A quick overview of tillage—that is, how farmers prepare land for growing crops—helps lay the groundwork (as it were). For thousands of years, farmers turned the topsoil over with a plow pulled by a draft animal—a single steer or team of oxen, draft horses, or mules. Henry Ford’s experiments with his “automotive plow” and subsequent introduction of the affordable Fordson tractor led to the replacement of draft animals on most farms after World War II, but the plow endured. Plowing broke up the roots of whatever vegetation was established before or between plantings. This was the first step in preparing a seed bed.
Man Using a 1939-1946 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286596
The next step involved working the plowed ground to break up clods and create a more even surface. This required use of harrows or discs of various designs, as you can see here. Hitching technology installed on the Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor starting in 1939 and adopted by tractor manufacturers helped keep this disc tracking in line with the tractor. Farmers with large acreages under tillage favored row-crop tractors like the John Deere Model “B” in the photo below, where a farmer is discing a plowed field. The narrow wheel-spacing at the front end ran between rows of crops. After plowing and discing, some farmers harrowed fields to put the finishing touches on the seedbed.
Man Using a 1947-1952 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286606
You can explore more than 40 tillage implements in The Henry Ford collection here. This is just the tip of the iceberg of mechanical innovations designed to ease the physically demanding process of field preparation. These tools helped farmers practice integrated pest management, too, because careful field preparation pulverized the organic material that insects like boll weevil in cotton or corn borer larvae lived in during the winter months. These pests could destroy crops in a pre-insecticide agricultural system.
Tillage, however, exposed topsoil to the elements. The more acreage farmers tilled, the more topsoil they lost due to erosion. In addition, severe droughts parched soil, destroying all organic matter. This exacerbated erosion as more and more topsoil blew away or washed away with heavy rains.
Planting and Cultivating
Different crops cover the ground in different ways. Farmers raising small grains drilled seed into prepared seed beds. The grain, planted at times of the year when other plant growth slowed, needed little to no cultivation. You can see grain drills and learn more about them here, including photographs of the Bickford & Huffman grain drill in use at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village.
Prior to the adoption of in-season herbicides, most crops required cultivation after planting to disturb the roots of plants that threatened to choke out the cash crop. Farmers used different cultivators depending on the crops they grew, but cultivators further disturbed the soil and could hasten moisture evaporation.
Cultivating a Field of Cotton, Around 1911 / THF624655
The photograph below shows a row-crop tractor with an under-mounted cultivator at work in a soybean field. The single-front tire running down the middle of two rows ensured that the cultivators tracked between rows, to better remove weeds in between the cash crop.
Man Using a 1935-1938 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286604
The Development of No-Till
You may have already grasped the connection between tillage and the no-till planter. Intensive cultivation of cropland contributed to topsoil erosion. The loss of the fertile topsoil reduced yields, and extreme weather worsened the loss. This led many to call for radical changes in tillage methods.
Agricultural scientists and engineers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state-based land-grant colleges addressed the challenge quickly. The University of Illinois established the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in southern Illinois in 1934 to research soil erosion and low-till options. Purdue University in Indiana began the first experiments planting row crops in uncultivated soil in 1944. Russell R. Poyner, the agricultural engineer who worked on this project, went to work at International Harvester Company in 1945. By 1947, he submitted a patent for a mulch-tiller-planter designed for erosion control and conservation of moisture. He coined the new tillage approach “stubble mulch” farming, and as assignor to International Harvester, received U.S. Patent No. 2,577,363 in 1951. International Harvester produced the two-row McCormick M-21 till planter with fertilizer application only briefly and stopped altogether in 1955 due to sluggish sales.
Another early no-till proponent, agronomist George McKibben, worked at Dixon Springs. He and Donnie Morris, the machinery engineer at Dixon Springs, tested a zero-till planter by 1966. Morris describes the challenges he solved—specifically, how to get the seed in the ground. The research team used his “sod and stubble” planter starting in 1969, but an appeal to Deere and Company (the company that makes John Deere brand items) fell on deaf ears.
Allis-Chalmers released the two-row No-Til planting system in 1966, recognized as the first commercially available (and successful) no-till planter. The planter had a fluted coulter (vertical cutting blade) that sliced crop residue and prepared the seed bed just ahead of the fertilizer tank and planter unit.
The John Deere 7000 No-Till Planter: Agricultural Superstar
Peter Cousins, then Curator of Agriculture at The Henry Ford, acquired the John Deere 7000 No-Till Planter because, as he wrote in a memo to The Henry Ford’s collections committee on August 23, 1994, he considered it one of a few “superstars” of modern agricultural technology. In that same memo, he explained that of the three companies that introduced no-till planters, only Deere and Company survived. Allis-Chalmers left the farm implement business in 1985. International Harvester also ended its agricultural lines and broke up in 1985. Thus, he believed that only Deere and Company could locate, restore, and donate a first model no-till planter.
What qualifies as a “superstar?” Peter does not go into detail, but he names one other artifact in his memo—the FMC tomato harvester (1969). These two artifacts share at least three key elements that Peter considered as he strengthened The Henry Ford’s collection of 20th-century agricultural technology. First, the implement represents exchange between adopters, engineers, and others, a process described as the social construction of technology. Second, the implement transforms agricultural production. Third, the consequences of the transformation reverberate beyond farm fields.
A Modern John Deere No-Till Planter Sowing Soybeans / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board
The collaborative research undertaken by teams of experts at agricultural experiment stations across the country satisfy the first of these three “superstar” criteria. The experiments station staff worked with farmers to determine their needs and respond to them. The planter donated by Deere and Company to The Henry Ford, for example, had been used by Arthur Kruse on his Calmar, Iowa, farm between 1979 and 1994. It included “a wheel module planter with dry fertilizer option, insecticide box, unit mounted coulters, and cast closing wheels.” That insecticide box is telling—the stubble-mulch farming system came with another set of challenges. The stubble served as a vector for pests, namely the European corn borer in corn. A no-till planter that applied insecticide as well as dry fertilizer appealed to farmers even more.
Soybean Seedlings Emerging Among the Residue of the Previous Year’s Crop / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board
No-till planter technology changed the system of agriculture. The title of a July 16, 1994, New York Times article that Peter attached to the collections committee memo says it all: “New Way of Tilling Speeds the Plow’s Demise.” Today, no-till or conservation tillage helps farmers reduce erosion and retain soil moisture. Yet, input costs remain high as they apply herbicide to deaden growth before no-till planting, and then apply fertilizer and insecticides while planting.
On the other hand, Michigan State University researchers claim that “no-till farming practices have very positive economic and environmental benefits over decades.” Farm fields can benefit from the environmental benefits of topsoil retention enriched with hygroscopic (tending to absorb moisture from the air) organic matter. They can also realize higher yields over the long run.
Farmers, Please Share Your Stories
The Henry Ford would love to hear from Michigan farmers about your reasons for adopting no-till farming practices, either wholly or selectively, and what you believe the benefits are. You can e-mail us your feedback at MichiganSoybeanFarmers@thehenryford.org.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This blog post was produced as part of our partnership with the Michigan Soybean Committee to deepen understanding of the important soybean crop and to provide the public with the chance to learn more about agriculture and the innovations that have helped farmers feed the world. You can learn more about the partnership, soybeans, and soybean ties to The Henry Ford in our kickoff post here.
Lloyd Van Meter photographing Nancy Lawrence near Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village, June 1958. / THF625878
What comes to mind when you picture a covered bridge? Many people imagine an idyllic scene, perhaps based on a favorite artist’s depiction or reference from literature or film. Few have difficulty visualizing a “classic” covered bridge. These structures have an appeal that has outlasted their utility, though common understanding of them is often misinformed.
Covered bridges were built across the United States throughout the 19th and into the early 20th centuries for the sole purpose of protecting the structure within. Building a bridge was a major undertaking that required careful planning and a substantial community investment of time, labor, and materials. In the days before weatherproofed lumber, walls and a roof could extend a valuable bridge’s lifespan by shielding the truss system and keeping structural timbers dry.
In spite of their pure functionality, people came up with their own interpretations for covered bridges. Common beliefs emerged that a roof strengthened a bridge or protected the floor planks from rain and snow. Many came to think that covered bridges were built to shelter the people and animals traversing them, and some claimed the barn-like appearance calmed uneasy animals crossing over rushing water. Storytellers showcased covered bridges in tales ranging from the romantic to the mythical. These misunderstandings and cultural references encouraged the association of covered bridges with a “simpler time.”
Thanks to their age, perceived rarity, and admittedly often picturesque settings, covered bridges have increasingly attracted Americans’ attention. In 2005, the Federal Highway Administration reported there were fewer than 900 covered bridges remaining in the United States. (The estimated peak was about 14,000; you can view the full report here.) Many of these were, and are, well-loved and well-protected, with historic preservation groups and covered bridge societies dedicated to their upkeep. America’s surviving covered bridges have become regional treasures and tourist destinations. State and local organizations have featured them in marketing campaigns, erected signage, and developed tours to facilitate sightseeing.
Some states created special maps for covered bridge tourists. Above, “Covered Bridges in Maine,” 1956, and “Covered Bridges in New Hampshire,” 1969. / THF628822, THF628825
Postcards helped people share or remember covered bridges, whether close to home or part of a special trip. These examples depict covered bridges in Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. / THF625864,THF625866,THF625870, and THF625868
Nostalgic imagery of both real and imagined covered bridges continues to adorn everything from souvenirs to home décor. These examples from the collections of The Henry Ford help illustrate the enduring romance of covered bridges. You can browse more and see photographs documenting Greenfield Village’s Ackley Covered Bridgehere.
Christmas card, 1949; "Vermont" snow globe, 1960-1975; and Hallmark "Grandparents" Christmas ornament, 1982. / THF628816, THF189039, and THF179213
Explore a similar fascination with practical structures—those that generate water power—through this expert set.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
When it comes to dining experiences, Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village is one of a kind. The stagecoach tavern was built in 1831 in Clinton, Michigan. Calvin Wood and his wife Harriet operated it from 1849 to 1854, offering food, drink, and accommodations to the locals and those who came through the town. In 1927, Henry Ford purchased the tavern and brought it to Greenfield Village as the Clinton Inn, where it first served as a cafeteria for Edison Institute students and then for visitors. In April 1982, Eagle Tavern officially opened as the restaurant we know today. Forty years later, Eagle Tavern continues to delight members and guests with mid-1800s food and drink.
As we celebrate the beginning of the 2022 Greenfield Village season, Sous Chef Kasey Faraj shares three of his favorite Eagle Tavern recipes for you to try at home.
Photo by Emily Berger
“My absolute favorite thing about the tavern is the overall guest experience,” said Faraj. “There is simply no place like this anywhere in America where we are taking our guests on a journey to the past. Everything from our Calvin and Harriet Wood characters chatting with our guests to the food, to the look of the bill of fare and restaurant, and the servers in period clothing, we all collectively create an experience that is unique, historically accurate, and unmatched by any establishment.”
Faraj found inspiration for his menus from classic mid-1800s era cookbooks, like Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book and The Kentucky Housewife. It was in these wonderful books that he was inspired to create dishes such as our delicious Asparagus Soup, Pork and Potato Balls, and Bouilli Beef.
Eagle Tavern’s Asparagus Soup
½ pound unsalted butter
1 ½ cups yellow onion, medium dice
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
5 pounds asparagus, trimmed
1 ½ cups celery, diced
2 bay leaves
¾ gallon vegetable broth
½ cup cornstarch
1 quart half-and-half
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat a stockpot and melt the butter.
Add the onions and garlic and cook over medium-high heat until onions are translucent.
Add the asparagus, celery, bay leaves, and vegetable broth. Bring to a boil.
Once boiling, turn heat to low and simmer until asparagus is tender.
Add the cornstarch and half-and-half and puree the mixture with a hand blender until smooth. (You can also slowly break down the asparagus with a potato masher.)
Add salt and pepper to your liking.
Adjust the cornstarch if thicker or thinner soup is desired.
Strain if you wish to have a lighter-style soup. Serve with fresh bread or crackers.
“The awesome curators here at The Henry Ford and I collaborate to find these menu items in cookbooks from the past,” said Faraj. “I then take said items and build the menu through both seasonal availability and the story of Harriet and Calvin Wood. It is not as simple as, ‘I found a recipe for a mid-1800s era style corn soup, so we are going to offer that soup.’”
Faraj and team take everything into consideration:
How did season and local availability influence the meals that a tavernkeeper like Harriet Wood might have prepared for her tavern customers?
What foodstuffs could have been imported in southern Michigan in 1850?
What type of meals and desserts might Harriet Wood have had time to prepare over an open hearth in her busy tavern kitchen?
“In-depth research from period American cookbooks found in our research center, and expertise from our curators, help us find our way to these answers,” he said. “The ability to find a recipe from a book written almost two centuries ago, test that recipe, and then place it on a menu (that is seasonally accurate!) is what makes a chef working in historic dining challenging—yet fun!”
Eagle Tavern’s Pork and Potato Balls
3 pounds cooked Idaho potatoes
3 fresh eggs
1 pound cooked pork-sage sausage, crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound unsalted butter
Put cooked potatoes in a large mixing bowl. Using a potato masher, mash the potatoes until there are very few lumps.
In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs.
Add the crumbled sausage, salt, and pepper to the eggs and mix until evenly distributed.
Using a spoon or a small scooper, shape the mix into small balls no larger than a golf ball.
Heat a nonstick pan and melt the butter.
Cook the balls in the butter until browned on all sides and the internal temperature is 165° F. When cooked, sprinkle with additional salt and pepper and serve with extra butter, if desired.
One last recommendation from Chef Faraj: Eagle Tavern’s Bouilli Beef. “This dish is great served with roasted potatoes and mashed parsnips,” he said.
Season the beef with salt and pepper. Heat the vegetable oil in a stockpot on the stove and sear the meat on all sides.
Add the rest of the ingredients except for the soy sauce, mustard, cornstarch, and pickles.
Bring it all to a boil; once boiling, turn the heat down to a low setting and cover. Let cook slowly until the meat is almost fall-apart tender, 2-3 hours. Turn off and leave on stove.
Take half the stock the beef was cooked in and strain. Whisk together the soy sauce, mustard, and strained stock in a small saucepot over medium heat. Add the cornstarch and bring to a slow boil; cook until gravy is slightly thick. Add the cooked beef and plate with the turnips it was cooked with.
Ladle 2-3 ounces of gravy over each piece and top with chopped pickles.
Frank Kulick sitting in a 1910 Ford Model T race car. / THF123278
Frank Kulick (1882–1968) was a lucky man who beat rivals and cheated death on the race track. But his greatest stroke of luck may have been being in the right place at the right time. Born in Michigan, Kulick started his first job—in a Detroit foundry—at age 12. He was listed as a spring maker in the 1900 census. But in 1903 he was working for Northern Manufacturing Company—an automobile company founded by Detroit auto pioneer Charles Brady King.
That’s where Frank Kulick met Henry Ford.
Ford stopped by Northern to borrow a car. Impressed with young Kulick, Ford lured him to his own Ford Motor Company, where Kulick signed on as one of Ford Motor’s first employees. Kulick was there at Lake St. Clair in January 1904 when Henry Ford set a land speed record of 91.37 miles per hour with his “Arrow” racer. Not long after, Ford told Kulick, “I’m going to build you a racing car.” By that fall, Frank Kulick was driving to promote Ford Motor Company on race tracks and in newspapers.
Frank Kulick scored his early victories driving this four-cylinder Ford racer. Its engine consisted of a pair of two-cylinder (1903) Model A engines mated together. / THF95388
Kulick went head-to-head with drivers who became legends in American motorsport—people like Barney Oldfield, whose cigar-chomping bravado set the mold for racing heroics, and Carl Fisher, who established Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909 and the Indianapolis 500 two years later. Kulick firmly established his credentials with an improbable win at Yonkers, New York, in November 1904. Through skillful driving in the corners and a bit of good luck (which is to say, bad luck for his competitors), Kulick’s little 20-horsepower Ford pulled out a win against a 90-horsepower Fiat and a 60-horsepower Renault. Kulick covered a mile in 55 seconds—an impressive racing speed of 65 miles per hour.
Frank Kulick (second from right) and Henry Ford (third from left) were photographed in New Jersey with the Model K racer in 1905. / THF95015
Frank Kulick’s four-cylinder, 20-horsepower car was superseded in 1905 by a larger car with a six-cylinder, 60-horsepower engine. It was one of a series of cars using engines based on the six-cylinder unit that appeared in the Ford Model K. The bigger engine did not bring better results. Henry Ford himself drove one of the cars twice in the summer of 1905, chasing new land speed records on the New Jersey beach. But the car came up short each time.
With Kulick at the wheel, Ford tried again for a record at Ormond Beach, Florida, in January 1906—this time with the six-cylinder engine improved to 100 horsepower. But Kulick had trouble with the soft sand, and he managed no better than 40 miles per hour on the straightaway. (The record was broken at the Ormond Beach event—but by a steam-powered Stanley that hit 127.66 miles per hour.)
The end of the road for Ford’s six-cylinder racers nearly ended Frank Kulick’s career—and his life. It happened in October 1907, on the one-mile oval at the Michigan State Fairgrounds near Detroit. Kulick was trying to lap the dirt track in fewer than 50 seconds—a speed better than 72 miles per hour. His latest car was dubbed “666”—a name that simultaneously called attention to its cylinder count and paid homage to Henry Ford’s earlier “999.” In retrospect, that nefarious name was a bad omen.
Miraculously, Frank Kulick survived this crash in 1907, but it left him with a broken leg and a permanent limp. / THF125717
As Kulick was going through a turn on the fairgrounds oval, his rear wheel collapsed. Car and driver went careening off the track, through the fence, and down a 15-foot embankment. When rescuers arrived, they found Kulick some 40 feet from his wrecked racer. He was alive, but with his right kneecap fractured and his right leg broken in two places. Frank Kulick survived the crash, but his injuries healed slowly and imperfectly. He wore a brace for two years, and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life—his right leg having come out of the ordeal 1 ½ inches shorter than his left leg. The “666” was repaired, but it never competed again.
Henry Ford was horrified by Kulick’s accident, and he very nearly swore his company off racing for good. It wasn’t until 1910 that Kulick competed again under the company’s colors. By then, Ford Motor Company wasn’t building anything but the Model T, so Kulick naturally raced in a series of highly modified T-based cars. Arguably, his first effort in the renewed campaign was more show business than sport. Kulick went to frozen Lake St. Clair, northeast of Detroit, that February to challenge an ice boat. He easily won the match and earned quick headlines for the Model T.
Kulick posed in a Model T racer at the Algonquin Hill Climb, near Chicago, in 1912. / THF140161
Over the next two years, Kulick and his nimble Model T racers crossed the country competing—and frequently winning—road races and hill climbs. Despite Kulick’s success, Henry Ford remained lukewarm on racing. Ford Motor Company built nearly 70,000 cars in 1912 and still struggled to meet customer demand, so it certainly didn’t need the promotion—or problems—that came with an active motorsport program. Kulick later recalled that, after a race at Detroit in September 1912, Henry pulled $1,000 in cash from his pocket and told Frank, “I’ll give you that to quit racing.” Despite the generous offer (almost $30,000 in today’s dollars), Kulick continued a bit longer.
Frank Kulick may have started having second thoughts the next month. While practicing for the Vanderbilt Cup road race in Milwaukee, he grew concerned about the narrow roadway. There wasn’t enough room to pass another car without dipping into a ditch, so Kulick protested and dropped out of the contest. His concerns proved well founded when driver David Bruce-Brown was killed in the next round of practice.
It was the 1913 Indianapolis 500 that finally changed Kulick’s career path. Then in its third running, the Indy 500 was well on its way to becoming the most important race in the American motorsport calendar. Henry Ford was determined to enter Kulick in a modified Model T. But Indy’s rules specified a minimum weight for all entries. The Ford racer weighed in at less than 1,000 pounds—too light to meet the minimum. Indy officials rejected the modified T, and a frustrated Henry Ford reportedly replied, “We’re building race cars, not trucks.” With that, there would be no Ford car in the Indianapolis 500—in fact, there would be no major factory-backed Ford racing efforts for 22 years.
Kulick’s later career involved more genteel assignments, like driving the ten millionth Ford on a coast-to-coast publicity tour in 1924. Here, he takes a back seat to movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. / THF134645
Frank Kulick’s racing days were over, but he remained with Ford Motor Company for another 15 years. His assignments varied from research and development to publicity. In 1924, Kulick was charged with driving the ten millionth Ford Model T on a transcontinental tour from New York to San Francisco. Three years later, Kulick was called on to help celebrate the 15 millionth Model T. This time, rather than driving it across the country, Kulick—as one of Ford Motor Company’s eight senior-most employees—had the honor of helping stamp digits into the engine’s serial number plate. It was perfectly fitting that, as someone who’d done so much to promote the Model T through racing, Kulick was there to make his mark on the ceremonial last T. Kulick left Ford not long after that. He had done well investing in real estate, which afforded him a comfortable retirement.
Frank Kulick passed away in 1968. He survived to see Ford Motor Company achieve its great racing triumphs at Indianapolis and Le Mans during the “Total Performance” era. He also lived long enough to sit for an interview with author Leo Levine, whose 1968 book, Ford: The Dust and the Glory, remains the definitive history of Ford racing in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Levine wrote a whole chapter on Frank Kulick—but then, Frank Kulick wrote a whole chapter in Ford’s racing history.
In 1942, marine engineer Richard James of Philadelphia was working on a sensitive marine meter designed to monitor horsepower on naval battleships. His quest? To develop an inner spring that would assure that the device—even if rocked at sea—would give an accurate reading. As James worked, he accidentally knocked one of the rejected prototypes off his desk. The spring hit the ground—then kept spiraling, coil by coil, over the office floor!
This unexpected response intrigued James, who immediately realized that it would make a great toy. For several years he tested various metals, thicknesses, and proportions to come up with the perfect design. His wife, Betty, came up with the perfect name—Slinky. Then James began to sell his Slinkys in local stores. But people weren’t buying.
Clearly customers needed to be shown what a Slinky could do. Richard and Betty James, determined to find success, convinced the Gimbels department store to let them do an in-store demonstration. James had arranged with a local machine ship to manufacture 400 Slinkys—98 coils of high-grade, blue-black Swedish steel piled 2 ½ inches high. Armed with a small set of stairs, the Jameses set out for Gimbels with their Slinkys. As the department store’s curious customers looked on, the Slinky gracefully moved down the stairs. Within minutes, the entire stock of 400 had sold.
Slinkys look simple—but they are actually quite intricate. The original dark steel was later replaced with a silver-colored steel. And, while Slinkys now come in colored plastic, the classic Slinky has remained virtually unchanged.
There’s something rather lifelike about a Slinky, whether walking down some stairs or a sloped board, or shuffling back and forth between one’s hands. And the sound of a Slinky in motion—quite melodious. I have fond childhood memories of a Slinky gliding coil over coil down our stairs—each move punctuated by that distinctive Slinky “snap”—as my siblings and I looked on mesmerized by its flowing passage. How did it know how to do that?
During World War II, the Japanese invasion of the Far East cut off the United States’ rubber supply—rubber badly needed for the mass production of tires and boots. The War Production Board asked General Electric to develop an inexpensive rubber substitute. Chemical engineer James Wright set to work at the company’s New Haven, Connecticut, lab, experimenting with boric acid and silicone oil. Unexpectedly, the two substances gelled. The result was a gooey compound that bounced when tossed on the floor—even higher than rubber did. It stretched farther and retained its properties over a wide temperature range. And oddly enough, it had the ability to lift text or images off the pages of newspapers and comic books. Quite amazing stuff. But the United States War Production Board rejected it as a rubber substitute. And—despite investigation into other possibilities—one seemingly without a practical use.
Silly Putty became a curiosity that made the rounds of New Haven cocktail parties, where it found itself an amusing “guest.” Ruth Fallgatter, who owned a toy store, and Peter Hodgson, her advertising consultant, took notice. Soon, the putty appeared in the store’s holiday catalog as a novelty gift for adults called Bouncing Putty. There was no image, only a description of the product. You guessed it. Bouncing Putty was a huge hit among Fallgatter’s customers.
Fallgatter lost interest in continuing to market the product, but Hodgson persevered. He purchased a large batch of the putty from General Electric, hired Yale students to separate it into one-ounce portions, then packaged it in multicolored plastic eggs. Since “bouncing” didn’t cover everything this remarkable putty could do, Hodgson called it Silly Putty.
Silly Putty’s reception at the 1950 New York Toy Fair didn’t go too well. Hodgson managed to get only a few accounts. One of these was Doubleday bookshops—and that proved to be enough. Silly Putty soon got its “big break” when a staff writer for The New Yorker discovered it when he stopped in the chain’s Manhattan store, then mentioned Silly Putty in the magazine’s popular “Talk of the Town” column. A few days later, Hodgson had orders for over 250,000 items. Since then, the contents of hundreds of millions of Silly Putty eggs have been bounced and stretched by kids and adults alike.
Oh—that thing about Silly Putty not having a practical purpose? Apparently, it does for some. People have used it to clean typewriter keys or level the legs of wobbly tables. Silly Putty even orbited the moon in 1968 with the Apollo 8 astronauts, helping to keep their tools fastened down in the weightless environment.
Like other kids, I would grab Silly Putty and the Sunday comics, then lift an image from the page. At first, I pulled carefully to distort the image in interesting ways. By the end of pulling, the image was so distorted that it was no longer recognizable—then every trace magically disappeared as I kneaded the putty. (I hear this no longer works, since the printing process for color comics has changed.) But perhaps my favorite Silly Putty-related activity was bouncing it—Silly Putty had an energetic, almost otherworldly bounce. And I can’t recall childhood memories of Silly Putty without thinking of the time my sister took it to bed with her. For years afterwards, a perfectly oval Silly Putty stain graced the sheets.
You’ve heard of starving artist stories. Well, this is one.
In 1951, Harry and Patricia Kislevitz were experimenting with various materials and mediums—preferably of the least expensive sort. A friend who owned a handbag business gave them a large roll of flexible vinyl that he didn’t want. The Kislevitzes discovered that it stuck really well to the semi-gloss paint on their bathroom walls—then proceeded to cut out basic shapes and arrange them artistically. When guests visited, they found vinyl and scissors lying on the bathroom counter, beckoning them to join in. A good time was had by all as everyone added to or rearranged the giant collage!
The Kislevitzes decided to market their idea. They created vinyl pieces in standard geometric shapes and primary colors. Then they packaged them with a sheet of black laminated paperboard. Colorforms caught on! And they soon came in new sets—pieced, die-cut, and screened to look like characters or everyday objects.
A kid could design dinosaurs, dress ballet dancers, or send vinyl superheroes on adventures. Scenes from favorite movies or TV shows like Mary Poppins or Sesame Street were within two-dimensional reach. The possibilities were rich—and less messy, done without scissors, paste, or paint.
My favorite Colorforms in young childhood? A set where you dressed a character for the weather—similar to the Popeye version above.
When a New Jersey nursery schoolteacher happened to mention that the modeling clay used by her students was too firm for their small fingers, her brother-in-law took note. Joe McVicker, who was working for his father’s Cincinnati soap and cleaning products company, thought he might have an answer. In the mid-1950s, McVicker formulated a putty-like non-toxic substance and sold it as a wallpaper cleaner. Not only could it be easily shaped, but this compound also stayed soft indefinitely if stored in a tightly sealed container.
McVicker double-checked to assure that it was safe, then mailed some off to his sister-in-law’s school. Kids loved the putty—and so did the teachers. He knew he was on to something.
McVicker contacted the Cincinnati Board of Education, who bought the product for all the kindergartens and elementary schools in the district. Next, the putty made its debut at an educational convention, where it was noticed by the wife of a buyer for the Woodward & Lothrop department store in Washington, DC. After a successful in-store demo there, major retailers like Macy’s and Marshall Field placed their own orders.
By 1956, this wallpaper-cleaner-turned-kid’s-toy became known as Play-Doh. And the company? The family business transformed from Kutol Chemicals—not very kid-friendly—to Rainbow Crafts.
Play-Doh was originally offered only in white. By its second year on the market, it came in an even softer consistency and three colors: red, yellow, and blue—developed by company chemist Dr. Tien Liu. In the early 1980s, pink, purple, green, and orange made playtime with Play-Doh even more colorful. Day-glo and glitter versions would later follow.
What’s Play-Doh modeling compound made of? Apparently, that formula is a closely guarded secret.
I grew up in the red-yellow-blue era. I loved the way mixing these not-quite-primary colors could create other beautiful Play-Doh hues. The only downside? Once mixed and kneaded, you couldn’t return them back into their primary basics.
Engineers, businesspeople, artists—and NASA scientists. Accidental toy inventions have landed in toy boxes through these “out of the box” thinkers.
NASA rocket scientist? Yes, that would be Lonnie Johnson and his Super Soaker water gun.
Johnson was passionate about inventing not only at his day job as an engineer working with hundreds of colleagues, but also working on his own inventions in his spare time. In 1982, Johnson was in his home workshop developing an environmentally friendly cooling system. To test his idea of using circulating water and air pressure instead of the chemical Freon, Johnson connected a high-pressure nozzle to his bathroom faucet, aimed the nozzle, turned it on, and then blasted a powerful stream of water into the bathtub. He quickly recognized its potential as a toy—a pressurized water gun that didn’t require batteries and was safe enough for kids to play with!
Johnson quickly produced a prototype using Plexiglas, PVC pipe, a two-liter soda bottle, and other materials. Over the next few years, he continued to make improvements. In 1989, Johnson licensed his design for the Super Soaker to Larami. The company launched the toy in 1990.
Kids loved it! Within two years, the Super Soaker generated over $200 million in sales, becoming the top-selling toy in the United States. Improved versions of the Super Soaker debuted have debuted since then—delighting millions of kids and adults, too.
Johnson didn’t just take his royalty money and retire. It was a means to achieving his real goal—establishing his own research company, Johnson Research & Development Co., where Johnson develops innovative technology.
During the filming of a segment on tintype photography in September 2019, the film crew of The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation had their own tintype taken in Greenfield Village. / THF141945
This week, we are happy to celebrate the 200th episode of our television show, The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation! In honor of this milestone, we wanted to share some fun trivia that even our superfans might not know, reveal some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the show, and point viewers to additional resources to allow them to further explore the buildings, artifacts, and stories shared on each and every episode.
When did The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation first air?
Patricia Mooradian, President & CEO of The Henry Ford, first announced the new show on June 4, 2014. The very first episode aired on CBS that fall: September 27, 2014.
What was featured on the very first episode?
The first episode featured a special steering wheel to prevent distracted driving, the ways in which drones are becoming part of our everyday lives, micro windmills, and The Henry Ford’s own Menlo Park Laboratory, where Thomas Edison once worked. Check out the trailer for the first episode below—or watch the whole episode for free (and without an account) on PlutoTV.
"Pulpit Rock on Presque Isle," Lake Superior near Marquette, Michigan, 1898. / THF118818
The border between the United States and Canada runs through four of the five lakes that constitute the world’s largest freshwater system—the Great Lakes. Policy makers on both sides of this fluid border have agreed to protect access and use of these bodies of water and their bays, arms, and inlets for more than 100 years.
View from the Harbor, Petoskey, Michigan, circa 1906. / THF118856
In the Boundary Waters Treaty of May 5, 1909, the United States and Great Britain (speaking for its Dominion of Canada) agreed to ensure free access and shared use of the navigable waterways. This sustained lucrative transportation and trade networks that the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, helped facilitate.
The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 also stressed the shared responsibility for protecting water quality. Specifically, the United States and Great Britain “agreed that the … boundary waters … shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other” (Article IV).
Man Drinking from Flowing Well, Wequetonsing, Michigan, circa 1906. / THF119004
Increased populations, however, created problems that the partners had to solve. The treaty called for a six-person International Joint Commission (IJC) to mediate or investigate issues that arose. When cholera outbreaks increased in 1912, the IJC launched a comprehensive study of the boundary waters. Research conducted over five years confirmed that untreated water polluted with raw sewage carried bacteria that caused cholera and typhoid. Findings affirmed transnational responsibility for protecting public health and drew attention to the need for communities to ensure drinking water purity. You can read the final report from 1918 here. And this work continues, as “The Great Lakes Water Quality Centennial Study – Phase 1 Report” (2021) underscores.
Industrial pollution, especially the release of manufacturing waste into boundary waters, further increased the sense of urgency to maintain Great Lakes water quality.
View from Incline Railway, Duluth, Minnesota, circa 1908. / THF119376
Beautiful postcards, like this illustration of the bridge over the Mackinac Straits, could not compete with the evidence of growing Great Lakes degradation.
Postcard, Mackinac Straits Bridge, circa 1957 / THF144098
Growing public concern over industrial pollution found an outlet in Earth Day, April 22, 1970. That same year, the IJC released a report that stressed the “grave deterioration of water quality” in the Great Lakes, drawing on the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 as precedent for reaffirming the rights and obligations of both parties to not pollute boundary waters.
On April 15, 1972, representatives from Canada and the United States signed the Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality. The two countries pledged to restore and enhance water quality in the Great Lakes. This included general objectives to keep the boundary waters free from substances that result from human activity and that might negatively affect aquatic life or waterfowl, be toxic or harmful to humans, or create a nuisance, including concentrations that could encourage aquatic weeds or algae. The agreement also itemized specific water quality objectives and targets around controlling phosphorus and monitoring vessel design, construction, and operation, as well as vessel waste and other forms of shipping pollution. It specified procedures for handling polluted dredged spoil (the waste material produced by dredging) and discharge of pollutants into boundary waters. You can read this 1972 agreement here.
April 15, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of this transnational agreement to protect the Great Lakes ecosystem. The IJC continues to function as established in the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. You can read more about how the IJC links the ongoing transnational work to your life here.
Mission Point and Arnold Dock, Mackinac Island, Michigan, circa 1905. / THF114337
And if you find yourself in the boundary waters, recognize the long-term investment in Great Lakes environmental sustainability that helps protect those waters today.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Walt Disney spent years imagining his ground-breaking entertainment venue, Disneyland, before it opened in 1955. Disney found inspiration for this remarkable theme park from many people and places.
Walt Disney (1901–1966) spent his most memorable childhood years in Marceline, Missouri, leaving him with a great fondness for small town America. Disney's early passion for cartoon drawing and humor blossomed in 1928 with his first major success, the Mickey Mouse animated cartoon character. By the 1930s, Disney headed a thriving motion picture studio making animated cartoons and live action movies. He explained his interest in developing a theme park to his biographer, Bob Thomas:
“It all started when my daughters were very young, and I took them to amusement parks on Sunday. I sat on a bench eating peanuts and looking around me. I said to myself, why can't there be a better place to take your children, where you can have fun together? Well, it took me about fifteen years to develop the idea.”
While on business trips and family vacations, Disney visited not only amusement parks, but also fairs, expositions, tourist attractions, and zoos to further his vision of creating an extraordinary family leisure experience. One of these places was Greenfield Village, which Walt Disney visited several times during the 1940s.
Walt Disney Posing in the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1940 / THF109756
Walt Disney paid his first visit to Greenfield Village on April 12, 1940. William B. Stout, an industrial designer best known for the Ford Tri-Motor airplane and the aerodynamic Scarab car, served as Disney's escort as he toured Henry Ford's historical village and museum. The Greenfield Village Journal, a daily administrative report, described Disney’s visit that day:
“Walt Disney, creator of the world-famous movie character, Mickey Mouse, visited the Village and Museum today. He showed great interest in everything mechanical, examining engines and old autos closely. He had a good time with Mr. Tremear while posing for a tin-type. In the Museum Theater he spoke for a few moments to the school children. He was accompanied by Mrs. Disney, and by Ben Sharpsteen, his chief animator. Wm B. Stout was his host.”
Walt Disney Shows Harriet Bennett How to Draw Mickey Mouse during a Visit to Henry Ford Museum, April 12, 1940 / THF118884
During Disney's tour, he stopped at the Tintype Studio to pose for photographer Charles Tremear, autographing one of his tintypes for display there. Disney also spent a few minutes talking with students from the Greenfield Village Schools, who had gathered in the museum's theater to greet him. (Henry Ford established a school system in his museum and village complex several years before his historical enterprise was formally opened to the public in 1933.) Ford Motor Company photographer George Ebling—who was often asked to take personal photographs for Henry Ford—captured images of Disney's delightful visit with the students.
On August 20, 1943, Disney again visited Henry Ford Museum. He; his wife, Lillian; and their daughter, Diane, posed for photographs with examples of some of the historical modes of transportation displayed there. Disney’s joyful, childlike expression embodies the experience he hoped to create for families visiting what would come to be Disneyland.
Walt Disney came back to Greenfield Village five years later, on August 23, 1948. Disney and one of his animators, Ward Kimball—who shared Disney's longtime fascination with railroads—had traveled to Chicago to attend the Railroad Fair. They decided to take a side trip to Greenfield Village. During the visit to Greenfield Village, Disney once again made a stop at the Tintype Studio, where he and Kimball were photographed by tintypist Charles Tremear.
Walt Disney and Ward Kimball Posing in the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1948 / THF109757
By the late 1940s, Disney's ideas for a themed entertainment park had progressed substantially. On the train ride back to California, he shared his ideas with Kimball, then summarized them in a memo dated August 31, 1948. An excerpt of this memo seems to echo aspects of Greenfield Village: “The Main Village, which includes the Railroad Station, is built around a village green or informal park … Around the park will be built the town. At one end will be the Railroad Station; at the other end, the Town Hall…”
When Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955, it quickly captured the public’s imagination. In his innovative theme park, Walt Disney drew inspiration from his many interests and experiences to create an entirely new kind of family entertainment. To learn more, check out this blog post!
This post by Cynthia Read Miller, former Curator of Photography and Prints at The Henry Ford, originally ran in September 2005 as part of our Pic of the Month series. It was reformatted for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Panoramic view of the reconstructed vegetable shed from Detroit Central Market on April 10, 2022. The entrance that originally faced south is front and center in this view. / Compiled from two photographs taken by Debra A. Reid
The vegetable shed from Detroit Central Market, opening this week in Greenfield Village, provides the perfect opportunity to be a building detective! You can practice your powers of observation as you explore this open-sided structure. In the process, you can become a more informed observer of the built environment around you.
The following highlights should whet your appetite to learn more about this “shed.” Originally, it sheltered vendors who helped feed hungry Detroiters for more than 30 years, from April 1861 to February 1894. Then it spent 110 years on the upper end of Belle Isle sheltering horses, operating as a public riding stable, and as a storage facility for the City of Detroit. The Henry Ford acquired it in 2003, saving it from demolition. Then, between 2003 and 2021, we conducted research and raised funds to reconstruct it in Greenfield Village. Now you can explore the reconstructed Detroit Central Market shed starting its new life in the heart of Greenfield Village.
Is This Building a Reconstruction?
Rudy Christian, a traditional timber-frame expert and principal of Christian & Son, Inc., describes the Detroit Central Market shed as a reconstruction. He bases this on his experiences dismantling the structure in 2003, advocating for use of original materials and prepping the timber-frame elements, and reassembling the roof system during reconstruction in Greenfield Village during 2021.
The Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) first defined “reconstruction” in 1978 as “the act or process of reproducing by new construction the exact form and detail of a vanished building, structure, or object, or a part thereof, as it appeared at a specific period of time” (Federal Register, Vol. 43, No. 236, December 7, 1978, page 57251). You can read more about the DOI’s standards for the treatment of historic buildings and landscapes here, including more about reconstruction and the other three standards: preservation (when the property retains distinctive materials and thus conveys historic significance without extensive repair or replacement), restoration (removal of features to return a property to an appearance of a particular time in the past), and rehabilitation (retention of a property’s historic character, but modifications may occur given ongoing use).
What Percentage of the Building Is Original?
The Detroit Central Market vegetable shed, while “new construction,” is authentic because of the significant percentage of original material incorporated into the reconstruction. Fifty percent of the columns (16 of 32) are original. The 16 originals are distinctive because of acanthus-leaf details on the bases, a spiral design, and capitals onto which cast S-scroll leaf ornaments are mounted.
Architectural S-scroll leaf ornament from the Detroit Central Market, 1860. / THF177806
These original cast-iron columns, however, are brittle. It is impossible to calculate their tensile strength—that is, the maximum stress that the cast iron can stand when being stretched or pulled before breaking. Modern code requires structural materials to meet tensile-strength specifications. This posed a significant challenge.
How Can We Meet Modern Building Codes with an Historic Structure?
The facilities team at The Henry Ford contracted with O’Neal Construction, Inc., of Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the reconstruction of the Detroit Central Market building. They were involved in all phases of the planning process and oversaw reconstruction from 2021 to its completion. The team considered different options to support the building, but ultimately selected an innovative solution that exceeds code requirements. In effect, the solution involved flipping the structural support upside down.
Ensuring guest safety required construction of an underground “moment frame” that anchors the structure and prevents it from acting like a huge umbrella on a windy day. The above screenshot shows the system of rebar that runs between the 48-inch-deep footers. The footers extend up to octagonal bases, or piers. These footers also accommodate modern infrastructure—specifically, electrical conduit that runs underground and up into the piers. All 32 columns are attached to the individual piers with anchor bolts, but 16 of the 32 columns are steel and specially designed extensions of the moment frame. As a whole, the moment frame ensures that the structure will remain on the ground and standing in perpetuity.
The entrance that originally faced north on April 10, 2022, now behind Hanks Silk Mill in Greenfield Village. There are original columns at both sides of the side-entrance gable, but rows of specially designed columns, integral to the moment frame, visible to both the left and right of this side-entrance. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
The 16 new columns are distinctive from the originals in several ways. They are smooth, not spiral. They have fluted gussets (brackets) at the top, instead of capitals. Finally, they are larger in diameter than the originals. These distinctions make clear which columns are original and which are not, to inform guests of the innovation required to ensure their safety.
How Does the New Footprint Compare to the Original?
What was originally the west entrance, now facing State Street in Greenfield Village, on April 10, 2022, with original columns as well as additional columns installed in two rows in front of the structure. This gives guests a better impression of the original building footprint, though an additional eight columns would be required to mimic the full original size of 11 bays and 242 feet in length. /Photograph by Debra A. Reid
The reconstructed vegetable shed is 7/11ths as long as the original. Why 7/11ths? The original structure was three bays wide by eleven bays long. A bay is the space between architectural elements. You can see the eleven bays visible on the south side of the structure in the detail below from a late-1880s photograph—five bays from the east-facing entrance to the south-facing entrance, with that entrance bay being the sixth bay, and then five bays beyond it to the west-facing entrance (less easy to see given the perspective). The Central Market building towers in the distance.
Detail of the vegetable shed from the Detroit Central Market, circa 1888. / THF200604
The reconstructed Detroit Central Market vegetable shed in Greenfield Village includes only seven of the eleven original lengthwise bays—three on each side of the side-entrance bay. Thus, the reconstruction is 7/11ths the length of the original. Jim McCabe, former collections manager and buildings curator at The Henry Ford, deserves credit for this specification, as he spent nearly two decades working on the project between 2003 and 2022.
The reconstruction is true to the width of the original, three bays total—one on each side of the central entrance, which is also a bay. You can see these bays most clearly in this July 6, 2021, photograph below, showing columns in place and the roof structure in process.
Detroit Central Market reconstruction in process on July 6, 2021, showing the three-bay width and the seven-bay length. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
How Much of the Timber-Frame Roof Is Original?
The timber-framing system is clearly visible inside the structure. Just walk in and look up! Approximately 80% of the original old-growth white pine was reused in the reconstruction. This resulted from careful detective work during the quick dismantling process.
The Henry Ford contracted with Christian & Son, Inc., to number and measure the original structural and decorative woodwork elements, photograph them, and prep the material for storage. Then we contracted with Jeff DuPilka and West Shore Services, Inc., to disassemble the structure. West Shore, Christian & Son, and staff from The Henry Ford accomplished this in 10 to 12 weeks during the summer of 2003.
Woodwork in one of four outside corners, original to the vegetable shed at Detroit Central Market and still intact after it served as the riding stable at Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan (photographed in 2003). / THF113493
Christian & Son, Inc., documented all original wooden elements, including those in the section of the building that was fire-damaged due to a car wreck (visible in the photograph below). They believed that documenting the whole required documentation of all parts, so they took as much care tagging, measuring, and dismantling this burned section as they did with the other sections. In fact, timbers from the charred section were reused in the reconstruction and are visible on the exterior of the originally east-facing entrance (the entrance now facing the Detroit Toledo & Milwaukee Roundhouse in Greenfield Village).
West Shore Services, Inc., crane in action, removing a piece of the original timber-frame roof system from the former riding stable (and originally the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed) on Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, 2003. / THF113575
What Are Some Notable Details?
The reconstruction of the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed in Greenfield Village includes ornamental woodwork throughout. The following rendering by architecture firm Quinn Evans itemizes seven distinctive brackets, each designed for a specific location in the building, and one “drop,” an accessory at all four gable entrances and used with the decorative fascia along the eaves.
Decorative wood details of the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed, prepared by Quinn Evans, Ann Arbor, Michigan, for The Henry Ford. / Courtesy of The Henry Ford’s facilities team
These decorative elements were all hand-carved during the original construction in 1860. Not all of the decorative elements survived the move to Belle Isle. The elaborate crests atop each of the four gable entrances on the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed, for example, were not included when it served as the horse shed on Belle Isle, as the illustration of it in Seventy Glimpses of Detroit indicates. Missing pieces were replicated to complete the structure’s appearance during its heyday as a public market.
Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village & Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford, starting to inventory architectural elements from the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed not used in the reconstruction, February 8, 2022. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
What Style Is the Building?
Each of the ornamental elements was part of a stylistic whole that the reconstruction faithfully conveys. If it reminds you of a Swiss chalet, you have an astute eye for style. John Schaffer, the architect, trained in Munich, Bavaria, and incorporated Schweizerstil (Swiss-chalet style) details into his plans, drafted in 1860. Thus, this structure likely introduced that aesthetic to Detroiters. His plans included gently sloping gabled roofs with wide eaves, large brackets, and decorative fretwork, all details common to Swiss-style architecture. Additional Swiss features included sawtooth siding, scroll-sawn fascia, and the elliptical design of the siding at each gable-end.
The Detroit Central Market vegetable shed has so much to teach. Learning to read the details of this addition to Greenfield Village is an important first step on the journey. Learn even more by checking out additional blog posts and artifacts related to Detroit Central Market.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Comments from Rachel Yerke, Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford, improved this post.
Unknown artist, “Lady in a Lace Bonnet,” located in Robert Frost Home in Greenfield Village, before conservation. / Photo by Marlene Gray
The same painting, after conservation. / Photo by Marlene Gray
It is that time again, as Greenfield Village opens this week for another exciting season! While you were away, staff at The Henry Ford have been busily cleaning and repairing objects throughout the village buildings. During the winter months, conservation staff move artifacts in need of repair back to our labs for a bit of TLC. Some of these objects are on full display while others hardly ever get the spotlight. One of the latter objects is a painting rarely seen by visitors.
View of Robert Frost Home with the parlor on the right. / THF1883
Within the Porches and Parlors district of Greenfield Village is the home of American poet Robert Frost. Originally located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the house was moved to the village by Henry Ford in the 1930s. As you enter the house, a parlor is on the immediate right. If you look inside on the left, you will see a frame on the wall. There hangs a portrait of a woman, “Lady in a Lace Bonnet.” During routine maintenance, our dedicated clean team noticed the painting had some paint losses, which you typically find with old paintings. The paint losses at the top and bottom of the painting were the most obvious. These types of losses can occur when the painting is roughly handled during framing.
Image courtesy of clean team member Teresa McCloud, who noted the damage.
Conservation staff then brought the artwork to the lab to give this hidden painting some much needed attention. Once the painting was removed from the frame, the next step was a good cleaning. Paintings trap abrasive dust and debris, both on the canvas behind and the painted surface. After vacuuming to remove the larger debris, a very mild cleaning agent was used to remove the surface grime collected over the years. What a drastic change that made!
Grime cleaning, with right side cleaned. / Photo by Marlene Gray
Still, the portrait had a yellow tint, visible in the sitter’s face, which is a tell-tale sign of an aged varnish. Various solvents were tested to see what worked best at removing the old varnish, and we selected one that did not cause harm to the paint surface. After the varnish was removed, the portrait looked much brighter and fresher.
Varnish removal, with left side cleaned. / Photo by Marlene Gray
Once our lady was cleaned, it was time to tackle the paint losses. Color-matching the surrounding paint is tricky and takes patience to get right, but when we do, it is so rewarding to see the complete image. Last but certainly not least, a new coat of varnish with stabilizers that resist the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation was added to protect the painting from light from the window on the other side of the parlor.
After securing the painting back inside the frame (being sure not to scratch the surface), we whisked it back to Frost home, tucked into its “hidden” spot. Now you know what hangs on the wall, and you may even be able to get a little peek from outside the parlor window on your next visit. The lady will be happy to show off her fresh appearance!
“Lady in a Lace Bonnet” returned home. / Photo by Marlene Gray