Igor Sikorsky Landing the VS-300 Helicopter before Presenting it to Henry Ford Museum, October 7, 1943. THF118083
This year, Henry Ford’s museum and village complex – now known as The Henry Ford – celebrates its 90th anniversary. Throughout 2019, we’ll be reflecting decade-by-decade on significant additions to the collection he began, with a focus on our institution's evolving collecting philosophies. This post covers our history and acquisitions during the 1940s.
Edison Institute Schools Students in Class, Giddings Family Home, Greenfield Village, September 1944. THF126142
While the collection did continue to grow, the 1940s were quieter years for the museum and village. As World War II tooled up, activities and personnel were cut back, not as many visitors attended, and the Edison Institute school system, which peaked in 1940 with 300 students enrolled, was reduced in size.
Henry Ford and Former Colleagues at the Edison Illuminating Company Building Dedication, Greenfield Village, November 8, 1944. THF244447
Henry Ford added few new buildings to Greenfield Village, but he rounded out the representation of his personal history with replicas of the one-room Miller School he had attended, the Edison Illuminating Company power plant in Detroit where he had worked, and Ford Motor Company's Mack Avenue Automobile Plant (these last two at reduced scale). In 1944, Ford moved his childhood home – which he had painstakingly preserved on the family farm 25 years before – to Greenfield Village, assuring that it would be cared for after he was gone.
Henry Ford and Edsel Ford Visiting the Rouge Plant Tool and Die Shop Construction Site, June 16, 1938. THF116315
In 1943, Henry and Clara Ford’s only son, Edsel, who was an able and enthusiastic supporter of the museum and the arts in general, died of stomach cancer at the age of 49. Two years later, Henry suffered a severe stroke. On April 7, 1947 at the age of 83, Henry died at Fair Lane, his Dearborn home, with Clara by his side.
The passing of the Edison Institute’s founder begged the question “what next?” for the institution. Henry’s vision had been the driving force behind his creation. Who would drive that vision now?
Additions to the Collections: 1940s
Writing Slate, 1880-1910 As word spread of Henry Ford’s historical endeavors, people offered him objects that they themselves had gathered. In 1941, Ethel G. Douglas sent Ford over 2,500 objects “collected in several years travel.” Many of these - toys, games, clothing, dolls, and books - related to childhood, including this slate. Millions of kids used slates like this one in 19th century one-room schools. Henry Ford was one. For him, the slate might evoke personal memories, but also appreciation for traditional teaching methods these rural schools represented - and that he incorporated into his private Greenfield Village school system. Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life
Centripetal Spring Chair from a Pullman Train Car, 1860-1880 This is the first attempt at a mass-produced, comfortable chair. It is supported by a series of springs which provides resilience, meaning that it "gives" with the weight of the sitter. When it was patented, this was a revolutionary achievement. This was the second in a series of centripetal designs by Thomas E. Warren of Troy, New York. Dating to 1852, this version was intended to smoothen out the inevitable bumps for passengers riding in a railroad car. Donated by the Michigan Central Railroad in 1941, the revolutionary nature of the technology was yet to be recognized by scholars. Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts
1939 Sikorsky VS-300A Helicopter The Henry Ford's collecting efforts have never been confined only to faraway history. Contemporary collecting - of artifacts from the recent past or present day - has always been core to the institution's work. Henry Ford eagerly accepted Igor Sikorsky's VS-300A helicopter in 1943 - a mere four years after its first test flight. Like Sikorsky, Ford understood the helicopter's enormous potential. The gift was initiated by a mutual friend of Ford's and Sikorsky's who also recognized an aviation innovation when he saw one: Charles Lindbergh. Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation
Folding Portable Spinning Wheel Used by Mahatma M. K. Gandhi Henry Ford was an admirer of Gandhi's selfless life, self-reliant ideals and nonviolent principles. In July 1941, Henry Ford wrote a short note to Gandhi praising the "lofty work" of the Indian leader. Gandhi returned the compliment and sent a spinning wheel, or charkha, that he had used. Gandhi used the charkha as a symbol in India's struggle for independence and economic self-sufficiency. Andy Stupperich, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Sampler Made for Henry Ford, 1943 Henry Ford received hundreds of gifts from admirers all around the world. Many of these gifts were made intricately and carefully by hand, like this embroidery sampler crafted by Ms. Ellen E. Merrow of Eagle Springs, North Carolina. The embroidered verse is a cautionary message that still feels relevant today – more than 75 years later. Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Shards Found at Henry Ford's Birthplace, Dearborn, Michigan, 1860-1919 Henry Ford began his first restoration project in 1919 after a road extension required the moving of his dilapidated childhood home. Over the next few years, Ford meticulously refurnished the home to how it looked in 1876, the year his mother died. While employees combed the countryside for antiques, others excavated the original site for ceramic shards like this for reproduction. Even though this project launched Henry's passion for collecting, the Ford home and its contents, which included these shards, weren't moved to Greenfield Village until 1944 - the last building he personally had moved there. Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Slippers, Worn by Sophia E. Ewing on Her Wedding Day, 1864 In 1940, a cartoon appeared in newspapers around the country. It emphasized Henry Ford’s unusual interest in artifacts from everyday life, rather than the fine art and antiques collected by other wealthy individuals. Text beneath an image of Ford holding a woman’s shoe read, “…he gets a whale of a kick out of collecting a sample of every type of shoe ever made in the U.S.!” In response to the cartoon, donations from readers – including this pair of wedding shoes worn in 1864 – poured in. Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content
George Washington Carver Cabin George W. Carver and Henry Ford shared an interest in chemurgy or the chemical transformation of agricultural commodities into byproducts such as hydrogenated oils. Ford invited Carver to speak at the 1937 chemurgy conference in Dearborn. In 1942, Ford honored Carver with this replica of Carver's birthplace, paneled in wood donated by Boy Scouts from every state. Carver spent the night of July 21, 1942 in the building. Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment
It’s 1984. Turn on your Macintosh computer. Marvel at the convenience of the mouse under your hand. Point the arrow on your screen towards a desktop folder and click to open a file. Drag it and drop it somewhere else. Or, open some software. How about MacPaint? Select the pencil, draw some craggy lines; use the spilling paint bucket to fill in a shape. Move your arrow to the floppy disk to save your work. And then… imagine a worst-case scenario, as the ticking wristwatch times out. A pixelated cartoon bomb with a lit fuse appears. Your system crashes. The “sad Mac” appears.
Introducing the Icon Computer icons are visual prompts that when clicked on, launch programs and files, trigger actions, or indicate a process in motion. Clicking an icon is a simple gesture that we take for granted. In our current screen-based culture—spread between computers and smartphones—we might absent-mindedly use these navigational shortcuts hundreds (if not thousands) of times a day.
Before the mid-1980s, after booting up their computers, people typically found themselves greeted by a command line prompt floating in a black void, waiting for direction. That blinking cursor could seem intimidating for new home computer users because it assumed you knew the answers—that you had memorized the machine’s coded language. The GUI (graphical user interface, pronounced “gooey”) changed how humans interacted with computers by creating a virtual space filled with clickable graphical icons. This user-centric form of interaction, known as “the desktop metaphor,” continues to dominate how we use computers today.
The 1984 Apple Macintosh was not the first computer to use a GUI environment or icons. That achievement belongs to the 1973 Xerox Alto—a tremendously expensive, vertically-screened system that only sold a few hundred units. After a few failed attempts, the multi-tasking GUI system finally found a foothold in the home computing market with the introduction of “the computer for the rest of us”—the Macintosh.
From Graph Paper to Screen Pixels After completing her PhD in Art History, Susan Kare briefly entered the curatorial sphere before realizing that she would rather dedicate her career to the production of her own creative work. In 1982, Andy Hertzfeld, a friend of Kare’s from high school, called with an interesting opportunity: join Apple Computer’s software group and help design the user experience for the then-developing Macintosh computer.
Kare took up Hertzfeld’s offer and set to work designing the original Macintosh icons, among them the trash can, the file folder, the save disk, the printer, the cloverleaf command (even today, this symbol appears on Apple keyboards), and the mysterious “Clarus the Dogcow.”
Since no illustration software existed yet, Kare designed the first Macintosh icons and digital fonts through completely analog means. Using a graph paper notebook, she filled in the squares with pencil and felt-tipped pens, coloring inside the lines of the graph as an approximation of the Macintosh’s screen. Despite the limitation of available pixels, Kare found economical ways to provide the maximum amount of visual or metaphoric meaning within a tiny grid of space—all without using shading or color.
Next Wave Kare’s icons and digital fonts exist beyond the lifespan of the Macintosh, appearing in later Apple products and even early iPods. Iterations and mutations of her icon designs continue to define the visual shorthand of our desktops and software today, migrating across systems and platforms: NeXT Computers, IBM and Windows PCs. Have you ever played Solitaire on a Windows 3.0 computer? If so, you’ve played with Kare’s digital deck of cards.
A physical version of Susan Kare’s Windows 3.0 Solitaire game.
Have you ever sent a “virtual gift” over Facebook like a disco ball, penguin, or kiss mark? Again, this is the work of Kare, whose work has been quietly shaping our interactions with technology since 1984—making computers seem more friendly, more human, more convenient—one click at a time.
Anyone who’s been following automotive news – or any news – over the past few years knows that autonomous vehicles are no longer science fiction. They’re here today, right now. Sure, they may not be in every garage just yet, but in cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and even right here in Dearborn, they’re practically everyday sights as engineers put increasingly-refined prototypes through their paces on public roads.
Exposed wires and cables, complete with duct tape, show that this is very much a test vehicle.
At The Henry Ford, we’ve been following autonomous technology developments closely since 2004, when the federal government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hosted the first of its challenges for self-driving vehicles. We collected a few pieces from these contests and even considered collecting a DARPA competitor vehicle. But the self-driving cars of 15 years ago were crude by today’s standards. Any of these early autonomous vehicles – large trucks and SUVs with equally-massive protruding radar and lidar arrays – would have posed serious exhibit and storage problems. We very purposely decided to wait until the technology matured and the self-driving cars moved from closed courses to public streets.
The test vehicle’s computer brain, tucked neatly into the rear cargo area.
That day has come – and faster than many of us thought possible even just a few years ago. Our newly-acquired test vehicle is one of the first two built by General Motors and its subsidiary Cruise Automation. Starting in May 2016, the cars were tested on the streets of San Francisco (with a human driver always ready to take over if needed). By that summer, GM had more than 40 test vehicles navigating roadways in San Francisco and Phoenix. These test vehicles were built on the compact Chevrolet Bolt Electric Vehicle platform. The sensors and cameras still protrude, but to a much smaller degree.
The car relies on a complex system of cameras, sensors, antennas, and computers to “see” its way through traffic.
The 2016 self-driving test-vehicle relies on six key technologies for its autonomous abilities. Cameras detect and track pedestrians, cyclists, traffic lights, open space, and other features. Articulating radars detect moving vehicles at long range and over a wide field of view. Long-range radars measure velocity. High-precision lidar units use lasers to detect fixed and moving objects. The vehicle’s computer platform compiles and processes the data gathered by these various systems and makes driving decisions based on that information. Finally, cellular and GPS antennas link the car to navigation systems, remote computers, and other cars.
The test vehicle’s interior isn’t all that different from a conventional Bolt EV, with the notable exception of the red emergency stop button.
While arguments persist over the specific timeline, industry leaders and analysts largely agree that autonomous vehicles are coming – it’s not a matter of if, but of when. And when they do arrive, they promise to be the most transformative advance in personal transportation since the automobile itself. Self-driving capabilities will fundamentally change our relationship with the car. The technology promises improved safety and economy in our vehicles, greater capacity and efficiency on our roads, and enhanced mobility and quality of life for those unable to drive themselves. The time has come for The Henry Ford to add a self-driving car to its collection, so that the institution might properly document this fundamental shift in mobility. We are delighted to do so with the 2016 General Motors First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle. I have a feeling that it’s only the first of many autonomous cars that will find their way into the museum in the years ahead. It’s going to be quite a ride.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Cobo Center brimmed with more than 800 custom cars and hot rods at the 2019 Detroit Autorama.
Winter was a little late arriving here in southeast Michigan, and it doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. But the colder-than-average temperatures made it all the more satisfying to check out the hot cars at the 67th Annual Detroit Autorama.
A superb blend of old and new – a 2018 Dodge Charger Hellcat with the face and Coke bottle doors of its timeless 1969 predecessor.
Anyone in the hobby knows that Detroit’s Autorama is among the most prestigious hot rod and custom car shows in the world. More than 800 cars from throughout the United States and Canada come together at Cobo Center to be judged on their craftsmanship and creativity. The best entrants join Autorama’s “Great 8.” And from these eight finalists, judges choose the winner of the best-in-show Ridler Award. Only cars that have never been shown before are eligible to win, so it’s a special honor indeed. In addition to the bragging rights, the Ridler winner receives $10,000 and enshrinement in the online Winner Archive. This year’s Ridler Award went to “Cadmad,” a wild 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham station wagon owned by Steve Barton of Las Vegas, Nevada. Mr. Barton passed away before the car was completed, giving added poignancy to this year’s prize.
Wes Adkins’s 1956 Ford Victoria took home The Henry Ford’s “Past Forward” award.
For the sixth year The Henry Ford presented its “Past Forward” award at the Detroit Autorama. Our prize goes to a car that 1.) Blends custom and hot rod traditions with modern innovation, 2.) Exhibits a high level of craftsmanship, 3.) Captures the “anything goes” spirit of the hobby, and 4.) Is just plain fun. Our winner this year was a 1956 Ford Victoria owned by Wes Adkins of Dover, Ohio. The Victoria features a 301-cubic inch Y-Block V-8 with twin superchargers; hand-crafted rocker panels, floors, and inner fenders; vintage Thunderbird door handles; and a 3D-printed hood ornament – at 60 percent the size of the original for a lower-profile look. Everything was beautifully executed – particularly the paintwork, done by the owner himself.
“The True Vine” – a 1977 Buick LeSabre at Autorama’s Low Rider Invitational.
This year brought a special milestone as the Detroit Autorama hosted its first-ever Low Rider Invitational. Some 14 cars from Michigan and Ohio were featured in a special display. In the past, lowriders at Autorama tended to be scattered around the floor wherever space permitted. Exhibiting them together recognized the fact that lowriders represent a distinct – and thriving – subculture in the broader custom car hobby. Equally important was the fact that the lowrider display was curated by veteran gearhead Debbie Sanchez. Car shows – all kinds of car shows – have been dominated by men for too long. It’s refreshing to see women participating in greater numbers each year.
With their rambunctious reputation, John and Horace Dodge might have gotten a kick out of this rodded-up 1915 Dodge Brothers.
With so many cars on view, there’s something for everyone in Cobo Center. For race fans, there were slingshot dragsters and funny cars. For kids, there were go-karts and quarter midgets. For movie fans, there was a screen-used Batmobile from 1992’s Batman Returns, as well as a tribute to the late Burt Reynolds, who brought new car fans into the hobby with movies like Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, and The Cannonball Run. And live music throughout the weekend ran the gamut from ’50s rock and roll to hard-driving R&B.
Minibikes lined up at Autorama Extreme.
For all of the great cars on the main floor, Autorama veterans know that the wildest rides are found down below – at Autorama Extreme on Cobo Center’s lower level. There you’d find the rat rods, the bobber bikes, and the way-out customs that are more riddle than Ridler. There’s even an on-site chop shop where you can watch skilled fabricators at work.
Toy-a-Rama featured vintage toys, diecast models, racing memorabilia, and automotive sales literature.
If your budget (or your garage) won’t permit you to collect full-size cars, then you could check out the Toy-a-Rama show at the back of Cobo Center. Vendors offered hundreds of diecast cars and plastic model kits, from Hot Wheels on up to beautifully-detailed 1:18 scale pieces. Other sellers offered transportation-related books and magazines, and an incredible collection of vintage automotive sales brochures and advertisements.
There’s no other show quite like it, which explains why the Detroit Autorama continues to be known among builders and fans alike as “America’s Greatest Hot Rod Show.”
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Portrait of Aloha Wanderwell Baker, 1922-1928, THF274629
Secretary. Driver. Mechanic. Lecturer. Explorer. Cinematographer. Filmmaker. All of these job titles, and many more, were held by one extraordinary woman in the 1920s. Her global adventures, visiting more than 40 countries on four continents, earned her the moniker, “The World’s Most Widely Traveled Girl.” And throughout it all, Aloha Wanderwell Baker challenged societal norms, built a career for herself, and created an inspiring legacy of curiosity and resourcefulness.
The young woman who would become Aloha Wanderwell Baker was born Idris Galcia Hall in Winnipeg, Alberta, Canada, in 1906. After her father was killed in action at the Third Battle of Ypres during World War I, Idris’ mother decided to move with both of her daughters to Europe. Young Idris, enrolled in a French convent school, longed for adventure and world travel. According to her memoir, Call to Adventure!, she was a girl who, “desired to sleep with the winds of heaven blowing around her head, and who preferred the canopy of stars and the Mediterranean moon to the handsome but dust-catching and air-repelling draperies of the school furnishings.” With these yearnings, Idris’ time at the school would not be long.
Captain Walter Wanderwell Business Card, THF274644
In 1922, young Idris’ future would be forever changed when a traveler known as Captain Walter Wanderwell arrived in Nice, France. Cap, as he was more commonly known, was Polish-born Valerian Johnannes Pieczynski. In 1919, Cap and his wife Nell founded the Work Around the World Educational Club, or WAWEC, to promote world peace, provide educational opportunities, and monitor global disarmament. To accomplish these goals, Nell and Cap competed in a global driving race, the winner being the team to rack up the most miles. Along the way, the teams would sell promotional pamphlets, host lectures, and screen their adventure films as a means to raise money and educate the public. Corporate funds were also sought, such as Cap contacting Henry Ford in 1922 about purchasing the negatives for educational films that were shot. By the time Cap wrote that letter to Ford, he and Nell were physically separated, in Europe and North America, and essentially separated in their marriage.
Correspondence between Ford Motor Company and Walter Wanderwell, 1921-1922, THF274639
And so it was in Nice, in October 1922, that Cap and Idris’ paths would cross, and her future would forever be changed. In her memoir, she talks about seeing an advertisement for Cap’s lecture in the local newspaper, sneaking out of school to attend. Utterly inspired and captivated by the images she saw, young Idris spoke with Cap afterward. During the conversation, he mentioned his need for a new expedition secretary. The Nice newspaper also carried an ad for this position with the headline, “Brains, Beauty and Breeches-World Tour Offer for Lucky Young Woman.” Going against contemporary norms, the woman who accepted this position would forego skirts for breeches, promise not to marry for at least three years, and be prepared to rough it through Africa and Asia. At the age of 16, Idris, with her mother’s permission, joined the Wanderwell Expedition and became known as Aloha Wanderwell.
Between October 1922 and December 1923, the Wanderwell Expedition crisscrossed Europe in their Model Ts. Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Poland - all were visited, some multiple times. Along the route, Aloha learned the skills that would carry her career into the future. After leaving the tour for a few months due to an argument with Cap, Paris became a bore and Aloha longed to be back on the road. She tracked the expedition down in Egypt, and met up with the crew in March 1924.
Aloha Wanderwell Arrives at the Sphinx, 1924
After Cairo, the expedition wound its way through the Middle East, then sailed on to Pakistan and India. They covered more than 2,200 miles before sailing to Malaysia. The travelers then made their way up to Cambodia, where they marveled at Ankor Wat, and then went on to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. They went up through Tientsin, Peiping, and Murkden before being granted visas to travel to Siberia. Japan was visited after Russia, and then the Wanderwell Expedition sailed for North America.
Driver Aloha Wanderwell on the Hoist Lifting Her Ford Model T from Aboard Ship, Shanghai, China, 1924,THF96385
They made landfall in Hawaii, where Cap filmed Aloha next to the Halemaumau volcano. When the expedition arrived in California, Cap left for a few weeks, traveled to Florida, and legally divorced Nell. Upon his return to California, Cap proposed to Aloha, and they wed in April 1925. Over the next few months, they drove throughout the American West and Midwest, ending up in Detroit that August and ultimately ending in Florida. Their first child, a son named Valri, was born there that December.
Captain Walter Wanderwell Filming Aloha Wanderwell on the Edge of Kilauea Volcano, 1924, THF274631
In 1926, the Wanderwells were traveling through Cuba, Canada, and the northeastern United States before they sailed for South Africa, where Aloha reunited with her mother and sister. There, in April 1927, Aloha gave birth to the couple’s second child, a son named Nile. Three weeks later, with Aloha’s mother caring for the children, the expedition left again to traverse the eastern coast of Africa. North they drove, through Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, where on October 13, 1927, Aloha celebrated her 21st birthday in Nairobi. This journey ended in France, where the Wanderwells reunited with their children and the family returned to the United States. The film documenting these journeys, With Car and Camera Around the World, debuted in 1929.
Aloha Wanderwell Driving Car between Limpopo River and Sabe River, Mozambique, 1927, THF274633
The following year in 1930, Cap and Aloha were traveling to Brazil, visiting the Mato Grosso region in an effort to search for lost British explorer Lt. Colonel Percy Fawcett. Flying to the interior of the Amazon rainforest, the Wanderwells’ plane had to make an emergency landing, ending up in the territory of the Bororo tribe. Over the next month, Cap and Aloha befriended them, and when Cap left to obtain replacement parts, Aloha stayed with the Bororos and filmed her experiences. The resulting film, Flight to the Stone Age Bororos, remains part of the Smithsonian’s anthropological film library to this day. Another film focusing on this trip, The River of Death, can be viewed through the Library of Congress.
The next Wanderwell expedition was to be an ocean voyage throughout the Pacific. A yacht, The Carma, was being fitted out for this journey, although it was not to be. In December 1932, Captain Wanderwell was shot and killed on board, a case that remains unsolved. The year after Cap’s death, Aloha married former WAWEC cameraman Walter Baker. The couple continued to travel and film their adventures. Over the years, the travel grew less, but Aloha continued to give lectures and presentations about her adventures. Aloha Wanderwell Baker passed away in Newport Beach, California, in 1996, about a year after Walter.
Aloha’s films, photographs, and writings have allowed later generations to learn of this extraordinary woman who followed her passion. In an age where women were expected to wear dresses and work within the home, she wore breeches and traveled the world. Aloha cultivated skills in jobs that were traditionally reserved for men, and used that knowledge to further her career. She turned a desire to be out in the world into a lifetime of learning and exploring. And in the end, her desire to “sleep with the winds of heaven blowing round her head” drove her to follow her heart, keep an open mind, and learn from the world.
Janice Unger is a Processing Archivist, Archives & Library Services - Benson Ford Research Center, at The Henry Ford.
Source: Wanderwell, Aloha. Aloha Wanderwell Call to Adventure!: True Tales of the Wanderwell Expedition, First Woman to Circle the World in an Automobile (Touluca Lake, California: Nile Baker Estate & Boyd Production Group, 2013), pages 21-26.
What inspires your child when they set foot inside Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation? We want to see. In honor of our 90th year, we’re looking for examples of curiosity and excitement from a child’s point of view.
From March 1-31, we’re looking for child-created videos to become part of an official video from The Henry Ford highlighting Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. We’re looking for clips that showcase a child’s excitement, what they learned during their visit, their favorite artifacts, and more. Get their friends together, show off what they know about our artifacts – it's all up to them. We’ll pull the entries together to show how Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation inspires – all from a child’s point of view. You may see some of your footage in our video this spring!
From our selected entries, we’ll pick nine submissions at random to receive a family membership to The Henry Ford.
What would you pick to highlight Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation? We can’t wait to see. And don’t forget – kids get in free to the museum with paid adult admission now through March 31. Learn more about our 90th anniversary admission special to help you make your video submission.
To submit your video: Upload your child’s video clip (no more than 30 seconds long) to YouTube with #THFInspiration in the video description by 11:59 pm ET March 31.
Accepted video formats include AVI, MOV, m4v, and MP4.
Make sure the video is public. Giveaway winners will be contacted via YouTube comment by April 5.
This year, Henry Ford’s museum and village complex – now known as The Henry Ford – celebrates its 90th anniversary. Throughout 2019, we’ll be reflecting decade-by-decade on significant additions to the collection he began, with a focus on our institution's evolving collecting philosophies. This post covers our history and acquisitions of the 1930s.
A Working Village After its dedication in 1929, Henry Ford didn't consider his campus complete. In Greenfield Village, he continued to erect homes, mills, and shops that he felt best reflected the way Americans had lived and worked, or that were associated with famous people he admired. Individuals even began to offer Ford historic structures for his Village.
By the mid-1930s, several Village shops were staffed by people demonstrating traditional craft skills, including glassblowers, blacksmiths, weavers, shoemakers, and potters. Visitors to Greenfield Village not only had the pleasure of watching the craftsmen work, they could also buy samples of their hand-crafted products. Craftsmen like brick makers and sawyers supported the Village restoration efforts.
Building the Museum While Ford Motor Company draftsman Edward J. Cutler labored in the muddy fields of Greenfield Village, architect Robert O. Derrick was designing a large indoor museum adjacent to the historical village to house the objects Ford had collected. Derrick suggested that the façade should resemble Independence Hall and related buildings of Philadelphia, with a large “Exhibition Hall” in back.
Since Henry Ford had rejected the notion of storage rooms, nearly everything had to be exhibited out in the open. The twelve-acre museum contained a glorious assemblage of stuff. To Ford, that assemblage represented the evolution of technological progress. For nearly a decade after the museum officially opened to the public in 1933, visitors found it a work in progress. The exhibits would not be completed until the early 1940s.
Additions to the Collections: 1930s
Stanley Cookstove Henry Ford appreciated the history found in everyday objects and in inventions that made people’s lives better. This innovative 1830s cookstove hits on both these “cylinders.” Used by people to prepare their daily meals, it is an everyday object with emotional connection to hearth and home. As an improvement over fireplace cooking, this cookstove is an example of technological progress--one of many that Ford was gathering for his museum. - Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life
Sweetmeat Dish owned by Alexander Hamilton Like many collectors in the 1930s, Henry Ford and his staff were interested in acquiring decorative arts objects that had strong historical associations. The staff also sought out works that were aesthetically pleasing. This sweetmeat basket, which descended through the family of Alexander Hamilton, fit the bill. Part of a larger set of Sheffield plate silver, the group was a prized acquisition in 1935. - Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts
Noah Webster Home Following the dedication of Greenfield Village in October of 1929, Henry Ford continued to expand, and “flesh out,” the collection of buildings in Greenfield Village. The Noah Webster House from New Haven, Conn., was one of the examples of projects brought to Henry Ford; the building was purchased from the salvage company that had already began the demolition. The Noah Webster story aligned perfectly with Henry Ford’s passion for education and his interest in the history of education in the United States. This home, where Noah Webster completed the American Dictionary, a work that finally defined American English to the rest of the world, could not have been a better fit. - Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village and Curator of Historic Structures & Landscapes
Wright Cycle Shop Henry Ford admired self-made innovators who rose from humble roots to change the world. (He counted himself among them.) Surely the Wright brothers fit that mold. Ford acquired the Wrights' home and cycle shop in 1937, relocating them from Dayton, Ohio, to Greenfield Village. Wilbur had passed away in 1912, but Orville assisted Ford in the buildings' restoration. He provided furnishings and books original to the home and helped to locate surviving equipment used in the shop. - Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation
Machine Used to Strand Transatlantic Cable This cable machine, built by Glass, Eliot & Co., helped to wire the world. It was used at Enderby’s Wharf in Greenwich, England, to build the second transatlantic telegraph cable. Machines like these were used to create the core of submarine cable from iron and conductive copper—and then moved aboard a ship, where they applied a protective sheath made of galvanized steel, an insulating layer of gutta-percha, and a final layer of jute to protect against abrasion. These submarine cables—like the modern-day fiber-optic cables that carry the signals of Internet traffic—connected cultures and communities. - Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communication & Information Technology
Circus Poster, Barnum & Bailey, A Child Dreaming of a Circus, 1896 In 1935, the Strobridge Lithographing Company donated 329 circus posters to this institution. The company produced posters for the biggest circuses, including Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Brothers. This collection of colorful posters give insight into the excitement that “Circus Day” held in communities – and especially rural communities – all over the country. In many towns, the day was treated like a holiday, with schools and workplaces closed for the occasion. This particularly evocative poster illustrates the eager dream of a child, anticipating the wonders of the circus. - Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Coffeepot, Made by Paul Revere, 1755-1765 With an eye for design and a developed artistic sensibility, avid art collector, Edsel Ford, began collecting early American silver in the 1920s. In 1936, Edsel donated part of his silver collection to his father's museum, including this coffeepot made by silversmith Paul Revere. A talented artisan, Revere created this coffeepot in the late 1750s or early 1760s -- before his famed midnight ride that warned fellow Patriots, "the British are coming." Wealthy citizens in colonial America used luxury silver items like this coffeepot to consume popular drinks of the time period, which included tea and coffee. - Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Jacquard Loom When Henry Ford couldn’t locate a suitable Jacquard loom for Greenfield Village in the 1930s, he commissioned weaving master Sidney Holloway to create blueprints for the construction of this reproduction. This loom employs the innovative punch card technology (developed by French weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard) that revolutionized the weaving industry in the early 1800s. As an artifact, it helps tell a broad story of industrial change and exemplifies Henry Ford’s commitment to experience-based education. - Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content
McGuffey Newly Revisited First Reader - 1844 Henry and Clara Ford both were taught on McGuffey Readers. These beloved primers that taught both morals and literacy skills make up the foundation of the library at The Henry Ford. Many different editions, like this one, were bought in the 1930s to help round out a full collection of McGuffey Readers. - Sarah Andrus, Librarian
Jenny Young Chandler Collection Jenny Young Chandler’s photographs not only capture scenes of daily life in and around Brooklyn, New York, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also document objects and collections held by private individuals and museums in New York and New England during the same period. These themes of documenting everyday life and building museum collections, as well as the use of photography, were all very much of interest to Henry Ford when he acquired this collection in 1932. - Brian Wilson, Senior Manager Archives and Library, Benson Ford Research Center
1926 Fordson Tractor Cutaway The Ford Motor Company used cutaways to educate customers about new technologies. They conveyed information about internal combustion, power generation, and transmission through arrows and symbols, but few words. Antonio Stabile, a Ford distributor in Rosario, Argentina, displayed this cutaway made from a 1926 Fordson tractor, in the showroom and at exhibitions. (Ford incorporated a branch office in Argentina in 1919.) Model changes made the cutaway obsolete. Mr. Stabile shipped it and a similar Model T cutaway, both created in the service department at Agencia Ford Stabile, under the direction of Bernardo Pagliani, to Ford in late 1931. - Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment
In 1927, Greenfield Village was “born,” as Henry Ford began to acquire buildings and move them to Dearborn for his historical village. The first building Ford bought was the Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern), which came from the village of Clinton, Mich., about 45 miles west.
Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern) on its original site in Clinton, Mich., mid-1920s. THF237242
The dilapidated 1831 stagecoach inn had stood on the Chicago Road in Clinton for almost 100 years. Ella Smith, its owner, still lived in the badly deteriorated building. As Henry Ford’s agents stood inside the crumbling structure, they worried it might collapse. One of Ford’s assistants observed, “There was only one man in 4,000 that would consider it anything but a pile of junk.” Yet, Henry Ford’s vision and resources assured that this early 1830s inn--built when Michigan was still a territory--survived.
The Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern) in Greenfield Village, August 1929. THF123747
By summer 1929, the inn stood--restored--on the village green, as Greenfield Village continued to take shape around it.
Aerial View of Henry Ford Museum under Construction, Late October or Early November 1929. THF98555
Henry Ford dedicated his museum and village on October 21, 1929, marking the 50th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s first successful light bulb test. Ford named his new complex The Edison Institute of Technology to honor his friend and lifelong hero. This year, Henry Ford’s museum and village complex – now known as The Henry Ford – celebrates its 90th anniversary. Throughout 2019, we’ll be reflecting decade-by-decade on significant additions to the collection he began, with a focus on our institution's evolving collecting philosophies.
Our Origins Although Henry Ford became one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful industrialists, he never forgot the values of the rural life he had left behind growing up on a farm. His interest in collecting began in 1914, as he searched for McGuffey Readers to verify a long-remembered verse from one of his old grade school recitations. Soon, the clocks and watches he had loved tinkering with and repairing since childhood grew into a collection of their own. Before long, he was accumulating the objects of ordinary people, items connected with his heroes and from his own past, and examples of industrial progress.
Contrary to the notorious quote, Henry Ford never really believed that history is bunk. What he believed was bunk was the kind of history taught in schools—that emphasized kings and generals and omitted the lives of ordinary folks. In 1916, Ford began to imagine building a museum that would show people a kind of history he believed was worth preserving.
Restorations In 1919, Henry Ford learned that his birthplace was at risk because of a road improvement project. He took charge—moving the farmhouse and restoring it to the way he remembered it from the time of his mother’s death in 1876, when he was 13. He and his assistants combed the countryside for items that he remembered and insisted on tracking down.
He followed this up by restoring his old one-room school, Scotch Settlement School; the 1686 Wayside Inn in South Sudbury, Massachusetts (with a plan to develop a “working” colonial village); and the 1836 Botsford Inn in Farmington, Michigan, a stagecoach inn where he and his wife Clara had once attended old-fashioned dances. These restorations gave Ford many opportunities to add to his rapidly growing collections while honing his ideas for his own historic village.
Ford Home, Front Parlor, Original Site, Dearborn, Michigan, 1923. THF126093
Something of Everything In the early 1920s, Henry Ford moved his growing hoard of antiques into a vacated tractor assembly building. The objects fit every description. Large items hung from rafters; smaller ones sat on makeshift benches and racks. Watches and clocks hung along the wall. Henry and his wife Clara enjoyed sharing their relics with others. Once people learned Ford was collecting objects for a museum, they flooded his office with letters offering to give or sell him antiques.
Frank Campsall, Charles Newton, and Henry Ford at the Ford Engineering Laboratory with Donations for Henry Ford's Museum, 1928 THF126101
Ford also sent out assistants to help him find and acquire the kinds of objects he felt were important to preserve. Goods intended for the museum arrived in Dearborn almost daily—sometimes by the train-car full. By the late 1920s, Henry Ford had become the primary collector of Americana in the world.
Rocking Chair Used by Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre the Night of His Assassination, April 14, 1865. THF159537
One of the most well-known artifacts in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is the rocking chair used by Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre the night of his assassination, April 14, 1865. Originally purchased as part of a parlor suite, the rocking chair was intended for use in a reception room in Ford's Theatre, which opened in 1863. The parlor suite was purchased by Harry Clay Ford (no relation to Henry Ford), manager of the Theatre. However, the comfortable rocking chair began to be used by ushers during their "down" time and the fabric became soiled by their hair oil. This stain is still visible on the back. Sometime in 1864, Harry Ford had the chair moved to his apartment across the alley from the Theatre in a belated attempt to keep it clean.
Beginning with the Theatre's opening in 1863, President Lincoln became a frequent visitor. At some point, Mr. Ford began to supply the president and his party with comfortable seating furniture. Apparently, the president preferred this rocking chair, perhaps, due to his height. On the afternoon of April 14th, the chair was brought to the president's box along with a matching sofa and side chair. After the assassination, the Theatre and its contents was seized by the federal government.
After its seizure, the chair remained in the private office of the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. In 1867, the chair was transferred to the Department of the Interior and then sent to the Smithsonian Institution and placed in storage. For all practical purposes, the chair vanished from the public for half a century. Documentation at the Smithsonian indicates that it was catalogued into the collection in 1902. In 1929, the rocker was returned to Blanche Chapman Ford, widow of Harry Clay Ford.
Mrs. Ford sold the chair at auction through the Anderson Galleries in New York on December 17, 1929. The purchaser was Israel Sack, the dean of antique American furniture dealers, and an agent of Henry Ford. Sack had observed that Ford delighted in furniture that had association with American historical figures. Sack, in turn, offered the chair to Mr. Ford, who purchased it and carefully documented its arrival in Greenfield Village in early 1930. There, the chair resided in the Logan County, Illinois Court House where Lincoln practiced law as a circuit rider in the 1840s. Mr. Ford had moved the Court House to Greenfield Village in 1929--the chair became the centerpiece of his Lincoln collection. In 1979, as part of the institution's 50th anniversary, the chair moved from the Court House to the Museum, where it remains today.
Beyond the Lincoln Chair, our collections experts have selected a number of other items acquired before and during the 1920s that reflect our early collecting philosophy.
Ned Kendall Keyed Bugle Country dances, town bands. America’s musical traditions held personal meaning for Henry Ford. In 1928, Ford purchased Daniel S. Pillsbury’s extraordinary collection of 175 early band instruments.This 1837 keyed bugle from the Pillsbury collection had belonged to Ned Kendall-- keyed bugle virtuoso and leader of the Boston Brass Band. During the 19th century, community bands provided much of the music enjoyed by everyday Americans. - Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life
Argand Lamp, 1790-1850 This lamp expresses the collecting philosophy that Henry Ford and his staff were using in developing the lighting collection. They were seeking to acquire examples documenting the changes in lighting technology that led to the introduction of the electric light bulb in 1879. This Argand lamp was one the first oil lamps that created a flame burning brighter than a single candle. - Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts
Menlo Park Laboratory Among the most iconic and significant buildings in Greenfield Village, the re-creation of the Menlo Park Compound was a very important achievement for Henry Ford. Work began to salvage what was left of Menlo Park in the late 1920s. By early 1929, original bits of the Main Lab, the Carbon Shed, and the Glass House came together with the re-created Library, and Machine Shop to bring Menlo Park to life. On October 21, 1929, the entire project received Thomas Edison’s stamp of approval, with the exception of it being too clean. - Jim Johnson, Director, Greenfield Village and Curator, Historic Structures & Landscapes
1896 Ford Quadricycle It all began with the Quadricycle. Ford Motor Company, the Model T, The Henry Ford -- none of it would have happened if Henry Ford hadn't finished this little car in June 1896. He sold it a few months later for $200 -- money he promptly spent building his second car. Fast forward to 1904. With Ford Motor Company blooming and Henry perhaps feeling nostalgic, he paid $65 to buy the Quadricycle back. It was arguably Mr. Ford's first significant acquisition documenting his own life and achievements. - Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation
Platform Rocker, 1882-1900 In 1928, Henry Ford became interested in the estate of the late Josephine Moore Caspari of Detroit. A wealthy heiress, she married a Spanish riding master but divorced him just four years later after discovering that he had married another in Germany. The divorce was the talk of the town. Ms. Caspari became a recluse; bolting the doors to her large Italianate mansion and positioning two large dogs to guard the entry. When she passed away, her estate was set to be sold. Intrigued, Henry Ford bought many items from the estate, including this platform rocker made by George Hunzinger. Hunzinger’s platform spring rocking chairs combined numerous inventions, creating a more comfortable and quiet rocking experience. - Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Paper Horseshoe Filament Lamp Used at New Year's Eve Demonstration of the Edison Lighting System, 1879 Electrical engineer William Joseph Hammer began working for Thomas Edison in 1879 and soon started collecting the incandescent lamps they were developing at Edison's Menlo Park complex in New Jersey. After Edison created the first practical incandescent lamp in October 1879, news spread and the public clamored to view his achievement. On New Year's Eve, thousands of people streamed into Menlo Park to see the first public display of Edison's electric light, including this surviving example. In 1929, a group of Edison's former employees known as the "Edison Pioneers" donated Hammer's collection, which contained this lamp, to Henry Ford's new museum the "Edison Institute." - Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Letter from Thomas Edison to His Parents, October 30, 1870 This brief letter from a 23-year-old Thomas Edison to his parents provides insight into the early growth of Edison’s work on telegraph instruments. As part of a much larger collection acquired in 1929 through a gift from the Edison Pioneers, the letter also reflects Henry Ford’s many efforts to honor his friend and lifelong hero, which included the re-creation of Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory and the naming of his new museum and village complex The Edison Institute of Technology. - Brian Wilson, Senior Manager Archives and Library, Benson Ford Research Center
Eastman Kodak Box Camera, 1888-1889 Henry Ford drew on personal and professional connections to build his extensive museum collection. Following a conversation with Ford, photography pioneer George Eastman donated a group of significant cameras that included this one: an example of Eastman’s first “Kodak” camera (the first designed for roll film), which revolutionized popular photography. - Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Ambler's Mowing Machine, circa 1836 Henry Ford relied on antique dealers to ferret out "firsts," and the Ambler Moving Machine is an example. Felix Roulet acquired the machine for Ford. He convinced Ford of the merits of the Ambler mower by quoting a paragraph printed in Merritt Finley Miller’s booklet, The Evolution of the Reaping Machine, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Experiment Stations, Bulletin No. 103 (1902), page 28: “Enoch Ambler of New York, obtained a patent Dec 23, 1834 about which little can be learned. It is understood, however, that he had the first wrought-iron finger bar with steel guards & shoes…” Roulet described the machine to Ford in correspondence, and he assured Ford that “this machine will be a gem in [sic] Mr Fords collection." The machine arrived at Ford Motor Company on November 23, 1924. - Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment
President Abraham Lincoln signed The Freedmen’s Bureau Act on March 3, 1865. That Act created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands as part of the War Department. It provided one-year of funding, and made Bureau officials responsible for providing food, clothing, fuel, and temporary shelter to destitute and suffering refugees behind Union lines and to freedmen, their wives, and children in areas of insurrection (in other words, within the Confederate States). The legislation specified the Bureau’s administrative structure and salaries of appointees. It also directed the Bureau to put abandoned or confiscated land back into production by allotting not more than 40 acres to each loyal refugee or freedman for their use for not more than three years, at a rent equal to six percent of its 1860 assessed value, and with an option to purchase. The Bureau assumed additional duties in response to freed people’s goals, namely building schools, negotiating labor contracts, and mediating conflicts.
Lincoln supported the Bureau because it fit his plan to hasten peace and reconstruct the nation, but after Lincoln’s assassination, support wavered. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866 provided two years of funding. During 1868, increasing violence and for a return to state authority undermined the goals of freed people and the Bureau that worked for them. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1868 authorized only the educational department and veteran services to continue. All other operations ceased effective January 1, 1869.
Collections at The Henry Ford help document public perceptions of the Freedmen’s Bureau as well as actions taken by Bureau advocates. Letters, labor contracts, and newspapers indicate the contests that played out as the Bureau tried to introduce a new model of economic and social justice and civil rights into places where absolute inequality based on human enslavement previously existed. The Bureau did not win the post-war battle for freedmen’s rights. Congress did not reauthorize the Bureau, and it ceased operations in mid-1872.
The Beginning Bureau appointees went to work at the end of the Civil War in 1865 to serve the interests of four-million newly freed people intent on exercising some self-evident truths itemized in the Declaration of Independence:
That all men are created equal That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights That among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
With freedom came responsibility to sustain the system of government that “We the People” constituted in 1787, and that the Union victory over secession reaffirmed in 1865. Little agreement over the best course of action existed. The national government extended the blessings of liberty by abolishing slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865. It established the Freedmen’s Bureau which advocated for the general welfare of newly freed people.
Expanding liberty and justice came at a price, both economic and human. Every time freed people exercised new-found liberty and justice, others resisted, perceiving the expansion of another person’s liberty as a threat to their own. The Bureau operated between these factions, as an 1868 illustration from Harper’s Weekly depicted. The newspaper claimed that the Bureau was “the conscience and common-sense of the country stepping between the hostile parties, and saying to them, with irresistible authority, ‘Peace!’.”
Economics Building a new southern economy went hand in hand with expanding social justice and civil rights. Concerned citizens and commanding officers knew that African Americans serving in the U.S. Colored Troops had money to save. They started private banks to meet the need. The U.S. Congress responded with "An Act to Incorporate the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company." Lincoln signed the legislation on March 3, 1865, the same day he signed “An Act to Establish a Bureau for the relief of Freedmen and Refugees.” Agents of the public Freedmen’s Bureau worked closely with staff at the private Freedman’s Bank because freed people needed the economic stability the bank theoretically provided.
At least 400,000 people, one tenth of the freed population, had an association with a person who opened a savings account in the 37 branches of the savings bank that operated between 1865 and 1874. This included Amos H. Morrell, whose daughter’s heirs resided in the Mattox House. Soldiers listed on the Muster Roll of Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, also appear in records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. Charles Maho, a private in Company E, 46th USCT, opened an account on August 13, 1868. He worked in a tobacco factory at the time. His brother in arms, James Parvison/Parkinson, also a private, opened an account on December 1, 1869 and his estranged wife, Julia Parkerson opened an account on May 14, 1870.
Freedmen’s Bureau officials encouraged deposits into the Freedmen’s Bank. This helped freed people become accustomed to saving the coins they earned, literally the coins that symbolized their independence as wage earners. Sadly, Bureau officials often assured account holders that their investments were safe. The deposits were not protected by the national government, however, and when the bank closed in 1874 it left depositors penniless and petitioning for return of their investments.
The U.S. Congress authorized the Bureau to collect and pay out money due soldiers, sailors, and marines, or their heirs. Osco Ricio, a private in Company E, 46th U.S. Colored Infantry, who enlisted for three years in 1864, but was mustered out in 1866, made use of this service in his effort to secure $187 due him.
Freedmen’s Bureau staff mediated between freed people and employers, negotiating contracts that specified work required, money earned, and protection afforded if employers reneged on the agreement. A blank form, printed in Virginia in 1865, included language common to an indenture – that the employer would provide “a sufficiency of sound, wholesome food and comfortable lodging, to treat him humanely, and to pay him the sum of _____ Dollars, in equal monthly instalments of ____ Dollars, good and lawful money in Virginia.”
Freedman's Work Agreement Form, Virginia, 1865 Object ID 2001.48.18. THF 290704
Another pre-printed form reinforced terms of enslavement, that the work should be performed “in the manner customary on a plantation,” even as it confirmed the role of Freedmen’s Bureau agents as adjudicator. Freedman Henry Mathew, and landowner R. J. Hart, in Schley County, Georgia, completed this contract which legally bound Hart to furnish Mathew “quarters, food, 1 mule, and 35 acres of land” and to “give. . . one-third of what he [Mathew] makes.” This type of arrangement became the standard wage-labor contract between landowners and sharecroppers, paid for their labor with a share of the crops grown on the land.
Many criticized sharecropping as another form of unfree labor rather than as a fair labor contract. Close reading confirms the inequity which often took the form of additional work that laborers performed but that benefitted owners. In the case of Hart and Mathew, Mathew had to repair Hart’s fencing which meant that Mathew realized only one-third return on his labor investment in the form of a crop perhaps more plentiful because of the fence. Hart claimed the other two-thirds of the crop plus all of the increased value of fencing.
Education Freed people wanted access to education to learn what they needed to make decisions as informed and productive citizens.
Harper’s Weekly, a New York magazine, often featured freedmen’s schools that resulted from a cooperative agreement between the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association (AMA), based in New York. A reporter informed readers on June 23, 1866 that “the prejudice of the Southern people against the education of the ‘negroes’ is almost universal.” Regardless, freed people needed schools, teachers, and institutes to train teachers. The Freedmen’s Bureau and its partners committed their resources in support of this cause.
Commentary accompanying an illustration of the “Primary School for Freedmen” indicated that the school building was dilapidated and owned by someone who wanted rid of the school, but the students were eager to learn and as capable as other students of their age in New York public schools.
School curriculum often emphasized agricultural and technical training. The “Freedmen’s Farm School,” located near Washington, D.C., also known as the National Farm-School, taught orphans and children of U.S. Colored Troops reading, writing and arithmetic, standard primary school subjects. Students also cultivated a one-hundred-acre farm. The combination compared to a new effort launched with the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 to create a system of colleges, federally funded but operated at the state level to train students in agricultural and mechanical subjects. The combination could help students realize the American dream – owning and operating their own farm. While the system of land-grant colleges grew steadily during Reconstruction, the freedmen’s schools faced opposition locally and at the state level. Increasingly educators turned to philanthropists to fund education for freed people.
Struggles The individuals appointed to direct the Freedmen’s Bureau often had military experience. Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard served in the Union Army and gained a reputation as a committed abolitionist if not a strong officer. President Andrew Johnson appointed him the first Commission of the Bureau, and he remained in that position until the Bureau closed in 1872. Two years later Howard lamented lost opportunities: “I believe there are many battles yet to be fought in the interest of human rights”….“There are wrongs that must be righted. Noble deeds that must be done.”
Many shared Howard’s frustrations with the lack of public support for freed people’s goals. They also resented the obstructions that thwarted those goals. Newspaper reporting, such as the regular features in Harper’s Weekly, emphasized the good work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, but reporting also threatened projects aimed at sustaining the momentum.
Henry Wilson, a Republican Senator from Massachusetts, sought equality for African Americans. He took a correspondent to the Republican, a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, to task for publishing misinformation about the extent of congressional fundraising for political purposes, and for downplaying the need for sharing facts with voters, especially the 700,000 Southerners newly enfranchised after ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Wilson explained that hundreds of thousands of documents, possible through the congressional fundraising, could educate voters about issues and prepare them for the upcoming election. Without donations from U.S. congressmen, Wilson believed such efforts would fail.
The End The short life but complicated legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau leaves much to ponder. The Bureau, as a part of the War Department, and then an independent national agency, mediated local conflict and supported local education. This occurred at an exceptional time as the Union began rebuilding the nation in 1865. Then, the Republican party interpreted the U.S. Constitution as a mandate for the national government to protect civil rights broadly defined. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, incorporated newly freed people as full citizens. Most believed that the Bureau had no more work to do, and Congress did not reauthorize it after July 1872. Those who favored the Bureau lamented its abrupt end and believed that much remained to be done to open the American experiment in equal rights to all.
Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.