Farm wagon with horse and driver, 1911–1915. / THF200478
During the Carriage Era, while large American cities were crowded with horses, rural areas had fewer animals—but horses were just as important. In the country, horses were much less likely to be used for hauling people and more likely to pull farm equipment, such as plows and reapers, or to haul wagons loaded with hay, grain, cotton, or freight.
In large parts of the South, mules (the offspring of male donkeys and female horses) were preferred over horses. Mules are sterile and so cannot reproduce on their own, but live longer than horses. Southerners believed that mules withstood heat better than horses, though they are smaller and weaker than the large draft-horse breeds. Unlike horses, mules will refuse to be overworked. Their famous “stubbornness” is in reality a self-preservation method—when tired, they simply stop and will not resume their labor until their energy is restored.
Uses for Horse-Drawn Vehicles in the Country
At the beginning of the 19th century, rural horses were primarily employed in tilling the soil, pulling plows, harrows, and cultivators. But later in the century, inventive minds rolled out a steady stream of new farm equipment—reapers, rakes, binders, mowers, seed drills, and manure spreaders. Implements that could be pulled with one or two horses gave way to four-horse plows, eight-horse disc harrows, and giant combines pulled by 25 mules. In addition, every farmer needed one or more wagons for hauling crops to market or supplies from town.
For much of the 19th century, most farmers could not afford vehicles whose only purpose was hauling people. The family could always ride in a wagon. But by mid-century, light people-hauling buggies were cheap enough for some to afford. Mechanization caused their price to fall steadily, so that by the end of the century, one could mail-order a buggy from Sears or Montgomery Ward for $25. Well before Henry Ford’s Model T automobile, cheap carriages whetted people’s appetites for inexpensive personal transportation that did not depend on public conveyances running on fixed routes and fixed schedules.
Milton Bryant with his nephew, Edsel Ford, in a typical farm buggy, 1894. / THF204970
A good deal of commercial transportation also moved through the countryside. Stagecoaches carried passengers between towns and cities. Freight wagons hauled goods from depots to towns not served by railroads. Commodities like kerosene were distributed by wagon.
Horse-Drawn Country Vehicle Highlights from The Henry Ford’s Collection
This is a typical, all-purpose farm wagon with a basic square-box body and a seat mounted on leaf springs. Wagons like these were usually drawn by two horses, and thousands were made by many companies across the country. Franz Eilerman of Shelby County, Ohio, bought this particular wagon, which is on exhibit in Agriculture and the Environment in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, in 1902 for his son, Henry.
This wagon, used in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, is an example of a special purpose wagon. It has flared sides to increase its load-carrying capacity and includes tall end racks, called “hay ladders,” to assist in tying down large loads of hay. In a horse-powered world, hay was an essential crop. While much hay was used on farms, huge quantities were also transported to cities on wagons like this and sold at central hay markets.
Buckboard Used by the Dr. George E. Woodbury Family, circa 1885
The buckboard is an American innovation. It is essentially a pair of axles connected by springy floorboards mounting a seat. The floorboards provide a springing action in place of a heavier, more complex spring system. Buckboards were developed in the first third of the 19th century and could carry both people and goods. This rather elaborate buckboard with a pair of seats was used by a Massachusetts physician, Dr. George E. Woodbury, and was drawn by two horses.
Mail Wagon Used for Rural Delivery in Missouri, circa 1902
One of the major innovations that helped break down rural isolation was Rural Free Delivery (RFD), instituted by the Post Office Department in 1896. Prior to 1896, farmers had to pick up their mail at the post office. Rural mail carriers were required to provide their own vehicles, and many chose light mail wagons like this one. Its wood and canvas construction keeps its weight down, and it features pigeonholes for sorting mail. It is even outfitted with a coal-burning stove to keep the mail carrier warm in winter. This wagon was used by August Edinger to deliver mail in Kimmswick, Missouri, from 1902 to 1925. In 1925, he bought a Model T Ford and retired his horse-drawn wagon.
Oil Tank Wagon for Standard Oil Company, circa 1892
Standard Oil of Indiana used wagons like this one to distribute kerosene and lubricating oils throughout the Midwest. By 1902, some 6,000 such wagons plied the rural roads. This two-horse wagon served the region of Michigan between Chicago and Detroit.
The pleasure wagon is an American innovation developed in the early 19th century. The idea was to create a light wagon suitable for carrying both people and goods. The seat is mounted on long pieces of wood that serve as springs; the seat can be removed to increase the carrying capacity. The wagon is suspended on leather thoroughbraces and is highly decorated with paint. It was drawn by a single horse.
Horses had to be trained to pull vehicles and farm implements. A whole class of vehicles called breaks was created for this purpose. Individual farmers would likely not have breaks, but breeders would have them so they could break their animals to the harness before selling them.
This vehicle takes its name from its purpose—to break, train, and exercise pairs and teams of carriage horses. Heavily built, to give animals the feel of a heavy carriage, it can also stand the abuse that unruly horses might give it. An unbroken horse was usually matched with a steady, reliable horse during training.
Lighter and less expensive than the more famous Concord coach, stage wagons served much the same purpose. They carried passengers and mail over designated rural routes on a regular schedule. This one ran between Julian, a California mining town, and Foster Station, where passengers caught a train for the 25-mile trip to San Diego. This wagon was pulled by two, possibly four, horses.
Not all horse power was used to pull vehicles. With the aid of treadmills, sweeps, and whims, horses could become portable motors for powering sugar cane mills, threshers, corn shellers, small grain elevators and so forth. This two-horse model of treadmill, on exhibit in the Soybean Lab Agricultural Gallery in Greenfield Village, is typical: The horses walked on an endless belt, turning wheels that could power machines.
An example of the light, relatively cheap passenger vehicles that appeared in the last quarter of the 19th century, this runabout features James B. Brewster’s patented sidebar suspension and extremely light, steam-bent hickory wheels. It exemplifies the light construction that came to characterize American carriages, weighing just 96 pounds. It was pulled by a single horse.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
In the years before automobiles, American cities relied on horses and horse-drawn vehicles to move people, freight, money, and information. In this photograph, taken around 1875, horses pull carriages, buggies, and wagons along a commercial Detroit street. / THF98844
American cities in the 18th and 19th centuries, the height of the Carriage Era, were horse- powered. Relatively few individual city dwellers owned horses because the animals were expensive to keep, but freight and passengers moved through cities pulled by horses. By the 1840s, American cities were filled with horse-drawn omnibuses, street railways, stagecoaches, and delivery vehicles. Census data for the 19th century did not include horses, but as late as 1900, Manhattan had 130,000 horses; Chicago, 74,000; Philadelphia, 51,000; and St. Louis, 32,000.
The Impact of Urban Horses
The life of horses in the cities was not pleasant. One traffic analyst estimated that a city horse would fall on average every 96 miles it traveled. In the 1880s, the New York City Sanitation Department was removing 15,000 dead horses from the street each year. Living horses deposited between 800,000 and 1,300,000 pounds of manure each day, along with thousands of gallons of urine. The filth made city streets unpleasant and unhealthful.
Dead horses, like this one in New York City in the first decade of the 20th century, were not uncommon on urban streets during the Carriage Era. / THF100882
A perhaps surprising result of the importance of horses in urban life is that cities, not farms, gave rise to modern veterinary medicine. In 1850, only 46 Americans called themselves veterinarians, but 26 of those lived in New York City. Most of these individuals were not trained in schools but were folk practitioners who relied on traditional methods. A series of equine epidemics during and after the Civil War that swept through crowded urban stables spurred efforts to improve veterinary knowledge. The American Veterinary College, affiliated with Columbia University, was the first scientific veterinary school in the United States. Veterinarians adopted Louis Pasteur’s new germ theory of disease more quickly than did doctors who practiced on humans. By 1890, there were 6,954 veterinarians, almost all located in big cities.
In the end, the combination of electric streetcars and gasoline-powered motor vehicles drove the majority of horses from cities.
Residents of New York’s Fifth Avenue opposed streetcar lines, claiming the vehicles were too quick and quiet to safely share the street with pedestrians and horse-drawn traffic. As an alternative, the Fifth Avenue Coach Company ran omnibuses like this one, pictured circa 1900–1906. / THF203322
Horse-drawn omnibuses were the first great public conveyances in American cities. The first omnibus was used in New York in 1831, and within a few years, omnibuses had been adopted in Philadelphia, Boston, and other cities. Omnibuses were generally highly decorated to make them visible to potential riders. They were functional, but the rough nature of city streets made them hard on both horses and passengers. A contemporary observer in the New York Herald noted that “modern martyrdom may be succinctly described as riding in a New York omnibus.”
The great improvement over the omnibus was the horse railway. Iron wheels on iron rails provided an easier pull for the horse and a smoother ride for the passengers. Again, New York led the way in 1832, and by the 1850s, horsecars had spread to Boston and other cities. Horse-powered railways helped reshape American cities, allowing people to move farther from their place of work, which then facilitated the growth of suburbs. As city centers gradually emptied of residences, they became devoted to business. The modern pattern of separate business and residential neighborhoods can be traced to the horse railway.
Alternatives to the crowded omnibuses and horsecars were the ancestors of today’s taxicabs—four-wheeled vehicles called hacks and two-wheeled vehicles called cabs. New York issued its first hack license in 1692. Though more expensive than omnibuses and horsecars, hacks and cabs offered greater convenience and privacy for those who could afford the ride.
A taxicab driver petitions a would-be customer by pointing to the threat of rain in this cartoon from 1846. Light, two-wheel hansom cabs, like the one in this illustration, emerged in the 1830s. / THF204288
Because of the cost of keeping horses, ownership of private vehicles was not widespread. However, wealthy city dwellers could afford both the horses and the coaches, and vied with one another for the most stylish, fashionable “turnouts.” But most citizens, if they wished to drive a vehicle themselves, resorted to livery stables, where horses and simple buggies or gigs could be rented.
One-horse delivery wagons were common on American streets from the late 19th century into the 20th. While all delivery wagons shared the same basic layout, more refined versions featured wood panels instead of duck cloth around the cargo area, or wood panels with glass alongside the driver's seat. This circa 1908–1912 wagon from our collection was used by the J.A. Peters company, a meat retailer and wholesaler in Detroit. / THF188029
All manner of goods had to be moved into, out of, and within cities. Coal, oil, beer, hay, milk, machinery—the list is endless. The vehicles that moved these goods probably constituted the majority of vehicles in the urban traffic mix. In large cities, department stores owned sizable fleets of vehicles and herds of horses in order to meet the demand for home delivery of purchases. For example, in 1875, Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store owned 50 wagons and 100 horses. Delivery vehicles were often especially well turned out, so as to reflect well on the owners. No customer of Marshall Field’s wanted a grubby van pulled by a broken-down horse showing up to drop off a fashionable dress or piece of furniture.
Cole Brothers produced about 60 horse-drawn steam fire engines in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, from 1867 to 1880. Simple and rugged, this example from our collections could pump about 550 to 600 gallons of water per minute. / THF188103
One of the smallest, but most romantic, groups of horse-drawn city vehicles was fire-fighting vehicles. The earliest fire vehicles were pulled by the volunteer firemen themselves, who also supplied the manpower to operate the pumps. When much heavier steam-powered fire pumps were developed, they required horses to pull them. Special harnesses were developed for firehouse use that could be quickly installed on the horses, allowing fire vehicles to leave the station within 20 seconds of receiving the alarm. Fire horses were among the best cared-for horses in the city.
More Horse-Drawn City Vehicle Highlights from The Henry Ford’s Collection
The horse railway is an American innovation. Its distinctive appearance is rooted in practical considerations. The inward curve of the lower sides allows the use of shorter, and therefore lighter, axles. The spoked wheels are also lighter than solid wheels. The raised clerestory roof is raised only over the center of the car, not where passengers sit along the side. This lowers the weight of the car, so the horse pulls more paying passengers and less dead weight. The clerestory is lit with colored glass, and the endpoints of the car’s route are clearly painted, for the benefit of potential riders. This car is a small one, intended to carry only 15 passengers and to be pulled by a single horse. It was used by the Brooklyn City Railroad between 1881 and 1897. In 1892, the railroad had 142 horse-drawn cars serviced by 5,500 horses.
Chariot Made by William Ross for Angelica Campbell, 1792–1802
One of a handful of 18th-century American carriages that have survived unrestored, this is a magnificent example of a vehicle intended for showing off. Chariots were closed vehicles that held only two people and were driven by coachmen. This one was built for Angelica Bratt Campbell, whose husband, Daniel, was one of the richest men in New York state. It features silver-plated trim, rich carvings, stylish C-spring suspension, and an interior trimmed in leather, baize, coach lace, and silk. It should be noted that the C-springs, while visually quite striking, actually put more load on the horse when putting the chariot in motion from a standing start. Two horses pulled this chariot.
Landau, Made for Abram and Sarah Hewitt of New York, 1890
Over 90 years newer than Angelica Campbell’s chariot, this landau reflects changes in taste, style, and methods of manufacture. Its lines are sharper and squarer, but the wheels and undercarriage are also lighter than those of the chariot. Its beauty depends more on its well-drafted shape than on applied ornament. Even though the landau is a very expensive vehicle, it was built utilizing powered machinery and many standard parts, rather than handmade like the chariot.
The landau was made by Brewster & Company of Broome Street, New York City, perhaps the most famous of American carriage makers. James Brewster established a small carriage shop in 1804 and taught the trade to his sons Henry and James B. The brothers each set up their own company, but James’s business faltered in the late 1890s. Brewster & Company of Broome Street was Henry’s enterprise, and it survived into the 20th century under the leadership of his son William. This Brewster landau was owned by wealthy industrialist and mayor of New York Abram Hewitt.
Wealthy New Yorker Henry Bergh was appalled at the often cruel, callous treatment of horses, which were often merely considered a means of turning food into money. Inspired by anti-cruelty groups in London and Paris, Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 1866. The organization aimed to speak for all animals, but its focus was initially on horses. It successfully lobbied for anti-cruelty laws, and Bergh himself often chastised teamsters who mistreated horses, sometimes making a citizen’s arrest.
Bergh also designed an ambulance for hauling injured horses or for removing dead ones. It featured a movable floor that could be cranked out and slid underneath a downed horse. The ambulance was eventually adopted by other anti-cruelty organizations and veterinarians. This one was used by Detroit veterinarian Dr. Elijah E. Patterson, who practiced from 1890 to 1940. It is set up to be pulled by two (healthy) horses.
The two-wheeled hansom cab was developed in England in the 1830s but was not adopted in American cities until the 1880s. Having only two wheels allowed the vehicle to be pulled by only one horse. The driver sat outside, perched above the back of the cab, giving him an excellent view of the street and of any potential customers at the curb. Although named after its originator, a Mr. Hansom, the cab is also a “handsome” vehicle, with C-springs, round windows, and large carriage lights. People occasionally also purchased hansom cabs for private use. Chicago industrialist Joseph Thatcher Torrence owned this example.
Brewers used vehicles like this one to deliver kegs of beer to taverns. The wagon is heavily constructed to bear the weight of the kegs. The brewer fully utilized what little space is on the wagon for advertising. At the rear of the vehicle is a half-round metal back with a 10-pointed star, painted in yellow and black on a blue ground with yellow and black trim. The undercarriage is red with black and yellow striping. At least two horses, perhaps four, pulled this heavy wagon. They would have been carefully matched and outfitted so as to give any observers the best possible impression of the brewery.
This hearse was designed to carry the deceased to the cemetery in dignity and style. It features large oval glass sides through which the casket could be seen, along with curved glass doors at the rear. It has a pair of large, silver-plated lamps at the front and other silver trim inside. Two horses drew this hearse.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
In this country of “magnificent distances,” we are all, more or less, according to the requirements of either business or pleasure, concerned in the use of riding vehicles.
— The New York Coach-Maker’s Magazine, volume 2, number 4, 1860
This print, circa 1875, depicts a variety of horse-drawn vehicles available from Frank D. Fickinger, a manufacturer in Ashtabula, Ohio. / THF288907
The period from the late 17th century until the first decades of the 20th century has been called by many transportation historians the “Carriage Era.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, carriages were extremely expensive to own and maintain and consequently were scarce. Because roads were poor and vehicle suspension systems rather primitive, riding in a carriage or wagon was not very comfortable. As the 19th century advanced, industrialization profoundly affected the production, design, and use of horse-drawn vehicles. In the United States, the combination of industrialization and the ingenuity of individual vehicle designers and makers made possible the production of a wide range of vehicles—some based on European styles, but many developed in the United States.
The Horse as a Living Machine
The horse is looked on as a machine, for sentiment pays no dividend.
— From W.J. Gordon, The Horse World of London, 1893
Horses pulling a carriage filled with people start as a dog barks, in this circa 1893 trade card for Eureka Harness Oil and Boston Coach Axle Oil. / THF214647
For most of the Carriage Era, business owners regarded horses primarily as machines whose principal value was in the profits that could be derived from their labor. One pioneer of modern breeding, Robert Bakewell, said that his goal was to find the best animal for turning food into money.
The vehicles themselves really make up only half of the machine. The other half, the half that makes the carriage or wagon useful, is the horse itself. In engineering terms, the horse is the “prime mover.” Thinking of a vehicle and a horse as two parts of the same machine raises many questions, such as:
What sort of physical connection is needed between the horse and the vehicle? How do we literally harness the power of the horse?
How do we connect more than one horse to a vehicle?
How is the horse controlled? How does the driver get him to start, stop, and change direction?
How are vehicles designed to best take advantage of the horse’s capabilities?
Assuming the same weight, are some vehicle styles or types harder to pull than others?
Are horses bred for specific purposes or for pulling specific types of vehicles?
How much work can a horse do?
But despite what horse owners of the Carriage Era thought, horses are not merely machines—they are living, sentient beings. They have minds of their own, they feel pain, they get sick, and they experience fear, excitement, hunger, and fatigue. Today we would blanch at regarding the horse as simply a means of turning food into money.
The Aesthetic Dimension and Uniquely American Traits of Horse-Drawn Vehicles
A carriage is a complex production. From one point of view it is a piece of mechanism, from another a work of art.
—Henry Julian, “Art Applied to Coachbuilding,” 1884
Kentucky governor J. C. W. Beckham is among the party aboard this horse-drawn coach at the 27th running of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville in 1901. / THF203336
Horse-drawn vehicles were created with aesthetic as well as practical objectives. Aesthetics were asserted with the broadest connotation, expressing social position, concepts of beauty, elevation of sensibility, and the more formal attributes of design and details of construction. Horse-drawn vehicles traveled at slow speeds—from 4 to 12 miles per hour. This allowed intense scrutiny, as evidenced by 19th-century sources ranging from etiquette books to newspaper articles. From elegant coaches to colorful commercial vehicles, pedestrians and the equestrian audience alike judged aesthetics, design, and detail. In many respects, carriages were an extension of a person, like their clothes.
During the 19th century, there were many arenas for owners to display their horse-drawn vehicles. New York’s Central Park included roads designed for carriages. Central Park was a work of landscape art, and architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux saw elegant horse-drawn vehicles as essential, mobile parts of that landscape. Other cities developed similar parks on a smaller scale. But a park was not necessary—any street or road was an opportunity to show off.
Horse-drawn vehicles carry passengers through New York’s Central Park around 1900. / THF203316
Central to horse-drawn vehicle aesthetics was the “turnout.” This meant not only the vehicle itself, but also the horses, the harness, the drivers, and often the passengers. Horses were chosen to harmonize with the size and color of the vehicle, and their harness, the drivers’ uniforms, and even the passengers’ clothes were expected to harmonize as well.
Elegant turnout was not limited to the carriages of the rich. Businesses knew that their vehicles sent a message about the business itself. A smartly turned-out delivery wagon or brewery wagon told everyone that the company that owned the vehicle and team was a quality operation. Even the owner of a simple buggy could make an impression by hitching up a good-looking horse and wearing his best clothes.
These purveyors of “table luxuries” in New York, circa 1890–1915, used a horse-drawn vehicle that showed off their products—both via artwork on their wagon and via the goods themselves. / THF38079
Many things influenced the styling of vehicles. In the United States, one of the unexpected influences was natural resources. The country had abundant supplies of strong, light wood, like hickory. After 1850, more and more hickory began to be used in vehicles. American vehicles gradually took on a lighter, more spidery look, characterized by thin wheels and slim running gear. European observers were astonished at how light American vehicles were. Many American vehicles also moved away from smooth curves to adopt a sharper, more angular look. This had nothing to with function. It was simply an expression of fashion.
Diversity of Vehicle Types
When Alfred Sloan used the words, “A Car for Every Purse and Purpose,” he was describing General Motors’ goal of making a range of automobiles that filled every need and fit every budget. But substitute “horse-drawn vehicle” for “car,” and the statement could apply to the Carriage Era.
The sheer variety of horse-drawn vehicles is astonishing. There were elegant private carriages, closed and open, designed to be driven by professional drivers. At the other end of the scale were simple, inexpensive buggies, traps, road wagons, pony carts, and buckboards, all driven by their owners. Most passenger vehicles had four wheels, but some, like chaises, gigs, sulkies, and hansom cabs, had only two wheels. Commercial passenger vehicles included omnibuses, stagecoaches, and passenger wagons that came in several sizes and weights. Horse railway cars hauled people for decades before giving way to electrically powered streetcars.
This horse-drawn streetcar, or “horsecar,” circa 1890, traveled over fixed rails on set schedules, delivering residents of Seattle to and from places of work, shops, and leisure destinations. / THF202625
Work vehicles included simple drays for hauling heavy cargo, as well as freight wagons like the Conestoga and its lighter cousin, the prairie schooner. Delivery vehicles came in many sizes and shapes, from heavy beer wagons to specialized dairy wagons. Horses drew steam-powered fire engines and long ladder trucks. Bandwagons and circus wagons were familiar adjuncts to popular entertainments, and hearses carried people to their final reward. Ambulances carried people to hospitals, and specially constructed horse ambulances carried injured horses to the vet—or perhaps to slaughter if the injury was grave enough.
In the Carriage Era, horse-drawn hearses like this one, photographed in 1897, delivered the coffins of the deceased to their final resting places. / THF210197
On the farm, wagons came in many different sizes and were part of a range of vehicles that included manure spreaders, reapers, binders, mowers, seed drills, cultivators, and plows. Huge combines required 25 to 30 horses each. Rural vehicles often featured removable seats so they could do double duty, hauling both people and goods. Special vehicles called breaks were used to train horses to pull carriages and wagons. In winter weather, a large variety of sleighs was available, and many vehicles could be adapted to the snow by the substitution of runners for wheels.
This farmer’s wagon, with an open body and no driver's seat, was simple, but handy—it could readily haul this load of bagged seed or grain. / THF200482
In a series of forthcoming blog posts, we’ll look more closely at some of these very specific uses of horse-drawn transport, along with examples from our collections.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
Henry Ford’s first official Ford Motor Company portrait, 1904. / THF97952
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. But more than any other single individual, he was responsible for transforming the automobile from an invention of unknown utility into an innovation that profoundly shaped the 20th century and continues to affect the 21st.
Innovators change things. They take new ideas—sometimes their own, sometimes other people’s—and develop and promote those ideas until they become an accepted part of daily life. Innovation requires self-confidence, a taste for taking risks, leadership ability, and a vision of what the future should be. Henry Ford had all these characteristics, but it took him many years to develop all of them fully.
Portrait of the Innovator as a Young Man
Ford’s beginnings were perfectly ordinary. He was born on his father’s farm in what is now Dearborn, Michigan, on July 30, 1863. At this time, most Americans were born on farms, and most looked forward to being farmers themselves. Early on, Ford demonstrated some of the characteristics that would make him successful. In his family, he became infamous for taking apart his siblings’ toys as well as his own. He organized other boys to build rudimentary waterwheels and steam engines. He learned about full-size steam engines by becoming acquainted with the engines’ operators and pestering them with questions. He taught himself to fix watches and used the watches themselves as textbooks to learn the basics of machine design. Thus, at an early age, Ford demonstrated curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, the capacity for leadership, and a preference for learning by trial and error. These characteristics would become the foundation of his whole career.
Artist Irving Bacon depicted Henry Ford in his first workshop, along with friends, in this 1938 painting. / THF152920
Ford could simply have followed in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. But young Henry was fascinated by machines and was willing to take risks to pursue that fascination. In 1879, he left the farm to become an apprentice at a machine shop in Detroit. Over the next few years, he held jobs at several places, sometimes moving when he thought he could learn more somewhere else. He returned home in 1882 but did little farming. Instead, he operated and serviced portable steam engines used by farmers, occasionally worked in factories in Detroit, and cut and sold timber from 40 acres of his father’s land.
By now, Ford was demonstrating another characteristic—a preference for working on his own rather than for somebody else. In 1888, Ford married Clara Bryant, and in 1891 they moved to Detroit. Ford had taken a job as night engineer for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company—another risk on his part, because he did not know a great deal about electricity at this point. He took the job in part as an opportunity to learn.
Henry Ford (third from left, in white coat) with other employees at Edison Illuminating Company Plant, November 1895. / THF244633
Early Automotive Experiments: Failure and Then Success
Henry was a skilled student, and by 1896 had risen to chief engineer of the Illuminating Company. But he had other interests. He became one of the scores of other people working in barns and small shops trying to make horseless carriages. Ford read about these other efforts in magazines, copying some of the ideas and adding some of his own, and convinced a small group of friends and colleagues to help him. This resulted in his first primitive automobile, the Quadricycle, completed in 1896. A second, more sophisticated car followed in 1898.
Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle Runabout, the first car he built. / THF90760
Ford now demonstrated one of his most important characteristics—the ability to articulate a vision and convince other people to sign on and help him achieve that vision. He convinced a group of businessmen to back him in the biggest risk of his life—starting a company to make horseless carriages. But Ford knew nothing about running a business, and learning by doing often involves failure. The new company failed, as did a second.
To revive his fortunes, Ford took bigger risks, building and even driving a pair of racing cars. The success of these cars attracted additional financial backers, and on June 16, 1903, just before his 40th birthday, Henry incorporated his third automobile venture, the Ford Motor Company.
The early history of Ford Motor Company illustrates another of Henry Ford’s most valuable traits—his ability to identify and attract outstanding talent. He hired a core of young, highly competent people who would stay with him for years and make Ford Motor Company into one of the world’s great industrial enterprises.
Print of Norman Rockwell's painting, "Henry Ford in First Model A on Detroit Street." / THF288551
The new company’s first car was called the Model A, and a variety of improved models followed. In 1906, Ford’s 4-cylinder, $600 Model N became the best-selling car in the country. But by this time, Ford had a vision of an even better, cheaper “motorcar for the great multitude.” Working with a small group of employees, he came up with the Model T, introduced on October 1, 1908.
The Automobile: A Solution in Search of a Problem
As hard as it is for us to believe, in 1908 there was still much debate about exactly what automobiles were good for. We may see them as a necessary part of daily life, but the situation in 1908 was very different. Americans had arranged their world to accommodate the limits of the transportation devices available to them. People in cities got where they wanted to go by using electric street cars, horse-drawn cabs, bicycles, and shoe leather because all the places they wanted to go were located within reach of those transportation modes.
This Boston street scene, circa 1908, shows pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages on the road—but no cars. / THF203438
Most of the commercial traffic in cities still moved in horse-drawn vehicles. Rural Americans simply accepted the limited travel radius of horse- or mule-drawn vehicles. For long distances, Americans used our extensive, well-developed railroad network. People did not need automobiles to conduct their daily activities. Rather, the people who bought cars used them as a new means of recreation. They drove them on joyrides into the countryside. The recreational aspect of these early cars was so important that people of the time divided motor vehicles into two large categories: commercial vehicles, like trucks and taxicabs, and pleasure vehicles, like private automobiles. The term “passenger cars” was still years away. The automobile was an amazing invention, but it was essentially an expensive toy, a plaything for the rich. It was not yet a true innovation.
Henry Ford had a wider vision for the automobile. He summed it up in a statement that appeared in 1913 in the company magazine, Ford Times:
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
This 1924 Ford ad, part of a series, echoes the vision expressed 11 years earlier by Henry Ford: “Back of all of the activities of the Ford Motor Company is this Universal idea—a wholehearted belief that riding on the people’s highway should be in easy reach of all the people.” / THF95501
It was this vision that moved Henry Ford from inventor and businessman to innovator. To achieve his vision, Ford drew on all the qualities he had been developing since childhood: curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, leadership, a preference for learning by trial and error, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to identify and attract talented people.
One Innovation Leads to Another
Ford himself guided a design team that created a car that pushed technical boundaries. The Model T’s one-piece engine block and removable cylinder head were unusual in 1908 but would eventually become standard on all cars. The Ford’s flexible suspension system was specifically designed to handle the dreadful roads that were then typical in the United States. The designers utilized vanadium alloy steel that was stronger for its weight than standard carbon steel. The Model T was lighter than its competitors, allowing its 20-horsepower engine to give it performance equal to that of more expensive cars.
1908 advertisement for the 1909 Ford Model T. In advertisements, Ford Motor Company emphasized key technological features and the low prices of their Model Ts. Ford's usage of vanadium steel enabled the company to make a lighter, sturdier, and more reliable vehicle than other early competitors. / THF122987
The new Ford car proved to be so popular that Henry could easily sell all he could make, but he wanted to be able to make all he could sell. So Ford and his engineers began a relentless drive both to raise the rate at which Model Ts could be produced and to lower the cost of production.
In 1910, the company moved into a huge new factory in Highland Park, a city just north of Detroit. Borrowing ideas from watchmakers, clockmakers, gunmakers, sewing machine makers, and meat processors, Ford Motor Company had, by 1913, developed a moving assembly line for automobiles. But Ford did not limit himself to technical improvements.
When his workforce objected to the relentless, repetitive work that the line entailed, Ford responded with perhaps his boldest idea ever—he doubled wages to $5 per day. With that one move, he stabilized his workforce and gave it the ability to buy the very cars it made. He hired a brilliant accountant named Norval Hawkins as his sales manager. Hawkins created a sales organization and advertising campaign that fueled potential customers’ appetites for Fords. Model T sales rose steadily while the selling price dropped. By 1921, half the cars in America were Model Ts, and a new one could be had for as little as $415.
Norval Hawkins headed the sales department at Ford Motor Company for 12 years, introducing innovative advertising techniques and increasing Ford’s annual sales from 14,877 vehicles in 1907 to 946,155 in 1919. / THF145969
Through these efforts, Ford turned the automobile from an invention bought by the rich into a true innovation available to a wide audience. By the 1920s, largely as a result of the Model T’s success, the term “pleasure car” was fading away, replaced by “passenger car.”
The assembly line techniques pioneered at Highland Park spread throughout the auto industry and into other manufacturing industries as well. The high-wage, low-skill jobs pioneered at Highland Park also spread throughout the manufacturing sector. Advertising themes pioneered by Ford Motor Company are still being used today. Ford’s curiosity, leadership, mechanical ability, willingness to take risks, ability to attract talented people, and vision produced innovations in transportation, manufacturing, labor relations, and advertising.
What We Have Here Is a Failure to Innovate
Henry Ford was slow to admit that customers no longer wanted the Model T. However, in 1927, he finally acknowledged that shift, and Henry Ford and his son, Edsel Ford, drove this last Model T—number 15,000,000—off the assembly line at Highland Park. / THF135450
Henry Ford’s great success did not necessarily bring with it great wisdom. In fact, his very success may have blinded him as he looked to the future. The Model T was so successful that he saw no need to significantly change or improve it. He did authorize many detail changes that resulted in lower cost or improved reliability, but there was never any fundamental change to the design he had laid down in 1907.
He was slow to adopt innovations that came from other carmakers, like electric starters, hydraulic brakes, windshield wipers, and more luxurious interiors. He seemed not to realize that the consumer appetites he had encouraged and fulfilled would continue to grow. He seemed not to want to acknowledge that once he started his company down the road of innovation, it would have to keep innovating or else fall behind companies that did innovate. He ignored the growing popularity of slightly more expensive but more stylish and comfortable cars, like the Chevrolet, and would not listen to Ford executives who believed it was time for a new model.
But Model T sales were beginning to slip by 1923, and by the late 1920s, even Henry Ford could no longer ignore the declining sales figures. In 1927, he reluctantly shut down the Model T assembly lines and began the design of an all-new car. It appeared in December 1927 and was such a departure from the old Ford that the company went back to the beginning of the alphabet for a name—it was called the Model A.
Edsel and Henry Ford introduce the new Model A at the Ford Industrial Exposition in New York in January 1928. Edsel had worked to convince his father to replace the outmoded Model T with something new. / THF91597
One area where Ford did keep innovating was in actual car production. In 1917, he began construction of a vast new plant on the banks of the Rouge River southwest of Detroit. This plant would give Ford Motor Company complete control over nearly all aspects of the production process. Raw materials from Ford mines would arrive on Ford boats, and would be converted into iron and steel, which were transformed into engines, transmissions, frames, and bodies. Glass and tires would be made onsite as well, and all of this would be assembled into completed cars. Assembly of the new Model A was transferred to the Rouge. Eventually the plant would employ 100,000 people and generate many innovations in auto manufacturing.
But improvements in manufacturing were not enough to make up for the fact that Henry Ford was no longer a leader in automotive design. The Model A was competitive for only four years before needing to be replaced by a newer model. In 1932, at age 69, Ford introduced his last great automotive innovation, the lightweight, inexpensive V-8 engine. It represented a real technological and marketing breakthrough, but in other areas Fords continued to lag behind their competitors.
The V-8 engine was Henry Ford’s last great automotive innovation. This is the first V-8 engine produced, which is on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF101039
By 1936, the company that once sold half of the cars made in America had fallen to third place behind both General Motors and the upstart Chrysler Corporation. By the time Henry Ford died in 1947, his great company was in serious trouble, and a new generation of innovators, led by his grandson Henry Ford II, would work long and hard to restore it to its former glory. Henry’s story is a textbook example of the power of innovation—and the power of its absence.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Henry Ford and Innovation: From the Curators.”
One of the most dramatic displays in Henry Ford Museum is the “exploded” Model T—a 1924 Model T touring car with its constituent parts suspended by wires. Located at the entrance to the Made in America exhibition, it invites visitors to take a different look at an iconic American product.
Henry Ford’s Model T automobile is one of the most significant technological devices of the 20th century. Its clever engineering and low price allowed it to do what could only be done once—make the automobile widely popular. The Model T spawned mass automobility, altering our living patterns, our leisure activities, our landscape, even our atmosphere. The Model T’s influence is so pervasive and lasting that even people who know little about old cars or automotive history know the name “Model T.”
But the way the Model T was produced is as iconic as the car itself. When Ford Motor Company introduced the Model T in October 1908, firearms, watches, and sewing machines were already being assembled from interchangeable parts made on specialized machines. Ford successfully adapted these techniques to the much more complex automobile, and then crowned this achievement with the development of the moving assembly line in late 1913.
Automobiles powered by electricity have been around almost as long as there have been automobiles. In fact, in 1900, battery-powered electric cars outsold cars with gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines. But there is far more energy in a pound of gasoline than in a pound of storage batteries, meaning that gasoline-powered cars could travel farther on a tank than electric cars could on a single charge. Largely because of this, electric cars had virtually disappeared from the market by the late 1920s. By the end of the 20th century concerns about air pollution and imported oil caused people to look once again at alternatives to the internal combustion engine.
In 1997 General Motors introduced the EV1, probably the best electric car ever produced. The car was in part a response to California laws requiring the sale of a certain percentage of vehicles that emitted no pollutants. General Motors went to great lengths to overcome the limited range offered by storage batteries.
When Ford Motor Company introduced its new Model T automobile on October 1, 1908, the car was the culmination of Henry Ford’s quest to develop an inexpensive, efficient and reliable vehicle that would put automobile ownership within the reach of far more people.
Yet even an inveterate optimist like Henry Ford could not predict the vast success and the far-reaching changes that this rather homely new vehicle would produce.
By the end of the 19th century technological miracles were commonplace. Railroad trains routinely traveled a-mile-a-minute. Electric lights could turn night into day. Voices traveled over wires. Pictures could be set into motion. Lighter-than-air balloons and dirigibles even offered access to the sky. But the age-old dream of flying with wings like birds still seemed like a fantasy. In a simple bicycle shop now located in Greenfield Village, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, turned the fantasy of heavier-than-air flight into reality.
1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester Land Speed Race Car / THF90122
What do you get when you mix a war surplus fuel tank, an Oldsmobile engine, and a boatload of ingenuity? You get The Henry Ford’s latest automotive acquisition, the Lakester.
During World War II aircraft designers looking for ways to extend the range of fighter planes came up with the idea of hanging expendable auxiliary fuel tanks under the wings or fuselages of aircraft. These teardrop-shaped tanks could be jettisoned when they were empty. When Bill Burke, a California hot rodder serving in the Navy, saw some of these tanks on Guadalcanal, he thought they would make nifty bodies for streamlined racing cars. After the war, Burke put his idea into action.
Surplus drop tanks (also called wing tanks or belly tanks) were available for as little as $35. Burke squeezed an engine, driver’s seat, and running gear inside the tank, leaving the wheels and axles exposed. Burke raced the slick little car at El Mirage, a large, flat dry lake bed north of Los Angeles where hot rodders ran their vehicles in straight-away top speed runs against the clock. Other hot rodders soon copied Burke’s idea and over time the new cars came to be called “lakesters” because they were built to run at the dry lakes.
Cockpit of the 1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester / THF90112
I have long wanted to add a lakester to The Henry Ford’s collection of race cars, because lakesters embody ingenuity and resourcefulness, and because they are peculiarly American. For years I have had my eye on one of the most successful and famous lakesters, a car built and driven by another California hot rodder, Tom Beatty. In 2009 the car came up for auction and we were finally able to acquire it.
Techno Talk Warning: The following paragraph is a technical description of Tom Beatty’s car for the benefit of “car geeks” (like the writer). If you are bored by discussions of chrome-moly tubing and swing axles, skip to the last paragraph.
Part of the attraction of Tom Beatty’s car is its sheer technical virtuosity. It looks like lots of other belly tank lakesters, but underneath the aluminum teardrop it is very different. Most lakester builders used a simple parallel rail frame, but Beatty welded up a complex space frame from chrome-moly steel tubing. It was stiffer and safer in an accident. Most lakesters ran without a rear suspension, but Beatty devised a swing axle independent rear suspension that helped the car maintain traction over the sometimes rough dry lake surface, or at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Engine and Drivetrain on the 1951 Beatty Belly Tank Lakester / THF90115
Beatty was also one of the first hot rodders to experiment with supercharging, adapting GMC blowers to his flathead Ford engines. The car first ran at the 1951 Bonneville Speed Week, turning a top speed of 188.284 mph. Over the years Beatty kept improving the car, moving to supercharged Oldsmobile engines in 1959. By the time Beatty retired from racing after 1965 season, the lakester had gone 243.438 mph, and was the oldest car running at Bonneville.
As it sits on the floor of Henry Ford Museum, Tom Beatty’s car looks a little rough. The paint is chipped and the body is dinged. But it looks today much as it did the last time it ran in anger at Bonneville, and we will not restore it. We will do only what is necessary to preserve it. After all, you don’t mess with an American original.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post was last updated in March 2021.
Bob Casey, automotive historian and former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, offers up some insight into the many books written on auto pioneer Henry Ford. Two of his favorites – both of which can be found in the Henry Ford Museum Store and the Greenfield Village Store – are The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, by Steven Watts, and Young Henry Ford: A Picture History of the First Forty Years, by Sidney Olson. “Watts’ book is the best one-volume biography of Henry Ford that I have ever read – despite all that has been written about Ford, Watts still manages to find new insights,” said Casey. “Olson mined the Ford family and business records to create a lively, well-illustrated account of Henry Ford’s first forty years, from his childhood to the initial success of Ford Motor Company.”
Jeff Seeno, intern in the Media and Film Relations department at The Henry Ford, asked Casey some questions recently about Henry Ford and these reflections of Ford’s life.
Many books written about Henry Ford either vigorously attack him, or grant him extraordinary praise for his accomplishments. Do you feel these books in any way distort the picture of the true man?
Both of these books are very balanced accounts of the true Henry Ford. These are also very personal accounts of Henry Ford’s life. For example, Ford did not appreciate the talents of his only son, Edsel, who had a great eye for cars. He loved the way cars looked, and according to Watts, Ford Motor Company could have completely dominated the market if they had harnessed Edsel’s insight. But Henry Ford loved to lap up the acclaim and position himself as an incumbent visionary, and he could articulate his vision so well that everyone wanted to jump on board.
How do these books establish the essential Henry Ford – not only as a social visionary, but as a figure who has a controversial personality?
In Olson’s book, he is not afraid to talk about the mean side of Henry Ford. He mentions that Ford was a prankster, and a mean one at that. He tells the story of a time when one of Henry’s employees, George Flint, who was rather sloppy, would leave his shoes lying about when he changed from his work clothes to his street clothes. In an effort to teach Flint to be neater, Ford nailed Flint’s shoes to the floor.
On the other end, Watts’ book shows that Ford had much strength in regards to charity and the growth of the Ford Motor Company. He was very philanthropic in a quirky way, but after executing his “Five Dollars a Day” plan, his forthright genius and creative power went to his head.