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Two-story white house with black shutters, surrounded by lawn and a few trees

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With Greenfield Village reopening soon, you’ll find something new at the Noah Webster Home!

Room with patterned floor and walls containing a large, set table with many mismatched chairs
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We have reinstalled the formerly sparsely furnished Webster dining room to better reflect a more active family life that took place in the Webster household at the time of our interpretation: 1835.

Painting of man with white hair in dark suit and white cravat, sitting in an armchair and holding a piece of paper
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Noah and Rebecca Webster moved to their New Haven, Connecticut, home in their later years to be near family and friends, as well as the library at nearby Yale College. This painting of Noah dates from about this time.

Painting of seated woman in dark dress with light collar and hat
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The Websters moved into their comfortable, newly-built home on Temple Street in New Haven in 1823. This portrait shows Rebecca Webster from about this time as well.

Room with table and four chairs, as well as fireplace with doors on either side,
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New research and evolving historical perspective often lead us to reinterpret Greenfield Village buildings. So, furnishings change to reflect these richer or more accurate stories. This is what the Webster dining room looked like in 1947.

Dining room with elaborate furnishings, including set table and chairs and two sideboards
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In 1962, the Webster house was refurnished to showcase fine furnishings in period room-like settings—rather than reflecting a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before.

Room with patterned blue wallpaper containing fireplace, bed, chest of drawers, chairs
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In 1989, after meticulous research on the house and on the Webster family, the home was beautifully transformed, and its furnishings more closely reflected the Webster family’s lives.

Narrow room with one window, chair and desk, two dressers, and other furnishings
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You could imagine the Websters living there. This is Rebecca Webster’s dressing room.

Mostly empty room with patterned floor and wallpaper, containing a few chairs and side tables
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Yet the dining room was sparsely furnished. The 1989 reinstallation suggested that the Websters were “in retirement” and “withdrawn from society,” and didn’t need or use this room much.

Pair of boots lying on patterned blue floor next to chair with tub; rags nearby
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The dining room was presented as a seldom-used space in the Webster home during the mid-1830s. This detail showed boots being cleaned in the otherwise unused room.

Part of carpeted and wallpapered room showing fireplace, sideboard, table and chairs
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Webster family correspondence and other documents paint a picture of a household that included not only family activities, but more public ones as well, during the 1830s and beyond.

Black-and-white photo of tree-lined road with houses with low fences along both sides
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Daughter Julia Goodrich and her family lived down the street and were frequent visitors. The Webster house appears at far right in this photo of Temple Street taken in the 1920s.

Oval painting in elaborate gold and dark frame of woman in white dress with dark curly hair standing between two large columns
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Webster children and grandchildren who lived farther away came for extended visits. Daughter Eliza Jones and her family traveled from their Bridgeport, Connecticut, home for visits.

Canopy bed in a room with patterned carpet and wallpaper
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At times, some Webster family members even joined the household temporarily. They could stay in a guest room in the Webster home.

Engraving of street scene with trees, buildings, people, and an oxcart in the foreground
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Webster’s Yale-attending grandsons and their classmates stopped in for visits and came to gatherings. This print shows Yale College—located not far from the Webster home—during this time.

Room containing bookshelves, armchair, and table and side chairs
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The Webster family home was also Noah’s “office.” He had moved his study upstairs in October 1834, met there with business associates and students.

Room with patterned carpet, green walls, table and chairs in middle of room and additional chairs around the perimeter
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Guests—including visiting clergymen, publishing associates, Yale faculty, and political leaders—would have called at the house or would have been invited to gatherings in the home. This is the Webster parlor.

Long set table with mismatched chairs in room with patterned carpet and wallpaper
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To help reflect the active family life that took place in the Webster household in 1835, the new dining room vignette suggests members of the extended Webster family casually gathering for a meal.

Mismatched chairs along side of table; fireplace in background
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The room’s arrangement is deliberately informal, with mismatched chairs. Hepplewhite chairs that are part of the dining room set are supplemented by others assembled for this family meal.

Corner of set table with mismatched chairs; fireplace behind
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A high chair is provided for the youngest Webster grandchild.

End of table covered with cloth with dominos and plate of scones on it; additional dominos on patterned floor below
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The grandchildren’s domino game was quickly set aside as the table was set and three generations of the family began to gather.

Corner of set table with chairs; fireplace with mantel behind and patterned wallpaper on walls
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The dining room furnishings, like those in the rest of the home, reflect a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before. The Websters would have owned most of their furniture, tableware, candlesticks, and other items for decades. The Connecticut-made clock on the mantel would have been a bit newer, since it dates from 1825–1835.

Wooden chair with back slats in shield shape and dark blue satin seat
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But the Hepplewhite style chairs—no longer in fashion—would have been purchased more than 30 years before.

Table containing white dishes with blue pattern; wallpapered wall in background
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The early 1800s Chinese export dishes would have likely been bought decades before. Quite fine and fashionable when new, the sturdy dishes would have survived to be used at everyday meals and for family gatherings many years later.

Clear glass lamp with etched pattern on tablecloth with dishes and silverware at place settings nearby
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The Websters would have acquired other furnishings more recently--including newly available whale oil lamps, which provided brighter lighting than candles. In coastal New Haven, whale oil was readily available.

Window with curtains surrounded by wallpapered wall
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Stylish curtains of New England factory-made roller-printed cotton fabric are gracefully draped over glass curtain tiebacks and decoratively arranged.

Meat roast (partially sliced), jello mold, and round loaf of bread on plates on table, with place settings nearby
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Do stop by the Noah Webster Home when Greenfield Village opens this spring and see what the Websters are having for dinner as they “gather” with their children and grandchildren! And for even more Village building makeover stories, see also this recent post from Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life Donna Braden.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life and Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, home life, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, furnishings, food, by Jeanine Head Miller, by Charles Sable

Colorful image of woman raking hay in a field, with other people, horses, and wagons nearby

Lantern slide based on one of Joseph Boggs Beale's drawings. / THF622550

Joseph Boggs Beale produced illustrations used to create slides for magic lantern shows from the 1880s until about 1920. He was both artistic and prolific. During his career, Beale sketched over 2,000 images used in over 250 lantern slide sets. Beale's education and background led him to create illustrations that demonstrated a high level of cinematic quality for screen-projected images at a time before motion pictures. Ironically, it would be motion pictures that would end his career as a lantern slide illustrator.

Beale before Lantern Slides


Joseph Boggs Beale was born in 1841 to a well-connected Philadelphia family. His father was a prominent dentist, his late great-aunt was Betsy Ross (the seamstress whose family claimed she sewed the first United States flag), and his uncle Edmund Beale was a professional panorama showman. Entertainment opportunities abounded in one of the largest cities in the U.S.—and the Beale family took advantage of them. The Beales enjoyed theatrical productions and concerts, watched animal menageries pass by on the street, went to minstrel shows and panorama displays, and, of course, they saw magic lantern shows.

Wooden box, strips of translucent images, and small metal and glass machine
Magic lanterns use optical lenses and a light source to project images from glass slides onto a screen. / THF160397

Beale was an artistic child, and his family encouraged his talent. He attended Philadelphia's Central High School, where his artistic skills flourished. Later, he took classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Upon graduation from Central High School in 1862, the 21-year-old Beale became the school's professor of drawing and writing.

During the Civil War in 1863, as the Southern army invaded the quiet Pennsylvania farmlands west of Philadelphia, Beale joined the 33rd Pennsylvania Volunteers as the regimental artist. After a short stint with the military, he returned to teaching.

In 1865, Beale submitted a drawing of a baseball game to the editors of Harper's Weekly. The editors published it in the November issue. It was the beginning of his professional artistic career. Beale began submitting drawings to other major national periodicals, and soon his illustrations appeared in Frank Leslie's Weekly and Daily Graphic.

Illustration of a crowd of people around a grassy area where baseball is being played
"Base-Ball Match" illustration in 1865 Harper's Weekly by J.B. Beale. / THF621986

Beale married Marie Taffard of Philadelphia in 1868. The couple moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Beale worked for Baker and Company, a firm that provided wood engraving to its clients. After his wife died, Beale returned to Philadelphia. There he met Caspar Briggs, owner of C.W. Briggs & Company, one of the country's premier lantern slide firms. Briggs originally hired Beale on a freelance basis. It was the beginning of a nearly 40-year career creating lantern slide illustrations.

Caspar Briggs


Caspar Briggs's father, Daniel, started a lantern slide business in Massachusetts in the 1850s and transferred the company to his son in 1868. Caspar moved the company to Philadelphia in 1872—the city was rapidly becoming a hub for lantern slide production. Two years after the move, Briggs bought out Langenheim Brothers, a company noted for developing the process for photographic lantern slides.

Well-dressed man and woman walk toward an open carriage door, with other people and a dog nearby
One of the drawings created by Beale for a set of slides illustrating the hymn "Tell Me the Old, Old Story." / THF124495

Instead of using photographic images for his slides, Briggs decided to photograph illustrated works—wash drawings or paintings—made by his company’s artists to create lantern slides. Photographed onto glass, then usually hand-colored, these images recounted well-known stories and poems, chronicled history, and illustrated songs. Briggs's vision built an impressive body of work, making his company one of the leading producers of lantern slides in the country. Presentations using slides purchased from Briggs's company thrilled audiences and inspired political, religious, and fraternal organizations throughout America. The artistic and creative works of Joseph Beale would be central to Briggs's production of lantern slides.

Beale as a Lantern Slide Artist


Briggs first hired Beale on a freelance basis around 1880, one of several artists that Briggs employed. But Beale's artistic hand outshone the other illustrators at Briggs's company—or any other lantern slide company. Beale understood the storytelling power his illustrations could convey when projected onto a screen in a darkened room or theater.

Man in suit with right arm upraised, in front of man sitting at desk on dais, with additional people at tables behind them
A pivotal moment depicted by Beale from one of his illustrations for the "Life of Benjamin Franklin" series. / THF289382

Drawing on his childhood experiences, education, and early work, Beale created lantern slides that have been described as cinematic. He brought an artistic and dramatic continuity to the story and song sets he created. His detailed illustrations depicted defining moments of a story—moments that had to be conveyed in one slide, rather than in multiple moving images. And while his works are detailed, they are not distracting—organized images focus the viewer's gaze on important action. His illustrations are highlighted and shaded to provide a tonal range that, when transferred to glass and hand-painted by Briggs's colorists, imparted a quality rarely produced by other lantern slide artists. Beale knew how to tell a story using projected images and is considered one of the first great screen artists.

Black-and-white portrait of man in suit with white hair, beard, and mustache; cursive text on one side
Portrait of Joseph Boggs Beale late in life. / THF289386

Magic lantern slide shows were in decline by 1900. The invention of motion pictures in the 1890s slowly began to displace lantern slide entertainment. Beale continued to work for Briggs but was laid off in 1909. He freelanced for Briggs until about 1920. By then, motion pictures dominated the screen entertainment industry. Beale died in 1926 and his illustrations were dispersed. Many found a home in museums and educational institutions across the United States, including The Henry Ford.

You can view original illustrations by Beale, and lantern slides based on his drawings, in The Henry Ford's Digital Collections.


Andy Stupperich is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

drawings, popular culture, home life, art, by Andy Stupperich, #THFCuratorChat

Illustration of standing woman in elaborate dress and jewelry, holding fan

Image of Martha Coston from her 1886 autobiography. (Not from the collections of The Henry Ford.)

Inventor Martha Coston overcame 19th-century gender stereotypes to help change the course of the Civil War, as well as boating safety. In 1848, tragedy struck when Martha’s husband, a successful inventor formerly employed in the Washington Navy Yard, died as a result of chemical exposure from his gas lighting experiments. His death was followed by the deaths of two of their children and a mother Martha was close to, and a relative mishandling Martha's remaining money. Martha was left a single mother with minimal support.

Illustration of elaborate pedestal topped with urn or jar, surrounded by  smaller illustrations and decorative elements
Sylvic Gas Light, B. Franklin Coston, Patentee, Washington City, D.C. N.B., Gas Light Generator, 1845. / THF287321

Martha needed a way to support herself and her two remaining children. Within her husband's papers, she discovered drawings for a pyrotechnic night signal that could be used by ships to communicate. After finding that the invention didn't work, she took on years of experiments in hopes of creating a functional signal flare. With no knowledge of chemistry or scientific methodology, Martha relied on others for help. Men often ignored her, didn't take her seriously, or deceived her.

Twisted wires stranded together and banded on both ends and in the middle with brass
Section of the First Transatlantic Cable, 1858. / THF77301

The signal set used three colors to create coded messages. As a patriotic woman, Martha wanted flares that burned red, white, and blue. While she had developed recipes for red and white, blue remained elusive. A breakthrough came in 1858, when Martha was in New York City watching fireworks during celebrations for the first transatlantic cable.

Etching with crowd of people, statue, fireworks and lights in a night sky; also contains text
Illustration from an 1858 Harper's Weekly depicting the New York translatlantic cable firework celebration. / THF265993

Inspired by the fireworks, Martha wrote New York pyrotechnists looking for a strong blue, corresponding under a man's name for fear that she would be ignored. Instead of a blue, Martha was able to locate a recipe for a brilliant green. In 1859, Patent No. 23,536, a pyrotechnic night signal and code system, was granted, with Martha Coston as administrator—and her late husband as the inventor.

Gun with wooden stock and very short barrel
U.S. Army Model 1862 Percussion Signal Pistol, circa 1862. / THF170773

The U.S. Navy showed high interest in Martha's invention, but stalled the purchase of the patent until 1861, after the Civil War erupted. With a blockade of Southern ports in place, the Navy needed Martha's flares to communicate. Her business, the Coston Manufacturing Company, produced the flares and sold them at cost for the duration of the war. New York gun manufacturer William Marston produced the signal pistol above to exclusively fire Coston's multicolored signal flare.

Three men in elaborate uniforms, two standing, one seated
A carte-de-visite depicting the "Official Escorts for the Japanese Ambassador's Visit to the United States,” circa 1860. Admiral David Dixon Porter is pictured right. / THF211796

In her 1886 autobiography, A Signal Success: The Work and Travels of Mrs. Martha J. Coston, Martha acknowledged the use of her flares in the success of the blockade. Confederate ships known as blockade-runners regularly sailed at night, and Coston's flares helped Union ships pursue these runners effectively, often resulting in prize money for the ship's officers. Admiral David Porter, pictured on the right above, wrote Martha about the impact her flares had on military operations, saying:

"The signals by night are very much more useful than the signals by day made with flags, for at night the signals can be so plainly read that mistakes are impossible, and a commander-in-chief can keep up a conversation with one of his vessels."

In January 1865, Wilmington, North Carolina, remained the last open port of the Confederacy. To cut the port off, Admiral David Porter and Major General Alfred Terry coordinated a joint assault of sea and land forces. The ensuing conflict, known as the Battle of Fort Fisher, resulted in a Union victory.

Etching of ships with fireworks bursting above them
Illustration from an 1865 Harper's Weekly depicting the fall of Fort Fisher. / THF287568

According to Admiral Porter, Martha Coston's flares played a critical role. He later reminisced, "I shall never forget the beautiful sight presented at ten o'clock at night when Fort Fisher fell.... The order was given to send up rockets without stint and to burn the Coston Signals at all the yard-arms."

After the war, Martha Coston continued to improve upon her invention, filing several more patents—this time in her own name. When the United States Life-Saving Service, precursor to the United States Coast Guard, began using the Coston flare, Martha's invention became standard safety equipment for all boating vessels. Worldwide adoption of her invention led to the success of Martha's business, Coston Supply Company, which focused on maritime safety and stayed in business until the late 20th century.

Several images with men in wet-weather gear, working
Illustration from an 1881 Harper's Weekly depicting the United States Life-Saving Service using the Coston flare. / THF287571


Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, women's history, inventors, Civil War, by Ryan Jelso

Deborah Sussman began her design career as an intern at the Eames Office in 1953.  There, over the course of a decade, she was promoted to an art director and worked on graphic design, exhibitions, films, toy design, packaging, and photography. In 1963, she acted as designer for the “Beware of Imitations” image below, with Charles and Ray Eames as creative directors. Appearing as an advertisement in Arts & Architecture magazine, it celebrated Eames-designed furniture produced by Herman Miller. The image is a fascinating herald, hinting at how Sussman’s approach toward the power of large-scale graphics to communicate within environments would define her future vision.

Page with background of brick wall in black-and-white topped with "poster" of chairs in black and white and text and pointing hand icons in red
Herman Miller “Beware of Imitations” Advertisement. / THF147716

The foundation image was printed to poster size and affixed to the outside wall of the Eames Office, where it was photographed in situ. The weathered brick wall, scrabbly Californian plant life, and spray-painted stencil additions surrounding the paste-up add texture to the image, revealing it to be evidence of a process. An image at the Library of Congress takes us one step further into this moment, revealing Sussman pasting up the original work.  

Black-and-white image of flowers and text "ZEELAND, MICHIGAN" against brick wall on left; on right images of people and chairs and red pointing finger icons
Detail. / THF147716

If you look closely toward the bottom left of this image, you will also see a bouquet of flowers on a placard with the text, “Zeeland, Michigan.” Zeeland is, of course, home to the Herman Miller company, but the floral design has its own interesting lifespan. It appears on Herman Miller’s stock certificates and on the underside of a kiosk designed by the Eames Office for the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Sussman is credited with contributing to both projects. 

Colorful tent-like structure with thin poles supporting a colorful roof and topped with flags
Kiosk from the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. / THF156766

Image of flowers in a white rectangle, surrounded by taupe, blue, and white geometric shapes highlighted with pinstriping
Detail of the underside of the IBM Kiosk. / THF171121

Sussman left the Eames Office temporarily to continue her design studies through a Fulbright scholarship in Germany, but was eventually “lured back” to California to work on the Mathematica exhibit. When The Henry Ford acquired the 1964 version of the Mathematica exhibit (now on permanent view in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation), extensive research was undertaken in the Charles & Ray Eames Papers at the Library of Congress to create the most historically accurate version of the exhibit possible. Photographs at the Library of Congress documented numerous contributions made by women to the exhibit’s design, including Sussman, Ray Eames, and many others. Sussman, for her part, once recounted setting the type for the mathematician biographies that appear on the History Timeline and also appears in a photograph working on the graphics for the base of the Multiplication Cube interactive.

Image with colorful graphics, drawings, and text
Detail of the Multiplication Cube from the Eames Office-designed Mathematica exhibit. / THF164150

Busy panel with many strips of text and images
Detail of the History Timeline in Mathematica. / THF170845

In 1968, Sussman formed an independent design practice as Sussman/Prejza & Co. with her husband, Paul. Together they designed things like the “urban branding” for the cities of Long Beach and Santa Monica, California, and wayfinding signage for Walt Disney World and EuroDisney. Her favorite kind of work involved vibrant, larger-than-life graphic and typographic treatments installed in architectural spaces and outdoor urban areas. For this work, she is credited as a pioneer of “environmental design” and “Supergraphics.”

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Design Preview / Brand Identity Guidelines for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. / THF287946

This approach is especially obvious in her design identity work for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The look and feel of the LA Olympics—created by Sussman/Prejza & C0. in collaboration with the Jerde Partnership—transformed the city of Los Angeles. The holistic plan was for “an energetic montage of color and form [to] appear on everything from tents to tickets.” There were 43 art installations, 28 game venues, 3 Olympic villages, and wayfinding signage. There was a monumental 145-foot tower of colorful scaffolding erected in Exposition Park. Color-coded gateways and walkways lined with concrete “Sonotubes” wrapped in bright abstract graphics. Uniforms for officials and volunteers.

Colorful page with large graphic characters "L A 8 4"
Design Quarterly #127. / THF287955

Large colorful tower with decorative scaffolding and images of stars, geometric shapes, and Olympic rings
Detail from Design Quarterly #127. / THF287972

An entire issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the project, in which the designers explained their hopes for a successful event as “a modern environment that recalls the imageable qualities of a medieval jousting festival” and one that anticipated that “the city will be transformed overnight, as if an invasion of butterflies has descended upon it.”

White banner with colorful graphic characters "L A 8 4" and additional text "WELCOME" and "OLYMPICS"
Souvenir Street Banner designed by Deborah Sussman for the LA 1984 Olympics. / THF171692

Color played an essential role in unifying the visual language of color, graphics, and typographic treatments. Notably, Sussman broke away from the palette of traditional red, white, and blue, and captured the “Southern California spirit” through shades of vibrant magenta, vermillion, aqua, purple, and sunset orange. A favorite quote in the Design Quarterly issue states: “The glorious colors—the banners, the kiosks and booths, even the trash cans and hot dog napkins—were happily original, all Toyland confetti, in light and airy shades all their own. We get enough of red-white-and-blue everywhere else, don’t we?”

Partial credit to Sussman’s approach can be connected to her early training at the Eames Office, where her mentors emphasized the value of playfulness. There, she had the opportunity to document festivals in other countries. She learned to appreciate folk art and the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Rim. And the “kit of parts” approach to design was part of everyday life at the Eames Office too, which undoubtedly influenced Sussman’s own adaptable “visual alphabet” for the 1984 LA Olympics. Today, her contributions for this and other projects stand as beloved and masterful examples of environmental graphic design. Like many designers who passed through the Eames Office, Deborah Sussman took what she learned, remixed it, and made it an evolved and color-saturated language all her own.


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

Henry Ford Museum, Herman Miller, women's history, design, sports, by Kristen Gallerneaux, #THFCuratorChat

The story of Frederick Douglass’s life is, at turns, tragic and awe-inspiring. He is a testament to the strength and ingenuity of the human spirit. The Henry Ford is fortunate to have some materials related to Douglass, as well as to the many areas of American history and culture he touched. What follows is an exploration of Frederick Douglass’s story through the lens of The Henry Ford’s collection, using our artifacts as touchpoints in Douglass’s life. 

Man with mustache and bushy hair sits in chair and looks at camera
This portrait of Douglass was taken circa 1860, around the time Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States. / THF210623

Early Life & Escape


Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, Frederick Douglass was named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey by his enslaved mother, Harriet Bailey. Tragically, Douglass only saw his mother a few times before her early death, when Douglass was just seven years old. Though he had few memories of his mother, he recalled her fondly and was proud to learn that she also knew how to read. He wrote that he was “quite willing, and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess” to his mother. Few enslaved people could read at that time—Douglass’s pride in his mother was certainly justified.

In 1826, Douglass was sent to Baltimore, Maryland, to live with the family of Hugh and Sophia Auld—extended family of his master, Aaron Anthony. This move to Baltimore would be transformative for Douglass. It not only exposed Douglass to the wider world, but was also where Douglass learned to read.

Douglass was initially taught to read by Sophia Auld, who considered him a bright pupil.  However, the lessons were put to a stop by Hugh Auld. It was not only illegal to teach an enslaved person to read, but Hugh also believed literacy would “ruin” Douglass as a slave. In a sense, Douglass agreed, as he came to understand the vast power of literacy. Douglass would later remark that “education and slavery are incompatible with each other.”

Douglass was determined to read. He “converted to teachers” some of the friendlier white children in the neighborhood. They showed him a school reader entitled The Columbian Orator, by Caleb Bingham, that he came to rely upon. In 1830, he purchased his own copy for 50 cents. The book—a collection of exceptional oration, poems, dialogue, and tips on the “art of eloquence”—became a great inspiration to Douglass. He carried it with him for many years to come.

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Page with text
The Columbian Orator” features a discussion between an enslaved person and their master which impressed Douglass. The enslaved person’s dialogue—referred to as “smart” by Douglass—resulted in the man’s unexpected emancipation. / THF621972, THF621973

As recollected in his first memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, Douglass’s teenage years were some of his most challenging. He became viewed as a “troublemaker.” He was hired out to different farmers in the area, including one who had the reputation as an “effective slave breaker” and was especially cruel. Knowing that a larger world awaited and facing a terrible quality of life, Douglass attempted an escape in 1836. The escape failed and he was put in jail.  Douglass was surprised to be released. He was sent not to the deep South as he had feared, but instead, back to Baltimore and the family of Hugh Auld, to learn the trade of caulking at the shipyards. While working there, Douglass was subjected to the animosities of his white coworkers, who beat him mercilessly—and were never arrested for it because a white witness would not testify and the word of a Black man was not admissible. He continuously dreamt of escape.

Book standing on end, open to title page containing text
In this first memoir, Douglass provides great detail into his early life. However, because he was still a fugitive at the time of publication, he omitted details related to his escape. / THF8133

Recalling the ships on Chesapeake Bay, Douglass wrote:

“Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of the freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. You are loosed from your moorings and are free; I am fast in my chains and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!”

The ships’ freedom taunted him.

On September 3rd, 1838, Douglass courageously escaped slavery. Dressed as a sailor and using borrowed documents, he boarded a train, then a ferry, and yet another train to reach New York City—and freedom. His betrothed, a free Black woman named Anna Murray, followed, and soon after they were married. Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, with hopes that Frederick could find work as a caulker in the whaling port. Instead, he took on a variety of jobs—but, finally, the money he earned was fully his.

The American Anti-Slavery Society & the Abolitionists


While living in New Bedford, Douglass encountered William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, for the first time. Douglass later wrote that the paper “took its place with me next to the Bible.” The Liberator introduced to Douglass the official abolitionist movement.

In August of 1841, Douglass attended an abolitionist convention. In an impromptu speech, he regaled the audience with stories of his enslaved past. William Lloyd Garrison and other leading abolitionists noticed—Douglass’s career as an abolitionist orator had begun. Douglass became a frequent speaker at meetings of the American Anti-Slavery Society. His personal story of life enslaved humanized the abolitionist movement for many Northerners—and eventually, the world.

In 1845, he published his first memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. By 1847, it had already sold more than 11,000 copies! This would be followed by two more memoirs: My Bondage and Freedom in 1855 and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881.

Newspaper page with text and woodcut illustration as masthead
This copy of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator was published on August 16, 1839—around the time when Douglass first encountered the paper. / THF621979

Women’s Suffrage


Douglass was also supportive of the women’s suffrage movement. He spoke at the famous Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in support of women’s rights.  In fact, the motto of his newspaper, The North Star, was “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren.”

While Douglass forcefully supported women’s suffrage, some of his actions put him at odds with others in the movement. He supported the adoption of the 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, which guaranteed equality to all citizens—which included Black and white males, including the formerly enslaved. It did not include women. He also supported adoption of the 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, which secured Black males the right to vote. Again, the amendment excluded women. Although a dedicated women’s rights activist, Douglass supported the adoption of the 14th and 15th amendments as he believed the matter to be “life or death” for Black people. This put him in disagreement with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, as well as his friends. Despite this disagreement about timing, Douglass would continue to lecture in support of women’s equality and suffrage until his death.

John Brown’s Raid


Douglass was well-acquainted with famous abolitionist leader John Brown, first meeting him in 1847 or 1848. Brown became known for leading a raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, intending to create an “army of emancipation” to liberate enslaved people. Douglass and Brown spoke shortly before John Brown’s raid. Brown had hoped that Douglass would join him, but Douglass declined. He believed that Brown was “going into a perfect steel trap, and that once in he would not get out alive.”

Douglass was right. Brown was captured during the raid and was subsequently tried, convicted, and executed. Brown became seen as an anti-slavery martyr, as the below print shows. Henry David Thoreau remarked about him, “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature…”

A letter from Douglass was found among John Brown’s belongings, leading to warrants for Douglass’s arrest as a conspirator. He was lecturing in Philadelphia at the time of the discovery. John Hurn, Philadelphia’s telegraph operator, was sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. He received a dispatch for the sheriff calling for Douglass’s arrest and both sent a warning to Douglass and delayed relaying the dispatch to the sheriff. Douglass fled and made it to Canada, narrowly escaping arrest. He then went abroad on a lecture tour, resisting apprehension in the States.

Print of Black woman holding child and kneeling at the feet of standing man in suit; man in uniform stands beside them
The text on this Currier & Ives print reads “John Brown—The Martyr: Meeting a Slave Mother and her Child on the steps of Charlestown Jail on his way to Execution. Regarding them with a look of compassion Captain Brown stooped and kissed the Child then met his fate." This did not actually occur, but became popular lore, as well as the subject of artwork and literature. / THF8053

The Civil War & Abraham Lincoln


In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. At the time, Douglass was not optimistic about the cause of abolition under Lincoln’s presidency. As tensions between the North and South grew and Civil War loomed, Douglass welcomed the impending war. As biographer David Blight states, “Douglas wanted the clarity of polarized conflict.”

Douglass got involved in the war effort through the recruitment of Black soldiers. Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the second Black regiment in the Union Army. Douglass first met President Abraham Lincoln in August 1863, when he visited the White House to discuss grievances against Black troops. Even without an appointment and a room full of people waiting, Douglass was admitted to see Lincoln after just a few minutes.

Print of Black men in blue uniforms, led by a white man in a blue uniform, clashing with men in gray uniforms
Two of Frederick Douglass’s sons, Lewis and Charles, fought with the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment. Lewis Douglass was appointed Sergeant Major, the highest rank that a Black person could then hold. / THF73704

Douglass would go on to advise Lincoln over the following years. After Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he asked Douglass his thoughts about it, adding, “There is no man in these United States whose opinion I value more than yours.”

On February 1, 1865, Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of the United States Congress proposing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—the “nail in the coffin” for the institution of slavery in the United States. But before the 13th Amendment could be ratified, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865. While Douglass and Lincoln certainly disagreed on many topics, Douglass remembered him fondly. In his eulogy, Douglass called Lincoln “the Black man’s president: the first to show any respect to their rights as men.”

After the Civil War and even after Reconstruction, Douglass held high-ranking government appointments—often becoming the first Black person to do so. Douglass was appointed the Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti in 1889.

Page with handwritten text and many signatures at the bottom
While Douglass certainly supported the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery, he did not think it went far enough. He remarked, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot. While the legislatures of the south retain the right to pass laws making any discrimination between black and white, slavery still lives there.” / THF118475

Douglass continued to lecture in support of his two primary causes—racial equality and women’s suffrage—until the very end. On February 20, 1895, he attended a meeting of the National Council of Women, went home, and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 77 years old.

Frederick Douglass remains one of the most inspirational figures in American history. We can still feel the weight of the words he wrote and spoke, more than 125 years after his passing. Douglass said, “Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is … the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make it more symmetrical.” This work continues.

Ebony magazine cover with text and image of Black man with bushy hair, beard, and mustache
Frederick Douglass remains a powerful symbol of the fight for racial justice and equality. Here, his image graces the cover of Ebony Magazine’s issue celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. / THF98736_REDACTED


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She appreciated the recently published book by David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, as she conducted research for this post.

Civil Rights, #THFCuratorChat, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, education, women's history, voting, by Katherine White, books, African American history

Claude Harvard faced many racial obstacles over the course of his young life, but when he addressed a crowd of students at Tuskegee University in 1935, he spoke with confidence and optimism:

“Speaking from my own experience, brief as it is, I feel certain that the man or woman who has put his very best into honest effort to gain an education will not find the doors to success barred.”

One of the few, if not the only, Black engineers employed by Henry Ford at the time, Claude had been personally sent to Tuskegee by Ford to showcase an invention of his own creation. Even in the face of societal discrimination, the message of empowerment and perseverance that Claude imparted on that day was one that he carried with him over the course of his own career. For him, there was always a path forward.

Four men in suits wearing headphones sit at a table with equipment on the table and along the wall behind them
Claude Harvard practicing radio communication with other students at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272856

Born in 1911, Claude spent the first ten years of his life in Dublin, Georgia, until his family, like other Black families of the time period, made the decision to move north to Detroit in order to escape the poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow laws of the South. From a young age, Claude was intrigued by science and developed a keen interest in a radical new technology—wireless radio. To further this interest, he sold products door-to-door just so he could acquire his own crystal radio set to play around with. It would be Claude’s passion for radio that led him to grander opportunities.

At school in Detroit, Harvard demonstrated an aptitude for the STEM fields and was eventually referred to the Henry Ford Trade School, a place usually reserved for orphaned teen-aged boys to be trained in a variety of skilled, industrial trade work. His enrollment at Henry Ford Trade School depended on his ability to resist the racial taunting of classmates and stay out of fights. Once there, his hands-on classes consisted of machining, metallurgy, drafting, and engine design, among others. In addition to the manual training received, academic classes were also required, and students could participate in clubs.

Young men sit around a long table looking at a man standing at one end
Claude Harvard with other Radio Club members and their teacher at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272854

As president of the Radio Club, Claude Harvard became acquainted with Henry Ford, who shared an interest in radio—as early as 1919, radio was playing a pivotal role in Ford Motor Company’s communications. Although he graduated at the top of his class in 1932, Claude was not given a journeyman’s card like the rest of his classmates. A journeyman’s card would have allowed Claude to be actively employed as a tradesperson. Despite this obstacle, Henry Ford recognized Claude’s talent and he was hired at the trade school. By the 1920s, Ford Motor Company had become the largest employer of African American workers in the country. Although Ford employed large numbers of African Americans, there were limits to how far most could advance. Many African American workers spent their time in lower paying, dirty, dangerous, and unhealthy jobs.

The year 1932 also saw Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company once again revolutionize the auto industry with the introduction of a low-priced V-8 engine. By casting the crankcase and cylinder banks as a single unit, Ford cut manufacturing costs and could offer its V-8 in a car starting under $500, a steal at the time. The affordability of the V-8 meant many customers for Ford, and with that came inevitable complaints—like a noisy rattling that emanated from the engine. To remedy this problem, which was caused by irregular-shaped piston pins, Henry Ford turned to Claude Harvard.

Engine sitting on a stand
1932 Ford V-8 Engine, No. 1 / THF101039

To solve the issue, Harvard invented a machine that checked the shape of piston pins and sorted them by size with the use of radio waves. More specifically, the machine checked the depth of the cut on each pin, its length, and its surface smoothness. It then sorted the V-8 pins by size at a rate of three per second.  Ford implemented the machine on the factory floor and touted it as an example of the company’s commitment to scientific accuracy and uniform quality. Along with featuring Claude’s invention in print and audio-visual ads, Ford also sent Harvard to the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago and to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to showcase the machine.

Machine on display under a sign with text, with images along wall behind
Piston Pin Inspection Machine at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. / THF212795

During his time at Tuskegee, Harvard befriended famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who he eventually introduced to Henry Ford. In 1937, when George Washington Carver visited Henry Ford in Dearborn, he insisted that Claude be there. While Carver and Ford would remain friends the rest of their lives, Claude Harvard left Ford Motor Company in 1938 over a disagreement about divorcing his wife and his pay. Despite Ford patenting over 20 of Harvard’s ideas, Claude’s career would be forced in a new direction and over time, the invention of the piston pin sorting machine would simply be attributed to the Henry Ford Trade School.

Despite these many obstacles, Claude’s work lived on in the students that he taught later in his life, the contributions he made to manufacturing, and a 1990 oral history, where he stood by his sentiments that if one put in a honest effort into learning, there would always be a way forward.


Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, technology, radio, manufacturing, making, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, engines, engineering, education, by Ryan Jelso, African American history

A pattern of Black activism exists, a pattern evident in the work of individuals who dedicate themselves to improving the health and wellbeing of others. These individuals may best be described as “food soldiers.” They arm themselves with evidence from agricultural and domestic science. They build their defenses one market garden at a time. They ally with grassroots activists, philanthropists, and policy makers who support their cause. Past action informs them, and they in turn inspire others to use their knowledge to build a better nation.

Three Black women sit and stand around a table that holds food packages
June Sears, Rosemary Dishman, and Dorothy Ford Discussing Women's Nutrition, May 1970. / THF620081

Food Sources


Food is one of life’s necessities (along with clothing and shelter). Centuries of legal precedent confirmed the need for employers to provide a food allowance (a ration), as well as clothing and shelter, to “bound” employees. For example, a master craftsman had to provide life’s necessities to an indentured servant, contracted to work for him for seven years, or a landowner was legally required (though adherence and enforcement varied) to provide food, clothing, and shelter to an enslaved person, bound to labor for life. This legal obligation changed after the Civil War with the coming of freedom.

Landowner R.J. Hart scratched out the clause in a contract that obligated him to furnish “healthy and substantial rations” to a freedman in 1868. Hart instead furnished laborer Henry Mathew housing (“quarters”) and fuel, a mule, and 35 acres of land. In exchange, Mr. Mathew agreed to cultivate the acreage, to fix fencing, and to accept a one-third share of the crop after harvest. The contract did not specify what Mr. Mathew could or should grow, but cotton dominated agriculture in the part of Georgia where he lived and farmed after the Civil War.

Double image showing people of color picking cotton in a field with a large basket of cotton in foreground
Cotton is King, Plantation Scene, Georgia, 1895 / THF278900

This new agricultural labor system—sharecropping—took hold across the cotton South. As the number of people laboring for a share of the crops increased, those laborers’ access to healthy foods decreased. Instead of gardening or raising livestock, sharecroppers had to concentrate on cash-crop production—either cotton or more localized specialty crops such as sugar cane, rice, or tobacco. Anything they grew for themselves on their landlord’s property went first to the landlord.

Man hooks large basket up to a wooden framework in a clearing among buildings and trees as other people with baskets sit nearby
Postcard, "Weighing Cotton in the South," 1924 / THF8577

With no incentive or opportunity to garden, sharecroppers had few options but to buy groceries on credit from local merchants, who often were also the landowners. A failed crop left sharecroppers even more indebted, impoverished, and malnourished. This had lasting consequences for all, but race discrimination further disadvantaged Black Southerners, as sociologist Stewart Tolnay documented in The Bottom Rung: African American Family Life on Southern Farms (1999).

As food insecurity increased across the South, educators added agricultural and domestic science to classroom instruction. Many schools, especially land-grant colleges, gained distinction because of this practical instruction. Racism, however, limited Black students’ access to education. Administrators secured private funding to deliver similar content to Black students at private institutes and at a growing number of public teacher-training schools across the South.

Brass microscope with long viewing tube, flat platform for specimens, and heavy brass feet
Microscope Used by George Washington Carver, circa 1900, when he taught agricultural science at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, as it was known at the time. / THF163071

Lessons in domestic science aligned with agricultural science most obviously in courses in market gardening. A pamphlet, Everyday Life at Hampton Institute, published around 1907, featured students cultivating, harvesting, and marketing fresh fruits and vegetables. Female students also processed and preserved these foods in domestic science classes. Graduates of these programs stood at the ready to share nutrition lessons. Many, however, criticized this training as doing too little to challenge inequity.

Men of color sit and stand around a piles of different vegetables at one side of a cobblestone street with buildings and horses and carriages behind them
Sixth Street Market, Richmond, Va., 1908-1909 / THF278870

Undaunted food soldiers remained committed to arguing for the value of raising healthy foods to build healthy communities. They justified their advice by tying their self-help messages to other goals. Nature study, a popular approach to environmental education early in the twentieth century, became a platform on which agricultural scientist George Washington Carver built his advocacy for gardening, as Nature Study and Children’s Gardens (1910) indicates.

Page with text and photo of children in a field
Nature Study and Children's Gardens, circa 1910, page 6 / THF213304

Opportunity increased as the canning industry offered new opportunities for farm families to produce perishable fruits and vegetables for shipment to processors, as well as for home use. Black experts in agriculture and domestic science encouraged Black landowning farm families that could afford the canning equipment to embrace this opportunity. These families also had some local influence and could encourage broader community investment in new market opportunities, including construction of community canning centers and purchase of canning equipment to use in them.

Title page containing text
The Canning and Preserving of Fruits and Vegetables in the Home, 1912 / THF288039

Nutritionists who worked with Black land-owning farm families reached only about 20 percent of the total population of Black farmers in the South. Meeting the needs of the remaining 80 percent required work with churches, clubs, and other organizations. National Health Week, a program of the National Negro Business League, began in 1915 to improve health and sanitation. This nation-wide effort put the spotlight on need and increased opportunities for Black professionals to coordinate public aid that benefitted families and communities.

Black woman, seated, with infant on lap and toddler standing beside her
Nutritionists advocated for maternal health. This studio portrait features a woman with two children, circa 1920, all apparently in good health. / THF304686

New employment opportunities for nutritionists became available during the mid-1910s. Each Southern state created a “Negro” Division within its Agricultural Extension Service, a cooperative venture between the national government’s U.S. Department of Agriculture and each state’s public land-grant institution. Many hired Black women trained at historically Black colleges across the South. They then went on the road as home demonstration agents, sharing the latest information on nutrition and food preservation.

Woman at wheel of old-fashioned car with man visible in seat behind her; houses behind them
Woman driving Chevrolet touring car, circa 1930. Note that the driver of this car is unidentified, but she represents the independence that professional Black women needed to do their jobs, which required travel to clients and work-related meetings. / THF91594

Class identity affected tactics. Black nutritionists were members of the Black middle class. They shared their wellness messages with other professional women through “Colored” women’s club meetings, teacher conferences, and farmer institutes.

Home economics teachers and home demonstration agents worked as public servants. Some supervisors advised them to avoid partisanship and activist organizations, which could prove difficult. For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), most noted for attacking inequity through legal challenges, first hosted Baby Contests in 1924. These contests had double meanings. For nutritionists, healthy babies illustrated their wellness message. Yet, “Better Baby” contests had a longer history as tools used by eugenicists to illustrate their race theory of white supremacy. The most impoverished and malnourished often benefitted least from these middle-class pursuits.

Round red button on black background with text "N.A.A.C.P 1948"
Button, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1948 / THF1605

 

Nutrition

 

Nutrition became increasingly important as science linked vitamins and minerals to good health. While many knew that poor diets could stunt growth rates and negatively affect reproductive health, during the 1920s and 1930s medical science confirmed vitamins and minerals as cures for some diseases that affected children and adults living in poverty. This launched a virtual revolution in food processing as manufacturers began adding iodine to salt to prevent goiters, adding Vitamin D to milk to prevent rickets, and adding Vitamin B3 to flour, breads, and cereals to prevent pellagra.

Brown bottle with blue text and image of boy in overalls with Peter Pan-type hat
"Blue Boy Sparkle" Milk Bottle, 1934-1955 / THF169283

It was immediately obvious that these cures could help all Americans. The American Medical Association’s Committee on Foods called for fortifying milk, flour, and bread. The National Research Council first issued its “Recommended Dietary Allowances” in 1941. Information sharing increased during World War II as new wartime agencies reiterated the benefits of enriched foods.

Page with text of various sizes and colors
World War II Poster, "Enrichment is Increasing; Cereals in the Nutrition Program," 1942 / THF81900

Black nutritionists played a significant role in this work for many reasons. They understood that enriched foods could address the needs of Black Americans struggling with health concerns. They knew that poverty and unequal access to information could slow adoption among residents in impoverished rural Black communities. Black women trained in domestic science or home economics also understood how racism affected health care by reducing opportunities for professional training and by segregating care into underfunded and underequipped doctor’s offices, clinics, and hospitals. That segregated system further contributed to ill health by adding to the stress level of individuals living in an unequal system.

Mobilization during World War II offered additional opportunities for Black nutritionists. The program for the 1942 Southern Negro Youth Conference at Tuskegee Institute addressed “concrete problems which the war has thrust in the forefront of American life.” Of the conference’s four organizing principles, two spoke directly to the aims of food soldiers: "How can Negro youth on the farms contribute more to the nation’s war production effort?” and “How can we strengthen the foundations of democracy by improving the status of Negro youth in the fields of: health and housing; education and recreation; race relations; citizenship?”

White page with blue-tinted text and multiple images
Program for the 5th All -Southern Negro Youth Conference, "Negro Youth Fighting for America," 1942 / THF99161

 

Extending the Reach

 

Food soldiers knew that the poorest suffered the most from malnutrition, but times of need tended to result in the most proactive legislation. For example, high unemployment during the Great Depression led to increased public aid. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built new schools with cafeterias and employed dieticians to establish school lunch programs. Impoverished families also had access to food stamps to offset high food prices for the first time in 1939 through a New Deal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

White woman stands behind table laden with plates of food in wood-paneled room
Elizabeth Brogdon, Dietitian at George Washington Carver School, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947 / THF135669

Elizabeth Speirs Brogdon (1915–2008) opened school lunchrooms under the auspices of the WPA in 19 Georgia counties for six years. She qualified for her position with a B.S. in home economics from Georgia State College for Women, the state’s teacher’s college, and graduate coursework in home economics at the University of Georgia (which did not officially admit women until after she was born).

While Mrs. Brogdon could complete advanced dietetics coursework in her home state, Black women in Georgia had few options. The Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, designated as Georgia’s Black land-grant school at the time, did not admit women as campus residents until 1921, and did not offer four-year degrees until 1928. Black women seeking advanced degrees in Home Economics earned them at Northern universities.

Flemmie Pansy Kittrell (1904–1980), a native of North Carolina and graduate of Virginia’s Hampton Institute, became the first Black woman to hold a PhD in nutrition (1938) from Cornell University. Her dissertation, “A Study on Negro Infant Feeding Practices in a Selected Community of North Carolina,” indicated the contribution that research by Black women could have made, if recognized as valid and vital.

Increased knowledge of the role of nutrition in children’s health informed Congress’s approval of the National School Lunch Program in 1946. In addition to this proactive legislation, some schools, including the school in Richmond Hill, Georgia, where dietitian Elizabeth Brogdon worked, continued the tradition of children’s gardens to ensure a fresh vegetable supply.

Black child holding large bunch of greens in a farm field of the same greens
Child in a School Vegetable Garden, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1940 / THF288200

The pace of reform increased with the arrival of television. The new medium raised the conscience of the nation by broadcasting violent suppression of peaceful Civil Rights demonstrations. This coverage coincided with increased study of the debilitating effects of poverty in the United States. Michael Harrington’s book The Other America (1962) increased support for national action to address inequity, including public health. President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “War on Poverty” became a catalyst for community action, action that Kenneth Bancroft Clark analyzed in A Relevant War Against Poverty (1969).

Michigan examples indicate how agricultural policy expanded public aid during the 1960s. President Johnson’s War on Poverty expanded public programs. This included a new Food Stamp Program in 1964, a recommitment to school lunch programs, and new nutrition education programs, all administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nutritionists, including June L. Sears, played a central role in implementing this work.

Three Black women sit and stand around a table that holds food packages
“June Sears, Rosemary Dishman, and Dorothy Ford Discussing Women's Nutrition,” May 1970. Rosemary Dishman served as a program aide and Dorothy Ford as supervising aide for Michigan’s Expanded Nutrition Program. / THF620081

Mrs. Sears earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wayne State University in Detroit and taught home economics before becoming the “Family Living Agent” in the Cooperative Extension Service of Michigan State University (Michigan’s land-grant university). In that capacity, she, along with Rosemary Dishman and Dorothy Ford, worked with low-income families in two metropolitan Detroit counties (Wayne and Oakland), educating them about nutrition and meal planning. The USDA’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), funded in 1969, sustained this work.

Public aid became a central component of U.S. farm bills by 1973. That year, the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act reaffirmed the deployment of excess agricultural production to meet consumer need. Additional legislation, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), funded in 1975, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), evolved to meet need.

And need was great.

Detroit Mayor Coleman Young explained in February 1975 that as many as 200,000 of his city’s 1.5 million citizens were undernourished. This extreme need existed despite efforts to address food insecurity, documented as an issue that mobilized protestors during the violent summer of 1967. Then, investigations by Detroit-based Focus: HOPE, a community advocacy organization, confirmed that food was more expensive for lower-income Detroiters than for some wealthier suburbanites, a condition now described as a “food desert.”

People of color stand by tables containing food in an industrial-looking space
“Depression's Harsh Impact at the Focus: HOPE Food Prescription Center in Detroit” Photograph, March 1975 / THF620068

Focus: HOPE staff opened a “Food Prescription Center,” stocked with USDA commodities that included enriched farina wheat cereal, canned meats, and other supplements.

Round button with top portion displaying a white hand and word "hope" on a black background, and the bottom half with the same elements but black and white reversed
Focus: HOPE Button, 1999 / THF98376

Commodity packaging has changed, as has farm policy over the years, but nutrition remains foundational to human health and well-being, and private and public partnerships remain essential to meeting need. The work continues with organizations such as Diversify Dietetics, Inc., which exists “to increase the racial and ethnic diversity in the field of nutrition.”

 

Food & Freedom

 

While nutritionists worked with schools, cooperative demonstration programs, and public service organizations, another brigade of food soldiers linked farming to full citizenship.

Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer built her freedom struggle around land ownership and family farming. She founded Freedom Farms Cooperative to provide land to displaced sharecroppers, where they could grow crops and livestock and build self-esteem.

Hamer’s story, and those of other Black farm advocates, draw attention to a farm movement linked to the freedom struggle. A rich and growing body of scholarship indicates how much there is to learn about this movement. Two books, Greta De Jong’s You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement (2016) and Monica M. White’s Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (2018), document the geographic range and approaches taken by food soldiers. White devotes a chapter to the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network as an example of Northern urban agriculture.

Stalks and leaves in a plot with fall-colored trees in the background and a yellow, red, and green sign reading "D-Town" in the foreground
Brussel Sprout Stalks after Harvest, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, October 30, 2010 / THF87927

Other farmers write their own story, as does Leah Penniman, recipient of the James Beard Leadership Prize in 2019. She outlines best practices for establishing and sustaining a Black farm cooperative in her book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018).

Another model takes the form of social entrepreneurship, as undertaken by Melvin Parson, The Henry Ford’s first Entrepreneur in Residence (2019), funded by the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship. You can hear Farmer Parson (as his friends call him) compare his entrance into market gardening to taking a seat at the table as a full member of society.

A Black man kneels in a field, examining soil, next to a tiller
“Melvin Parson Gardening during the Entrepreneurship Interview” / THF295401

Farmer Parson founded We The People Growers Association (now We The People Opportunity Farm) to help formerly incarcerated individuals transition back into freedom.

A Black man walks in a field guiding a tiller, with houses and fencing in the background
“Melvin Parson Gardening during the Entrepreneurship Interview” / THF295369

What nutritionist would you feature in your poster depicting the power of healthy food and race activism?

Yellow t-shirt with black caricature drawing of a man with large fork along with text and images
“We The People Opportunity Center” T-Shirt, circa 2019 / THF185710

Learn more with a visit to our pop-up exhibit on the same topic in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation now through March 31.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

education, women's history, farming, agriculture, Civil Rights, African American history, by Debra A. Reid, food, #THFCuratorChat, Henry Ford Museum

Tintypes

January 5, 2021 Archive Insight

Nowadays, we take photos what seems like, well—constantly. Let’s head back to an era when photographs were rare, and an affordable form of photography first made Its debut. Tintypes, the popular “instant photographs” of the 19th century, could be produced in a matter of minutes at a price most people could afford.

Man holding child wrapped in plaid shawl or blanket
Silas McConnell, a Cortland County, New York, general storekeeper, with his daughter Louise, about 1875. / THF278362

Beginning in the mid-1850s, tintypes gave more people than ever before the chance to have a real likeness of themselves—capturing unique glimpses of how everyday Americans looked and lived. Tintypes democratized photography.

Group of people sitting and standing, posed for a portrait
Koohns family of Perry County, Indiana, about 1890. / THF289961

There is no tin in a tintype. A tintype is a photograph made on a thin, black-painted sheet of iron. The thin metal of the iron plate probably reminded people of tin, leading to the popular name tintype.

Sitting child in plaid dress
Young boy, 1860 - 1870. / THF126296

A tintype is a reverse image of the person or scene that was taken directly from the camera. (Notice the reversed lettering on the bakery wagon below.) It looks like a positive print because of the dark color of the metal plate it is on.

White mat with oval image of man with horse and wagon
L. Hamberger's Bakery Wagon, about 1880. / THF278482

Having your photograph taken was considered an event. People got dressed up and went to the tintype studio in their city or town to have their portrait made.

Seated woman and standing little girl, both in elaborate dresses, in front of a painted backdrop with logs as props
Mother and daughter in front of a painted backdrop, about 1885. / THF278436

What was a tintype photo studio like? Greenfield Village’s will give you an idea. Built in 1929, it’s designed to look like a small tintype photographic studio from the 1870s and 1880s. A tintype studio had many windows to provide maximum light for the photographer. A studio was equipped with cameras, equipment to develop the photographs, backdrops, and posing chairs.

Small wood building with doors in front and side, one window in the front, and a chimney
Room with photographer at camera pointed at four women posing; woodstove in foreground and images on walls
Tintype studio in Greenfield Village. / THF151617, THF122780

Most tintypes were studio portraits of one or two people. Photographers often posed couples with the husband seated and the wife standing by his side.

Black woman standing by a chair in front of a backdrop, wearing an elaborate dress and holding a parasol
Woman holding a parasol, about 1878. / THF327828

Woman with bangs wearing elaborate ensemble, standing with hand on shoulder of seated man wearing a suit
Husband and wife, about 1885. / THF278380

People didn’t smile in early photographs—their expressions were more serious and formal. Early photography was heavily influenced by pre-photographic portraiture—people hadn’t grinned when having their likenesses drawn or painted, either. Having one’s image made was important occasion—it called for a more timeless expression.

Torso and head of a man with a beard wearing a suit, in an oval frame
Unidentified man, 1870-1880. / THF277876

As direct images, tintypes did not produce photographic negatives from which multiple copies of an image could be made. But tintype cameras could be fitted with multiple lenses, allowing several copies of the same tintype image to be produced at one time on a single sheet of iron. When multiple copies were made on a single sheet of iron, the images could be separated with a pair of tin snips and given to family and friends.

Large wood box camera, with accordion-folds in center
Tintype camera, used in Harry Patmore's Photographic Studio in Wyandotte, Michigan about 1882. / THF161617

Two images of seated boy wearing white shirt and plaid bow at neck
Multiple images of a young boy probably taken in A.G. Metzger's photographic studio in Harleysville, Pennsylvania about 1895. / THF278490

In the early days of photography, the sitter needed to remain motionless. Any movement would result in a blurred area and an unusable image. A headrest cradled the head and kept it still during the exposure (probably about 10 seconds). As photographic equipment and processes improved, less exposure time was needed and headrests became obsolete. Photo studios also had special chairs with head braces to keep the head from moving.

Green and gold metal stand with rounded gold metal piece at top
Photographer’s headrest, used in Harry Patmore's Photographic Studio in Wyandotte, Michigan about 1882. / THF161050

Photographing infants and toddlers could be challenging. Some images show the mother’s hand, covered by a shawl, helping to steady and soothe the infant “off camera”—her arm would be covered by a decorative mat. If a child moved during the exposure, the image would turn out blurry. The tintype for the baby below turned out nicely—nestled into a chair, it was not in danger of tumbling over!

Image of baby in long gown
Photograph of an infant, probably taken in Indiana about 1865. / THF243420

The child in the tintype image below has been dressed in her best, bedecked with a necklace, and had her hair curled. Like this young girl, children were often photographed with toys—their own or perhaps studio props. Unlike today, having your child’s photograph taken was not a frequent event. For kids from families of modest means, just one photograph might be taken during childhood.

Girl in necklace and dress sitting by a table covered with a tablecloth with toys on top
Girl seated at a table with her toys, about 1870. / THF278444

Some tintype customers—like this family—wanted their images enhanced with color. For an additional charge, red might be applied to give cheeks a rosy hue. Gold paint emphasized jewelry, buttons, or buckles.

Two women sitting on either side of a seated man
Portrait of a family, with accessories accented with gold paint, 1860-1870. / THF277866

Tintypes—inexpensive and durable—proved to be of special value in the 1860 presidential campaign, when small tintype images of Abraham Lincoln (Republican candidate) and Stephen Douglas (Democrat candidate) decorated tokens, medals, and campaign pins. The use of photography in political campaigns was still unusual at the time—most campaign buttons did not yet include photographic images of the candidates.

Round gold token with image of man’s shoulders and head in the middle and text “Abraham Lincoln 1860” around edge
Round gold token with image of man’s shoulders and head in the middle and text “Stephen Douglas 1860” around edge
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas presidential campaign tokens, 1860. / THF101182, THF128085

During the Civil War, many soldiers had their photographs taken in uniform—either at a studio before leaving home or in the field by photographers who followed the army. Quickly made, inexpensive and sturdy, tintypes could be left with loved ones or slipped inside a letter and sent through the mail. These images often captured a soldier’s pride in serving his country—and helped preserve his memory if he did not return home from battle.

Man in uniform and cap holding rifle and standing at attention
17-year-old Civil War soldier Frank Stough of Elyria, Ohio, a member of the 128th Ohio Infantry, about 1865. / THF277880

Photograph albums—introduced in the very early 1860s—provided a way to organize, preserve, and conveniently view photographs of friends and relatives. The album below holds “gem” photographs, the smallest tintype at ¾ to 1 inch in size.

Embossed brown leather album cover with brass hasp at right
Page containing four oval head-and-shoulder portraits with decorative borders around each portrait
Photograph album containing gem tintypes, about 1865. / THF278461, THF278566

Outdoor tintypes were quite rare until the 1880s, when a new, more convenient dry-plate process replaced the earlier wet-plate process. Even with the challenges that outdoor photography presented (taking tintype equipment out of the studio and lack of ready access to a dark room to develop the image), photographs of outdoor scenes became more common.

Landscape with wooden buildings, stacks and piles of lumber, horses and wagons, and people
Workers and horse-drawn wagons at a sawmill, 1880-1900. / THF278450

Tintypists sometimes traveled with their equipment from farm to farm, offering their services to rural customers, who assembled their family—dressed in their best clothing—and proudly posed in front of their homes. In the early 1880s tintype below, the Webster family is shown in front of their farmhouse in rural Delaware County, Ohio.

People standing behind fence and at gate in front of wooden house
William and Corilla Webster, their daughters Lucy and Clarabel, and son William in front of their Delaware County, Ohio farmhouse about 1881. / THF97629

Work gave meaning to people’s lives—it was part of one’s personal identity. Many people sat for the photographer in the clothing they wore while working, holding objects that represented their occupation. In the first tintype below, the men worked as plasterers. The three men in the tintype below that also hold the tools of their trades—typesetter, butcher, and blacksmith. The blacksmith had the most challenging “prop” to bring to the tintype studio—a 200-pound anvil on a wood block!

Two men in caps, one holding a long tool, standing next to a pillar
Plasterers, about 1881. / THF306586

Three men in vests and shirtsleeves standing behind an anvil on a wooden block, holding tools
Typesetter, butcher, and blacksmith, about 1880. / THF278446

Most occupational tintypes were of men rather than women—it was a male-dominated workforce during this time. But tintypes did capture images of those who worked for pay outside the home—women like factory workers, milliners, or domestic servants. The young women below worked in a textile mill, tending power looms.

Two women with short hair wearing dresses and aprons holding spindles
Two textile workers holding spindles of thread, about 1870. / THF278406

For his portrait, the drygoods salesman below not only brought along “props”—thread, buttons, and fabric—from his retail establishment, but a “customer” as well.

Man behind table containing products while woman looks at them
Salesman displaying his wares, about 1860. / THF278414

People not only had tintypes taken of themselves at “work,” but also at “play.” This young man, dressed in his baseball uniform and holding a bat, headed to the tintype studio for a portrait. By the 1880s, when this tintype was taken, playing baseball was a popular sport in many American communities.

Man in baseball clothes holding bat, standing next to small table
Baseball player with bat, about 1880. / THF94413

Group portraits were more complicated to capture than photographs of individuals. The photographer had more people to pose artfully—and then had to keep everyone’s attention during the several-second exposure. Images of outdoor leisure activities like the picnic below became more common in the late 1800s.

Women of various ages posed on a lawn, each holding tableware items
Group of women at a picnic, about 1895. / THF278356

Tintypes became less popular as new and better forms of photography replaced them. But traveling tintypists still found work at country fairs, summer resorts, and other vacation spots during the late 19th century—and well into the 1930s.

Man leaning in doorway of small wooden building in wooded location; chairs and portraits outside
Photographer outside his studio, likely at a vacation spot or resort, about 1890. / THF146156

In 1901, Henry Ford’s family—wife Clara, son Edsel, and mother-in-law Martha Bryant—had their tintype taken during a trip to Niagara Falls, though the image itself was made in a nearby tintype studio in front of a painted backdrop.

Two seated women in dresses and hats with small boy standing between them, all in front of a painted backdrop of a waterfall
Clara Ford and family “playing tourist” at Niagara Falls, 1901. / THF96764

Hope you enjoyed this look at tintypes. Don’t forget to strike a properly timeless expression should you meet up with this photographer!

Man in smock and cap standing behind camera on tripod
Studio portrait of a photographer with his camera, about 1870. / THF122762


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

by Jeanine Head Miller, photographs, photography, #THFCuratorChat

In the early 1930s, tensions were running high between two competing news sources: newspaper publishers were feeling the strength of their monopoly slipping away as the public’s appreciation for radio news broadcasts grew. This time of conflict in communications history is known as “The Press-Radio War.”

Publishers felt especially threatened by the nimbleness of radio networks. Broadcasters could share breaking news immediately over the airwaves, rather than having to wait for the next day’s run of newspapers to be printed and distributed. At first, newspaper companies tried to boycott radio’s ability to grow into something more than just an entertainment medium by asking wire services to block the flow of newsworthy information to radio stations. But eventually, the two media formats settled into a truce by the late 1930s, partly owing to the demand for reliable information-sharing as the threat of World War II grew. 

Aircraft flying over towers and buildings
The Detroit News “autogiro” aircraft flies over the WWJ transmitter towers on the roof of the Detroit News building. The autogiro used a swiveling camera to take aerial photos of newsworthy events and quickly transported reporters to the sites of developing stories. / THF238502

Some newspapers saw the financial benefit in blending formats and went so far as to cut out the competition by starting their own radio news stations. The Detroit News was one of the first newspapers in the United States to incorporate a commercial radio station into its operations. In August 1920, WWJ (then owned by the Detroit News) launched its program of nightly broadcasts under the call sign 8MK. As of 2020, WWJ has been on-air for 100 years!

Aircraft flying over tall buildings
In this image, the Detroit News autogiro flies over downtown Detroit. The Penobscot Building—site for the News’s experimental W8XWJ station—appears in the foreground. The original vertical “whip” antenna is just visible on the ball that tops the metal tower. / THF239963

In 1936, the Detroit News launched experimental audio broadcasting station W8XWJ from the 47th floor of the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. W8XWJ was formed under the FCC’s ultra-high short-wave “Apex” station program, an experiment designed to provide listeners with higher quality AM signals. The station’s original 100-watt AM vertical “whip” antenna was attached to the beacon sphere that tops the metal tower perched on the roof of the Penobscot Building. The height of the Penobscot—the tallest skyscraper in the city at that point—helped to disperse the radio waves over the entire city. Many people are familiar with the glowing red beacon at the top of the Penobscot, but its connection to the growth of radio in the city is not as well known.

From 1938-1940, W8XWJ ran a fascinating but ultimately short-lived experiment with an emerging technology called “radio facsimile.” Customers would hook a special “radio printer” up to their own radio, which would print the news overnight while they slept. In the morning, the news would be ready to enjoy with morning coffee – no need to deliver a physical newspaper!

Piece of equipment next to image of woman
One of the original Finch Facsimile Transmitters from W8XWJ, complete with original station badge visible and a sample of a radio fax. / THF160295

At W8XWJ, a Finch Facsimile Transmitter was used to convert images and text into audio tones. These signals would arrive in customer’s home via radio waves, where their “radio printer” would translate the tones into human language. Everything would print out onto continuous rolls of thermal paper.

Wooden box with machinery inside, paper strip with images of three faces, paper reels
A Crosley “Reado” Radio Printer. / THF160315

This is a Crosley Reado Radio Printer – the type of device that people would connect to their home radio and would receive their faxed newspapers on. When The Henry Ford conserved this artifact through an Institute for Museum and Library Services grant, our conservators were excited to find an example of a facsimile still on the drum inside the machine. In this image, you can see an original radio facsimile portrait of Boris Karloff, who was famous for his 1931 portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster.

The Henry Ford’s collections also include the original transmitter and amplifier that powered the W8XWJ station.

GIF showing two metal cabinets with dials, one open to show mechanism inside
W8XWJ’s Western Electric 500 Watt Ultra Shortwave Transmitter and Amplifier. These two devices are visible in their original installation here. / THF173159, THF173165

The idea behind W8XWJ’s radio facsimile experiment was revolutionary, but the process was slow and fussy. It could take over 20 minutes to print a single page of news, and signal reception became unreliable beyond a mile or two away from the transmitter. In 1940, W8XWJ ended its radio facsimile project.

While the original “whip” antenna for W8XWJ was replaced by a FM antenna in the early 1940s, if you look toward the top of the Penobscot building today, there is a tangle of communication equipment visible from street level. And in the interesting way that the new and the old can merge and converge within the histories of technology, some of this contemporary equipment fulfills radio facsimile’s promise to provide easily accessible information—the top of the Penobscot now serves as an important hub for Detroit’s wireless Internet network.


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

newspapers, radio, printing, Michigan, Detroit, communication, by Kristen Gallerneaux, #THFCuratorChat

A perfectly ripe tomato is a classic summer joy. But did you know that the growing of tomatoes has ties to many aspects of our history and culture? Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid uses our collections to reveal the many facets of the tomato.


The tomato -- a little fruit -- has big lessons to teach.

Double image showing two young girls and a boy among staked tomato plants

Tomatoes Growing in a Home Garden, circa 1915THF252180

First, yes, that’s right. Tomatoes are, biologically, a fruit – a berry that matures on a flowering plant. As this circa 1915 stereograph explains, “at first they were only small green things that grew where the blossoms dropped off.” Yet, the small green fruit grew into a plump, juicy “culinary vegetable,” considered such because of its low sugar content. (For example, processors transformed the fruit into a spicy vegetable sauce – catsup! – the savory contrast to sweet fruit sauces like apple butter.)

The image above shows a boy named Bob and his two sisters amidst the tomato plants they raised from seed, proudly displaying plants loaded with fruit. The Keystone View Company included an educational message on the back of the stereograph to engage children with growing fruits and vegetables. Bob and his sisters planned to share their finest tomatoes with others during their school garden show. They became role models for other students sprouting seeds and planting seedlings and then weeding and watering their crops.

By growing tomatoes, these children learned about domestication, the process by which humans select seed from bigger or tastier fruits or from plants that survive a disease or a drought. They cultivate these seeds (planting, weeding, harvesting, saving seed, and replanting year after year). This results in cultivars, each with different shapes, textures, colors, flavors. Over generations, humans have created more than 10,000 tomato cultivates by saving seed from their best tomatoes.


Why do tomatoes come in so many different shapes, sizes and colors?

Woman in period clothing bending over a wheelbarrow containing tomatoes and white eggplants
Tomatoes in the background and white eggplant in the foreground of the wheelbarrow. Photograph by Debra Reid, taken Saturday, August 15, 2020, at the kitchen garden at Firestone Farm.

Evolution resulted in distinctive varieties, but humans have also picked good-tasting fruits to propagate. (See how many different cultivars this proud gardener grew in the mid-1940s!)

The historic gardens in Greenfield Village include heritage cultivars documented in historic sources and saved through traditional seed saving. Three tomatoes often grown at Firestone Farm (pictured above) include Red Brandywine, Oxheart and Yellow Pear.

As demand for quality seeds grew during the second half of the 19th century, commercial seed businesses flourished. Companies such as Hiram Sibley & Co. contracted with growers to produce seed in clearly marked packages for customers to purchase. In addition to illustrations of the cultivar, the packet included descriptions of the qualities of the fruit, as well as best practices of cultivation (often in more than one language).

Tomato seed packet with tomato illustration on front & text on back
Hiram Sibley & Co. tomato seed packet, “Early Acme” cultivar, 1880s. THF278980/THF278981

Noted plant breeder Luther Burbank (1849–1926) crossed varieties to create hybrid cultivars that did not exist in nature. He sought disease resistance as well as a meaty tomato that had more pulp than seed – the meatier the tomato, the heartier the sauce! Some of Burbank’s varieties are still sold today.

Seed packet with photo of tomato on front and text on back
Charles C. Hart Seed Company "Burbank Slicing Tomato" seed packet, circa 2018 THF276144/THF276145

Twentieth-century concerns about food quality and nutrition led to the popularity of seeds like “Double Rich,” which were certified organic and yielded tomatoes with twice the Vitamin C!

You can learn more about organic cultivation and its relationship to the plant breeding process from the U.S Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Organic Integrity Database, and about biotechnology, including hybridization, from this USDA glossary.


Have you ever wondered who grows the tomatoes sold in cans or bottles?

Fancy-shaped blue, gold, red, and white label with a picture of a tomato and text
Product label for tomato catsup by Heinz, Noble & Co., 1872-1873 THF117246

Anyone with yard space enough can grow tomatoes. Yet, by the time home gardeners like Bob and his sisters planted their crop in the early 20th century, many urban Americans wondered what a vine-ripened tomato tasted like. Why? Because tomatoes could be easily processed into affordable packaged products, and most urban consumers paid clerks in general stores to pick tomatoes off the canned goods shelf.

People in a field picking tomatoes into crates
Workers harvest tomatoes at a Heinz tomato farm near Salem, New Jersey, 1908 / THF252058

Companies like the H. J. Heinz Company contracted with farmers to meet the demand for canned goods and catsup. Their production far exceeded the yields of home gardens. Heinz ensured success by growing seed tomatoes from which the best seeds became the basis for the next year’s crop. The company maintained a network of greenhouses to start the plants that growers put in the ground.

A rapid, careful and organized tomato harvest and transport led to high-quality processed foods. A sense of urgency dictated the harvest season, which began with careful picking and packing of the delicate and perishable fruit in special crates and baskets. It continued as laborers moved the full containers from fields to shipping points. Specially designed wagons and baskets reduced stress on the ripe fruit during transit. Only the best tomatoes made the journey to H.J. Heinz plants. Laborers discarded damaged fruit into barrels and packed others into baskets for shipment.

Several sailboats at dock, all filled with baskets of tomatoes
Shipping tomatoes by boat, H. J. Heinz Company, Salem, New Jersey, circa 1910 THF292108

Transporting tomatoes from truck farms to Heinz processing plants sometimes involved sailing vessels loaded with ripe fruit. At the height of harvest, barges carried loads of tomatoes from farms to processors. Growers in Salem, New Jersey, used the Salem River, a tributary to the Delaware River, to send crops to processing centers near large east coast markets, including Philadelphia and New York.


Mass production of tomatoes did not make home gardening obsolete.

African American man squatting by plant in field
Man inspecting tomato plant in Victory Garden, June 1944 / THF273191

In fact, times of economic hardship increased the general public’s interest in growing their own tomatoes. During the Great Depression, Henry Ford dedicated 1,500 acres of Ford Farms land (between Birmingham and Flat Rock, Michigan) to vegetable gardens. Ford Motor Company employees could sign up to tend a garden plot and retain the produce. Interest in growing tomatoes remained high during World War II, largely through the U.S. government’s Victory Garden program.

Home-grown tomatoes could even be symbols of resistance. George W. Carver encouraged farm families to grow tomatoes for the table as a strategy to strengthen their position, economically and socially.


Tomatoes have legal, ethical, and policy implications.

Red flag with white circle in middle containing stylized black eagle and text "FARMWORKERS AFL-CIO"
United Farm Workers Flag, circa 1970 / THF94392

Tomatoes have been at the heart of economic conflict between growers and laborers. California growers produced 85 percent of tomatoes canned in the United States by 1940. The larger the fields, the more urgent the need for laborers to harvest a crop that quickly moves from maturity to rot.

Most large-scale growers relied on migrant agricultural laborers at harvest time. They worked for wages determined by the grower and did not receive protection under legislation passed during the New Deal that established minimum wage, maximum hours and workers’ compensation. Instead, growers had legal protection to hire agricultural laborers for wages below the legal minimum and were exempt from compliance with maximum hour and overtime regulations. This meant that laborers had to work until the perishable crop was completely harvested.

Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 news report, Harvest of Shame, increased attention to the plight of U.S. agricultural laborers along the East Coast. Then, in 1965, Filipino-American laborers, members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, launched a strike to protest pay and working conditions. Latino pickers, members of the United Farm Workers Association, joined with them, and began a five-year strike in and around the grape fields of Delano, California. Consumers increasingly sympathized with the laborers on whom growers of other perishable crops depended.

Large red farm machine in museum exhibit
FMC Tomato Harvester, 1969 THF151662

Mechanical tomato harvesters became commercially viable in the context of this successful strike. When the FMC Corporation introduced its Cascade Tomato Harvester, Model 69W, in 1969, it advertised the machine as the savior of a multi-million-dollar crop and the preserver of the American people’s eating habits. The machine did not eliminate humans from the picking process, but it sped it up. FMC explained that it “picks a crop at the rate of nine tons per hour and cuts the cost of handpicking by 40 to 50 per cent.” Crews who operated the machine included a driver, a mechanic, and ten to twelve individuals who rode on the machine and removed debris from the picked tomatoes. This machine carried crews through midwestern fields, last on a farm near Grant Park, Illinois, between 1983 and 1990, which produced for the Heinz catsup factory in Muscatine, Iowa.

Changing harvesting practices required changing the form of tomatoes, too. Mechanical engineers believed the shape of San Marzano tomatoes would suit harvester belts. Plant breeders spent 30 years cross-pollinating tomatoes (including the San Marzano) to create a new hybrid that tolerated mechanical harvesting. In addition to uniform size and firmness, the fruits had to all mature at the same time on one plant, and they had to come off the vine easily.

Could scientists really slow the aging process? Microbiologists at Calgene, Inc. began research with that goal in mind in 1981. Their work paid off by 1988 with the “first commercially available genetically engineered whole food,” the Flavr Savr™ tomato. Genetic modification had shut down a protein that ripened fruit. It resulted in a tomato that could “last up to four weeks in a non-refrigerated state” (Martineau, pg. 4). An assessment of safety of the genetically modified tomato published in 1992 determined that the Flavr Savr™ remained a tomato and was food. (It bears mentioning that genetically modified tomatoes tend not to be listed in the Cultivated Plant Code because they derive from lines still being developed.)

Book page with text
Page from Safety Assessment of Genetically Engineered Fruits and Vegetables: A Case Study of the Flavr Savr™ Tomato from The Henry Ford's library.


Hungry for more on this little fruit with big impact?

Two women in period dresses and bonnets examine a tomato plant in a garden with unpainted picket fence in background
The Acme tomato in the Firestone Farm garden, August 21, 2018. Photograph by Debra A. Reid.

The Henry Ford has resources to help you explore the complete tomato trajectory to date.

You can….

Sources

  • Charles, Daniel. Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food. Perseus Publishing, 2001.
  • Dreyer, Peter. A Gardener Touched with Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank. Rev. Ed. University of California Press, 1985.
  • Hersey, Mark D. My Work is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. The University of Georgia Press, 2011.
  • Martineau, Belinda. First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr™ Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food. McGraw Hill, 2001.
  • Redenbaugh, Keith and William Hiatt, Belinda Martineau, Matthew Kramer, Ray Sheehy, Rick Sanders, Cathy Houck, and Donald Emlay. Safety Assessment of Genetically Engineered Fruits and Vegetables: A Case Study of the Flavr Savr™ Tomato. CRC Press, 1992.



Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, food, by Debra A. Reid, agriculture