Children play in a boat in this turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York image from the Jenny Young Chandler collection. / THF38259
In every issue of The Henry Ford Magazine, staff from The Henry Ford recommend books, websites, apps, and archival collections that we are enjoying. In the June-December 2021 issue, the recommendations centered around the idea of “play.” Read on to find out what we recommended, and why.
The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids by Alexandra Lange
Have you ever noticed how design influences our lives? The Design of Childhood by Alexandra Lange provides an in-depth look into how design and the things and items around us throughout our lives have a direct influence on our development and the way we see and think about the world.
From early childhood, the items we play and learn with—like wooden blocks and LEGO bricks—and the way our homes and cities are designed influence and shape the development and interactions of all of us. As a designer myself, I am fascinated by how things such as simple toys or architecture, from the development of planned communities to the differences between local versus government-built play spaces, can shape our learning and behavior. Now as a parent, I try to give my daughters the best opportunities to learn and grow, allowing them as much free play as I can—even when I am thinking in my head that’s not the way to do it.
Lange shines light on the things that we often take for granted and experiences that we don’t always realize are working to shape us every day. This book gave me insight into how my kids are seeing the world and how simple things are helping to mold them, from collaborative learning spaces in schools to the evolution of playgrounds in the United States. As Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association’s Kate Gannett Wells is quoted in Lange’s book as saying, “Playing in the dirt is the royalty of childhood.”
The Design of Childhood is one of those texts that has rapidly become a coffee-table book for me, enticing me to pick it up, randomly open it to a page, and dive in.
—Matt Elliott, Head of Creative and Digital Experience
The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead’s fiction covers topics ranging from the zombie apocalypse and slavery to elevator maintenance. In this nonfiction book, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner recounts his unlikely adventures competing in the 2011 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t win anything, but the reader is rewarded by Whitehead’s droll look into the world of high-stakes poker.
—Ellice Engdahl, Manager, Digital Collections & Content
Playing in museums isn’t always allowed, but at The Cleveland Museum of Art’s ARTLENS Gallery, play isn’t just encouraged—it’s how you engage with art. Guests can play immersive multisensory games with original artworks and even create their own masterpieces.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Cleveland Museum of Art’s ArtLens for Slack, the channel-based messaging platform, was a finalist for a 2020 Fast Company Innovation by Design Award. The first rapid-response art exhibition app, ArtLens for Slack is designed for remote workspaces, letting coworkers create team-building exercises from their home offices using the museum’s collections for inspiration.
Although not everyone lives within easy reach of Cleveland, you can still experience the ArtLens App, which allows you to explore on-view works in the permanent collection both at the museum and elsewhere.
—Olivia Marsh, Program Manager, Educator Professional Development
The Way Things Work (1988) by David Macaulay
My copy of this wonderfully whimsical adventure into the inner workings of our most fundamental inventions is 33 years old now. While the newest edition reveals smartphones and drones, some things never change. The Way Things Work will make the mechanics of a zipper fun again and perhaps help you explain, with fascination, how a differential works during your next kid-sponsored LEGO session.
—Wing Fong, Head of Experience Design & Senior Project Manager
From Our Library and Archives
The Benson Ford Research Center has a number of books, resources, and archival content with playful undertones—from books on carousels, doll quilts, and car games to a collection of coloring books. For help with access, contact the Research Center.
In Greenfield Village’s Liberty Craftworks district, skilled artisans practice authentic period crafts and trades with techniques that are, in some cases, centuries old. Here, we ask two of our talented Liberty Craftworks staff, both of whom have worked at The Henry Ford for more than a decade, why they like to make things with their hands.
Joshua Wojick: Crafts and Trades Program Manager, The Henry Ford
Mediums: Glassblowing, Mixed-Media Sculpture Years at The Henry Ford: 16
A student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit in the 1990s, Joshua was interested in industrial design, thinking about going into the automotive industry. Then he decided to take a glassblowing class. “I was hooked instantly,” he said. “It spawned my love of craft, of materiality and the honesty of material, of making.”
He changed majors and has never looked back.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Wojick.
At The Henry Ford, he appreciates the boutique expression of production afforded by the Liberty Craftworks community. “It’s a tough world getting into strict production craftmaking. It takes specific focus to make the same things over and over again. When you get to see it in a smaller setting—where artists are working, controlling, understanding the material moment by moment—it draws you in. That is what’s unique to The Henry Ford.”
He is also grateful for the guests he can interact with in Greenfield Village during daily demonstrations. “I have always looked at this interaction as the driving force of the Craftworks community. As artists, we have the opportunity to meet unique people and hear their life journeys, which can help you think differently throughout the day.”
Photo courtesy of Joshua Wojick.
Joshua never stops making things, creating award-winning art inside as well as outside of The Henry Ford. See more of his work at joshuawojick.com.
Melinda Mercer: Pottery Shop Lead, The Henry Ford
Mediums: Wood-Fired Porcelain, Salt-Glazed Stoneware, Patchwork Quilting Years at The Henry Ford: 17
Melinda has loved pottery for decades, first enthralled by its artistry as she watched her high school art teacher throw clay on his potter’s wheel and next while earning her fine arts degree. Then, as an intern at The Henry Ford a few years later, she had the privilege of tutelage under Bryan VanBenschoten, a lead potter in the Pottery Shop for nearly 40 years.
Photo courtesy of Melinda Mercer.
One of her favorite things in the world is wood-firing in the shop’s wood kiln. She calls it a labor of love, a rewarding team effort that the potters do only once or twice a year. “It takes us months to prepare,” she said. “And once we start putting wood in the kiln, we have to stay with the kiln for 30 hours, loading more wood every couple minutes. There’s no electricity, no technology. Just us, the wood, and the fire.”
Melinda loves the individuality the wood-firing process affords her. “We really get to stretch artistically,” she said. More importantly, she can share the experience with guests at The Henry Ford. “The wood-firing is a magical event—when visitors see the flames shooting from the top of the kiln, their reactions are quite remarkable.” Continue Reading
Michele Michael, who discovered ceramics in 2010, likes to create utilitarian objects for the tabletop, loving the feel and meditative properties of the clay in her hands. She is always experimenting with new techniques and processes to make her housewares, like painting freehand with indigo and cobalt underglazes. / Photo by Michele Michael
Michele Michael and Patrick Moore understand the importance of ordinary days and have a renewed appreciation for the concept of time.
Today, Michael creates ceramics that reflect the natural beauty, quiet, and peacefulness that surround her in midcoast Maine. Mostly she creates utilitarian objects for the tabletop. She builds, fires, and glazes her wares—typically porcelain, sometimes stoneware—on the first floor of, or in season outside on the porch of, a light-drenched, barn-style studio that she shares with her husband, Moore, a woodworker.
Michael came to ceramics serendipitously back in 2010. At the time, she and Moore were leading a higher-octane lifestyle in New York City, where they owned a successful prop house together. Michael curated a large collection of tabletop items that she would rent out for photo shoots for magazines, cookbooks, and advertising. Moore built surfaces and other props for their business and also sets for film and music videos, often out of wood he salvaged from dumpsters at construction sites around the city.
On one fateful spring day, Michael ventured into a ceramics studio in their Brooklyn neighborhood (to see if they had any plates or bowls she might want to buy for her inventory), then on a whim signed up for a class that started that very week. It was kismet. Michael loved everything about her experience: the feel of the clay in her hands, the meditative process of forming it into her desired shapes, the warm and supportive community of fellow makers.
“In my career as a magazine editor, then photo stylist and business owner, I was constantly multitasking,” Michael said. “Right away, it felt so good to do something where I was fully in the moment, plus it was just nice to be using my hands to make something again.”
Here, Michele Michael created texture by rolling out the clay between two pieces of handwoven linen. / Photo by Michele Michael
Within just three years, Michael and Moore had sold their apartment and moved full-time to what had until then been a summer home in the small town of Dresden, Maine. By consigning their prop collection to another company similar to theirs, they could keep some of that income stream flowing while changing their way of life dramatically. They would build a studio where Michael could devote herself to her ceramics practice and Moore could do his woodworking.
Today, they are able to live a life they fantasized about away from the city: in sync with not only the natural world that nourishes them but also the creative curiosity that drives them. Michael creates her wares—mostly platters and vases—and then photographs and posts them to their retail website, called Elephant Ceramics, in batches several times a year. Moore’s one-of-a-kind cutting boards, which he makes out of birch, maple, black walnut, cherry, oak, and hickory he sources from a nearby mill, are also for sale on the site. Inventory sells out fast but isn’t replenished until months later, when they feel ready to create a new body of work.
Patrick Moore seeks out wood with unusual grain with which to make his cutting boards. As he cuts, planes, sands, and finishes each piece, his aim is to showcase and maximize the wood’s natural beauty. / Photo by Michele Michael
“We are constantly in a process of learning and trying new things,” said Michael. “I can’t imagine a life without making things. I think it’s in my DNA.”
In between these bursts of making, the two are able to slow down and enjoy ordinary pleasures: walks, birdwatching, gardening, cooking nourishing meals, kayaking on the river that borders their property—and following those ever-important whims. Moore might transform random lobster rope that washes up on the beaches into boat fenders and other nautical knots, weave sticks and saplings collected while pruning in the yard into vessels to be used as planters or compost bins, or teach himself to knit, inspired by a collection of old needles he picked up at a yard sale. Michael sometimes sets off on trips to faraway places and takes workshops—block printing in India, ceramics and cooking in Japan, and weaving in Mexico so far—or she might stay home and hook a chair cushion using yarn from her stash and strips of wool cut from old clothing.
As Michael shared, “Often my inspiration comes from an idea of something I’d like to have but cannot find. I think making things yourself helps you see the value in items that are handmade. You realize how much goes into something that is carefully thought-out and crafted. It also teaches you patience."
With our hands, we take agency over our lives. We connect with others, past and present, near and far, with a similar passion. We feel a sense of belonging, not only to one another but to the planet.
In 2017, at age 22, Sara Trail launched the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) to empower youth to advocate for social justice through textile making. Though she was notably young to found a nonprofit, she was not new to sewing. She took needle to cloth for the first time at age 4, under the guidance of her mother and grandmother, and quickly showed a propensity for it. Within a few years, she had gained mastery and could sew clothing, quilts, and upholstery. A wunderkind, by age 15, she had written a book for other kids, Sew with Sara, about how to sew and sell one’s work, and licensed her own pattern and fabric collections.
She was, for all intents and purposes, content with her sewing practice. “I liked the freedom and independence it gave me,” she recalled. “I liked the idea that I could make something that was going to last and that I could do something that a lot of other kids my age couldn’t do.”
And then her attitude—and self-expectation—changed profoundly in 2012, when Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager in Florida, was shot by a white man for no apparent reason other than he thought Martin looked suspicious. “I went from wanting to learn skills, make gifts, master something to knowing I needed to take the skills my mentors had given me and use them for a purpose,” Trail said. She made a fabric portrait of Martin wearing the hoodie he had on the night he was shot, and that quilt became the seed of SJSA.
Sara Trail’s handmade quilt, Rest in Power, commemorates the life of murdered Black teenager Trayvon Martin and marks her first experience combining her lifelong interest in sewing with social activism. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy
Today, Trail describes the volunteer-run organization she founded as a 21st-century sewing circle that bridges social, racial, ethnic, generational, and geographic lines. The quilts begin in workshops in schools, community centers, and prisons across the United States. Participants, typically aged 12 and up, create art blocks to express their concerns, thoughts, and beliefs, gluing fabric in place if they are not inclined to sew.
The blocks are forwarded to volunteers around the world to finish the necessary stitching and join them together into a patchwork. Hundreds of SJSA quilts have gone on to be exhibited at quilt shows, museums, and galleries nationwide.
Trail often thinks back to the time in middle school when she was teaching sewing to kids in her neighborhood. “My class was $75 and my students were rich white kids. Low-income kids couldn’t pay that much to learn how to make something they may or may not have even liked in the end or end up using. Through conversations, especially with my parents, I realized what a privilege it was to make.”
She now seeks to pass on that privilege, an understanding of the power that resides in our hands, to make textiles—and to make change.
This block, made by SJSA participant Autumn Roberts during a workshop on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, is a statement about culture and tribe. Her artist statement: “…I created this as an image of what had happened at the DAPL [Dakota Access Pipeline protest] camp. I shall be the change the reservation will wish to see. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy
“I want to make sewing accessible and equitable,” Trail said. “I want to make quilts that matter.”
At The Henry Ford, we are happy to consider offers of acquisitions for our collection, as we greatly appreciate the public’s interest in—and desire to contribute to—our collection. While we cannot accept everything, we do give care and attention to every offer we receive.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions related to the acquisition process.
How do I contact The Henry Ford regarding an item I want to donate or sell?
The quickest way to reach us is via an email to the Benson Ford Research Center, at email@example.com. You can also contact us by mail or fax (details can be found here).
Benson Ford Research Center
What information do I need to provide to The Henry Ford?
We ask that you send current photos of the item, and as much information as you can about who owned the item and how it was used. We also need to know whether you’d like to donate the item or if you’d like to sell it (in which case we also need your asking price).
Can The Henry Ford tell me how much my item is worth?
For ethical reasons, employees of the museum cannot provide values or appraisals on objects. If you need help finding an appraiser, we recommend contacting the American Society of Appraisers.
How long will it take The Henry Ford’s curators to make a decision?
This varies quite a bit! For some objects, a curator will know right away if they are interested or not, and can get a response back to you pretty quickly. Other things, however, may require more research and consideration on our end. Although we will try to get back to you as quickly as possible, it can sometimes be a lengthy process.
What do The Henry Ford’s curators consider when making a decision on accepting an artifact?
Curators consider several criteria when considering an offer, including whether or not we have the same (or sufficiently similar) item in our collection already, how an item would fit into the collection given our mission and collecting plans, and whether or not we have the resources required to support an item's acquisition.
Can I just mail the item I want to donate to The Henry Ford?
In order to make sure that we can properly track and care for items, we ask that you please refrain from mailing us items until requested to do so. While we appreciate the intention, unexpected items take up extra space and staff time. If you send us an email first, we can better manage the process.
The curator has accepted my offer, and I’ve given you the item. What happens next?
Potential collection items go before our Collections Committee for final approval. In order to get an item ready for the Collections Committee, the curator will prepare a write-up explaining an item’s historical significance, any maker or user history, additional relevant information, and why they believe it should be part of the collection. The item is then voted on. If the item is approved, we will send you Deed of Gift paperwork to formally transfer ownership to The Henry Ford. If the item is declined, we will make arrangements to return the item to you.
Who do I contact if I have additional questions about The Henry Ford’s collections acquisition process?
Fans of The Henry Ford know that we are a big, (wonderfully) complicated, messy (in a good way) place—we are definitely not just a car museum. Our collections are so broad that they can sometimes confuse visitors. As just one example, take a look at the five most-viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections during the second quarter of 2021.
This GIF shows the most-viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections during Q2 2021: 1) 1896 Ford Quadricycle Runabout, First Car Built by Henry Ford; 2) Slave Collar, circa 1860; 3) Melting Pot Ceremony at Ford English School, July 4, 1917; 4) "Whites Only" Drinking Fountain, 1954; and 5) Letter from Clyde Barrow to Henry Ford Praising the Ford V-8 Car, 1934. / THF90758, THF13425, THF106481, THF13419, THF103458
Do you see any connections? Right off the bat, perhaps you see a connection between the Quadricycle (the first car built by Henry Ford) and the alleged Clyde Barrow letter about the Ford V-8—certainly both revolve around the larger-than-life figure of Henry Ford. Or maybe it seems obvious that the slave collar and the segregated drinking fountain both tell a story of the oppression of Black Americans over time.
But The Henry Ford’s collections contain many more artifacts than just these five, and there are many ways to find connections between them. When The Henry Ford’s curatorial, digital, experience, and web teams, as well as our experience design partners at Bluecadet, began working on Intersection of Innovation, a new multimedia experience in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, we set out to explore the various ways the artifacts in our collection work together as a disparate yet cohesive whole to tell a variety of stories.
You’ll find the Intersection of Innovation right under the Douglas DC-3 in the center of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / Photo by Marvin Shaouni
One of the features you’ll see in the Intersection, probably the one that involved the most work, is a twelve-foot-long touch table. This table contains images and a little bit of information on nearly 32,000 artifacts from our collection, a number that will continue to grow. But it will never contain all of our digitized artifacts, and it is not meant to be the deep dive into individual artifacts or stories that our Digital Collections and online content are—instead, it’s designed to help quickly reveal connections between artifacts in a responsive, fun, and colorful interface. Those connections take two distinct forms, each with their own strengths and limitations.
First, we started with connections created by our curators. Curators are used to illuminating the many interweaving connections between seemingly different artifacts. We tried to go beyond very straightforward connections (for example, artifacts used by George Washington Carver, or artifacts created in New York) and find unexpected connections that might catch your attention. If you’ve ever watched one of our Connect3 videos, you might be familiar with this kind of connection.
For example, for the table, we used the concept of weaving to connect an oriole’s nest, a machine used to strand transatlantic cable, and a childhood artwork by Edsel Ford in which he wove a bear out of brown yarn. These connections are surprising, unexpected, and often subtle—something artificial intelligence might not (at least today) be able to achieve. But the limitation to human-created connections is the physical limitations of the human—our staff will never be able to create these types of complex connections for tens of thousands of artifacts.
So we also added connections created by artificial intelligence. The computer that runs the table analyzes the artifact images in bulk and creates threads between them according to their color and shape—no human intervention required. The advantage of artificial intelligence connections is that computers can process much more information much more quickly than any human brain. There is no way that we could ever establish the mass of interconnections that the table’s computer does. Artificial intelligence can also pick up fine distinctions of color and shape that may be challenging for human eyes. However, the drawback of artificial intelligence is that, despite what science-fiction books and movies may tell us, computers do not function like the human brain (which is probably for the best).
Some of the early results of artificial intelligence analysis of shape (left) and color (right) gradients among our collections artifacts. We were excited to see that the computer analysis got better as it looked at more artifacts—the machine really did learn! / Image courtesy Bluecadet
Our conclusion, therefore, was that both humans and computers bring something to the table (pun intended). Artificial intelligence can help our visitors and staff see our collections in new ways—but humans also provide a unique sensibility that computers cannot, at least today.
The entire Intersection of Innovation, including the connections table, suffered from an incredibly unfortunate accident of timing—it was installed in the museum just before The Henry Ford closed for three months last year due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. When we reopened, the table remained turned off until we were sure it could be operated safely. But today it is on—and it really is a lot of fun. Swiping your fingers along the table bring up seemingly infinite dynamic and colorful strings of artifacts for which you can explore both human- and artificial intelligence-created connections.
Try to resist the connections table—we dare you. / Media courtesy Bluecadet
If you haven’t yet had a chance to check out the table, we hope you’ll stop by and check it out, along with the rest of the Intersection. And if you are a tech geek (or just really interested), Bluecadet has a nice general overview of the table on their website, and an in-depth article about the process of tweaking and training the artificial intelligence on Medium.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections and Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Join us this Saturday, September 25, 2021, at the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village, as a group of living historians present household and harvest activities and stories of rural western Pennsylvania in 1800.
What forces would have been in play for Anna and Alexander McGuffey in the young American nation at that time?
The first decade of the 19th century in America saw the rise, through trial and error, of a new nation—our Early Republic. The Early Republic era, which roughly ran from the 1780s through the 1830s, was greatly influenced by world events and national politics. The French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, and the ongoing war between England and France all challenged, and at times threatened, the newly formed government of the United States. A war with Great Britain, the War of 1812, was fought from 1812–1814.
Thomas Jefferson’s election as president of the United States paved the way for westward expansion. / THF8163
The election of Thomas Jefferson, who served as president from 1801–1809, paved the way for the westward expansion of the United States. At a time when the western frontier was eastern Ohio, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition that quickly followed were huge factors for westward movement in the decades to come. To offer some perspective, the United States population in 1800 was over 5.3 million—of whom nearly one-fifth were enslaved.
By 1800, the McGuffey family, who had settled in western Pennsylvania in the 1780s, followed the traditional seasonal routines of farming. In an area that had been settled for nearly 20 years, no longer a frontier, the Pennsylvania landscape encompassed cleared fields, mature orchards, more substantial homes, and an established community.
Job Roberts’ 1804 book, The Pennsylvania Farmer, showed that farming was common in the state by the turn of the century. / THF625673
The McGuffeys were not isolated, and would have been aware of world events, regional and national politics, and trends in fashion, and would have had access to a wide range of imported goods. They would make their own westward journey into Ohio in 1802.
We hope you can visit us Saturday to learn more about the family and their fall activities.
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
A wooden case encloses the working parts of the cotton gin model shown above, which is currently on display in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. When you turn the handle, a group of circular saw blades rotate, removing cotton seed from cotton fiber. To see that process, you’d have to dismantle the box and look inside. Such exploration helps us see how the machine functions. But much more about this cotton gin model remains hidden from view.
This gin helps us learn about one early inventor, Henry Ogden Holmes. He lived in South Carolina and worked as a blacksmith and mechanic on a plantation. In 1787, Holmes applied for a patent caveat—a document that protected his ownership of this invention. The U.S. Patent Office did not exist at that time, but President Washington signed the caveat on March 24, 1789, allowing Holmes’ ownership of his invention for five years.
You may wonder: Didn’t Eli Whitney invent the cotton gin? Whitney received his first cotton gin patent on March 14, 1794, days before Holmes’ caveat expired. Whitney’s gin used wire teeth on rollers to tear the fibers from the cotton seeds, though he adopted saw teeth in later patents. This paved the way for numerous lawsuits about who had the right to claim the cotton gin as an invention.
This 1853 engraving, "The Levee at New Orleans," gives a sense of scale for cotton production in the American South in the mid-19th century. / THF204264
School children learn about Eli Whitney, but not about “Hogden” Holmes. Nor do they always learn about the negative consequences of the invention. Speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton made it possible for growers to plant more cotton to meet demand from an expanding textile industry. To raise more cotton, they needed more land and labor—and this led to removal of Indian nations from, and expansion of enslavement into, the southeastern United States during the 1830s and 1840s.
This stereograph depicts people picking cotton while a man on horseback oversees the work. This juxtaposition reinforced associations between African Americans and enslavement, long after the Civil War. / THF278808
The history of the cotton gin has a long-standing and seemingly straightforward narrative based in problem solving and opportunity. But, just as technologies can have unintended consequences, so can stories conceal or stray.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
This 1881 Singer sewing machine is on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.Isaac Singer developed the first practical sewing machine for home use in the 1850s. / THF173635
Innovation has intended, and often unintended, effects. Take the sewing machine, for example. Its invention in the mid-1840s would make clothing more available and affordable. Yet, ironically, the sewing machine also resulted in a decline of sewing skills—not immediately, but over time. Nowadays, few of us know how to make clothing.
Once, things were very different. For centuries, sewing a family’s clothing by hand was a time-consuming and constant task for women. A woman often made hundreds of garments in her lifetime; all young girls were taught to sew.
A trade card for Clark's O.N.T. Spool Cotton from the late nineteenth century depicts a young girl using her sewing skills to repair a rip in her brother’s jacket so that “It will be as good as new and Ma won’t know!” / THF298697
When the sewing machine came on the scene during the mid-1800s, this handy invention made a big difference. For example, it now took about an hour to sew a man’s shirt by machine—rather than 14 hours by hand. In the 1850s, clothing manufacturers quickly acquired sewing machines for their factories, and, as they became less expensive, people bought them for home use.
While machines made it easier tomake clothing at home, buying clothing ready-made was even less work. By the early 1900s, the ready-to-wear industry offered a broad range of attractive clothing for men, women, and children. Increasingly, people bought their clothing in stores rather than making it themselves.
Sewing skills may have declined, but what have we gained? A lot. Mass-produced clothing has raised our standard of living: stylish, affordable clothing can be had off the rack. For many, sewing remains a creative outlet, rather than a required task. For them, making clothing is no longer something you have to do, but something you want to do.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
This Rookwood Pottery vase from our collection, on view in the Art Pottery of the 20th Century exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, can tell us an unexpected story about women’s work and craft in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
During the late 19th century, ladies of high social standing in America were encouraged to broaden their interests beyond their homes. One of the most acceptable ways to do this was by taking up decorative china painting. Over time, these privileged women created associations with classes in china painting for women of all economic backgrounds. Probably the most important of these women was socialite Maria Longworth Nichols of Cincinnati, Ohio, who went beyond the accepted norm and established her own pottery that she called Rookwood.
Beginning in 1880, Nichols hired talented young women—who would not have opportunities elsewhere—as well as men to create innovative ceramic wares in this novel commercial venture. At Rookwood, pioneering glazes and imagery made the Cincinnati-based company famous from coast to coast. One of the most significant innovations at Rookwood was its introduction of the “vellum” glaze in 1904. This signature glaze, seen on the vase at the top of this post, features a light-colored background where pictorial landscapes and flowers could appear almost like a painting.
Even before the development of the “vellum” glaze, competitors noticed Rookwood’s innovations and lured away some of their best potters and decorators. Also, over time, artists left Rookwood and started their own companies. They adopted Rookwood’s distinctive techniques, spreading the look of what was called “Art Pottery” around the United States. So, by the early decades of the 20th century, the pastime of ladies’ china painting evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry. Although Art Pottery flourished in the early 20th century, the arrival of the Great Depression and World War II all but extinguished Americans’ interest in decorative ceramics for the home.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.