Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Many people know that The Henry Ford has in its collection the presidential limousine in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This limousine is currently on display in Henry Ford Museum.

But our Kennedy-related collections encompass much more than this limousine. They include materials that relate to such topics as his presidential campaign, inauguration, vision for a New Frontier, media coverage of his assassination, and the public commemoration after his death.

While we already had many Kennedy-related collections, the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination gave us the unique opportunity to expand upon these collections. In keeping with our interest in highlighting innovation stories at The Henry Ford, this new collecting focused on President Kennedy as a social innovator—that is, the ways in which his impact radically altered the status quo in our society. Using this approach, we focused our recent collecting upon the following topics:

  • Kennedy’s unprecedented use of the medium of television to influence public opinion
  • The reinforcement of the Kennedy image in popular magazines
  • President Kennedy’s establishment of a Peace Corps
  • Kennedy’s stepping-up of America’s space program to eventually land a man on the moon
  •  

    Here is a sampling of our collections relating to Kennedy’s presidency, his role as a social innovator, and his enduring legacy.


    (Object ID: 2001.79.1) Political campaign bumper sticker, 1960.

    Using giveaways like this campaign bumper sticker, Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy launched an exhaustive campaign in 1960 against Republican opponent Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. Despite charges that he lacked experience and that his Catholic background would hurt him, Kennedy eventually won the very close 1960 election.

    (P.833.132854.3) John F. Kennedy Inaugural Parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., January 20, 1961.

    On January 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s swearing-in as 35th President of the United States was followed by an official parade up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. As shown in this photograph, President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline rode in a 1949 Lincoln that had served Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. The presidential limousine we generally associate with President Kennedy was not completed until June of that year.

    (Object ID: 2013.91.1) Souvenir Card, President John F. Kennedy at televised Press Conference, April 3, 1963.

    From the outset of his presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy seemed to understand instinctively how to harness the power of the new medium of television to influence public opinion. The first televised debate between Senator Kennedy and Vice-President Nixon was considered a key turning point in the 1960 Presidential election. As President, Kennedy also held live televised press conferences, like the one shown on this souvenir card.

    (Object ID: 2013.71.1) Look Magazine, “Our New First Family,” February 28, 1961.

    Americans were enchanted by the Kennedy family and they wanted to know more, always more. Photographs and feature articles of young President John F. Kennedy and his attractive family fostered a sense of intimacy between the Kennedys and the American public—and, of course, sold magazines. Life and Look magazines, the popular documenters of American life at the time, often featured behind-the-scenes photo-essays of President Kennedy and his family.

    (Object ID: 2013.75.3) Look Magazine, “JFK’s legacy: The Peace Corps,” June 14, 1966.

    Kennedy viewed his vision for a Peace Corps as an opportunity for young Americans to spread hope and goodwill across the world while also serving as a new weapon against the Cold War. By 1964 this program—which had been established March 1, 1961—had received an all-time high of over 45,000 applications. In 1966, less than three years after President Kennedy’s tragic death, Look magazine commissioned Norman Rockwell to portray Kennedy’s Peace Corps legacy for the cover of its June 14, 1966 issue.

    (Object ID: 2013.54.1) Souvenir Card, Astronaut Alan Shepard Receiving Distinguished Service Medal from President Kennedy, 1961.

    President John F. Kennedy’s vision to explore the "new frontier" of outer space was an overt Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union, which had launched the first man into outer space on April 12, 1961. Kennedy’s bold vision for a stepped-up space program—that would land a man on the moon before the decade was out—ignited the public’s imagination. Americans cheered every new achievement. This souvenir card shows President Kennedy awarding NASA's Distinguished Service Medal to the first U.S. astronaut, Alan Shepard, three days after his successful space flight on May 5, 1961.


    (Object ID: 97.1.1798.3) Teletype Message with Wire Service News Coverage of John F. Kennedy Assassination, November 22, 1963.

    From the moment of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, reporters struggled to make sense of exactly what happened and how events unfolded in ensuing moments, hours, and days. Our collection of teletype dispatches, newspapers, and magazines reflect how breaking news of this tragic event was reported and how it changed over time.


    (Object ID: 2013.50.23) Commemorative United States Postage Stamp fro John F. Kennedy, 1964.

    Stunned and disillusioned Americans embraced commemorative items relating to President Kennedy after his death. These items, including books, magazines, phonograph records, and this postage stamp, helped people mourn and enabled them to re-connect with their charismatic—and now deceased—leader. Commemorative items recalling the optimistic era when John F. Kennedy was President and Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady are still popular today.

    Check out these and many more of our Kennedy-related collections via the links below:

  • JFK Remembered: Presidential Campaign
  • JFK Remembered: Inauguration
  • JFK Remembered: On Television
  • JFK Remembered: Public Image
  • JFK Remembered: Space Program
  • JFK Remembered: Peace Corps
  • JFK Remembered: Assassination
  • JFK Remembered: Commemoration
  • Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, was in third grade when President Kennedy was assassinated. She would like to thank Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Prints and Photographs, and Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts, for their assistance in writing this blog post.

    JKF, limousines, presidential limousines

    Earlier this year Mother Nature Network posted a story about root vegetables with the headline “the most underappreciated produce.” While root vegetables might not have the glossy, shiny look of other produce finds in the grocery store today, they’re a staple for winter cooking and an important part of our diets for hundreds of years.

    What is a root vegetable? Potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, rutabagas, beets, onions, garlic and yams are all root vegetables.

    In the 18th century, fellow root vegetables skirrets and Jerusalem artichokes were common in many diets, along with the above offerings. During this time period, Americans’ palates were very explorative and diverse and included many takes on root vegetable preparation.

    Take for example radishes. While radishes can often be found in our salads today as a small garnish, centuries ago they were grown to have large roots to consume. On the opposite hand, however, about 20 years before the Civil War, the carrot had primarily been viewed as a field crop; something you’d give to your horse to eat, not something to enjoy as a snack.

    Families stored their vegetables in cellars or even in the ground during cold, winter months. From soups to stews and more, having a good supply of vegetables to choose from allowed the cook to experiment with different dishes.

    Root vegetables would be cooked and dressed as part of the meal; eating them raw was unheard of, and is actually a relatively new way of enjoying them. Often times the vegetables would be cooked over an open fire with that day’s meat selection on a game roaster. Spices were added to the cooking for additional flavor.

    As Americans diets and palates changed after the Civil War, the diversity in what we consumed changed into a less-exciting offering. Gone were the creative uses families a generation early had enjoyed.

    At The Henry Ford today, we work hard to show our visitors what life was like for families who relied on what they created themselves; root vegetables are obviously a big part of that. Not only can you visit our homes and learn more about how a family, like the Daggetts, Firestones or Fords, prepared items like root vegetables in their own kitchens, you can taste them for yourself at one one of our restaurants.

    If you’re curious to learn more about recipes including root vegetables, try looking at:

  • “The Compleat Housewife” by Eliza Smith
  • “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons
  • “The Frugal Housewife” by Susannah Carter
  • “The Art of Cookery” by Hannah Glasse
  • The next time you’re at the grocery store, take a step out of your comfort zone and try a new-to-you root vegetable. When you try something new, make sure to tell us what you thought of it and how you prepared it. To get you thinking, try these recipes for chicken fricassee with root vegetables and braised rabbit.

    Chicken Fricassee with Root Vegetables
    INGREDIENTS

  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 3 chicken breasts, large dice
  • 1/2 cup onion, diced
  • 2 cups root vegetables, medium dice (parsnips, rutabaga and sweet potato)
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 pinch nutmeg
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • TT salt & pepper
  • 1 Tbsp parsley, chopped
  • METHOD

  • Sauté chicken in butter in a hot large skillet until brown, take out of pan, reserve.
  • Add onions, root vegetables, thyme and bay leaf to pan and cook through.
  • Add white wine and reduce by half then add the cream, chicken and nutmeg and simmer for 6-8 minutes until chicken is cooked thorough and sauce thickens.
  • Season with lemon, salt and pepper, top with parsley.
  • Can be served with buttered noodles or other favorite side.
  • Eagle Tavern's Braised Rabbit
    INGREDIENTS

  • 1 whole rabbit, 2.5-3 pounds
  • As needed all-purpose flour
  • Oil or butter to brown
  • 1 cup Spanish onion, large dice
  • 1/2 cup carrot, large dice
  • 1/2 cup celery, large dice
  • 1/4 cup turnip, large dice
  • 1/4 cup rutabaga, large dice
  • 1 cup red skin potatoes, large dice
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh tarragon, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 6 cups chicken or rabbit stock
  • TT salt and pepper
  • METHOD

  • Remove legs and arms off of rabbit with a sharp knife.
  • With a large knife or cleaver, chop off rib cage and tail portion for stock (if time permits roast these portions until brown and add to simmering chicken stock for bolder flavor).
  • Heat a braising pan or Dutch style oven until warm, season and dust rabbit pieces with flour and add slowly to pan to brown. By adding too quickly you will shock the pan and not allow proper browning and the rabbit may stick to the pan.
  • When rabbit has been nicely browned, take out of pan and reserve on a platter.
  • Add onion, carrots and celery, cook for 3-4 minutes on medium heat then add remaining vegetables, potatoes and herbs, cook for 4-5 minutes more.
  • Add the rabbit back into the pot and then the stock.
  • Cover and place in a 350 degree oven for 1.5 hours or until the leg portions are tender and fall off the bone.
  • When tender add salt and pepper, taste adjust as needed.
  • Divide into four bowls and enjoy.
  • Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.

    Food, vegetables

    The admiration Henry Ford held for his friend Thomas Edison has deeply shaped Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, as evidenced today through the cornerstone in the Museum and through more than a half-dozen buildings related to Edison’s life and work in Greenfield Village. We’ve just digitized a number of photos of Edison to bring the total number of our Edison-related collections objects online to nearly 250, with a few more coming soon. Visit our collections site to see this photo of Edison in his West Orange lab in 1920, as well other recently added photos of the inveterate tinkerer analyzing things such as dictating machines, telegraph keys, and even an electric streetcar.

    Edison, photographs

    This month, we mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most dramatic – and traumatic – turning points in American history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. In that single instant, the perceived calm of the postwar era was shattered and “The Sixties” – civil rights legislation, Vietnam, the counterculture – began. Few artifacts from that day are as burned into public memory as the 1961 Lincoln Continental that carried President Kennedy through Dallas.

    The car, code named X-100, started life as a stock Lincoln convertible at Ford Motor Company’s Wixom, Michigan, assembly plant. Hess & Eisenhardt, of Cincinnati, Ohio, stretched the car by 3½ feet and added steps for Secret Service agents, a siren, flashing lights and other accessories. Removable clear plastic roof panels protected the president from inclement weather while maintaining his visibility. The car was not armored, and the roof panels were not bulletproof. The modified limo cost nearly $200,000 (the equivalent of $1.5 million today), but Ford leased it to the White House for a nominal $500 a year.

    The X-100 during its initial customization, 1961. (P.B.90912)

    It was a perfect marriage between car and passenger. The Lincoln’s clean, modern lines broke away from the showy chrome and tail fins of the pervious decade, and they seemed to mirror the young president’s turn toward a “New Frontier.” Kennedy used the limo many times during his thousand days in office, and it became tied to him in the public consciousness even before the tragedy in Dallas.

    President John F. Kennedy and King Hassan II of Morocco ride through Washington, D.C., March 1963. (2011.241.14.38)

    After the assassination, officials from the Secret Service and the FBI examined the car and removed any potential evidence, and then ordered that it be rebuilt and returned to duty. While this decision is astonishing in retrospect, it was one of simple practicality. The president needed a parade car, and it was much faster to modify the X-100 than to build an entirely new vehicle. The $500,000 project (some $3.8 million today), dubbed the “Quick Fix,” produced a true armored car. Titanium plating reinforced the doors, body panels and floor. Filters in the heating and cooling systems protected against poison gas. The now-permanent roof, fitted with bullet-resistant glass, provided a compromise between safety and visibility. In a final change, the car’s deep blue paint was replaced with a more somber black.

    The rebuilt X-100 at the White House, October 1964. (2011.241.14.45)

    The rebuilt car served Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter before being retired in 1977. By then it was 16 years old and outdated in both appearance and equipment. It returned to Ford Motor Company, which in turn donated it to The Henry Ford in 1978. The limousine quickly became one of the most important pieces in the museum’s collection.

    Fifty years after the assassination, the car has lost none of its power as an icon of American change. Visitors still pause to reflect on the limousine, whether they are older adults who lived through those painful November days, or young children whose parents weren’t even born when the car came to The Henry Ford.

    By Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation.

    JFK, limousines, presidential limousines

    You might have seen a news story making the rounds earlier this year involving analysis of some of the patent medicines in The Henry Ford’s collections by the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department at University of Detroit Mercy in conjunction with conservation staff from The Henry Ford. We’ve just digitized a sampling of the medicines that were analyzed, including “Dr. Sawens Magic Nervine Pills,” with a few more coming soon. See a variety of the medicines and related trade cards on our collections site. Be sure to click the second tab on the medicines’ records to see the analysis that was done!

    patent medicines

    You may be familiar with the many clocks featured in the Clockwork exhibit in Henry Ford Museum. However, The Henry Ford also has hundreds of clocks in storage, and scores more displayed in different places on the Museum floor and in Greenfield Village. We’ve just digitized about 20 timepieces, including this mid-19th century example, which can be seen in Smiths Creek Depot. View more than 60 clocks and other related objects on our digital collection site.

    clocks, watches

    Before the 20th century and the development of modern medicine, death came early and often. Maladies considered minor today were scourges in 18th and 19th centuries. Disease combined with complications of childbirth and exposure to harsh elements led to a high mortality rate. One way people coped was to wear memorials of loved ones in the form of mourning jewelry.

    The Henry Ford holds a comprehensive collection of mourning jewelry dating from the early 18th century through the late 19th century. Recently, we took the opportunity to examine and conserve a group of approximately forty pendants and brooches dating from the late 18th century to the early 19th century

    Fashions and forms of mourning jewelry varied significantly over time. The earliest American mourning jewelry pieces were rings, created in the 17th and early 18th centuries, inscribed with the name and usually the age of the deceased. In many instances epitaphs such as "gone but not forgotten" were included. Later in the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, pendants and brooches vied for popularity with rings. These pendants are some of the most enigmatic examples of morning jewelry – they take form of pictorial miniatures, painted on ivory, meant to be worn or held as keepsakes with images of the dearly departed.

    The images follow a standard formula, usually a landscape with a weeping figure standing in front of a monument with the name of the deceased, date of death and an epitaph, as in the rings. The figures are dressed in the Neoclassical fashions popular in the early days of the new Republic, when Americans saw themselves as latter-day Greeks and Romans. These included design elements such as urns, plinths and geometric forms derived from Classical architecture. The figures were painted with sepia-colored ink, sometimes combined with dissolved human hair from the deceased. Backgrounds typically included landscapes featuring "weeping" willow trees and an inscribed monument to the deceased.

    Mourning Pendant for Samuel Ralston, 1795, object ID 61.151.6. Front and back.

    The pendant dedicated to Samuel Ralston, who died on 10 January 1795, might serve as a model mourning miniature – the front side shows the ubiquitous weeping woman holding a child by the hand. She mourns in front of a monument with a triangular top, surmounted by an urn. The monument base is inscribed, "How transient is human happyness [sic]." An angel floats in the sky above, carrying a scroll with the haunting epitaph, "Welcome to Bliss . . . . " The reverse side is equally revealing about the nature of these keepsakes. A glass-enclosed insert is filled with a woven snippet of the deceased's hair, another tangible remembrance. This was a common feature in many mourning pendants.

    Mourning Pendant for the Potts Family, 1797, object ID 61.151.37. Front and back.

    The use of hair as a keepsake reaches its peak in a pendant containing the hair of three members of the Potts family. This is an unusual example – the pictorial scene is absent, replaced with decorative and distinctively arranged samples of hair. From the inscriptions on the front, we know that the earliest was W.R. Potts, who died on 28 August 1779, at the tender age of 19 months. The second was Eliza. Potts, who died on 19 November 1787 at the age of 32. On the reverse is a woven section of hair from Benjamin Potts, a toddler, who died on 2 February 1797 at the age of 3 years, 11 months. The question is how were these people related? Were they several generations of the family?

    Mourning Pendant, 1783, object ID 61.151.4. Front and back.

    The third example is perhaps the most enigmatic in our collection. The front of this unknown memorial is decorated in a typical landscape scene with two weeping figures in front of an urn-topped monument. An angel flutters in the sky, breaking up the epitaph, "Not Lost but Gone Before." Interestingly, a male figure is shown on the right, kneeling before a second monument. Who is this figure? The reverse image is extraordinary -- a detailed interior bedroom scene. We are viewing the deceased lying in a large poster-type bed next to a male figure holding a child. We can assume that his wife has died, leaving this gentleman with a motherless child. The interior is complete with windows, a decorative floor covering, rendered in an odd perspective, and a side chair supporting a coffin. The coffin is decorated with skulls, a motif intended to describe the transitory nature of life. What is the meaning of this scene? Was it to console, remind, or both? Is the figure on the front side a representation of the grieving father on the reverse? Perhaps. This piece raises questions about the individual who commissioned it and the rather ambitious artist who created it.

    Mourning jewelry, especially those pieces with pictorial imagery, provides an insight into the trials of everyday life in the centuries before the advent of the modern world. It is difficult for us to imagine the level of mortality which led to the everyday use of such objects. To those who commissioned these mementos, they provided a tangible reminder of a beloved family member. Today, we view them as representations of a now vanished world.

    Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

    funerals, jewelry

    Hallowe'en Postcards

    October 24, 2013

    This selection of postcards represents a uniquely American blend of Hallowe'en traditions that by the early 1900s included the popular activity of sending and collecting these holiday-themed greeting cards.

    The colonial American traditions of Hallowe'en centered on celebrations of the harvest, fortune-telling, and even matchmaking. Later immigrants brought new layers of customs and practices, including the jack-o-lantern that is perhaps today's best-known symbol of the American holiday. By the 1890s the growing print media publicized Hallowe'en from its pockets of regional variation across the country, making it a truly national affair. Over time, the holiday became a community observance of eerie fun for all ages.

    Based on early 20th-century Hallowe'en celebrations, our annual Greenfield Village Hallowe'en is one of our most attended public events. Since 1981, we have often given guests attending this evening program a reproduction postcard as one of the treats. (This year's Hallowe'en postcard, pictured above, was designed by Ellen Clapsaddle in 1917.) As an amusing addition since 2010, we have created a photo opportunity vignette using an enlarged version of the postcard giveaway. Our Phoenixville Post Office also offers for sale and mailing a selection of Hallowe'en postcard repros from past years, starting in the autumn.

    Halloween Card, 1908

    M.W. Taggert designed this postcard in 1908 with the message, "Hallowe'en," It shows a host of images associated with this holiday – a witch on a broom headed by a carved pumpkin flying with bats, an owl and cats across the full harvest moon. We gave away repro postcards of this one during a past Greenfield Village Hallowe'en. (Object ID 2004.68.1)

    Halloween Card, "Sh! Ghosts!" 1909

    This postcard features a pumpkin-headed girl wearing a white bonnet and red dress and holding a cat while saying "Sh! Ghosts!" Ullmann Manufacturing Company published it in 1909 with the heading, "Hallo E'en". We gave away repro postcards of this one during a past Greenfield Village Hallowe'en. (Object ID 94.81.1)

    Halloween Postcard, "The Halloween Lantern," 1914

    In this postcard, a carved jack-o-lantern illuminates the transformed harvest field of an improbable but fun car ride by a witch and various vegetables during the full moon. John Winsch designed "The Hallowe'en Lantern," card in 1914. We gave away repro postcards of this one during a past Greenfield Village Hallowe'en. (Object ID 2007.69.1)

    Halloween Postcard Showing Young People on a Hayride, circa 1912

    This postcard shows a group of young people enjoying an evening hayride through the harvest fields. Raphael Tuck & Sons published it about 1912. We gave away repro postcards of this one during a past Greenfield Village Hallowe'en. (Object ID 2008.84.1)

    Halloween Greeting Postcard, 1907-1912

    This postcard carries the long message, " 'Curioser and Curioser' All hallowe'en. Hallowe'en Greeting." It shows a row of jolly carved pumpkins in a harvest field, made from the artwork by Ellen H. Clapsaddle by the International Art Company about 1907-1912. (Object ID 2013.79.1)

    Cynthia Read Miller is Curator of Photographs and Prints at The Henry Ford.

    Halloween, Halloween postcards

    In the last third of the 19th century, an unprecedented variety of consumer goods and services flooded the American market. Advertisers, armed with new methods of color printing, bombarded potential customers with trade cards. Americans enjoyed and often saved the vibrant little advertisements. We’ve just finished digitizing over 800 trade cards from The Henry Ford’s collection, including this example promoting a theatrical event. Visit our collections site to read the back, which promises “a Gorgeous Pagent [sic], Bewildering to the Mind and Dazzling to the Senses.”

    Thanks to this week's co-author Saige Jedele, Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford.

    advertisements, advertising

    It is amazing how the roots of innovation can be essentially lost over time. Technological advancements now arrive at such a staggering rate that the gadgets of the past—that very ones that led us to the present—are forgotten and virtually unknown. Phonevision is one such invention.

    Developed by the Zenith Radio Corporation and its founder/president, Eugene McDonald Jr., Phonevision was the first pay television service the world had ever seen. As early as 1931 the company had looked into the idea of subscription television, believing that many stations couldn’t survive on advertising dollars alone. In July 1947, Zenith announced the Phonevision system, which would allow films, Broadway plays, sporting events and other special programming to be broadcast in the home—commercial free. Homeowners with a special receiver/unscrambling device connected to their television set would select from a list of available content and then call Zenith to request the program they wanted to see, which would then be transmitted at designated times via telephone lines into the receiver. A $1 charge, per program, would be added to the homeowner’s monthly phone bill.

    In these early years of television, McDonald theorized that TV and the advertising industry were caught up in a “vicious triangle,” where advertisers wouldn’t spend money without a large audience, but large audiences wouldn’t watch without quality entertainment, and the private companies that owned stations didn’t have the money to pay for such programming. McDonald—an interesting figure, who could be described as part Steve Jobs, part P.T. Barnum—believed his pay-as-you-see model wouldn’t just benefit the television industry and consumers, but would also “save the film industry financially unless someone fumbles the ball.” Not one for false modesty, he was fond of quoting a friend’s prediction: “The American family, put on the road by Henry Ford, will be brought back home by Gene McDonald.”

    The biggest obstacle facing Zenith was the reluctance of the film companies to license their product. The movie studios didn’t want to upset theater owners and they were bound by contract to keep music from films off of TV. To negotiate with the movie studios, Zenith hired an IRS collector by the name of James P. Finnegan. He was so convincing that the studios not only relented, they didn’t charge Zenith a dime. Mr. Finnegan was later indicted by a federal grand jury for various misdeeds.

    United States Patent for Subscription Television Decoder Unit, issued June 27, 1961, object ID 90.1.1746.25, from Mel Boldt and Associates records.

    In 1949, Zenith received authorization from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to test its service, and would begin the experiment the following year in Chicago, with three hundred households signing up to try Phonevision.

    Subscription television made its global debut on May 1, 1950, with the tryout lasting ninety days. “It was successful far beyond our expectations,” McDonald declared, while the Theater Owners of America—somewhat unsurprisingly—had a conflicting opinion, and proclaimed Phonevision “a monumental flop.” According to Zenith’s numbers, Chicago families had viewed films 1.73 times a week, which was almost four times the average movie-going rate over the same period (McDonald, exaggerating somewhat, claimed it was thirty-three times the average). Even though all the films aired during the test were over two years old, 92% of those who used the subscription service said they would rather watch from home than go to the movies. It appeared theater owners were in trouble and Phonevision was on its way to sweeping the nation.

    More testing was conducted during the spring of 1954 on WOR in New York City. This time airborne signals were used instead of phone lines (the public wasn’t involved). The results were overwhelmingly positive, proving the system worked even in densely populated areas with tall buildings, resulting in a change to an “over-the-air” transmitter set-up (though the name Phonevision could have been considered obsolete at this point, Zenith stuck with it). The company had also developed different means to watch programming. One way was via a coin box decoder, while another device would unscramble the picture after the viewer entered the correct combination.

    In this design, a coin slot is built in to the left-hand side of the decoder. United States Patent for Subscription Television Decoder with Coin Slot, issued June 27, 1961, object ID 90.1.1746.23, from Mel Boldt and Associates records

    In the fall of 1954, ABC passed on airing a television ad for the service, and in April the following year CBS followed suit, stating, “Phonevision is not a product, it’s a controversial issue.” Zenith was not amused, charging CBS with “arbitrary and unwarranted censorship.” In May, the go-ahead was given for a month of testing on WMAL in Washington, DC, so Zenith could audition Phonevision at a broadcasters’ convention, as well as for the FCC and Congress, with fifty systems installed in the capitol building (the company was still attempting to secure the all-important FCC approval of Phonevision as a broadcast service). In June, Zenith licensed Phonevision to the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Channel Islands, having inked a similar deal for the Australian and New Zealand markets the previous year.

    Eugene McDonald Jr. passed away in 1958, but Zenith’s belief in Phonevision was unwavering, and by 1961 the company had invested millions refining their subscription television system. Yet the jury was still out at the FCC.

    United States Patent for Subscription Television Decoder Unit, issued June 27, 1961, object ID 90.1.1746.24, from Mel Boldt and Associates records.

    The company’s next test, in collaboration with RKO General, would take place in Hartford, Connecticut. Beginning June 29, 1962, UHF station WHCT would continue to broadcast commercial television during the day, but switch to Phonevision programming in the evening. By 1964, Zenith began to have doubts about the service, and though the Hartford test lasted until January 31, 1969, they never obtained the subscriber numbers needed.

    Come April 1969, word was that FCC approval was imminent, and while Zenith was still optimistic about its product, it was cautiously so. By the time the FCC made its decision in 1970, finally giving pay television the green light, Phonevision was no more. Part of its downfall could be attributed to the fact that programming was still only viewable in black and white.

    Over-the-air systems reappeared for a period beginning in 1977 (ON-TV, an example of what was available in the Detroit market, broadcast films via WXON in the evening hours), but ultimately lost out to cable television. Pay-per-view TV, which took hold in the early 1980s, can be traced to Zenith’s service, as can the very idea of purchasing commercial-free content for home viewing. Today, movies and television shows can be downloaded via Amazon and iTunes and watched on devices like Roku and Apple TV, while untold hours of media can be streamed on Netflix and other services that offer “on demand” content—without commercial interruption. While it is also possible to view said content on mobile devices—far from our television sets—in a sense, Eugene McDonald Jr. has finally brought us all back home.

    Zenith "Phonevision" Subscription Television Decoder Unit with Control Panel Open, 1958, object ID 90.1.1746.21, from Mel Boldt and Associates records.

    Nearly a decade after his death, Mr. McDonald was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame, for, among other accomplishments, his role in the development of subscription television. The service he so passionately promoted ultimately failed, but the concept has proved incredibly successful. Though Phonevision is now largely forgotten, it was the true beginning of pay TV.

    Bart Bealmear is a reading room assistant in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.

    Resources

    Hallowell, Mary Louise. The Cable/Broadband Communications Book, 1977-1978, Communications Press, 1977.

    Mullen, Megan. The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States, University of Texas Press, 2003. More here.

    Segrave, Kerry. Movies at Home: How Hollywood Came to Television, McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999.

    Sterling, Christopher H. Biographical Dictionary of Radio, Routledge, 2011.

    The Zenith Story: A History from 1919, Zenith Radio Corporation, 1955.

    “Phonevision,” Life, February 5, 1951. More here.

    “Proposed Phone-Television System,” Popular Mechanics, October 1947.

    Various Time articles, 1947-1964.

    Various New York Times articles, 1955-1969.

    movies, TVs