. Buckminster Fuller, 1953. / THF166740

One of the biggest challenges for us when we shoot outside the studio is making the most of our time. Given how large our campus is, we try to be as efficient as possible while still creating the same shooting environment on location as we would in the studio, especially when it comes to lighting and image quality. Another challenge of location shoots is that they allow less freedom than being in the studio—some objects are in a specific spot and can’t be moved or adjusted. When we’re in the studio we can change angles, move lights, and make adjustments easily, but if we’re out photographing a train car, and need to capture a different view, we have to move around it—there’s no way it’s moving!

Two people behind a camera on a tripod in a brick-walled room
Another example of getting creative to photograph a lathe used by Henry Ford out at the Bagley Avenue Workshop in Greenfield Village.

While shooting out on location can be a challenge, it is also a nice change of pace and a nice change of scenery. It forces us to think outside the box and get creative with taking photos—especially when the shoot involves something outside the norm. Take, for example, quilts—since they’re so large, we have to get up much higher than they are so we can get an accurate photo of the entire quilt. (You can read more about our quilt photography process here.)

Person with camera on landing at top of staircase, looking down over railing toward a large tilted board with a textile on it
Getting ready to photograph quilts from the Highland Park Engine catwalk in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

But whether we’re in the studio or not, we’re passionate about what we do, and we are ready to take on any challenge!

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by Jillian Ferraiuolo, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digitization, photography

Dark background containing white line drawings, notations and text

By the early 1950s, Ford Motor Company’s engineers had made over one million technical drawings of the parts used to make Ford cars and trucks. In 1949 alone, they used 13 million square feet of blueprint paper!

Large room full of tables, some of which have men standing near, leaning on, or lying on them with pencils or pens in hand
Ford Motor Company engineers at work, circa 1952. / THF125069

The drawings were being stashed away wherever room could be found. Since many of the drawings were for parts that were still in production, there was concern that the company’s operations would come to a halt if drawings were lost to a fire, a flood, or worse. Plans were made to microfilm the drawings so they could be stored more securely.

Sheet with text that notes among other things “top security for its records in the event of a bombing attack”
Paragraph from a 1951 brochure detailing the microfilming project. Cold War tensions were running high. / detail from THF135511

Three women in room with small filing cabinets along the walls and desks in the center
Eleven fireproof storage safes, holding one million microfilmed drawings, 1951. / THF123713

To save space, most of the original paper blueprints were destroyed after the drawings were copied onto microfilm. But a few can still be found in our Miscellaneous Ford Motor Company Blueprint and Drawings Collection.

Blueprint with blue background containing line drawings with notations and text
Blueprint showing part TT-7851-R for a Ford Model TT Truck. / THF138486

Dark background containing white line drawings, notations and text
70 mm microfilm copy of the same drawing. / THF406917

The Ford Motor Company Part Drawing Collection consists of over one million Ford engineering drawings from 1903–1957, on 70 mm microfilm. Each piece of film measures approximately 2.625 x 3.5 inches, and is in a manila envelope that shows the part number and the drawing’s latest revision date.

Manila envelope with handwritten numbers and red check mark
Envelope for drawing TT-7851-R, dated August 25, 1926. / THF406916

As of this writing, about 3,000 Ford part drawings can be seen on our Digital Collections website. Only 997,000 to go!

So, why don’t we “just” digitize them all?

The first challenge is the size of the film. Most high-speed scanners on the market now are not equipped to hold 70 mm film. And because each frame of film was cut from its roll and placed in a separate envelope, the film cannot simply be run through a machine.

We image the film using an Epson Perfection V850 Scanner with built-in Transparency Unit (a light inside the lid that allows it to scan film). Each piece of film measures just under 3 x 4 inches, so a scanning resolution of 1200 dpi (3600 x 4800 pixels) will usually suffice … but we go higher if a drawing looks like it will be difficult to read.

Three sheets with intricate drawings, notations and text
Larger blueprints, like this one for a V-8 Cylinder Block, were microfilmed in segments. / THF401366

After the film has been scanned, the images are straightened and cropped, and adjustments may be made to the brightness and contrast. If the film is a negative, we also create an additional, positive version of the digital image.

Line drawings, notations and text on light background
This version of the digital image can be printed without using as much toner. / THF406918

However, the bigger challenge is the data entry. Even the best digital image is useless if nobody can find it. To that end, it is necessary to transcribe the part number, the date of the drawing, and the title of the drawing from each piece of film. And many of the drawings include more than one part number!

Handwritten text reading in part “A-18254-B” followed by “A-18255-B”
If parts are symmetrical opposites, there is only one drawing for the pair. / detail from THF400831

Handwritten text in tabular format with numbers, dates, and initials
The revision history appears in the upper right corner of each drawing. This drawing is dated December 3, 1930 … but earlier versions may also exist. / detail from THF400831

If you are interested in researching the Ford Motor Company Part Drawings Collection, our Popular Research Topics page includes an FAQ and information about how to get started. Inquiries can be sent to research.center@thehenryford.org.

The Henry Ford is facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the impact of our 16-week closure and reduced operations. We need your help in securing our future. Love the Henry Ford? Please support all that we treasure—including our digitization program. Longtime supporters of The Henry Ford will match your donation dollar for dollar, so your contribution will have double the impact.
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Factory topped with several smokestacks and a water tower, with cars driving by in front

Exterior View, Ford Highland Park Plant, 30 March 1932; Object P.833.56894.1 / THF237509

When Ford Motor Company engineers developed the assembly line at the Highland Park Plant back in 1913, they were seeking to increase production volume in order to provide more automobiles to the general public at a reasonable cost, and in a reasonable time.

Move ahead more than 100 years to 2020, where the staff of The Henry Ford and the Benson Ford Research Center (BFRC) are operating a modern assembly line to digitize images and documents from our collections and make them available online.

By some estimates, The Henry Ford holds roughly 26 million 2D and 3D objects, with the majority of that total – some 25 million items – contained within the archival collections at the BFRC. Clearly, there’s a lot to move down our “assembly line”!

As is the case with auto assembly, there are a number of stations along our line, beginning with material selection, then material retrieval, cataloging, imaging, storage, import, export, and finally ending with online display. Improvements made to the speed and efficiency at each of these stations can lead to gains in the production rate of the entire line.

Graphic with text
This graphic shows where Rapid Capture imaging fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.

To bring that speed and efficiency to archival imaging, the BFRC uses a process we refer to as Rapid Capture digitization. Developed by several institutions as an approach to increasing the scale of digitization, Rapid Capture is part technology, part process, and part philosophy.

Technically, Rapid Capture is rather simple. The equipment consists of a copy stand, lighting, a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, and a computer equipped with photo editing software.

Photograph lying on black fabric with lights on either side and a camera pointed downward at it
Rapid Capture station.

The important feature of the camera is its full-frame sensor, which can create a 400-pixel-per-inch image of an item as large as 9 × 14 inches, allowing us to provide users with high-quality images for the majority of our archival materials, which can be easily viewed, downloaded, and used for presentations or reports.

At the click of the shutter button, the camera can record an entire image – perhaps an 8 × 10 photographic print – without the cycle time of a more traditional flatbed scanner. If you’ve used a digital camera or a camera phone to take personal photographs, then you know how quickly you can take tens or even hundreds of snapshots. The same holds true for Rapid Capture, with the limit on imaging rate being the safe and proper handling of the archival material, not the time spent waiting for the scanner to make a pass.

On certain projects, we are able to capture both sides of a photographic print in less than 60 seconds, translating to nearly 500 prints imaged in a single day. Our flatbed scanner can produce 10-12 images per hour, or both sides of just 48 prints per day. Starting with a single Rapid Capture workstation in February 2011 and now utilizing two workstations, we have produced nearly 100,000 production images since the launching the process.

Process, or efficiency in process, is also an important part of Rapid Capture. For example, since material handling is one of the keys to the speed of Rapid Capture, we work to select and schedule material in groups having similar sizes or formats and that are located together physically, such as the box of 8 × 10 photographic prints shown below.

box standing vertically; folder open in front of it with photo lying on top
8 x 10 photographs from our collection foldered within an archival box.

Another example occurs in the post-processing of images, which can also be done in a batch manner, including exposure correction, cropping, and derivative image creation. By using automated scripts, much of this work can be done unattended, and in the case of large batches, performed in the overnight hours.

Finally, Rapid Capture is in some ways a philosophy. Rapid Capture puts a premium on user access to large numbers of images, and in doing so forces trade-offs in areas such as perceived image quality and image resolution. An example of this trade-off can be seen in some of our Rapid Capture images, which appear slightly tilted, such as this image from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

Photo of train with steam coming from it at tentpole-like station with a number of people standing around
Railway Station at Haines Corners, Catskill Mountains, New York, circa 1902; Object P.DPC.014510 / THF204908

Rather than spend additional time on each image to create a perfect alignment, we’ve chosen to spend that additional time producing more images, with the assumption that you, our users, would want to see more “stuff,” and can accept some imperfection.

A second compromise involves image resolution. While the camera can produce images sufficient for online viewing and use in presentations, the images may not be adequate for advertising or commercial publication. We’ve accepted that a certain number of items may need to be reimaged at some point for publication use, but that the potential rescanning effort is outweighed by the ability to both produce and store more lower-resolution images.

Our implementation of Rapid Capture has proven to be very successful. In nearly 10 years of operation, we’ve created a large number of images that meet our goals for quality, usefulness, production time, and cost. And, as we celebrate our #digitization100K milestone of 100,000 digitized objects on our Digital Collections, we can also point to the more than 38,500 objects that are illustrated using Rapid Capture images as another measure of that success.

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