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Posts Tagged 19th century

Tinsmiths with Their Work Tools, circa 1875

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selling Tinware

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

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



Magazine page of people selling items

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


Decline of the Tinsmith

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

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

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

Tinsmiths with Their Work Tools, circa 1875

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

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

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



Lithograph, "Tinsmiths," circa 1840

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


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

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



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

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

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



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

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

Circle Shear

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Page of a trade catalog depicting tools for purchase

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Ceramic vase depicting the Carnegie library.

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

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


Street view of the Carnegie library in Lebanon, Ohio

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sepia-toned photo of a large group of men and women in 19th-century clothing standing in front of a two-story wooden house with large porch and columns

Members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Visiting Mount Vernon, September 21, 1892 / THF254036

The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a fraternal society founded in 1866 for Civil War veterans from the Union Army. Earlier this year, Collections Specialist Laura Myles shared some artifacts from our collections related to the G.A.R., and also explained their relationship with Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day), as part of our History Outside the Box series on The Henry Ford’s Instagram channel. On the first Friday of every month, our collections experts share stories from our collection on Instagram—but if you missed this particular episode, you can watch it below.

 

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20th century, 19th century, veterans, holidays, History Outside the Box, Grand Army of the Republic, Civil War, by Laura Myles, by Ellice Engdahl

Western Europe and its former colonies in the Americas were long fascinated with the Eastern cultures Europeans depicted as “mysterious”—specifically their exotic and luxurious trade goods. This is the second of two blog posts that examine this European and American fascination with Asia and the way that was expressed in the decorative arts. In the first post, I discussed the China trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, specifically Chinese export porcelain and the related tea trade. This post focuses on the 19th century, with the decline of the China trade, the opening of Japan to the West, Western eclecticism in the decorative arts, and the beginning of Western understanding of Asian design.

The China Trade in the First Half of the 19th Century


By the early 19th century, Europe and America had learned the secret of “hard paste” or true porcelain, so Westerners could produce their own high-quality wares. In the early American republic, porcelain factories popped up as early as the 1820s. This is not to suggest that that trade in Chinese porcelains declined; rather, it entered a new phase.

Head-on view of interior of shallow, rectangular bowl with blue stripe around rim and image in blue of landscape with building
Canton Ware Serving Bowl, 1800–1850 / THF160724

The serving bowl above would have been a prized possession of an American family in the first half of the 19th century. Part of a dinnerware set, this Canton ware, or “Blue Willow,” pattern appealed to middle-class Americans as an example of the exoticism of a faraway place, and implied the owners’ good taste and sophistication. Compared with the expensive and highly prized 18th-century wares, Canton china was inexpensive. This porcelain was shipped from Guangzhou, then called the Port of Canton by the English, to serve as a ship’s ballast under the more valuable tea chests.

Side view of shallow, rectangular bowl with blue stripe around rim and image in blue of landscape with building
Canton Ware Serving Bowl, 1800–1850 / THF160723

These wares usually depict a landscape with Chinese buildings and a bridge in the center and have a decorated rim. This pattern was widely copied by English makers in the late 19th and 20th centuries and became so inexpensive that it was sold at five-and-ten cent stores in the 20th century.  This example is interesting as it broke at some point during its working life and was mended with visible staples, indicating that it was indeed a valued possession.

Painting showing the inside of a building hung with blue banners with white Chinese characters and many potted plants and many framed artworks hung on the wall
Watercolor Painting, Two Rooms of a Chinese Painter's Studio, circa 1865 / THF119916

The remarkable image above shows the interior of a Chinese porcelain studio, with craftspeople decorating ceramics for the Western market. Visible on the wall on the left are prints or drawings supplied by Western agents, which were then copied by the artists in the foreground. The table on the right is filled with finished pieces of decorated ceramics. This piece itself was a souvenir intended for the Western market.

While the China trade continued throughout the 19th century, imports to America declined with the Civil War in the 1860s and never rebounded. After the Civil War, the United States and Europe became fascinated with another Asian nation, Japan.

Japan and the West


Japan, like China, traded with the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch beginning in the 15th century. However, by the middle of the 17th century, Japanese authorities closed their doors to Europeans, primarily due to the undue influence of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. In 1853, the American Commodore Matthew Perry, under the direction of President Millard Fillmore, arrived in Yokohama harbor with a fleet of steam ships, which impressed the Japanese with their high degree of technology. The Japanese grudgingly agreed to open their markets to the Americans and the West. During the next few decades, traditional Japanese arts flowed to the West, where they profoundly influenced European and American fine and decorative arts.

Woodblock print showing wooden bridge over high, very narrow gorge with a river at the bottom
Japanese River Scene Wood Block Print, 1900–1929 / THF292625

Tall, narrow, woodblock print of a person on a horse and another person on foot on a snowy promontory with trees nearby
Japanese Travelers in a Snow Storm, Wood Block Print, 1900–1929 / THF292633

The wood block prints above are good examples of Japanese exports that excited Western artists and designers. The compositions were like nothing ever seen in Europe or America. The use of flat, unmodulated colors laid down next to each other, combined with diagonals, provided a sense of depth. This influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists in France and designers everywhere.

Black wooden chair with yellow tasseled seat; chair back is ornately carved with a crane and foliage
Folding Side Chair, 1880–1885 / THF92166

The influence of images from Japanese prints on Western decorative arts can be seen in the carved cranes on the side chair above, painted in black to imitate ebony, an expensive wood that late Victorians associated with Japan. This is known as Anglo-Japanese style, which began in England in the 1870s and spread to America by the 1880s. Like many of the Asian imports, this Western style had little to do with Japan itself; rather, it suggested the “exoticism” of the Far East.

Elaborate, tall silver pitcher with engraved birds and foliage on body
Pitcher, 1870–1875, Made by Tiffany and Company, New York, New York / THF190746

Like the side chair, Tiffany and Company’s elegant silver pitcher uses stylized images of birds and foliage done in the Anglo-Japanese style.

Rectangle of wallpaper with pattern of maroon foliage and flowers on a gold background
Floral Wallpaper Sample, 1860–1880 / THF190058

Rectangular piece of wallpaper with pattern of green, red, and yellow flowers and foliage on a cream or puce background
Floral Wallpaper Sample, 1860–1880 / THF190057

Rectangular piece of wallpaper with small windows containing images of urns and vases filled with plants or flowers and other decorative elements in a largely gold and red color scheme
Wallpaper Sample, 1880–1890 / THF190054

The highly stylized wallpapers shown above were derived from the floral patterns of Japanese prints. European and American designers called these abstracted patterns “conventionalized” ornament. These wallpapers appealed to those interested in what was called the “aesthetic” taste. This taste tended to be high style, although by the 1880s, middle-class Americans applied elements of it in their interiors. For example, the sample above was found in the middle-class Firestone Farmhouse, now in Greenfield Village. The date of our interpretation is 1885.

Eclectic Design in the Late 19th Century


What we’ve looked at so far has imagery directly linked to either Chinese or Japanese originals, but there is another category of decorative objects that contain more interpretive elements derived from Chinese, Japanese, or other Asian designs. Some of these pieces contain imaginary elements that the designer created out of thin air.

Cream-colored vase with tall narrow neck and wide, short body, with stippled floral pattern in neutral shades
“Crown Milano” Vase, 1888–1893, Made by the Mount Washington Glass Company, New Bedford, Massachusetts / THF163595

Small round, peach/cream-colored ceramic jar with pattern of stippled flowers, topped with a silver "shaker" lid
“Burmese” Caster, 1885–1895, Made by the Mount Washington Glass Company, New Bedford, Massachusetts / THF167758

The ornate and elegant glass pieces above are clearly influenced by Japanese designs but have been transformed by late-19th-century American glassmakers into something unique. They are highly decorative and distinctly of their time.

Silver box on small legs, with handles on either side and relief on the front of man's face and torso with long drooping mustache and wearing a hat
Silver Tea Caddy, 1875, Made by the Gorham Manufacturing Company, Providence, Rhode Island / THF190070

Silver pieces, including four pitchers of different shapes and sizes and two other containers, one with a lid, all elaborately decorated with bamboo, florals, and other decorative elements
Tea and Coffee Service, 1883–1884, Made by Gorham Manufacturing Company, Providence, Rhode Island / THF154882

In the late 19th century, wealthy Americans demanded ornate silver sets, and above are notable examples of just how wild they could get. The tea caddy references Asian design elements—as perceived by Americans, who had little true understanding of Asian cultures. Likewise, the full tea set picks up on the Anglo-Japanese style, but takes it much farther, into something truly Victorian—and, like the glass examples, totally unique.

Attempts at Understanding Asia


Small vase with narrow base rounding out, then narrowing again at mouth, with mottled reddish colors ranging from peach to dark maroon
Vase, 1896–1908, Made by Hugh Robertson at the Dedham Pottery, Dedham, Massachusetts / THF176707

By the beginning of the 20th century, there were several designers looking for true sources of inspiration in Asian design. One of the most interesting of these was the English-born potter Hugh Robertson (1845–1908). During his time at the Dedham Pottery in Massachusetts, Robertson was obsessed with recreating the well-known Chinese oxblood glaze, seen on the vase above. He spent decades experimenting and perfecting the glaze, first at his family's Chelsea Keramic Art Works and later at Dedham. He was also interested in recreating the forms of Chinese porcelain made for domestic production rather than for export.

I hope you have enjoyed this quick journey through The Henry Ford's collection of Asian-influenced decorative arts. All of these artifacts, as well as many more, are available for browsing online in our Digital Collections.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

Europe, 19th century, Asia, paintings, glass, furnishings, design, decorative arts, ceramics, by Charles Sable, art

Postcard with text and image of geysers erupting with hills in the background and a lake in the foreground
For decades, many Americans shared a common misperception that Indigenous people feared the geysers at Yellowstone. / THF120298


Until recently, much of the American public has shared a common misperception that few Indigenous people had ever ventured within the boundaries of what became Yellowstone National Park. Story had it that these people were afraid of the geysers, or that they felt that the hissing steam vents were signs of angry gods or evil spirits. In fact, the presence of Indigenous Americans was purposefully erased from the story of Yellowstone National Park, beginning with the first white “scientific” expedition there in 1871. This erasure, which lasted through most of the park’s history, is only recently beginning to change.

Black-and-white image of slope covered in water and/or calcified rock with hills or mountains in the background
Some Indigenous people, in their pursuit of the large herds of bison to the east, created a trail that passed near what is now known as Mammoth Hot Springs. / THF102351

Archaeological evidence now indicates that as far back as 10,000 years ago, several bands of Indigenous people regularly passed through this area, primarily hunting bison, bighorn sheep, elk, and deer. In historic times, the area continued to serve as a crossroads for many Indigenous groups—including Crow, Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfoot, Nez Perce, and Flathead—who followed the Yellowstone River and other waterways through what eventually became the boundaries of the park. They tracked small buffalo herds, elk, and deer in the mountains and forests during the summer months and followed these animals to the warmer geothermal area of the Yellowstone Basin during the bitter winter months. Some of these groups crossed through the area to pursue the great herds of bison in the plains farther east, creating a trail that passed through the area now known as Mammoth Hot Springs and stretching eastward across what is known today as Lamar Valley. Early white hunters, trappers, and explorers not only followed the trails that Indigenous people created, but it is from these people that they first heard the fantastic stories of geothermal wonders in the Yellowstone Basin.

Black-and-white photo of geysers erupting steam and/or water into the air in a rocky landscape with a lake or river in the foreground and forest in the background
Many early photographs of the wonders of Yellowstone, like this “Grand Group” of geysers, were probably taken by William Henry Jackson, one of the people who accompanied Ferdinand Hayden on his 1871 expedition through what would become the park. / THF120369

The process of Indigenous erasure in Yellowstone began in earnest with the Hayden expedition of 1871—a large, government-funded expedition led by geologist Ferdinand Hayden to study, collect specimens in, and map out the confines of the Yellowstone “wonderland” that had been receiving so much recent attention. Hayden and members of his expedition were able to observe firsthand the places that had been described primarily in stories told by Shoshone and Bannock people—astonishing places like “The White Mountain” (which became known as Mammoth Hot Springs) and the spectacular geysers, bubbling mud pots, and hissing steam vents situated within the geothermal area of the Yellowstone Basin. As a result of this expedition, Hayden laid claim to this unique landscape on behalf of the United States government and the American people, choosing to ignore the longstanding use of the region by Indigenous people. Instead, the expedition report pointed to Yellowstone’s wonders as proof of the country’s “exceptionalism”—that is, Americans’ long-sought evidence that the United States was unique and exceptional when compared with other nations of the world.

Black-and-white photo of Indigenous people in a dwelling or teepee
Photo of "Sheepeater" Shoshone, William Henry Jackson, 1871. / Public domain photo from National Park Service

By the time of the Hayden Expedition, the only Indigenous people still known to inhabit the area were a by-then considered poor and lowly band of Eastern Shoshone called Sheepeaters (Tukudeka or Tukadika). A wealth of recent archaeological information has pointed to the conclusion that this band had inhabited and roamed this area for thousands of years—not the mere 200 years that early white explorers surmised (a story that then became widely accepted). These people had developed a remarkably sustainable way of life, taking advantage of the once-large population of bighorn sheep for food, clothing, blankets, tools, and bows.  Early white trappers observed this band’s self-confidence, intelligence, friendliness, and willingness to trade their fine-quality hide clothing, horn bows, and obsidian arrowheads. Unfortunately, the bighorn sheep population plummeted as the result of diseases brought by white settlers’ domestic sheep. White hunters and settlers also decimated other game and polluted the streams in which these people had fished. No wonder, then, that by the 1870s white explorers of the area described these people as starving and miserable.

Postcard showing large stone gateway across dirt road through grass fields; a horse-drawn stagecoach is coming through the arch
In 1903, this monumental stone gateway was completed to mark the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The words “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” inscribed above the arch, are taken directly from the legislation that created Yellowstone back in 1872. / THF120280

The widely publicized and highly celebrated Hayden report rapidly led to the creation of a bill to set the area aside as a national park, a “resort for all classes of people from all portions of the world,” a democratic landscape of tourism. When the question of Indigenous claims to the area under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie was raised, the argument was made that the land was simply too hostile for Indigenous people to live there. Though this was not true, Hayden’s expedition report had already justified the removal of Indigenous people from the area. The bill passed easily, with the help of aggressive lobbying by the Northern Pacific Railroad and the strong desire by members of Congress to use the bill as a way to help unify a Civil War-torn nation. The Yellowstone National Park Protection Act (or, simply, the Yellowstone Act) was placed on President Ulysses S. Grant’s desk on March 1, 1872. President Grant signed it without fanfare. During the 1870s, the Sheepeaters were easily rounded up and exiled to the Wind River (Wyoming) and Fort Hall (Idaho) reservations to live with other bands of Shoshone, along with Bannock and Arapaho people. 

Black-and-white photo of horse-drawn carriage driving past a large rock formation among steep hills and valleys
Early tourists typically boarded horse-drawn carriages to view the sites at Yellowstone National Park. / THF200464

When Yellowstone became a national park, no funds were allotted to administer or manage it. But an 1877 incident involving an encounter between another Indigenous group and two groups of tourists in the park changed that. The incident involved a group of Nez Perce (Nii mi’ipuu) crossing through the park in an epic flight to avoid the U.S. Army, who was pursuing them to force their removal from their ancestral homeland in eastern Oregon to a tiny reservation in Washington. This incident, which unfortunately involved violence and hostage-taking, created a national media sensation. Many personal accounts of the episode emerged afterward, with some indication that those who were involved sympathized with the plight of the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce group managed to successfully evade the army until the soldiers finally caught up with them 40 miles south of the Canadian border—in an attempt to join Sitting Bull’s Lakota band.

As a result of the widespread publicity and furor raised by this incident, Congress finally committed some money to managing the park. As tourism increased, Congress pressured Yellowstone park administrators to control the “savages” because it was assumed that they would endanger the park’s visitors. After that time, park administrators aggressively downplayed any presence of Indigenous people, not wanting the park’s well-heeled guests to risk crossing paths with them, or to even be worried that they might. By 1882, all Indigenous groups had been banned from the park.

Angular, geometric rock cliff with loose rocks covering slope below
Sheepeater Cliff was named after the only Indigenous people that lived on in public memory as having inhabited the Yellowstone area. / Photo by NPS/Jim Peaco

Once the real presence of Indigenous people had been erased from the landscape, park superintendents, railroad publicists, and tourists alike could look back—safely, nostalgically, and romantically—on the one-time presence of Indigenous people there. For example, when park administrators came across the remnants of wickiups (temporary shelters made from poles leaned and tied together, covered with brush or grass) eight miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs, they assumed these were made and used by the Sheepeaters. Since this was the only group still in the public memory as having inhabited Yellowstone, they felt that they were honoring their one-time presence by naming the natural feature near there “Sheepeater Cliff”—though this band did not live in that area and likely did not build these shelters. Once established, the perception that no Indigenous people had ever set foot inside the current boundaries of Yellowstone National Park (except for the Sheepeaters) persisted for decades.

In recent years, however, archaeologists, historians, and Indigenous activists have begun to correct the narrative of Indigenous presence and habitation on this land. In addition, administrators at Yellowstone National Park have also been making a concerted effort to elevate Indigenous voices and incorporate Indigenous knowledge systems into their research and programs (see, for example: https://roadtrippers.com/magazine/yellowstone-150-native-american-voices/ and https://www.nps.gov/yell/getinvolved/150-years-of-yellowstone.htm).  Today, they recognize at least 27 distinct American tribes that have historic and present-day connections to the land and resources of the park.  As champions of ecological connectivity, Indigenous people have been galvanizing action to protect Yellowstone’s wildlife, helping to relocate bison culled from the park, raising awareness on living with bears and wolves in the wider landscape, and enlightening administrators and the public on other aspects of environmental conservation related to the Yellowstone ecosystem. For the 150th anniversary of the park in 2022, administrators have been “shining a light” on Indigenous people whose past, present, and future are an essential part of Yellowstone’s story. As Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, proclaims, “This isn’t just about the last century and a half.  We also want to use this anniversary to do a better job of fully recognizing many American Indian nations that lived in this area for thousands of years prior to Yellowstone becoming a park…. The engagement we’re doing now will help set a stronger foundation for collaboration well into the future.”

As erasure shifts toward inclusion—through published materials, behind-the-scenes collaboration, and public programming—the historic and present-day connections of Indigenous people to Yellowstone National Park will continue to play an important role in the park’s future.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.  For recent books aimed at greater inclusion of Indigenous people in Yellowstone’s history, she recommends Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America by Megan Kate Nelson (2022) and Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon by John Clayton (2017).

Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, nature, national parks, Indigenous peoples, by Donna R. Braden, 21st century, 2020s, 19th century

Black-and-white photo of man standing with arms crossed, wearing white long-sleeved shirt, white tights (?), and dark velvet shorts with fringe

Unidentified Member of Alert Hose Company. / THF212048

Sometime during the late 1870s, members of the Alert Hose Company in Big Rapids, Michigan, posed for the local photographer. Arms crossed and standing tall, each of the firefighters wears a uniform—typical of those worn when competing in a local or regional firemen's tournament. The men had won several tournament prizes by the time they posed for these photographs—perhaps the prize money helped pay for the cartes-de-visite that became a remembrance of the company's victory. But these images offer more than just a glimpse at the Alert Hose Company's participation in a sporting event. They document the culmination of the company's years of hard work protecting Big Rapids against the ravages of fire, the pride in their company and their community, and their connection with the greater fraternity of 19th-century firefighters.

Fires in Big Rapids


Big Rapids, located in Mecosta County, Michigan, was incorporated in 1869. Like many 19th-century cities, it was susceptible to fire. The wood used to construct early homes and businesses offered ready fuel to the flames of an unwatched candle or lamp or a stray ember from a stove or fireplace. According to the 1883 Mecosta County history [p. 645], "Big Rapids has been a sufferer from fire at various times… The first fire of any consequence in the place was… in the year 1860." It was not any better in 1869 when another disastrous fire occurred [p. 645]: "No water supply or engines for extinguishing fires were here at that time, and common pails or buckets were the only appliance afforded. Lines of men were formed to supply water with buckets from wells in the vicinity, and even from the river, but without avail. The Mason House... was only saved by tearing down a small building [nearby] belonging to Harwood & Olds, and then hanging carpets and bed-clothes from the roof and windows, and keeping them saturated with water."

Finally, in 1871, men in Big Rapids organized volunteer fire companies, and the citizens and the city government discussed creating a local water supply for fire protection and private use.

GIF cycling through four black-and-white photos of men standing with arms crossed, wearing white long-sleeved shirt, white tights (?), and dark velvet shorts with fringe
Unidentified, Charles Gore, Jack Shaw, and W. E. Drew. / THF212050, THF212054, THF212056, THF212058

Volunteer Fire Companies in Big Rapids


Volunteer firefighters needed to work as a unit when it came time to fight a fire. Nineteenth-century fire companies usually consisted of men from similar class divisions, backgrounds, or ethnic groups and kinships. This sense of fraternity cemented the unit's cohesion. The camaraderie and kinship of fighting fires and their unique status as protectors in the community bound the firefighters together.

The Alert Hose Company was one of several volunteer firefighting companies to organize in Big Rapids in the early 1870s. The volunteers' job was to get to a burning structure as quickly as possible—pulling a hose cart or carriage—and attach hoses to an available water source so they could begin controlling the conflagration. By 1876, the growing city of Big Rapids had at least two other hose companies (Defiance and Protection) and the Pioneer Hook and Ladder company. (Hook and ladder companies employed hooks to tear down parts of buildings to limit a fire's spread and ladders to fight fires and rescue individuals in multi-story buildings.)

Little is known about the men who made up the Alert Hose Company, though names written on the back of some of the photographs provide a start. A quick review of census records from 1870 and 1880 and a city directory from 1884 give a few clues about a small subset. They were young working men mostly in their mid-20s and a couple in their 30s, though one was in his late teens. Several were related in some fashion. Their occupations included laborers, clerks, and a drayman (teamster)—none of the known men owned a business, though a few may have owned farms. Being part of the local fire company provided connections to businesses in the community to help guide their careers. A more thorough search of records (outside the scope of this blog) would provide more information on why this group of men came together to form the Alert Hose Company.

GIF cycling through four black-and-white photos of men standing with arms crossed, wearing white long-sleeved shirt, white tights (?), and dark velvet shorts with fringe
Henry Shaw, Charles Ellis, "Zip" Hammond, and Thomas Shaw. / THF212060, THF212062, THF212064, THF212066

Firemen's Tournaments


By the 1870s, fire companies tested their firefighting skills against other companies at various regional, state, and national firemen's tournaments. Local companies usually competed against one another on holidays or community fair days. State and national associations sponsored large competitions and set tournament rules and dates. Companies invited to participate usually competed in hose cart races, hook and ladder competitions, and pumping contests (to see how far a company could spray water from a hose), among other activities.

Training for and participating in firemen's tournaments tested and sharpened a company's firefighting skills, promoted a sense of pride in competition, and strengthened the sense of teamwork and fraternity. Participation in these tournaments by fire companies also engaged the local community. Government officials, business leaders, and ordinary citizens supported fire companies by cheering them on and providing monetary support through donations and prize money. Finally, friendly competitions between local companies broadened the sense of fraternity by creating a larger brotherhood of firefighters.

GIF cyling through four black-and-white photos of men standing with arms crossed, wearing white long-sleeved shirt, white tights (?), and dark velvet shorts with fringe
Arthur Webster, "Louie" Goulette, Angus McLelland, and  Fred Marble. / THF212068, THF212070, THF212072, THF212074

The Alert Hose Company in Tournaments


The men of the Alert Hose Company in Big Rapids, Michigan, began participating in hose cart races at various tournaments in the mid-1870s.  In a hose cart race, a fire company ran a set distance pulling a cart reeled with hoses. Men in the company unwound the hoses, attached them to a water source, and then sprayed water. The fastest time won the prize. A review of articles from the Detroit Free Press highlights the successes of the fire company and the support of its community.

In 1875, the Alert Hose Company (along with the Pioneer Hook and Ladder company) made an appearance at the State Firemen's Tournament held in Jackson, Michigan. Reports mentioned no prizes, but, according to the papers, when they returned home, the men were met "with an enthusiastic reception and dinner[.]" On July 4, 1876, the Big Rapids' firefighting companies competed against one another for prize money. The "Alerts" won the champion belt and a cash prize of $50 offered by the mayor. The other firefighting companies took home lesser amounts funded by the citizens.  The following year at the Mecosta County Fair, the "Alerts" took home a $100 purse in the hose cart race.

A bigger prize awaited in 1878. In September, the "Alerts" headed off to Chicago to compete in a national competition. Their teamwork paid off; they finished second within a long list of competitors. The prize this time was noteworthy—$300 in cash and a nickel-plated hose cart made by Silsby Company of Seneca Falls, New York.  Citizens of Big Rapids turned out to greet their heroes when they returned home.  Evergreens, flags, and banners decorated the local hall, the women of the town prepared a dinner, and, of course, there were speeches. A final mention from this period came in an 1882 article that reported the men of the Alert Hose Company had won a special prize of $10 at the State Firemen's Tournament for the "best appearing company." 

Conclusion


Throughout the 1870s, local fire companies organized in the newly formed city of Big Rapids, Michigan. These volunteer firemen worked to protect their homes and community against the ever-present danger of fire. Each company needed to work as a cohesive unit when fighting flames and smoke. Similar backgrounds, ethnicities, and economic status—and the desire to protect their community—brought these men together. And local and regional firefighters' tournaments provided a way to hone the skills needed to become an effective team. The small images shown here, taken by a local photographer, point to the unity and pride that the men of the Alert Hose Company had in their avocation and the fraternity they represented.

See all 14 members of the Alert Hose Company (including one member not in uniform) in The Henry Ford's Digital Collections here


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

19th century, 1870s, 1860s, photographs, Michigan, by Andy Stupperich

Few visitors to Greenfield Village cross Ackley Covered Bridge realizing the significance of the structure surrounding them. It is one of the oldest surviving covered bridges in the country, and considerable thought went into its overall design. Covered bridges have long been stereotyped as quaint, but the reason behind their construction was never charm or shelter for travelers. The sole function of the “cover” was to protect the bridge’s truss system by keeping its structural timbers dry.

Built in 1832, Ackley Covered Bridge represents an early form of American vernacular architecture and is the oldest “multiple kingpost” truss bridge in the country. This structural design consists of a series of upright wooden posts with braces inclined from the abutments at either end of the bridge and leaning towards the center post, or “kingpost.” It is also a prime example of period workmanship and bridge construction undertaken with pride as a community enterprise.

Blue-line map of Washington County, with text and legend
This map of Washington County, Pennsylvania, shows the original site of Ackley Covered Bridge (bottom left). / THF625813

Ackley Covered Bridge was constructed across Wheeling Creek on the Greene-Washington County line near West Finley, Pennsylvania. The single-span, 80-foot structure was built to accommodate traffic caused by an influx of settlers. Daniel and Joshua Ackley, who had moved with their mother to Greene County in 1814, donated the land on which the bridge was originally constructed, as well as the building materials. More than 100 men from the local community, including contractor Daniel Clouse, were involved in the bridge’s construction. Like most early bridge builders in America, they were little known outside their community. But their techniques were sound, and their work stood the test of time.

Initial community discussions about the bridge included a proposal to use hickory trees, which were abundant in the region, in honor of President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. Instead, they settled on white oak, which was more durable and less likely to warp. The timber came from Ackley property a half mile south of the building site. It was cut at a local sawmill located a mile south of the bridge. Hewing to the shapes and size desired was done by hand on site. Stone for the abutments was secured from a quarry close by.

Ackley Covered Bridge replaced an earlier swinging grapevine bridge, and it may soon have been replaced itself if settlement and construction in the region had continued. Instead, the area remained largely undeveloped for several decades. This, along with three roof replacements (in 1860, 1890, and 1920), helped ensure the bridge’s survival.

Somewhat ramshackle-looking covered bridge among woods
Ackley Covered Bridge at its original site before relocation to Greenfield Village, 1937. / THF235241

Plans to replace the more than 100-year-old structure with a new concrete bridge in 1937 spurred appeals from the local community to Henry Ford, asking him to relocate Ackley Covered Bridge to Greenfield Village. Ford sent representatives to inspect, measure, and photograph the bridge before accepting it as a donation from Joshua Ackley’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Evans. She had purchased the well-worn structure from the state of Pennsylvania for $25, a figure based on the value of its timber. Evans had a family connection to one of Ford’s heroes, William Holmes McGuffey. McGuffey’s birthplace, already in Greenfield Village, had stood a mere seven miles from the original site of Ackley Covered Bridge—an association that likely factored in Ford’s decision to rescue the structure.

Dismantling of Ackley Covered Bridge began in December 1937. Its timbers were shipped by rail to Dearborn, Michigan, and the bridge was constructed over a specially designed pond in Greenfield Village just in time for its formal dedication in July 1938.

Covered bridge over dry streambed
Ackley Covered Bridge after construction in Greenfield Village, 1938. / THF625902


This post was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford, from a historic structure report written in July 1999 by architectural consultant Lauren B. Sickels-Taves, Ph.D.

Michigan, Dearborn, Pennsylvania, 1830s, 19th century, travel, roads and road trips, making, Henry Ford, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Saige Jedele, by Lauren B. Sickels-Taves, Ackley Covered Bridge

"You know me, Barney Oldfield" was the classic catchphrase of one of America's earliest celebrity sports figures. Indeed, during the nascent period of the automobile, most every American knew Berna “Bernie” Eli Oldfield (1878–1946). He became the best-known race car driver at a time when the motor buggy was catching the imagination and passion of a rapidly changing society. Oldfield cut a populist swath across turn-of-the century American society and, in the process, helped define an emerging cult of celebrity.

Bicycle Beginnings


Man hunched over riding a bicycle on a steeply-tilted wooden track
Barney Oldfield Riding the "Blue Streak" Bicycle on the Salt Palace Board Track, Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 1900 / THF111772

One of the consistent themes of Oldfield's early years was a restlessness and desire for bigger, brighter, and better things in life. As a teenager, Oldfield worked odd jobs in Toledo, Ohio, earning money to buy his own bicycle to ride in local and regional road and endurance races. An attempt at professional boxing ended after Oldfield contracted typhoid fever. He returned to racing bicycles for company-sponsored teams and sold parts in the off-season. Throughout the 1890s, Oldfield was part of a team of riders that barnstormed across the Midwest, racing in the new "wood bowl" tracks that were sprouting up across the region. Oldfield quickly realized the need to appeal to audiences beyond the track. He branded himself the "Bicycle Racing Champion of Ohio" and promoted a "keen formula for winning," wearing a bottle of bourbon around his neck during races but telling reporters the liquid inside was vinegar.

Shift to Auto Racing


Two men pose at the wheel of two very minimal open early race cars on a track next to a covered pavilion
Tom Cooper and Barney Oldfield Seated in Race Cars, circa 1902 / THF207346

Americans were fascinated with quirky and expensive motor buggies. These boxy, carriage-like vehicles appealed to Americans’ desire for new, loud, audacious, and fast entertainment. During the winter of 1899, Oldfield reconnected with an old bicycle racing companion, Tom Cooper, who had just returned from England with a motorized two-wheeler (an early motorcycle). Cooper was going to demonstrate the vehicle at a race in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, near Detroit, in October 1901. He asked Oldfield, who began riding motorcycles himself around this time, to come along. Cooper and Oldfield were a preliminary exhibition before the main event: a race between local "chauffeur" Henry Ford and the most well-known and successful automobile manufacturer of the day, Alexander Winton.

After the Grosse Pointe event, Oldfield and Cooper pursued gold mining in Colorado. When that ended in failure, Cooper headed to Detroit to focus on automobiles. Oldfield took the motorized cycle on a circuit of Western bicycle tracks, setting records along the way before returning to Detroit in the fall of 1902 at Cooper’s request. Cooper had purchased Henry Ford’s “999” race car and wanted Oldfield to drive it. "The Race" between the “999” and Alexander Winton's "Bullet" captured the imaginations of not only Detroit's automotive elite, but the general population as well. When Oldfield piloted the “999” to victory over Winton's sputtering “Bullet,” the news spread like wildfire across Detroit, the Midwest, and eventually the nation.

Beyond the immediate thrill of the race itself, Barney Oldfield, the "everyman" bicycle racer from the heartland, appealed to a wide segment of American society rushing to embrace the motor car. As the Detroit News-Tribune reported after the race, "The auto replaced the horse on the track and in the carriage shed. Society sanctioned yesterday's races. And not only society, but the general public, turned out until more than five thousand persons had passed the gatekeepers.” Barney Oldfield became the face of racing for the "general public" and helped to democratize not only racing entertainment, but also automobiles in general, as vehicles moved out of the carriage house and into backyard sheds.

Man crouches at wheel of an open early race car on a dirt track
Barney Oldfield Driving the Ford "999" Race Car, circa 1903 / THF140144

Celebrity Status


Over the next 15 years, Barney Oldfield established multiple world speed records and gained notoriety wherever he went. He added an iconic unlit cigar to his racing persona and perfected the roguish image of a daredevil everyman. After a brief stint driving for Winton, Oldfield took the wheel of a Peerless racer, the "Green Dragon," and established himself as America's premier driver.

Man sits behind wheel of early open race car on a dirt track
Barney Oldfield Behind the Wheel of the Peerless "Green Dragon" Racecar, circa 1905 / THF228859

By 1904, Oldfield held world records in the 1-, 9-, 10-, 25-, and 50-mile speed categories. In 1907, Oldfield tried his hand at stage acting when he signed on to appear in a new musical, The Vanderbilt Cup. Over a 10-week run and a brief road tour, Oldfield “raced” his old friend Tom Cooper in stationary cars as backdrops whirled behind them and stagehands blew dirt into the front rows of the theater. The following year, Oldfield entered the open road race circuit and quickly added to his legend by sparking a feud with one of the emerging stars of the day, Ralph De Palma. In March 1910, Oldfield added the title "Speed King of the World" to his resume, driving the "Blitzen Benz" to an astonishing 131.7 miles per hour on Daytona Beach in Florida.

Man behind wheel of early open race car on a track; also contains text
Barney Oldfield Driving the "Blitzen Benz" Car on a Racetrack, 1910 / THF228871

Oldfield flouted the conventions of his time, both on and off the track. He was notorious for his post-race celebrations, womanizing, and bar fights. Oldfield’s rebellious streak kept him under the scrutiny of the American Automobile Association (AAA) and, in 1910, he became the first true "outlaw" driver when he was suspended for an unsanctioned spectacle race against the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Undaunted, Oldfield and his manager set up dates at county and state fairs across the country, holding three-heat matches against a traveling stable of paid drivers. Oldfield padded his reputation by adding an element of drama to these events—he would lose the first match, barely win the second, and, after theatrically tweaking and cajoling his engine, win the third match. During this time, Oldfield also became a product spokesman (perhaps most notably for Firestone tires) and began racing a fellow showman, aerial barnstormer Lincoln Beachey, in matches pitting “the Dare Devil of the Earth vs. the Demon of the Skies for the Championship of the Universe!”

Early airplane flies low above a race car on a dirt track
Barney Oldfield and Lincoln Beachey Racing, Columbus, Ohio, 1914 / THF228829

Towards the end of his driving career, Oldfield made a final splash in the racing world with the Harry Miller-built "Golden Submarine," establishing dirt-track records from one to one hundred miles. Throughout the 1917 season, Oldfield drove the Golden Sub in a series of matches on dirt and wood tracks against his old rival Ralph De Palma, eventually winning four out of the seven races. Oldfield retired from competition racing in 1918 after winning two matches in Independence, Missouri. In typical Oldfield fashion, he ran the last race under AAA suspension for participating in an earlier unsanctioned event.

Race car on steeply tilted wood track
Barney Oldfield Driving "Golden Submarine" Race Car at Sheepshead Bay Board Track, Brooklyn, New York, 1917 / THF141856

Oldfield continued to keep himself at the fore of America's sports entertainment culture. In addition to ceremonial "referee" jobs at various races, he rubbed elbows with American movie, stage, and music stars and continued his rambunctious lifestyle. Between 1913 and 1945, Oldfield appeared in six movies (usually as himself) and also tried his hand as a road tester for Hudson Motor Company, salesman, bartender, club owner, and spokesman. Finally, in an attempt to raise funds to build another land-speed racer with Harry Miller, Oldfield staged a unique publicity and fundraising event. In 1933, outside Dallas, Texas, he drove an Allis-Chalmers farm tractor to a record 64.1 miles per hour.

Advertisement with text and image of man with cigar in his mouth behind the wheel of a car
Barney Oldfield Advertising Postcard for Plymouth Automobiles, circa 1935 / THF228879

Fittingly, Barney Oldfield's last public appearance was at the May 1946 Golden Jubilee of the Automobile Industry held in Detroit. Oldfield was fêted for his foundational role in what had become one of the largest industries in the nation. He shared the main speaker's table with automotive icons including Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, and Frank Duryea, and he accepted a “trophy of progress” for his role in automotive history. Barney Oldfield passed away in October 1946, having lived—in the words of one passionate fan—“such a life as men should know.”

For more, check out our archival collection on Barney Oldfield, browse artifacts related to him in our Digital Collections, or visit the “Showmanship” zone of the Driven to Win: Racing in America exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.


This post by Peter Kalinski, former Archivist at The Henry Ford, originally ran in 2014. It has been updated by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

Ohio, 20th century, 19th century, racing, race cars, race car drivers, Michigan, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, Detroit, cars, by Saige Jedele, by Peter Kalinski, bicycles, archives