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Log cabin on a green lawn with other buildings and trees in background

McGuffey’s birthplace in Greenfield Village today. / THF1969

William Holmes McGuffey’s easy-to-understand Eclectic Readers were influenced by his experiences growing up on the Pennsylvania and Ohio frontiers, as well as his family background and upbringing. His birthplace, a log home from western Pennsylvania now in Greenfield Village, is a physical representation of these experiences.

McGuffey’s Birthplace in Western Pennsylvania


Black-and-white portrait of man with receding hairline wearing suit
Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey, 1855. / THF286352

William Holmes McGuffey’s family was Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish)—a group of strict Presbyterians who had migrated from the Scottish Lowlands to Ulster, in northern Ireland, over several centuries into the early 1700s. During the 1700s, many Scots-Irish emigrated to Pennsylvania, a colony that offered available land for settlement and the assurance of religious freedom. By the end of America’s colonial period, more than 30% of the population in Pennsylvania was Scots-Irish.

As early as 1760, land was almost unobtainable in the American East and many Scots-Irish headed inland to the western frontier, quickly inhabiting areas in western Pennsylvania during the 1780s and 1790s. This rapid settlement was only possible because the American government had, through treaties and sometimes military action, forced Native American tribes to move successively further west until they were pushed out of western Pennsylvania entirely. The major tribes that had inhabited the area, having migrated or been forced there from other areas during the 1700s, included the Lenni-Lenape or Delaware, the Shawnee, and the Seneca (referred to by European settlers as “Mingo”). Other tribes who might have traversed and/or built temporary villages in the area included the Huron/Wyandot, Chippewa, Mississauga, Ottawa, Mohawk, Cherokee, and Mohican.

William Holmes McGuffey’s family followed the typical migration pattern of other Scots-Irish immigrants. His paternal grandparents, William (“Scotch Billy”) and Ann McGuffey, had arrived during the last great wave of Scots-Irish immigration, sailing with their three young children from Wigtownshire, Scotland, to Philadelphia in 1774. They soon joined a community of Scots-Irish immigrants in York County, where they purchased land for a small farm. In 1789, they moved to Washington County in western Pennsylvania, where cheap land on the expanding western frontier had opened to settlers.

Here, they would once again be living among like-minded people, a community of Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Scots-Irish families, like other immigrants, did not leave all of their Old-World ideas and ways of doing things behind. They shared a similar heritage of music, language, foodways, and material culture. They also tried to establish familiar institutions in the move west—first churches, but also schools, stores, and courts of law.

Log cabin with stone fireplace among trees with another building visible in the background
McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village, photographed in 2007 by Michelle Andonian. / THF53239

McGuffey’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Jane Holmes, moved to Washington County about the same time as the McGuffey family. The log home that became William Holmes McGuffey’s birthplace was constructed about 1790 on the Holmes acreage. It was likely Henry and Jane Holmes’s first-stage log home (meaning they planned to build and move to a nicer home as soon as possible). Their daughter, Anna, married Alexander McGuffey at the Holmes farmstead just before Christmas 1797, and they lived in this log structure as their first home. While living there, they had their first three children: Jane (born in 1799), William Holmes (born in 1800), and Henry (born in 1802).

In 1802—only five years after they married and moved into the log house where William Holmes McGuffey was born—Alexander and Anna McGuffey moved their young family further west, to the largely unsettled Connecticut Western Reserve area of northeastern Ohio. William Holmes McGuffey, then two years old, would complete his growing-up years on this new frontier (see “William Holmes McGuffey and his Popular Readers” for more on this).

Log Houses


Page with text and image of log cabin surrounded by people with large eagle holding banner above
During the 1840 Presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, the log home became a romantic symbol of the frontier and the pioneer spirit, as shown in this 1840 music sheet cover. / THF256421

The log house would become an American icon, but its origins are European. Finnish and Swedish settlers are thought to have been the first people to construct horizontal log dwellings in America, in the colony of New Sweden (now Delaware) in the early 1600s. Welsh settlers carried the tradition of log construction into Pennsylvania.

Later waves of immigrants, including Swiss and Germans, brought their own variations of log dwellings. The Scots-Irish, who did not possess a log building tradition of their own, supposedly adapted a form of the stone houses from their native country to log construction, and greatly contributed to its spread across the frontier.

One of the principal advantages of log construction was the economy of tools required to complete a structure. A log structure could be raised and largely completed with as few as two to four different tools. Trees could be chopped down and logs cut to the right length with a felling axe. The sides of the logs were hewn flat with a broad axe. Notching was done with an axe, hatchet, or saw.

Close-up photo of corner of log cabin on stone foundation
A closeup of the McGuffey birthplace on its original location, showing both notching and the chinking. / THF252509

The horizontal spaces or joints between logs were usually filled with a combination of materials, known as “chinking” and “daubing.” These materials were used for shutting out the driving wind, rain, and snow as well as keeping out vermin. Many different materials were used for chinking and daubing, including whatever was most conveniently at hand. Chinking usually consisted of wood slabs or stones, along with a soft packing filler such as moss, clay, or dried animal dung. Daubing, applied last, often consisted of clay, lime, and other locally available materials.

McGuffey’s Birthplace in Greenfield Village


Matted photograph of run-down looking wooden building with equally run-down looking fence in front
McGuffey’s birthplace on its original site in 1932. / THF133827

Henry Ford was among the last generation of children to be educated by William Holmes McGuffey’s readers. Beginning in the 1910s, Ford purchased every copy of the readers that he could find—amassing, by the 1930s, a collection of 468 copies of 145 different editions. By the early 1930s, Ford decided to commemorate McGuffey’s impact on his education and upbringing in an even bigger way—by moving McGuffey’s humble log home birthplace to Greenfield Village.

Unfortunately, by the time Henry Ford saw McGuffey’s birthplace in western Pennsylvania in October 1932, it no longer served as a home, but had been used for many years as a “loom house” or “spinning room” and a sheep barn. The structure had largely collapsed; no walls were completely standing. But Henry Ford purchased it anyway, from a McGuffey descendant who still owned the property. Edward Cutler, Henry Ford’s architect, measured the remaining chimney foundation for later recreation, and had trees suitable to replace the missing or deteriorated logs cut down and prepared for shipment. All these parts were shipped to Dearborn in November 1932.

From January to August 1934, the home was reconstructed in the Village with some modifications. Originally a rectangular home, when completed in Greenfield Village it was approximately 16½ feet square and was ten logs high rather than nine. A shed (smokehouse) was found on the Pennsylvania site and recorded, but was not moved with the McGuffey house. The smokehouse in Greenfield Village was a replica completed at the same time as the house. By 1942, a pen with sheep had been added.

Log cabin under construction
Constructing the McGuffey School in Greenfield Village, 1934. / THF28571

The William Holmes McGuffey School was a newly constructed building in Greenfield Village, built in 1934 out of logs from the Holmes family’s original barn. Among its early furnishings was a schoolmaster’s desk made from a walnut kitchen table used by the McGuffey family.

Dedication ceremonies for the McGuffey buildings took place on September 23, 1934 (the 134th anniversary of McGuffey’s birth), in Greenfield Village. Attended by McGuffey relatives and other dignitaries, the dedication ceremonies were broadcast by NBC. A memorial program was also held at the McGuffey birthplace site in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and a marker was placed there.

Interior of room building with low beamed ceiling, large stone fireplace, and various furniture
Interior of William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, 1954. / THF138606

For many years, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, furnished with household goods of the period, was open for visitors touring Greenfield Village. Over time, the structure was repaired many times, but some of the choices made during these renovations—like copper sheathing, wire mesh, and Portland cement—increased the rate of the structure’s deterioration. In 1998, the building was determined to be a safety hazard and closed to visitors. Happily, as part of the Village upgrade of 2002–2003, the log structure was renovated and restored. This involved replacing logs and roof shingles and applying a new style of chinking with a non-Portland cement mortar mix.

Woman in long simple dress and apron bends over a fire in a large stone fireplace
Presenter cooking over the fireplace in the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, 2018. / Photo courtesy of Caroline Braden

The William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace is today furnished as it might have looked in 1800–1802, the period when the McGuffey family resided there during William Holmes McGuffey’s infancy and toddlerhood. Though we have no specific information on furnishings owned by the McGuffeys during the time they lived in this home, we have excellent information on household furnishings from the same time period and geographic location, based upon probate inventories of families from Washington County, Pennsylvania. These include such furnishings as a worktable, a few mismatched chairs, iron pots for fireplace cooking, a butter churn, and kegs and barrels for storing food.

Room interior showing large stone fireplace and a variety of old-fashioned furnishings
Interior of William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, showing current placement of furnishings. / Photo courtesy of Deborah Berk

The furnishings reflect the needs and personalities of its inhabitants—William Holmes’s father, Alexander; his mother, Anna; and William and his siblings. For example, in order to emphasize the influence of the religious and literate Anna, we have included a Bible and some books. Alexander is represented by men’s clothing and the shaving set on the shelf. The children’s presence is indicated by the cradle, the small stool, the diapers on the drying rack, and the toys in the cupboard.

The placement of the furnishings in the McGuffey birthplace also shows the family’s Scots-Irish background. It was the custom of this group to make the hearth the focal point of the home, with a clear path from the door to the fireplace. Rather than being put in the center of the room, the table would have been de-emphasized and placed against the wall.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Her book, Spaces that Tell Stories: Recreating Historical Environments (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), recounts in greater detail the research, furnishings plan, and current interpretation of the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village.

immigrants, home life, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, by Donna R. Braden

Photograph of man wearing glasses and a suit reading a book
Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey reading a book, circa 1860. /
THF110186

William Holmes McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were both successful and influential. Between 1836 (when the readers were first introduced) and 1850, seven million copies of them were sold. During the second half of the 1800s, they became the most widely circulated textbooks in the United States, influencing the outlooks and perspectives of such luminaries as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and the Wright brothers. How did the readers come to be, and why did they have such tremendous appeal?

Typewritten, hand-signed letter on letterhead
A letter from President Taft to Henry Ford testifying about the importance of McGuffey Readers in his life, 1924. / THF96603

McGuffey’s Influences


Many factors contributed to the creation and content of McGuffey’s readers, including his heritage, family background, and experiences growing up.

William Holmes McGuffey’s family was part of a group of immigrants to America who were often referred to as Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish). These people were Presbyterians from the Scottish Lowlands who had migrated to Ulster, in northern Ireland, over several centuries into the early 1700s. Religious restrictions and economic conditions had motivated members of this group to emigrate to America during the 1700s, and many of them settled in Pennsylvania—a colony that offered affordable land for settlement and the assurance of religious freedom. As land became increasingly unobtainable in the East, many Scots-Irish immigrants headed west and south to the edges of European settlement. In these scattered frontier communities, the Presbyterian Church remained a stabilizing force, and its tenets would become a major influence on the later McGuffey Readers.

The McGuffey family followed a similar pattern of migration to other Scots-Irish. William Holmes McGuffey’s paternal grandparents, William (“Scotch Billy”) and Ann McGuffey, landed in Philadelphia in 1774, then moved farther west to York County, where they purchased land for a small farm. In 1789, they moved again, to Washington County in western Pennsylvania—then considered the edge of the settlement or the western frontier. There, cheap land had recently become available to white settlers (see “William Holmes McGuffey’s Birthplace” for more on this). William’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Jane Holmes, had also moved to Washington County about this same time. Their farmstead, named Rural Grove, was close to the McGuffey place. This was undoubtedly how William’s parents, Alexander McGuffey and Anna Holmes, met.

Small log cabin with shingled roof and stone fireplace, surrounded by grass and other buildings
The McGuffey birthplace as it stands today in Greenfield Village. / THF1969

Alexander and Anna were married just before Christmas 1797. Their first home was the log house now in Greenfield Village. This house, situated on the Holmes farmstead, had likely been Henry and Jane Holmes’s initial home before they constructed a larger frame house. Alexander and Anna’s first three children were born here: Jane (1799), William Holmes (1800), and Henry (1802).

William’s parents played a particularly significant role in young William’s life. His restless father, Alexander, embodied the values of individualism, adventure, risk-taking, and making one’s own way in the world. His mother, Anna—who was serious, pious, intelligent, and literate—enjoyed the stability of the Scots-Irish community in which they lived.

Black-and-white print of log cabin in a forested area with people, chickens, and logs stacked outside; also contains text
This 1870 Currier & Ives print of a settler’s family and their log home gives an impression—albeit a romanticized one—of what living on the sparsely settled frontier might have been like. / THF200600

In 1802—only two years after William Holmes was born—Alexander’s restlessness spurred the young family to move west into the Ohio Territory, to a sparsely settled area known at the time as the Connecticut Western Reserve. Here, the family settled on 160 wooded acres and established a small farm. Five more children were born there: Anna (1804), Catherine (1807), Elizabeth (1809), Asenath (1811), and Alexander Hamilton (1816). William spent his youth on this fairly isolated farmstead on the Ohio frontier.

At the time, the Ohio frontier was considered the edge of settlement—for white settlers, anyway. Although travelers and white settlers at the time described this area as a “howling wilderness” or the “solitary wilds,” in fact Native Americans had inhabited the region for thousands of years. By the time Europeans (primarily French and British fur traders) arrived in the 1700s, several Native American tribes had recently moved into the area. These included the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and Seneca-Cayuga—who had all migrated or been forced to settle there during that time from other places in the north, east, south, and west.

Black silhouette of person's head and shoulders, oval-matted and in ribbed gold frame
A hand-cut silhouette of George Washington, created around the time of his presidency. / THF142004

The influx of American settlers into Ohio with the passage of the Land Ordinance Act (1785) and the Northwest Ordinance (1787) spurred the American government—which had never truly recognized Native rights of land ownership—to evict the Native Americans from these lands. In the 1780s, a series of treaties was attempted. When these proved essentially unsuccessful, a frustrated President Washington decided to use brute force instead. He commanded a successive series of military generals to drive the Native tribes out of Ohio. Eventually, General Anthony Wayne declared victory in 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. (William’s father, Alexander, had been involved in this and previous battles in what became known as the Ohio Indian Wars of the 1790s.) The resulting Treaty of Greenville in 1795 pushed Ohio’s Native tribes into a demarcated section of northwest Ohio, until they were forced out of Ohio completely in the early 1800s.

In 1795 (the same year as the Treaty of Greenville), Connecticut, which had been deeded the strip of land in northeast Ohio Territory known as the Western Reserve back in 1662, sold this land to a group of speculators. They surveyed the land, neatly dividing it into townships and then assigning land agents who sold individually marked lots to incoming white settlers. Within about ten years, Ohio essentially shifted from “Indian Country” to a territory rapidly filling up with white settlers. In 1803, Ohio became the 17th state admitted to the United States, though the Western Reserve area in northeastern Ohio remained fairly sparsely settled until after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. Though only some of William Holmes McGuffey’s neighbors were—like him—Scots-Irish Presbyterians from western Pennsylvania, many shared the similar experience of adapting to the Ohio frontier from more settled communities farther east.

McGuffey’s Readers


Blue book cover with illustration of children reading at the base of a tree; also contains text
McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic First Reader, 1848. / THF289925

As part of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, schooling and education had been encouraged, but the ordinance charter did not create a system for establishing or funding schools. The children of more well-to-do families paid tuition to attend private schools, called academies, where both boys and girls received rudimentary training in classics, reading, writing, and arithmetic.

While education was considered a high priority by New Englanders and Scots-Irish Presbyterians settling in Ohio, many farm families—especially those migrating to the area from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky—often lacked the money and inclination to ensure that their children received a formal education. In 1818, a traveler remarked that the schools in Ohio were very few in number and “wretched” in conditions.

William Holmes McGuffey received a better education than most children raised on the Ohio frontier. In his early years, his mother taught him basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, but she was always attempting to find ways for William to receive more education. She eventually succeeded in finding a school for him to attend in Youngstown, six miles away, run by Presbyterian minister Rev. William Wick, and William quickly developed a passion for learning. At the completion of his studies, Rev. Wick informed William that he had now received enough education to teach others and encouraged him to open a school. As a result, in September 1814, 14-year-old William McGuffey held his first “subscription school” at Calcutta, Ohio, for 48 students. His students, whose parents paid a fee for their instruction, brought their own books, with the Bible being the most common.

Two years later, and for the next four years, McGuffey attended the Old Stone Academy in Darlington, in western Pennsylvania. He then enrolled in Washington College, a Scots-Irish Presbyterian school located in Washington, Pennsylvania—ironically only a few miles from where he had been born. For the next six years, William alternated between working on his family’s farm in Ohio, teaching school, and attending classes at Washington. As he tried to educate others in the scattered and isolated settlements of the western frontier, he got a true sense of how desperately children needed an easy, standardized way of learning to read and write.

Blue book cover with image of three people reading a book; also contains text
McGuffey’s Eclectic Second Reader, 1836. / THF289931

William completed his formal schooling at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a Presbyterian school, then taught there for the next 10 years (1826–36). By the 1830s, Ohio’s population had grown tremendously, and many public schools were opening. McGuffey saw a great need for a system of standardized education, especially for children of immigrants and those living in the scattered settlements of the West (now the Midwest) and South. In the mid-1830s, Truman & Smith, a Cincinnati publishing company, invited him to prepare a new series of textbooks to be marketed in the Midwest.

McGuffey worked to make his Eclectic Readers interesting and accessible to children, based on his observations while he was a teacher. An important difference from the few earlier textbooks that existed in America was that these were purposefully developed as a series, with each reader intended to be progressively more difficult and challenging than the one preceding it. He completed his first and second readers in 1836 and the primer, third, and fourth readers in 1837. William’s younger brother, Alexander, compiled the fifth reader in 1844 and the sixth in 1857.

Page with text
Cover page of McGuffey’s Newly Revised Rhetorical Guide; or Fifth Reader, 1853, owned by Bishop Milton Wright, father of Orville and Wilbur Wright. / THF250428

McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were called “eclectic” because they included stories, poems, essays, and speeches drawn from a variety of sources. The primer and the first two readers consisted mainly of brief, simple tales and lessons. The more advanced readers included excerpts from orations, scripture, and English literature.

When students completed a reader, they moved on to the next level. With time off for harvest and farm chores, rural pupils might get no further than the second reader before completing their education in their mid-teens, which would provide reading skills equal to about a third- or fourth-grade level today.

Blue book cover with image and text and book opened to two-page spread with image and text
Inside pages and outside cover of McGuffey’s New Second Eclectic Reader, 1865. / THF59806

The McGuffey Readers had a huge impact on American society, especially in the Midwest and South. The books not only taught youngsters to read; they were also often their primary source of information about history, philosophy, and science. For many schoolchildren, the excerpts in the readers from the works of authors like Shakespeare and Wordsworth were the closest they would get in their lifetimes to the Western world’s great literature. The stories in the readers also helped establish common understandings, heroes, values, and even expressions among a wide group of Americans. For example, when President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that he did not wish to be a “Meddlesome Matty,” everyone knew what he meant. He was referring to a character in McGuffey’s fourth reader who snooped and meddled in other people’s affairs.

The kind of practical morality that McGuffey advocated in these books was based on his own upbringing and Scots-Irish Presbyterian background. The ideal character traits that were emphasized in the readers—industry, thrift, temperance, kindness, virtue—all reflected Presbyterian values. As the series was updated in 1841, 1844, 1857, 1866, and 1879, the publishers gradually muted its overt religious messages. But they never lost McGuffey’s original emphasis on moral instruction.

Over time, critics have attacked McGuffey’s readers for such flaws as not addressing the injustices of slavery, referring to Native Americans as “savages,” having anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic overtones, and reinforcing the traditional role of women as homemakers. McGuffey himself revised some of his text over successive editions. Still, the readers are of their place, their time, and the background and life experiences of their author.

Henry Ford and McGuffey’s Readers


Man wearing suit sits in a chair by a fireplace, reading a book
Henry Ford perusing a McGuffey reader inside the McGuffey Birthplace, Greenfield Village, 1940. / THF126110

Henry Ford was among the last generation of children to be educated by the McGuffey Readers. Ford considered McGuffey one of his great heroes because of his ability to spark young imaginations. He believed that the books were successful because they used a narrative approach that spoke to the time and place of readers like himself.

Book cover with text and image of children reading with a dog
Henry Ford had this reader, originally published in 1885, reprinted in 1930 for use in his Edison Institute Schools. / THF288332

McGuffey Readers had a deep and lasting influence on Henry Ford. They were among the earliest objects reflecting the American experience that Henry Ford collected, beginning in the 1910s. Ford bought every copy that he could find—amassing, by the 1930s, a collection of 468 copies of 145 different editions. A strong believer in McGuffey’s educational principles, Ford perpetuated these beliefs by founding the Edison Institute Schools. He even had the readers reprinted so that the children in the schools could use them.

Group of children walk out of a log cabin door
Edison Institute schoolchildren exiting McGuffey School, 1937–40. / THF286354

Ford commemorated McGuffey’s role in educational reform by rebuilding his birthplace in Greenfield Village and constructing a school out of barn logs from the original farmstead where McGuffey was born. William Holmes McGuffey School served as the second-grade classroom for the students attending Edison Institute Schools from 1934 until the school system was closed in 1969.


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

Henry Ford, childhood, school, education, books, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Donna R. Braden

Illustration of large metal mesh globe crisscrossed by two orbital paths, in a park with many people and other buildings, etc.
Illustration by Mia Saine

I recently visited the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair site, now part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. I gawked at the still-standing central icon, the Unisphere, then searched for long-forgotten ruins scattered about.

Perhaps most striking were the still-existing pathways with their original concrete benches and drinking fountains. I could picture the people—the fairgoers—who had traveled from near and far to visit this temporary but extraordinary place, a place of wonder and delight, a place of enjoyment, leisure, and playfulness—a world’s fair.

The 1964-65 World’s Fair was a failure in many respects. It never reached its projected attendance and almost went bankrupt. When most large nations declined to participate, smaller nations and American states filled the gap. The fair is probably best remembered as a showcase for American corporations, with an endless array of new products displayed inside midcentury modern structures.

Nowhere was the blend of design and playfulness more apparent than in the corporate attractions designed by Walt Disney and his Imagineers, especially Ford Motor Company’s Magic Skyway. Here guests embarked on “an exciting ride in a company-built convertible through a fantasy of the past and future in 12 minutes.” When Ford added new Mustang convertibles to the ride mere months before the fair’s opening, this only added to the anticipation and enjoyment.

Six people sit in white convertible in a glass tunnel with a fairground visible through the windows
The Unisphere, a 12-story-high model of Earth which embodied the 1964-65 New York World's Fair theme of "Peace Through Understanding," celebrating "Man's Achievement on the Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe," can be seen through the window in this photo of a car on the Magic Skyway. / THF114472

Walt Disney remarked about the attraction: “It could never happen in real life, but we can achieve the illusion by creating an adventure so realistic that visitors will feel they have lived through a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

This could well sum up the overall appeal of world’s fairs.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from an article first published in the June–December 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

popular culture, Ford Motor Company, Disney, world's fairs, The Henry Ford Magazine, by Donna R. Braden

Woman with short hair wearing a jacket with a stylized vine pattern poses in front of a car
Mimi Vandermolen, 1992–93, in front of the Ford Probe. / THF626259


Today, we take things like ergonomic seats and user-friendly dashboard dials in American automobiles for granted. But back in the mid-1980s, these were radical innovations. Much of the credit for bringing these game-changing elements to an American automobile goes to a creative and determined female lead designer named Mimi Vandermolen, who headed up the 1986 Ford Taurus interior design team.

Image taken from driver's seat of car steering wheel and instrument panel
Interior of 1986 Ford Taurus LX Sedan in The Henry Ford’s collection. / THF90338

In the late 1970s, Ford Motor Company had no room for mistakes. The 1978 oil embargo by OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) had resulted in a customer rush to buy economical, fuel-efficient cars made by non-American automobile companies, like Japanese-made Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics. The surge in import sales might have been bad enough. But Ford, unfortunately, had no new models in the works to respond to the rapidly changing market.

Page with text and photo of small red/brown car parked in front of a wooden building with people and a carriage nearby
Sales brochure for 1977 Honda Civic. / THF202071

However, a new group of leaders at Ford, more familiar with the foreign market, began to implement changes. They envisioned a brand-new “world-class” car—a car that followed and improved upon world-wide trends in engineering and design, that could be sold in any country, and that was second to none in quality (referred to as “best in class”). To accomplish these objectives for what would eventually become the Taurus, Ford executives realized that two things had to change radically: the customer would have to come first, and product integrity could never be compromised.

The design and manufacturing process also had to change. Those who planned, designed, engineered, built, and sold this new car would work as a team. The team concept in developing the Taurus meant that those who styled the interior would work concurrently and in concert with those who developed the car’s exterior. Moreover, the team approach would not be top-down. The input of planners, engineers, designers, promoters, and dealers would be both welcomed and actively invited.

Page with text and a three-dimensional pie chart labeled "Team Taurus"
Diagram showing the unique (at the time) integration of departments charged collectively with meeting the new car’s objectives, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625465

Mimi J. Vandermolen was born in the Netherlands and raised in Toronto, and she grew up liking art and drawing. She found her calling when she visited the product design studio at the Ontario College of Art. One of the first female students to attend school there, she graduated in 1969. Disappointingly, she found very few design jobs open to women, as women’s work at the time was primarily narrowed to teaching, nursing, and secretarial jobs. But in 1970, she was hired to work in Ford’s Philco Division, where she designed home appliances like snowblowers and TVs—rather than automobiles.

Still, she was the first female designer in the Ford Design Studio at a time when women were rarely hired by American automotive design studios. Soon enough, her talents were recognized, and after six months she was transferred to car design—working as a trainee on the Mustang II, Cougar, and Granada. All the while, she felt that her ideas were ignored or dismissed, considered too radical or out-of-the-box for a staid American automobile company.

Black-and-white photo of car in front of building with concrete plaza and grass berm; one person is behind wheel and another in suit walks toward car
Publicity photo for the 1974 Mustang II. Note the reference to “simulated walnut accents” (rather than real wood), a decorative touch that designers detested and were delighted to see eliminated in the Ford Taurus interior. / THF113139

In 1979, Vandermolen was promoted to Design Specialist at Ford and, in 1980, she was invited to join Team Taurus as the lead designer of the interior. She considered the team approach a “breath of fresh air,” but realized that designers were not used to articulating or defending their ideas. Her design team was going to have to become a lot better at justifying design ideas to have any of them approved and implemented.

She recognized from the start that the key to the potential success of the Taurus was to create an interior that mirrored the style and theme of its exterior body. Each component of the interior—switches, doors, lights, controls, seats—would be designed to meet two key objectives. First, were they “friendly” enough—that is, were they easy to find and use, day or night? And second, did they blend in aesthetically with the car’s exterior and the rest of its interior?

The dashboard (known in the industry as the Instrument Panel, or IP) was traditionally designed to suit the needs of engineers and manufacturers rather than those who actually drove the cars. It tended to be straight and flat, and the driver had to lean forward to reach it—a design already being abandoned in European cars.

Page with text and two black-and-white photos: top showing a rounded station wagon parked by a pond with two people nearby, and the bottom showing the front seats and front dash of a car from above
The lower image, from the 1986 Ford Taurus press kit, illustrates how the instrumentation and controls were designed to “an exceptional level of passenger comfort.” / THF105522

Vandermolen asked her team to address how a driver could both have easy access to the IP and still ride in a car that was spacious and inviting. In the final design, the Taurus IP was angled in such a way that the instrument and control system would indeed come within quick and easy reach of the driver.

Page with text and three color images of dials and gauges (some digital) in a car dash (?)
Taurus instrument panel dials, both standard and digital, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625475

Vandermolen encouraged her team to consider how individual controls could be designed to be both manageable and safe. Each component was considered on a case-by-case basis. The speedometer, for example, was redesigned with a large needle to show incremental change in speed. Push-pull switches, like those for the heater, were replaced with rotary knobs, which were easier to operate. Switches had bumps added to the ends, so drivers could locate them easily without taking their eyes off the road. The controls and instruments were in clear view and easy to reach, so with a minimum of effort, one could drive a few times, then operate them by touch without looking away from the road. The IP also came with an optional digital panel, futuristic- and video-game-looking at the time, but foreshadowing future designs.

Page with text and two images, one of inside of open car door and one showing an overhead car light
Driver’s interior front door panel, with integrated features, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625482

The overall interior was designed to mirror the sculpted look of the body, with no straight or sharply angled panels. For example, after sixteen design iterations, the final design of the interior door panel was smoothly sculpted with integrated power controls, curb light, reflector, and map pocket. The interior also exuded a level of quality unlike previous mid-size family cars on the market. Fake woodgrain did not appear anywhere in the interior, to the delight of designers who had long abhorred this cheap substitute for real wood that had become the norm on American cars.

With the Taurus, the design of the seats started from scratch. This was, in fact, the most difficult part of the car to get right. The process took 2½ years—Ford’s most extensive seat evaluation program ever. It involved deconstructing and studying best-in-class car seats on the market (the GM Opel Senator was a front-runner), then simulating and recreating these. The newly designed seats for the Taurus were submitted to many miles of consumer test driving and weeks of test-dummy trials for seat and fabric durability.

Ergonomics—the science of relationships between humans and machines—played a crucial role in seat design. Traditional seats—flat, sofa-like slabs of upholstery or unsupportive bucket seats—had often led drivers to purchase after-market cushions and devices to provide back and leg support. Seats had to support a variety of sizes, shapes, and weights—sometimes for hours at a time. Fabric had to withstand extremes of temperature. The interior foam, providing the cushion, had to be resilient.

Page with text and two images of front car seats
Ergonomic seats with armrests, optional power adjustments, and cloth or optional leather upholstery, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625477

Final car seat options offered three configurations, fitting a wide range of physical types, and included lower-back support, heavy-density foam, and headrests for the front seats. In addition, ergonomic tests found that window switches and door handles were traditionally placed too far forward to comfortably use. They were, accordingly, moved and/or adjusted for easy reach. Finally, the rear seats were raised slightly for backseat passengers to be able to see over the front seats, while new storage compartments were tested and added.

Much of Vandermolen’s work on the Taurus, and on later projects, was driven by her passion about the needs of female drivers. “If I can solve all the problems inherent in operating a vehicle for a woman,” she maintained, “that’ll make it that much easier for a man to use.” For this, she solicited opinions from a wide range of female consumers, market testing some features over and over until she, her team, and—most importantly—the female customer were all satisfied.

In the end, the interior of the Taurus was a dramatic departure from the usual American car design. Controls were logical, switches made sense, seats were sturdy and comfortable. Moreover, Team Taurus felt that the team concept had worked. Team members debated, discussed, and listened to each other, working together to solve problems. Designers learned to present their vision and argue for it. Vandermolen instilled confidence in her team by telling them, “Don’t be scared. We’re on the right track. We’re meeting our objectives.”

Page with text "TAURUS 1986" and images of sedan car and rounded station wagon
1986 Taurus LX sedan and station wagon, from a sales brochure cover for the 1986 Taurus. / THF208075

The new Taurus was launched on December 26, 1985, leading to what became known as the American auto industry’s “Rounded Edge Revolution.” Some people ridiculed the 1986 Taurus, likening it to a jellybean or a potato. But it won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year Award, with the compliment, “If we were to describe the Taurus’s design in a word, the word would be ‘thoughtful.’” Car and Driver called it “one of history’s most radical new cars,” praising Vandermolen’s efforts as “a bold attempt to reorder the priorities of American-made family sedans.”

Customers responded in kind. The Taurus soon accounted for 25 percent of Ford’s North American sales. In 1987, Taurus became the number-one selling car in the United States.

Red and silver car
1986 Ford Taurus LX Sedan in The Henry Ford’s collection. / THF90332

Ford’s gamble to steer the company from a serious downturn with a “world-class” car paid off. Ergonomics, aerodynamics, sculpted interiors, angled IPs, comfortable and supportive seats, market research with targeted customers, and team-oriented planning—all of these would become standard elements of future American automobile design and manufacturing.

In 1987, Vandermolen was promoted to the position of Design Executive for small cars at Ford Motor Company, overseeing interior and exterior design developments in North America—a first for a woman in the automotive industry. That year, Fortune Magazine named her one of its “People to Watch.” She headed the development of the 1993 Ford Probe from start to finish. Her focus on women consumers remained a particular point of pride throughout her career.

Today. Mimi Vandermolen’s legacy lives on. In February 2021, the Classic Cars.com Journal called her one of “11 women who changed automotive history and the way we drive.”

For more on Vandermolen and her contributions to the 1986 Ford Taurus, see the book Taurus: The Making of the Car That Saved Ford by Eric Taub (1991).


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She learned of Mimi Vandermolen’s story in the 1990s and is pleased to finally write about it so others can appreciate it as well.

immigrants, women's history, Henry Ford Museum, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, Driving America, design, cars, by Donna R. Braden

Black wooden chair, with woven seat, painted with gold decoration
Side Chair, Created by Lambert Hitchcock, 1825-1835. /
THF81928

Many people believe that mass production started with Henry Ford and the Model T. But the ideas that led to this breakthrough were already being put into practice back in the early 1800s, in mills and manufactories dotting the countryside across New England. It was here that Lambert Hitchcock applied early mass production techniques to turn out chairs by the thousands—uniform, durable, attractive, affordable, and, for a time, wildly popular.

Portrait of woman with elaborate hairstyle wearing a dark dress with lace collar and holding a book
Julia Barton Hunting of Pine Plains, New York, sat on a Hitchcock chair while posing for this portrait by Ammi Phillips, about 1830. / THF95303

Invention was in the air in New England during the early 1800s. Burgeoning industries like firearms, clocks, and textiles were experimenting both with new machinery—to increase production and make up for labor shortages—and with new factory arrangements that integrated materials and activities under one roof.

Furniture making had a long tradition of handcraftsmanship, and manufacturers varied in their adoption of machine production over generations-old hand processes. Hand-crafted pieces were made to order, resulting in low production and fairly high costs. With water- or steam-powered machines to rough out the pieces, furniture makers could turn out more products at lower costs to sell to a wider market.  Neither of these processes was right or wrong—the choice was essentially a business decision.

Lambert Hitchcock chose machine- over hand-production, inspired by the bustling firearms and clock industries in his home state of Connecticut. He had started out learning the craft of fine furniture-making. But Hitchcock dreamed of manufacturing affordable furniture, using uniform parts that were quickly and cheaply made by machine, and easy to assemble.

In 1818, Hitchcock chose a site in northwestern Connecticut, where two fast-moving rivers came together. Here, using the rivers’ power to operate his machinery, Hitchcock produced a line of chairs that was so affordable he basically created a brand-new market. Before long, Hitchcock’s chair factory—in the newly named village of Hitchcocks-ville—was turning out some 15,000 chairs per year.

The price, ranging from 45 cents to $1.75 (about $10.15 to $39.40 today), certainly appealed to people. Also appealing was the idea that machines could be harnessed to produce sturdy, functional chairs that everyone could enjoy. But Hitchcock did not ignore aesthetics. His characteristic stenciling across the back chair rails served as an attractive substitute for the hand-carving on more expensive custom-made chairs.

In 1825, Hitchcock went one step further. He erected a three-story factory, arranged into sections, in which specific tools and materials were associated with logical steps in the assembly process. The ground floor held areas for rough-cutting work, like sawing, turning, and planing. On the second floor, the chair parts were bonded together with glue, then dried in a kiln until their joints were firm. On the third floor, the chairs were painted and decorated, using pre-cut stencils and pre-arranged patterns. Each of these stencils, designed to create a different part of the overall composition, was positioned on the chair back, then carefully rubbed with bronze powders to achieve the special tone and shading.

Professional male stencilers probably cut the stencils and lent their expertise, but women did much of the actual stenciling at Hitchcock’s factory. Many had learned this skill as young women at female academies popular in New England at the time. There they practiced the art of theorem painting—that is, creating stylized pictures of fruits and flowers that similarly used pre-cut stencils, metallic powders, and prearranged patterns.

Painting of bowl of fruit with other produce surrounding it
An example of a theorem painting, created in 1835 by Caroline Bennett, a young woman who would have attended a female academy. / THF119757

Women also worked as seat rushers and caners, while children often did the painting and striping.  At its peak of production, in the late 1820s and early 1830s, Hitchcock employed over 100 workers.

Lambert Hitchcock was innovative in his manufacturing techniques: integrated work processes, division of labor, and application of fast and inexpensive, yet still attractive, decorative techniques. Hitchcock was also an assertive salesman, opening retail stores in Hitchcocks-ville and Hartford (the state capital), selling chairs wholesale to dealers and store owners, and distributing his chairs far and wide through the network of itinerant Yankee peddlers.

Unfortunately, Lambert Hitchcock also made some costly mistakes. He located his factory in a very isolated area, with deplorable roads to Hartford and other markets. In 1844, Hitchcock moved his factory to a town called Unionville, banking on the construction of a new canal. But, alas, the canal construction was halted, and a new railroad bypassed the town. For all his tremendous contributions, Hitchcock died at the age of 57 with few assets to his name.

But Hitchcock’s name and his chairs lived on. The chairs were so popular during their heyday that many competitors tried to imitate both their aesthetics and production techniques. To this day, chairs of this general style are referred to as Hitchcock (or Hitchcock-type) chairs. Hitchcock chairs were also painstakingly reproduced by succeeding generations of artisans, a tribute to the genius and foresight of Lambert Hitchcock, a true American innovator.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran in March 2008 as part of our Pic of the Month series.

Henry Ford Museum, entrepreneurship, home life, manufacturing, furnishings, by Donna R. Braden

Pictorial map showing building locations with legend (contains text)Greenfield Village map, 1951. / THF133294


Greenfield Village may just look like a lot of buildings to some, but each building tells stories of people. When I wrote The Henry Ford Official Guidebook, it really hit me how unique and one-of-a-kind Greenfield Village is. I wanted to share several stories I found particularly interesting about Greenfield Village.

Researching Building Stories


Whenever we research a Village building, we usually start with archival material—looking at sources like census records, account books, store invoices (like the one below, related to Dr. Howard’s Office), and old photographs—to give us authentic accounts about our subjects’ lives. Here are some examples.

Invoice with printed and handwritten text
1881 invoice for Dr. Howard. / THF620460

At Daggett Farmhouse, Samuel Daggett’s account book showed that he not only built houses but also dug stones for the community schoolhouse; made shingles for local people’s houses; made chairs, spinning wheels, coffins, and sleds; and even pulled teeth! If you are interested in learning more about how our research influenced the interpretation at Daggett, along with four other Village buildings, check out this blog post.

Man wearing historic clothing walks past simple gray wooden house
Daggett Farmhouse, photographed by Michelle Andonian. / THF54173

For Dr. Howard’s Office, we looked at old photographs, family reminiscences, the doctor’s daily record of patients and what he prescribed for them, his handwritten receipt (recipe) book of remedies, and invoices of supplies and dried herbs he purchased. You can read more about the history of Dr. Alonson Howard and his office in this blog post.

Page with hand-written cursive text
Page from Dr. Howard’s receipt book. / THF620470

For J.R. Jones General Store, we used a range of primary sources, from local census records to photographs of the building on its original site (like the one below) to account books documenting purchases of store stock from similar general stores. You can read more about the history of J.R. Jones General Store in this blog post.

Black-and-white photo of two-story wooden building
Photo of J.R. Jones General Store on its original site. / THF255033

Urbanization and Industrialization Seen through Greenfield Village Buildings


Many Greenfield Village buildings were acquired because of Henry Ford’s interests. But some give us the opportunity to look at larger trends in American life, especially related to urbanization and industrialization.

Engelbert Grimm sold clocks and watches to Detroit-area customers, including Henry Ford, in the 1880s. But Grimm Jewelry Store also demonstrates that in an increasingly urban and industrial nation, people were expected to know the time and be on time—all the time.

Two-story brick building with many decorative elements
Grimm Jewelry Store in Greenfield Village. / THF1947

Related to this, notice the public clock in the Detroit Publishing Company photograph below of West 23rd Street, New York City, about 1908. (Clue: Look down the street, above the horse-drawn carriage, and you’ll see a large street clock on a stand.) You can read more about the emergence of “clock time” in this blog post.

Street scene, with tall buildings, carriages, and pedestrians
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Smiths Creek Depot is here because of its connection with Thomas Edison. But this building also shows us that railroad depots at the time were more than simply the place to catch a train—they were also bustling places where townspeople connected with the outside world. Below you can see a photo of Smiths Creek in Greenfield Village, as well asthe hustle and bustle of railroad depots in a wonderful image of the Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne, Wyoming, from about 1910.

Small brick building with arched windows and decorative eaves and bunting
Smiths Creek Depot in Greenfield Village. / THF1873

Postcard depicting large stone building with clocktower next to railroad tracks; people stand on platform between
Union Pacific Depot. / THF204972

Henry Ford brought Sarah Jordan Boarding House to Greenfield Village because it was home to many of Thomas Edison’s workers. It was also one of three residences wired for Edison’s new electrical lighting system in December 1879—and it is the only one still in existence. In the bigger picture, the mushrooming of boarding houses at this time was particularly due to a shortage of affordable housing in the growing urban-industrial centers, which were experiencing a tremendous influx of new wage laborers.

Two-story yellow wooden building with white picket fence in front
Sarah Jordan Boarding House in Greenfield Village. / THF2007

Black-and-white photo of two-story wooden house with people on porch and standing by and in front; also contains text
Sarah Jordan Boarding House on its original site in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1879. / THF117242

Luther Burbank and Henry Ford


Other buildings in Greenfield Village have strong ties to Henry’s personal relationships. Henry Ford met horticulturalist Luther Burbank in connection with the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. That year, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a few other companions traveled there to attend Edison Day. Luther Burbank welcomed them to the area.

Round medallion with text and image of a woman holding a flag, a bear, and buildings
Panama-Pacific International Exposition Souvenir Medal. / THF154006

Afterward, the group followed Burbank up on an invitation to visit him at his experimental garden in Santa Rosa, California. Edison and Ford had a grand time there. Burbank later wrote, “The ladies said we acted like three schoolboys, but we didn’t care.”

Three men in suits sit on steps next to an ivy-covered wall
Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank, and Henry Ford at Burbank's home in Santa Rosa, California. / THF126337

After that visit, the original group, plus tire magnate Harvey Firestone, drove by automobile to the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. During that trip, Edison proposed a camping trip for Ford, Firestone, and himself. The Vagabonds camping trips, taking place over the next nine years, were born!

Several cars in a field with people by and near them
“Vagabonds” camping trip. / THF117234

Henry Ford was so inspired by Luther Burbank’s character, accomplishments, and “learning by doing” approach that he brought to Greenfield Village a modified version of the Luther Burbank Birthplace and a restored version of the Luther Burbank Garden Office from Santa Rosa.

Small gray wooden building with arched windows and door
Luther Burbank Garden Office in Greenfield Village. / THF1887

Greenfield Village Buildings and World’s Fair Connections


Greenfield Village has several other direct connections to World’s Fairs of the 1930s. At Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition of 1933–1934, for example, an “industrialized American barn” with soybean exhibits later became the William Ford Barn in Greenfield Village.

Page with image of barn and text
THF222009

In a striking Albert Kahn–designed building, Ford Motor Company boasted the largest and most expensive corporate pavilion of the same Chicago fair. It drew some 75% of visitors to the fair that year. After the fair, the central part of this building was transported from Chicago to Dearborn, where it became the Ford Rotunda. It was used as a hospitality center until it burned in a devastating fire in 1962.

Page with image of building with "FORD" signage and text "Ford at the Fair"
Ford at the Fair Brochure, showing the building section that would eventually become the Ford Rotunda. / THF210966

Crenellated round building with tiered top with large "FORD" sign
Ford Rotunda in Dearborn after a 1953 renovation. / THF142018

At the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, a model soybean oil extractor was demonstrated. This imposing object is now prominently displayed in the Soybean Lab Agricultural Gallery in Greenfield Village.

Person in suit holding microphone stands next to a piece of equipment under text on a wall
A presenter at the Texas Centennial Exposition demonstrates how the soybean oil extraction process works with a model of a soybean oil extractor that now resides in the Soybean Lab in Greenfield Village. / THF222337

At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Henry Ford promoted his experimental school system in a 1/3-scale version of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Machine Shop in Greenfield Village. Students made model machine parts and demonstrated the use of the machines.

Boy stands at machine in room full of machines
Boys from Henry Ford's Edison Institute Schools operate miniature machine replicas in a scale model of the Menlo Park Machine Shop during the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. / THF250326

Village Buildings That Influenced Famous Men


Several people whose stories are represented in Greenfield Village were influenced by the places in which they grew up and worked, like the Wright Brothers, shown below on the porch of their Dayton, Ohio, home, now the Wright Home in the Village, around 1910.

Two men in suits sit on porch steps
THF123601

In addition to practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln traveled to courthouses like the Logan County Courthouse in Greenfield Village to try court cases for local folk. The experiences he gained in these prepared him for his future role as U.S. president (read more about this in this “What If” story).

Man in suit sits in chair in front of blue curtain; also contains text
THF110836

Enterprising young Tom Edison took a job as a newsboy on a local railway, where one of the stops was Smiths Creek Station. This and other experiences on that railway contributed to the man Thomas Edison would become—curious, entrepreneurial, interested in new technologies, and collaborative.

Black-and-white photo of seated young boy in hat, scarf, and jacket
Young Thomas Edison as a newsboy and candy butcher. / THF116798

Henry Ford, the eldest of six children, was born and raised in the farmhouse pictured below, now known as Ford Home in Greenfield Village. Henry hated the drudgery of farm work. He spent his entire life trying to ease farmers’ burdens and make their lives easier.

White wooden building with white picket fence in front
THF1938

Henry J. Heinz


Henry J. Heinz (the namesake of Heinz House in Greenfield Village) wasn’t just an inventor or an entrepreneur or a marketing genius: he was all of these things. Throughout the course of his career, he truly changed the way we eat and the way we think about what we eat.

Portrait of seated man in suit with mustache and muttonchops
H.J. Heinz, 1899. / THF291536

Beginning with horseradish, Heinz expanded his business to include many relishes and pickles—stressing their purity and high quality at a time when other processed foods did not share these characteristics. The sample display case below highlights the phrase “pure food products.”

Wooden display holding four glass bowls and a sign with text
Heinz Sample Display Case. / THF174348

Heinz had an eye for promotion and advertising unequaled among his competitors. This included signs, billboards, special exhibits, and, as shown below, the specially constructed Heinz Ocean Pier, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which opened in 1898.

Black-and-white photo of people walking along a pier
Advertising process photograph showing Heinz Ocean Pier. / THF117096

The pickle pin, for instance, was a wildly successful advertising promotion. Heinz first offered a free pickle-shaped watch fob at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. At some point, a pin replaced the watch fob, and the rest is history!

Pin in the shape of a green pickle with a red-and-white can of soup dangling from it; also contains text
Heinz Pickle Pin "Heinz Homestyle Soups." / THF158839

By the time of H.J. Heinz’s death in 1919, his company had grown into one of the largest food processing businesses in the nation. His company was known for its innovative food processing, packaging, advertising, and enlightened business practices. You can learn more about Heinz House and its journey to Greenfield Village here.

Even More Fun Facts about Greenfield Village Buildings


Most of the time, we focus on big themes that tell American history in relatable ways. When we choose a theme to focus on, we inevitably leave out interesting little-known facts. For example, Cohen Millinery was a dry goods store, a candy store, a Kroger grocery, and a restaurant during its lifetime!

Black-and-white photo of street scene, focused on two-story brick building with business windows on first floor
Cohen Millinery at its original site. / THF243213

Surprisingly, for most of its life prior to its incorporation into Greenfield Village, Logan County Courthouse was a private residence. Many different families had lived there, including Mr. and Mrs. Elijah Watkins, the last caretakers before Henry Ford acquired the building. They are depicted below, along with an interior shot of one of their rooms when Henry Ford’s agents went to look at the building.

Woman and man sit on the edge of a porch
Mr. and Mrs. Watkins. / THF238624

Room containing piano, table, sofa, among other items
Interior of Logan County Courthouse at its original site. / THF238596

In the 1820s, eastern Ohio farmers realized huge profits from the fine-grade wool of purebred Merino sheep. But by the 1880s, competition had made raising Merino sheep unprofitable. Benjamin Firestone, the previous owner of Firestone Farmhouse and father of Harvey Firestone, however, stuck with the tried and true. Today, you can visit our wrinkly friends grazing one of several pastures in the Village.

Sheep standing in straw or hay in front of a wooden wall
Merino sheep at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village in 2014. / THF119103

We have several different breeds of animals at the Village, but some of our most memorable were built, not bred. The Herschell-Spillman Carousel is a favorite amongst visitors. Many people think that all carousel animals were hand-carved. But the Herschell-Spillman Company, the makers of our carousel, created quantities of affordable carousel animals through a shop production system, using machinery to rough out parts. You can read more on the history of our carousel in this blog post.

Carousel containing a variety of animals in dome-ceilinged building
THF5584

And there you have it! Remember, odd and anachronistic as it might seem at times—the juxtaposed time periods, the buildings from so many different places, the specific people highlighted—there’s only one Greenfield Village!

Three people in historic garb wave from the doorway and yard of a gray wooden building with a wooden fence
Presenters at Daggett Farmhouse. / THF16450


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life 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.

#THFCuratorChat, Wright Brothers, world's fairs, Thomas Edison, research, railroads, Luther Burbank, Logan County Courthouse, J.R. Jones General Store, Henry Ford, Heinz, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Ford Motor Company, farm animals, Dr. Howard's Office, Daggett Farmhouse, Cohen Millinery, by Donna R. Braden, archives, agriculture, Abraham Lincoln

Smiling woman with long blonde hair stands with blue furry puppet over one shoulder

Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz and Rosita. / Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop

Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz shares her journey to becoming a professional puppeteer, how she met Jim Henson, and what it’s like being a part of the Sesame Street family.

As a curator at The Henry Ford, I gained renewed appreciation for Jim Henson while researching the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street in 2019, then again while commemorating Henson’s legacy on the 30th anniversary of his passing in 2020. So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to interviewing Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz, puppeteer for the Sesame Street character Rosita and someone who had worked for and personally known Jim Henson.

Carmen enchanted us with her stories: growing up in Mexico; her personal interests and love of family; her passion for puppetry and how this turned into her involvement with Jim Henson Productions; how she helped create her Sesame Street character, who was vibrant, outspoken, and passionate—much like Carmen herself.

Carmen struck us as fearless—a young, raw talent beating out more seasoned professionals for work, leaving Mexico behind to attend a puppetry workshop in New York City because she desperately wanted to learn more, and staying there because Jim Henson himself asked her to. She regrets that she never returned home, but recognizes that, through her work, she can proudly represent and keep close to her heart her love of her homeland, community, and family.

—Donna R. Braden



Did you know from an early age that you wanted to work with puppets, become a professional puppeteer?

No. Of all my friends growing up in Mexico City, I was the one who had no idea what she wanted to do. Nothing that gave me a sign. At one time, I thought I wanted to go to the OlympicsI was good in sports, very competitive. I even wanted to work with and talk to the dolphins until I found out about all the science I would need.

When I was 5 or 6 years old, I did love to watch Topo Gigio [a character on a children’s puppet show on Italian television in the early 1960s] every Monday on TV. He was so alive. And then when I was 8, I remember having a playdate at a friend’s house watching Plaza Sésamo [Mexico’s Sesame Street, one of the first international co-productions of the show, which started running in 1972] for the first time. We laughed and sang.

I think my curiosity was thereI wanted to know how they did it. I watched the Muppets, too, when that show came out. But I didn’t know much about Jim Henson until a friend of my brother brought me a book, Of Muppets and Men [Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show, written by Christopher Finch], when I was in high school. The book had pictures of the puppeteers and explanations on how they did it. It was the first time I saw how it worked, and it blew my mind that they had to work with their arms above their heads, that they did the voices themselves.

Was reading that book your light bulb moment?

The light bulb really went on for me when my brother, who was working for Televisa [a Mexican mass media company] at the time, invited me and my friends to attend a workshop with Americans for a children’s show that had puppets. I was the only one called back. I was with a bunch of professional actors from universitythe youngest in the group at 18 with no idea of acting. On the third day of the workshop, they brought the puppets out, and we had to work with the cameras and monitors and learn how, when you move the puppet one way, it appears the other way on the monitorit’s inverted. That is when it really clicked for me. I started remembering all I had watched on TV, how the puppets breathe and walk. They live. I was mesmerized by the challenge to make this thing with no expression have expression.

Group of people in tight space, several holding puppets
While working on the children’s television show Super Ondas for Mexican mass media company Televisa in the 1980s, Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz (at right) was one of a small group of professional female puppeteers in the industry. / Photo courtesy of Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz

I loved it. I was in heaven. While the professional actors were having problems because their expressions were happening below, not above, I was making this puppet come alive. It didn’t matter that I was shy or didn’t have the acting skills.

I think my brother knew when he invited me to that workshop. After that, it all came together for mewhy I loved the puppets, the magic, the joy, the curiosity.

And I got a job working for Televisa.

How did you cross paths with Jim Henson?

I was working as a puppeteer at Televisa on The Treasure of Knowledge show when I met Kermit Love from the Henson group. He was in Mexico to train puppeteers from Plaza Sésamo. I asked him if he could help me. I felt that I was the only person in Mexico that was passionate about the puppets, that I had respect for them that no one else did. Most puppeteers were actors who were quick to move on to other things. I started asking questions about why we couldn’t do our own voices. I wanted to get better at my craft. I wanted our work to be better.

Kermit invited me to the U.S. to attend a workshop. So I went to Manhattan. One day, he came by and said, “We’re going to a party. Here’s your mask.” Suddenly, I was at a masquerade party thrown by Jim Henson at the Waldorf Astoria. That’s when I met Jim for the first time. It was so amazing. He was so amazing. He invited me to come observe production of his next season of Sesame Street. Just to see them working as a team. They were brilliant, geniuses, magicians. I thought to myself I would love to stay here. This is a dream.

 Carmen’s Calls to Action


Go Ahead and Dream

“Never be afraid of your dreams. And if things don’t work out quite the way you hoped now, you will find a way to make them work in the future.”

Making Mistakes Is OK
“Making mistakes is actually more than OK. It’s wonderful. It’s how we learn.”

Keep Growing
“Don’t be scared to try something new. Even now, I feel like me and Rosita still have a lot of space to grow, and we’re always learning new things, talking about topics I never thought we would be.”

Be Prepared to Work Hard
“Being a puppeteer in the Muppet style is so much fun, but it is difficult, hard work. If you like a challenge, teamwork, laughing a lot, and throwing out ideas and solving problems all the time, then this is for you.”


When Jim did call me and said he decided he wanted me to be a part of the Muppet family, that he wanted a strong female puppeteer, I raised my hands and was like, “WAAAWWW!”

That was 1989, just a year before Jim died.

What role did you play in bringing your Sesame Street character Rosita to life?

When Jim was alive, he told me he always wanted a bilingual character for Sesame Street. I told him I didn’t really speak a lot of English. I was probably at 25%. He said no worries. We will work together. It will come out naturally. It’ll be fun.

Designer Ed Christie first asked me to help write a bio for my character because he wanted to create someone I would be comfortable with. So I told him I wanted her to be colorful and present. We Latinos like to hug and kiss. She needs to be cuddly with flowing hair. I wanted her to play the guitar and be musical like I was.

I wanted to name her Rosita, after my best friend in Mexico City, Rosa. I really liked the idea of how people could R the R’s—RRRRRosita.

Meet Rosita, a Bilingual Turquoise Monster 
 

Full name: Rosita la Monstrua de las Cuevas (the Monster of the Caves)
Age: 5
Birthday: December 7
Birthplace: Mexico
Parents: Rosa and Ricardo
Puppeteer: Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz
Designer: Ed Christie
First TV appearance: Sesame Street, season 23, episode 2888 (1991)
Favorite Friends: Zoe, Elmo, Grover, Telly Monster, Prairie Dawn, and Abby Cadabby
Likes: Presenting the Spanish Word of the Day and playing her guitar. She’s very good with history as well as geography.


Ed heard all that and made a puppet that wasn’t tiny but had a presence. She has a round belly, live hands and wings like a flying squirrel. He said he designed her like that thinking of a flamenco skirt. And she’s turquoise, which is an important color in Mexican culture, representing life and hope.

I just loved her from the start. Rosita is my immigrant girl, a happy, family-oriented monster that speaks better English than I do. She’s confident, doesn’t mind making mistakes and has explosive feelings.

Is it difficult to bring Rosita’s explosive personality to life?

When you’re a puppeteer, you quickly learn that it is not just about your character above. It’s also about the layer underneath.

We are in a very physical situation that is often very uncomfortable. You can’t be claustrophobic and you can’t be smelly. We all joke about eating no onions or garlic, brushing your teeth.

With Rosita, I have someone else doing her right hand as well, so he has to match what I am doing so carefully. If you move the puppet slightly the wrong way, for example, it won’t look like it is listening. It is very specific, and you’re sharing a small, cramped space with others, looking at monitors and trying to work in extremely coordinated ways.

Group of people, two holding furry puppets, on TV set designed to look like a street
Carmen bringing Rosita to life on the set of Sesame Street. / Photo courtesy of Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop

As puppeteers, we are solving physical problems all the time, learning new ways to trick the cameras into presenting our characters as living, breathing things. It’s about subtle movements, creating reactions that match with the other characters.

In your creative community, in the entertainment industry in general, do you feel as if Jim Henson’s legacy is still alive and well?

Jim was amazing. His mind was brilliant. He was curious and put together this world around all the things he liked. He was ahead of his time, and we keep trying to keep his legacy alive because he had it right.

For me, I can see that he still touches people. I have so many young people come up and say, “I want to be a puppeteer. Jim Henson changed my life.” And so many of them are very, very clever. They are bringing all of these new ideas and technologies to the conversation. I’m so proud of everyone that comes to us that were inspired by Jim. It’s so rewarding.

What about with audiences? Does Jim’s vision resonate with the next generation?

I know animation is where it’s at today, but it’s just so flat, and Jim’s characters are just so alive. When we did Sesame Street’s 50th anniversary concert live a few years ago, I was so worried about the audience’s reaction to seeing us rolling around, sweating on the stage. What I felt instead was absolutely incredible. I saw grandparents with their grandkids, parents with their children singing and crying, connecting with each other. Because of Jim. It was so touching, so inspiring.

In terms of your impact, how has your career influenced others? Can you speak to the appreciation you have for how your role as Rosita is helping children learn and grow?

What this job has brought to me has been amazing, and impact really goes both ways. The impact Rosita has had on others and the impact people have had on my life because of her.

Blue furry puppet standing on one leg and holding yellow maracas
Rosita. / Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop

Rosita is part of lots of outreach within communities where so many see her and the other characters as friends. Today, we are working on racial justice messages, and Rosita and I have also been working with military families for 10 years. We’ve created videos for young parents so they can help explain deployment to their children. We’ve also had a script where Rosita’s dad comes back home from a tour of duty and is injured and in a wheelchair. The words in that videohow military families have to deal with both invisible and physical injuries, the suffering they face and sacrifices they makeI took it very personally. I even asked myself if I thought I was ready to become an American citizen. It was something I had researched before, but I was never sure if I was readyI’m so proud of my Mexican heritage. After working with military families, though, I said to myself that I was definitely ready, and I became an American citizen.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Jennifer LaForce is Editorial Director at Octane and Editor of The Henry Ford Magazine. This article was first published in the June–December 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

Hispanic and Latino history, women's history, TV, The Henry Ford Magazine, popular culture, Jim Henson, immigrants, by Jennifer LaForce, by Donna R. Braden

Welcome to the 1880s. Baseball fever is sweeping the country! Urban centers boast professional teams of paid, recruited players, like the Detroit Base Ball Club pictured on the trade card below, part of the National League from 1881 to 1888. (The Detroit Tigers were created in 1901, as part of the newly organized American League.) The Detroit Base Ball Club is gaining some notoriety. They'll win the pennant (the forerunner of the World Series) in 1887, beating the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in 10 out of 15 games.

Card with portraits of 11 men, text, and image of baseball diamond
Trade Card for the Detroit League Base Ball Club, Sponsored by "Splendid" Plug Tobacco, P. & G. Lorillard, 1886 / THF225148

Chief among the team's heroes is star catcher Charley Bennett (pictured upper right). Charley is the first professional-league catcher to wear a chest protector outside his uniform. Detroit fans so adore him that they will name their first official ballyard Bennett Park. Charley is the team's "muscle"; center fielder and team captain Ned Hanlon (pictured center) is its "brains."

The passion for baseball is equally evident in small-town America. Amateur clubs show up just about anywhere that nine men can agree on a time and place to practice. Games against rival towns and villages engender fierce local pride. Over in the village of Waterford, Michigan, some country lads have formed a team called the Lah-De-Dahs. Their exploits are well documented in the local newspaper. On September 2, 1887, local fans will smile to read, "George Wager is the best catcher in the township and of the Waterford nine; if he fails to catch the ball with his hands he will catch it with his mouth."

Page with text
The back of the trade card features an ad for Lorillard’s “Splendid” plug tobacco, as well as the home and “abroad” schedules for Detroit. / THF225149

See the Lah-De-Dahs in Action


Would you like to see the Lah-De-Dahs in action? You can, every summer in Greenfield Village. Our own team borrows the look and playing style of an 1880s amateur baseball club like the original Waterford Lah-De-Dahs.

When you go to a Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village game, you will notice some different baseball terminology. For example, instead of "batter up," the umpire will declare "striker to the line." When he notes "three hands dead," he simply means that the side is retired.

Visit a Historic Base Ball game this summer and learn some new terminology for yourself!


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This article was adapted from the May 1997 entry in our previous “Pic of the Month” online series.

Greenfield Village, Michigan, Detroit, sports, baseball, by Donna R. Braden, Historic Base Ball, events

Lunchbox with images of Muppet characters, including Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and others

Several stars of The Muppet Show pose for a group shot on one side of "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187292

By the time The Muppet Show premiered in 1976, numerous Muppet characters had already been introduced to the public through a host of TV shows and commercials. However, this new weekly TV series that lasted for five seasons offered the opportunity for Jim Henson and his collaborators to further develop certain characters while introducing several new ones. The relatable personality traits of the main characters in The Muppet Show became part of their unique charm and lasting appeal.

What character from The Muppet Show are you most like? To find out, look at the following character traits of eight main characters from The Muppet Show, choose the group of traits that best fits you (or most intrigues you), then see which character matches those.

  1. You have your own hopes and dreams, but you often find yourself helping others in need. Because of this, others gravitate to you. You, in turn, treat them with patience and kindness. Well, at least you try.
  2. In school, you were the class clown, always trying to make people laugh. Even though they often didn’t get your unique sense of humor, that never deterred you from trying again. And again. Underneath that wise-cracking exterior, you are a friendly, loving, sensitive soul.
  3. You may be willing to go along with the crowd for a while, but underneath, you crave attention. You are bold, strong-willed, and, when pushed around, you have a tendency to be stubborn and single-minded. You know what you want and possess the steely determination for go after it.
  4. You are a risk-taking adventurer. You prefer excitement and thrills to patience and planning. This may not always turn out the way you had hoped, but you don’t give up. You are on a continual search for the meaning in life and have a strong desire to find a place where you belong.
  5. With a steady hand and a level head, you make sure that everything is functioning behind the scenes. You enjoy solving problems and assisting others. Staying in the background lets you get involved, in a low-pressure way, with everyone and everything. Which is not to say that you don’t enjoy the limelight every once in a while.
  6. You are extremely enthusiastic in everything you do. While some might say that you get carried away too easily, or are too obsessive about certain interests, you just think of yourself as passionate and devoted. Because why go just halfway when you really love something?
  7. Unlike friends and colleagues whose talents are hidden or still evolving, you already have real talent! This gives you the confidence to be calm, steady, easygoing, and charming. You are friendly with most everyone and willing to lend a hand when needed.
  8. You are studious, serious, and thoughtful. You feel that it’s important to live by the rules and you have little patience with those who don’t. Some might say you are judgmental, but you just feel that you have high standards—without those, everything would just descend into chaos. Unfortunately, it usually does.


Pick your set of traits, then scroll down to discover which Muppet you are most like!

Kermit the Frog

 

Green frog puppet

Closeup shot of Kermit, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187305

If you chose #1, you are like Kermit the Frog. Introduced in 1955 on Jim Henson’s first TV show, Sam and Friends, Kermit evolved from a sort of abstract lizard-like creature to a definite frog with flippers, a fringed collar, and a distinct personality. Kermit was not initially intended to host The Muppet Show, but his warm personality and ability to get along with others won him the starring role. Only occasionally did he panic, get annoyed, or become frustrated by the chaos around him before he would once again resume the calm, easygoing demeanor that drew others to him in the first place.

Fozzie Bear


Bear puppet wearing brown hat and white scarf with pink polka dots around neck, holding banana to ear
Closeup shot of Fozzie Bear, featured on one side of "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187309

If you chose #2, you are like Fozzie Bear. Fozzie is known as The Muppet Show’s resident stand-up comedian and Kermit’s best friend. In fact, the full range of his personality took a while to emerge. At first, his inability to deliver a punchline made him seem inept, embarrassing, even depressing. Eventually, as Fozzie developed a wider range of emotions, audiences began to connect with his newfound sense of optimism, enthusiasm, and just plain fun-loving nature.

Miss Piggy


Pig puppet with blonde wavy hair wearing white hat with black ribbon, elbow-length purple gloves, and a purple dress with white collar
Closeup shot of Miss Piggy, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187310

If you chose #3, you relate to Miss Piggy, The Muppet Show’s resident diva, best known for her unrequited love for Kermit the Frog. Miss Piggy was also The Muppet Show’s most unexpected breakout character. Just like a true Hollywood movie star, she got her start as a little-known background singer and chorus girl named Miss Piggy Lee (a homage to singer Peggy Lee). But during the first episode of The Muppet Show, her true character began to emerge—that trademark determination hidden behind a coy exterior. Her newfound stardom pushed hapless Fozzie Bear to the background as a supporting character.

Gonzo the Great


Head and shoulders of purple puppet with long hooked nose and large eyes
Closeup shot of Gonzo, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187306

If you chose #4, you are like Gonzo the Great. Gonzo traces his origin to the purple hook-nosed creature, Snarl, who appeared in Jim Henson’s 1970 TV special, The Great Santa Claus Switch. Newly recycled and slightly remodeled, Gonzo appeared on The Muppet Show as its resident stuntman. Well, Gonzo would not consider himself merely a stuntman. He would describe his stunts as avant-garde acts of performance art.

Scooter


Yellow puppet with orange hair, glasses, and green satin jacket
Closeup shot of Scooter, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187307

If you chose #5, you are like Scooter, The Muppet Show’s gofer and jack-of-all-trades. Scooter appeared most frequently in scenes that took place behind the scenes at the Muppet Theatre. He ostensibly got the job as the show’s backstage assistant because his uncle owned the theatre, but over the years—despite his moderate pestering of Kermit—he proved his worth and stayed on. He also occasionally appeared on stage, even hosting the show once. He was one of the few true aficionados of Fozzie Bear’s jokes, and the two occasionally performed acts together.

Animal


Puppet face with wispy red hair and mustache, bushy black eyebrows, round red nose, and pointy lower teeth
Closeup shot of Animal, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187311

If you chose #6, you have the tendencies of Animal, the exuberant drummer of The Muppet Show’s house band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Despite popular legend, he was not based upon any real-life drummer. However, he does consider Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Keith Moon of The Who, and Ginger Baker of Cream and Blind Faith to be among his musical influences. His most memorable moment on The Muppet Show was when he performed a drumming contest with legendary jazz musician Buddy Rich. Animal’s unrestrained style made him popular not only with young people but also among many of the guest stars on the show.

Rowlf


Brown dog puppet with long, floppy ears
Closeup shot of Rowlf, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187308

If you chose #7, you are like Rowlf, the resident piano-playing dog of indeterminate breed who performed on several episodes of The Muppet Show. Rowlf’s origins date back almost as far as Kermit’s—he first appeared on commercials for Purina Dog Chow in 1962. He gained fame soon after, making regular appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show—a variety show hosted by the country singer of that name, who became famous for his hit, “Big Bad John.” Rowlf’s confidence lent an air of stability to The Muppet Show, as he brought his years of experience to the cast of new, unformed, and unproven characters.

Sam Eagle


Corner of lunchbox with image of eagle puppet in center and other puppets on either side; also contains text
Closeup shot of Sam Eagle, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187297

If you chose #8, you are like Sam Eagle—short for Sam the American Eagle. With that name, it goes without saying that Sam is ultra-patriotic, especially about all things American. He also fashions himself as The Muppet Show’s moral compass, always on the lookout for acts of dignified, high-brow culture. The fact that he knows nothing about culture and never finds these types of acts on The Muppet Show does not seem to deter him.


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

Muppets, TV, quizzes, popular culture, Jim Henson, by Donna R. Braden

Crowd of people stands by railway tracks with trains on them and a building on the other side of the tracks
Passengers rush to board the Overland Limited, which ran between Los Angeles and Chicago over the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway, ca. 1905. /
THF207763

Between 1865 and 1920, America’s railroad network increased sevenfold, from 35,085 miles to an all-time high of 254,037 miles in 1916. The rapid expansion of the national rail network corresponded with major technological improvements—including double tracking, improved roadbeds, heavier and faster locomotives, and the elimination of sharp curves—which allowed trains to operate at higher speeds. Travel times were steadily cut year by year. To emphasize time savings, railroad companies began to give their faster lines special names like “flyer,” “express,” and “limited.”

Page with text in black and red, timetable, and flag and badge icons
This 1913 timetable for the St. Louis-Colorado Limited line of the Wabash-Union Pacific Railroad boasted that it was the shortest line with the fastest time between destinations. / THF291441

However, increased speed came with disadvantages. High speeds resulted in an increasing number of gruesome railroad accidents caused by both discrepancies in local times and mix-ups between different railroad companies’ timetables.

Print of a train crash with many people gathered around; with handwritten text at bottom
A catastrophic collision occurred between two passenger trains on the Providence & Worcester Railroad when they failed to meet at a passing siding as scheduled, 1853. / THF622050

Facing governmental intervention to address the problem, the railroads took it upon themselves to enact a single standardized time across the country by dividing the nation into five roughly even time zones. Some people at first rebelled against this arbitrary imposition, especially when the newly drawn time zone designations did not align with local practices. But most people found it increasingly convenient to set their clocks by this new “standard time.”

Color postcard of red brick buildings, one with tall clocktower, with cars, wagon, and green space in front
Residents of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, would have synchronized the time on their personal clocks and watches to the railroad depot clock seen in this ca. 1916 postcard. / THF124830

Another disadvantage, some people complained, was that the increasing speed of railroad travel was unhealthy. Many believed that the rapid pace of life contributed to new forms of stress and anxiety and that the railroad was a key cause of these problems.

People climb a staircase up from sunken railroad tracks with trains on them; buildings in background
Railroad passengers ascending the staircase after arriving in Chicago, via the Illinois Central Railroad, ca. 1907 / THF105820

By 1920, railroad passenger travel was at the highest level it would ever attain. But, with the exception of the unique conditions during World War II, the railroad would never again be the dominant form of personal transportation in America. Within a few decades, the American public would embrace automobiles with the passion they had once given over to the railroads. How did this transfer of allegiance from railroad to automobile occur so effortlessly and completely during the early 20th century, and how does it relate to Americans’ changing concepts of time?

People sitting in an old-fashioned open car, with "Davenport, IA. to New York" written behind the rumble seat
A group of motorists travelling from Davenport, Iowa, to New York, ca. 1905 / THF104740

At first, many railroad managers did not take automobiles seriously—and for good reason. When they were first introduced in the 1890s, automobiles had no practical purpose. They were considered amusing and entertaining playthings for wealthy hobbyists and adventurers.

Color print of people in long, open blue car; also contains text
1909 advertisement for the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car, an automobile geared to wealthy motorists who could afford to have a chauffeur handle the driving for them. / THF88377

Most railroad managers were complacent, agreeing with one claim that “the fad of automobile riding will gradually wear off and the time will soon be here when a very large part of the people will cease to think of automobile rides.” But, as it turned out, the public passion for automobile riding did not wear off. Increasingly, Americans from all walks of life embraced automobiles and their advantages over railroads. By 1910, more than 468,000 motor vehicles had been registered in the United States.

Automobiles would have not achieved the level of popularity that they did without major advancements in the roads on which they traveled. As far back as the 1890s, bicyclists and early motorists had tried to alert the public to, and lobby the government for, better roads—roads that the railroads had ironically either replaced or rendered unnecessary.

Black and white page with text, photo, illustrations, and decorative elements
The Bulletin and Good Road, the official organ of the League of American Wheelmen, kept bicyclists up to date on advancements relating to the “Good Roads” movement. / THF207011

One reason that people embraced automobiles was because they revived the promise of individual freedom. Compared with railroad travel, motorists were unhampered, free to follow their own path. Elon Jessup, author of several motor camping books, wrote, “Time and space are at your beck and call, your freedom is complete.”

Black-and-white photo of campsite with tent, people by a cooking fire, a Model T, two goats, and two dogs
Motorists enjoying life on the road in the Missouri Ozarks, 1923. / THF105550

According to a 1910 American Motorist article, no longer were people tied to intercity train schedules, “rushed meals,” and “rude awakenings.” The motorist was “his own station master, engineer, and porter.” Riding in his own “highway Pullman,” he had “no one’s time to make except his own.” Automobile advocate Henry B. Joy wrote in a 1917 Outlook article that motoring promised “freedom from the shackles of the railway timetable.” Automobiles were also considered a particular advantage for women, who were increasingly venturing out into public spaces to shop, work, socialize, and take pleasure trips.

Four women in an open automobile with text on door "Four Ladies in a Haynes from Chicago to New York"
Four women in a Haynes automobile, travelling from Chicago to New York, ca. 1905. / THF107595

In addition to restoring people’s personal control over their own time, automobiles succeeded in slowing down the fast pace of modern life. Early automobile advocates claimed that railroads were simply too fast. Elon Jessup, in his 1921 book, The Motor Camping Book, described the view from the train as “a blur.” In his 1928 book, Better Country, nature writer Dallas Lore Sharp remarked that railroads rushed “blindly along iron rails” in their “mad dash across the night,” offering passengers only “fleeting impressions.” Automobiles, on the other hand, promised a nostalgic return to a slower time. Harkening back to the “simpler” days of stagecoach and carriage travel, automobiles were “refreshingly regressive.” Instead of being rushed along by “printed schedules and clock-toting conductors,” motorists could stop and start whenever they wanted, or when natural obstacles intervened. A car trip was leisurely, allowing heightened attention to regional variation and uniqueness.

Four people in blue car on road through greenspace with trees and mountains in the background; also contains text
Motorists take a leisurely drive through the countryside on the cover of this September 1924 American Motorist magazine. / THF202475

All told, the automobile liberated the individual who “hated alarm clocks” and “the faces of the conductor who twice daily punched his ticket on the suburban train.” In his 1928 book, Dallas Sharp even claimed that motoring was, in fact, more patriotic than railroad travel because it encouraged people to enjoy the country “quietly” and “sanely.” As a result, the slower tempo of automobile travel was thought to be restorative to frayed nerves brought on by the increasingly hectic pace of life in an urban, industrial society.

No automobile had more impact on the American public than the Model T, introduced in 1908. Envisioned by Henry Ford as a car for “the great multitude,” the Model T was indeed “everyman’s car”—sturdy, versatile, thrifty, and powerful. While Model Ts sold well from the beginning, the low price, extensive dealer network, and easy availability of replacement parts led to a leap in Model T sales after World War I.

Two-page spread with yellow advertisement with text and image of people in car "breaking through" the page, and additional people waving from lakeside campground
Brochure for the 1924 Ford Model T, promoting its use as a vehicle for family pleasure trips. / THF107809

The need and demand for better roads corresponded with the unprecedented rise in Model T sales. The first and most widely publicized of the new, independently funded cross-country highways was the Lincoln Highway (1912), which ran (at least on paper) between New York City and San Francisco, California. In 1916—ironically, the same year that national railroad mileage reached a peak—the U.S. government passed the Federal Aid Road Act, providing grants-in-aid to several states to fund road improvement. The railroad companies watched helplessly as the government subsidized improved roads that extended to villages and hamlets the railroads could never hope to reach.

Book cover with text, portrait of Lincoln, American iconography, and line with individual points labelled with state abbreviations
Effie Price Gladding recounts her cross-country trip on the Lincoln Highway in this 1915 book. The cover points out the states she passed through along the route of this highway. / THF204498

By the end of the 1920s, due in large part to the unprecedented popularity of the Model T, automobiles had gained a “vice-like grip on the American psyche.” Total car sales had leaped from 3.3 million in 1916 to 23 million by the late 1920s. Motorists were not only opting to take cars rather than trains for their regular travel routines, but they were also beginning to take longer-distance trips than they had ever attempted before. As the 1920s closed, Americans were traveling five times farther in cars than in trains. Enthusiasm for the automobile remained high throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, when massive new road and highway construction projects were initiated to stimulate employment.

Page with text and decorative elements
Black Americans embraced automobiles to avoid discrimination and humiliation on public transportation—at least until they had to stop to eat, sleep, and fill up with gas. Beginning in 1936, the Negro Motorist Green Book listed “safe places” for Black motorists to stop in towns and cities across the country. / THF99195

Conversely, the Depression was devastating for the railroad companies, who abandoned a record number of miles of existing track during this decade. By the late 1930s, railroad companies were optimistically attempting to revive business by embracing modern new streamlined designs, which claimed to reflect aerodynamic principles and promised a smooth ride incorporating the latest standards of comfort and convenience. A new emphasis on speed led to numerous record-breaking runs.

Boldly colored image of train coming around a curve and traffic light (?); also contains text
For its speed, as well as its beauty, comfort, and convenience, the Wabash Railroad’s “Blue Bird Streamliner” of 1950 was touted as “The Most Modern Train in America.” / THF99239

After World War II, the lifting of wartime rationing, the inclusion of two-week paid vacations in most labor union contracts, pent-up demand for consumer goods, and general postwar affluence ensured the automobile industry “banner sales,” which lasted into the 1950s.

Brochure cover with text and image of convertible car with oversized heads of a man and woman sticking out the top
Travel brochures like this one abounded after World War II, appealing to family vacationers. / THF202155

State-endorsed toll roads met the immediate postwar demand for motorists’ “right to speedy and accident-free travel over long distance.”

Colorful landscape with road traveling through it; overlaid with text
The Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first state-endorsed toll road, officially entered service on October 1, 1940. It currently stretches three times its original length. / THF202550

But the U.S. government’s long-time obsession with highway improvement truly reached a “dizzying crescendo” in 1956, with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act. This Act called for 46,000 miles of state-of-the-art, limited-access superhighways, to be funded by public taxes on fuel, tires, trucks, buses, and trailers. Although justified for military and national defense purposes, the interstate highway system made it possible for average citizens to reach their destinations faster in their cars than by taking trains.

Pamphlet cover showing complex highway interchange; also contains text
Although the new urban expressways were promoted as modern advantages, as seen in this 1955 “Auto-Owners Expressway Map” for the Detroit area, in fact, these same expressways cut through and often devastated poor and historically marginalized communities. / THF205968

Ironically, as automobiles became the standard vehicle for long-distance transportation, and highways beckoned motorists with higher speed limits and improved surfaces, the slow, leisurely pace of motoring—so lauded 50 years earlier—had transformed into an outpacing of even the “blurring” speed of railroads.

Young boy and young man look at eye level at a large model of a road with cars
The wonder of the fast and efficient new expressways is evident in the child’s expression in this 1959 promotional photograph, as he views a futuristic model highway envisioned by researchers at General Motors. / THF200901

For the most part, travelers rejoiced as four-lane divided highways replaced the older two-lane highways. With the new speed and comfort features of cars and improved highways, the impulse toward getting somewhere as rapidly and efficiently as possible, along the straightest path, became the new end goal.



Sources consulted include:

  • Belasco, Warren James. Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1979.
  • Douglas, George H. All Aboard: The Railroad in American Life. New York: Paragon House, 1992.
  • Gordon, Sarah H. Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.



Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This blog post is adapted from her M.A. Thesis, “American Dreams and Railroad Schemes: Cultural Values and Early-Twentieth-Century Promotional Strategies of the Wabash Railroad Company” (University of Michigan-Dearborn, 2013).

roads and road trips, Model Ts, by Donna R. Braden, cars, travel, trains, railroads