We are quickly drawing closer to the November 20 opening of our newest permanent exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation: Miniature Moments: A Journey Through Hallmark® Keepsake Ornaments. With just a few weeks to go, we checked in with Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life, and Donna R. Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life, to collect their thoughts on our collection of nearly 7,000 Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments. Check out their answers below.
What is the oldest Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
One of Hallmark’s first ornaments from 1973, designed by artist Betsey Clark. / THF178137
Jeanine Head Miller (JHM): The ornaments in this collection date back to the first year that Hallmark produced Christmas ornaments—1973. That year, the company offered six decorated ball ornaments and twelve yarn ornaments. While the shape of Hallmark’s ball ornaments was traditional, the artwork, printed on a plastic sleeve and then heat-shrunk to the ornament, was an innovation. Hallmark’s simple yarn figures evoked nostalgic visions of Christmases long ago—the years leading up to America’s American Revolution Bicentennial celebration saw an increased interest in “early American” traditions.
Hallmark’s 1973 yarn ornament series included this colorful toy soldier. / THF177677
What is the newest Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
JHM: The newest ornaments are the 269 made in 2009. (Yes—the number of ornaments released by Hallmark each year has grown!) These later ornaments reflect the increasing complexity of Hallmark’s designs. The vast majority of the company’s ornaments by this time were figurals (shapes that represent objects), with many being highly detailed. Ornaments sporting traditional Christmas themes were joined by an ever-evolving array of popular culture and technology-themed decorations. Customers appreciated the way that Hallmark’s designs helped them “personalize” their tree—a growing trend in Christmas tree decorating—using ornaments that reflected their own interests and experiences.
Hallmark’s 2009 "Ralphie's Pink Nightmare" ornament from the movie A Christmas Story depicts an unhappy Ralphie dressed in Aunt Clara’s pink bunny suit gift. / THF177263
Hallmark’s 2009 "Wired for Fun" teenage reindeer multitasks as he entertains himself with up-to-date digital technology—an MP3 player and a wireless video game. / THF358063
For the passionate culinary wizard, Hallmark’s 2009 "Snow Much Fun to Cook" ornament. / THF357697
What is the most common Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
Donna R. Braden (DRB): This is a bit of a difficult question to answer. There is no easily available information on ornaments that were either produced or purchased in the greatest quantities, or those that are the easiest to find today. However, we might assume that those might align with the categories of ornaments that tend to be produced in the greatest number and variety. This varies over the years, but today—according to the 2022 Dream Book (and probably characteristic of the more recent years of our collection)—they are ornaments with classic Christmas themes, series favorites, Disney ornaments, meaningful moments and milestones, and popular culture characters, including Star Wars, Star Trek, superheroes, Harry Potter, toys, Peanuts, and Barbie.
What is the rarest Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
DRB: Again, this is difficult to pin down. Lots of eBay listings for Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments say “extremely rare,” but these don’t necessarily cost a lot of money. Rarity can be based on the look, the artist, the date, the number in the series (especially firsts), and the popularity of the topic. Five rare ornaments I’ve seen listed follow below. The 1973 Betsey Clark ornament Jeanie notes as one of the earliest in our collection also seems to be rare.
"Mary's Angels Series: Buttercup,” 1988, is the first in its series. / THF182250
“Santa's Motorcar,” 1979, is the first in the Here Comes Santa series. / THF176990
"Tin Locomotive,” from 1982, is also rare. / THF177179
Another rare listing is “Miss Piggy” from 1983. / THF177327
"Starship Enterprise" is rare, even though it’s less than 40 years old. / THF177369
What is the largest Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
JHM: Over the years, many Hallmark ornaments have grown in size—some five inches high or more—and complexity, adding narrative embellishment through visual detail, light, motion, and sound effects. Some—designed to be displayed on a flat surface—are more like figurines.
This large 2006 “Letters to Santa” ornament—about 5 ½ inches high and made to be hung on the tree—not only brims with charming detail, it offers motion and sound features. Pulling the bell below this battery-powered ornament causes several toys around Santa’s desk spring to life, as eight humorous recordings of children reading their letters to Santa are heard. / THF362217
This 1994 “Beatles Gift Set,” four inches high, commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Beatles’ 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show—one of the first times Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments had attempted likenesses of real people. / THF352350
The 2002 scene “The Family Room”—five inches high—was a group effort, with details of this homey design contributed by 19 Hallmark artists. / THF362466
What is the most valuable Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
DRB: This is difficult to pin down, as it varies by changing collectability over the years—and The Henry Ford doesn’t collect based on monetary value, but instead on historical significance. However, the one ornament that shows up over and over is a 2009 ornament representing Cousin Eddie’s RV from the movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
What is your favorite Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
JHM: Hmmm… while I admit being partial to Hallmark’s small buildings, my favorite ornament—if I had to choose just one—is "Christmas Cookies!" from 2004. Why do I love it? This tiny stove with its charming cooking-making details immediately immerses me into happy childhood memories of baking Christmas cookies with my mother and sisters. A few years ago, my husband located one of these nearly 20-year-old ornaments online and gave it to me as a Christmas gift.
Hallmark’s "Christmas Cookies!" ornament, 2004. The lights inside the oven glow, and a fragrance insert emits the sweet scent of cookies “baking.” / THF177744
DRB: “Baby’s First Christmas,” from 1990, is my favorite ornament for personal reasons. My daughter Caroline was born that year. We were not big Hallmark ornament purchasers yet (that mushroomed later), but we saw this and it really “spoke” to us as a perfect symbol of this important milestone in our lives. We imagined being able to relive the memories of that milestone every year. And we do! More than 30 years later, it still occupies a prominent place on our Christmas tree every year.
Randy Mason (right) waves from inside the door of the Ingersoll-Rand Diesel-Electric Locomotive No. 90, January 1985. / THF271030, detail
The Henry Ford is saddened by the passing of Randy Mason on Saturday, March 19, 2022. Randy was Curator of Transportation at our institution for 20 years. He left a lasting mark on our mobility collections, and on our annual Old Car Festival and Motor Muster shows.
Randy was operating an automobile rustproofing franchise in Inkster, Michigan, when he crossed paths with Leslie Henry, then The Henry Ford’s Curator of Transportation. Les was so impressed with Randy’s knowledge of automotive history, and his passion for the subject, that he convinced Randy to leave the franchise and put the full range of his talents to work at the museum.
Randy succeeded Les Henry as Curator of Transportation in 1971. He oversaw the automotive, railroad, and aviation collections at a transformative time for The Henry Ford. Tightly-packed rows of cars and machines, long a fixture at automotive and industrial museums, were falling out of favor with visitors, who wanted more in the way of explanation and context. Randy helped create uniform labels and signs, and more thoughtful displays, throughout The Henry Ford’s transportation exhibits.
Undoubtedly, the most dramatic change during Randy’s tenure came in 1987 with the opening of The Automobile in American Life. The 50,000-square foot exhibition was a landmark in interpreting automotive history. Rather than focusing on the car as a technology, the exhibit explored the many changes that the car brought to everyday life in the United States. Automobiles were shown alongside related objects, like highway travel guides, fast food restaurant signs, and even a real tourist cabin and a re-created Holiday Inn room, that provided greater context for guests. The Automobile in American Life was replaced by Driving America in 2012, but its core concept—treating the car not only as a technological force but as a social force—endures in the new exhibit.
Even after he left The Henry Ford, Randy remained active in the automotive world, both as a historian and as an enthusiast. He was involved with the Henry Ford Heritage Association and he worked on the successful effort to preserve the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit. We will miss Randy, but we take heart knowing that his efforts, his knowledge, and his passion survive—in the artifacts he preserved, in the articles he wrote, and in the many new enthusiasts he inspired through his work.
The mangled wreck of driver David “Salt” Walther’s 1972 McLaren M16A is on exhibit in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Search the 1973 Indianapolis 500 on the Internet, and you won’t find a bunch of happy headlines. Words like “fatal,” “tragedy,” “cursed,” and “unforgettable” pop up.
Three deaths and multiple crashes are attached to the ill-fated race. One of the day’s most dramatic headlines, and still considered one of the worst crashes in Indy 500 history, involved driver David “Salt” Walther and his 1972 McLaren M16A, an artifact on display in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
On the race’s first lap, Walther’s car crashed into the outside wall, exploded, and overturned. Images of the ripped-apart vehicle with Walther’s feet dangling outside of it are disturbing, but although badly burned, Walther did survive the accident. Miraculously, he didn’t lose his passion for auto racing either, coming back to the sport to drive again in 1974. In fact, Walther started in seven Indianapolis 500s, five of which occurred after his terrible crash (his best finish was ninth place in 1976).
Baseball autographed for All-Star centerfielder Curt Flood by one of his heroes, civil rights icon Rosa Parks. / THF96558
Curt Flood was an All-Star, Gold-Glove centerfielder for the powerhouse St. Louis Cardinals baseball team of the 1960s. He undoubtedly signed thousands of baseballs during and after his career. So why would Flood save a baseball signed by Rosa Parks among his personal effects?
The ball is part of a story of inspiration, courage, and perseverance.
Inspired to Take a Stand
Curt Flood grew up in Oakland, California, and had no direct experience with the intense racism of the Jim Crow South. He was among the first generation of Black players in Major League Baseball. In 1956, as a 19-year-old minor leaguer in the Deep South, Flood came face-to-face with the virulent racial hatred that had arisen in the wake of the 1955 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in schools, and from the ongoing Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks. It was the courage shown by Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson (the player famous for breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier), and others that gave Flood the strength to persevere through his two-year minor league stint.
Flood joined the Major Leagues when he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1958. He and two of his new teammates, Bill White and Bob Gibson, became increasingly outspoken about segregationist aspects of the Cardinals operation. These men successfully pressed the organization to patronize integrated hotels and restaurants. Flood also joined Jackie Robinson at NAACP rallies across the South.
Curt Flood was featured on the August 19, 1968, cover of Sports Illustrated. The issue, pictured here with Flood’s St. Louis Cardinals hat, called him "Baseball's Best Centerfielder." / THF76590
Fighting the Reserve Clause
Flood's stellar 12-year career with the Cardinals ended suddenly in 1969, when he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies were a team going nowhere, with a fan base and management that were hostile to Black players. Flood had little desire to be part of that team. But the reserve clause gave Flood no choice in the matter. This clause was a standard part of every baseball player's contract, requiring him to play wherever the owners wanted him to play. The player had no say in the matter.
Flood's only options were to go along with the trade or retire. His first instinct was to retire. But, after reconsidering, he decided to challenge the reserve clause and sue Major League Baseball. Flood knew that this action would, in effect, end his baseball career and that he personally would gain little in the end. But the reserve clause made Flood feel like a piece of property, and he could not let that injustice stand.
After twelve years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
It is my desire to play in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia Club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the Major League Clubs my feelings in the matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
Sincerely yours, Curt Flood
Lonely Path to the Supreme Court
As expected, Major League Baseball rejected Flood’s request. Over the next two and a half years, Flood, with the support of Marvin Miller of the Players Association (the fledgling professional baseball players' union), pursued his case in court, then in appeals court, and finally to the United States Supreme Court. At the inception of the suit, Flood became one of the most hated men in baseball—he was criticized in the press for trying to destroy baseball and received mountains of hate mail from fans. But it was the lack of support from active players that hurt Flood the most. Some supported Flood privately but feared retribution if they spoke out. Others were outright hostile and tried to undermine the suit even though it would benefit all players. Only baseball outsiders testified on Flood's behalf: his hero, Jackie Robinson; Hank Greenberg, who battled anti-Semitism throughout his career with the Detroit Tigers; and the iconoclastic Bill Veeck, who had owned several major and minor league baseball teams.
Curt Flood (left) and pitcher Bob Gibson had been close friends since their days in the minor leagues. Gibson privately supported Flood in his activism, but despite being one of the best pitchers in the game, he feared he would be ostracized from baseball if he backed Flood publicly. / THF98488
The court battles took a physical and emotional toll on Flood. He fell out of shape physically and turned from a social drinker to an alcoholic. The relentless negative attention from the press and fans forced Flood out of the country, first to Denmark, and later to Spain. He lost touch with his children and, by 1975, was nearly destitute and homeless. Flood was despondent and depressed. In 1978, Richard Reeves interviewed him for Esquire magazine as part of a series on men who had stood up to the system. Reeves said, "He was about the saddest man I ever met."
The closely divided Supreme Court ruled against Flood in the end. The majority opinion said, in effect, that the reserve clause was "an anomaly," but that it was Congress's job to fix it, not the courts’. Despite the Supreme Court loss, Flood's fight had created an opening to challenge baseball's reserve clause on the bargaining table. Within a few years, Jim "Catfish" Hunter became the first free agent, followed closely by Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. While Curt Flood lost the case, his efforts transformed the relationship between owners and players across professional sports, and for people with unique and valuable skills in the world at large.
Curt Flood signed this copy of the Supreme Court summary report of his suit against Major League Baseball. / THF98457
Recovery and Recognition
After more than a decade in a personal wilderness, Flood began to turn his life around with the help of friends. He was treated for alcoholism in 1980, re-married in 1986, gained a new family, and reconnected with the children of his first marriage. Flood took up the late Jackie Robinson's cause, pushing for more diversity in the management of baseball. Along with other former players, he co-founded a group known as the Baseball Network for that purpose.
In 1987, Curt Flood received the NAACP Jackie Robinson Sports Award. While he was never hired for a position in baseball management, Flood became a regular at old-timers’ games. There, many former players took the opportunity to thank him personally. In 1994, Flood was featured in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary and attended the premiere, where he met President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Not long after, he met another hero from his youth, Rosa Parks, who signed a baseball for him. Flood wrote to friends in a Christmas letter that year, "I am in the process of living happily ever after."
In 1987, the NAACP recognized Curt Flood's fight by awarding him the Jackie Robinson Sports Award. / THF76582
In the summer of 1995, Flood developed throat cancer; he died on January 20, 1997. During that year and a half, many people visited him to express gratitude for what he had done for baseball and for society at large. At his death, Curt Flood was eulogized by many, including Jesse Jackson and conservative columnist George Will, who compared him to Rosa Parks.
Curt Flood and his wife, Judy Pace Flood, with Rosa Parks in 1994. / THF98496
While in retrospect, it may seem as though changes in society are predetermined and expected, Curt Flood's experience shows that they are not a sure thing—and they are never easy. The reserve clause was a legal anachronism that stripped players of their freedom to control their own careers. It took a successful man—inspired by heroes who had taken similar steps before him—who was willing to give up everything to make that change occur.
Jim McCabe is former Curator and Collections Manager at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran in February 2010 as part of our “Pic of the Month” series. It was updated for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
American auto racing traditionally has been a white, male activity. In the early 20th century, people of color were outright banned from participating in several series. After those bans were lifted, Black drivers like Wendell Scott still faced discrimination from some fans and officials, and even from some of their fellow competitors.
Several racers fought intolerance by forming their own sanctioning bodies and sponsoring their own contests. Others worked within the existing system. They created associations to support marginalized drivers and teams, and to recognize the achievements of groundbreaking Black racers who had come before. Few people did as much for the cause as Leonard W. Miller, racing team owner and co-founder of the Black American Racers Association.
Leonard Miller became a lifelong gearhead after working on his parents’ 1937 Ford. / THF91674
Leonard Miller was born in 1934 and raised in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He traced his love of automobiles to his parents’ 1937 Ford. As a boy, Miller devoted countless hours to hot rodding the car—tweaking the engine in pursuit of a few more horsepower and a little more speed. His considerable mechanical skills grew even more in the late 1950s when he served in an automotive support company in the U.S. Army.
Miller’s interest in automobiles remained a lifelong passion. As a co-owner of Vanguard Racing, he entered a car in the 1972 Indianapolis 500. White driver John Mahler piloted the #31 car for the Vanguard team, but a broken piston forced him out of the race after 99 laps. Regardless of the results, Miller made history that day—Vanguard was the first Black-owned team to compete in the Indy 500. (It would be another 19 years before Willy T. Ribbs became the first Black driver to race in the 500.)
In 1973 Miller formed a new team, Black American Racers (BAR), with headquarters in New Jersey near Miller’s consulting firm. Over the next few years, and with African American drivers Benny Scott and Tommy Thompson added to the team, BAR raced in Formula 5000 and Formula Super Vee competitions. Miller obtained a corporate sponsorship and began planning a return to the Indianapolis 500 with Black American Racers.
Wendell Scott co-founded the Black American Racers Association with Leonard Miller. As the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race, Scott knew the hardships that Miller fought. / THF147632
At the same time, Leonard W. Miller championed Black racers everywhere. Together with Ron Hines, Wendell Scott, and Malcolm Durham, Miller formed the Black American Racers Association (BARA) in 1973. BARA provided support and recognition for African American drivers, mechanics, and car owners in all forms of auto racing. The organization had nearly 5,000 members at its peak. BARA celebrated Black racing history too, and it published a review of past achievements in its Black American Racers Association Yearbook in 1974. In recognition of Miller’s efforts and achievements, he was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976—along with BAR driver Benny Scott.
Just when Miller’s dream for a return to Indy seemed within reach, his sponsor ended its racing activities after the 1975 season. Miller was unable to attract new sponsorship dollars. Then in 1978, Tommy Thompson died from injuries he suffered in a crash at Trenton International Speedway. Thompson’s death left Miller and the Black American Racers Association heartbroken, and the organization never really recovered. BARA disbanded in 1981.
Current racers like Bubba Wallace continue Leonard Miller’s work to diversify the sport. / THF146999
University City (UCity), a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, began its curbside recycling program in March 1973. This makes it one of the first cities in the country to do so. By the early 1970s, many communities had created a recycling drop-off center and encouraged residents to haul their recycling to that destination. This required extra effort, and the city manager and public works staff in University City believed that other solutions needed to be developed. These recycling bins document the launch of this solution and the change required over time to reduce, reuse, and recycle. It certainly required rethinking!
The first Earth Day helped galvanize public engagement in environmentalism, and recycling was one of the primary issues in University City. Residents supported innovative thinking, and city officials assigned Public Works Director Allan Dierckgraef responsibility for figuring out how to get environmental materials out of a home or business while keeping them out of the dump and funneling them to recycling processors. UCity officials decided that they would start with newspapers, so in March 1973 they launched the TreeSaver program.
Recycling Bin, Designed for Use in University City, Missouri, 1973. / THF181541
Dierckgraef reached out to the Monsanto Corporation, headquartered in St. Louis, to design a durable container to hold two weeks of newspaper. The yellow plastic TreeSaver container resulted from this work. UCity purchased 12,000 of these bins for $43,000 and distributed one to each home along with instructions about how to use them. Need exceeded supply, and the city ordered more containers. The one pictured above is from the second run.
The sanitation division picked the containers up every two weeks, and the city contracted with the Alton (Illinois) Box Board Company to haul the materials away for further processing. Two years into the process, in March 1975, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed that the "U. City Recycling Program [Was] In Trouble." The fee received from Alton Box Board Co. ($10 per ton) was below the market rate ($35 per ton) for newsprint. This reflected the rapid adoption of newspaper recycling programs—because supply exceeded demand, the amount processing companies were willing to pay dropped. City officials continued to justify the cost by turning to real environmental savings. City Manager Charles T. Henry (1959–1975) called the city-wide newspaper salvage “one of the most important recent accomplishments” (Post-Dispatch, May 15, 1975). Eight years into the program, in 1981, city officials estimated that recycling newsprint kept 85,000 trees from the paper mill.
Recycling Bin, 18-Gallons, Designed for Use in University City, Missouri, 1988-1989. / THF181537
The yellow bins supported one recycling effort—newsprint. When UCity began expanding the program to divert other materials—metal cans and plastics—from the landfill during the 1980s, the city had to redesign its bins. They retained the yellow bin for newsprint and paper but added a blue bin for other materials to support the new dual-stream recycling initiative. The city also had to purchase new equipment to facilitate pick-up. This included new specially designed two-sided trucks. Public works staff picked up the yellow TreeSaver bins and emptied them on one side while they emptied the contents of the blue bins on other side. This physically taxing labor occurred at the transition point from home to recycling stream.
TreeSaver Recycling Bin, 18 Gallon with the Recycling Logo and the Larger Waste-Management System Specified, Designed for Use in University City, Missouri, 1988-1989. / THF181538
During the early days of mixed recycling, markets did not exist for non-sorted materials. Thus, UCity had to build a sorting facility and hire staff to separate the cans, glass, and plastic. Each then had a separate point of sale to recycled material processors.
These recycling bins represent some of the many details that municipalities had to manage to launch and sustain recycling programs. The act of collecting materials at the curb is just one small step in the enormous undertaking of reducing waste streams.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
The Detroit News Magazine, "Noguchi: He Sculpts the Landscape," April 15, 1979. / THF147950
Isamu Noguchi sculpted the landscape, just as stated in the title of this 1979 Detroit News article. Born in 1904 in Los Angeles, California, to an American mother and Japanese father, Noguchi spent his childhood in Japan and his adolescence in rural Indiana. He attended the Interlaken School in LaPorte, Indiana, under the mentorship of the school’s founder, Dr. Edward Rumely. The school emphasized both craft and industry—a tension Noguchi would work within all his life, sometimes moving towards handicrafts, and other times toward mass production and new technologies.
In his own words, Noguchi was “foremost a sculptor.” The material, size, and function might change, but the result was always sculpture. In Noguchi’s early years working as an artist, he designed product packaging and sculpted busts on commission to help to pay his living expenses. Later, he designed furniture and lighting, like the Noguchi Table for Herman Miller and the electrified sculptures known as his Akari lamps. He ventured more fully into mass production and industrialization with the striking design of the molded Bakelite Radio Nurse—the first baby monitor.
Noguchi was always interested in environmental and space-planning projects—it’s just that the environments and spaces evolved from rooms to stage sets to entire landscapes. He had aspired to complete a large-scale environmental project for a civic space for many years. In 1933, Noguchi submitted his first of such proposals: a design for “Play Mountain,” a pyramidal play landscape intended for the heart of Manhattan’s Central Park. That project—and many other proposed landscape projects—did not come to fruition.
But late in his career, Noguchi embarked on one of his largest environmental projects—a 10+ acre site in downtown Detroit. In Noguchi’s hands, the landscape became a large-scale sculpture in the form of a public plaza.
Detroit Free Press Article, "Park, Fountain to Rise at River," March 16, 1976. / THF147953
Detroit’s Philip A. Hart Plaza
Detroit had long been interested in a civic park in the center of the city and by the late 1890s, the Detroit River waterfront had been identified as a prime location for such a park. Numerous designs were submitted—and even agreed upon—in the 80+ years between these early discussions and the completion of Hart Plaza (notably iterations designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen of Cranbrook fame). Buildings were razed and space was made along the riverfront. Civic-minded buildings, meant to surround the park, were constructed, but the park itself languished. As politics and priorities shifted, so did the fate of the park. In the early 1970s, the park’s completion again became a priority, mostly due to a bequest of two million dollars by Anna Thomson Dodge for the completion of a fountain dedicated to the Dodge family. A committee was created to select an artist to complete the fountain, and the committee chose Isamu Noguchi’s proposal in 1971. Noguchi ended up with the commission to design not only the fountain, but the entire plaza.
Today, Noguchi’s design for the park still plays with the interaction between positive and negative space. Although the use of concrete is liberal, the plaza exudes a feeling of softness and flexibility alongside its strength. Noguchi designed Hart Plaza as a sculpture, a place where people could interact bodily with art. Below, we’ll explore a few of the key elements of the plaza.
The Detroit News Magazine, "Noguchi, He Sculpts the Landscape," April 15, 1979. / THF626513, detail
Horace E. Dodge & Son Memorial Fountain
At Hart Plaza’s center, both figurately and literally, resides Noguchi’s now-acclaimed fountain. A modern futuristic abstraction of a fountain, it looks nothing like the traditional fountains found in most public parks and plazas the world over. In his presentation to the selection committee, Noguchi explained: “The great fountain, projected to be the most significant of modern times, will rise from the plateau of primal space. It will be an engine for water, plainly associating its spectacle to its source of energy, an engine so deeply a part of Detroit. It will recall and commemorate the dream that has produced the automobile, the airplane, and now the rocket, a machine become a poem.”
The “cloud creating, computer-operated” Dodge Fountain comprises a stainless-steel torus, or donut shape, hoisted 30 feet into the air that features 80 continually changing jet and light shows. A 120-foot-wide basin with a 7-foot-high granite pool creates the base of the fountain. Noguchi’s long-time collaborator, architect Shoji Sadao, was instrumental in ensuring the fountain’s successful completion and operation.
The Pylon, a 120-foot-tall tower, stands to greet the public at the city-side entrance to the park. Constructed of aluminum plating on stainless steel, the tower gently twists upwards, spiraling into the sky, as 120 lights illuminate the tower from its base. Noguchi explained that it symbolized “the spiral of life; the double helix upon which all life is based.” This was a fitting welcome for a park which Noguchi said would be “a people’s park, not a monument.”
Imprints and Extrusions
Detroit’s leaders commissioned the park with numerous purposes in mind, but one of them took precedence in discussions—events and festivals, especially cultural and music festivals. Festivals need seating, and a stage. Noguchi provided multiple spaces for such purposes. A large amphitheater, a recessed oval pushed into the ground as if imprinted into the land, could transform into an ice-skating rink in the winter. A pyramidal form that extrudes from the northeast section of the plaza provided more seating. Ingeniously, the pyramid also hides some of the mechanical equipment in a functional, graceful solution. In a change-order request by Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, Noguchi expanded the area underneath the plaza to incorporate space for offices, kiosks, a restaurant, and more. Noguchi’s concrete landscape on the river seems to push and pull at the earth, creating a finely balanced public space for Detroiters to enjoy.
Detroit Free Press Article, "Park, Fountain to Rise at River," March 16, 1976. / THF147954
When Hart Plaza was dedicated on April 20, 1979, it completed a nearly century-old desire by Detroit’s leaders to have a civic plaza on the Detroit River. It also marked complete one of Noguchi’s most expansive projects and a decades-long desire to transform such a landscape. Detroit’s Hart Plaza serves as one of Noguchi’s crown jewels, showcasing his ability to sculpt on all levels—from small busts to the land at large.
Lawn care takes commitment. Implements designed to reduce the time required to improve a lawn's appearance hit the commercial market during the mid-1800s. Push-powered lawn mowers in a variety of configurations from that era gave way to motorized models, with riding mowers gaining popularity in the 1950s. (For more on the evolution of lawn mowers, check out this expert set.) The American Marketing and Sales Company (AMSC) went one step further in the 1970s. AMSC’s autonomous Mowtron mower, the company proclaimed, “Mows While You Doze.”
AMSC released the futuristic mower, invented in 1969 by a man named Tyrous Ward, in Georgia in 1971. Its designers retained the familiar form of a riding mower, even incorporating a fiberglass “seat”—though no rider was needed. But Mowtron’s sleek, modern lines and atomic motif symbolized a new day in lawn care.
If the look of the mower promised a future with manicured lawns that required minimal human intervention, Mowtron’s underground guidance system delivered on that promise. Buried copper wire, laid in a predetermined pattern, operated as a closed electrical circuit when linked to an isolation transformer. This transistorized system directed the self-propelled, gasoline-powered mower, which, once started, could mow independently and then return to the garage.
AMSC understood that despite offering the ultimate in convenience, Mowtron would be a tough sell. To help convince skeptical consumers to adopt an unfamiliar technology, the company outfitted Mowtron with safety features, such as sensitized bumpers that stopped the mower when it touched an obstacle, and armed its sales force with explanatory material.
Mowtron’s market expanded from Georgia throughout the early 1970s. The Mowtron equipment and related materials in The Henry Ford’s collection belonged to Hubert Wenzel, who worked as a licensed Mowtron dealer as a side job. Wenzel had two Mowtron systems: he displayed one at lawn and garden shows and installed another as the family mower at his homes in New Jersey and Indiana. Wenzel’s daughter recalled cars stopping on the side of the road to watch whenever it was out mowing the lawn.
Display used by Mowtron dealer Hubert Wenzel. / THF623554, detail
Mowtron sales were never brisk—in fact, Hubert Wenzel never sold a mower—but company records show that the customers willing to try the new technology appreciated Mowtron’s styling, convenience, and potential cost savings. One owner compared her mower to a sleek Italian sports car. Another expressed pleasure at the ease of starting the mower before work and returning home to a fresh-cut yard. And one customer figured his savings in lawn care costs would pay for the machine in two years (Mowtron retailed at around $1,000 in 1974, including installation).
Despite its limited commercial success, the idea behind Mowtron had staying power. Today, manufacturers offer autonomous mowers in new configurations that offer the same promise: lawn care at the push of a button. (Discover one modern-day entrepreneur’s story on our YouTube channel.)
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Sheet music for “The Rainbow Connection,” 1979 / THF182956
How do the Muppets retain their appeal after all these years? Yes, they’re silly. And entertaining. And very clever. But I would argue that part of their enduring—and endearing—quality is that it doesn’t take much to imagine that they are real. Sure, you can see the materials they’re made out of. And occasionally catch a glimpse of the rods that make their arms move. But sometimes—when they talk like us, act like us, even think like us—we can suspend disbelief for a moment and believe in the magic. Nowhere is this feeling stronger than in the opening scene of the 1979 film, The Muppet Movie, in which Kermit the Frog sits alone on a log in the middle of the swamp, plucks his banjo, and wistfully sings “The Rainbow Connection.”
The Muppet Movie (1979) was the Muppets’ first foray into feature films. Muppet characters had already been known for more than two decades. The particular Muppets who starred in The Muppet Movie had become familiar to us through The Muppet Show, the breakout television series that ran from 1976 to 1981. But, unlike the rapidly changing vaudeville show format of the TV series, the full-length feature film needed a plot, character development, and several songs to keep the story moving. That’s where The Rainbow Connection came in. Through this song, we find out that Kermit—The Muppet Show’s “straight man” around whom all the mayhem and the other characters’ antics revolve—has hopes and dreams of his own. This was something new, something deeper, something more serious and spiritual than we had seen from a Muppet before.
The Henry Ford’s 1951 Studebaker Champion, a cousin to Fozzie Bear’s 1951 Commander. / THF90649
Cars and movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, or cake and ice cream. It’s only natural. The two industries appeared almost simultaneously around the turn of the 20th century. Southern California became a major center of American automobile culture and, of course, the center of the U.S. film industry. Over time, certain movies even came to define certain marques. Aston Martin had Goldfinger, DeLorean had Back to the Future, and Studebaker had… The Muppet Movie.
For those who haven’t seen The Muppet Movie, which brought Jim Henson’s creations to the big screen, for the first time, in 1979, stop reading and go watch it right now. Seriously. I’ll wait.
But if a summary has to suffice, then I’ll tell you that The Muppet Movie is in the tradition of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” movies, where a simple trip turns into a series of misadventures. But instead of Bing and Bob, you get Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear. (Well, you get Bob too, but I digress.) The movie follows Kermit as he makes his way from the Florida swamps to the bright lights of Hollywood, chasing his dream to “make millions of people happy” in show business. Along the way he meets Fozzie, the Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and all the usual Muppet favorites.
Paul Williams, seen on a 1980 visit to The Henry Ford, co-wrote The Muppet Movie’s songs. He’d previously penned hits for Three Dog Night, the Carpenters, and Barbra Streisand. / THF128260
Kermit begins his journey on a bicycle, but, after meeting Fozzie Bear, the two continue the trip in Fozzie’s uncle’s 1951 Studebaker Commander. The Stude doesn’t make it all the way to Hollywood—they trade it in for a 1946 Ford station wagon partway through—but it features in two of the movie’s memorable musical numbers: “Movin’ Right Along” and “Can You Picture That?,” both co-written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.
The Muppet Movie is more than great songs and story. The film set new standards in puppetry by convincingly putting its characters into “real world” settings. Prior to Henson’s work, puppets were largely stationary figures, stuck behind props that hid puppeteers from view. Even early Muppet projects, notably The Muppet Show, suffered from this limitation. But in The Muppet Movie, Kermit rides a bicycle, Gonzo floats through the sky below a bunch of balloons, and Fozzie, of course, drives his Commander.
The Studebaker’s “bullet nose” served a practical purpose for the filmmakers. / THF90652
In a way, these elaborate special effects were responsible for the Studebaker appearing in the film. The 1951 Commander’s most distinctive feature is the chrome “bullet nose” between its headlights. The special-effects Commander used in The Muppet Movie had its bullet removed and replaced with a small video camera. The car’s trunk was fitted with a TV screen connected to the camera, a steering wheel, throttle and brake controls, and a seat. With these modifications, a small person was able to operate the car, hidden from view and able to see the road ahead via the camera. With Fozzie placed in the driver’s seat; his puppeteer, Frank Oz, hidden under the dashboard; and the car’s operator concealed in the trunk, it appeared as though the comic bear himself was driving the Studebaker in several scenes. The trick worked so well that, more than 40 years later in the age of computer-generated special effects, Fozzie’s driving is still remarkably convincing. The crew used a second, unmodified Commander for shots where driving effects weren’t needed.
Practical concerns weren’t the only reasons a Commander was used in the movie. In comments published in Turning Wheels, the newsletter of the Studebaker Drivers Club, The Muppet Movie screenwriter Jerry Juhl described the ’51 Commander as perhaps the “goofiest” looking car ever put into production. Goofiness, Juhl added, was a highly-respected quality in the Henson organization, so it seemed only fitting that Fozzie should drive that particular car.
Studebaker’s bullet nose was part of a long, productive relationship between the automaker and industrial designer Raymond Loewy. / THF144005
That bullet nose is a story unto itself. Credit for the feature goes to designer Bob Bourke, working for Studebaker contractor Raymond Loewy Associates at the time. As Bourke later recalled, Loewy told him to model the car’s appearance after an airplane. Bourke responded with the bullet, more properly described as a propeller or a spinner, since it’s a direct reference to that crucial aviation device. And a divisive device it was. People either loved the Studebaker bullet nose or they hated it (and so it goes today).
It’s worth noting that the feature wasn’t without precedent. Ford had used a similar device on its groundbreaking 1949 models. (In fact, Bob Bourke later said that he had contributed informally to the design of the 1949 Ford. You can read Bourke’s reminiscences here.) Studebaker used the bullet nose for just two model years, 1950 and 1951, but it remains one of the company’s most memorable designs.
Studebaker emphasized the aviation influence on the bullet nose design in this 1950 advertisement. / THF100021
The Henry Ford’s collections include a Maui Blue 1951 Studebaker Champion coupe. The lower-priced Champion featured a six-cylinder engine, while the Commander came with a standard V-8. Other than their different badges, the look of the two models is nearly identical. But if you’d like to see the actual car that Fozzie and Kermit used in The Muppet Movie, then head over to South Bend, Indiana. The effects car survives in the collections of (where else) the Studebaker National Museum. It still wears the psychedelic paint scheme applied by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in a clever plot device—faded with age, but unmistakable.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.