In 2012, Dennis Fiems donated hundreds of laundry and other soap packaging items to The Henry Ford that been collected by his late wife, Susan Strongman Fiems. According to Curator of Public Life Donna Braden, this collection is important as it exemplifies several 20th century trends: the evolution of product packaging, the changing nature of housekeeping and “women’s work,” increasing cultural attention on hygiene, and technological advances in these chemistry-driven products. More than 300 of these items are now digitized and available to browse online, including this sample-size box of FAB soap flakes from the early part of the 20th century. You can see additional items from the Fiems collection (plus other related objects) by visiting The Henry Ford’s collections website and browsing keywords such as soap, laundry products, and even clothespins.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
In the last third of the 19th century, an unprecedented variety of consumer goods and services flooded the American market. Advertisers, armed with new methods of color printing, bombarded potential customers with trade cards. Americans enjoyed and often saved the vibrant little advertisements. We’ve just finished digitizing over 800 trade cards from The Henry Ford’s collection, including this example promoting a theatrical event. Visit our collections site to read the back, which promises “a Gorgeous Pagent [sic], Bewildering to the Mind and Dazzling to the Senses.”
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford. Thanks to this week's co-author, Saige Jedele, Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.
As we digitize the collections of The Henry Ford, we try to find and tell complete stories—for example, we don’t just digitize the race car, but also trophies it won, and photos from some of its most famous races. Because of our broad collecting approach and the resultant depth of our collections, we uncover these stories all the time.
Sometimes fate and/or current events help us out. Though The Henry Ford is an independent institution, we do maintain a warm relationship with Ford Motor Company and often work together on projects. Recently we discovered a series of items in our collection that played a big role in Ford Motor Company’s history, both nearly 90 years ago and again just six years ago.
The items include a number of paintings, magazine advertisement proofs created from those (and other) paintings, and correspondence that formed an impressive ad campaign. The campaign itself consisted of 16 ads that ran in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines in 1924 and 1925. The ads, two-page spreads that contained both visually arresting artwork and a significant amount of text, explained the backstory of the Ford company at a time when, as Marc Greuther, Chief Curator and Curator of Industry and Design at The Henry Ford, states, the company was at “a certain kind of pinnacle” with their signature product, the Model T, but “the product is slipping.”
As fascinating as it is, this ad campaign might have disappeared into relative obscurity if it hadn’t been rediscovered by Ford Motor Company’s new President and CEO, Alan Mulally, in 2007. In a recent interview with Fast Company, Mulally said, “I was looking for a compelling vision, a comprehensive statement to deliver that strategy.” This ad campaign from the previous century provided just the fundamental sense of purpose that Mulally was after, and allowed him to create a new strategic vision that was embraced across Ford Motor Company.
As we discussed this backstory with Ford Motor Company, both organizations were extremely interested in highlighting the ad campaign. Marc Greuther conducted a one-on-one interview with Alan Mulally about the impact the earlier campaign had on today’s Ford Motor Company (you can view clips from that interview here and here). As discussions continued between our institutions, the Ford Motor Company Fund generously provided a grant to conserve and reframe some of the materials, as well as create videos covering the conservation process and interviews. We made plans to highlight some of the newly conserved paintings within our Driving America exhibit. The new exhibit was officially unveiled on June 24, with Alan Mulally and other luminaries (including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who checked in at the Museum on Foursquare) in attendance.
The interactive kiosk within this section of the exhibit was updated to include new video clips featuring Marc Greuther’s interview with Alan Mulally, as well as additional analysis of the campaign by Marc. It also now features an electronic collections set containing all of the paintings, ad proofs, and correspondence connected to the campaign, as well as other related materials.
In case you’ve ever wondered what it takes to pull this kind of historical story together, in both physical and digital formats, here are some of the groups that played a role:
Archivists from The Henry Ford combed the stacks, locating the ads and other materials related to the campaign
Registrars, archivists, and curators from The Henry Ford researched all of the materials as well as the backstory
Ford Motor Company provided access to Alan Mulally, Dean Weber (Manager of the Ford Archives), and other key corporate resources, both for interviews and project planning
The Ford Motor Company Fund provided a grant which underwrote conservation and reframing of some of the materials, as well as creation of videos covering the conservation process and interviews
Conservators, both at The Henry Ford and outside the institution, examined and conserved the artifacts
Curators at The Henry Ford planned the story, materials, and text for the new exhibit
Photographers and imaging specialists from The Henry Ford photographed and scanned of all the material
Digitization staff at The Henry Ford made sure all artifacts related to the campaign appeared online and on the interactive kiosk within this exhibit section
Museum and exhibits staff at The Henry Ford worked with contractors to update the Driving America exhibit with the new material
Events staff at The Henry Ford worked with Ford Motor Company to ensure the official unveiling went without a hitch
Ford Motor Company created a website to share photos, videos, and a press release relating to this project
And it continues to build… Staff at The Henry Ford have already fielded one loan request for some of the paintings and advertisements not used in Driving America (you can see them through October 2013 in the Michigan Modern exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.)
It certainly took a lot of time, effort, and funding to put this all together, but we hope you’ll agree that the resulting exhibit in Driving America within the Museum—as well as the digital assets, available to anyone around the world—are worth it. Let us know what you think.
Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford, is always trying to integrate the physical and the digital.
I have a long-standing fascination with large advertising posters. The collections of The Henry Ford include hundreds of these colorful graphics. As I study them I always wonder about their original purpose.
It starts in the nineteenth century when printers developed a lithograph method that produced brightly colored posters. Lithography, invented around 1798, is a process of printing from a flat surface with a greasy image holding the ink and a wet blank area resisting the ink. It originally produced a monochrome print of a dark image on light paper. In the 1840s printers experimented with using different ink colors and multiple printing surfaces to make chromatic images on one sheet of paper.
Manufacturers and companies quickly adopted the colorful new poster style to promote their goods and services. The posters were glued to building walls and fences, and hung in store displays where they readily attracted the attention of passersby. Companies hired printers who worked with artists to create designs to advertise the products.
This early poster's design, above, is in the style of American romantic landscape paintings of the time. Advertising the Buckeye brand of agricultural equipment manufactured by Aultman, Miller & Company of Akron, Ohio, it exemplifies an American ideal of the machine in the garden. The artist, F. Crow, made this image for the printer, White & Brayley of Buffalo, New York, about 1875. It probably hung in the office of a local equipment distributor where it offered visitors the pleasure of an appealing rural scene.
This next poster promotes sewing machines made by the Dauntless Manufacturing Company of Norwalk, Ohio, about 1885. The figure is Columbia, a feminine personification of the United States. A complex and detailed image, it surely captured observers' attention and deserved a pause for a long look.
This delightful image of four boys eating watermelon epitomizes a summer’s harvest. The attention-grabbing subject matter likely helped to sell the seeds grown by D.M. Ferry & Company of Detroit, Mich. Distributed nationally, the J. Ottmann Lithographing Company of New York, NY, printed the poster in 1898.
A complex scene including a seemingly ordinary dining table includes symbolic personalities to gain attention for this unusual food combination of wheat and celery. Columbia, appearing again, serves Uncle Sam and a robust young woman in this poster for Dr. Price’s healthy food products. The U.S. Lithograph Company of Cincinnati, Ohio and New York, NY, made this “Russell-Morgan Print” about 1900-1905.
Over a century ago, changes were taking place in America that made national selling of products advantageous, and manufacturers sought to capture attention with catchy brands and appealing images. Changes in milling of grain lengthened the shelf life so storekeepers far from the original mill were sure to have a good product to sell, and the extensive railroad system allowed rapid and consistent delivery.
The team of racing horses coming toward the viewer in the Ben-Hur poster certainly gives a sense of drama. It may be hard to connect the image to the wheat flour product, but the arresting image was meant to attract the attention of potential buyers walking along a town’s street. The Royal Milling Company of Minneapolis, Minn., and Great Falls, Mont., had this colorful poster printed in the early 1900s. At this time, Ben-Hur was a popular motif because the theatrical producers Klaw & Erlanger had made a play in 1899 based on the best-selling American novel written by Lew Wallace in 1880.
Like the Ben-Hur poster of the same era, this view of a Scotsman in his Highland kilt gives a sense of adventure and surely attracted the attention of potential buyers on foot. This colorful poster was printed in 1899 with the catchy slogan "Scotch Oats for Brain and Brawn." At this time, stories about the medieval Scottish fight for independence, like Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, were popular in the United States.
This poster of the Wright brothers' Model B biplane has instant appeal. It happens to advertise the aerial entertainment services of the Patterson Aviators of Detroit in the 1910s. I am particularly struck by the fact that in less than ten years, entrepreneurs were using the fruit of Wilbur and Orville Wright's invention begun with their first successful flight in 1903. It grew from an impossible dream to a part of our everyday life. Daredevil fliers in the 1910s and 1920s, also called barnstormers, showed people the possibility of flight by creating high-risk, exciting spectacles soaring through the sky. Crowds flocked to numerous public events like circuses, county fairs, and air shows, eagerly shelling out their hard-earned money simply for the privilege of watching these high-flying acrobatics.
During the First World War, artists widely used an innovative advertising technique for posters that moved away from a factual depiction of a product’s material or event’s subject to an emphasis on appealing to the viewer’s emotions. On the surface, this poster promotes American citizens growing food in their home garden so the farmers’ produce could feed U.S. soldiers training and fighting the war in Europe. The emotional appeal is connecting the effort of home food gardening to patriotic sacrifices akin to those of the American Revolutionary War soldiers. The artist, William McKee, used the familiar motif from the painting The Spirit of ’76, made in 1876 by Archibald M. Willard for the Centennial of the American Revolution. The poster’s title, The Spirit of ’18, reinforced this popular patriotic theme. This poster was made for the U.S. Food Administration in 1918.
This poster advertises the R& L Time Payment Plan to buy a Ford Model T Tudor Coupe. The National Bond & Investment Company probably offered this payment plan, still a novel concept, through independent Ford dealerships. This double-sided poster was designed to hang in a window and be seen from indoors and outside. Although we do not know the printer for this poster created about 1925, the artist's signature prominently appears in the lower right corner: J.W. Pondelicek.
The artist of this poster, Bob Smith, combined modern and patriotic themes of this world’s fair held near the end of the Great Depression and at the beginning of the Second World War. Promoting the New York World’s Fair theme, "The World of Tomorrow," the Grand Opening on April 30, 1939, harkened back to the country’s beginnings by celebrating the 150th anniversary of George Washington's first presidential inauguration held in New York City in 1789. The beautiful young woman portrayed in front of the world fair’s modern Trylon and Perisphere buildings wears fashionable clothes in the American patriotic colors of red, white and blue.
These posters and many more are part of our museum's online collections. We also offer quality reproductions for a selection of posters on The Henry Ford ArteHouse and The Henry Ford SM/ART Editions. These posters, eye-catching time capsules of popular design, delight and instruct us today. What are your favorites?
Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Photographs and Prints, is continually fascinated with the museum’s more than 1 million historical graphics.
When my parents handed me the keys to my 2001 Ford Escort ZX2 at the ripe old age of 16, I felt an instant sense of freedom. Being able to go anywhere without asking for a ride from my mom or older brother gave me my first taste of adulthood. I know the feeling of independence of owning your own destiny impacts almost all drivers because I recognize this passion in the researchers and car restorers who visit our reading room.
And freedom would have resonated with early car consumers too, especially women. After gaining the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1919, many women felt for the first time that they had a political voice and were therefore empowered to fight for equality in other areas. Of course, many women, especially women of color, saw emancipation fleeting, as they were either barred from voting or secluded in the private sphere. Still, for many women, the feelings of accomplishment were overwhelming, and advertisers in the United States’ emerging modern consumer economy took the chance to capitalize on the freedom motif.
The newest, most revolutionary, most popular item on the market was the automobile, and auto companies sought to reach out to female consumers using shiny new cars as the greatest symbol for female enfranchisement. These ads reflect the duality of the discourse on women in the country: both free yet still bound to feminine stereotyping.
“It enables them now to do things and to go places that had hitherto seemed out of the question.”
This statement expresses the general sentiment of the time that many women were moving into new and exciting territories. As the 1920s progressed, highlighting the ability of the Model T to allow women to pursue independence became a popular theme in Ford advertisements. Notice that Ford tells women that they can “drive this easily-handled car themselves” and not need a man to escort or help them. Although this advertisement obviously relies on stereotypes of feminine weakness, the overall message is that feminine weakness does not prohibit the modern woman from achieving equality.
“By owning a Ford car a woman can with ease widen her sphere of interests without extra time or effort.”
In this advertisement Ford once more points out the ways that a Model T can help women move beyond home. Unlike the previous ad that associated the car with female autonomy, this ad links a woman and her domestic duties. With this ad Ford targets older women who use their car not to golf or enjoy leisure activities but to conduct daily errands. The suggestion is that with a Model T, a woman with a family can quickly and efficiently complete the tasks within her sphere while still remaining independent from her husband.
Not every Ford advertisement featuring women played on traditional stereotypes. This ad, though not as flashy or colorful as others, shows off the Ford’s mechanical assets rather than its association to style or sophistication. Although it might seem strange that a technical ad would feature women drivers and passengers, there are many advertisements like this that do not simply link female car ownership to accepted domestic behavior. One reason might be audience, as this ad ran in publications like the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s and had to resonate with men as well as women. At the same time, there were many women who were interested in the mechanical aspects of automobiles and Ford reached out to these consumers with ads like this.
When interest and enthusiasm for the Model T waned in the mid-1920s, Ford Motor Company stopped production on the world’s most popular car and in December 1927 debuted the 1928 Model A. The new Ford was a beautiful car, modern and stylish, and the advertisements followed suit. This ad relies heavily on a distinct gender binary by focusing on the different features of the Model A that would appeal to men and women. “Men will admire the colors of the new Ford, but only a woman, from her fuller knowledge of clothes and style, will realize that they are colors that will not tire.” This statement perfectly exemplifies the attitude in auto advertising that still continues to this day, namely relying on the assumption that men buy cars based on speed and horse-power, while women focus on aesthetics and comfort.
While the last advertisement reflects gendered biases towards consumers, this advertisement demonstrates a very different message. Here the main focus is not the women in the picture or specifications given in the text; no, the feeling I get when I look at this advertisement hearkens to that first experience of autonomy, driving my own car at age 16 with nothing but the road in front of me and endless possibilities of people, places and experiences surrounding me. In 1928 this feeling of freedom and independence would have resonated with all drivers regardless of gender, class, race or creed, as it still does today.
Jillian Reese, Reading Room Assistant at the Benson Ford Research Center, is an avid women’s history fan and photocopier extraordinaire.