Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Our First Television Programs at The Henry Ford

July 14, 2014

window-into-history

A publicity photograph from August 1955 features Marion Corwell, the museum's Manager of Educational Television, holding a handmade giraffe, ready to take her school-student audience on a voyage of discovery to children's toys from 100 years earlier. (THF114821)

Imagine a time when having one television set in your home was a big deal, you saw the programs in black and white, color television was brand new, and you'd never heard of TVs in the classroom.

This was the mid-1950s and The Henry Ford (then called Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) began using the technology of television to reach into the classroom. It was a way to further our educational mission by assisting social studies teachers and sparking students' interest in the past.

In August 1954 we hired Marion Corwell for the new educational television department. Her job was to manage all aspects of this department, plan each program, write the scripts and host every episode. Her on-camera role was the "storyteller" on the journey to the past, bringing historical objects into the classroom.

By 1955 we made our first television show, Window to the Past, in the new television studio of the educational station WTVS in Detroit. A brochure from 1956 summed up the program's goal: it was "designed to bring living American history into your classrooms."

brochure

Brochure from 1956 promoting the "Window to the Past" television program and encouraging teachers to incorporate this 15-minute telecast into their weekly teaching of history and social studies. It features a die-cut window in the shape of a TV screen. (THF114818)

Elementary students of Detroit-area schools viewed the 15-minute weekly broadcasts in their classrooms. The WTVS television studio also recorded the live telecasts on kinescope film for later distribution to schools throughout the country. This was the beginning of many television programs that we made for children and adults continuing until the early 1960s.

nbc-broadcast

NBC "Color Television Show" vans on the village green during the television broadcasts in Greenfield Village on October 25, 1955.(THF114826)

In 1955 Greenfield Village became the location for live broadcasts of national television shows for the NBC network. Dave Garroway's Today show, with onsite host Dick McCutcheon, featured the village green with horse and carriages, antique automobiles and the 999 racecar on April 18 and on July 4 featured Stephen Foster's music and the Suwanee steamboat. The most amazing day was on October 25, when NBC's Color Television Show remote broadcasting vans arrived on the village green for live telecasts of three shows in one day.

Color television was cutting-edge technology and having NBC spend the day in Greenfield Village was an extraordinary event. The Today show featured Greenfield Village schoolchildren singing during morning services in the Martha-Mary Chapel. Then Arlene Francis's Home show focused on the village green and the General Store portraying an ordinary day in the life of 1850s Americans. At 2:30, the Howdy Doody Show broadcast from inside the Scotch Settlement School with character actors Uncle Nick, Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, and the 1850s Schoolmaster. The Greenfield Village students in this one-room school highlighted the differences between a school day in the 1850s and the 1950s.

howdy

Televised live, the "Howdy Doody Show" featured the one-room Scotch Settlement School and starred Greenfield Village students with the show's character stars (standing in middle, left to right) Princess SummerFallWinterSpring (waving) Uncle Nick (glasses and bow tie) and the 1850s Schoolmaster (cravat necktie). (THF114828)

Since that beginning in the mid-1950s, we continue to be actively involved in providing American historical settings and artifacts for a wide range of television programs. Stay tuned for future blog posts about television shows at The Henry Ford as we film our latest program, The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation.

Cynthia Read Miller is Curator of Photographs and Prints at The Henry Ford.

The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation

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