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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

The study of decorative arts is not a static discipline – what scholars knew years ago is frequently revised by new research. The life and work of potter Thomas Commeraw have recently come into focus due to some remarkable findings. While Commeraw's work has resided for years in the collections of many museums, including The Henry Ford, much more about the rich and textured story behind these pieces is now known. Once thought to be French or French Canadian, research has uncovered that Thomas Commeraw was a free African American potter and entrepreneur working in the Corlears Hook neighborhood of New York City.

Through the pioneering research of two independent scholars, Mark Shapiro and Brandt Zipp, Commeraw's origins, creative output and impact are now better understood. Mark Shapiro is a noted potter, historian and biographer of ceramic artist Karen Karnes. He is co-curating an exhibit on Commeraw, opening in 2023 at the New York Historical Society. Shapiro discussed Commeraw on this episode of the podcast Tales of a Red Clay Rambler. Brandt Zipp is a principal in one of the largest ceramic auction houses, Crocker Farm, in Maryland. He recently wrote a biography of Commeraw.

The Rise of Salt-Glazed Stoneware in 18th-Century America

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Humans have traveled the edges of the iced-covered Arctic for thousands of years. Native peoples survived by harvesting the polar seas' bounty, and within the past several hundred years, explorers probed the ice-bound waters to locate quick trade routes to distant lands. (Explorers finally navigated a ship through the Northwest Passage in the early 1900s.) Around the turn of the 20th century, more adventurers — some for personal glory, others for scientific advancement — voyaged into the unexplored Arctic region to uncover its secrets and be the first to reach the North Pole. Trekking across the ice, however, was hazardous. From the late 1890s into the 1930s — before robust and reliable airplanes made it possible to fly long distances in relative safety and comfort — some explorers turned to balloons and airships to face the challenges posed by the polar icepack.


The Aerial Age, 1911
Walter Wellman's airship America, 1907 / THF701652


Walter Wellman (1858-1934) and the America


Walter Wellman, an American journalist, adventurer, and self-styled expert on an array of topics--mounted two unsuccessful expeditions in the 1890s to reach the North Pole by trekking over the ice. Neither attempt advanced far into the Arctic, and his second expedition nearly cost him his life. But his reports of the harrowing exploits — of men battling the cold, "ice-quakes," and polar bears — enthralled readers. The public eagerly followed Wellman's progress through newspaper and journal articles. Wellman used his celebrity to secure funding, mainly from his employers at The Chicago Record-Herald, for future adventures. And those backing his expeditions used Wellman's exploits to lure readers to their publications.

After a near-fatal attempt in 1898-99, Wellman decided the best way to reach the pole was by an airship. In 1905, Wellman, funded by his employers at The Chicago Record-Herald, secured a French-built balloon. The sausage-shaped airship, which he christened America, was 165 feet long and 53 1/2 feet in diameter. A metal-sheathed car, 52 1/2 feet long by 6 feet wide, hung below the hydrogen-filled bag. It would carry the crew and equipment, including two gasoline engines to drive the wooden propellers.

The following year, Wellman shipped the America to Spitsbergen, Norway — the westernmost bulk of land in the Svalbard archipelago bordering the Arctic Ocean — to make his first attempt to fly over the polar icecap. But delays and crippling mechanical failures plagued the enterprise. When Wellman arrived at his remote outpost in July 1906, he found the hangar, that he planned to have built to protect the airship while he prepared it for flight, unfinished. The expedition's experimental motor vehicles, designed by Wellman to pull sleds over the ice, proved useless. (Wellman planned to carry these vehicles onboard the airship and use them instead of dogs if the airship failed to stay aloft.) But most damaging: the airship's engines caused problems. The engines performed well by themselves when designers tested them in France. But when Wellman's team mounted the engines to the airship in Spitsbergen, the driving gear fell apart, the propellers could not stand the strain, and the car in which the crew would work and live as they flew over the icepack could not take the vibration. Wellman's first attempt never got off the ground, but he vowed to try again.


Ernest L. Jones Early Aviation Scrapbook
The hangar for the America under construction in Spitsbergen / THF285398 [detail] Continue Reading

When people started driving cars downtown, parking became a nightmarish problem.


Ford Model T Automobiles in Henderson, Texas
Ford Model T Automobiles in Henderson, Texas, 1920 / THF101634


By the 1920s, automobile parking on city streets was out of control. Parked cars effectively narrowed roadways, restricting the flow of traffic. Cities tried everything. They widened streets. They prohibited parking by fire hydrants and intersections. They marked out parking spaces, experimenting with optimal arrangements to improve traffic without discouraging customers from visiting downtown stores and other businesses.


Woman with a Coin-Operated Parking Meter
Woman with a Coin-Operated Parking Meter, circa 1935 / THF267387 
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Tinsmiths with Their Work Tools, circa 1875

Tinsmiths pose with hand tools, machines, sheets of tinplate and examples of tinware, circa 1875. / THF228486

In early America, most tin shops were small family businesses. As the popularity of tinware grew, so did its production. Connecticut became the earliest tin manufacturing center. From there, the craft spread south and westward as skilled tinsmiths and their trained assistants brought tools, patterns and know-how to establish shops in new places.

The tinsmith held an important position as an artisan in the 19th century. Successful tinsmiths were enterprising and ambitious. As entrepreneurs, their goal was to make items that customers wanted, through means that saved as much time and labor as possible. Tinsmiths produced a vast array of utilitarian wares to meet a range of consumer needs. In addition to new goods, they offered repair services. Customers might bring their local tinsmith an article of tin or another material, such as pottery or glass, with a broken part to be repaired with a tin replacement.

Tinsmiths repaired these glass items during the second half of the 19th century.

Tinsmiths repaired these glass items during the second half of the 19th century. The glass portions are original; the tin portions are later replacements. / THF174369, THF174614, THF174041

Whenever possible, tinsmiths used machines in addition to hand tools to help them produce more of the same goods in less time and at a lower cost. Individual artistry was important – an item or its decoration might have a unique variation, either created by the tinsmith or arising out of the traditional or popular aesthetics of that particular region (e.g., Pennsylvania German hearts, tulips and birds). However, if that item proved popular, a tinsmith would produce it by the dozen.

Chromolithograph, "Prang's Aids for Object Teaching, Trades & Occupations-Plate 11, Tinsmith," 1874

This 1874 image depicts tinsmiths at work. Tinware and other metal goods are displayed for sale in the store adjacent to their shop (upper right), where a salesperson assists a customer considering a cast-iron stove. / THF626434

Selling Tinware

Tinsmiths came up with ingenious ways to sell their wares. They might retail them in their shops or at the local general store. But to meet and stimulate demand outside the areas in which they worked, tinsmiths made use of traveling peddlers.

Some peddlers worked directly for or under contract to a tinsmith. But, especially in New England, the most successful peddlers were independent. They bought stock from tin shop owners and sold it in open markets or from portable carts or wagons. These peddlers not only sold standard tinware but also took custom orders and stocked a variety of items beyond tinware, like brooms, dry goods and sewing notions. They primarily accepted barter in trade for their stock. Items accepted in barter — like hides, tallow, spun yarns, rags, wood ashes and feathers — came with standard price equivalents, which the peddler would resell to dealers for a profit. The barter system lasted well into the 19th century because peddlers actually made more profit from reselling these items to dealers than from selling tinware and other goods to customers for cash.



Magazine page of people selling items

This 1868 illustration of a peddler selling his wares includes tinware as well as brooms, textiles and other items. / THF705605


Decline of the Tinsmith

By the 1870s, large tin manufactories turning out dozens of items had evolved into full-fledged tinware factories using steam-driven presses. It became no longer economical for most tinsmiths (except in the remotest of areas or because of longtime customer loyalty) to make or repair simple items, as factory-made goods were so much less expensive. Into the 20th century, some tinsmiths stayed in business by producing gutters, downspouts and furnace ducts. But even these were replaced later in the 20th century by galvanized steel and aluminum, which were more durable and easier to maintain. By the end of the 20th century, handmade tinware had come to be considered a heritage craft or folk art.

Donna R. Braden is senior curator and curator of public life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, associate curator, digital content.

decorative arts, Tin, by Donna R. Braden, 19th century

Tinsmiths with Their Work Tools, circa 1875

Tinsmiths pose with hand tools, machines, sheets of tinplate and examples of tinware, circa 1875. / THF228486

Until the first decade of the 19th century, tinsmiths in both Europe and America manufactured virtually all tinware by hand, using a wide range of specialized tools. But as tinware became more popular, American tinsmiths developed a unique set of equipment that included patented cast-iron geared machines.

American tinsmithing began in the 18th century, but the production of tinware really took off after the War of 1812, when American tinsmiths could finally obtain a constant supply of tinplate (or tin-coated iron, the material tinsmiths use to make their wares) from England and Wales. (These countries dominated the tinplate industry through most of the 19th century.) The influx of imported tinplate, as well as the immigration of skilled English and Welsh tinsmiths, contributed to the tremendous popularity of tinware in 19th-century America.



Lithograph, "Tinsmiths," circa 1840

This circa 1840 lithograph depicts the hand process of producing tinware, as well as several hand tools and examples of finished goods. / THF626375


Tinplate was a stiff but pliable material, shaped by cutting, bending, crimping (to create folds or pleats), hammering and soldering joints together. Tinsmiths needed training and skill to accomplish these tasks. Overheating could destroy the tin coating. Over-hammering could break the coating. Joints had to be carefully soldered with soldering irons heated over charcoal stoves or braziers. Tinsmiths generally developed their own wooden patterns to help reduce variation and error, but handwork still took much practice.

Increasing American demand for tinware led to the development and enthusiastic embrace of numerous patented hand-powered machines that saved time and labor, making it possible for tinsmiths to produce the same items in quantity in less time and at a lower cost. When they could afford them, American tinsmiths eagerly added these machines to their more traditional sets of hand tools.



Chromolithograph, "Prang's Aids for Object Teaching, Trades & Occupations-Plate 11, Tinsmith," 1874

This 1874 image depicts a tin shop that utilized traditional hand tools as well as at least one hand-cranked machine, visible just behind the tinsmith at center. / THF626434

A unique American characteristic of many crafts and trades in 19th-century America — tinsmithing being no exception — was the preference for speed and uniformity over European traditions of personal, individualized workmanship. Hand-cranked machines revolutionized American tinsmithing by replacing old hand methods — like crimping, bending and locking edges, cutting, forming, slitting, cutting circles, stamping and rolling — with quicker, more efficient steps to produce greater quantities of uniform pieces in less time. And as American tinsmiths embraced machines, their assistants required less training.



Shaw, Clark & Burton Trade Literature, "Burton's Double Seamer," September 1, 1859

The manufacturer of Burton’s Double Seamer, patented in 1859 and illustrated here sealing the bottom of a round pan, advertised it as “the only one of any value to the tinware manufacturer.” Early hand-cranked machines led to a plethora of patented machines developed by American blacksmiths, toolmakers and machinists throughout the 19th century. / THF626369

Circle Shear

This hand-cranked circle shear, patented in 1860, allowed tinsmiths to cut circles of tinplate up to 20 inches in diameter. / THF705411


Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co. Trade Catalog, "P.S. & W. Tinsmiths' Tools and Machines," circa 1895

Tinsmiths used hand-cranked forming machines, like this one depicted in a circa 1895 Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co. trade catalog, to create cylindrical shapes. / Detail, THF626395

By the 1850s, a range of patented geared machines could be found in an increasing number of tin manufactories, which employed up to 30 people and turned out dozens of uniformly made items. The longtime use of precut patterns or templates led, by the late 19th century, to the use of published pattern books, further helping to ensure uniformity. Small tin shops, which persisted into the early 20th century (particularly in rural and remote areas), could order parts – such as lids or bucket handles – from these establishments and pair them with or attach them to their own forms, to avoid purchasing the expensive specialized equipment needed to produce them. See our blog for more on the history of tinsmithing and tinware.

Donna R. Braden is senior curator and curator of public life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, associate curator, digital content.

by Donna R. Braden, decorative arts, 19th century, Tin

Ruth Adler Schnee at The Henry Ford Museum Ruth Adler Schnee at the “The Henry Ford: Through a Jewish Lens,” a collaborative event between The Henry Ford and the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan. Associate Curator Katherine White and Ruth Adler Schnee co-presented a selection of her textiles held at The Henry Ford. Photo Credit: KMS Photography

Ruth Adler Schnee was a pioneering designer and a dear friend of The Henry Ford. It is with great sadness that we learned of her passing on January 5, 2023, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.

Ruth Adler Schnee was born on May 13, 1923, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, to Marie Salomon and Joseph Adler. Her mother, Marie, had trained in the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in Munich and then at the Bauhaus, the revolutionary modernist design school in Weimar. Ruth's father’s family had long been book and antiques dealers. Joseph Adler worked in the family trade until they moved to Dusseldorf in 1927, when Ruth was just 4 years old. Creativity was encouraged in the Adler household. Ruth began designing her own clothes as a child and she recalls playing in the studio of family friend Paul Klee, the influential German artist.

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Lithograph depicting tinsmiths working in a workshop surrounded by tools of their trade

This circa 1840 lithograph depicts several examples of tinware as well as some of the tools and processes used to make it. / THF626375

During the 19th century, tinplate or tin (actually iron coated with tin) was the dominant material for utilitarian items, both in American homes and in public spaces like offices and stores. Tin was lightweight, inexpensive, easy to clean, nontoxic and durable. As long as its coating remained intact, it resisted corrosion and had a pleasing silvery appearance. Tin goods, known as tinware, could be decorated to further enhance their appearance through japanning (coating with a resin to produce a dark, glossy finish), painting or pierced designs. Middle-class Americans happily purchased articles made of tin in place of equivalent housewares made of earlier materials: heavy cast iron, old-fashioned wrought iron, hard-to-clean wood, dull pewter and breakable pottery.


Page of a trade catalog depicting tools for purchase

A range of japanned tinware sold by Herr & Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, circa 1926. / THF704030

The range of tinware made in local tin shops was almost endless. Most were highly utilitarian articles including kitchen utensils, bakeware, containers, lighting devices, stove piping, food safes and foot warmers. Customers also brought in broken items, whether made of tin or another material, to have them repaired. For example, they might have the tinsmith replace the broken handle of a piece of pottery with a newly fashioned tin one, as this was much less expensive than purchasing a new piece of pottery.


Photograph of a ceramic pitcher that has been reinforced by a tinsmith with a metal structure

A tinsmith replaced the broken handle of this pitcher, dated 1839-1846. / THF174611

Tinware’s dominance persisted until the late 19th century, when it began to be superseded by goods made of materials that were considered even more attractive. These included speckled graniteware (steel with a porcelain-enamel coating) and, for showier items like teapots and coffeepots, Britannia (a combination of tin and antimony with small amounts of zinc, brass and copper) and silver plate (silver-coated iron). By the early 20th century, more durable materials – aluminum and galvanized or stainless steel – were becoming the new standards for utilitarian items. But tin, ever resilient, persists in modern-day products as a coating in aluminum cans and in combination with lead as a solder to join metal pieces together.

Donna R. Braden is senior curator and curator of public life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, associate curator, digital content.

Tin, decorative arts, 19th century, by Donna R. Braden


Ceramic vase depicting the Carnegie library.

The Carnegie library depicted on this ceramic vase was built in Syracuse, New York, in 1905, with a $200,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie. Designed by Syracuse architect James Randall, it still boasts its original spacious marble vestibule and grand curved marble staircase. / THF192213

When I was growing up, I loved to visit the library. My local library, in a repurposed 1920s-era mansion in an eastside suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, was a magical place — complete with niches, mysterious cupboards and a grand staircase. I had no familiarity with Carnegie libraries until the 1980s when, as a young museum curator, I visited the Port Huron (MI) Museum of Arts and History to consult on a log cabin located on the museum’s grounds. When the director showed me around the main museum, he proudly told me that it had once been a Carnegie library. The interior space was delightfully laid out in a rotunda shape with staircases and balconies.


Street view of the Carnegie library in Lebanon, Ohio

The Carnegie library in Lebanon, Ohio — funded by a $10,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie and supplemented by locally raised funds — opened in 1908. A large addition was built in the 1980s. / Photograph by the author.

I later encountered Carnegie libraries in other towns — like Traverse City, Michigan (where the library was also repurposed as a museum) and Lebanon, Ohio (where it is still used as a library). The townspeople in these places similarly spoke with pride about the fact that these were Carnegie libraries.


Bookplate from Andrew Carnegie depicting a stack of books with a torch and the motto "Let there be light"

Andrew Carnegie’s own bookplate, circa 1915, bears the biblical phrase “Let There Be Light,” which symbolized to him the illuminating qualities of books and knowledge. Carnegie sometimes requested that a rising sun and the phrase “Let There Be Light” be engraved near the entrance of a library that he funded. / THF291248

Carnegie libraries were the vision of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), a Scottish immigrant who was born poor but amassed an immense fortune from railroads, oil and steel. By the time he sold his Carnegie Steel Company for $250 million and retired, he was one of the wealthiest men in the world — perhaps the wealthiest.

As a youth working for a telegraph company in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), Carnegie was introduced to a Colonel James Anderson, who generously opened his private library to young workers wishing to borrow and read books. This inspired Carnegie so much that he promised himself that if he ever became wealthy, he would provide similar opportunities to eager and deserving workers.


Postcard depicting the front street view of the public library in Denver, Colorado in 1910

In 1910, Denver, Colorado, opened its Central Library building, an elegant Greek temple design made possible by a grant from Andrew Carnegie. Between 1913 and 1920, Carnegie also underwrote the construction of the city’s first eight branch libraries, which came to a grand total of $230,000. This building was decommissioned in 1956 when a new Central Library opened. / THF628038

Indeed, when Carnegie retired a wealthy man, he devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy, giving away some $350 million — nearly 90% of his fortune — to a variety of charities. At the same time, he developed a philosophy about wealth and philanthropy, which he described in an 1889 essay entitled, “The Gospel of Wealth.” In this essay, he asserted that the wealthy should use their riches for “lasting good” to society. They should live without extravagance, provide moderately for their dependents and distribute the rest of their riches to benefit the welfare and happiness of the common man — meaning not just anyone, but those who helped themselves, those who were interested in improving their own lot in life.


Photo taken by Jenny Young Chandler of young people sitting at tables and reading in the library in Tompkins Park, New York in 1910

This free public library, which was designed by McKim, Mead & White and opened in 1904, was located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was aimed at the varied immigrant populations — German, Italian, Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian — who inhabited that part of the city. / THF38047

This philosophy paralleled that of Progressive-era reformers of the time, who attempted to “remedy” the challenges inherent in the tremendous increase of immigrants arriving in America. These reformers believed that libraries were important to arming the new immigrants with knowledge to help them rise in society, become better voters by resisting the lure of dishonest politicians and avoid such unwholesome pursuits as drinking and gambling.


Photo taken by Jenny Young Chandler of a man sitting in an armchair next to a case of books in a library

Wealthy, educated citizens often amassed private libraries for their own use. In this photograph, William J. Carr, justice of the Supreme Court of Kings County, New York, poses in front of his massive book collection. / THF38611

Free public libraries began to spread during the early 20th century, coinciding with new town developments. Before that time, most book collections were either privately owned, accessible by paid subscription or haphazardly stored in such public buildings as churches, post offices or city halls. But, although townspeople were high on ideals and ambition, these public libraries usually lagged behind in development, as money was tight, book collections were lacking and establishing places for reading just seemed to be a lower priority than such essential city services as public transportation, sanitation and schools.


Postcard depicting the front street view of the public library in Canton, Ohio in 1909

When the citizens of Canton, Ohio, received Carnegie funding for a new library building, they enthusiastically held a design competition. Canton architect Guy Tilden won the competition and designed a stately new library, which opened in 1905. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. / THF289036

Enter Andrew Carnegie, armed with happy memories of times spent as a youth in Colonel Anderson’s library and committed to helping those who wanted to improve their own lives. The first of his funded libraries opened in 1889, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, home to a Carnegie steelworks. This was followed by a library in Carnegie’s own hometown of Allegheny.

Between 1886 and 1919, Andrew Carnegie donated more than $40 million to 1,679 new library buildings in communities of all sizes across America. Carnegie libraries were constructed in 46 states — with Indiana leading the way (165), followed by California (142), Ohio (111), New York (106), Illinois (106) and Iowa (101). Carnegie also funded libraries in other countries — the first being in his birthplace of Dunfermline, Scotland.


Postcard depicting the front street view of the public library in Detroit, Michigan in 1921

As Detroit grew by leaps and bounds in the early 20th century, the existing library building quickly outgrew its capacity. In 1910, the city accepted funds from Andrew Carnegie to build a new library to be situated along rapidly expanding Woodward Avenue. New York City architect Cass Gilbert (designer of the famed Woolworth Building) won the design competition for the new building, which opened in 1921. North and south wings were added in 1963. / THF119073

Towns had to apply to receive funding for a Carnegie library. In their applications, townspeople had to promise that their town owned the land on which the library would be built and that they would commit to the library’s ongoing maintenance and staffing. The architectural styles of the buildings typically followed popular building styles of the time and were often the result of local design competitions. In many small towns, the Carnegie library stood out as the most imposing structure, symbolizing that community’s dreams of prosperity and hopes for the future.


Photo taken by Jenny Young Chandler of young people sitting at tables and reading in the Newark library

Although a free public library had existed in Newark, New Jersey, since 1884, this building, which opened in 1901, featured the new innovation of open stacks. / THF38387

A unique feature inside these libraries was "open stack" shelving that encouraged browsing. (Before, a clerk or librarian would retrieve requested books from “closed stacks.”) The libraries also tended to be open in design so that a librarian stationed at a central desk could keep a watchful eye over the entire library. Unfortunately, over time, staffing and maintenance did become an issue in many towns, as city planners were thrilled to receive a grant to build their library but then found themselves strapped for funds to support and maintain it.


Postcard depicting the front street view of the public library in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1943

In 1905, Andrew Carnegie donated an initial $260,000 to build a central library and three branch libraries in Springfield, Massachusetts (with enthusiastic contributions from local citizens, he increased his donations twice). An Italian Renaissance Revival-style design was chosen for the building, which opened in 1912 and featured a bronze bust of Andrew Carnegie in the central rotunda. In 1974, the library was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. / THF628058

Some people questioned Andrew Carnegie’s motives in funding these libraries. In 1892, Carnegie refused to end violence caused by strikebreakers at his company's Homestead Steel Works, forever staining his reputation. People criticized him for being ruthless, for funding libraries as a personal monument, for funding institutions that focused on the poor, or for focusing myopically on libraries as a panacea to society’s ills. Black activists criticized him for reinforcing Jim Crow (segregationist) policies while white racists accused him of potentially forcing integration into towns that strictly adhered to Jim Crow laws.


Postcard photo of the front street view of a public library in Iowa City, Iowa in 1904

Iowa City, Iowa, was undergoing extensive growth at the turn of the century, and the Library Board of Trustees saw the wisdom of building a permanent home for its library. The board sent an inquiry to Andrew Carnegie during the summer of 1901 and was awarded a $25,000 grant (with an additional $10,000 the following year) for the library’s construction. The library opened in 1904. / THF628004

In the end, despite questions and criticism, large cities and small towns alike could not resist the lure of outside funding for a public library. To those who did get Carnegie funding to build a free public library, their libraries were, and have remained, sources of civic pride, epitomizing the sort of democratizing spirit that pervaded American communities in the early 20th century.

Donna R. Braden is senior curator and curator of public life at The Henry Ford.

19th century, by Donna R. Braden, 20th century

Remembering Ken Block

January 3, 2023
Video still of Ken Block from an interview

Ken Block (1967-2023) / THF625486

We are deeply saddened by the loss of Ken Block, who passed away in a snowmobile accident in Utah on January 2, 2023. He is survived by his wife, Lucy, and three children. Over the past 30 years, Block distinguished himself on many fronts. He co-founded a top sportswear brand. He competed in skateboarding and snowboarding. He earned multiple podium finishes in rally races. Most famously, Block expanded motorsport’s meaning and fanbase with a series of beautifully filmed and expertly performed videos showcasing his behind-the-wheel skills and sports-marketing savvy.

Ken Block was born in Long Beach, California, on November 21, 1967. Like many Southern California teenagers at the time, he was an avid skateboarder. Block understood the fashion and culture building up around the sport, and he formed his own printing business that sold hand-screened T-shirts to area skate shops. By 1992, his little company was earning more than $1 million a year. Block partnered with Damon Way, brother of professional skater Danny Way, in 1994 to launch a new brand: DC Shoes. Ten years later, Block and Way sold DC Shoes to Quicksilver sporting apparel.

Having achieved success in his first career, Block decided to pursue another teenage passion and take up European-style automotive rally racing – at age 37. Block proved a natural in rallying. He joined the U.S.-based Rally America series in 2005 and earned five top-five finishes in his debut season, gaining Rookie of the Year honors in the process. Block’s age – and the wisdom that came with it – proved to be an asset, as did his marketing experience from his DC Shoes days. Block secured a handsome sponsorship deal from Subaru in 2006.

On November 11, 2008, Block uploaded a four-and-a-half-minute video to YouTube he called Ken Block Gymkhana Practice. He borrowed the term “gymkhana” from horse-riding contests in which equestrians completed various events in a specific sequence. This is exactly what Block did in his video – albeit with different horsepower. Compared to what would come, Block’s first Gymkhana video was short and simple, without fancy camerawork or rapid-fire editing. But it was exciting. Behind the wheel of his 2006 Subaru Impreza rally car, Block offered a showcase of pure, skilled driving without any camera tricks or computer-graphics sweetening.


Racing Helmet Worn by Ken Block in "Gymkhana Five," circa 2012

Ken Block’s marketing skill earned him loyal sponsors like Monster Energy, Ford Performance, and DC Shoes – the apparel brand he co-founded in 1994. / THF179730

Encouraged by the high view count, Block released a second video on June 1, 2009. With his title, Gymkhana Two The Infomercial, Block made it clear that he was essentially creating long-form commercials. But viewers didn’t mind. Gymkhana Two, with its wilder stunts and slicker production, formally kicked off what would become a series of mini movies spotlighting Block’s automotive aerobatics.

Locations for the shoots varied, from glamorous Dubai to industrial Buffalo. But each video followed Block’s winning formula: a “DC” logo, an establishing shot of the locale, slow-motion run-bys, and enough burning rubber to keep a Toyo Tires dealer smiling for weeks. Perhaps fearing he’d run out of ways to top himself, Block closed the initial Gymkhana series with Ken Block’s Gymkhana Ten: The Ultimate Tire Slaying Tour, released on December 17, 2018. The 19-minute film saw Block in five different cities around the world, including – for the first time – the Motor City itself: Detroit. Together, those ten Gymkhana videos received hundreds of millions of views on YouTube – a soaring success by any definition.

Block’s rallying career continued all the while. He set up shop in Park City, Utah, and formed his own Hoonigan Racing team in 2010. (The name was a play on “hooligan” and “hoon” – an Australian slang term for reckless driving). Block left Subaru for a new sponsorship deal with Ford Performance. He continued to post strong results in Rally America and World Rallycross Championship events, and he won five X Games medals in RallyCross. More recently, Block competed in the Baja 1000, one of the world’s greatest off-road races, and earned a fourth-place finish in the trophy truck class.

Block parted ways with Ford Performance in 2021. His most recent collaboration saw him working with Audi on his first electric Gymkhana car. The Electrikhana video, posted on October 25, 2022, had Block and his “Hoonitron” Audi S1 shredding along the Las Vegas Strip.

When it came time to design our Driven to Win: Racing in America exhibit, we agreed from the start that Ken Block had to be included. To us, Block perfectly represented “performance” in two forms: his ability behind the wheel, but also his artistic appreciation for the entertainment side of the equation. Perhaps more than any other driver in the early 21st century, Ken Block knew how to put on a great show.



Working with Block and his Hoonigan Racing team, we acquired the 2012 Ford Fiesta driven by Block in one of his most popular videos: Gymkhana Five: Ultimate Urban Playground; San Francisco. Along with the car, we collected the suit, helmet, sunglasses, and shoes he wore during the shoot. San Francisco – with its steep hills, switchback streets, and Steve McQueen heritage – was the perfect setting for a Ken Block video. When posted on July 9, 2012, Gymkhana Five received more than 5 million views within 24 hours. (At this writing, it has 114 million total views.) While we would have been thrilled to acquire any car used by Block, the Gymkhana Five Fiesta was particularly special.


Ken Block Gymkhana Five Fiesta on display in Driven To Win at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation

Ken Block and his Gymkhana Five Ford Fiesta feature prominently in Driven to Win: Racing in America. / Photo by Matt Anderson

In Driven to Win, we compare Ken Block with Barney Oldfield, an earlier racer cut from the same cloth. Like Block, Oldfield combined on-track talent with a larger-than-life persona. Though separated by a century, both drivers came to racing from other sports (in Oldfield’s case, bicycling), both became multimedia celebrities, and both earned multiple competitive victories. It’s a reminder that some racing characteristics are truly timeless.

Block was kind enough to sit for an interview with us for our “Visionaries on Innovation” series in November 2019. We asked him how he’d like to be remembered – a question we ask many “Visionaries” participants – and he gave a thoughtful answer. Block noted that, while he didn’t have as many wins as a Colin McRae or a Michael Schumacher, he approached his racing from a different perspective. Block certainly considered himself competitive, but he also (rightfully) thought of himself as creative. It was that trait, his creativity, for which Block hoped to be remembered.

And that’s exactly how Ken Block is being memorialized today – as a creative visionary who took motorsport in a new direction for new audiences. It’s a legacy well worth honoring.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

A sleek red convertible with tan interior and top down is parked in a display indoors
Like an actor cast in a role, this 1985 Modena Spyder California was chosen to play the part of a Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. / Photo by Matt Anderson


For those who haven’t visited Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in recent months, we have a wonderful new display space created in partnership with the Hagerty Drivers Foundation. Each year, we’ll share a couple of significant automobiles included on the foundation’s National Historic Vehicle Register. The (currently) 32 vehicles on the register each made a lasting mark on American history—whether through influence on design or engineering, success on the race track, participation in larger national stories, or starring roles on the silver screen.

Our first display vehicle is Hollywood through and through. It’s a “1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder” (those quotes are intentional) used in the 1986 Gen-X classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Those who’ve seen the film know that the car is a crucial part of the plot—ferrying Ferris, Sloane Peterson, and Cameron Frye around Chicago; threatening to expose their secret skip day; and forcing a difficult conversation between Cameron and his emotionally distant father.

In true movie fashion, though, not all is what it appears to be.

Black-and-white photo of sleek, low convertible with top down parked in a display indoors
This 1958 Ferrari 250 GT California is the real thing, as featured in Henry Ford Museum’s Sports Cars in Review exhibit in 1965. / THF139028

The Ferrari 250 is among the most desirable collector cars in the world. GT street versions sell at auction for millions of dollars. And GTO competition variants—well, the sky’s the limit. Even in the mid-1980s, these autos were too pricey for film work—particularly when the plot calls for the car to be (spoiler alert) destroyed. Instead, Ferris Bueller director John Hughes commissioned three replicas for the shoot: two functional cars used for most scenes, and a non-runner destined to fly out the back of Mr. Frye’s suburban Chicago garage.

Replica cars were nothing new in the 1980s. For years, enterprising manufacturers had been offering copies of collector cars that were no longer in production and too expensive for most enthusiasts. The coveted Duesenberg Model J is a prime example, having been copied by replica manufacturers for decades. Some replica cars were more about convenience than cost. Glassic Industries of West Palm Beach, Florida, produced fiberglass-bodied copies of the Ford Model A with available niceties like automatic transmissions and tape decks. Occasionally, the line between “real” and “replica” got blurry. Continuation cars like the Avanti II (based on Studebaker’s original) or post-1960s Shelby Cobras (based on Carroll Shelby’s racing sports cars) were sometimes built with formal permission or participation from the original automakers.

So, if the Ferris Bueller car at The Henry Ford isn’t a real Ferrari, then what is it?

The replica’s builder, Modena Design & Development, was founded in the early 1980s by Californians Neil Glassmoyer and Mark Goyette. When John Hughes read about Modena in a car magazine, he called the firm. As the story goes, Glassmoyer initially hung up on the famous writer/director—believing that it had to be a prank. Hughes phoned again, and Modena found itself with a desirable movie commission. Paramount Pictures, the studio behind Ferris Bueller, leased one car and bought two others.

The Modena replicas featured steel-tube frames and Ferrari-inspired design cues like hood scoops, fender vents, and raked windshields. While the genuine Ferrari bodies used a blend of steel and aluminum components, Modena’s bodies were formed from fiberglass—purportedly based on a British MG body and then fine-tuned for a more Ferrari-like appearance.

Page from magazine or catalog with images of Ford Torino cars and text
The replica Ferrari’s V-8 was sourced from a 1974 Ford Torino, not too different from these 1973 models. / THF232097

The most obvious differences were under the cars’ skin. Rather than a 180-cubic-inch Ferrari V-12, the Modena at The Henry Ford features a 302-cubic-inch Ford V-8 (originally sourced from a 1974 Ford Torino). While the Ford engine was rated at 135 horsepower from the factory, this one has been rebuilt and refined—surely capable of greater output now. And instead of the original Ferrari’s four-speed manual gearbox, the Modena has a Ford-built three-speed automatic transmission. (According to lore, actor Matthew Broderick wasn’t comfortable driving a manual.)

After filming wrapped, the leased car was sent back to Modena’s El Cajon, California, facility. After some work to repair damage from a stunt scene, the car was sold to the first in a series of private owners. By 2003, this beloved piece of faux Italiana/genuine Americana had been relocated to the United Kingdom. The current owner purchased it at auction in 2010 and repatriated the car to the United States. The Modena was much modified over the years, so the current owner had it carefully restored and returned to its on-screen appearance—as you see it today.

Imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can also be the quickest route to a lawsuit. Following the release of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferrari sued Modena Design & Development (along with other replica builders). The matter was settled out of court when Modena agreed to make some minor changes per the Italian automaker’s specifications. Replica production then resumed for a few more years.

The Modena Spyder California may not be a real Ferrari, but it’s certainly a real pop-culture icon. That’s reason enough to include it on the National Historic Vehicle Register, and to celebrate it at The Henry Ford.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Henry Ford Museum, Europe, 1980s, 20th century, Illinois, California, by Matt Anderson, popular culture, movies, cars