In 2012, Dennis Fiems donated hundreds of laundry and other soap packaging items to The Henry Ford that been collected by his late wife, Susan Strongman Fiems. According to Curator of Public Life Donna Braden, this collection is important as it exemplifies several 20th century trends: the evolution of product packaging, the changing nature of housekeeping and “women’s work,” increasing cultural attention on hygiene, and technological advances in these chemistry-driven products. More than 300 of these items are now digitized and available to browse online, including this sample-size box of FAB soap flakes from the early part of the 20th century. You can see additional items from the Fiems collection (plus other related objects) by visiting The Henry Ford’s collections website and browsing keywords such as soap, laundry products, and even clothespins.
Did you know Henry Ford had his own personal librarian? Rachel MacDonald joined Ford Motor Company in 1925 to catalog objects acquired by Henry Ford for the educational center and history museum he envisioned--the Edison Institute, what we know today as The Henry Ford. She stayed on to build up a library of 25,000 volumes, including a complete set of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, a favorite of her boss. She also collected, on Henry's behalf, volumes of Noah Webster's dictionaries and the McGuffey readers, and she started a compilation of verified Henry Ford quotations, among other useful resources. Many of these materials were transferred to the archives shortly after Henry Ford's death. These materials, which became part of the Ford Motor Company Archives, were later donated by the company to The Henry Ford, in 1964, and form part of our collection today.
MacDonald's first library at Ford was in the Highland Park plant. There she met visiting friends of Henry Ford including Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, actor Mickey Rooney, and author Damon Runyon, when they paid calls on Henry, who thirsted after interesting conversation. Mickey Rooney, who came to Dearborn to film a movie about Edison's life, was a particular favorite of Henry's, who enjoyed the young actor's energy and high spirits.
As time went on, Ford's aides increasingly limited access to the mogul, even going so far as to call ahead to places they knew Henry was going to be visiting--including the library--warning employees to hide. (By this time MacDonald was working at the Engine and Electrical Engineering or "EEE" Building now known as the POEE building, where the library had moved.) As the isolation and formality around Henry increased, he became a very lonely man, MacDonald recalled feeling. Henry turned to square dancing as a social outlet, with dances in the library every Wednesday. MacDonald often danced with Henry and observed that he would chat with her the whole time they were dancing.
Besides notable visitors from around the country and the world, the Ford grandchildren were frequent visitors to the library. MacDonald remembered that Henry II and Benson liked to slide around on the highly polished floors (Henry always liked to keep things in fine finish) as though they were at a skating rink.
Both Henry and Clara Ford were avid birders, and they created a bird sanctuary on their Dearborn estate, Fair Lane. One of MacDonald's favorite anecdotes to relate about her days at Ford was the time Henry called her with an urgent request for information on the "correct size for a hole in a wren house." She found the answer (⅞ of an inch) and promptly informed him. She later learned that Henry had been inspecting the wren houses built on his grounds by his staff and thought that the holes were too large. A larger hole would allow other bird species, including the ubiquitous sparrow, to invade. Upon learning that the holes were not the correct size, Henry, ever the stickler, had them all recut.
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press given around her retirement, MacDonald had more recollections about Henry Ford and the library she helped him amass. Ford was not popularly thought to have had much use for books, but MacDonald countered that he was in fact very interested in them. Henry wanted have a collection of books on hand on all manner of subjects should the need arise for him--or his staff--to look something up. He was, according to MacDonald, a frequent visitor to her library and would spend time there skimming through books, often walking off with one in his pocket. (According to her and others at Ford Motor Company, it was at Henry's insistence that many company publications were pocket-sized, reflecting his preference for portable reading material. Think what he might have done with a smartphone or an e-reader today!) Another useful resource that she and other Engineering Library staff created and kept available at the library for their knowledge-hungry boss was a vertical file on the many topics he was interested in. It is still available for research today as the Engineering Library Vertical File, in many ways a window into Henry Ford's mind.
As an interesting aside, though MacDonald was her married name, Rachel MacDonald was always referred to within the company as "Miss"--perhaps a reflection of different times and moeurs, when a married woman was not expected to remain in the workforce (or indeed, was expected not to remain there).
MacDonald, who had studied library science in Massachusetts before moving to Michigan, kept active professionally and was a charter member and president of the Michigan chapter of the Special Libraries Association. She retired in 1963 after long career as a librarian at Ford (37 years). MacDonald died at the age of 83 in 1981, in Florida, where she had moved after she retired.
As Neil Gaiman has famously noted (to the extent that it has become an Internet meme), "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one." While today, the answer to the "wren question," and many others, is available at our fingertips, Rachel MacDonald's work at the Ford Engineering Library shows how important both amassing a wealth of resources and deploying the expert knowledge to use those resources were in the time before online search. Today, the field is more democratized in terms of the knowledge and resources that are available, but experts (like my colleagues in the archives, library, and museum professions) are still needed to help identify, collect, preserve, and promote access to important information and artifacts--and in this digital age, to ensure that more and more resources are made available online for all.
On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford and his vice president James Couzens stunned the world when they revealed that Ford Motor Company would double its workers’ wages to five dollars a day. The announcement generated glowing newspaper headlines and editorials around the world. The notion of a wealthy industrialist sharing profits with workers on such a scale was unprecedented.
In the century since, many theories have been posited for Ford’s bold move. Some suggested the increase was to justify assembly line speed-ups. Others speculated it was to counteract high labor turnover due to increasingly monotonous assembly line work. Ford admirers believed it was pure philanthropy. Cynics asserted that it was little more than an elaborate publicity stunt. As usual, the truth lay somewhere in the middle.
More Monotony, But More Money
To a large degree, Ford’s implementation of the Five-Dollar Day cannot be appreciated without first understanding his advances with the moving assembly line. Experiments through 1913 and into 1914 reduced the time required to build a Model T automobile from 12½ hours to a mere 93 minutes. Increased efficiencies lowered production costs, which lowered customer prices, which increased demand. The public was eager to buy all of the cars Ford could build.
Explosive production gains came at the cost of worker satisfaction. The very goal of the moving assembly line was to take what had been relatively skilled craftwork and reduce it to simple, rote tasks. Workers who had taken pride in their labor were quickly bored by the more mundane assembly process. Some took to lateness and absenteeism. Many simply quit, and Ford found itself with a crippling labor turnover rate of 370 percent. The assembly line depended on a steady crew of employees to staff it, and training replacements was expensive. Ford reasoned that a bigger paycheck might make the factory’s tedium more tolerable.
If the need to retain workers was a partial motivation for the Five-Dollar Day, then the solution may have worked too well. Within days of the announcement, thousands of applicants came to Detroit from all over the Midwest and entrenched themselves at the Ford’s gate. The company was overwhelmed, riots broke out, and the crowds were turned away with fire hoses in the icy January weather. Ford announced that it would only hire workers who had lived in Detroit for at least six months, and the situation slowly came under control.
Those who did have jobs at Ford soon discovered that there were even more conditions. Lost in the headlines was the fact that the pay increase was not a raise per se, it was a profit sharing plan. If you made $2.30 a day under the old pay schedule, for example, you still made that wage under the Five-Dollar plan. But if you met all of the company’s requirements, Ford gave you a bonus of $2.70.
Part of Henry Ford’s reasoning behind the Five-Dollar Day was that workers who were troubled by money problems at home would be distracted on the job. If higher pay was intended to eliminate these problems, then Ford would make sure that his employees were using his largesse “properly.” The company established a Sociological Department to monitor its employees’ habits beyond the workplace.
To qualify for the pay increase, workers had to abstain from alcohol, not physically abuse their families, not take in boarders, keep their homes clean, and contribute regularly to a savings account. Moral righteousness and prudent saving were all well and good, but they were not generally an employer’s business—at least not outside of working hours. In contrast, Ford Motor Company inspectors came to workers’ homes, asked probing questions, and observed general living conditions. If “violations” were discovered, the inspectors offered advice and pointed the families to resources offered through the company. Not until these problems were corrected did the employee receive his full bonus.
Modifying manufacturing methods was one thing. Modifying the people who carried out those methods was quite another. Henry Ford and his supporters may well have seen the Sociological Department as a benevolent tool to benefit his employees, but the workers came to resent the intrusion into their personal lives. Ford himself eventually realized that the Sociological Department was unsustainable. By 1921, it was largely dissolved.
Wages Up, Sales Up
As for charges that Ford raised pay in pursuit of publicity, there’s no question that the Five-Dollar Day brought a spotlight on Ford Motor Company. But publicity is fleeting, and the Five-Dollar Day’s impact was far greater than newspaper headlines. Other automakers soon boosted their own wages to keep pace with Ford. Automobile parts suppliers followed suit. In time, workers in any number of fields were earning genuine “living wages” that afforded them comfort and security above basic food, shelter and clothing needs.
It’s no small detail that, as Henry Ford slyly observed, in the course of improving his employees’ standard of living, Ford also created a new pool of customers for his Model T. The Five-Dollar Day helped to bring members of America’s working class into its middle class. Better wages, combined with the affordable goods produced by the assembly line, are cornerstones of the prosperity that has characterized American life for so many of the past 100 years.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation of The Henry Ford.
Bobby Unser is one of auto racing’s major figures, counting among his victories three wins at the Indianapolis 500 and 13 wins at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. In 2009, Bobby and his wife Lisa donated papers and photographs documenting Bobby’s racing career and the family’s life to The Henry Ford, and over the course of 2013, we added nearly 2300 of these photographs to our digital collections. Just added is this photo of Bobby and some of his military colleagues, with a handwritten note on the back lamenting too-large Air Force shorts. Explore all our digital Bobby Unser material on our collections website.
The centerpiece article in the January 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics introduced its readers to the technical world of color television. Its title, “Color TV is Here” implies a sense of relief – finally we can see the televised world in a palette that reflects reality. Color was far from new when it came to moving images. At the cinema, the 1939 double-dose of Technicolor brilliance captured in Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz helped to anchor color film in popular culture. And, by 1950, Eastman Kodak’s monopack system made color film production even easier. At home, color television had been a long-standing promise with a lot of fanfare, but its lack of realization had begun to frustrate its supporters. Much like the early history of color photography, many complicated experiments occurred before the process was simplified and perfected enough to make a mass impact. Although test broadcasts using color equipment had been made in 1951 by CBS Broadcasting, it was not feasible to execute this mode of television on a large scale. Slow sales, bitter lawsuits, and a halt on broadcasting experiments as a result of the Korean War all played their part in a sluggish beginning for the new medium.
One of the biggest hurdles for color broadcasting was the need to conserve bandwidth. Many companies tested ideas, but it was RCA’s “all-electronic” system that eventually won the approval of the National Television Systems Committee (NTSC) in June 1953. By splitting information related to image and brightness into separate signals, less bandwidth was used. In the television studio, RCA TK-40 and TK-41 cameras were the first favorites to broadcast live color images, and remained the preferred technology through the 1960s.
When NBC finally debuted coast-to-coast color broadcasting, its subject matter was the Tournament of Roses parade on January 1, 1954. At this point, the ability for Americans to experience telecasts in color was no longer a futuristic fantasy, but an achievable reality. The full spectrum of the parade’s spectacle, however, was only viewable on a handful of prototype televisions by an elite group of advertising executives and investors. Mass production of televisions soon began, but the cost for early color models remained extraordinarily high. RCA Victor’s first production television for the home, the CT-100, cost $995 in 1954—the equivalent of $8500 today! Sales remained slow in the 1950s.
[caption id="attachment_19630" align="aligncenter" width="700"] Marie McNamara, a test model who became known as “Miss Color TV” for her role in NBC late-night color tests. [Broadcast News. Color Television Issue. Camden, N.J: Radio Corporation of America, Number 77, January-February 1954.] (ID: 99.190.2)[/caption]Before telecasts went live, each camera had to be “tuned,” much like a musical instrument. Cameramen were trained to make adjustments to the camera by focusing on and matching large color wheels wheeled onto the filming stage. Set and costume design played up a range of bright hues to be broadcast: colorful backgrounds and multi-layered costumes on actors highlighted the medium’s potential. The NBC peacock’s rainbow tail confidently fanned its plumage across the screens of viewers.
In preparation for the adoption of color programming, New York’s NBC-TV conducted late-night experiments with their “test girls,” who would appear for work in the small hours of the morning after the network had signed off. Marie McNamara was employed as a “living color chart” for two and a half years, and was referred to as “the loveliest guinea pig of the electronic era.” Her porcelain skin tone and shocking red hair put McNamara in a difficult telecast range, but if camera operators could get “Miss Color TV” looking good, the cameras were considered to be perfectly aligned. McNamara built up a cult following, as night owl viewers began to stay up past The Late, Late Show to see the silent, smiling woman. Some viewers even learned to lip-read in order to understand what she was chatting about with the television engineers working in the background.
In spite of NBC’s national color broadcast in 1954, programming for the next decade remained spotty. A small ratio of network programming was broadcast in color, but the majority of local programming stayed in black-and-white. And the lack of color programs is one reason why monochrome television owners were suspicious of making the switch. It took until the mid to late 1960s for viewers to indulge in the purchase of a color set.
Several factors are thought to have helped to catalyze this decision. First, in 1961, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color began broadcasting on Sunday evenings. The self-referential title reminded black-and-white viewers of the spectacle they were missing. In this same spirit, popular shows like The Andy Griffith Show, The Adventures of Superman, and The Lucy Show began to transition from filming in black-and-white to color. Second, 1966 was the first year of a full color prime time schedule, and NBC became the first all-color network that same year. More programming in color led to more viewer interest and willingness to invest in a stable technology. And finally, by the end of the 1960s, color sales were starting to pick up, with a more approachable set on the market for $495.
Once, Allen B. Dumont, television inventor and network owner, assured the public:
Nobody believes that color will completely replace black and white. There wouldn’t be much point in seeing wrestling bouts or horse races in color. […] There will always be plenty of monochrome shows to watch. (Popular Mechanics, Jan 1954, 282)
From the patience of engineers to that of businesses waiting selling the product, the early days of color television production and commerce were as finely calibrated as cameras upon a test girl. In 1972 color television sales finally defeated those of their monochrome cousins; two years later, two-thirds of American households had color sets.
Day, Michael. “Color TV is Here,” Popular Mechanics Magazine. Jan 1954.
Lind, A.H. “RCA Model TM-10A Color Video Monitor,” Broadcast News, Camden, N.J.: Radio Corporation of America, No.77, Jan/Feb 1954.
Magoun, Alexander B. Television: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2007.
Ovington, Reg. “TV’s Only Silent Star,” Detroit Times Sunday Pictorial Review. April 18, 1954.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Making Christmas ornaments in Henry Ford Museum, Christmas Eve 1986.
Earlier this month I was sent this blog post from Target showcasing some of their holiday ads from the past 60 years. From Christmas tree-filled print ads to YouTube-ready TV commercials, the post was a hit with many of my co-workers here at The Henry Ford.
The post got me thinking to some of my favorite holiday memories of THF. Growing up in southeastern Michigan, my parents were (and still are) proud members of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. One of our Christmas traditions every year was to visit the museum on Christmas Eve. We looked forwarded to making ornaments, adding our names to the huge visitor paper chain and, of course, taking our family picture by the Christmas tree.
As I thought about my favorite memories here, I wondered what kind of holiday programming memorabilia we had in our collections? Turns out, there's quite a bit!
Take a look at just a few samples of holiday programming from over the years at The Henry Ford.
Visitors to Greenfield Museum in 1964 were treated to "period decorations" for the first time. What could guests expect as they toured the Village? From this 1964 pamphlet:
Appropriate Christmas decorations, authenticated in each instance by careful research, have been installed in the 17th-century Cotswold Cottage, the 18th-century Secretary House, and the 19th-century Noah Webster House, Wright Homestead, and Ford Homestead, as well as in the Clinton Inn and the Martha-Mary Chapel. These buildings will be highlights of the regular guided tours during the holidays.
In the mood to learn more about crafting? Henry Ford Museum was the place for you during Christmas 1976! During the holiday season guests could learn about toymaking, counted thread embroidery, lace making, crewel embroidery, Christmas card painting, quilting, tinsmithing, broom making, candle making, glass blowing, weaving, doll making, cookie baking, basket making AND tole painting. Phew!
Need to know more about what was going on in the museum that year? Dial the Village Party Line!
In the 1980s, visitors enjoyed "Yuletide Evenings" in Greenfield Village, complete with sleigh ride tours and dinner inside Eagle Tavern.
While you might not think of a safari when you first think of the museum, children were definitely on the lookout with Santa in 1986 thanks to this holiday scavenger hunt. Chances are pretty good that I was one of those kids!
In the 1990s, the holidays were all about being a "unique event" in the museum and Village.
Lights have been a part of the Christmas tree tradition since at least the seventeenth century, when German families decorated evergreen boughs with wicks burning in tallow, oil, or more expensive wax. By the 1800s, candles had become commonplace in German and American homes, and people devised clever ways to affix them to Christmas trees.
Some selected long, thin rope candles that could be wrapped around Christmas tree branches. Others used wire to secure thicker candles, “glued” them to the tree with melted wax, or stuck them to branches using tacks or stick pins. The first commercially manufactured Christmas tree candleholders employed the stick pin method but offered additional support—turned-up metal tabs that held the candle.
Into the nineteenth century, innovators sought a remedy for dripping wax—a perennial holiday annoyance. A home lighting technology, the bobeche, or wax-catching dish, was patented for Christmas trees in 1867. Christmas tree candleholders soon featured crimped tin bobeches and wire or sharp tacks that united candle, wax-catcher, and tree branch.
As one might imagine, the clunky combination of tall candle, flimsy tin, and drooping branch—secured only by a bit of wire or small tack—lacked stability. Candles that leaned, even slightly, dripped wax onto ornaments or the floor. They were also potential fire hazards.
On Christmas Eve 1867, New Jersey inventor Charles Kirchhof received a patent for his counterweight candleholder—a solution to the tilting candle problem. Kirchhof designed a candleholder that hooked simply over a Christmas tree branch. Beneath it, a weight suspended from a wire ensured that the candle stayed upright. The effective, attractive design was a hit.
Counterweighted candleholders were popular in the late nineteenth century because they worked—and because their dangling weights added a pop of color or sparkle to the Christmas tree. Counterweights ranged from simple clay balls painted with solid or glittery lacquer to lead or tin shaped as pine cones, acorns, icicles, stars, birds, cherubs, or even Santa Claus.
Left: Candleholder featuring a brightly-painted clay counterweight, 36.637.9 (THF155315)
Right: This star-shaped counterweight is made of heavy lead, 126.96.36.199 (THF155314)
But the weight that made Kirchhof’s design so effective and so popular was also its biggest flaw. Counterweighted candleholders were heavy. They couldn’t be hung from small or dry boughs and caused even healthy branches to droop, sometimes sending a lighted candle tumbling into the tree or onto the floor.
In New York, inventor Frederick Arzt worked to improve the Christmas tree candleholder. In 1879, he introduced the spring clip candleholder. Light, reliable, and available in a variety of eye-catching designs and colors, the Christmas candle clip would remain prevalent into the 1920s.
These are Christmas Lights?
Candles weren’t the only nineteenth-century lighting source, even for the Christmas tree. Manufacturers applied other existing technologies, producing Christmas tree lanterns made of tin or thin glass. One inventor even patented a miniature Christmas tree oil lamp. A very early and popular American alternative to candleholders were glass “Christmas lights,” manufactured to be hung with wire from Christmas tree branches. Beautiful patterns in the clear or colored glass reflected light from inside, where a wick burned in cork or wood floating atop oil or water.
The Edison Electric Company released the technology that made electric Christmas lights a possibility in 1879, but American and German companies produced Christmas tree candleholders into the 1920s. Candle clips remained common, although they became less colorful and much simpler in form. Manufacturers continued to experiment, using soft wire and strips of tin in search of ever-safer designs.
Eventually, as electrification reached more American households and people gained trust in the new technology, electric Christmas tree lights caught consumers’ attention. Manufacturers wisely advertised the advantages of electric Christmas lights over candles: strands of electric lights (called “festoons”) could be turned on or off all at once—even better, they could stay lit for any desired amount of time with minimal attention. By the 1930s, Americans had made the switch from Christmas tree candles to electric Christmas lights—but the spirit of innovation that drove the development of Christmas tree candleholders lives on.
By Saige Jedele, Curatorial Assistant and The Henry Ford
It’s cold at the Ford-Wyoming Drive-In Theatre. The first shockingly dry-crisp days of autumn in the Midwest were overdue this year, trailing an already belated Indian summer. While the arrival of cool weather in Dearborn, Michigan, was inevitable, most of us have not yet adjusted to the sudden snap. Virgil, the manager in charge of the theatre, is standing high on a ladder, repairing the roof of the streamlined ticket booth. He waves a gloved hand and climbs down. We are both bundled up against the cold in all manner of hunter green, plaid, and wool.
Drive-in theatres like the one I’m standing in peaked in popularity during the post-WWII era. In the late 1950s there were 4,000 throughout the United States. Today, approximately 350 remain, and the Ford-Wyoming is the last example in southeast Michigan. The first patent for a drive-in theater was awarded to Richard M. Hollingshead in 1933. He worked out the details in his New Jersey driveway, by putting a projector on the hood of his car and nailing a sheet onto a tree for a screen. To simulate bad weather, he hooked up his lawn sprinkler. The family stereo came out of the house for an impromptu sound system. Hollingshead sat in his car, to test drive the show. He liked what he saw.
Virgil ushers me toward the corrugated metal opening through which vehicles enter the theatre. Once through, I’m in a wide expanse punctuated by randomly-leaning speaker posts, my eyes stinging from the wind gusting uninterrupted across the empty space. Most patrons choose to tune into their movie’s sound via their car FM radio, but strangely, when the theatre owners tried to decommission the ranks of poles with their perched and weathered speakers, there was something akin to a mutiny: whether deployed in the car or not, the grey speakers had become an essential part of the drive-in landscape.
The Ford-Wyoming drive-in was built by Charlie Schafer, opening for business in May 1950. He and his family grew a veritable movie house empire in the Metro-Detroit area under the umbrella of Wayne Amusements, but the Ford-Wyoming is the only evidence of the legacy that remains. When it was first built, there was only one screen—the backside of the immense Streamline Moderne structure that sits at the front of the property. One screen with accommodation for 750 cars grew to nine screens and a 3,000-car capacity, and the theatre began to make the claim of being “the largest drive-in in the world.” Today the theatre has downsized to five screens, showing double-features from dusk until dawn. As of 2013, at 92 years of age, Shafer remains an active manager, working from home, disinclined to retire.
Right now, the emptiness of the Ford Wyoming—no cars, blank screens, dead silence—is amplified by our presence, two figures buffeted by the wind. I look down and see a discarded pine tree car deodorizer lying in the sandy gravel. Virgil and I are headed toward the one place that drive-in patrons never get to go – the projection booth. Like most theatres, the Ford-Wyoming is converting their projectors to digital, and this is the reason I am here. The previous morning, I had received a call with a certain sense of urgency. The last of the 35mm machinery was headed for the dumpster, and I made an appointment to take a look to see if there were any items that might be added to the museum’s collection. We climb steep industrial iron stairs, up to the booth, and I wonder how the projectionists don’t trip down them in the dark carrying flashlights and film cans. Virgil tells me that he used to get the occasional flustered phone call from late-night projectionists: “I dropped the film reel down the stairs and it unraveled.”
“All this stuff is just going to get scrapped in the dumpster. Anything you see here… it’s up for the taking. The boss just wants it gone,” Virgil tells me. He pauses and asks: “Have you ever worked in film?” “A little, when I was in college,” I tell him. He nods and walks over to the shoulder high stack of table-sized film platters, where a few reels of forgotten 35mm film are wound around the circular cores. These mechanisms hold up to four hours of footage, making the projectionist’s life easier with fewer changeovers of reels. “We have some old intermission commercials wound on here that are ours.” “What’s on them?” “Oh, you know… Dancing hotdogs and popcorn, that kind of stuff. They’re pretty scratched up. We’ve been using the same ones out here for decades. I think we’ve only changed it over once.” This is very exciting. I tell him, “If you’re willing to part with one of those reels, I’d argue to the death that it has a home in our collections.”
Intermission films belong to a film category known as “snipes,” collections of generic promotional material used to advertise theater services. Perhaps the most famous of these films is the Dave Fleisher animated Let’s All Go to the Lobby, produced in 1957 by Chicago’s interstitial trailer company, Filmack Studios. A “clock shell” is a basic countdown reel sold to theatre owners, which creative projectionists could use to make a custom animated clock unique to their theatre. By tape-splicing together sections from the generic clock shell with blackout film, music interludes, generic food advertisements, policies, and short cartoons (all of which again, pointed towards the snack bar), a mix-and-match intermission film was created.
The film reel that Virgil is about to give to me is one such clock shell, beginning with the Hungry Martian, and followed by a unique version of Refreshment Time. The reel was produced by the animation department at the National Screen Service, a company that began in 1920 as a movie trailer production outfit, and in 1940 became the monopoly for poster distribution. The NSS also made intermission films, but suffered competition from companies like Filmack and Pike Studios, who specialized in the genre. The animation on the two snipes here is rumored to be by Jay Ward, animator of Rocky & Bullwinkle and designer of the Cap’n Crunch logo.
The concession stands and snack bars of drive-in theatres provided ready-made food that could be gathered quickly and returned to the car before the next feature began. Roadside America author John Magolies tells us this was a time when: “Watching and eating became, and still are, ritualistically and irrevocably intertwined.” Onscreen, the drive to sell snack items and drinks to patrons was decidedly transparent. Animated anthropomorphic dancing, trick-wrangling food things, psychedelic abstractions of wild shapes and colors, and other oddities have continued to be a nostalgic oddity. The Ford-Wyoming remains a site where dancing hotdogs stay limber.
While Virgil searches for an empty reel to feed the intermission film onto, we talk a little more about his life at the theatre. He has worked for Shafer since 1976, and used to manage the Ford-Wyoming 6-9 Theatre. When those screens were demolished in 2010, he relocated across the street to the 1-5 Theatre. Virgil started working as a projectionist in 1986 because “there was no one else wanted to do it.” When asked about the bizarre schedule related to working at an all-night movie theatre, he explained that he arrives at 8pm, and ends his shift at 3am. After a short rest, he returns at 7am to test equipment and do building maintenance until the early afternoon. Apparently, he doesn’t get much sleep. The Ford-Wyoming has a history of dedicated employees, and Berean is one of them.
Passing the reel to me, Virgil seems eager to get back to work. Before I go, he asks if I’m good with computers. “Good enough to get what I need to done,” I joke. He strides over to the new digital projector and swipes his finger around on the touch-screen. It glows awake with cold and even LED light, a docket of possibilities for film arrangements appear on the screen like entries on a recipe card. The screen acts as a digital slot system to swipe in and orchestrate trailers, advertisements and messages. I look at the text and scan it for hints of familiarity. I can’t help but wonder if drive-in theatres still project the “Anti-Love Bug” and “No Necking” messages for teenagers acting out their part in the archetype of the “passion pit.” Tonight, this projector will show a double-feature of horror films. Behind me, there are two more projectors, pointing out through windows, towards two more screens. I realize I’m standing in a film house Panopticon, next to a dusty brown La-Z Boy recliner that commands the space from the center.
I look up to see Virgil waving something in his hand that looks like an external computer hard-drive. “So you just take this thing, it sucks it up into the slot, extracts the files, and away it goes! They told me I could make everything work from a laptop… I could just stay at home if I felt like it!” Looking at the files arranged on the touch screen, I wander to thoughts about the demise of 35mm film stock. Film enthusiasts who did not grow up with digital foresaw this harbinger when Kodak ceased production of 35mm slide film. Struggling to resist giving in to the comforting hum of those sleep-inducing machines was the bane of many college level art survey courses, my own included. And sitting at the back of a movie theatre, you could enjoy the physicality of the sounds: the whir of the film flying through the projector, the metallic rhythmic clacking when the sprockets let the end leader fly. The reasons for converting to digital are many, and I’m sure Virgil would agree. But at the risk of sounding like a Luddite: the dust floating through the blinding arc lamp of a true film projector just settles differently.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.