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Card with ripped corners depicting a hand holding a bouquet of flowers; also contains text
Trade Card for Choice Flower Seeds, D.M. Ferry & Co., 1880-1900 / THF214403


Sustenance is not usually associated with flowers or the horticultural industry, but cut flowers and ornamental plants have been nourishing humans for centuries. Flowers aid people through hard times by providing joy, mental health benefits, and ephemeral beauty unmatched in many eyes. Additionally, cut flower cultivation is a critical source of revenue and ecosystem service for agricultural entrepreneurs.

Duplicated image of a pink flower with green leaves on a black background
Stereograph of a blooming tree peony, circa 1865 / THF66255

The horticulture industry grew rapidly during the 19th century. New businesses, such as Mount Hope Nursery and Gardens out of Rochester, New York, used an expanding transportation infrastructure to market ornamental plants to Midwesterners starting during the 1840s. Yet, while consumers’ interest in ornamentation grew, so did their displeasure with distant producers distributing plants of unverifiable quality. Soon enough, local seed companies and seedling and transplant growers met Detroiters’ needs, establishing greater levels of trust between producer and consumer (Lyon-Jenness, 2004). D.M. Ferry & Co., established in Detroit in 1867, sold vegetable and flower seeds, as well as fruit tree grafts, direct to consumers and farmers.

At the heart of horticulture lies a tension between respect for local, native species and the appeal of newly engineered, “perfect” cultivars. Entrepreneurs such as Hiram Sibley invested in the new and novel, building fruit, vegetable, and flower farms, as well as distribution centers, in multiple states.

Open wooden box with graphics, images, and text on underside of lid; contains seed packets, with other seed packets arranged outside the box
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542

Plant breeders such as Luther Burbank sought a climate to support year-round experimentation. As a result, he relocated from Massachusetts to California, where he cultivated roses, crimson poppies, daisies, and more than 800 other plants over the decades. Companies in other parts of the country—Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. in Louisiana, Missouri, and the W. Atlee Burpee Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—partnered with Burbank or established their own California operations to maintain a competitive edge. These larger farms had to send their flowers by rail across the country and as such, engineered for consistency and mass production.

Field filled with pink flowers; also contains text
Field of Burbank's Rosy Crimson Escholtzia, April 13, 1908, Santa Rosa, California. / THF277209

Advertising fueled growth. Companies marketed seeds directly to homeowners, farmers, and market gardeners through a combination of colorful packets, seed boxes, catalogs, specimen books, trade cards, and purchasing schemes. Merchants could reference colorful trade literature issued by D.M. Ferry & Company as they planned flower seed purchases for the next year. The 1879 catalog even oriented merchants to its seed farms and trial grounds near Detroit. A D.M. Ferry trade card (seen below) advertised more than the early flowering sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) in 1889, featuring twelve “choice kinds” available in Ferry seed boxes or through orders submitted by merchants directly to the company (Little and Kantor, Journal of Heredity, 1941). Customers who returned ten empty seed packets earned a copy of Ferry’s Floral Album.

Card with images of white, pink, and dark purple flowers; also contains text
Trade Card for Sweet Pea Seeds, D.M. Ferry & Company, 1889. / THF214415

Additionally, magazines such as Vick’s Illustrated Family Magazine, published by Rochester, New York, seedsman James Vick, served as a clearinghouse of information for consumers and growers alike.

GIF cycling through a number of images of flowers
Floral lithographs by James Vick / Digital Collections

Flowers were not always grown in isolation. Cultivating and selling vegetables side-by-side with flowers was common practice, as it provided farmers diversity in income with the ebb and flow of seasons. The addition of flowers proved mutually beneficial to both profits and productivity for farms, as they attract pollinators and receive a high mark-up in the market. Furthermore, flowers could be placed alongside vegetables on farm stands as a means to decorate and draw the attention of market goers.

Market gardeners who also grew flowers saw the potential in Detroit, and this helped develop the floriculture industry. John Ford, a Scottish immigrant, gained visibility through his entries at the Annual Fair of Michigan State Agricultural Society, winning awards for cut flowers, dahlias, and German asters, as well as culinary vegetables, strawberries, and nutmeg melons, throughout the 1850s and 1860s (The Michigan Farmer, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1861/62, 1863/64). Ford served on the Detroit City Common Council. After that body approved construction, in 1860, of a new Vegetable Shed for Detroit’s City Hall Market (also known as Central Market), Ford or members of his family operated a stand in the market until at least 1882.

Illustration of a large white lily with yellow stripes in the center of the petals and orangish-brown dots
Nurseryman's Specimen Book, 1871-1888, page 76 / THF620239

Another market gardener, John Breitmeyer, an immigrant from Bavaria, settled in Detroit in 1852 and grew a booming floral business. He anticipated the growth of the floral industry, building hot houses for roses in 1886 and establishing the first florist shop in Detroit in 1890 off Bates Street (The American Florist, April 28, 1900, pg. 1213). He worked with his two sons, who had studied floriculture in Philadelphia, to raise plants and flowers, but “the latter seemed the most profitable” (Detroit Journal, reprinted in Fort Worth Daily Gazette, August 12, 1889, pg. 4). There were 200 floral shops in Detroit by 1930, when the Breitmeyer family operation grew to specialize in “chrysanthymums [sic], carnations, and sweet peas” in addition to roses (Detroit Free Press, April 6, 1930).

Page with text and image of building
Detroit City Business Directory, Volume II, 1889-1890, page 125 / THF277531

Florists sold cut flowers to satisfy consumers willing to part with hard-earned money on such temporary satisfaction. Many factors influenced their decisions: weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage; brightening a home interior; thanking a host; or treating a sweetheart. Whatever the reason, Breitmeyer and Ford and others responded to the zeal for floral ornamentation.

Black-and-white image of pillow-shaped arrangement of flowers and greenery
Memorial Floral Arrangement, circa 1878 / THF210195

The Michigan Farmer encouraged readers to “bring a few daisies and butter-cups from your last field walk, and keep them alive in a little water; aye, preserve but a branch of clover, or a handful of flower grass—one of the most elegant, as well as cheapest of nature’s productions and you have something on your table that reminds you of the beauties of God’s creation, and gives you a link with the poets and sages that have done it most honor. Put but a rose, or a lily, or a violet, on your table, and you and Lord Bacon have a custom in common.” (July 1863, pg. 32). Though the preferences varied, flowers inside the home were simultaneously a luxury and something that everyday people could afford, and connected them to poets and lords.

Publications encouraged the trade through how-to columns on decorating with flowers. This clipping from the Michigan Farmer explained how to construct a centerpiece featuring cut flowers.

Page with text
Description of simple DIY floral ornaments in the household. Excerpt from Michigan Farmer, August, 1863/64, pg. 84. / Image via HathiTrust

What types of flowers might growers raise to fill their baskets and ornament their tables? The Michigan Farmer indicated that “no garden” should be without dahlias “as a part of its autumn glory” (April 1857, pg. 115) and that growers should “never be without” a Moutan peony (February 1858, pg. 48).

Urban markets featured many more plants and cut flowers to satisfy consumer demand. The Detroit News reported in May 1891 that “tulips of every hue and the modest daisy or bachelor’s button still linger on the stalls, but they are the first floral offerings of the spring, and their day is now about over.” The florists rapidly restocked, filling their southern row of stalls in the vegetable market with “floral radiance and beauty…. The hydrangeas with their pink or snow-white balls; fuchsias, with their bell-like cups and purple hearts; geraniums, in all the colors of the rainbow; the heliotrope, with its light-pink blossom; the begonia, with its wax green leaves; verbenas in pink, purple and white; the marguerite, with its white and yellow star; the kelseloria [Calceolaria] in blushing red or golden yellow; the modest mignonette, with its neutral tints but exquisite perfume; and the blue and fragrant forget-me-not” (“Seen on the Streets,” May 24, 1891).

Florists stood at the ready to satisfy customers’ needs, especially for a beau seeking a bouquet to woo his lover (Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1870). On one occasion, a woman reluctantly bought sunflower seeds and catnip instead of climbers that would make her house look “almost like Paradise,” fearing that this ornamentation would cause the landlord to raise her rent (Detroit Free Press, April 27, 1879). In other instances, men “commissioned” by their wives stopped by the flower stands in Central Market, perusing “roses, pansies, and hyacinth bulbs” (Detroit Free Press, January 10, 1890). 

Men and women crowd around tables displaying potted lilies and cut flowers in an open-air market
Shoppers at Central Market crowd around potted lilies and cut flowers wrapped in paper, undated (BHC glass neg. no. 1911). / Image from Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library (EB02e398)

By the late 19th century, customers had many options to satisfy their appetite for flowers. Many Detroiters purchased their flowers and ornamental plants at the Vegetable Building in Central Market. One huckster turned florist, Mary Judge, engaged customers at her Central Market floral stand with a pretty rose bush for a quarter (not 20 cents, or she’d make no profit), geraniums for 10 cents, or a “beyutiful little flower” for 5 cents (Detroit News, May 24, 1891).

They could also frequent florist shops like John Breitmeyer’s by 1890, or purchase seed from merchants to raise their own. Many reasons motivated them, from satisfying a sweetheart to keeping up with their neighbors’ ornamental plantings. No doubt, beautiful trade cards helped stir up allure and demand for popular garden flowers such as pansies.

Image of large yellow, white, purple, and maroon pansy flowers; also contains text
Trade Card for Pansies Seeds, D. M. Ferry & Co., 1889 / THF298777

The entrepreneurs and florists of the 19th century sowed the seeds for an industry that remains vigorous but is far more globalized. There are botanic stories still to uncover and after centuries of cultivation, these beautiful ornaments still sustain something deeper within us.

Secondary Sources:

Stewart, Amy. Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. Algonquin Books, 2008.

Lyon-Jenness, C. (2004). Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America. Business History Review, 78(3), 381-421. doi:10.2307/25096907


Ayana Curran-Howes is 2021 Simmons Intern at The Henry Ford. Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

entrepreneurship, home life, shopping, farming, agriculture, by Debra A. Reid, by Ayana Curran Howes, Michigan, Detroit, Detroit Central Market, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

Two draft horses pull a machine, ridden by a man, with large wooden toothed rakes, through a wheat field
Harvesting wheat at Firestone Farm / Photo by Lee Cagle.

Every year, the staff of Firestone Farm go into the fields to harvest wheat. Our living history program at Firestone Farm is set in 1885, and because the area of east central Ohio where the farm originates was not an intense grain-raising area, the latest and greatest harvesting technology was generally not in use. As a result, we use a somewhat older technology—a “self-rake reaper.” Our machine was produced by the Johnston Harvester Company out of Batavia, New York, and was built likely in the mid-1880s.

The machine combines a mowing machine (which cuts down the wheat, gathering it on a large wooden bed) with a raking mechanism (which can be adjusted to sweep the accumulated grain stalks off the bed of the machine into measured piles). It has a wonderful robotic action as it makes it way around the field. The machine is pulled by two large horses and the entire mechanism is powered by them.

Piece of large farm equipment, with wooden platform, long wooden beam, and toothed wooden rakes, sitting in wooden barn
Firestone Farm’s Johnston Harvester Co. Self-Rake Reaper, 1878-1900 / THF74908

The loose piles of wheat then need to be gathered up and tied into bundles. In turn, these bundles are stood up on end with other bundles to create a shock or stook. This allows the grain to finish drying before it is stored or stacked for threshing later in the season. (Threshing is the process of separating the grain from the stems, or straw, and the chaff, or the covering of the individual wheat berries.) This is all done by hand—and it takes many hands. Both men and women would have worked together in the field, but before the age of machines (pre-1840s), men typically did the blade work (using sickles, scythes, and grain cradles) and women did the bundling and shocking.

In 1885, each part of the grain harvest was a separate process, using a different machine. Machines that both cut and tied/bundled the grain began to see more common use at the end of the 1880s. These were called binders, and first used wire, then twine, to do this. Eventually, all the harvest processes, including threshing, were “combined” into one step with the advent of the combine. Early versions were horse drawn, but by the 1930s, self-propelled versions began to be used. The final transition took place after World War II as the horse finally was replaced by the tractor on the American farm.

You can get a quick overview of the many steps in wheat production at Firestone Farm in the video below.

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by Jim Johnson, events, agriculture, farming, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

Print of strawberries and strawberry leaves

“Wilson’s Albany Seedling” from D.M. Dewey’s Series of Plates of Fruits, Flowers and Ornamental Trees, 1871-1888. The Chicago Tribune (July 4, 1862) gave a shout-out to Wilson’s Seedling in “A Chapter on Strawberries: How to Eat Them. Features of the Strawberry Market.” / THF148036

We wait patiently for the first field-ripened strawberry of the season. But horticulturalists have tried to reduce this wait-time for decades by selecting strawberry plants that yielded fruit earlier—and fruit that grew bigger, tasted better, and matured to a brilliant scarlet-red color. They planted seeds from these plants, and after consistent yields across generations, then advertised the improved cultivars for sale. Farm families, market gardeners, and horticulturalists purchased, planted, and harvested these plants, and repeated this, season after season.

The first volume of the Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist in 1843 reported on the latest innovations. Editor Daniel D. T. Moore waxed eloquent about “Strawberries -- Large and Luscious!” He described a Michigan-grown fruit as “the largest and most delicious strawberries we have ever before seen or tasted” (July 1, 1843, pg. 76).

That “Large and Luscious” berry had no name. Moore described it as “a native of this State, cultivated.” Subsequent issues of Michigan Farmer, however, specified numerous varieties and their merits. John Burr in Columbus, Ohio, listed six different seedling strawberries for sale in August 1847, just in time for transplanting.  He stressed the large uniform size and sweet flavor of the Ohio Mammoth berry as well as its hardiness. He described a namesake, Burr’s New Pine, as maturing “very early” with a “highly aromatic, sweet and delicious flavor,” concluding that it was “unquestionably the very best strawberry cultivated.” He sold these two seedlings for $2.50 per dozen, while he sold his stalwart, Burr’s Old Seedling, for 50 cents per dozen or $2.00 for 100 (August 23, 1847, pg. 96).

Horticulturalists generated plants suitable to local climates and useful to local market gardeners. The go-to early berry in one place might not transfer well to another growing zone. Sometimes hype did not match performance. James Dougall, a nurseryman living across the Detroit River, south of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, assessed 15 varieties of strawberries for Michigan Farmer subscribers in 1849. He described the Duke of Kent’s Scarlet as “Only valuable as being the earliest strawberry, but not worthy of cultivation in comparison with the large early scarlet which is double the size, and ripens only a few days later” (August 1, 1849).

The public remained eager for the seasonal treat. “And what fruit is more delicious than the strawberry?” wondered Michigan Farmer editor Warren Isham in May 1850. But propagating strawberries required regular replanting, at least every two or three years, to maintain the patch. This sustained a lucrative business for plant breeders and horticulturalists. Colorful illustrations helped them capture the attention of growers, as the illustrations below from horticultural sales books indicate.

Color print of strawberry plant with very large fruit and leaves
Nurseryman’s Specimen Book, 1871-1888, page 58. The Illustrated Strawberry Culturist (1887) described the Cumberland Triumph as “jumbo . . . light bright scarlet. . . flesh pale pink of excellent flavor. Very popular among amateur cultivators of the Strawberry” (page 48). / THF620221

Color print of strawberry plant with large red fruit and green leaves
Nurseryman’s Specimen Book, 1871-1888, page 57. The Illustrated Strawberry Culturist (1887) described the Glendale as “large . . . dull scarlet. . . not first quality, but a valuable late variety for market” (page 49). / THF620220

Color print of strawberry plant with large red fruit and green leaves
Nurseryman’s Specimen Book, 1871-1888, page 56: Miner’s Great Prolific, advertised for 50 cents per dozen. The Illustrated Strawberry Culturist (1887) described the Miner’s Great Prolific as “large to very large. . . deep bright crimson. . . vigorous” and “a popular variety among amateurs as well as those who cultivate Strawberries extensively for market” (page 51). / THF620219

Series of six fold-out cards, each with an image of strawberries and/or strawberry plants
Nurseryman’s Specimen Book, Great Northern Nursery Co., Baraboo, Wisconsin, circa 1900. This specimen book, carried by a salesman, included cloth pages that folded out. Customers could then compare attributes of six berries including: Michel’s Early, Jesse, Warfield No. 2, Splendid, Bederwood, and Parker Earle. / THF620262

As strawberries ripened, growers had to get busy picking and processing the perishable fruit. For farm families, this often meant that all members took their turn picking in their own patches. Families without a strawberry patch, but with a yearning to pick their own, could do so at community gardens or pick-your-own nursery businesses.

Partially colorized black-and-white photo of a woman and man standing next to each other in a field; the woman holds a bowl of strawberries
Ella and Edward Posorek in a Strawberry Field, circa 1932. / THF251170

Growers raising large quantities for market relied on agricultural laborers hired to pick as fast as berries ripened. Two photographs indicate the scale of production on the Atlantic coast, serving Eastern urban markets, and in California, serving Western fresh markets and processor demand.

Black-and-white panoramic photo of people picking strawberries in a field
Picking Strawberries, Charleston, S.C., 1907. This photograph, part of the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, shows the scale of Southern strawberry fields that helped satisfy customer demand in urban coastal markets. / THF624649

Black-and-white photo of people picking strawberries in a field
Japanese Men and Women in the Strawberry Fields, California, 1921-1922. (Note that while this photograph features berry cultivation, it was taken to support an article in the Dearborn Independent attacking Japanese farmers' real status in the fruit-growing industry in California. More information on the photo can be found in our Digital Collections at the link that follows.) / THF624653

Educational materials designed for geography instruction often featured fruits and vegetables. This Keystone View Company stereograph, in tandem with an instructional workbook, oriented teachers to lessons that helped students understand sources of their food supply. In the case of strawberries, students could see a person about their age busy in a strawberry field in Florida, picking a crop that the students might eat on their strawberry shortcake!

Double image of a person picking strawberries in a field
Picking Strawberries in January in Florida, circa 1928. / THF624669

Fresh berries had to be eaten quickly to enjoy them in all their lusciousness. The Chicago Tribune drew readers’ attention to the “luxury” of strawberry shortcake at the height of berry season in that Northern city (July 14, 1857): “Make a large, thick shortcake, split it twice through, and spread with butter and fresh strawberries and sugar, put the parts together again, and serve hot.”

The Chicago Tribune shared two additional recipes in a “how to eat them” feature a few years later (July 4, 1862). The editor recommended starting with a recipe for a very light soda biscuit, baked in a round tin about the size of a dinner plate. Directions continued with instructions to immediately split the baked cake in two or three parts. “Butter each part slightly—spread a thick layer of berries upon one of the slices, then place the other slice over it. . . . Scatter powdered sugar over the berries as they are placed on the slices, and finish by pouring a goodly portion of thick, rich cream upon the berries before the next slice is laid on.”

One last recipe comes from “About Strawberries,” printed in the Detroit Post & Tribune and republished in the True Republican (Sycamore, Illinois). This described the common strawberry shortcake as “a favorite [but] rich” dish. The editor suggested taking “one quart of flour, three tablespoonfuls of butter, one large cup sour cream or rich loppered milk, one egg, one tablespoonful white sugar, one tablespoonful soda dissolved in hot water, and one saltspoonful salt. Rub the salt, butter and flour together; add the soda to the sour milk; stir in the egg and sugar with the milk; put all together, mixing quite soft. Roll lightly and quickly into two sheets, the one intended for the upper crust fully half an inch thick, the lower less than this. Now lay one sheet of paste smoothly upon the other and bake until done. While warm, separate the sheets just where they were joined and lay upon the lower or thick sheet a thick, deep coating of strawberries; then add a coat of powdered sugar and cover with the upper crust . . . serve at tea, cut into triangles and cover with sweet cream and with sugar sprinkled over it. Always send around the powdered sugar and let the guests help themselves” (June 29, 1878).

Readers knew that they could only eat so much shortcake. Yields always outpaced demand. To meet the need, newspaper editors encouraged readers to turn the fruit into jam or preserves before the berries spoiled. Food processors also approached fruit preservation on an industrial scale. The postcard below from the H.J. Heinz Company provides a behind-the-scenes view of women in their work uniforms stemming strawberries as part of the preserve-making process.

Postcard of a large group of women in white aprons and caps sorting strawberries, with large bowls of strawberries in the foreground
Centennial Post Cards 1869-1969. H.J. Heinz Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania / THF291994

Strawberries remain one of the most highly anticipated seasonal fruits. Few compare in taste sensation. In the past as now, however, market opportunities lead growers to pick berries before they ripen to prevent damage in transit. Today, the end of strawberry season in one location means the end of the taste sensation, but not the end of availability for consumers.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Thanks to Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, for editorial advice.

by Debra A. Reid, recipes, agriculture, food

Gray tractor with red wheels and attachments along side and front
McCormick-Deering Farmall Tractor, circa 1925 / THF179719


International Harvester introduced the first commercially successful row-crop tractor, the McCormick-Deering Farmall, in 1924. It represented a whole new approach to farming. Today we think of corn, cotton, soybeans, and other crops as being planted and harvested in long rows, but before the 1920s, farmers often planted crops in a grid pattern on smaller fields, which they cultivated using draft animals and a shovel plow.

As tractor usage increased, farmers were able to reduce the amount of land dedicated to housing and feeding draft animals. On average, farmers could re-purpose five acres of land for every horse that was no longer needed. This increase in usable land for farming provided a powerful incentive for farmers to own a tractor.

The McCormick-Deering Farmall was the first tractor to incorporate small, closely spaced front wheels that could travel between rows, and a high rear axle clearance to straddle the plants. It also included a power “take-off” unit to run machinery like the New Idea corn picker. International Harvester, with its Farmall tractor, overtook Ford Motor Company to lead the nation in tractor sales.

We recently completed some conservation work on the McCormick-Deering Farmall "Regular" tractor (52.38.4), which is on display in the Agriculture and the Environment exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. The Farmall “Regular” has gone through a series of restorations and re-interpretations since it came into our collection in 1952.

Tractor on wood floor in exhibit, surrounded by other equipment
Tractor on wood floor in exhibit, surrounded by other equipment
Before (above) conservation and after (below) 2019 conservation work, with the addition of the Farmall Cultivator No. HM-229 add-on kit and set of metal wheels.

In 2003, a team of volunteers, under the direction of a conservator, began the process of returning the tractor to its 1926 appearance. During this process, most of the newer Farmall red restoration paint layer was removed, as were F-20 parts that were not appropriate to the “Regular” model.

Most recently, we made the decision to retain the 1926 appearance and re-introduce the 1930s Farmall Cultivator No. HM-229 add-on kit, a compatible addition farmers could purchase. To do this, the tractor would need to be painted in appropriate colors. Luckily, our Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, Debra A. Reid, tracked down the manufacturer’s elusive colors: International Harvester Gray and Harvester Blue varnish enamel paint.

Harvester Gray was fortunately documented by Mark Stephenson at McCormick-Deering.com. The Harvester Blue was matched from residual paint on a gang beam that was hidden behind an installed cultivator part. The paint was compared with a manufacturer’s paint chart from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Wooden board with gray-blue and red paint on it
The residual Harvester Blue paint on the Cultivator’s gang beam.

Manual cover with text and image of tractor
To aid in completion of this project, a copy of the manufacturer’s original instruction manual we obtained proved to be an invaluable resource.

Three men wearing blue gloves work on a piece of equipment
Conservation volunteers Doug Beaver, Glen Lysinger, and Jim Yousman put on the cultivator rear track sweep attachment, supported by a high-lift pallet jack.

Small vehicle towing a large gray tractor with red wheels, with a man sitting on the tractor and a couple others walking next to it
Conservation Specialist Andrew Ganem steers the tractor as it is towed by Exhibits Preparator Bernhard Wilson.

Logistics included towing the tractor to its display location at the museum and completing the rest of the assembly onsite in the museum; for ease of movement, the rubber wheels were used to maneuver the tractor into the museum.

Large tire dangling from forklift, being guided by a man kneeling on the ground
Exhibit Preparators Ken Drogowski on the forklift and Jared Wylie on the floor remove one of the 40” x 6” rubber wheels.

Three men stand and kneel around a piece of equipment, holding a red metal tire
The metal wheel gets mounted by Exhibits Preparators Jared Wylie and Neil Reinalda and Conservation Specialist Andrew Ganem.

The rest of the cultivator assembly, which includes gang beams, two rear spring teeth, and ten gang sweeps, was added after the tractor returned to the exhibit area. A set of 25” x 4” front metal wheels and 40” x 6” rear metal wheels replaced the rubber wheels. This process required a methodic approach to safely complete, using forklifts, straps, a watchful eye for concerns and risks, and general tools. Once removed, the set of rubber wheels were returned to collections storage.

This work could not have been completed without the help of staff from the collections management, conservation, curatorial, and exhibits teams at The Henry Ford, as well as our dedicated volunteers Glenn Lysinger, Doug Beaver, Jim Yousman, Larry Wolfe, Harvey Dean, Neil Pike, Deb Luczkowski, Maria Gramer, and Eric Bergman.

Check out the recently conserved tractor and a variety of other agricultural items in the Agriculture exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.


Cuong T. Nguyen is Conservator at The Henry Ford.

farming, Henry Ford Museum, agriculture, by Cuong Nguyen, conservation, collections care, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Machine with multiple rollers arranged in an arch shape with a conveyor belt filled with wool leading up to it

THF91531 (photographed by John Sobczak)

Carding mills became extremely popular in 19th-century America because the machines used in them mechanized the laborious hand process of straightening and combing wool fibers—an important step in preparing yarn and making woolen cloth. Customers were happy to let others handle this incredibly tedious job while using their own skill and creativity to control the final product.

Two wooden paddles
Before carding mills, farm families prepared wool by hand using hand cards like these. / THF183701

Between 1840 and 1880, Michigan farmers raised millions of sheep, whose wool was turned into yarn and woolen goods. The Civil War, especially, caused a demand for wool, as it became the raw material for soldiers’ uniforms. Afterward, while the highest quality woolen broadcloth for men’s clothing was still imported from England, a growing number of wool mills (mostly small and local, but some larger ones, especially in New England) produced lower-end woolen goods like flannel (for work shirts, summer coats, and overcoat linings), men’s and children’s underwear, blankets, and rugs.

Sheep graze on a grass lawn with a white house surrounded by a white picket fence in the background
Sheep graze outside of Henry Ford’s boyhood home in Greenfield Village / THF1937

Farmers who raised large flocks of sheep might sell their raw wool to local merchants or to dealers who shipped it directly to a small wool mill in the local area or a large wool mill in New England. But most farm families raised a modest flock of sheep and spun their own wool into yarn, which they used at home for knitted goods. They might also take their spun yarn or items they knitted to their local general store for credit to purchase other products they needed in the store.

While sawmills and gristmills were the first types of mills established in newly-formed communities, carding mills rapidly became popular—particularly in rural areas where sheep were raised. While the tradition of wool spinning at home continued well into the 19th century, machine carding took the tedious process of hand carding out of the home. Learn more about the mechanization of carding in this blog post.

Etching of machine with multiple rollers arranged in an arch shape; also contains text
Faster and more efficient carding machines replaced traditional carding methods in the 19th century. / THF621302

At the carding mill, raw wool from sheep was transformed into straightened rolls of wool, called rovings—the first step to finished cloth. Faster and more efficient carding machines at these mills replaced the hand cards traditionally used at home (by women and children) for this process. Through the end of the 19th century, carding mills provided this carding service for farm families, meeting the needs of home spinners.

Conveyor belt with wool on it, headed for a machine with a series of large rollers
“Picked” wool that has been loosened and cleaned, ready to be fed into a carding machine / THF91532 (photographed by John Sobczak)

Young Henry Ford was a member one of these farm families. Henry fondly remembered accompanying his father on trips to John Gunsolly’s carding mill (now in Greenfield Village) from their farm in Springwells Township (now part of Dearborn, Michigan)—traveling about 20 miles and waiting to have the sheared wool from his father’s sheep run through the carding machine. There it would be combed, straightened, and shaped into loose fluffy rovings, ready for spinning. The Ford family raised a modest number of sheep (according to the 1880 Agricultural Census, the family raised 13 sheep that year), so they likely brought the rovings back to spin at home, probably for knitting.


Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, making, Henry Ford, home life, agriculture, manufacturing, by Donna R. Braden

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

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

Food Sources


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nutrition

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Extending the Reach

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And need was great.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Food & Freedom

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

thf163072
Microscope Used by George Washington Carver, circa 1900 / THF163072

This microscope, reputedly used by agricultural scientist George Washington Carver during his tenure at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, offers us a closer look at Black empowerment through Black education.

It took training to run educational laboratories, and administrators at Black schools sought qualified faculty to do the job. Booker T. Washington, principal at the private, historically Black Tuskegee Institute, recruited Carver as the one person who could build an agricultural research program comparable to the ones available to whites through other public land-grant institutions. Carver was qualified, having earned a master’s degree in agricultural science in 1896, the first Black American to do so.

Austin W. Curtis, Jr., who assisted Carver in his laboratory between 1935 and Carver’s death in 1943, donated and affirmed Carver's use of this microscope. Through it (and other scientific instruments), Carver documented the molecular structure of organic matter—the plants, fungi, bacteria, soils, and sedimentary material of Alabama and beyond. He translated his findings into how-to pamphlets, sharing strategies that Black families in the South could use to improve their own health and the health of their soils. Carver’s pamphlets also introduced hundreds of new uses for plant-based materials, ranging from livestock feed and medicines to pigments and synthetic polymers.

The highest level of learning requires analysis of original research. This microscope supported that cause while in use at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and it continues to help us focus on Black history.

You can see Carver's microscope for yourself in the Agriculture: Innovations in Farming exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

by Debra A. Reid, education, agriculture, George Washington Carver, African American history, THF Connect app

Three women of color standing and sitting around a table containing canned, boxed, and bagged food items
June Sears, Rosemary Dishman, and Dorothy Ford Discussing Women's Nutrition, May 1970 / THF620081

A food soldier is a person who fights for something many of us take for granted: widespread, consistent access to good nutrition. George Washington Carver can be described in this way and is familiar to us at The Henry Ford for his work with the peanut—and his friendship with our founder. Carver’s impact went deeper, including dozens of agricultural pamphlets designed to convey scientific farming methods to rural Black Americans. Food Soldiers: Nutrition and Race Activism, a new pop-up exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, looks at these pamphlets as a starting point for a topic with a consequential history in the 20th and 21st centuries. From our partners at Focus:HOPE to our Entrepreneur in Residence, Melvin Parson, this exhibit celebrates those who have made it their life’s work to ensure that everyone has the ability to meet this most basic of necessities.

Food Soldiers connects with Black History Month (February) as well as Women’s History Month and Nutrition Month (March). The exhibit is an on-site component to a larger initiative that includes digital and virtual elements. Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, will build upon the themes in her blog post Healthy Food to Build Healthy Communities with one on Food Soldiers in coming weeks. You can also look forward to a live Twitter chat on the topic this month.

Food Soldiers is located near the 1930s kitchen in the museum and will be on view through March 31.

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agriculture, George Washington Carver, events, Henry Ford Museum, by Kate Morland, food, women's history, African American history

Man standing at what appears to be a white wooden beehives, with other similar beehives around him and a building in the background
Detail,
THF278671

An Introduction


Bees—one short name for about 20,000 species of flying insects classified into seven families. All live within social communities that depend on strict work routines; all seek the same food sources (pollen and nectar); and all process their harvest and preserve it in hives built in the ground, in hollow trees, or in human-designed apiaries.

Bees help plants reproduce by facilitating pollination as they search for pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their young. This relationship has long served plants well—DNA research confirms that bees coexisted with flowering plants from their beginning 130 million years ago.

Bees and humans have a much shorter, but more emotional, relationship. As pollinators, bees provide a critical link between humans and their food source: plants. Over millennia, humans domesticated one species of bee, native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, to satisfy their needs—Apis mellifera, the Western or European honeybee. As Europeans colonized North America, they imported honeybees and the crops that honeybees pollinated from the bees’ native ecosystems.

Page with illustrations of bees and text
Illustrations of Apis mellifera, the Western or European honeybee / THF621311

Humans clustered hives of honeybees around orchards, grape arbors, and other areas of intense flowering-plant cultivation to ensure pollination. From the hives, they harvested honey—a natural sweetener that required little processing. The hives also produced honey, pollen, and bee venom, which had medicinal value. Beeswax was used to seal containers, produce candles, and create art. And queens from the hives propagated even more honeybees.

Illustration of small building with five-sided fence around yard and multiple structures holding vines in yard
Group of beehives (apiary) designed for pollinating a grape arbor / THF621283

The Honeybee Hunt


Historically, honey-seeking humans learned to identify the location of an existing hive, usually in a hollow tree trunk. Some “baited” bees by setting out a little honey to attract a bee and following it back to its hive. This involved “lining” a bee—watching until it flew out of sight, moving closer to that location, waiting to see another bee in flight, and repeating the process. In short increments, this led honey-seekers to hives.

To secure their “own” honey supply and facilitate pollination of crops, humans sometimes moved existing hives closer to their gardens, orchards, and clover fields. They also hunted bee swarms. When a colony becomes too large, a queen will “hive off,” leaving with a portion of the hive’s population. (In the meantime, the remaining bees create a new queen to lead the original hive.) The departing bees swarm together near their former home, lingering only temporarily as scout bees search for a new nesting site. The reward for aspiring beekeepers who successfully encourage a swarm to take up residence in a hive of their own choosing is sweet.

Drawing of man with saw on pole sawing a tree limb with a beehive hanging from it
Aspiring beekeepers lured swarms or moved existing hives closer to their crops and kitchens. / THF621285

Housing Honeybees


Beekeepers first mimicked nature, luring swarms of bees into hollow logs much like the tree trunks they’d abandoned. Before long, humans devised prefabricated housing to keep pollinators close to gardens, orchards, and clover fields, and to keep honey close to the kitchen table. These hives, often grouped together in apiaries, took many forms, from simple boxes to highly decorated contrivances.

Wooden stump with rough wooden lid on top
Roughly rectangular wooden box with wooden lid on top
Yellow, drum-shaped form painted with text and decorations, on wooden stool with three legs
Manmade beehives ranged from hollow logs to simple boxes to complex, highly decorated inventions. /
THF177143, THF172336, and THF172095

Some beekeepers made bee “skeps,” hives made of coiled rye straw held in place with a wooden splint, to house bees and protect honey stores. Skeps held real meaning for those who relied on them to house bees and protect honey stores. But bee skeps also took on symbolic meaning rooted in religious associations with worker bees and the biblical beekeeper, Deborah. Over time, skeps came to represent the industry of a productive household and the dependability of workers. Utah, known as “The Beehive State,” even adopted the coiled beehive as its official state symbol.

Woven structure with cylindrical bottom topped with a dome
Some farm families made inexpensive skeps to house bees and protect honey stores. / THF177141

Gold coin with text and illustration of two women in classical robes with other items around them
Medals awarded at the 1882 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition featured a bee skep (at bottom), symbolizing industry. / THF154061

During the mid-19th century, the U.S. Patent Office issued numerous patents for improved beehives. Arguably the most important went to Philadelphia pastor Lorenzo L. Langstroth in 1852 for his “Improved Mode of Constructing Beehives.” Langstroth's enduring contribution to beekeeping came through careful observation. He determined that bees naturally left a space of 3/8” between honeycombs (constructed within the hive to house larvae, honey, and pollen). Langstroth designed a beehive with 3/8” spacing (later coined the “bee space”) between the frames, sides, and bottom. This improved access, allowing beekeepers to remove and replace frames of honeycomb without harming bees, and more easily inspect for bee moth infestation, which could seriously damage a hive. The hive Langstroth devised, along with the guide he first published in 1853, revolutionized beekeeping, and Langstroth-style beehives remain standard today.

Portrait of man wearing glasses, suit, and clerical collar
Lorenzo L. Langstroth’s careful observation of honeybees led to a revolutionary beehive design. / detail, THF621310

Birdhouse-shaped box made out of wooden planks
Careful spacing within Langstroth-style hives improved access for beekeepers and helped protect the bees. / THF172338

In Defense of Native Bees


Because they did not evolve in tandem with native plants, honeybees are not the best pollinators for all crops grown in North America. They seek nectar more than pollen to produce honey, and many plant blossoms do not produce enough nectar to mobilize honeybees. Native bees and other flying insects find blossoms of native plants—including tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, avocadoes, and cranberries—more appealing than do honeybees, and they do a better job of moving pollen from blossom to blossom, ensuring fertilization. As a consequence, many market-garden and truck-farm crops (cabbage, carrots, squash, and melons), berries (strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries), and orchard crops (apples, pears, peaches, and plums) depend on native bees and other pollinators, even as honeybees play their role. All also pollinate crops that livestock eat (buckwheat and clover) and crops that produce fibers we use to make cloth (cotton and flax).

Colorful illustration of yellow pears and rows of trees with mountains in the background, also contains text
Native bees pollinate many food crops, including orchard fruits like pears. / THF293065

Vegetables, fruits, and other agricultural products result from the intimate relationships, millions of years in the making, between bees and the plants they pollinate. When colonists imported honeybees to North America, they introduced direct competition to different genera and species like squash bees, bumblebees, and solitary bees. Even today, humans’ special treatment of honeybees puts native bees at a disadvantage. As the disrupters of natural relationships, humans bear responsibility for creating a balance between honeybees and native species that are too often neglected in popular conversations. While we depend on honeybees for our honey supply, we depend on all pollinators to sustain our food system. To learn more, explore the U.S. Geological Survey’s documentation of native bees at the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, check out this excerpt from Dave Goulson’s “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees,” or browse beekeeping-related artifacts in The Henry Ford’s Digital Collections.


This post was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from several write-ups on bees and beekeeping by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

agriculture, nature, by Saige Jedele, by Debra A. Reid


Man in blue button-down shirt and khaki pants walks along wooden fence with large white banner reading "Coming Soon: The Vegetable Building from Detroit's Central Market"

An amazing thing happened during the spring and summer of 2020, while The Henry Ford was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A group of dedicated individuals formed a new donor society, the Carver-Carson Society, and raised more than six times what was needed to bring back to life the Detroit Central Market in Greenfield Village.

How in the world did they do this?

Well, prior to the pandemic shutdown, The Henry Ford was still $200,000 shy of reaching its $5 million fundraising goal. The Henry Ford has always had big plans for the market, which was built in 1860 and is considered one of the oldest surviving urban farmer's markets of its kind in the country. The Henry Ford's vision is for the market to become a world-class convening center and hub of innovation by attracting farmers, food entrepreneurs and thought leaders to help educate and engage the public on critical issues, including food security, regenerative agriculture and environmental sustainability. That vision was in danger of being significantly delayed when The Henry Ford had to close its doors in March. This all changed when a group of dedicated donors answered the call to support the market project by forming the Carver-Carson Society and creating plans for The Henry Ford's first-ever virtual fundraiser, Farm to Fork.

Screenshot with 1-2 video chat participants in each of four quadrants

On August 20, 2020, Farm to Fork aired live over Vimeo, creating a virtual show filled with interviews, films, cooking demonstrations and engaging conversations. The event was co-chaired by Emily Ford, Lauren Bush Lauren and The Henry Ford's president and CEO, Patricia Mooradian, and raised over $800,000. This thought-provoking and entertaining event helped not only to cross the fundraising finish line but to surpass its original goal.

One of the highlights was the first Carver-Carson Conversation, featuring an intimate conversation moderated by Debra Reid, curator of agriculture and the environment. Special guest panelists included legendary chef and restaurateur Alice Waters; her daughter, designer and author Fanny Singer; event co-chair Lauren Bush Lauren; and Melvin Parson, a community farmer and The Henry Ford's first Entrepreneur in Residence. Their lively discussion touched on important issues around food security, food equity, regenerative farming and the need for local food environments and farmers. We plan to have many more Carver-Carson Conversations, both virtually and in person, in the future.

Woman seated and man standing in front of a curved screen or backdrop
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Detroit Central Market, The Henry Ford Effect, philanthropy, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, food, COVID 19 impact, agriculture