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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Henry Ford and Reincarnation

August 13, 2015 Archive Insight


Earlier this year I introduced readers to a small collection of artifacts unofficially known as Henry Ford Tributes. As I mentioned earlier, a few of these objects have some pretty amazing backstories. The wall hanging, shown above, is one such example. One may not think that Henry Ford and the subject of reincarnation could appear together in the same sentence but the fact is Henry Ford was an advocate of transmigration, stating in many interviews that he became a believer at the age of 26. He had earlier been given a copy of Orlando J. Smith’s book A Short View of Great Questions, originally published in 1899. The theories expressed therein regarding reincarnation and the tenets of a religion the author termed Eternalism seemed to answer some of the life questions that had begun to occupy the automaker’s thoughts. It also curiously coincides with the work ethic of Henry Ford as well as his definition of greatness.

In an interview that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on 26 August 1928, he explained his belief:

I adopted the theory of Reincarnation when I was twenty six. Religion offered nothing to the point. Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilise [sic] the experience we collect in one life in the next. When I discovered Reincarnation it was as if I had found a universal plan I realised [sic] that there was a chance to work out my ideas. Time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the hands of the clock. Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives. Some are older souls than others, and so they know more. The discovery of Reincarnation put my mind at ease. If you preserve a record of this conversation, write it so that it puts men’s minds at ease. I would like to communicate to others the calmness that the long view of life gives to us.

This example of textile art, made as a gift for Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford, is a fanciful combination of quilting, embroidering and beadwork skills. The letter which accompanied this gift states that this was in part inspired by another newspaper article in which Ford expressed his belief in reincarnation.  The article about Mr. Ford was published on the occasion of his 76th birthday and probably circulated in the Palm Beach Post, prompting the donor of this gift, Adah Saunders, to write:

Under separate cover I am sending you one of my Egyptian Wall Pieces – [which I] send to Friends – to give them ‘something’ worthwhile to think about rather then [sic], motion pictures, novel reading and Card playing !!!

Had she known Henry Ford better, she might have known that he was not likely engaging in any of those activities! As part of the correspondence that accompanied the wall hanging, she had written lengthy descriptions and histories of her motifs. The obelisk that appears on the right edge of the wall hanging is referred to as Cleopatra’s Needle. To the Egyptians, the obelisk was the symbol of a pharaoh’s right to rule and connection to the afterlife. Also mentioned is the Sphinx symbolizing the relationship between the pharaohs and the gods. The three Great Pyramids she humorously described as “WPA work B.C.” She was, of course, referring to the Work Projects Administration, a relief measure established in 1935 in the United States in response to the massive unemployment created by the Great Depression. Also appearing in the wall hanging is a rendition of The Tree of Life - the basis of many spiritual belief systems in addition to the Egyptian views on immortality. Finally, she had incorporated the All-Seeing Eye in the piece, also known as the Eye of Horus.

Judging from the letters accompanying this gift, Adah Saunders seemed to be a woman of fortitude and perhaps a little eccentric. In 1884, Adah moved from Pennsylvania to West Palm Beach, Florida. A widow with two young children, she arrived in Florida in search of a more favorable climate. In her own words,

“BLESSED SUNSHINE, the Ultra Violet Rays in concentrated form scienticfically (sic) acknowledged to be the BEST in the World, and surpassed by no place on this Globe!"

A seamstress, she opened a shop in Indian River and maintained a profitable dressmaking business, all the while managing to acquire a small fortune as a result of her frugality – not to mention some fortuitous real estate investments. Eventually her financial shrewdness allowed her to move into a large home in West Palm Beach.

Mrs. Saunders turned her home into a museum and, according to a March 1933 article from the Palm Beach Post, hosted “hundreds of persons annually” who viewed china, furniture, paintings and other items she bought or was given. In 1939 she gave to the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany 30 acres of land next door to her home in order to build a convalescent home for residents of the area. It is now the St. Mary's Medical Center of West Palm Beach, Florida.

Shortly before sending her gift to the Fords, she had had a visitor from Dearborn who expressed her interest in Mrs. Saunders’ collection and at the same time spoke highly of Mr. Ford and his collection. Between their common ideas about reincarnation and their shared interest in collecting, Adah must have felt a strong connection to the automaker.

To see all of our selected Henry Ford Tributes, you can find them at these sites:

Patrice Fisher is Collections Specialist at The Henry Ford and is currently compiling a list of artifacts entitled Henry Ford Tributes II.

Florida, 1930s, 20th century, making, Henry Ford, by Patrice Fisher

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