Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Those of us who work at The Henry Ford often remark that our collections are so vast that we surely must have something relevant to almost every topic. For example, while we might not be the first place that would jump to your mind for the topic of tattooing, we’ve just digitized a couple dozen tattoo flash, sketches, stencils, and related materials, some of it with Detroit area connections. This sheet of stencils, dating between 1910-1950, displays a variety of tattoo designs. Watch for an upcoming post about this material by Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communication & Information Technology, elsewhere on our blog, but in the meantime, you can view this material in our digital collections.

Spring means many things to many people: an end to cabin fever, swapping the snow blower for the lawn mower, or getting the car out of winter storage and ready for the summer cruising season. For car museum folks, though, spring means the annual conference of the National Association of Automobile Museums. This year’s meeting, hosted by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California, was particularly special. For the first time in many years, it was a joint conference with the World Forum for Motor Museums.

NAAM conferences traditionally provide three important opportunities. First, there is the chance to network with auto museum colleagues from around the country (or, this year, the globe). You find that many of us share the same joys – the thrill of sharing our collections with the public, the fun in working with incredible automobiles – and the same challenges, like the long-term preservation of complex machines, or writing informative but engaging label text with a limit of 60-odd words.

Second, and central to the NAAM conference, is the chance to hear presentations from curators, archivists, conservators and administrators from the car museum world. Standout sessions this year included a talk on the peculiarities of corporate car collections and museums; strategies for dealing with the media (this session included comments from Wendell Strode of the National Corvette Museum, who worked masterfully with the press during that museum’s recent sinkhole crisis); and ideas on incorporating “visible storage” into your museum’s plan, in which visitors are able to view cars “behind the scenes” as a part of special tours. I should note that Robert Coyle, our Conservation Specialist for Automobiles, Gary Martin, of Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, and I spoke together about our project to conserve the 1967 Le Mans-winning Ford Mark IV.

Finally, NAAM brings the chance for special tours of public and private collections near the host institution. This year’s itinerary did not disappoint. Attendees were treated to tours of the Mullin Automotive Museum, the Toyota USA Automobile Museum, the Nethercutt Collection, and the Pasadena-based Art Center College of Design. It should be no surprise that Southern California, nexus of American car culture, is home to so many incredible automobile and auto-related collections.

A familiar, three-eyed face. Tucker #40 at the Nethercutt Collection.

There is one additional NAAM highlight: the annual NAAMY awards! These prizes, given at each conference, honor the best in publications, exhibits, programs and events at nonprofit automotive museums. I’m pleased to report that our new book, Driving America: The Henry Ford Automotive Collection, took first place in our division for books and exhibit catalogs. Accolades are always special, but particularly so when they come from your colleagues in the field. With the 2014 meeting barely over, I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford

In February I took my first visit to the Pottery to learn about the studio challenge our potters were given at the beginning of the year. It’s been a few busy weeks for the team as they work on both their challenge pieces and get ready for the opening of Greenfield Village on April 15.

It should come as no surprise that the pieces are all looking fantastic and completely different from one another, as they should be. Vessels now look like teapots, hand-crafted stamps have been busy stamping and over-the-top sculptures continue to be developed. For anyone who enjoys art and design, it’s a welcomed sight.


Taking my tour through the shop I visited Alex’s station first. He’s experimenting with some special stains for his collection. These pieces are covered in wax and when fired the wax burns away to reveal the true colors. Like the other potters, Alex isn’t worried about uniformity this time around.

“It’s been really interesting to work outside my comfort zone,” he said. “This is a learning process, but I’m feeling really optimistic about it.”


Melinda Mercer has been focusing on incorporating bold patterns and textures to her pieces, which is a new creative direction for her work. She’s also been focusing part of her project on hand building, a technique that’s a bit different for her.


To create her patterns and textures, Melinda decided to make her own custom stamps. To achieve the look she was going for she hand carved the designs into porcelain and then fired them in a kiln to make them permanent.


John Ahearn has added a few additional pieces to his artistic roundup of work for the challenge since I saw him last. While his pieces aren’t meant to be functional, he did create a cake stand that you can’t help but imagine holding a delicious, huge cake in the coming weeks.


“This project, in whole, has made me realize the power of art,” John said. “Doing something over and over is how we show guests what the production techniques from the past were. But the power of art is more than just production work. Now I understand what potters during this movement were doing at the time. They were being different on purpose.”


As the team agrees across the board, it’s been a lot of fun to see how their individual projects have been developing; and that includes being very different in size, scale and approach, which is the complete opposite direction of their daily production work and responsibilities. While initial sketches helped define the origins of each of their pieces, they haven’t kept themselves too married to those original ideas as the project takes shape.

“These pieces allow our personalities to come through,” Melinda said.

John agreed.

“These pieces really reflect who we are as people. Our styles have really influences our interpretations of the challenge.”

Check back soon for a final update from the team as they show off their finished pieces.

Lish Dorset is social media manager at The Henry Ford.

Greenfield Village

Longer days make us think of spring. And spring makes us think of…laundry. Laundry? (Well, along with things like trees leafing out in a delicate green and daffodils blooming.) Yes, laundry gently hanging to dry in the warm breeze.

Before the automatic clothes dryer became common in American homes in the years following World War II, housewives hung their laundry out to dry—either indoors or outdoors, depending on the weather. Clotheslines stretched across farmyards, out the windows of tall, closely-built apartment buildings in the city, or in suburban backyards or basements. What kept the clothes, sheets, towels from leaving the clothesline and taking flight in the breeze? Clothespins.

In the 1950s, though many households had an automatic washing machine, some might not yet have owned an automatic dryer. Housewives still hung their wet laundry to dry on clotheslines stretched across basements or backyards, as weather permitted. “Sunny Days” were best for hanging laundry outside: clothing and household linens acquired a fresh, outdoorsy scent that automatic dryers—though more convenient—couldn’t duplicate.

Munising Clothespins from The Henry Ford

Munising “Sunny Day” Clothespins, 1953-1955 (Object ID 2012.88.380).

Child’s play has often involved learning grownup roles. In an era when most girls anticipated futures as housewives, toys for girls included miniatures of mother’s work. Appropriately sized for little hands and doll clothing, colorful toy clothespins like these gave little girls a chance to practice hanging out the laundry.

My Dolly's Pins

“My Doll” Toy Clothespins, 1958-1962 (Object ID 2012.88.384).

These Klose Klip brand clothespins promised “no tearing, no soiling, no freezing to line.” No freezing? Before automatic clothes dryers became common, many housewives hung their wet laundry on a clothesline outdoors—even in cold weather. Suspended from a metal clip, Klose Klip clothespins assured that clean laundry wouldn’t be soiled by contact with any dirt found on a cotton clothesline that hung continually outdoors.

Klose Klips

“Klose Klips” Clothespins, 1930-1940 (Object ID 2012.88.401).

Before automatic clothes dryers came on the market after World War II, housewives hung their wet laundry to dry on clotheslines stretched across basements or backyards. Whether lightweight hosiery or heavy blankets, these Sure Grip clothespins promised to keep clean clothes and household linens from falling to the ground—and perhaps having to be washed all over again.

Sure Grip

“Sure Grip” Clothespins, ca. 1945 (Object ID 2012.88.405).

Now it is considered “green” to hang laundry outdoors, avoiding wasting energy by drying clothes in an automatic dryer. And the warm sun provides a fresh, clean smell that is unbeatable—along with a little spring pollen.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

The collections of The Henry Ford include many artifacts related to famous innovators and revolutionary inventions, but we also include humbler artifacts that tell the story of day-to-day life in America. With the Easter holiday approaching, we’ve just digitized a number of related items, as selected by Cynthia R. Miller, Curator of Photographs and Prints. Her choices include this 1973 photograph of young boys wearing bunny ears, as well as additional photographs, greeting cards and postcards, advertisements, and other items. View all of this newly digitized material by visiting our digital collections.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford.

Can a car built in a vegetable stand be a national treasure? It can if it is packed with ingenious engineering ideas, set a world speed record, and embodies important national characteristics.

The long, low, slim car called Goldenrod is all these things, and is a national treasure.

Goldenrod was built by a pair of California hot rodders, brothers Bill and Bob Summers. For years they participated in the annual Speed Weeks competition at Utah’s vast Bonneville Salt Flats, where they went as fast as 323 miles per hour in a car they built themselves. In 1963 they decided to go after the absolute land speed record of 394.196 mph, set by John Cobb in 1947. Cobb was one of a succession of wealthy Englishmen who had held the record over the years, driving well-financed cars powered by huge airplane engines.

Before Bob and Bill could get started, another Englishman, Donald Campbell, broke Cobb’s record with a speed of 403.10 mph. In 1964 and 1965 other American hot rodders used cars powered by jet aircraft engines to push the record to over 600 mph. But many people, like the Summers brothers, thought using jet engines wasn’t quite fair—they believed that real cars were driven by friction between tires and the ground. So no jet engines for Bob and Bill.

The Summers brothers believed that the key to a successful car was minimizing the resistance of air flowing over the moving car--and that the best way to do this was to make the car as small as possible. To put it simply: it is easier to punch a small hole through the air than a large hole. After testing models in a California Institute of Technology wind tunnel, they designed a car lower and narrower than any land speed record contender in history—48 inches wide, 42 inches high at the top of the tail fin, and only 28 inches high at the engine covers. Into this slim space they packed a quartet of 426 cubic inch Chrysler “hemi” V8 engines and the machinery necessary to power all four wheels. At the extreme rear sat the driver, Bob Summers. It was an amazing feat of engineering, and was so logical and successful that it set the paradigm for future Bonneville streamliner racers. Over 40 years later, long and slim is still the way these cars are built.

Financing Goldenrod was as big a challenge as actually building it. As land speed record cars go, Goldenrod was an economy car. Its $250,000 cost was well below the $3,000,000 Donald Campbell needed to build the car whose record Goldenrod broke. But $250,000 was far more than the Summers brothers had. So they beat the bushes searching for companies who would help pay the costs in exchange for having their corporate name on the car. The turning point came when George Hurst, maker of specialty gear shifting mechanisms and forged wheels, agreed to be a sponsor. Firestone Tire & Rubber then signed on to make the special low profile tires and wheels needed to fit inside the narrow envelope of the body. Chrysler Corporation agreed to loan the brothers four “hemi” engines, while Mobil Oil provided fuel and funding.

Construction on Goldenrod began in January 1965 in a shop that had once been a vegetable stand. By August the machine was done, and in September the brothers were at Bonneville working out the bugs that were inevitable in a car this innovative and complex. After two months of testing and modification all was ready. On November 12, Bob Summers blasted down the Bonneville salt with a run of 417 mph. International rules required two runs, in opposite directions, within one hour. After the car was thoroughly inspected, he set off on his return run with only five minutes to spare. His second run was good enough for a two-way average of 409.277 mph.

The brothers had their record. It would stand for over 25 years.

making, race car drivers, race cars, cars, Henry Ford Museum, racing, Driven to Win

In the 1860s and 1870s, supporters of certain political figures used pleated paper lanterns, lit with candles, during rallies and parades to demonstrate their enthusiasm for their candidate. As one might expect, the delicate paper was often destroyed—or accidentally set ablaze. The Henry Ford has just finished conservation and digitization of a dozen political lanterns from our collections, including this one indicating support for James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. View all of the restored political lanterns in our digital collections.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford.

Goodbye winter, hello spring!

As spring officially begins today, Michiganders breathe a collective sigh of relief. For those who have experienced it, the winter of 2014 has been memorable; this is especially true for the Firestone and William Ford Barn staff who braved polar vortexes and many feet of snow to ensure our animals had the shelter, food, water, vet care, and stimulation they needed.


Horses at Greenfield VillageThroughout the winter months, we still had vet appointments, our farrier still changed horseshoes, we still taught horses new skills (when conditions were safe for humans and horses alike), and we still moved tons of hay and grain. Carrying several 50-pound hay bales is quite a task; doing the same through drifting snow and arctic winds is heroic! The folks who do this day-in and day-out do not see themselves as heroes, however. They have a deep dedication to the animals that make Greenfield Village home. This is inspiration enough to do whatever is required—and more!

As the days get longer, the sun stronger, and birdsong louder, we think about spring and our spirits are lifted. On the farm, spring means new life: blossoms, pasture grasses, oats, wheat… and lambs! As we prepare for our new arrivals (which should begin around the same time Greenfield Village opens for our guests), staff are busy preparing lambing jugs—small, private pens wherein lambs and mothers can bond, shearing pregnant ewes so that they are more comfortable and hygienic for birthing, and undergoing yearly special training that prepares everyone for the challenges and excitement that comes with lambing.

Despite the threat of more snow and cold temperatures, we know both spring and lambs are on the way… and we are eager to share both with our guests when Greenfield Village opens on April 15th! See you then.

Ryan Spencer is former Senior Manager of Venue Interpretation and Firestone Farm at The Henry Ford. He encourages all to think spring!

agriculture, farming, by Ryan Spencer, farm animals, Greenfield Village

In May 1937, an event took place that would become a touchpoint and rallying cry in the history of labor organization: the Battle of the Overpass. Numerous United Auto Workers organizers, including Walter Reuther and Richard T. Frankensteen, arrived at the Ford Motor Company Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, shortly before shift change, intending to hand out flyers to plant workers. Instead, the organizers were attacked by Ford employees. We have just digitized a number of photographs documenting those events, including this one showing union representative Robert Sentman being chased by Ford Service Department men. View photos from our digital collections about the Battle of the Overpass, or learn more about the day’s events and aftermath on our website and via the Walter P. Reuther Library.

In early February, the Conservation Deptartment did its yearly inspection of the Dymaxion House with the assistance of Historic Operating Machinery Specialist Tim Brewer. As you’ll recall, it is truly a “tension” structure; the “cage” actually hangs the house off of the central mast. Every year we compare measurements of the cage rings to see what might be out of alignment. We also measure the tension on critical cables and adjust them as necessary.

I am pleased to report that our repairs from two years ago are holding up well. We learned from our engineering study last year that the expected longevity of the repaired beams is excellent. We continue to monitor for any new cracks both visually and with permanently installed wire gauges.

Things went so well with the regular inspection that we were able to make a few improvements.

We installed our prototype version of the “neoprene gutter”. This is the sheet-rubber trough located above the windows inside the house. It was supposed to collect water that would trickle down from the u-shaped “carlins” supporting the roof and carry it to a tank under the house via the black downspout near the back kitchen door.

Museum Presenter Simon Mused shows the black neoprene gutter inside the Dymaxion House.

lightswitchDuring our original restoration of the house back in 2000, we decided not to attempt the gutter. Although we found various design plans by Buckminster Fuller’s engineers, we had no proof that they were successful. It was probably one of the “unfinished details” that Bucky was doggedly trying to solve and that eventually helped to scuttle the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine company back in 1946. Yet without that internal gutter, the rain-collection function of the carlins (the U-shaped roof supports) was difficult to interpret. We're happy with our new mock-up gutter.

The new light-color-changing switch located under the “ovolving shelves” is working well, too. The color of the light can be changed. This was a feature that Buckminster Fuller wrote about while he was designing the house.

Clara Deck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford. Clara was part of the original team that restored the Dymaxion House at Henry Ford Museum and is still caring for it 13 years after it opened to the public.