As the pre-Interstate American roadside has slowly disappeared, why has it taken on such meaning for us? Historical geographer David Lowenthal tried to explain it in his book with the unusual title, The Past is a Foreign Country. He said it has to do with our desire to re-establish a sense of place in an increasingly rootless world. Old buildings, old signs, old lampposts and fences—those genuine pieces of evidence that prove to us that an earlier, almost mythic time once existed—provide a sense of stability and permanence lacking in our present lives.
Today, we appreciate the buildings, signs, and landscapes of the American roadside for many different reasons: their pre-Modernist artistry; their funky and humorous attempts to beckon motorists during the Golden Age of road trips; or perhaps the entrepreneurial spirit of the many Mom-and-Pop establishments that tried to make a go of it before national chains and franchises took over. No matter what the reason, our appreciation inevitably relates to a respect for—even a reverence of—what once was but is no more.
The weekend of May 15-17, 2015 marked the 10th anniversary of Maker Faire Bay Area, a flagship festival of the Make movement. I was lucky to have the opportunity to attend the Faire in order to speak about The Henry Ford’s recent acquisition of the Apple 1 computer. On Saturday morning, as I climbed the Make:Live Stage to present images and stories gathered from the auction, its arrival to the museum, and video of the computer operating—I was happy (okay, I’ll admit, even a little nervous)—to see a crowd of over 100 enthusiastic people gathered. The appeal of the Apple 1 and the museum’s excitement about its acquisition was well-understood by the extremely attentive audience.
After the presentation, I had time to take in a little of the festival, and am happy to report that the Maker movement is alive and very well in the world. Here are a few of my favorite moments from the weekend:
We’ve already made much about the 50th anniversary of Jim Clark’s win, with his rear-engine Lotus-Ford, at the 1965 Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. But it is a big deal. History generally unfolds in a gradual process, but Clark’s victory was a singular turning point for the race. We were delighted that the folks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway agreed and, with generous assistance from the speedway's Hall of Fame Museum, invited us to take the car down for this year’s event.
We kicked off race weekend on Thursday with a great panel discussion open to the media. I was honored to sit with fellow panelists Clive Chapman, proprietor of Great Britain’s Classic Team Lotus and son of Colin Chapman – designer of our car; Leonard Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing – the oldest active team in NASCAR – and a member of Jim Clark’s 1965 pit crew; and Dario Franchitti, a three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time IndyCar Series Champion – and a certified Clark-ophile.
In a current TV series celebrities donning white cotton gloves view documents and rare books as they learn about their family history. But is this really the way that professional museum and archives staff handle the hundreds or thousands of artifacts that are entrusted to their care?
What is the logic behind this practice?
The fact is that moisture, salt and dirt on human hands can damage artifacts and embed particles of dirt onto the surface of artifacts, this can permanently harm some artifacts. In the case of uncoated metals the human hand provides the perfect combination of salt and moisture in the form of sweat to cause damage in the form of corrosion. The image below shows a fingerprint on a brass plate.
We all have a unique and individual story, whether it started in this country before or after the Civil War, and the collective history of our past is the relevant ingredient that we all share. The social, political, technological, medical and scientific innovations from the Civil War were transformative and vast that serve as the foundation of the many attributes we still benefit from today. As we get ready to celebrate Civil War Remembrance at The Henry Ford, we ask you to join us in honoring all veterans for their sacrifices and achievements in protecting, sustaining, and preserving the promise of the Constitution of the United States for “a more perfect Union.”
Brian Egen is Executive Producer at The Henry Ford.
Guests to Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village 2014 may have been surprised to find the Tintype Studio transformed into a living history exhibit for the weekend. The small building was outfitted as a period social club called the Loyal Union League, serving as a Lincoln campaign headquarters for the 1864 presidential race. Last year marked the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection to a second term in office and the exhibit explored how local Union Leagues throughout the country participated in the campaign.
The previous year, The Henry Ford's Executive Producer Brian Egen and Senior Manager of Creative Programs Jim Johnson, along with members of The Petticoat Society (a living history organization), discussed the creation of a special program and interpretative scenario utilizing the Tintype Studio building. This site, because of its proximity to activities taking place at the Pavilion, Town Hall and the Village Green, was a perfect location for visitors to step back in time and experience the excitement and uncertainty of the 1864 election season.
Inspired by Thomas Edison, Oliver Kuttner has not only driven his Very Light Car into engineering history, he’s also got one parked at the Henry Ford Museum.
Creating something new is arguably one of the most satisfying achievements in life. As engineers, our careers are littered with accounts where we’ve improved designs, given life to concepts and maybe even built something brand new and impactful.
For Edison2 founder Oliver Kuttner, all of those things have happened and his X-Prize winning Very Light Car (VLC) stands in the Henry Ford Museum’s growing collection of engineering marvels.
But unlike many of the stories about engineering brilliance, Oliver’s isn’t one about a lone genius working in solitude. Instead, his story is more modern – it’s one that revolves around inspiration coupled with collaboration.
John Margolies is both a photographer and a collector of items related to American travel and its unique sights. In preparation for our upcoming exhibit about Margolies and the American roadside, we’ve digitized a number of selections from this collection, including 35mm slides taken by John Margolies himself, and pennants and hotel/motel do-not-disturb signs he collected. This week, we add another grouping to that list: Dexter Press photographs dating between 1935 and 1950, designed to be used as postcards. The images, collected by Margolies, capture the same types of establishments he would photograph decades later: gas stations, diners, salons, and stores, such as the Dixie Liquor Store in St. Louis, MO, shown here. Browse more than 30 Dexter Press photos and postcards by visiting our Digital Collections, and be sure to mark your calendar to come see many of our Margolies items in person in the exhibit “Roadside America: Through the Lens of John Margolies” between June 20, 2015 and January 24, 2016.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
What's new on The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation this weekend? Host Mo Rocca shows us the hardware store robot; the incredible patent models from Thomas Edison that show us the beginning of our electronic world; how the USG Corp. is leading the way with grooming the next generation of engineers and mathematicians; the Israeli inventors of a printer that fits in your pocket. Learn more here and see a sneak peek below.
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.