Central Market in Downtown Detroit, Michigan, circa 1890 / THF96803
The historic Detroit Central Market vegetable shed will re-create a local food environment within Greenfield Village
Few mid-19th-century public market structures survive. Detroit’s vegetable shed or building, which opened in 1861, is one of the oldest of those survivors in the nation.
This ornamental bracket from the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed will be one of the architectural elements visitors will see when the building is reconstructed in Greenfield Village. / THF173219
The shed’s story is certainly harrowing. It escaped fire in 1876 and dismantling in 1894. A relocation to nearby Belle Isle saved it. There, it served many purposes until 2003, when The Henry Ford acquired it. And now, generous donors have made its reconstruction in Greenfield Village possible. (Follow @thehenryford on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and/or via our e-mails for more on when the shed will officially open in the village.)
Detroit Central Market’s Vegetable Shed, repurposed as a “horse shed,” circa 1900, on Detroit’s Belle Isle. / THF139104
As a reconstructed event space, the shed will serve as an open-air market of ideas, a place where food and common cause will bring people together to discuss meaty subjects, such as land use and regenerative agriculture, social entrepreneurship, urban and alternative agriculture, and food security. It will shelter a vibrant historic market vignette where florists, fishmongers, hucksters (hucksters being another term for market gardeners, people who raised vegetables to sell at market to retail customers), and peddlers all vied for sales. The scripted exchanges will inform us about ways that vendors historically managed ethnic tensions and provided a social safety net to the homeless, impoverished, and downtrodden. This content will be carefully curated and managed by The Henry Ford’s dedicated staff, who will ensure programming on the stuff of life in perpetuity.
Heart of a City
The Henry Ford’s vision for the restored Detroit Central Market vegetable shed as a communal center in Greenfield Village is akin to what Detroit city officials envisioned when they adopted a nearly 1,000-year-old tradition to establish a public market in 1802.
View of Detroit Central Market (here called “Cadillac Square Market”) from the roof of City Hall, circa 1875 / THF146289
The market grew near the city hall and was maintained by the city for decades, calling attention to the symbiotic relationship between urban governments, the market gardeners and farmers in and near the city, and the health and well-being of city dwellers. The market, in fact, was called City Hall Market until the city hall moved across the centrally located downtown gathering space known as Campus Martius. Thereafter, the name Detroit Central Market came to be—denoting the market’s location, but also its centrality to the civic, cultural, and ceremonial heart of the city. Within an easy walk lay city hall, the Michigan Solders’ and Sailors’ Monument, churches, schools, playhouses, and the opera, among other attractions. Within this vibrant environment, vendors went about their daily business helping customers feed themselves, a routine that fed a city.
Theoretically, a thriving city market eased Detroiters’ worries about the source of their next meal. It freed them to build a livelihood around something other than agriculture, while farmers and market gardeners knew they had a steady market for their produce and fresh meat. Today, we would call Detroit’s Central Market a “local food environment,” the place where customers bought foodstuffs directly from butchers, hucksters, florists, fishmongers, and confectioners.
A community grew within and around the market that facilitated entrepreneurship. Vendors, usually sole proprietors and startups, had a fixed number of resources—the vegetables, fruit and flowers they raised, fish they caught, fresh meat they butchered, knickknacks or “Yankee trinkets” they sold, or services such as chimney sweeping that they hawked to customers.
They had to be ingenious to draw attention to their resources and thus increase the likelihood of a sale. This made for vibrant market days.
People & Prejudices
Practicality dictated that the market be in the center of downtown Detroit and in the shadow of city hall. These were heavily trafficked areas, and structures were built as enclosed spaces to protect vendors and customers from the weather. The Detroit Common Council authorized, funded, maintained, and updated structures and built new ones as needed. It authorized a “clerk of the market” to collect rents, monitor compliance, mediate conflicts, and report to elected officials.
All did not go smoothly at Detroit’s Central Market, however. The fish market in the Catholic city of Detroit was, by many accounts, the poorest fish market in the country. Why? As one fish dealer explained, people in Detroit fished. Therefore, they did not have to buy. Yet care went into designating northern stalls in the vegetable building as the purview of fishmongers, available for auction and then for rent by the month, for ten months of the year.
People gather at the vegetable building at Detroit's Central Market, circa 1885 / THF136886
Records indicate that there was no love lost between fishmongers and butchers, likely because butchers held power that fishmongers did not. Butchers were organized. Some even served as elected officials. They held membership in community associations and had strong ties to ethnic and immigrant communities.
The vegetable shed at Detroit Central Market most obviously housed hucksters, many of them women. Of the 32 greengrocers and market hucksters who listed their business address as City Hall Market (CH Market) in the 1864–1865 Detroit City Directory, nearly one-third (ten) were women. In 1874, the percentage of women hucksters increased to nearly 40%. Racial diversity also existed. Several Black hucksters had market addresses over the years, and at least one had a relatively stable business selling garden vegetables at the market from the early 1860s to the mid-1870s. Overall, however, newspaper accounts stereotyped hucksters as country bumpkins unable to handle their market wagons. This indicated a lack of respect on the part of city dwellers who depended on these growers for their food.
Cultural conflict erupted at the market as individuals from numerous ethnic groups, some well-established and others newcomers, had to cohabitate and compete at the public market. Louis Schiappecasse, an Italian immigrant identified as the first outdoor fruit merchant in Detroit, provides a good case in point. He established himself on Jefferson Avenue across from the Biddle House in 1870. When he died in 1916, the headline read: “Millionaire Fruit Merchant Is Dead.” Yet, in the fever pitch of anti-immigrant sentiment in 1890, a newspaper reporter, without naming names, quoted shop owners near Central Market who were frustrated with Italian fruit salesmen too cheap to pay rent for a market stall. Instead, they claimed that fruit salesmen set up pop-up stands that obstructed sidewalks and made it difficult for patrons to enter some stores.
A customer at the Detroit Central Market vegetable building, 1885–1893 / THF623871
Finally, one of the most notable entrepreneurs at Central Market, who appears regularly in minutes of Detroit Common Council meetings, gained attention for her refusal to accept the city’s decision to close the market. Mary Judge was a widow, listed her address as an alleyway at least once, and changed her market specialty almost every year—sometimes selling vegetables, sometimes flowers, sometimes candy, sometimes refreshments. She also received special dispensation from Detroit’s Committee on Markets when she was cited for violating three market standards. She was allowed to sell vegetables out of stall No. 44 because she was “very poor and unfit for any other occupation.” This last affirmed the function of the public market as a social safety net.
Vendors practiced benevolence, too, operating as social entrepreneurs, at least in relation to residents in the Home for the Friendless. The Ladies’ Christian Union organized the Home for the Friendless in May 1860 to aid homeless women, children (including the children of incarcerated individuals), and elderly women. Twice each week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the market season, boys from the home carried a basket to the market. Butchers and hucksters filled the basket with produce and meats, which helped make ends meet at the home.
The Detroit Central Market vendors helped feed hundreds of thousands of mouths in downtown Detroit. When reconstructed in Greenfield Village, the vegetable shed where they once sold their wares will support programming that will enrich millions of minds on topics as wide ranging as agricultural ethics and food justice.
Countless stories await exploration: Stories based on the lives of vendors and their customers; city council members and market staff; and the business owners, entertainers, and entrepreneurs at work around the marketplace can all teach us lessons that we can adapt to help shape a better future.
Hallmark "The Divine Miss Piggy" Christmas Ornament, 1981 / THF178755
In the imaginary worlds that Jim Henson created, Miss Piggy could fly like an angel—and she could sing, dance, and ice skate.
How did Henson accomplish this? He turned to anthropomorphism, endowing an animal or an inanimate object with human characteristics. And he created fanciful situations that helped members of the audience share in the fun.
Pigs don’t fly…. Oh, but they can, in the hands of a master of imagination like Jim Henson.
“Wilson’s Albany Seedling” from D.M. Dewey’s Series of Plates of Fruits, Flowers and Ornamental Trees, 1871-1888. The Chicago Tribune (July 4, 1862) gave a shout-out to Wilson’s Seedling in “A Chapter on Strawberries: How to Eat Them. Features of the Strawberry Market.” / THF148036
We wait patiently for the first field-ripened strawberry of the season. But horticulturalists have tried to reduce this wait-time for decades by selecting strawberry plants that yielded fruit earlier—and fruit that grew bigger, tasted better, and matured to a brilliant scarlet-red color. They planted seeds from these plants, and after consistent yields across generations, then advertised the improved cultivars for sale. Farm families, market gardeners, and horticulturalists purchased, planted, and harvested these plants, and repeated this, season after season.
The first volume of the Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist in 1843 reported on the latest innovations. Editor Daniel D. T. Moore waxed eloquent about “Strawberries -- Large and Luscious!” He described a Michigan-grown fruit as “the largest and most delicious strawberries we have ever before seen or tasted” (July 1, 1843, pg. 76).
That “Large and Luscious” berry had no name. Moore described it as “a native of this State, cultivated.” Subsequent issues of Michigan Farmer, however, specified numerous varieties and their merits. John Burr in Columbus, Ohio, listed six different seedling strawberries for sale in August 1847, just in time for transplanting. He stressed the large uniform size and sweet flavor of the Ohio Mammoth berry as well as its hardiness. He described a namesake, Burr’s New Pine, as maturing “very early” with a “highly aromatic, sweet and delicious flavor,” concluding that it was “unquestionably the very best strawberry cultivated.” He sold these two seedlings for $2.50 per dozen, while he sold his stalwart, Burr’s Old Seedling, for 50 cents per dozen or $2.00 for 100 (August 23, 1847, pg. 96).
Horticulturalists generated plants suitable to local climates and useful to local market gardeners. The go-to early berry in one place might not transfer well to another growing zone. Sometimes hype did not match performance. James Dougall, a nurseryman living across the Detroit River, south of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, assessed 15 varieties of strawberries for Michigan Farmer subscribers in 1849. He described the Duke of Kent’s Scarlet as “Only valuable as being the earliest strawberry, but not worthy of cultivation in comparison with the large early scarlet which is double the size, and ripens only a few days later” (August 1, 1849).
The public remained eager for the seasonal treat. “And what fruit is more delicious than the strawberry?” wondered Michigan Farmer editor Warren Isham in May 1850. But propagating strawberries required regular replanting, at least every two or three years, to maintain the patch. This sustained a lucrative business for plant breeders and horticulturalists. Colorful illustrations helped them capture the attention of growers, as the illustrations below from horticultural sales books indicate.
Nurseryman’s Specimen Book, 1871-1888, page 56: Miner’s Great Prolific, advertised for 50 cents per dozen. The Illustrated Strawberry Culturist (1887) described the Miner’s Great Prolific as “large to very large. . . deep bright crimson. . . vigorous” and “a popular variety among amateurs as well as those who cultivate Strawberries extensively for market” (page 51). / THF620219
Nurseryman’s Specimen Book, Great Northern Nursery Co., Baraboo, Wisconsin, circa 1900. This specimen book, carried by a salesman, included cloth pages that folded out. Customers could then compare attributes of six berries including: Michel’s Early, Jesse, Warfield No. 2, Splendid, Bederwood, and Parker Earle. / THF620262
As strawberries ripened, growers had to get busy picking and processing the perishable fruit. For farm families, this often meant that all members took their turn picking in their own patches. Families without a strawberry patch, but with a yearning to pick their own, could do so at community gardens or pick-your-own nursery businesses.
Ella and Edward Posorek in a Strawberry Field, circa 1932. / THF251170
Growers raising large quantities for market relied on agricultural laborers hired to pick as fast as berries ripened. Two photographs indicate the scale of production on the Atlantic coast, serving Eastern urban markets, and in California, serving Western fresh markets and processor demand.
Picking Strawberries, Charleston, S.C., 1907. This photograph, part of the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, shows the scale of Southern strawberry fields that helped satisfy customer demand in urban coastal markets. / THF624649
Japanese Men and Women in the Strawberry Fields, California, 1921-1922. (Note that while this photograph features berry cultivation, it was taken to support an article in the Dearborn Independent attacking Japanese farmers' real status in the fruit-growing industry in California. More information on the photo can be found in our Digital Collections at the link that follows.) / THF624653
Educational materials designed for geography instruction often featured fruits and vegetables. This Keystone View Company stereograph, in tandem with an instructional workbook, oriented teachers to lessons that helped students understand sources of their food supply. In the case of strawberries, students could see a person about their age busy in a strawberry field in Florida, picking a crop that the students might eat on their strawberry shortcake!
Picking Strawberries in January in Florida, circa 1928. / THF624669
Fresh berries had to be eaten quickly to enjoy them in all their lusciousness. The Chicago Tribune drew readers’ attention to the “luxury” of strawberry shortcake at the height of berry season in that Northern city (July 14, 1857): “Make a large, thick shortcake, split it twice through, and spread with butter and fresh strawberries and sugar, put the parts together again, and serve hot.”
The Chicago Tribune shared two additional recipes in a “how to eat them” feature a few years later (July 4, 1862). The editor recommended starting with a recipe for a very light soda biscuit, baked in a round tin about the size of a dinner plate. Directions continued with instructions to immediately split the baked cake in two or three parts. “Butter each part slightly—spread a thick layer of berries upon one of the slices, then place the other slice over it. . . . Scatter powdered sugar over the berries as they are placed on the slices, and finish by pouring a goodly portion of thick, rich cream upon the berries before the next slice is laid on.”
One last recipe comes from “About Strawberries,” printed in the Detroit Post & Tribune and republished in the True Republican (Sycamore, Illinois). This described the common strawberry shortcake as “a favorite [but] rich” dish. The editor suggested taking “one quart of flour, three tablespoonfuls of butter, one large cup sour cream or rich loppered milk, one egg, one tablespoonful white sugar, one tablespoonful soda dissolved in hot water, and one saltspoonful salt. Rub the salt, butter and flour together; add the soda to the sour milk; stir in the egg and sugar with the milk; put all together, mixing quite soft. Roll lightly and quickly into two sheets, the one intended for the upper crust fully half an inch thick, the lower less than this. Now lay one sheet of paste smoothly upon the other and bake until done. While warm, separate the sheets just where they were joined and lay upon the lower or thick sheet a thick, deep coating of strawberries; then add a coat of powdered sugar and cover with the upper crust . . . serve at tea, cut into triangles and cover with sweet cream and with sugar sprinkled over it. Always send around the powdered sugar and let the guests help themselves” (June 29, 1878).
Readers knew that they could only eat so much shortcake. Yields always outpaced demand. To meet the need, newspaper editors encouraged readers to turn the fruit into jam or preserves before the berries spoiled. Food processors also approached fruit preservation on an industrial scale. The postcard below from the H.J. Heinz Company provides a behind-the-scenes view of women in their work uniforms stemming strawberries as part of the preserve-making process.
Strawberries remain one of the most highly anticipated seasonal fruits. Few compare in taste sensation. In the past as now, however, market opportunities lead growers to pick berries before they ripen to prevent damage in transit. Today, the end of strawberry season in one location means the end of the taste sensation, but not the end of availability for consumers.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Thanks to Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, for editorial advice.
“Midway Point near Monterey, California,” 1902, Detroit Publishing Company Collection. / THF118817
The United Nations (UN) first discussed a “world oceans day” during the June 1992 Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The UN General Assembly designated June 8 as the day to recognize the role of oceans in a global perspective, as well as the influence of law and society on those oceans, starting in 2009. The theme “The Oceans: Life and Livelihoods” provides a focus for World Oceans Day 2021.
The Henry Ford’s collections support reflection on ocean life, livelihoods, and health in several ways. Visual depictions range from a 16th-century map to 20th-century photographs featuring ocean liners and oceanside retreats.
Map, “Die Neuwen Inseln / So hinder Hispanien gegen Orient ven dem land indie ligen,” drawn by German cartographer Sebastian Münster (1488–1552) in 1550 to illustrate the “new island” lying between Spain, the Orient, and the country of India. / THF284540
“Docking a Big Liner,” RMS Oceanic, 1903. Briefly, between 1899 and 1901, the Oceanic was the largest ship in the world. / THF204952
Cliff House, San Francisco, California, circa 1905. / THF200584
Ocean health anchors World Oceans Day. Marine biologist Rachel Carson featured ocean health in her earliest mass-media publications. Three publications drew the public’s attention to these issues. They included Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955).
Rachel Carson using a microscope, April 1963. You can see a drawing of an octopus on the wall above her head, and a pencil holder with a map of the world’s oceans. / THF147922
What might we do to be more engaged with World Oceans Day?
The raindrop in our personal space starts a journey we can all follow. The droplets accumulate and flow into freshwater creeks, streams, rivers, the Great Lakes, and ultimately into the world’s oceans. Maintaining water quality starts with the runoff, redirecting it to retention ponds where sediment can settle out before it enters rivers, lakes, and oceans. The Ford Rouge Factory Tour offers guests the opportunity to learn more about this process, and so can walks through Greenfield Village, paying particular attention to the ponds and their connections to the Rouge.
Exhausted from your world-wind tour of THF ocean-related resources? There is still more to see, and much more to do, on our collective journey to ocean health. Contemplate your next steps as you explore art inspired by oceans, on view in the Davidson-Gerson Modern Glass Gallery in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
“Ocean Floor” Ladder by Therman Statom, 2007 (Gift of Bruce and Ann Bachmann). / THF164729
Compiled by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford, following the lead of Zachary Ciborowski, Administrative Assistant and Project Coordinator; with inspiration from The Henry Ford’s Green Team members, including Cynthia Jones, General Manager, Innovation Experience; and with the assistance of Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content.
Weathervanes have helped humans for millennia.In ancient cities, streamers or pennants mounted at high points communicated wind patterns to watchers below. In more recent centuries, weathervanes in the form we might recognize today perched atop high structures, pointing into the wind to reveal its precise direction. These devices heralded weather changes by indicating shifts in prevailing winds—essential information for farmers or mariners whose businesses depended entirely on the weather.
Weathervanes of this type rotated freely, in perfect balance, with weight distributed across a longer “tail” end that was pushed by the wind, and a shorter “arrow” end that pointed in the direction from which it blew. Starting with this basic form, tradesmen and commercial manufacturers created a vast array of weathervane ornaments by the late nineteenth century. These could communicate more than practical information about the wind. A weathervane might represent regional identity or personal interests, convey religious or political symbolism, or advertise goods or services.
Commercial manufacturers produced a vast array of weathervane ornaments by the late nineteenth century. / THF622046 (detail)
Farm animals were a popular choice for rural weathervane customers. Roosters, with their biblical associations, also conveyed religious symbolism and often served as visible moral reminders atop church spires. / THF622073 and THF622074
Specialty weathervanes, like this one depicting a malt shovel and beer barrel, doubled as trade advertisements. / THF622201 (detail)
The United States Weather Bureau began generating weather reports based on data collected from across the country in the late 1800s, precipitating the decline of traditional weathervanes. When radio stations began broadcasting national weather reports in 1921, weathervanes became functionally obsolete for most Americans. Nevertheless, weathervanes remained popular. Collectors celebrated them as remarkable examples of American folk art, and twentieth-century manufacturers continued to produce them as nostalgic ornaments for suburban homeowners.
Supplanted by national weather reporting in the early twentieth century, weathervanes like these became the special interest of folk art collectors. / THF186724, THF186720, THF145466, and THF186729
By the mid-twentieth century, most weathervanes were strictly ornamental, as illustrated by this 1959 catalog. / THF622033 and THF622034
In updated forms, weathervanes remain important weathercasting tools. As instant indicators of prevailing winds, they are particularly useful at airports, marinas, and sporting events. And meteorologists still rely on weathervanes—often in combination with anemometers, which measure the speed of the wind, as “aerovanes”—to gather data that documents and helps predict weather patterns.
Weathervanes provide evidence of age-old efforts to identify patterns in natural phenomena and predict changes that might affect human survival. These utilitarian artifacts are mostly understood today as whimsical adornments (Hallmark has even released weathervane Christmas ornaments!) only because most Americans have little to no training in meteorology. Yet, weathervanes remain essential weathercasting devices. They can also aid citizen scientists intent on recording climate change locally and globally.
The next time you visit The Henry Ford, look up as you walk around the museum and village to spot weathervanes atop spires and towers. Note how they point into the wind and shift as the breezes blow. In the meantime, you can browse a selection of weathervanes and trade catalogs from weathervane manufacturers in our Digital Collections.
Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment and Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
George Washington Carver's Graduation Photo from Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm (now Iowa State University), 1893 / THF214111
George Washington Carver and Food
George Washington Carver (1860s–1943) was born near the end of the Civil War in Missouri. He studied plants his entire life, loved art and science, earned two agricultural science degrees from Iowa State University, and shared his knowledge broadly during his 45-year-career at Tuskegee Institute. He urged farm families to care for their land. Today we call this regenerative agriculture, but in Carver’s day it amounted to a revolutionary agricultural ethic.
Carver’s curiosity about plants fueled another revolution as he promoted hundreds of new uses for things that farm families could grow and eat. Cookbooks inspired him to adapt, and he worked with Tuskegee students to test and refine recipes. Then he compiled them in bulletins that stressed the connection between the environment and human health.
Today, our chefs at The Henry Ford are inspired by Carver’s dozens of bulletins and hundreds of recipes for chutneys, roast meats, salads, and peanut-topped sweet rolls.
Some Possibilities of the Cow Pea in Macon County, Alabama, a 1910 bulletin by Carver featuring recipes. / THF213269
Developing Modern Carver-Inspired Recipes
All Natural Pork with Peanut Plum Sauce at Plum Market Kitchen.
Carver is known to most of us for his many uses for the peanut. The Henry Ford’s culinary team looks to go beyond that, knowing that there is so much more to his legacy. Cultural appropriation is a hot topic in the world of food service today, but as a public history institution, we recognize that food is culture, and we are committed to authentic representation of a variety of food traditions. We are constantly collaborating and developing new recipes in consultation with our curators, who provide expert understanding and context. Part of the mission that drives our chefs is to understand the full story, and to help all our guests complete that experience as well.
Kale, Roasted Peanut, and Pickled Red Onion Salad with Molasses Vinaigrette at Plum Market Kitchen
Many aspects of Carver’s legacy are woven into a modern menu at Plum Market Kitchen at The Henry Ford. Today, the ideas of all-natural, healthy, and organic have become “tag lines” to sell you food. However, for Carver, and for Plum Market Kitchen, these have always been a driving ideology. Together, The Henry Ford and Plum Market Kitchen have taken inspiration from many of Carver’s recipes—always looking to honor and continue his legacy.
Spring offerings from George Washington Carver's recipes at A Taste of History.
While our new recipes at Plum Market Kitchen are inspired by Carver, with modern adaptations, our new offerings in A Taste of History are more directly drawn from Carver’s own recipes and the ingredients he used. Spring offerings at A Taste of History include the following—click through for recipes to try at home.
Farmhouse Roasted Sweet Potatoes at Plum Market Kitchen.
If you’d like to further explore the life and work of George Washington Carver, issues surrounding food security, historic recipes, or dining at The Henry Ford, here are some additional resources across our website:
Take a closer look at Black empowerment through Black education with the microscope used by agricultural scientist George Washington Carver during his tenure at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Throughout Carver’s life, he balanced two interests and talents—the creative arts and the natural sciences. Find out how each influenced the other.
A pattern of Black activism exists, a pattern evident in the work of individuals who dedicate themselves to improving the health and wellbeing of others. These individuals may best be described as “food soldiers.” They arm themselves with evidence from agricultural and domestic science. They build their defenses one market garden at a time. They ally with grassroots activists, philanthropists, and policy makers who support their cause. Past action informs them, and they in turn inspire others to use their knowledge to build a better nation.
June Sears, Rosemary Dishman, and Dorothy Ford Discussing Women's Nutrition, May 1970. / THF620081
Food is one of life’s necessities (along with clothing and shelter). Centuries of legal precedent confirmed the need for employers to provide a food allowance (a ration), as well as clothing and shelter, to “bound” employees. For example, a master craftsman had to provide life’s necessities to an indentured servant, contracted to work for him for seven years, or a landowner was legally required (though adherence and enforcement varied) to provide food, clothing, and shelter to an enslaved person, bound to labor for life. This legal obligation changed after the Civil War with the coming of freedom.
Landowner R.J. Hart scratched out the clause in a contract that obligated him to furnish “healthy and substantial rations” to a freedman in 1868. Hart instead furnished laborer Henry Mathew housing (“quarters”) and fuel, a mule, and 35 acres of land. In exchange, Mr. Mathew agreed to cultivate the acreage, to fix fencing, and to accept a one-third share of the crop after harvest. The contract did not specify what Mr. Mathew could or should grow, but cotton dominated agriculture in the part of Georgia where he lived and farmed after the Civil War.
Cotton is King, Plantation Scene, Georgia, 1895 / THF278900
This new agricultural labor system—sharecropping—took hold across the cotton South. As the number of people laboring for a share of the crops increased, those laborers’ access to healthy foods decreased. Instead of gardening or raising livestock, sharecroppers had to concentrate on cash-crop production—either cotton or more localized specialty crops such as sugar cane, rice, or tobacco. Anything they grew for themselves on their landlord’s property went first to the landlord.
Postcard, "Weighing Cotton in the South," 1924 /THF8577
With no incentive or opportunity to garden, sharecroppers had few options but to buy groceries on credit from local merchants, who often were also the landowners. A failed crop left sharecroppers even more indebted, impoverished, and malnourished. This had lasting consequences for all, but race discrimination further disadvantaged Black Southerners, as sociologist Stewart Tolnay documented in The Bottom Rung: African American Family Life on Southern Farms (1999).
As food insecurity increased across the South, educators added agricultural and domestic science to classroom instruction. Many schools, especially land-grant colleges, gained distinction because of this practical instruction. Racism, however, limited Black students’ access to education. Administrators secured private funding to deliver similar content to Black students at private institutes and at a growing number of public teacher-training schools across the South.
Microscope Used by George Washington Carver, circa 1900, when he taught agricultural science at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, as it was known at the time. / THF163071
Lessons in domestic science aligned with agricultural science most obviously in courses in market gardening. A pamphlet, Everyday Life at Hampton Institute, published around 1907, featured students cultivating, harvesting, and marketing fresh fruits and vegetables. Female students also processed and preserved these foods in domestic science classes. Graduates of these programs stood at the ready to share nutrition lessons. Many, however, criticized this training as doing too little to challenge inequity.
Sixth Street Market, Richmond, Va., 1908-1909 / THF278870
Nature Study and Children's Gardens, circa 1910, page 6 / THF213304
Opportunity increased as the canning industry offered new opportunities for farm families to produce perishable fruits and vegetables for shipment to processors, as well as for home use. Black experts in agriculture and domestic science encouraged Black landowning farm families that could afford the canning equipment to embrace this opportunity. These families also had some local influence and could encourage broader community investment in new market opportunities, including construction of community canning centers and purchase of canning equipment to use in them.
The Canning and Preserving of Fruits and Vegetables in the Home, 1912 / THF288039
Nutritionists who worked with Black land-owning farm families reached only about 20 percent of the total population of Black farmers in the South. Meeting the needs of the remaining 80 percent required work with churches, clubs, and other organizations. National Health Week, a program of the National Negro Business League, began in 1915 to improve health and sanitation. This nation-wide effort put the spotlight on need and increased opportunities for Black professionals to coordinate public aid that benefitted families and communities.
Nutritionists advocated for maternal health. This studio portrait features a woman with two children, circa 1920, all apparently in good health./ THF304686
New employment opportunities for nutritionists became available during the mid-1910s. Each Southern state created a “Negro” Division within its Agricultural Extension Service, a cooperative venture between the national government’s U.S. Department of Agriculture and each state’s public land-grant institution. Many hired Black women trained at historically Black colleges across the South. They then went on the road as home demonstration agents, sharing the latest information on nutrition and food preservation.
Woman driving Chevrolet touring car, circa 1930. Note that the driver of this car is unidentified, but she represents the independence that professional Black women needed to do their jobs, which required travel to clients and work-related meetings. / THF91594
Class identity affected tactics. Black nutritionists were members of the Black middle class. They shared their wellness messages with other professional women through “Colored” women’s club meetings, teacher conferences, and farmer institutes.
Home economics teachers and home demonstration agents worked as public servants. Some supervisors advised them to avoid partisanship and activist organizations, which could prove difficult. For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), most noted for attacking inequity through legal challenges, first hosted Baby Contests in 1924. These contests had double meanings. For nutritionists, healthy babies illustrated their wellness message. Yet, “Better Baby” contests had a longer history as tools used by eugenicists to illustrate their race theory of white supremacy. The most impoverished and malnourished often benefitted least from these middle-class pursuits.
Button, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1948 / THF1605
Nutrition became increasingly important as science linked vitamins and minerals to good health. While many knew that poor diets could stunt growth rates and negatively affect reproductive health, during the 1920s and 1930s medical science confirmed vitamins and minerals as cures for some diseases that affected children and adults living in poverty. This launched a virtual revolution in food processing as manufacturers began adding iodine to salt to prevent goiters, adding Vitamin D to milk to prevent rickets, and adding Vitamin B3 to flour, breads, and cereals to prevent pellagra.
"Blue Boy Sparkle" Milk Bottle, 1934-1955 / THF169283
It was immediately obvious that these cures could help all Americans. The American Medical Association’s Committee on Foods called for fortifying milk, flour, and bread. The National Research Council first issued its “Recommended Dietary Allowances” in 1941. Information sharing increased during World War II as new wartime agencies reiterated the benefits of enriched foods.
World War II Poster, "Enrichment is Increasing; Cereals in the Nutrition Program," 1942 / THF81900
Black nutritionists played a significant role in this work for many reasons. They understood that enriched foods could address the needs of Black Americans struggling with health concerns. They knew that poverty and unequal access to information could slow adoption among residents in impoverished rural Black communities. Black women trained in domestic science or home economics also understood how racism affected health care by reducing opportunities for professional training and by segregating care into underfunded and underequipped doctor’s offices, clinics, and hospitals. That segregated system further contributed to ill health by adding to the stress level of individuals living in an unequal system.
Mobilization during World War II offered additional opportunities for Black nutritionists. The program for the 1942 Southern Negro Youth Conference at Tuskegee Institute addressed “concrete problems which the war has thrust in the forefront of American life.” Of the conference’s four organizing principles, two spoke directly to the aims of food soldiers: "How can Negro youth on the farms contribute more to the nation’s war production effort?” and “How can we strengthen the foundations of democracy by improving the status of Negro youth in the fields of: health and housing; education and recreation; race relations; citizenship?”
Program for the 5th All -Southern Negro Youth Conference, "Negro Youth Fighting for America," 1942 / THF99161
Extending the Reach
Food soldiers knew that the poorest suffered the most from malnutrition, but times of need tended to result in the most proactive legislation. For example, high unemployment during the Great Depression led to increased public aid. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built new schools with cafeterias and employed dieticians to establish school lunch programs. Impoverished families also had access to food stamps to offset high food prices for the first time in 1939 through a New Deal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Elizabeth Brogdon, Dietitian at George Washington Carver School, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947 / THF135669
Elizabeth Speirs Brogdon (1915–2008) opened school lunchrooms under the auspices of the WPA in 19 Georgia counties for six years. She qualified for her position with a B.S. in home economics from Georgia State College for Women, the state’s teacher’s college, and graduate coursework in home economics at the University of Georgia (which did not officially admit women until after she was born).
While Mrs. Brogdon could complete advanced dietetics coursework in her home state, Black women in Georgia had few options. The Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, designated as Georgia’s Black land-grant school at the time, did not admit women as campus residents until 1921, and did not offer four-year degrees until 1928. Black women seeking advanced degrees in Home Economics earned them at Northern universities.
Flemmie Pansy Kittrell (1904–1980), a native of North Carolina and graduate of Virginia’s Hampton Institute, became the first Black woman to hold a PhD in nutrition (1938) from Cornell University. Her dissertation, “A Study on Negro Infant Feeding Practices in a Selected Community of North Carolina,” indicated the contribution that research by Black women could have made, if recognized as valid and vital.
Increased knowledge of the role of nutrition in children’s health informed Congress’s approval of the National School Lunch Program in 1946. In addition to this proactive legislation, some schools, including the school in Richmond Hill, Georgia, where dietitian Elizabeth Brogdon worked, continued the tradition of children’s gardens to ensure a fresh vegetable supply.
Child in a School Vegetable Garden, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1940 / THF288200
The pace of reform increased with the arrival of television. The new medium raised the conscience of the nation by broadcasting violent suppression of peaceful Civil Rights demonstrations. This coverage coincided with increased study of the debilitating effects of poverty in the United States. Michael Harrington’s book The Other America (1962) increased support for national action to address inequity, including public health. President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “War on Poverty” became a catalyst for community action, action that Kenneth Bancroft Clark analyzed in A Relevant War Against Poverty (1969).
Michigan examples indicate how agricultural policy expanded public aid during the 1960s. President Johnson’s War on Poverty expanded public programs. This included a new Food Stamp Program in 1964, a recommitment to school lunch programs, and new nutrition education programs, all administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nutritionists, including June L. Sears, played a central role in implementing this work.
“June Sears, Rosemary Dishman, and Dorothy Ford Discussing Women's Nutrition,” May 1970. Rosemary Dishman served as a program aide and Dorothy Ford as supervising aide for Michigan’s Expanded Nutrition Program. / THF620081
Mrs. Sears earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wayne State University in Detroit and taught home economics before becoming the “Family Living Agent” in the Cooperative Extension Service of Michigan State University (Michigan’s land-grant university). In that capacity, she, along with Rosemary Dishman and Dorothy Ford, worked with low-income families in two metropolitan Detroit counties (Wayne and Oakland), educating them about nutrition and meal planning. The USDA’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), funded in 1969, sustained this work.
Detroit Mayor Coleman Young explained in February 1975 that as many as 200,000 of his city’s 1.5 million citizens were undernourished. This extreme need existed despite efforts to address food insecurity, documented as an issue that mobilized protestors during the violent summer of 1967. Then, investigations by Detroit-based Focus: HOPE, a community advocacy organization, confirmed that food was more expensive for lower-income Detroiters than for some wealthier suburbanites, a condition now described as a “food desert.”
“Depression's Harsh Impact at the Focus: HOPE Food Prescription Center in Detroit” Photograph, March 1975 / THF620068
Focus: HOPE staff opened a “Food Prescription Center,” stocked with USDA commodities that included enriched farina wheat cereal, canned meats, and other supplements.
Commodity packaging has changed, as has farm policy over the years, but nutrition remains foundational to human health and well-being, and private and public partnerships remain essential to meeting need. The work continues with organizations such as Diversify Dietetics, Inc., which exists “to increase the racial and ethnic diversity in the field of nutrition.”
Food & Freedom
While nutritionists worked with schools, cooperative demonstration programs, and public service organizations, another brigade of food soldiers linked farming to full citizenship.
Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer built her freedom struggle around land ownership and family farming. She founded Freedom Farms Cooperative to provide land to displaced sharecroppers, where they could grow crops and livestock and build self-esteem.
You may have heard the saying, “The Real McCoy.” Popular belief often links the phrase to the high quality of a device patented by Black engineer Elijah McCoy.
Elijah McCoy was born on a farm in Canada to formerly enslaved parents. His father, George McCoy, had rolled cigars to earn the $1,000 required to buy his freedom. But money could not buy freedom for George’s love, Mildred “Millie” Goins, so George and Millie escaped her Kentucky master and became fugitives, settling in Colchester, Canada. They became farmers and had twelve children, including Elijah, born around 1844.
Elijah McCoy’s interest in machines led him to pursue formal study and an apprenticeship in engineering in Scotland. When he returned, he joined his family in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
But employers, blinded by racism, could not see his talent. Instead, in 1865, the Michigan Central Railroad offered McCoy the dangerous job of oilman and fireman. The need to constantly oil the moving parts of a locomotive AND shovel coal into the engine’s firebox soon sent him to the drawing board. In 1872, McCoy patented his own “improvement in lubricators for steam-engines,” the first of at least 52 patents and design registrations he secured during his lifetime.
For the next 40 years, McCoy patented many improvements for his automated oil-drip mechanism, updating his device as steam-engine design and operation changed. The steam engine lubricator cup pictured above (and on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation) resulted from improvements patented in 1882. Today, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office branch in Detroit bears his name, a fitting tribute to an innovator who moved locomotives—if not mountains.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
Microscope Used by George Washington Carver, circa 1900 / THF163072
This microscope, reputedly used by agricultural scientist George Washington Carver during his tenure at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, offers us a closer look at Black empowerment through Black education.
It took training to run educational laboratories, and administrators at Black schools sought qualified faculty to do the job. Booker T. Washington, principal at the private, historically Black Tuskegee Institute, recruited Carver as the one person who could build an agricultural research program comparable to the ones available to whites through other public land-grant institutions. Carver was qualified, having earned a master’s degree in agricultural science in 1896, the first Black American to do so.
Austin W. Curtis, Jr., who assisted Carver in his laboratory between 1935 and Carver’s death in 1943, donated and affirmed Carver's use of this microscope. Through it (and other scientific instruments), Carver documented the molecular structure of organic matter—the plants, fungi, bacteria, soils, and sedimentary material of Alabama and beyond. He translated his findings into how-to pamphlets, sharing strategies that Black families in the South could use to improve their own health and the health of their soils. Carver’s pamphlets also introduced hundreds of new uses for plant-based materials, ranging from livestock feed and medicines to pigments and synthetic polymers.
The highest level of learning requires analysis of original research. This microscope supported that cause while in use at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and it continues to help us focus on Black history.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
Bees—one short name for about 20,000 species of flying insects classified into seven families. All live within social communities that depend on strict work routines; all seek the same food sources (pollen and nectar); and all process their harvest and preserve it in hives built in the ground, in hollow trees, or in human-designed apiaries.
Bees help plants reproduce by facilitating pollination as they search for pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their young. This relationship has long served plants well—DNA research confirms that bees coexisted with flowering plants from their beginning 130 million years ago.
Bees and humans have a much shorter, but more emotional, relationship. As pollinators, bees provide a critical link between humans and their food source: plants. Over millennia, humans domesticated one species of bee, native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, to satisfy their needs—Apis mellifera, the Western or European honeybee. As Europeans colonized North America, they imported honeybees and the crops that honeybees pollinated from the bees’ native ecosystems.
Illustrations of Apis mellifera, the Western or European honeybee / THF621311
Humans clustered hives of honeybees around orchards, grape arbors, and other areas of intense flowering-plant cultivation to ensure pollination. From the hives, they harvested honey—a natural sweetener that required little processing. The hives also produced honey, pollen, and bee venom, which had medicinal value. Beeswax was used to seal containers, produce candles, and create art. And queens from the hives propagated even more honeybees.
Group of beehives (apiary) designed for pollinating a grape arbor / THF621283
The Honeybee Hunt
Historically, honey-seeking humans learned to identify the location of an existing hive, usually in a hollow tree trunk. Some “baited” bees by setting out a little honey to attract a bee and following it back to its hive. This involved “lining” a bee—watching until it flew out of sight, moving closer to that location, waiting to see another bee in flight, and repeating the process. In short increments, this led honey-seekers to hives.
To secure their “own” honey supply and facilitate pollination of crops, humans sometimes moved existing hives closer to their gardens, orchards, and clover fields. They also hunted bee swarms. When a colony becomes too large, a queen will “hive off,” leaving with a portion of the hive’s population. (In the meantime, the remaining bees create a new queen to lead the original hive.) The departing bees swarm together near their former home, lingering only temporarily as scout bees search for a new nesting site. The reward for aspiring beekeepers who successfully encourage a swarm to take up residence in a hive of their own choosing is sweet.
Aspiring beekeepers lured swarms or moved existing hives closer to their crops and kitchens. / THF621285
Beekeepers first mimicked nature, luring swarms of bees into hollow logs much like the tree trunks they’d abandoned. Before long, humans devised prefabricated housing to keep pollinators close to gardens, orchards, and clover fields, and to keep honey close to the kitchen table. These hives, often grouped together in apiaries, took many forms, from simple boxes to highly decorated contrivances.
Manmade beehives ranged from hollow logs to simple boxes to complex, highly decorated inventions. / THF177143, THF172336, and THF172095
Some beekeepers made bee “skeps,” hives made of coiled rye straw held in place with a wooden splint, to house bees and protect honey stores. Skeps held real meaning for those who relied on them to house bees and protect honey stores. But bee skeps also took on symbolic meaning rooted in religious associations with worker bees and the biblical beekeeper, Deborah. Over time, skeps came to represent the industry of a productive household and the dependability of workers. Utah, known as “The Beehive State,” even adopted the coiled beehive as its official state symbol.
Some farm families made inexpensive skeps to house bees and protect honey stores. / THF177141
Medals awarded at the 1882 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition featured a bee skep (at bottom), symbolizing industry. / THF154061
During the mid-19th century, the U.S. Patent Office issued numerous patents for improved beehives. Arguably the most important went to Philadelphia pastor Lorenzo L. Langstroth in 1852 for his “Improved Mode of Constructing Beehives.” Langstroth's enduring contribution to beekeeping came through careful observation. He determined that bees naturally left a space of 3/8” between honeycombs (constructed within the hive to house larvae, honey, and pollen). Langstroth designed a beehive with 3/8” spacing (later coined the “bee space”) between the frames, sides, and bottom. This improved access, allowing beekeepers to remove and replace frames of honeycomb without harming bees, and more easily inspect for bee moth infestation, which could seriously damage a hive. The hive Langstroth devised, along with the guide he first published in 1853, revolutionized beekeeping, and Langstroth-style beehives remain standard today.
Lorenzo L. Langstroth’s careful observation of honeybees led to a revolutionary beehive design. / detail, THF621310
Careful spacing within Langstroth-style hives improved access for beekeepers and helped protect the bees. / THF172338
In Defense of Native Bees
Because they did not evolve in tandem with native plants, honeybees are not the best pollinators for all crops grown in North America. They seek nectar more than pollen to produce honey, and many plant blossoms do not produce enough nectar to mobilize honeybees. Native bees and other flying insects find blossoms of native plants—including tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, avocadoes, and cranberries—more appealing than do honeybees, and they do a better job of moving pollen from blossom to blossom, ensuring fertilization. As a consequence, many market-garden and truck-farm crops (cabbage, carrots, squash, and melons), berries (strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries), and orchard crops (apples, pears, peaches, and plums) depend on native bees and other pollinators, even as honeybees play their role. All also pollinate crops that livestock eat (buckwheat and clover) and crops that produce fibers we use to make cloth (cotton and flax).
Native bees pollinate many food crops, including orchard fruits like pears. / THF293065
Vegetables, fruits, and other agricultural products result from the intimate relationships, millions of years in the making, between bees and the plants they pollinate. When colonists imported honeybees to North America, they introduced direct competition to different genera and species like squash bees, bumblebees, and solitary bees. Even today, humans’ special treatment of honeybees puts native bees at a disadvantage. As the disrupters of natural relationships, humans bear responsibility for creating a balance between honeybees and native species that are too often neglected in popular conversations. While we depend on honeybees for our honey supply, we depend on all pollinators to sustain our food system. To learn more, explore the U.S. Geological Survey’s documentation of native bees at the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, check out this excerpt from Dave Goulson’s “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees,” or browse beekeeping-related artifacts in The Henry Ford’s Digital Collections.
This post was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from several write-ups on bees and beekeeping by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.