Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

The Politics of a Press

November 30, 2023

During the 1920s, Henry Ford’s rampant collecting of Americana, which would become the basis of his museum’s collection, led him (through his purchasing associates and collectors) to pursue artifacts with compelling provenances attached to some of America's most fabled figures. While Ford maintained an interest in items of the “everyday” American, his avid pursuit of artifacts related to traditional American folk heroes, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, aligned with the interests of other collectors of the time. It should be no surprise, then, that when Ford learned about a printing press purportedly used by celebrated writer and humorist Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, he leveraged his national network to acquire it.

Washington press, circa 1848,  decorated with reliefs of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

Washington press, circa 1848, decorated with reliefs of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. / THF101402

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“An oil painting by Matisse of a humanoid robot playing chess.” “An astronaut riding a horse in photorealistic style.” “An armchair in the shape of an avocado.” These are only a few input suggestions for the image generation platform known as Dall-E 2. In 2021, the company OpenAI launched the first iteration of Dall-E, and it quickly took the internet by storm. The program relies on a combination of machine learning techniques and artificial intelligence — or AI — to produce unique images from natural language text prompts.

But how unique are these images? Programmers, scholars and news anchors alike wrestled with this question in late 2022. The long-term consequences of technologies like Dall-E — including the chatbot ChatGPT — are still evolving. Some people see AI as a helpful aid for professional and personal creativity; others decry it as the end of art-making as we know it.

Like OpenAI's prompts suggest, Dall-E can mimic the style of other artists. Many artists' images, while visible on the internet, do not belong to the public domain. But Dall-E still mines their work to produce its own works. Is this fair practice? Is Dall-E stealing, or is it learning, like an apprentice learns from a master? Is Dall-E itself an artist?

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Whose Land Are You On?

November 24, 2023

The Paris of the Midwest. That was the phrase used to describe Detroit in the late 19th century. It was a city designed with a mission, and that mission was to impress, which it did. But the city and the land surrounding it were home to thousands of Indigenous peoples who, more often than not, are left out of the story.

'Point of origin marker in Detroit.

Point of origin marker in Detroit. / Photo courtesy of author.

History says that Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit on July 24, 1701. But before that, several Indigenous nations were living on the land, called Waawiiyaataanong, meaning “where the river bends.” The Potawatomi, Odawa, Ojibwe, Miami and Huron all called this area home. As with colonization, though, these nations had to leave the site as European settlements began to spread.

When the fort and the city were being built, the Indigenous peoples in the area were encouraged to settle around the fort. In Cadillac’s mind, this added another layer of protection, not just for the fort but also for the fur trade. With its location on a waterway now called the Detroit River, Detroit was an important center for fur trading. The river linked Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie, both important in trade. As the settlement grew, the tides changed, and the Indigenous folks who called the area home soon found their lives turned upside down.

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The Great Cranberry Scare

On November 9, 1959, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Arthur Flemming announced to the American public that a cranberry crop from the Pacific Northwest had tested positive for a herbicide. Growers began using aminotriazole to eliminate deep-rooted grasses and sedges from cranberry bogs in the mid-1950s, but the weed killer proved to cause thyroid tumors in test animals and left a residue in some cranberries. Even the Eisenhowers in the White House replaced cranberry sauce with applesauce at their 1959 Thanksgiving dinner.

Documenting this dangerous herbicide residue triggered the “Great Cranberry Scare” of 1959. The media coverage that resulted marked a turning point in modern American food scares and helped launch the modern environmental movement. Environmentalist Rachel Carson incorporated these events into her pathbreaking book, Silent Spring (1962).

This incident reminds us of the important efforts of one of our collecting initiatives at The Henry Ford: the environment. The Henry Ford received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to increase physical and intellectual control of agricultural and environmental artifacts. Cranberry harvesting tools, including rakes and bog shoes for horses hauling produce from bog to processing facility, count among the artifacts made more accessible because of IMLS funding.

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In 1972, Lillian Schwartz sat down with a bundle of pipe cleaners. She tested their flexibility, twisting them into loose loops and serpentine figures. Lillian was an artist and often used unconventional materials in her work, but these pipe cleaners weren't for arts and crafts. In front of her sat her colleague Max Mathews, who also worked at Bell Laboratories, a technology research facility in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Like Lillian, Max used the extensive computer equipment at the labs for creative endeavors, but he made music instead of art. Today, they were doing something different.

Lillian wrapped the pipe cleaners around Max's shoulders, experimenting with different positions — under his armpits, behind his neck — until she found a configuration that worked. The pipe cleaners sat over his right shoulder, arching from back to front, the front end spiraling up toward his mouth. Lillian would use this pattern to design a prototype hands-free telephone.

Max, like many people, easily tired of sitting in one place and holding a telephone receiver when taking calls. In the days before mobile phones, he couldn't even stand to walk around and burn off steam. Now, Max could easily take notes or pace across his office. Lillian's design not only responded to questions of ease and convenience, it anticipated hands-free technologies we're still experimenting with today.

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The holiday season is upon us, and visitors to Greenfield Village may catch a full Victorian Thanksgiving meal being prepared by presenters at Firestone Farm. Try our delicious Thanksgiving recipes at home. They all taste best with a healthy helping of homemade apple cider!

A roast turkey is served at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village.

A roast turkey is served at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village. Photo courtesy of Larissa Fleishman.

Roast Turkey

Wash, dry and stuff with a dressing of dry bread, soaked in water, pressed out and mixed with salt, pepper, thyme, butter and an egg. Sew up the turkey snugly, and put in a pan with a little water; roast slowly, allowing three hours for a ten-pound turkey. When commencing to brown, rub over with a little butter to keep the skin from blistering; boil giblets in water, chop fine and put in gravy.

May Perrin Goff, The Household of the Detroit Free Press, 1881, p. 590.

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Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) transformed the glass world with his patented Favrile process, which created a shimmering, iridescent effect, in the 1890s. More than a century later, Tiffany remains a household name, conjuring images of iridescent stained-glass windows and lighting. How has Tiffany stood the test of time?

Daffodil table lamp, designed by Clara Driscoll for Tiffany Studios, 1903-1920.

Daffodil table lamp, designed by Clara Driscoll for Tiffany Studios, 1903-1920. / THF167923

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Beginning in 1948, the white-majority National Party of South Africa began codifying the harsh systems of racial segregation that had existed in South Africa since its colonization. Known as apartheid, this institutionalized segregation mobilized a new generation of leaders within the South African organization known as the African National Congress (ANC) to launch a larger liberation movement. Committed to fighting for Black South African rights, by the early 1950s leaders within the ANC, like Nelson Mandela, were promoting nonviolent demonstrations, strikes, boycotts and acts of civil disobedience in protest of South Africa’s white regime.

ANC leaders drew upon the nonviolence teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian lawyer who before leading India to independence from Britain in 1947 had spent over 20 years in South Africa honing his ethics and nonviolent protest tactics against white colonial rule. Gandhi’s teachings and the ANC‘s liberation mission was not lost on organizations in America fighting for similar equality goals. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin helped create the American pacifist organization known as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) with George Houser and others who were influenced by Gandhi’s nonviolence teachings. In 1953, and in support of the ANC’s mission of resistance, Rustin and Houser founded the American Committee on Africa, one of the first national organizations dedicated to informing the American public about anticolonial struggles in Africa.

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Maria Grever’s photo graced the cover of “My Margarita” in 1939

Images of the composer rarely appeared on sheet music for popular songs. Maria Grever’s photo graced the cover of “My Margarita” in 1939, along with photos of the performers, the usual images included to help increase sales of sheet music. / THF713047

What do the Andrews Sisters’ 1938 hit song “Ti-Pi-Tin” and Dinah Washington’s Grammy-winning 1959 recording of “What a Difference a Day Makes” have in common? Both songs were written by Maria Grever, the first female Mexican composer to attain international attention. Yet amazingly, Grever is little known today.

Grever, born Maria Joaquina de la Portilla in Mexico in 1885 to a Spanish father and Mexican mother, showed musical skills at an early age. While growing up in Spain and then Mexico, Grever’s wealthy family saw to it that she received a fine musical education, studying piano, violin and voice. Grever achieved early success as a composer; at 18, her song "A Una Ola" ('To a Wave') sold three million copies to its Latin audience.

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The current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, on display until December 12, features costumes worn for Halloween and masquerade parties.

There is something compelling about wearing costumes — they can both reveal and disguise.

Costumes reflect our personality and interests. Show off our creativity. And let us take on another identity — transforming into someone or something else as we step out of our daily routines.

18th-century-style costume made by the Eaves Costume Company for Henry Ford, 1929. / THF154824, THF154830. Gift of the Clara Ford Estate.

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