Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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With mail order catalogs, rural Americans could choose from among a much wider variety of goods than at their local general store. THF119939 and THF115221

Today, shopping opportunities are everywhere—as a way to purchase things we need, as well as leisure time entertainment. We cruise the mall, trod the aisles of big-box stores, browse the shelves of trendy boutiques, roll our carts down the grocery store aisle, stop off at the convenience store, flip through store catalogs delivered to our door, and shop online. We can even shop from the convenience of our smartphone or tablet. Shopping is now a 24-7 opportunity filled with endless choices of goods made all over the world.

During the late 19th century, things were quite different. Most Americans lived on farms or in small villages--shopping choices were limited. Yet, the advent of mail order shopping was opening up a world of new possibilities.

Shopping Locally
Where did most rural people shop during the late 19th century? Usually the small stores located at a nearby village or town or perhaps a general store located at a country crossroads.  These stores provided a narrow selection of items that served the needs of the locals, yet offered shoppers the tactile experience of handling the goods before deciding to purchase. Factories were turning out consumer goods of all kinds, advertising trumpeted the merits of the products to potential customers, and railroads made it easier to get those goods to rural stores as well urban ones—so rural shoppers in America’s hinterland could obtain some of the same or similar items found in the city. 

Still—small town shopkeepers couldn’t afford to stock an endless variety of merchandise to broaden their customers’ choices. So, instead of selecting from dozens of shoe styles or tableware patterns, or printed fabric designs, rural customers often made their choices from whatever goods were at hand in the local merchant’s store.

Mail Order Shopping Debuts
During the final decades of the 19th century, America’s farmers developed a growing discontent towards institutions they felt were stealing too large a share of their hard-earned profits: “middlemen” like the grain elevator operators who they felt were paying too low a price for their crops and the storekeepers who they felt charged them too high a price for the goods they bought at retail. Farmers organized themselves into “the Patrons of Husbandry,” also known as the Grange, to protest these inequities as well as seek opportunities to form cooperatives through which they could purchase goods at wholesale prices.

Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago recognized that his innovative idea for direct-mail marketing meshed well with this growing discontent on the part of farmers. In 1872, Montgomery Ward & Company launched what would become the first general mail order company in American history.  Advertising his company as “The Original Wholesale Grange Supply House,” Ward stated that the firm sold its goods to “Patrons of Husbandry, Farmers and Mechanics at Wholesale Prices.” His recipe for success—high volume, a wide selection of goods, ease of handling, and low prices—enabled Ward to extend the advantages found in urban marketplace directly to rural customers.

As Montgomery Ward & Company’s mail order business quickly grew, other companies joined in. The other mail order giant, Sears, Roebuck and Company, also located in Chicago, began offering mail order in 1888.  By 1900, these two mail order houses were the two greatest merchandisers in the world. Countless other firms offered a variety of goods from ready-made clothing to hardware and farm equipment, using the direct-marketing of mail order to extend their reach to customers all over the nation.

Mail order catalogs brought city and country together. The enticing products shown on their pages represented the new and modern to their rural readers, promising higher standards of living and material progress through the attractive goods and labor-saving devices displayed there. Mail order catalogs offered rural residents a “taste” of the urban experience, offering goods found in the shops and department stores that blossomed in the commercial districts of America’s burgeoning cities. Catalogs, of course, broadened the merchandise selection for some city people as well.

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Montgomery Ward & Company launched America’s first general mail order company.  Over 22 years later, their 1894-1895 catalog still proudly trumpeted this fact:  “Originators of the Mail Order Business.”
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A Cornucopia of Material Delights
Flipping through these mail order catalogs brought a visual feast of tens of thousands of products—some satisfying needs and some gratifying wants.  For a farm family whose lives and daily activities brought little variety, these catalogs opened a world of new material possibilities:  fashionable ready-made clothing, hats and hat trimmings, jewelry of all kinds, sewing machines, cook stoves, and hardware for use on the farm or stylish hinges to update farmhouse doors. Even carriages and automobiles could be shopped for by mail.  

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The northern Indiana family shown in this circa 1900 parlor photograph could have obtained many of the goods by mail order—even the piano. 
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The photograph above depicts a middle-class family from a farm or small town surrounded by the mass-produced goods that provided an attractive, comfortable lifestyle.  Many of the items could have been purchased from a mail order catalog. (Keep in mind that, while rural residents might have access to many of the same goods, they often had far less spending power than urban America.)

Delivering the Catalogs—and the Goods

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From placing the order to delivery of the goods, the image on the cover of this 1880s Jordan Marsh catalog suggests the ease of “successful” shopping by mail—allaying any concerns for those new to the process.  THF119786

Mail order catalogs came to farmers—not surprisingly--through the mail. Yet, for many years, that did not mean convenient delivery to their doorstep. Though city dwellers had enjoyed free home delivery of mail since 1863, rural residents still had to pick up their own mail at the nearest post office—even though they paid the same postage as the rest of the nation. Bad roads and distance often meant that farmers rarely picked up their mail more than once a week. So placing a catalog order could take longer for farm folk than city dwellers.  A farm family might pick up a catalog on a trip to town one week, then place the order the next time someone went to town. Payment for mail orders was made by money order, purchased through the post office.
In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added.  In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added.  In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added. In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

How did merchandise ordered get to the person who ordered it? Before the advent of rural free delivery, people could pick up small packages at the post office. Private express companies delivered larger packages shipped to the nearest railroad station, transporting them to the customer’s home. Farmers might use their own wagons to transport goods shipped by rail to them. 

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Heavy or large packages sent by mail were shipped to the local railroad station.  An express company would then deliver them to the customer.  If the customer owned a horse-drawn wagon, they might pick up the package at the railroad station themselves.
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After the beginning of rural free delivery, mail carriers delivered packages weighing up to four pounds to their customers’ mailboxes. By law, heavier packages had to be delivered by private express companies.  

In January 1913, the U.S. Postal Service established parcel post—now goods could be delivered directly to homes. It was an instant success, boosting mail-order businesses enormously. During the first five days of parcel post service nearly 1,600 post offices handled over 4 million parcel post packages. Within the first six months, 300 million parcels had been delivered. Weight and size limits were gradually expanded. By 1931, parcel post deliveries included packages weighing up to 70 pounds and measuring up to 100 inches.

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In the early years of rural mail delivery, farmers could use whatever was at hand as a mailbox—pails, cans or wooden crates. When rural free delivery became permanent and universal in 1902, the United States Post Office required rural customers to have regulation mailboxes in order to receive their mail.
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Something Gained, Something Lost
While catalog shopping brought variety and convenience to rural Americans during the late 19th and early 20th century, there was an important trade-off. The face-to-face communication and personal relationship that had existed between a local storekeeper and his customers was eroding, helped along by national advertising which told potential customers what to buy—rather than customers seeking the advice of the storekeeper. Too, stores became increasingly self-serve. This trend toward less personal, “non-local” shopping continued to grow throughout the 20th century for rural and urban people alike, involving not only orders by mail, but by phone and, eventually, the internet.  In the 21st century, sales of consumer goods increasingly take place online. 

Yet, more recently, people have come to value the attentive personal service offered and unique goods stocked by many local retailers. Many shoppers combine the advantages of shopping online for the wide variety goods available there, with the personal touch and service-oriented experience of shopping locally. Encouraging this shop-local trend are national campaigns like Small Business Saturday, which takes place Thanksgiving weekend, encouraging shoppers to patronize small retailers.

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

Microwave ovens gained popularity in the 1970s, becoming all but standard in American kitchens by the mid-1980s. These new appliances cooked food differently than conventional stovetop or oven methods, which worked by surrounding food with heat. In a microwave oven, electromagnetic waves caused food molecules to vibrate, creating heat that transferred from the outside to the center of the food.

Foods cooked much faster in microwave ovens than in conventional ones. For example, microwaving reduced the cooking time for a baked potato from 75 minutes to just four. And frozen meat pies, which could take 45 minutes to bake, would be ready after nine minutes in the microwave.

This time-saving cooking method promised convenience, but it took some getting used to, requiring adjustments to cookware and cooking techniques. Glass and plastic transmitted electromagnetic waves in microwave ovens, but metal reflected them, causing sparks that could damage the appliance or even cause a fire. Manufacturers had to develop heat-resistant cookware and cooking utensils safe for use in the microwave.

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With specialized cookware and new cooking techniques, Americans could microwave a variety of foods (including fish) quickly, with familiar results.
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In addition to purchasing microwave-safe cookware, Americans needed to learn new cooking techniques. Familiar foods required different preparation -- eggs had to be removed from shells and stirred to break the yolks, and potatoes needed to be pierced before cooking. People also had to change their expectations, as microwave cooking didn’t brown or crisp many foods the way conventional methods did. Meat could be cooked in the microwave -- with varying results. Specialized browning skillets provided some familiar texture and flavor to meats that would otherwise seem limp and unappetizing.

Microwave manufacturers included instruction manuals and recipe suggestions with the ovens they sold. Cookbooks also helped home cooks adjust. Some offered information on how to convert conventional recipes for microwave cooking, while others focused solely on recipes created specifically for the microwave. Two booklets from the collections of The Henry Ford offer a look at the early decades of microwave cooking in America.

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Some manufacturers published microwave cookbooks to promote their products. 
From Freezer to Microwave to Table (1978) encouraged people to use Amana microwaves and freezers and cover foods with Saran Wrap. Recipes in Campbell's Microwave Cooking (1987) called for ingredients made by the Campbell Soup Company.THF275056 and THF275081

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Microwave cooking required people to arrange, stir or turn, and cover food differently than with conventional methods. Cookbooks describing these techniques helped Americans adjust
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This brownie recipe reminded cooks to use heat-resistant glass dishes and included instructions for melting, baking, defrosting, and reheating in the microwave. THF27506

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This omelet recipe with an Italian twist emphasized convenience and efficiency. It called for store-bought spaghetti sauce and required only two dishes for cooking--one of which, according to the suggestion highlighted in yellow, could be reused to sauce and serve pasta. THF275089

View these and other cookbooks at the Reading Room in the Benson Ford Research Center, and browse objects related to microwave ovens in our Digital Collections.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

Since the dawn of motorized transportation at the turn of the 20th century, buses have been part of America's transportation network. Bus routes have crisscrossed the nation, providing affordable connections to thousands of American cities and small towns. Buses have carried workers to their places of employment, shoppers to downtown stores or suburban malls, and children to school. They’ve shuttled people from the airport to the rental car agency or parking lot. And leisure travelers have boarded buses to explore the wonders of nature or enjoy the adventures offered in urban environments.

In 2009, The Henry Ford acquired the unique collection of internationally-renowned author and photographer Bill Luke, for whom buses were a personal passion as well as a career.

Bill Luke became a devotee of buses and bus travel at a very early age. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota, an area noted for several early bus companies, including Greyhound and National City Lines. As a kid, Luke became fascinated with the history and activities of these major lines. He started collecting bus memorabilia and then began a career in the bus industry, working for the Jefferson Transportation Company in Minneapolis and, later, for the Empire Lines in Spokane. Until 1996, Luke also published a well-known bus and motor coach trade publication, Bus Ride, which covered the people, products, and services in this ever-evolving industry.

Luke's collection is filled with photographs, periodicals, and ephemeral material such as uniform patches, tickets, company publications, timetables, and route maps for bus lines operating throughout the United States. “Hop aboard” and explore some selections from the William Luke Bus Collection (all items gifts of William Luke):

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Greyhound held the transportation contract for the 1933-1934 Chicago World's Fair. Sixty futuristic “trailer coaches” transported fairgoers to displays and attractions during the fair. THF108449

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In this late-1920s photograph, Greyhound bus drivers pose in new uniforms. Uniform jackets, pants, caps and boots gave drivers a professional appearance, implying that -- with these experts at the wheel -- Greyhound riders would enjoy a safe and comfortable trip. THF108451

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Helen M. Schultz started the Red Ball Transportation Company in 1922. Her bus route ran from Waterloo to Des Moines, Iowa. Schultz met many challenges while establishing her business, including competition from rival bus lines and the railroad, government regulations, and poor highway conditions. She sold Red Ball to the Jefferson Highway Transportation Company in 1930. THF108453

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Bus terminals of the 1920s and 1930s were often located in hotels. The Pickwick organization, which owned the Pickwick bus line, commonly built terminals adjacent to or inside its hotels, like this one in Kansas City. The bus terminal located on the first floor featured a turntable that rotated buses 180 degrees within a narrow space -- allowing buses to exit the same way they entered. THF108455

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Bus stations were often attractive as well as practical. Many terminals of the 1930s and 1940s sported streamlined facades -- the height of modernity during this time. These images of a Detroit terminal appeared in the 1941 book "Modern Bus Terminals and Post Houses," which featured photographs and floor plans of 45 recently-built bus stations. THF108459 and THF108460

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Bus Transportation
magazine sponsored a yearly contest for bus terminal window displays promoting the industry. This entry, a 1940 winner, enticed viewers to dream of a Michigan vacation enjoyed while traveling on the Blue Goose line. The judging staff called it "a highly original design with 'stop and look' appeal." THF108462

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Many long-distance bus companies operated special restaurants to service their travelers. This 1955 menu explains that Greyhound established its Post House restaurants -- named after stops along stagecoach routes where travelers could rest, eat, and possibly even secure lodgings -- to guarantee quality food and sanitary conditions. THF108464

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This 1980 photograph shows rapid transit buses -- part of an order for 940 vehicles bound for the Southern California Rapid Transit District in Los Angeles, California -- on the assembly line at General Motors’ Truck & Bus Division in Pontiac, Michigan. THF108469

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Bus Ride magazine kept readers apprised of developments in the bus industry, including new technologies, changing regulations, and the evolving travel market. The William Luke Bus Collection includes a complete run of Bus Ride from 1967 to 2012, providing a glimpse into decades of opportunities and challenges in the bus industry and historical information about individual bus lines. THF108470

For more information about the William Luke Bus Collection, please contact The Henry Ford's Benson Ford Research Center. A version of this post originally ran in 2013 as part of our Pic of the Month series

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"Monkees" Lunchbox and Thermos, 1967 (THF92313)

Beaver Cleaver may have carried a plain metal lunch box to school, but lunch boxes with pictures on them have been big business since the days of the Leave It to Beaver television show. Since the 1950s, children have been persuading their parents that they absolutely must have a school lunch box sporting their favorite character. For, to show off a Davy Crockett or a Beatles or a Star Wars lunch box to the world (or to your friends, which meant basically the same thing) when these were popular was simply the essence of cool. And, for young children, this is still true today -- only the characters and the lunch box materials have changed.


The first true pictorial lunch box was created in 1950, when a painted image of Hopalong Cassidy was applied to a steel lunch box and matching thermos bottle. In the first year of its production, Nashville, Tennessee manufacturer Aladdin Industries sold an unprecedented 600,000 of these, at a (not inexpensive) retail cost of $2.39.

Three years later, American Thermos introduced a fully lithographed steel lunch box depicting Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Sales of these reached an astonishing 2 1/2 million the first year, and these types of lunch boxes -- with pictures covering all sides -- immediately became the industry standard. The pictorial lunch box industry was off and running, and competition between companies became fierce. Over the next three decades, steel lunch boxes featured dozens of television shows, movies, popular musicians, sports stars, special events, fads, and famous places.

Pictorial lunch boxes made of waterproof vinyl wrapped around cardboard first came on the market in 1959. Their shiny, purse-like qualities lent themselves to pictorial themes marketed to girls, like the highly popular Barbie lunch boxes, introduced in 1961. Unfortunately, these could not stand up to heavy use -- their seams split and their corners crushed easily.

During the 1970s, vocal parents and school administrators began to complain that metal lunch boxes were to blame for students' injuries-enough so that, by 1987, lunch box manufacturers were forced to cease using steel in favor of safer (and cheaper) plastic.

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Hopalong Cassidy, 1950
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William (Bill) Boyd brought this fictional character to life, first at the movies then on television in 1950. "Hoppy" became the first television hero for many American children. This show precedes the major era of television westerns ushered in by Gunsmoke in 1955, when the huge popularity of westerns signaled Americans' nostalgia for a simpler past and their need for clear-cut heroes and villains during an uncertain time.

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Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, 1954
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On television from 1950 to 1955, this early science fiction show was a spin-off of a comic book and teen adventure novel series. The show, which took place in a futuristic world of scientific marvels, was made somewhat believable by the technical expertise of Willy Ley, an associate of Werner von Brau.

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Rocky and Bullwinkle, 1962
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Like The SimpsonsRocky and His Friends disguised adult entertainment in the form of a cartoon. The show aired from 1957 to 1963 during prime time, and with its clever, tongue-in-cheek scripts, it could well be considered the most subversive show about the Cold War of its time. From 1964 to 1973, the show continued under the new name The Bullwinkle Show, and it has since been entertaining children and adults alike through reruns and videos.

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"Sock It To Me," 1968
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Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In
 was a mid-season replacement in 1968, and no one expected it to be very popular. That's probably why its producers were able to experiment with virtually a new format-a rapid-fire pace using video editing and no narrative structure-and a new kind of hip topicality couched in one-liner jokes. Although its novelty is lost to us today -- the one-liners seem hopelessly outdated, even old-fashioned -- catch-phrases like "Sock It to Me" have become instantly recognizable cultural icons, while the show's short skits, slapstick humor, and use of topical material helped to revolutionize television.

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Happy Days,
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A mid-season replacement in 1974, this show had its origins in a 1972 Love, American Style episode and took great advantage of the popularity of the film American Graffiti. The first television show to take place in an era where television had already been invented, this version of the 1950s was embraced especially by young people who had not known the real decade first-hand. The show's true star was "The Fonz," who may have seemed like an unlikely role model but became television's biggest star for several years.

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Sesame Street, 1983 (THF92308)
From the time this show premiered on PBS in 1969, it quickly established itself as the most significant educational program in television history. Envisioned as an entertaining show for preschoolers-especially those from underprivileged backgrounds-to help prepare for school, Sesame Street incorporated the rapid-fire style of both television commercials and television programs like Laugh-In. With its consistently high quality and humor geared toward both children and their parents, this show continues to be extremely popular today.

Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. 

All-Things School

April 3, 2019
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As another school year begins to wind down, take a look through our digital collections at all things related to school.

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First Day of School
Along with the first day of school often came fresh new school supplies: crayons with pointy tips, pencils with pristine erasers, and even a new schoolbag or backpack. And for many, it meant getting a brand new outfit to wear on that all-important first day of school.

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Saluting the Students of the AAA School Safety Patrol®

Like clockwork, fall’s arrival brings with it a return to school for children throughout the United States. Whether they walk, ride a bike, take a bus, or get dropped off by an adult, the students’ daily trips to and from class will be safer thanks to the dedicated efforts of the AAA School Safety Patrol. Established by the American Automobile Association in 1920, the program’s core mission – to encourage safety awareness among young people – remains unchanged.

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Lunchbox Fandom
Since the 1950s, children have been persuading their parents that they absolutely must have a school lunch box sporting their favorite character. 

Expert Sets
One-Room Schools
Children and Desks


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1927 Blue Bird School Bus

This 1927 Blue Bird is the oldest surviving school bus in America. Albert Luce, Sr., built his first bus in 1925 by mounting a purchased wood body to a Ford truck frame. The body could not withstand the Georgia roads. Luce, convinced he could make a better bus, applied a steel framework under the wood body. His success led him to make school buses full time.

This is the first in a long line of buses made by Blue Bird, one of the country's major school bus builders. It is the oldest surviving school bus in America. In 1925, Albert L. Luce, Sr. owned two Ford dealerships in Georgia when a customer came in and ordered a bus to transport his workers. Mr. Luce purchased a wooden bus body and mounted it on a Ford Model TT truck. But the body began rattling apart before the customer could even finish paying for the bus. Mr. Luce was convinced he could make a better bus body and, by 1927 he had built the school bus you see here. The key to success was a strong steel framework under the wood. Within a few years Mr. Luce sold his Ford dealerships and began making school buses full time. Chassis: 1927 Ford Model TT Truck Engine: 176 cu. in., 20 hp Body: Hand built using steel and wood.

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William Holmes McGuffey School
The McGuffey School was built in Greenfield Village in 1934, created out of barn logs from the 1790s southwestern Pennsylvania farmstead where textbook author William Holmes McGuffey was born. Children living in frontier communities learned to read in rustic schoolhouses like this one. McGuffey's Eclectic Readers gave them an easy, standardized way to do it.

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Miller School

Henry Ford attended Miller School at age nine. He followed a favorite teacher, John Chapman, there from the Scotch Settlement School. The small, one-room building was typical of rural schools throughout the United States in the 1800s. Ford had this replica built in Greenfield Village in the early 1940s.

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Scotch Settlement School

Henry Ford attended this one-room schoolhouse from age seven to ten. Because of Ford's fondness for his teacher John Chapman, he not only followed Chapman to Miller School but also brought Chapman's house to Greenfield Village. This school, originally built in 1861 in Dearborn Township, was the first classroom of the Greenfield Village school system Henry Ford started in 1929.



Pioneering modern designer Ruth Adler Schnee’s bold textiles have broad appeal. Her furnishing and drapery fabrics were favorites of the everyday consumer and leading architects alike, including Minoru Yamasaki, Paul Rudolph, and Buckminster Fuller. Adler Schnee’s textiles, which feature vivid color and abstracted organic forms, added whimsy and depth to the sleek, minimal aesthetic popular in the mid-century period.

Learn more about Ruth's work in this video, and see examples of her designs in this expert set.

Women's History Month

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 

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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 

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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 

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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 

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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 

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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 

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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 

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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 

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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 

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"Happy Macintosh" icon from the book, Icons: Selected Work from 1983-2011, available at the Benson Ford Research Center.

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.

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The Macintosh Personal Computer introduced Susan Kare’s icons to the world in 1984.

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. 

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“Floppy Disk” save icon from the book, Icons: Selected Work from 1983-2011, available at the Benson Ford Research Center.

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.

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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. 

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Disco ball “party” icon from the book,
Icons: Selected Work from 1983-2011, available at the Benson Ford Research Center.

skare6Kare-designed bandana and tea towels woven on a Jacquard loom.

Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

Icons, Apple computers, Macintosh Computer, Susan Kare

First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle

The Henry Ford’s newly-acquired 2016 General Motors First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle.

There are some 300 automobiles in the collections of The Henry Ford. We’ve got pioneering cars, world-changing cars, luxury cars, muscle cars, pony cars, family cars, economy cars, presidential cars, even cars shaped like food. But we’ve never had anything quite like this. Thanks to our friends at General Motors, we’ve now acquired our first self-driving car: a 2016 GM First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle.

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.

First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle

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.

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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.


First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle

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.

First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle

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.

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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.

autoram2A 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.

autorama3Wes 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.

autorama4“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.

autorama5With 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.

autorama6Minibikes 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.

autorama7Toy-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.