It was eye-catching, lightweight, and easy to care for. There was none of the fuss and muss of a real tree because the needles were attached. You could store it compactly in a box and reuse it year after year. It was completely safe unless you foolishly strung it with electric lights—potentially causing a fire hazard.
No, to make your aluminum Christmas tree shine with a dazzling brilliance, you didn’t use strings of electric lights. You turned a four-color, revolving color wheel onto it. And maybe added a few shiny blue or red balls to heighten the silvery aluminum effect. Any way you looked at it, the aluminum Christmas tree was a perfect symbol of the modern Jet-Age lifestyle people were dreaming about in the early 1960s.
The reviewers thought it had no chance of becoming a hit. Even writer-director George Lucas wasn’t sure about it. Sure, he’d had a hit with “American Graffiti”—a film deeply rooted in nostalgia and American popular culture. But this was different. Maybe a little too wacky for the general public, he thought.
But moviegoers thought differently. They turned out in record numbers to see “Star Wars” over the summer of 1977. Lines stretched for miles outside movie theaters. Tickets sold out as soon as their box offices opened. This first “Star Wars” movie (later subtitled “Episode IV - A New Hope”) went on to not only win six Oscars but to become one of the most popular and highest-grossing films of all time.
It’s an old museum-related joke: You don’t feel old until you see your toys exhibited as historic artifacts. Okay, so I felt a bit aged the first time I saw that Star Wars lunchbox in Your Place in Time, but I never questioned its right to be there. For us Gen X types, few things are so much of our time as Star Wars.
While I was around when all three of the original films were in theaters, most of my viewings came via videotapes recorded from HBO airings. (Heh, a Star Wars viewing still doesn’t feel quite right to me unless it starts with this.) Not until Return of the Jedi arrived in 1983 was I old enough to see one of the movies on the big screen. I still remember being thrilled by the sarlacc pit battle and the speeder bike chase, being saddened at Yoda’s death, and being generally grossed out by Jabba the Hutt. Disgusting or not, it was satisfying to finally see that vile gangster after hearing his name dropped ominously in the first two movies. All in all, it was a magical experience, and the reason that I don’t personally rate Jedi as a lesser work than its predecessors.
Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford contains many homes associated with famous people: the Wright family home, the Robert Frost home, the Noah Webster home—and the Edison homestead, the Canadian farmhouse owned by Thomas Edison’s grandparents. Henry Ford wanted his historical village to feature not only Menlo Park Lab, the fabled workplace of his friend and hero, but also to trace his upbringing with this home that young Thomas visited as child, where his parents had been married. We have just digitized over 50 images related to the Edison homestead on its original site, including this photo of Edison family gravestones taken in 1933.
Dressing Goodfellows dolls has been a Christmas tradition in Detroit since 1924, and the Ford Motor Company Girls’ Club was a major participant in dressing Goodfellows dolls for underprivileged children in Detroit for many years. Starting in 1946 by dressing 65 dolls, the club’s peak donation was 3,000 dresses in 1967, 1969, and 1970, and they averaged between 1,500 to 3,000 dolls most years.
The Ford Girls’ Club was started in 1946 under the Recreation Section of Ford Motor Company. Every female employee – salaried, or hourly – was automatically a member (though active membership did cost $1.00 per year). Any immediate female family member of a club member could join, as could the wives of Ford male employees. The club was primarily social, meeting once a month in addition to dinners, picnics, dances, lectures, and workshops. Members were also service oriented - they held dances for returning veterans, gave gifts and visited veterans in hospitals, and each Christmas they participated in clothing dolls for the Goodfellows to distribute, making thousands and thousands of handmade dresses over the years.
Dolls were usually handed out at the annual November service meeting. The club’s first foray into dress making was in 1946, when women of the club made 65 handmade dresses for dolls. The next year they jumped up to 290, with the dresses being displayed in the Administration Building cafeteria before being sent to the Goodfellows. As more women joined the club, interest grew in this Christmas service project and the club dressed more and more dolls each year, with their finished projects being displayed in various Ford Motor Company buildings’ lobbies, and offices, as well as the Dearborn Virginia Dare storefront window in 1949. The number of dresses made continued to climb each year reaching to almost one thousand in 1954, and the dolls were displayed for the first time at the Rotunda Christmas Fantasy. The next few years were dress-making bonanzas, and in 1957 2,500 dolls were dressed and displayed at the Rotunda for visitors to view before they were distributed to girls in the Detroit area on Christmas Eve. The Girl’s Club maintained a high production rate in the years to come - between 1,750 and 2,000 dresses were made annually and displayed at the Rotunda or Ford Motor Company buildings. In 1966 production saw another jump when the club made almost 3,000, a number they reached the next year and continued to reach or come close to for the next four years.
The handmade dresses were made of all kinds of fabric, from cotton to organdy, satin and lace. Women also knit and crocheted dresses, from wool to angora. Dolls dressed as nurses, astronauts, drum majorettes, hula dancers, Girl Scouts, flying nuns, ballerinas, and ice skaters complete with skates, graced the displays, as did brides, baby dolls, and all kinds of different ethnic dresses. Women could make any type of dress they wanted, but prizes were given by the Goodfellows, and later Ford, in specific categories:
Knit and crocheted
Goodfellows prizes ranged from $1 for a dress placing in a particular division to a grand prize of $10. Ford soon began judging the Girls’ Club’s work and awarding prizes as well, with the dresses usually judged by the wives of the Goodfellows’ president and executive officers. Early on prizes were cash, but when the displays headed to the Rotunda the stakes were raised. Grand prize in the 1950s and early 1960s was a sewing machine and console, second prize being a portable sewing machine, and third prize was a sewing cabinet.
The prizes, of course, were always of secondary importance in the Girls’ Club work with the Goodfellows' goal of “no child without a Christmas.” Over a 27-year period, 1946-1972, the Ford Girls’ Club donated over 45,000 hand-made dresses to the Detroit Goodfellows' organization to distribute to area children. The Ford employee newsletter The Rouge News and later Ford World carried stories and photos of the club’s donations every year, urging members of the club and others in the Ford organization to participate. We lose track of the Ford Girls’ Club here in the archive at about 1973, when Ford World ceased publishing stories on the yearly donation of dolls. However, judging from the 1972 output of 2,000 dolls, it seems likely the club continued the annual service drive for some years after.
The Goodfellows still distribute dolls and people in the metro Detroit area continue to provide dresses each year.
Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation contains such a breadth and depth of artifacts that rediscovering and sharing its treasures often involves a number of our staff working together. Assistant Curator Saige Jedele was recently investigating our collections in support of Curator Kristen Gallerneaux’s story on the Jacquard loom featured on The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, and turned up a woven silk image of a baseball game. Conservator Fran Faile noted we had a number of similar artifacts in the collection, which our digitization team then imaged and cataloged. These pieces, like this bookmark featuring George Washington, are known as “Stevengraphs,” after the man who built on the punchcard technology of the Jacquard loom to create the intricate fabric pictures.
May 29, 2016, will mark the 100th running of the iconic Indianapolis 500 auto race. The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation contains many objects and archival materials related to the race over its long history, and we’ve just digitized more than 1,600 images from the 1964 race, as well as 500 images of the 1961 race. Both sets of images come from the extensive Dave Friedman collection, and join previously digitized sets of Indy images from 1962, 1963, 1968, and 1969. Each set of images covers both vivid racetrack action and behind-the-scenes shots, like this relatively serene 1964 shot taken from above.
It would not be a proper Christmas season without at least one viewing of the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Every year, we can enjoy the antics of Lucy, Schroeder, and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang as they get ready (or not) for the Christmas play; sympathize with Charlie Brown as he passes up all those bright shiny aluminum trees and picks the sorriest tree on the Christmas tree lot; and cheer when the gang transforms Charlie Brown’s sad little tree into one of beauty and elegance at the end. Today, we can watch the special any time we want. But, back when it first aired on TV in 1965, we could only watch it once—Thursday, December 9, at 7:30 p.m., on CBS. And it was a revelation!
In a rare moment, one person’s simple act of courage can change the world. On the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, we pause to reflect on the impact and legacy of her courageous action.
Rosa’s awareness of social injustice started at an early age. As a girl growing up in Alabama, Rosa hated the disrespectful way that whites often treated black people. Her grandfather, a former slave, instilled a sense of pride and independence in her.
When I told some of my teacher colleagues that I was planning a field trip to The Henry Ford's Greenfield Village for my world history classes, many reacted with surprise. They asked, “What does Greenfield Village have to do with world history?” At face value, their reaction seems justified. What does the Model T or the Wright Brothers have to do with the development of writing and agriculture? Well, Greenfield Village has the ability to make both ancient and modern history come alive.
With a little creative planning, the buildings and artifacts on display in Greenfield Village were the ideal companion to my current world history unit. I’m teaching about the Neolithic Era of world history, which is from approximately the end of the last Ice Age (10,000 years ago) until about 3,000 BC. The Agricultural Revolution began around 5,000 BC. It is when humanity moved away from hunting and gathering, instead domesticating animals and beginning to plant crops. They also developed tools like the plow and used canals to irrigate crops and fields.
My students do not have a very concrete understanding of agriculture, as they come from an urban/suburban area. They have seen farms on television and in movies. But they have not had the personal experiences that would bring the agricultural revolution to life.
Fortunately Greenfield Village allowed my students to experience in person a farm that employs principles of the agricultural revolution, like using domesticated animals as a source of power. Using Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, my colleagues and I constructed a “farm-focused” field trip as a component of our world history course.
The people, animals, and artifacts at Firestone Farm made our world history unit come alive. The employees and volunteers were happy to explain how and why farmers have used and interacted with domesticated animals. The students were excited to see the Merino sheep, draft horses, pigs, and chickens in and around the barnyard at Firestone. They gained a greater understanding of the tools and technology created during the agricultural revolution by examining the plows, seed drills, and other pieces of equipment in the Firestone Barn. Reading about a barn, or seeing one on TV doesn’t compare to actually stepping foot in one. Holding the tools, watching the animals, and smelling the barn did far more to impress upon my students the rigors of farming more than any textbook could.
The Henry Ford is, and should be, a favorite destination for American history field trips. But with the help of The Henry Ford, creative teachers can also make textbooks come alive for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), art, economics, civics, world history, and English language arts.
Matthew Mutschler is a veteran teacher currently teaching middle school in the Warren Consolidated School District. He has been involved with The Henry Ford for a number of years, and is an alumnus of both The Henry Ford Teacher Fellow Program and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History and Culture workshop America’s Industrial Revolution at The Henry Ford.
This #GivingTuesday consider helping us bring more teachers and students on field trips to The Henry Ford by giving a gift of at least $8.