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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan and the West


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eclectic Design in the Late 19th Century


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attempts at Understanding Asia


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

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

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


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

furnishings, art, paintings, glass, ceramics, design, decorative arts, by Charles Sable

During the 1930s and 1940s, Scottish Terriers, or “Scotties,” popped up all over popular culture, from jewelry to ceramics to greeting cards. I've found various types of Scottie memorabilia in The Henry Ford's collections of this period. The question is, why were Scotties so popular?

According to the American Kennel Club, Scottish Terriers first became popular in America in the early 20th century, with the “Golden Age” arriving in the 1930s. This may be due to the personality of Scotties. The American Kennel Club references this description of the Scottish Terrier’s temperament: “Contented in his ways, conscious of the affection he bears to master or mistress, he regards life philosophically, takes the best when he can get it, makes the best when he cannot.”

Of course, the 1930s represents one of the most desperate economic periods in American history: the Great Depression. It makes perfect sense that Americans loved the spirited Scottie during this dark time.

Also, celebrities as diverse as Bette Davis, Dorothy Parker, Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Humphrey Bogart adopted Scotties and helped make them popular—both as pets and on memorabilia.

Some of the most common places that they appear are in Christmas cards.

Two Scottie dogs in the snow amid evergreens and in front of a red doghouse; one holds a stocking with a toy coming out of it
Christmas Card, "A Merry Christmas," 1933 / THF36815

This card shows a pair of mischievous Scotties, one of whom shows us a Christmas stocking with a puppet tumbling out of it.

Two napkin rings, one beige and one brown, in the shape of Scottie dogs with red eyes
"Scottie" (Scottish Terrier) Napkin Rings, 1930-1950 / THF189764

Plastics were used for inexpensive items such as these adorable napkin rings, likely purchased at a five-and-ten-cent store. They would have brightened up a Depression-era dining room table.

White arc-shaped dish with orange decorations and an orange Scottie dog on top, sitting with four small rectangular dishes with orange Scottie dogs inside the bottom
"Scottie Dog" Cigarette Holder and Ash Trays, 1935-1940 / THF169674

This inexpensive, yet fashionable, ceramic cigarette set, like the napkin rings, was likely retailed at a five-and-ten-cent store. It would have been a novelty or conversation piece in a middle-class living room.

Fala: The Most Famous Presidential Pet


Black-and-white image of man sitting on something in a grassy field, holding a Scottie dog, with a car and another person behind him
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Fala, 1940 / Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

The photograph above shows President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his new Scottish Terrier, Fala, a gift from Roosevelt’s cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. Was Roosevelt aware of the popularity of Scotties, or was it just serendipity? Probably a little of both. Fala was named by Roosevelt after a Scottish ancestor, the “outlaw” John Murray of Falahill. “Murray the Outlaw of Falahill” was soon shortened to “Fala,” and like his namesake, the Scottie's legend grew. Fala’s adorable antics soon made him popular, and perhaps beloved, by the White House press corps.

Black-and-white photo of Scottie dog with front paws on camera, facing several kneeling men with cameras, in front of a large imposing building
Fala “Photographing” White House Photographers, 1942 / Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

Fala and the Barkers for Britain Campaign


As you can see, Fala’s instant fame, plus national interest in Scottish Terriers, created a public relations bonanza. During 1941, as World War II raged in Europe, the Roosevelt administration sought to help Great Britain, the lone country in Western Europe left standing against the forces of Nazi Germany. Although the United States was officially neutral, many Americans sympathized with and sought to aid the British. They were led by the British War Relief Society, an umbrella organization based in New York City. A constituent group called “Bundles for Britain” collected clothing and money for humanitarian aid. “Barkers for Britain” was created for dog lovers, with paid memberships benefiting the Bundles group. For a fee of 50 cents, dog owners could get a tag with their dog’s name inscribed with a Barkers for Britain label. President Roosevelt volunteered Fala as president of the group, and Fala got membership tag number one.

Christmas card of two snowpeople singing from sheet music against a blue sky filled with stars as a black Scottie dog looks on
Christmas Card, "Cheerio," 1941 / THF702390

Interior of a Christmas card depicting two snowpeople walking from a red building (church?) across snowy slopes against a blue sky filled with stars, and a Scottie dog; also contains text
Interior of Christmas Card, “Cheerio,” 1941 / THF702391

Dating to 1941, this Christmas card references Scottish Terriers and Britain, with “Cheerio” on the outside and “The Englands” on the inside.

Fala’s Moment of Fame in 1944


As a favorite companion, Fala was constantly by Roosevelt’s side. He traveled everywhere with the president. In the late summer of 1944, with the United States now fully engaged in World War II, Fala accompanied Roosevelt on the USS Baltimore to Hawaii, where Roosevelt met with General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz on plans to retake the Philippines and attack the Japanese mainland. The Baltimore then traveled to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, where Roosevelt met with local leaders on asserting American control over islands that had been taken by the Japanese early in the war. The ship returned to the American mainland via Seattle, where Roosevelt and Fala took a train back to Washington, D.C.

In 1944, a presidential election year, Roosevelt was seeking an unprecedented fourth term. Republicans sought any “dirt” they could find on Roosevelt, an extremely popular Democrat and president since 1933. It is unclear how the rumor got started, but Republicans began circulating a story that Fala had been left behind in the Aleutian Islands and a destroyer had been sent from Seattle, at taxpayers’ expense, to retrieve him. Roosevelt was accused of wasting some 20 million dollars in this effort. Ever the canny politician, the president used this to his advantage. Speaking to the Teamsters Union while kicking off his reelection campaign, Roosevelt gave a speech that many say ensured his reelection. Here is an excerpt:

"These Republican leaders have not been content to make personal attacks upon me—or my wife or my sons—they now include my little dog, Fala. Unlike the members of my family, Fala resents this. When he learned that the Republican fiction writers had concocted a story that I had left him behind on an Aleutian Island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayer of two or three or twenty million dollars—his Scottish soul was furious! He has not been the same dog since."

Not only did Roosevelt get a positive reaction from his Teamster audience, but he was also heard on radio from coast to coast. The voting public realized that the president still had fight in him and that his feisty little dog was a great asset. As part of the Roosevelt campaign, young girls began sporting Scottie dog pins, like this one.

Brown wooden pin carved to depict two Scottie dogs wearing red collars running
"Scottie" (Scottish Terrier) Pin, circa 1940 / THF30462

In a broader context, Fala started the tradition of presidential pets serving as surrogates in the political arena. Some notable examples include Richard Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech in 1952 and Socks the cat, the pet of Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill Clinton, in the 1990s. Nearly every president since 1944 has attempted to promote his pets, but none have done so as deftly as Roosevelt.

Black-and-white photo of woman sitting next to Scottie dog
Eleanor Roosevelt with Fala, 1951 / Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

After Roosevelt’s sudden death in April of 1945, Fala lived with Eleanor Roosevelt at the family’s Hyde Park, New York, home until the dog’s own death in 1952. At Roosevelt’s memorial in Washington, D.C., the president is depicted with Fala at his side.

Statue of a seated man wearing a cape next to statue of a Scottie dog, mounted on granite with a granite wall with inscribed text behind them
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C., 2016 / Photograph by Ellice Engdahl

The Scottie dog is truly a reflection of American life at a difficult period, when tenacity, good spirits, and a can-do mentality helped the nation survive and ultimately prosper.


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

Washington DC, 1940s, 1930s, 20th century, World War II, presidents, popular culture, home life, decorative arts, by Charles Sable

Western Europe and its colonies in the Americas have long been fascinated with the Eastern cultures Europeans depicted as “mysterious,” and specifically their exotic trade goods, such as spices, silk, porcelain, and, later, tea. In fact, this interest was the motivation behind the European arrival in the Americas, as Europeans sought a shorter route to reach China and India in the 15th and 16th centuries. This is the first of two blog posts that examine the European and American fascination with Asia and how that was expressed in the decorative arts.

The earliest form of decorative arts that fascinated Europeans was porcelain. Around the 7th or 8th century C.E., the Chinese first produced what Westerners call “hard paste” porcelain—clay that consists of a compound containing the mineral kaolin and is fired at an extremely high temperature, usually around 1400 degrees Celsius. The kaolin in the clay fused the body with the glaze on top during the firing process. The resulting vessel proved to be extremely durable, almost glass-like, and resisted chips and cracking. Should the piece break, it would be a clean break.

Western ceramics were mostly made from earthenware, usually fired at a relatively low temperature with a slip (watered-down clay) glaze or a true glaze. Both processes cover the vessel with fine particles which fuse into a glasslike layer, sealing the pores of the clay body. There are two main types of glazed earthenware. The first is covered with a transparent lead glaze, where the earthenware body to which this glaze is applied has a creamy color, known as creamware. The second type, covered with an opaque white glaze, is called tin-glazed earthenware, popularly known as majolica, faience, or delft. Both types of earthenware chipped and broke easily.

When Europeans were first exposed to Chinese porcelain in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was seen as wondrous and innovative. In addition to its glasslike qualities, the pure white color of the porcelain amazed Europeans. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch traders competed to secure Chinese porcelains for the European markets. The teacup shown below is a good example of what the Europeans craved.

Simple white handleless teacup with blue decorations
Teacup from Vung Tau Shipwreck, Late 17th Century / THF188797

Simple white handless teacup with blue decorations
Teacup from Vung Tau Shipwreck, Late 17th Century / THF188796

This teacup was salvaged from a shipwreck dating around 1690 in the South China Sea, about 100 miles from Vung Tau, Vietnam. During the early 1990s, thousands of porcelain items destined for the Dutch market were brought up from the wreck and sold at auction. The Henry Ford acquired this item from one of the auctions. This small cup would have been prized in the household of a wealthy European. It might even have found its way to the American colonies as a luxury item during the late 17th or early 18th centuries.

Items like this teacup provided a design source for European ceramic makers beginning in the late 17th century. Basically, they attempted to appropriate the Chinese designs in earthenware, as in the storage jar shown below.

White jar with medium base tapering out to wider near top with a narrow mouth; decorated with brown human figures and trees
Storage Jar, 1710-1750, Made in the Netherlands / THF190255

White jar with medium base tapering out to wider near top with a narrow mouth; decorated in brown with water, cliffs, trees, buildings, ships
Storage Jar, 1710-1750, Made in the Netherlands / THF190254

What is so interesting about this piece is that the Dutch decorator is drawing Chinese figures in a Chinese inspired landscape for a European audience. Even the form, known as a ginger jar shape, is based on Chinese precedent. The only missing element here is the circular lid. This is helpful for us because the top rim, where the lid should be, shows us the chips in the glaze that occurred though use. We can see that this is not Chinese porcelain, as the dark-colored earthenware body shows through. Chips are also visible along the base. Clearly this jar was not only a prized object but was used.

White bowl with narrow base and body sloping outward to a wide mouth, with blue decorations of flowers, plants, and bowls of fruit
Punch Bowl, 1700-1730, Made in England / THF188783

White plate with blue floral decorations in three places on rim and large blue floral decoration in center
Plate, 1690-1710, Made in England / THF188779

The punch bowl and plate shown above, both made in England, attempt to copy the look of Chinese porcelains—but, like the storage jar, are made of earthenware. We could really call these the first "knock-offs" in history. They represent the beginnings of what collectors and scholars call “Chinoiserie”—the appropriation and interpretation of Chinese and East Asian design motifs by Europeans. The idea was to create the spirit of a faraway place and give the owner the cachet of owning a luxurious and expensive object. The underlying idea was to project a sense of worldliness and sophistication.

Lacquered box in shades of brown and black with scene of houses and stupa; two silver cannisters with decorated tops sit in front of it
Tea Box and Cannisters, 1800-1840, Made in China for the Western Market / THF190059

Unusually shaped white jar with blue decorations of flowers, vegetation, people, and buildings
Tea Caddy, 1740-1770, Made in England / THF189630

During the 17th and 18th centuries, tea from China became an important trade good, especially in England and America. Elegant Chinese lacquer boxes, complete with Chinoiserie scenes, became the rage, as did tea caddies, a necessary part of a tea set designed to safely store and dispense tea leaves.

Photo of extensive cream colored tea service with intricate multicolored flowers and birds; set contains cups and saucers, small bowls, teapot, and several other miscellaneous dishes
Tea Service, 1765–1770, Made by the Worcester Porcelain Company, Shropshire, England / THF154881

In the later 18th century, tea equipment became extremely sophisticated, as the set above shows. This service uses Chinese or Chinoiserie decorative elements and combines them with the popular French Rococo decorative style to a luxurious effect. The English Worcester Porcelain Company tried to imitate Chinese porcelains with their “soft paste” porcelains, which were close approximations of the true “hard paste” Chinese wares. By 1800, the chemistry of Chinese porcelains was known in Europe—first by the Meissen firm in Germany, then later spreading out across the continent.

Sets of similarly shaped housewares, with one each in silver and ceramic, including two cylindrical teapots, two more spherical teapots, and two bowls
Western Tea Pots and Slop Bowl in Silver Next to Chinese Versions in Porcelain, Late 18th Century / THF139315

An interesting aspect of the China Trade was the production of Chinese versions of Western forms in porcelain. Western traders or agents, known as “supercargoes,” brought examples of Western wares for copy to Guangzhou (then called the port of Canton by the English). There, they presented them to their Chinese counterparts, who took these items to the porcelain factories located in Jingdezhen, then the porcelain capital of China.

Short-ish bowl with wide base and even wider sides, decorated with a wharfside scene of buildings, people, docks, boats, and water
“Hong” Bowl, about 1780, Made in China for the Western Market / THF190085

Short-ish bowl with wide base and even wider sides, decorated with a wharfside scene of buildings, people, docks, boats, and water, with the Union Jack flying in the middle
“Hong” Bowl, about 1780, Showing Trading Offices, Indicated by the Flags of Great Britain, the Hanseatic League (Now Germany), and Sweden / THF190086

Short-ish bowl with wide base and even wider sides, decorated with a wharfside scene of a harbor, mountains, buildings, people, docks, boats, and water
“Hong” Bowl, about 1780, Showing the Port of Guangzhou and the Trading Office of Denmark, Indicated by the Flag / THF190088

One of the most interesting aspects of the China Trade was souvenir “Hong” bowls that showed panoramic views of offices, warehouses, and living spaces for foreign merchants in Guangzhou in the late 18th century. These were brought back to the West by supercargoes and used for serving punch at parties. Western merchants were allowed access only to the port area and needed Chinese intermediaries to send their orders to the porcelain factories inland.

In addition to porcelain tea and lacquerware, Westerners sought out luxurious Chinese silks, but relatively little else was imported to the West. One exception is the teapot shown below, made of a Chinese alloy of nickel and copper known as Paktong that resembles silver. In fact, the term “Paktong” is a corruption of the Chinese “bai tong,” meaning “white copper.”

Oval-shaped cylindrical silver teapot with black handle
Teapot with Stand, Made for Export, circa 1800 / THF92948

This teapot, made around 1800, was created for sale in the newly independent United States. Following the Revolutionary War, Americans were eager to establish international trade, and the lucrative China Trade was at the top of their list. This teapot would have appealed to Americans as it was executed in the fashionable Federal or Neoclassical style, which emphasized geometric forms, ovals, and cylindrical shapes.

By 1800, the China Trade began to transform. The American market broadened the China Trade, especially as the 19th century progressed and the United States grew. Also, Chinese goods were no longer viewed as unique and luxurious, as they were in the 18th century. This is partly due to the Western discovery of true or “hard paste” porcelain. The Chinese monopoly was gone. Still, Asian goods were depicted as exotic and the romanticized mystery of the Far East continued. In a second installment of this story, we will examine the transformation and role of Japanese influence on the West in the later 19th century.


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

manufacturing, making, home life, design, decorative arts, ceramics, by Charles Sable

When thinking about the celebrated figures in decorative arts history, one first thinks of individuals like Thomas Chippendale, Duncan Phyfe, and Gustav Stickley in furniture, Paul Revere and Tiffany and Company in silver, and Josiah Wedgwood in ceramics. All these prominent figures have something in common—they all are men. There are few celebrated female leaders in the decorative arts. This may be due to the scholarly focus on great men, to the detriment of women, until recent years.

Brown book cover with decorative round pattern and pot with text "Tried by Fire"
Cover of Tried by Fire by Susan Frackelton, 1886. / THF627718

One of the most important and underrecognized women in decorative arts history was Susan Frackelton (1848–1932). She was a founder of the field of women’s china painting in the 1870s and 1880s. She was also a catalyst in transforming that pastime into a profession with the evolution of china painting into art pottery in the 1890s. Unlike her more famous peers, Susan Frackelton earned her living and supported her family on the proceeds of her publishing, teaching, and collaborations with like-minded artists.

Susan Frackelton faced many challenges in her personal and professional life. In many ways, she was a trailblazer for the modern, independent woman. Only in recent years have her contributions been recognized. Like other major figures in the decorative arts, including Thomas Chippendale, she is best remembered for a  publication, her 1886 Tried by Fire. In the introduction, she states, “If the rough road that I have traveled to success can be made smoother for those who follow, or may hereafter pass me in the race, my little book will have achieved the end which is desired.”

Why Was China Painting a Means for Women’s Liberation?


Many factors fueled the growth of amateur china painting in late-19th-century America. As America became wealthier after the Civil War, women of the middle and upper middle classes gained more leisure time for personal pursuits. China painting became a socially acceptable pastime for women because it allowed them to create decorative objects for the home. Further, the influence of the English Aesthetic movement and later the Arts and Crafts movement advocated that the creation of art should be reflected in the home. By the 1870s and 1880s, wealthy women were freer to leave the confines of the home through organizations that they set up to create and exhibit their work.

What Is China Painting?


White pitcher with decorative gold striping on handle and at top and botanical design on side
Pitcher, 1890–1910, decorated by an amateur china painter. / THF176880

This pitcher is a good example of the work of an amateur china painter. The artist would take a “blank”—a piece of fired, undecorated, white porcelain, in this case a pitcher made by the English firm Haviland—and paint over the glaze. These blanks could be purchased in multiples at specialty stores. One of the most prominent of these was the Detroit-based L.B. King China Store. It was founded in 1849 and closed during the Great Depression, about 1932. According to a 1913 advertisement, the retailer sold hotel china, fine china dinnerware, cut glass, table glassware, lamps, shades, art pottery, china blanks, and artists materials. Elbert Hubbard, founder and proprietor of the Roycrofters, a reformist community of craft workers and artists that formed part of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote enthusiastically about the products of the L.B King China Store: “The store is not only a store—it is an exposition, a school if you please, where the finest displays of hand and brain in the way of ceramics are shown.” A woman seeking to learn about china painting could literally walk into the L.B. King Store and walk out with paints, blanks, and a manual like Frackelton’s Tried by Fire and start painting her own china.

The pitcher above is part of a large group of serving pieces in our collection. Also in our collections is a full set of china decorated by a young woman and her friends who learned china painting at what is now Michigan State University. They decorated the dinnerware service in preparation for the young woman’s wedding in 1911. According to family history, the young woman purchased the blanks at the L.B. King Store.

How Did China Painting Evolve in the Late 19th Century?


During the 1870s, Cincinnati was the center of American china painting. The movement was led by two wealthy women, Maria Longworth Nichols (1849–1932), who later founded the Rookwood Pottery, and her rival, Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939). Both studied with European male ceramic artists who had made their way to Cincinnati. Both evolved from amateur status into extraordinary artists, who moved from painting over the glaze to learning how to throw and fire their own vessels, create designs, and formulate glazes for their vessels. This all occurred during the late 1870s, following a display of ceramic art at the Women’s Pavilion of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Both sought to outdo each other in the formulations of glazes. It is generally believed McLaughlin was the first to learn the technique of underglaze decoration, although Nichols later claimed that she was the first to do so. Nichols’ most important achievement was in creating the Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati in 1880. It was essentially the first commercial art pottery company in America, and it led the way in the development of new techniques that were widely imitated by other firms. Rookwood and its competitors began to hire women to decorate ceramics, opening a new livelihood for women less well off than Nichols and McLaughlin.

Brown vase with painted portrait of young man with long hair, beard, and mustache
Vase, 1902, decorated by Grace Young, Rookwood Pottery Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176709

Vase with narrow bottom widening slightly to top with impressionistic painting of trees
Vase, 1917, decorated by Lenore Asbury at the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176918

Square tile with image of ship sailing on a blue sea against a blue sky with clouds
Tile, 1910–1920, made by the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176941

Essentially, through the pastime of china painting, a new industry, art pottery, came into being by 1900. Under the influence of popular magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal and House Beautiful, Americans eagerly acquired art pottery. In fact, tastemakers like the young architect Frank Lloyd Wright filled his houses with art pottery. He considered it very much part of his total aesthetic. Through the first three decades of the 20th century, art pottery was considered a must in any well-furnished American home. It only fell out of fashion in the 1930s, when the Great Depression drastically altered lifestyles.

How Does Susan Frackelton’s Story Fit into All of This?


Susan Stuart Goodrich Frackelton was a contemporary of both Maria Longworth Nichols and Mary Louise McLaughlin, born in 1848 like Maria Longworth Nichols, and just a year older than Mary Louise McLaughlin. Unlike either of these women, she came from a modest background. Her father was a brick maker in Milwaukee, and she was raised in a middle-class environment. Susan began her artistic career studying painting with the pioneer Wisconsin artist Henry Vianden. In 1869, she married Richard Frackelton and eventually raised three sons and a daughter.

Richard’s business was importing English ceramics and glass and was relatively successful. Within a few years, however, the business began a sharp decline and Susan stepped in to help. She later said that she learned about American taste in ceramics and business while working with her husband. Concurrently, she began to experiment with china painting, applying her experience in painting with Henry Vianden. She was essentially self-taught, unlike her contemporaries in Cincinnati. Through publications, she was aware of what was going on in the field. She was also aware of the innovations of Mary Louise McLaughlin in glazes, and by the late 1870s was experimenting in underglaze painting herself.

Frackelton’s contributions to china painting began in 1877, when she opened Frackelton’s Decorating Works in Milwaukee. She trained young women in the art of china painting. By 1882 she opened a related business called Mrs. Frackelton’s Keramic Studio for Under and Overglaze, where she sold her own work, wares made by her students, commercial china, and glassware, as well as painting supplies. Like Detroit’s L.B. King store, she created a one-stop shop for young women interested in exploring china painting and, later, art pottery.

Book open to title page with text and frontispiece with painted portrait of a child
Title page, Tried by Fire, 1886. / THF627720

Frackelton made a national name for herself in 1886 with the publication of Tried by Fire. It differed from other manuals for china painters in that it was written by a teacher for beginning students. Frackelton’s conversational style and advice on not expecting too much too soon appealed to readers and the book became a best seller, reprinted in two revised editions in 1892 and 1895. As a teacher, Frackelton had no equal in the world of art pottery. She advocated that both wealthy and poor women could enjoy the art of china painting: “Beauty is the birthright of the poor as well as the rich, and he lives best who most enjoys it.”

Book open to one page of text and one page with illustration of white plate and mug with blue floral pattern
Color plate from Tried by Fire, 1886. / THF627772

Book open to one page with colorful floral and decorative pattern and one page with text
Color plate from Tried by Fire, 1886. / THF627773

Book open to page with illustration of seashells and seaweed in water and a page with text
Color plate from 
Tried by Fire, 1886. / THF627775

Book open to one page of text and one of illustration of a beach, the ocean, seashells, and seaweed
Color plate from Tried by Fire, 1886. / THF627774

White pitcher with gold piping on handle and at top and painted illustration of bird atop vegetation
Pitcher, 1890–1910, decorated by an amateur china painter. Note that the botanical decoration on this pitcher is similar to the Tried by Fire color plates. / THF176879

Another major innovation was the development of a patented gas-fired kiln, first offered in the advertising section of Tried by Fire. By 1888 she was granted a second patent for a new and improved version.

Book open to two ad pages: one with text and image of kiln and one with text and two logos
Advertising section of Tried by Fire showing Frackelton’s portable gas kiln. / THF627793

By 1890 Frackelton was a well-known figure and was noted for displaying her work in international exhibits. In 1893 she won eight awards for her work in a competition held at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition. Additionally, she became renowned for her work in a variety of ceramic media, especially for her blue and white salt-glazed stoneware. She also worked to create new and easier-to-use paints for decoration. She went so far as to organize the National League of Mineral Painters in 1892, an organization “aimed to foster a national school of ceramic art and provide a link between china painters throughout the country.”

By the late 1890s, Frackelton’s reputation was secure, as were her finances. In 1897 she divorced Richard Frackelton and moved to Chicago and spent much of her time lecturing and promoting ceramic art. She collaborated with several ceramic artists, including the now famous George Ohr, a unique artist who called himself “the mad potter of Biloxi.” Together, they created several highly unusual pieces, now in the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

In her later years, Frackelton moved away from working in ceramics, preferring to return to painting and working as an illuminator of manuscripts. However, Frackelton’s promotion of the ceramic arts made her one of the most admired female artists in America in the first decade of the 20th century. Susan Frackelton was a remarkable figure in American ceramics, justifiably earning her status as one of the prominent figures in the decorative arts and certainly in broadening the role of women in American society.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

furnishings, ceramics, women's history, teachers and teaching, making, entrepreneurship, education, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, books, art

In my last three blog posts, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and became part of the Fords’ inner circle. We know this through correspondence, designs, and records held in the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford. The single document that details the relationship best is a brochure—more a portfolio of projects—published by Houghton in the early 1930s to promote his design firm.


Page with text and photo of statue of ship and figures in water
Cover of Sidney Houghton Brochure. / THF121214

From Houghton’s reference images in the brochure, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. This post centers on Houghton’s later work for the Fords, and my evaluation of why the relationship ended.

The Dearborn Country Club


Black-and-white photo of large Tudor-style two-story (?) building
Dearborn Country Club in 1925. / THF135797

Two-story Tudor building with circular driveway
Dearborn Country Club in 1927. /THF135798

According to Ford historian Ford Bryan in his book, Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, the Dearborn Country Club was created for executives at the Ford Motor Company. By the middle of the 1920s, Ford’s operations were centered in Dearborn, with nearly all the company’s upper echelon working from the Ford Engineering Laboratory or the nearby Ford Rouge Plant. According to Ford Bryan, the idea came from Henry and Clara Ford to provide Dearborn with the same amenities as elite suburbs such as the Grosse Pointes or the northern suburbs. They also wanted their associates and friends to have the best that money could buy. The project was an incentive for Ford executives to remain in Dearborn, but proved to be unprofitable for the company. Further, when Henry Ford tried to impose his wishes against smoking and drinking, the membership essentially ignored him. Because of this, the Fords rarely visited the Club.

Architect Albert Kahn, who famously designed the Rouge Plant, was hired to design the clubhouse, seen above. The building was finished in the fall of 1925 and was designed in the “Old English” or Tudor style, popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Aerial shot of group of people in suits and formal gowns in a ballroom
Formal Dance at the Dearborn Country Club, 1931. / THF99871

Man in chef's outfit and hat stands behind long buffet table filled with plates and displays of food
Dearborn Country Club Chef at Banquet Table, 1931. / THF99875

Men in tuxedos and white gloves pose for a photo, some standing and some sitting
Light's Golden Jubilee Ushers at the Dearborn Country Club, October 21, 1929. / THF294674

We know through documents that Sidney Houghton worked on the interiors. What we have in the way of documentation is a furnishings plan, but little else. Period photos, such as those above, show the elaborate beamed ceiling in the ballroom designed by Albert Kahn, and the elegant lighting and window treatments, likely provided by Houghton.

Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home


Large five (?) story brick building, with three people in nurses' outfits on the lawn in front
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1931. / THF127760

Entrance to brick building, with walkway and several people wearing nurses' uniforms outside
Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1931. / THF127754

Group of women in nurses' uniforms stand on the steps of a building inscribed "Clara Ford Nurses Home"
Nurses in front of Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1926. / THF117484

One of Henry Ford’s great humanitarian efforts was in founding Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. It was created in 1915 and in 1917 was turned over to the federal government during World War I for military use. By the middle of the 1920s, the hospital was considered the major medical center in Detroit. In 1925, Clara Ford organized the Henry Ford Hospital School of Nursing, and she funded the building housing it, the Clara Ford Nurses Home, on the hospital campus.

Paneled room with fireplace, couches, chairs, and other furniture
Living Room inside Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1925. / THF127777

Only one photograph of the original interior survives, showing the living room on the first floor. This is absolutely the work of Sidney Houghton, done in what he would call the Elizabethan or Tudor style. The walls are covered with heavy, inlaid panels and the furniture is heavily proportioned, with carved turnings. The wood of choice during this period was oak, which Houghton described as the “Age of Oak.” The upholstered furniture is likewise heavy and large in scale.

Page with text and two images of room interiors
Houghton Brochure: A Tudor Interior. / THF121227b

Page with line drawings of furniture with textual key underneath
Houghton Brochure, Furniture from the "Age of Oak." / THF121217a

The End of the Relationship


By 1925, Houghton’s commissions were at or nearing completion. After this date, there is an abrupt end to the correspondence between Houghton and the Fords. The only subsequent communications are a telegram from 1938, congratulating the Fords on their 50th wedding anniversary, and a letter dating to 1941, thanking Henry Ford II for his work on supplying aid for Britain during the second World War. While we have no documentation on how the relationship ended, we do have documentation of one artifact that may shed light on this period. In 1925, Houghton gave the Fords a sterling silver model galleon or ship. Perhaps this is a reference to Houghton’s love of sailing. It appears on the cover of the Houghton brochure at the top of this post.

Was this a peace offering from Houghton to the Fords? Or was it a token of generosity from Houghton, a great navigator, to the Fords? We will never know, but it is interesting to contemplate the implications of this extraordinary gift.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my journey through an unknown aspect of the Fords’ life. Researching and writing about Sidney Houghton has been a pleasure.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

design, healthcare, Detroit, Michigan, Dearborn, Clara Ford, Henry Ford, Sidney Houghton, furnishings, decorative arts, by Charles Sable

In my last two blog posts (“The Enigmatic Sidney Houghton, Designer to Henry and Clara Ford,” and “Sidney Houghton: The Fair Lane Rail Car and the Engineering Laboratory Offices”), I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872-1950), a British interior designer and interior architect met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I, and worked on projects like Henry Ford’s yacht Sialia, Henry and Clara Ford’s private railcar Fair Lane, and offices for Henry and Edsel Ford in the Ford Engineering Laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan. This blog centers on the most intimate of Houghton’s work for the Fords, the Fair Lane estate.

(For clarity’s sake, it is important to note that the Fair Lane estate is a historic house museum, independent of The Henry Ford. The house is currently undergoing a major restoration. You can learn more about the Fair Lane estate here.)

The Fair Lane Commission


Page with text and image of sculpture of ship surrounded by human figures in the waves, one sounding a conch-shell horn
Cover of Houghton Brochure / THF121214

The single document that best details the relationship between Sidney Houghton and the Fords is a brochure, more a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm. From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. Unfortunately for us, images of Fair Lane were not included in the 1930s Houghton brochure, likely because of the private nature of the commission.

However, The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center holds exterior and interior photographs of the house, taken at a variety of dates. Additionally, our archives holds a select group of Houghton’s designs for Fair Lane’s furniture. These are the only surviving drawings of Houghton’s Ford-related furniture. One of my greatest joys in researching this blog was locating the completed pieces of furniture in historic photographs.

The Story of Fair Lane


The story of Fair Lane began in 1909, when Henry Ford bought large tracts of land in Dearborn Township, the place of his birth. At that time, Henry, his wife, Clara, and their son, Edsel, were living comfortably in the fashionable Boston-Edison neighborhood of Detroit, not far from the Highland Park plant where the famous Model T automobiles were manufactured. Henry was considering options for building a larger home, where he and his family could have more space and greater privacy. They were also considering building in Grosse Pointe, a community where many of Detroit’s leaders of industry were constructing homes. They even bought a parcel of land there that eventually became the site of Edsel and his wife Eleanor’s home in the 1920s.

In the summer of 1909, Ford visited the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park, Illinois, studio. The result was a commission for a large estate along the Rouge River in Dearborn. Scholars believe that Henry Ford heard about Wright from one of his chief engineers and neighbor, C. Harold Wills, who previously contracted Wright to build a home for his family in Detroit. By November of 1909, Wright had closed his studio and turned his practice over to the Chicago architectural firm of Von Holst and Fyfe, with his best draftsperson, Marion Mahony, overseeing all of Wright’s remaining projects. Wright felt that his architectural practice was at a “critical impasse” and went to Europe to work on a summary portfolio of his career, published in 1910. He was accompanied by Mrs. Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. This scandalous situation seems not to have affected the Fords, as Marion Mahony continued work on Fair Lane.

Drawing of large white house with trees and other greenery in front
Presentation Drawing of Fair Lane, 1914 / THF157872

The project continued slowly through the next few years, until circumstances in the Fords’ lives made securing a new home a priority. In January 1914, Henry Ford announced his famous “five dollar day” wage for factory workers. His home on Edison Avenue near the plant was besieged by job seekers and the Fords lost any semblance of privacy. They soon realized that that the new Dearborn house was a priority. In February 1914, Clara Ford, who had taken the leadership role on the new house, called a meeting of Von Holst, Mahony and related designers. A number of elegant presentations of the home were shown to Clara Ford, including the design above. Many of these are now in public collections and give us a sense of the proposed estate. Two can be accessed here and here.

Instead of continuing to work with Marion Mahoney, Clara Ford chose Pittsburgh architect William Van Tine to complete the house. Van Tine was known in New York and the East, and it is generally thought that Clara Ford was seeking to emulate the tastes of women of her social status. Another key factor was the direction of American taste: the Prairie style promoted by Frank Lloyd Wright and Marion Mahony was rapidly losing currency and Americans increasingly favored revival styles, including Colonial and Medieval Revivals.

Fair Lane as Built


Construction site of large house by a body of water
Fair Lane from the Rouge River, 1915 / THF98284

Black-and-white photo of large stone house with turrets
Fair Lane Entrance, 1916 / THF149961

When I look at images of Van Tine’s house, completed in early 1916, I am struck by the odd composition, such as the sloping horizontal rooflines, especially to the left of the front entrance. These seem derived from Marion Mahony’s designs. There are vertical, castle-like forms, such as the one just to the right of the entrance, which are not at peace with the rest of the house. The result is a hodge-podge of disharmonious elements that barely coexist with each other.

Blueprint showing aerial layout of large house and extensive gardens
Planting Plan for Fair Lane Grounds Number 5, November 1915 / THF155894

The planting plan above gives us a sense of Van Tine’s arrangement of the house. To the far left is Henry Ford’s power house, which is connected to the house through a tunnel under the rose garden. The tunnel ends near the indoor swimming pool intended for son Edsel’s use.

Interior of house with carved wood, heavy draperies, and staircase
Entry Hall from the Living Room around 1925 / THF126547

Room interior with carved wood, ornately patterned ceiling, bookcases, and upholstered chairs among other furniture
Library in 1951 / THF98258

Page with text and photograph or drawing of room interior with carved wood, fireplace, and upholstered furniture
Living Room in March 1916 / THF126073

The main rooms of the house are indicated in an area labeled as “residence” on the plan. The first-floor entrance consists of a grand hall and wide staircase. To the right of the hall is a small library. The hall leads into what the Fords described as their living room, the heart of the house. At the rear of the photograph above, please note the player organ installed in late 1915.

Black-and-white photograph of room with large, dark fireplace and ornate ceilings and furniture
Music Room in 1951 / THF126543

The entrance to the music room is to the right of the player organ in the living room. It is by far the largest and grandest room in the house. The photograph above shows it in its final incarnation, shortly after Clara Ford’s death.

Room interior with round dining table and four chairs, oriental rug, and ornately carved wooden walls and plastered ceiling
Dining Room in 1925 / THF98262

The dining room leads off the living room and is another grand room, although it lacks the scale of the music room. As you can see, all the large public rooms at Fair Lane are rather dark and heavily decorated.

Black-and-white photo of long, narrow room filled with wicker furniture with many windows along one wall
Sun Porch, Identified as the Loggia on the Ground Plan, about 1925 / THF137033

The sun porch is unlike any other public room in Fair Lane. It was filled with light and was said to have been one of the Fords’ favorite rooms. Also, unlike the rest of the house, it was filled with wicker furniture.

As you can see, Fair Lane was a very dark and heavily decorated home. We know that the Fords—Clara in particular—were unhappy with the interior. For example, sometime in the 1920s or the 1930s, Clara Ford went so far as to paint the walnut paneling in the music room. This north facing room must have appeared very dark, especially on a cloudy winter day.

Sidney Houghton’s Work at Fair Lane


Records in the Benson Ford Research Center indicate that Sidney Houghton began consulting on furnishings for Fair Lane in 1919. The records and correspondence continue through 1925, with proposals and payments through the entire period. The only “before” and “after” photographs that we have are of the living room.

Room interior with intricately carved wood and fireplace, filled with upholstered chairs, a table, and other furniture
Living Room in 1919 / THF132991

THF136074
Living Room in 1940 / THF136074

By 1940, the furnishings of 1919 have been completely removed. The clutter of the 1919 furnishings have been replaced with groups of furniture oriented around the fireplace. The whole arrangement appears coherent and logical. The furniture styles of the 1940 living room are a mixture of historic English and American. Is this the work of Sidney Houghton? While we know that Houghton was working extensively at Fair Lane, we have no surviving renderings for furniture in this room.

Houghton’s Documented Designs for Fair Lane


Bedroom interior with two twin beds, a fireplace, and other furniture
Master Bedroom in 1951 / THF149959

Like the living room, the master bedroom contains a mixture of furnishings in historic English and American styles. For example, the mantelpiece is described as a “Wedgewood,” as the colored decoration derives from Wedgewood’s English Jasperware, first made in the 18th century. There are also pieces that are American in origin, such as the William and Mary–style table in front of the fireplace, and the Federal-style slant front desk in the corner, to the right of the window.

This room also contains two twin beds, likely designed by Sidney Houghton. They are made of veneered walnut with inlaid medallions done in a Chinoiserie style, a western interpretation of oriental design.

Yellowed and torn drawing of a four-poster, canopied bed
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bed, 1921-1923 / THF626014

The headboard and footboard, as well as the crest rail and legs, of this bed are identical to those on the twin beds in the 1951 photograph. Houghton may have presented this design to Clara Ford, and she chose to have twin beds without a canopy produced instead.

Interior of bedroom with twin bed, chairs, and other furniture
Master Bedroom in 1951 / THF149955

The opposite wall in the master bedroom shows us again a combination of English and American historic furniture. They include an American Queen Anne oval table in the left corner. To the right of it is a Queen Anne style dressing table, partly obscured by an upholstered armchair. What is of interest is the dressing table and mirror at the center of the back wall. These are Houghton’s designs.

Yellowed drawing of dressing table or vanity
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bedroom Dressing Table and Looking Glass, 1921-1923 / THF626012

We can see that the dressing table matches the bed—the inlaid medallions are also done in a Chinoiserie style—so this appears be part of a bedroom suite. Indeed, there is another design that does not appear in the room.

Yellowed, torn drawing of a cabinet topped with a mirror
Design by Sidney Houghton Design for Fair Lane, Bedroom Cabinet or Chest, 1921-1923 / THF626016

This piece likely was presented to Clara Ford and rejected, or, if produced, removed before the photograph was taken in 1951.

Yellowed drawing of a chest of drawers
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Chest of Drawers and Case, possibly for Bedroom, 1921-1923 / THF626010

This chest of drawers appears to relate to the bedroom suite, as it is similar in scale, although it lacks the inlaid medallions.

Yellowed drawing of a semi-circle shaped desk with raised cubbies around the edge
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Ladies Writing Table, 1921-1923 / THF626008

This elegant ladies desk may have been intended for the Fords’ bedroom. Like the chest, it may have been rejected or removed later.

The Benson Ford Research Center holds more of Houghton’s furniture designs for Fair Lane, although none appear in the historic photographs.

Round desk with drawers or cubbies around outside
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Center Table or Partners Desk, 1921-1923 / THF626002

This heavy, masculine-looking piece was likely not part of the bedroom suite. If fabricated, it would have been a large, clunky piece of furniture.

Drawing of a wooden side table
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table, 1921-1923 / THF625998

This piece, done in the Louis XV or 18th-century Rococo style is a departure from anything visible at Fair Lane. Clara Ford likely rejected it.

There are also Houghton sketches and working drawings in the archive.

Drawings of front and side of sideboard or cabinet and front and side of chair
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Slant Front Desk and Chair, 1921-1923 / THF625994

Page with drawing of stool or table and measurements and notes written above
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table or Stool, 1921-1923 / THF626000

These designs were likely drawn on-site and presented as ideas for Clara’s approval.

Conclusion


As these drawings suggest, Sidney Houghton was extremely talented. He could work in a variety of styles and produced high-quality furniture. He transformed Fair Lane during the early 1920s from an eclectic mix to a more simplified combination of 18th-century English and American styles. This post represents the beginning of inquiry into the role of Houghton at Fair Lane, which should be continued over time. My next blog post will examine Sidney Houghton’s later work for the Fords and the end of their relationship.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

20th century, 1920s, 1910s, Sidney Houghton, research, Michigan, home life, Henry Ford, furnishings, drawings, design, decorative arts, Dearborn, Clara Ford, by Charles Sable, archives

In my last blog post, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and, following the war, became part of the Fords’ inner circle.

The Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford holds significant correspondence, designs, and records relating to commissions between Houghton and Henry and Clara Ford. Probably the single document that details the variety of Ford commissions associated with Houghton is a brochure, more of a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm.

Page with text and photo of statue of ship with figures in waves at base
Cover of Houghton brochure. / THF121214

From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that no longer survive, as well as provide background for some that are still do. This post centers on two projects, the Fair Lane rail car and Henry and Edsel Ford’s offices in the Ford Engineering Laboratory, which still exist. Fortunately, aspects of both still exist in The Henry Ford’s collection!

The Fair Lane Rail Car


Long, army-green rail car on tracks in a field
The Fair Lane rail car. / THF80274

Black-and-white photo of six people on the back platform of a rail car, most of them smiling and waving
Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara Ford, and Mina and Thomas Edison pose on the car’s rear platform about 1923. / THF97966

Page with text, image of rail car, and four interior room shots
Images of the Fair Lane rail car from Houghton brochure. / THF121225a

The Fair Lane rail car was built by the Pullman Rail Car Company in Pullman, Illinois, and delivered to Henry and Clara Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, in summer 1921. A detailed history and background on the rail car by Matt Anderson, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Transportation, can be found here.

Sidney Houghton was responsible for creating the interiors and furnishings for the car. Many sources state that he worked with Clara Ford on the designs. What is likely is that Clara Ford approved or disapproved of Houghton’s design work. This is especially evident in the public rooms of the rail car—what Houghton called the “dining saloon” and the “observation parlour.”

Interior of room with wood paneling, arched ceiling, and furniture
Dining saloon in 1921. / THF148009

Interior of room with wood paneling, arched ceiling, dining table, and chairs
The same view in 2021. / THF186285

Wooden shelving with pegs on some shelves and a few glasses on top shelf
Glassware storage. / THF186283

The dining room walls are paneled in dark walnut, with veneered elements of mahogany. The effect suggests a richly appointed room from which to view the passing scenery. The styles that Houghton employed, and Clara Ford approved, derived from a combination of eighteenth-century English classical styles, including the caned and oval-backed side chairs and the elegantly carved three-quarter relief columns around the walls. China and glassware were stored in built-in units fitted with slots or pegs to keep the objects from shifting during travel.

Black-and-white photo of room showing two chairs, windows, and glass door
The observation saloon in 1921. / THF148015

Interior of room with two upholstered chairs and dresser with cabinet above
The observation saloon in 1921. / THF148012

Room interior with arched ceiling, blue upholstered furniture, and wood paneling
The observation saloon in 2021. / THF186264

Part of interior wall with wood paneling, doorway, and three silver clocks/dials
Detail of the observation saloon. / THF186263

What Houghton called the “observation saloon” was where passengers would spend their days while traveling. It was fitted out with sets of upholstered armchairs below the windows and a slant front desk and bookcase against the inner wall. This was an extremely useful piece of furniture; while at the desk, you could read or write correspondence, and when done, store your letters in one of the many drawers in the desk. The upper case allowed plenty of room to store books and other reading materials. Dials above the door to the observation platform displayed the miles per hour, the time, and the outdoor temperature.

As you can see in the recent photographs, over time the painted woodwork in this room was stripped and refinished. Also, the wonderful slant front desk and original light fixtures have not survived. Fortunately, after the Fords sold the rail car in 1942, a subsequent owner lovingly restored the interior, including reproducing much of the furniture, before donating it to The Henry Ford.

The Ford Engineering Laboratory Offices


In the early 1920s, Henry Ford commissioned his favorite architect, Albert Kahn, to design what Ford called his Engineering Laboratory in Dearborn. Completed in 1923, this building came to be the heart of the Ford Motor Company enterprise. Both Henry and his son, Edsel, had offices in the building, and Henry commissioned Sidney Houghton to design identical furniture and woodwork for each. Both offices survive, as does most of the furniture, which is now in the collections of The Henry Ford. Of all of Houghton’s projects for the Fords, it is the best preserved.

Black-and-white photo of office with wood paneling and wooden furniture
Henry Ford’s office in 1923. / THF237704

Interior of office with wood paneling, wooden furniture, and built-in bookshelves
Henry Ford’s office in 1923. / THF237702

Page with text and two photos of office interiors
Edsel Ford’s office (top) and Henry Ford’s office (bottom) from Houghton brochure. / THF121221a

In looking at the offices, one thing comes to mind: they were designed to impress. Like the rail car, they are paneled in rich walnut, with matching walnut furniture. Both have large conference tables; Henry’s is round, while Edsel’s is rectangular.

Long, narrow wooden table with decorative legs
Conference table used in Edsel Ford’s office. / THF158754

The chairs and tables all feature heavy, turned, and curved legs, known as cabriole legs. They are also inlaid with woods with their grains carefully arranged to their fullest and most luxurious effect.

Brown leather office chair with wooden base, arms, and back edging
Desk chair. / THF158365

Brown leather chair with wooden legs, arms, and back edging
Armchair. / THF158349

Brown leather easy chair with wooden legs
Easy chair. / THF158367

Brown leather sofa with decorative wooden legs
Sofa. / THF158750

The style of this furniture is English Jacobean, deriving from forms used in the seventeenth century. The intent with this furniture was to show off wealth and good taste—as befit a person of Henry Ford’s status.

Wooden console table with decorative legs and shell-shaped drawer pulls
Console table. / THF158371

This console table, seen in the photograph behind Henry Ford’s desk, is inlaid with matched veneers along the drawer front and handles in the shapes of shells. The elaborately turned legs, which look like upside down trumpets, are characteristic of the Jacobean style in England. Combined with the cabriole legs on the chairs, Houghton has mixed and matched English furniture styles here in what decorative arts historians call an eclectic fashion.

Wooden grandfather clock with glass door and chimes visible inside
Tall Case Clock, works by Waltham Clock Company. / THF158743

If the rest of the office furniture was meant to impress, the tall case clock takes it over the top. Henry Ford was known for his love of clocks and watches. This piece was undoubtedly something that he was proud to possess and show off to guests in his office.

We know from documents that Henry Ford rarely used his office. He preferred to be out in the field visiting with employees or, in later years, in Greenfield Village. Consequently, the furniture shows little signs of wear. Further, there are few photographs of Henry Ford in his office, other than those taken in 1923 when it was newly installed.

Interior of office with carpet, wooden furniture, and two windows behind desk
Henry Ford’s office in 1949. / THF149868

Taken two years after Henry Ford’s death in 1947, this image shows how he used the office.

Framed painting of man in overalls pushing an early open automobile as a man holding a horse hitched to a carriage looks on
Henry Ford by Edward Pennoyer, 1931. / THF174088

On the wall behind the desk is a painting by artist Edward Pennoyer, used as an illustration for a 1931 advertisement. Henry Ford undoubtedly liked the image of himself with the Quadricycle, his first automobile, and hung it behind his desk.

Five men in suits stand behind a desk in an office
Photograph of Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, to Henry Ford’s right, surrounded by unknown figures, November 1941. / THF240734

Two men, one holding onto the back of a chair, talk in an office
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241506

Two men talk over an open box in an office; one peers in
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241508

Only three photographs survive of Henry Ford in his office. All date to November 1941, when the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, visited Henry Ford and toured the Rouge Factory. Guests to the Engineering Laboratory were almost always photographed outside the building or in the adjacent Henry Ford Museum or Greenfield Village.

The third photograph above shows another work of art in the office. The landscape shows Henry Ford’s Wayside Inn, in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, purchased in 1923. This, of course, was a place near and dear to Henry Ford, and helped him to realize his goal of creating Greenfield Village.

As we can see, Sidney Houghton was close to Henry and Clara Ford, designing Henry’s office and the Fair Lane rail car intimate environment, used on a very regular basis. In the next blog post, I will look at the most intimate of the Fords’ interiors—their Fair Lane Estate, onto which Houghton put his own influence during the first half of the 1920s.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

decorative arts, Sidney Houghton, railroads, Michigan, Henry Ford, furnishings, Ford Motor Company, Fair Lane railcar, Edsel Ford, design, Dearborn, by Charles Sable

Sidney Houghton is one of the most interesting and yet-to-be-documented figures in the group surrounding Henry and Clara Ford. Many in the Fords’ entourage are colorful and well-researched, including Harry Bennett, Henry’s security chief, known as the notorious head of the Ford Motor Company “Service” Department; Henry’s business manager, Ernest Liebold, who handled all financial transactions; and even their son, Edsel Ford, whose life and important cultural contributions are thoroughly documented. The great Ford historian Ford R. Bryan tells the story of these figures in his book, Henry’s Lieutenants (1993). Bryan frequently mentions Sidney Houghton, most notably in his book Friends, Family, and Forays (2002).

Perhaps Houghton remains undocumented because he was British, and in the decades before Internet resources became widely available, American researchers like Bryan had limited access to British sources. Today, we are fortunate to not only have the profound resources of the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford at our disposal, but also digital access to repositories around the world. As Curator of Decorative Arts, I have spent considerable time trying to fully grasp the enigmatic Mr. Houghton—his biography, his business, and, most importantly, his relationship with Henry and Clara Ford. This blog is the first in a series that will delve into this mostly hidden story.

Now, you may ask, why should we care about the Fords’ interior designer? Seeing and understanding the interior environments that the Fords created to live and work provides us with great insight into their characters, creating a well-rounded picture of their lives. We can understand their motivations and desires and see how these changed over time. We can peel back the larger-than-life personas of the Fords that come with such public lives and see them as individuals.

What Do We Know About Sidney Houghton’s Early Life?


Researching Houghton was not easy. The first place I looked was Ancestry.com, but Houghton is a very common name in Britain. After a lot of digging and working with colleagues at The Henry Ford, I located Sidney Charles Houghton, who was born in 1872 and died in 1950. He was the son of cabinetmaker Charles Houghton, which likely led to his interest in furniture-making and interior design.

One of the questions still in my mind is: Where was Houghton educated? To date, I have not been able to find out which art school he attended—these records do not appear to be available online. What I do know is that he married in 1895, and had a family consisting of two sons by 1898. By 1910, according to the British census, his business, Houghton Studio, was established in London.

Houghton in World War I


From Ford R. Bryan’s publications and resources in the Benson Ford Research Center, I knew that Houghton was in the British Navy during World War I. I searched the British National Archives and found his fascinating military service record. Houghton, I discovered, was an experienced yachtsman, and was commissioned as a commander. He helped to create patrol boats, called P-boats, that swiftly located enemy submarines. In 1917, he was sent to the United States to work with Reginald Fessenden (1866–1932), a Canadian-American inventor who worked in early radio. Together, they developed an early sonar system to locate enemy ships, submarines, and mines. For his contributions to the war effort, Houghton was awarded the Order of the British Empire, or O.B.E., in 1919.

Through the reminiscences of Ernest Liebold, held in the Benson Ford Research Center, I discovered that Houghton was brought into the Ford Motor Company’s war effort to create what Liebold called the Eagle boats. These were similar to the British P-boats. Unlike the relatively simple P-boats, though, the Eagle boats would be like a “young battleship,” according to Liebold. He went on to state that the boats would “have the eye of an eagle and would flit over the seas.”

Long, narrow boat on elevated trestle with a large group of people on land looking on
Eagle Boat #1 on Launching Trestle at the Ford Rouge Plant, July 11, 1918. / THF270275

Long, narrow boat decorated with flags and bunting on elevated trestle above water, as a crowd looks on
Eagle Boat #60 Lowered to Water, August 1919. / THF270277

Liebold continued:

Houghton came along, and he said, “We ought to have a listening device put on those ships to detect submarines.” That is where [Thomas] Edison came in to develop this listening device, and I think Houghton is the man who contacted him. I remember him coming out with a long rod and stuff, and it was so darned secret that nobody knew a thing about it.

They had a special room provided for it in the Eagle boats. It was to be this listening chamber in which the apparatus was placed. They could detect a submarine by the beat of its propellers. A magnetic signal could determine just exactly in what direction it was, [sic] and approximately, from the intensity of the sound of the beating of the propeller, they could tell just what distance and in what direction it was.

They would radio that information to the nearest battleship in a cordon of battleships, or destroyers or whatever they had. They would be able to attack the submarine, you see. That was the object of it.

As an integral member of the Eagle boat team, it is highly likely that Houghton travelled to Dearborn and met Henry Ford. We know from later correspondence that Henry and Clara developed an abiding personal friendship with Houghton which continued through the 1920s. They commissioned a series of projects, beginning with the Fords’ yacht, the Sialia—but I am getting ahead of myself. At this point, I would like to discuss Houghton’s work in interior design, specifically his role as an interior architect.

Sidney Houghton’s Studio


Page with text and image of sculpture featuring boat and figures in water
Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121214

Page with text
Back Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121230

This brochure or trade catalogue gives us great insight into the Houghton Studio. We date it to the late 1920s, when the projects Houghton worked on for the Fords were complete. From the text, we can see just what the firm’s capabilities were. The back cover reads: “Designs and estimates for decoration and furnishing of every kind / from the simplest to the most exotic / always in good style / always at exceptional values.” What this tells us is that Houghton Studio was a rarity in the interior design world.

Houghton was an interior architect, meaning that he designed both interiors and furnishings—the woodwork, wall treatments, lighting, furniture, textiles, and accessories—to create a unified interior environment. In new construction, an interior architect would collaborate with the architect to create an interior in harmony with the architecture. This contrasts with our present-day conception of an interior designer as a person who simply selects existing furnishings that harmonize to create a unified interior aesthetic. Obviously, Houghton Studio’s clients were wealthy and able to afford the best.

Page with text and three images: Two showing room interiors and one in a round inset showing the exterior of a building
Chateau Laurier National Hotel, Ottawa Canada. / THF121219a

Page with text and drawings of furniture--a wardrobe, dressing table and stool, dresser, nightstand, and two beds with a large headboard and two side tables
Designs for Modern Furniture. / THF121226a

Like most of his contemporaries, Houghton worked in a variety of styles, as demonstrated in the images above—from period revivals as seen in the Chateau Laurier National Hotel, in Ottawa, Canada, to his renderings for “Modern” furniture, done in what we would describe as the Art Deco style, which was synonymous with high-end 1920s taste.

Page with text
List of Commissions in the Houghton Catalogue. / THF121229b

One of the most interesting pages in the catalogue notes several commissions to design interiors for yachts, which was a specialty of the Houghton Studio. The most important of these was a commission for the Sialia, Henry Ford’s yacht. The Fords purchased the yacht just before World War I, and it was requisitioned for use by the U.S. Navy in 1917. The ship was returned to Henry Ford in 1920. At this point, Sidney Houghton was asked to redesign the interiors.

Henry Ford’s Sialia


Long boat docked next to an industrial crane or craneway
Henry Ford’s Yacht, Sialia, Docked at Ford Rouge Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, 1927. /THF140396

According to Ford R. Bryan, the cost of the interiors was approximately $150,000. As seen here, the interiors are comfortable, but relatively simple. During the 1920s, the Fords occasionally used the Sialia, but Henry and Clara Ford preferred other means of travel, usually by large Ford corporate ore carriers, when they traveled to their summer home in Michigan’s upper peninsula. According to the ship’s captain, Perry Stakes, Henry Ford never really liked the Sialia, and he sold it in July of 1927.

Room interior with piano, desk, upholstered chair
Parlor on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92100

Small room containing double bed with a dresser on either side and a round mirror above each dresser
Bedroom on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92098

Following the Sialia commission, the Fords found a kindred spirit in Houghton. The archives contain ample correspondence from the early 1920s, with the Fords asking Houghton to return to Dearborn. Houghton subsequently received a commission to design the interior of the Fords’ Fair Lane railroad car in 1920. Between 1920 and 1926, Houghton was deluged with projects from the Fords, including the redesign of the Fair Lane Estate interiors, design of Henry and Edsel’s offices in the new Ford Engineering Laboratory, interiors for the Dearborn Country Club, as well as interiors for the Henry Ford Hospital addition.

In the next post in this series, we will look closer at several of these projects and present surviving renderings from the Fair Lane remodeling, as well as furniture from the Engineering Laboratory offices.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

Sidney Houghton, World War I, technology, research, home life, Henry Ford, furnishings, Ford Motor Company, design, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, archives

Pottery vase with impressionistic landscape scene in blues and greens

Vase, 1917 / THF176918

This Rookwood Pottery vase from our collection, on view in the Art Pottery of the 20th Century exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, can tell us an unexpected story about women’s work and craft in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the late 19th century, ladies of high social standing in America were encouraged to broaden their interests beyond their homes. One of the most acceptable ways to do this was by taking up decorative china painting. Over time, these privileged women created associations with classes in china painting for women of all economic backgrounds. Probably the most important of these women was socialite Maria Longworth Nichols of Cincinnati, Ohio, who went beyond the accepted norm and established her own pottery that she called Rookwood.

Complex of several intricately timbered buildings
Rookwood Pottery, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1900-1906 / THF297612

Beginning in 1880, Nichols hired talented young women—who would not have opportunities elsewhere—as well as men to create innovative ceramic wares in this novel commercial venture. At Rookwood, pioneering glazes and imagery made the Cincinnati-based company famous from coast to coast. One of the most significant innovations at Rookwood was its introduction of the “vellum” glaze in 1904. This signature glaze, seen on the vase at the top of this post, features a light-colored background where pictorial landscapes and flowers could appear almost like a painting.

Even before the development of the “vellum” glaze, competitors noticed Rookwood’s innovations and lured away some of their best potters and decorators. Also, over time, artists left Rookwood and started their own companies. They adopted Rookwood’s distinctive techniques, spreading the look of what was called “Art Pottery” around the United States. So, by the early decades of the 20th century, the pastime of ladies’ china painting evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry. Although Art Pottery flourished in the early 20th century, the arrival of the Great Depression and World War II all but extinguished Americans’ interest in decorative ceramics for the home.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

art, furnishings, Henry Ford Museum, women's history, making, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, THF Connect app

As we approach the Memorial Day holiday, when our thoughts turn toward lost loved ones and friends, it is insightful to consider how Americans of the past memorialized their loved ones.


Americans always treasured the memory of the dearly departed, but during the era just after American independence, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, elaborate and artistic memorials were the norm. Scholars debate the reasons. Many believe that with the death of America’s most revered founding father, George Washington, in 1799, a fashion developed for creating and displaying memorial pictures in the home. Other scholars argue that the death of Washington coincided with the height of the Neoclassical, or Federal style in America. During the period after the Revolution, Americans saw themselves as latter-day Greeks and Romans. After all, they argued, the United States was the first democracy since ancient times. So, they used depictions of leaders like George Washington, along with imagery derived from antiquity.

Painting of memorial with image of George Washington in center, angel to one side and soldier weeping in front
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for George Washington, by Mehetabel Wingate, 1800-1810 / THF6971

This wonderful memorial painting of George Washington was drawn in pencil and ink and painted in watercolors by a woman in Haverhill, Massachusetts, named Mehetabel Wingate. Born in 1772, Mehetabel was likely trained in painting as part of her education at an academy for genteel young ladies, much like a “finishing school” for young ladies in the 20th century. She also would have been tutored in the needle arts. The concept was to teach proper young ladies the arts as part of an appreciation for the “finer things” in life. This would prepare them for a suitable marriage and help them take their place in refined society.

In the academies, young women were taught to copy from artistic models for their work. In this case, Mehetabel Wingate copied a print engraved by Enoch G. Grindley titled in Latin “Pater Patrae” (“Father of the Country”) and printed in 1800, just after Washington’s death in 1799. Undoubtedly, she saw the print and was skilled enough to copy it in color. The image of the soldier weeping in front of the massive monument to Washington is impressive. Also impressive are the angels or cherubs holding garlands, and women dressed up as classical goddesses, grieving. One of the goddesses holds a portrait of Washington. Of course, the inscriptions tout many of Washington’s accomplishments. Mehetabel Wingate was a talented artist and ambitious in undertaking a composition as complicated as this one.

Oval-shaped painting of woman in white dress leaning on a memorial containing text
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for Mehetabel Bradley Wingate, by her daughter Mehetabel Wingate, 1796 / THF237513

Fortunately, The Henry Ford owns two additional works made by Mehetabel Wingate (1772–1846). From these, we can learn a bit about her life and her family. This remarkably preserved watercolor painting memorializes her mother, also named Mehetabel, who died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1796. Young Mehetabel, who would have been 24 in 1796, is shown mourning in front of a grave marker, which is inscribed. Although it is simplified, she wears a fashionable dress in the most current style. Around her is an idealized landscape, which includes a willow tree, or “weeping” willow, on the left, which symbolized sadness. On the right is a pine tree, which symbolized everlasting life. In the background is a group of buildings, perhaps symbolizing the town, including the church, which represented faith and hope. These are standard images seen in many, if not most, American memorial pictures. Mehetabel Wingate undoubtedly learned these conventions in the young girls’ academy in her hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Painting of four women in varying styles of white gowns, one holding flowers and one greenery
Women in Classical Dress, 1790-1810, by Mehetabel Wingate / THF152522

The painting, above, while not a memorial painting, shows us how young ladies in the academies learned how to paint. Mehetabel seems to be practicing poses and angles, as the young ladies dressed as classical goddesses reach out to each other. It likely pre-dates both works previously shown and may have been done as a classroom exercise. As such, it is a remarkable survival.

Person in long black dress or gown leaning against a memorial containing text, next to a tree
In memory of Freeman Bartlett Jr. who died in Calcutta November the 1st 1817, aged 19 years, by Eliza T. Reed, about 1818 / THF14816

This example, painted later than Mehetabel Wingate’s work, shows the same conventions: a grieving female in front of a tomb with an inscription about the dearly departed—in this case, a young man who died at the tender age of 19 in far-off Calcutta. We also see the idealized landscape with the “weeping” willow tree and the church in the background.

Painting of woman in gray dress leaning despondently on one of two memorials containing text
Memorial Painting for Elijah and Lucy White, unknown artist, circa 1826 / THF120259

The painting above, done a few years later, shows some of the variations possible in memorial pictures. Unlike the previous examples, painted on paper, this was painted on expensive, white silk. It commemorates two people, Elijah and Lucy White, presumably husband and wife, who both died in their sixties. We see the same imagery here as before, although the trees, other than the “weeping” willows, are so abstract as to be difficult to identify.

Painting with urn shape containing text, surrounded by six white birds with yellow wings and vines
Memorial Painting for Sarah Burgat, J. Preble, 1826 / THF305542

The example above represents a regional approach to memorial paintings. German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the late 1700s and early 1800s brought an interesting, stylized approach to their memorial paintings that have come to be known as “Fraktur.” The urn that would be seen on top of the monument in the previous examples now takes center stage, and is surrounded by symmetrically arranged birds. What we are seeing here is a combination of New England imagery, such as the urn, with Pennsylvania German imagery, such as the stylized birds. We know that this work was made in a town called Paris, as the artist, J. Preble, signed it in front of her name. There are two possible locations for Paris—one in Stark County, Ohio, and the other in Kentucky. Both had sizeable German immigrant populations in the 1820s. As America was settled and people moved west in the early 19th century, cultural practices melded and merged.

By the 1840s and 1850s, the concept of the memorial painting came to be viewed as old-fashioned. The invention of photography revolutionized the way folks could save representations of loved ones and friends. By the middle of the 19th century, these paintings were viewed as relics from the past. But in the early 20th century, collectors like Henry Ford recognized the historic and artistic value of these works and began to collect them. As a uniquely American art, they provide insight into the values of Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

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