If we were taking a vote on the most overused word of 2020, my ballot would go to “unprecedented.” And yet it was indeed an unprecedented year, bringing us widespread social justice protests, an especially contentious presidential election, and, of course, a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
For the past several years (2017, 2018, and 2019), we’ve compiled lists of the most-viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections. Every year, there are differences between the lists, but there’s also always a lot of overlap. Given the extraordinary nature of this year, I was especially curious about what the 2020 list would look like.
On a very different note, several pairs of shoes and a number of cars (including presidential vehicles used by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt) were new to this year’s list. If you visited us during 2020, you might have encountered COVID-19 precautionary “social distancing” floor markers in the Museum where lines were likely to form. These markers contained shoes, cars, or other highlights from our collections, along with QR codes, so that visitors could learn more about our artifacts while they waited. We were pleased to see that thousands of you did indeed use the QR codes to check these out!
If you’d like to explore the other top artifacts of 2020—or to find out what the most popular object of the year was—check out the full list in this Expert Set.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
We all know that 2020 was quite the year—there was a worldwide pandemic, protests across the United States, and a contentious presidential election. It’s understandable that during the year, we all had a lot on our minds.
That said, we shared more than 160 new posts on our blog during 2020. Most of these were eagerly found and devoured by our readers. But a few really great stories from our collections might have gotten lost in the shuffle—and we wanted to make sure you didn’t miss them. Here are ten of those hidden gems to help you start off 2021 right.
The Jazz Bowl: Emblem of a City, Icon of an Age. Discover how a 24-year-old ceramic artist, Viktor Schreckengost, designed a bowl that both captured the essence of New York City in the early 20th century and became an icon of America’s “Jazz Age.”
A LINC console built by Jerry Cox at the Central Institute for the Deaf, 1964.
New Acquisition: LINC Computer Console. The LINC computer may not be as familiar to you as the Apple 1, but it is in contention for the much-debated title of “the first personal computer.” Learn more about its history and the people involved in its creation.
Immerse Yourself in Pop Culture
Lady and the Tramp Charm Bracelet, circa 1955 / THF8604
Lady and the Tramp Celebrates 65 Years. Take a new look at an old classic—Disney’s 1955 movie Lady and the Tramp. Learn how it came to be and share in some personal memories from one of our curators.
Crosley Reado Radio Printer, 1938-1940 / THF160315
Experiments with Radio Facsimile at W8XWJ. Learn about the “Press-Radio War” of the 1930s, and a revolutionary, but ultimately short-lived, experiment by Detroit News radio station W8XWJ to deliver print-at-home news.
A More Colorful World. Discover how a chemistry student, seeking to create a synthetic cure for malaria, inadvertently created the first synthetic dye, aniline purple—and then created more, transforming the world’s access to color.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
As part of American Archives Month in October, staff from The Henry Ford's archives developed some quiz questions about our holdings, which they shared on Twitter. We thought at the end of the year, that our fans might want to check their own knowledge around our archival collections. Try your luck at the ten-question quiz below--or if it does not appear for you, access it directly here.
Christmas tree in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we really enjoy showing how Americans would have celebrated Christmas in the 19th century. In almost all the houses, we use historical primary sources to try to glean out descriptions of what people may have done—but we have almost no concrete visual evidence. However, one huge exception is the Wright Home, the family home of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
We know from various sources that in 1900 there was a big homecoming in Dayton, Ohio. Reuchlin Wright, one of Wilbur and Orville’s older brothers, was returning home from living apart for a very long time, slightly estranged. In celebration, the family decided to put up their first Christmas tree. Wilbur and Orville, who were amateur photographers but probably as good as any professional of the time, documented some of that process.
Within the last decade, we have been able to access a very high-resolution image of the Wright family Christmas tree image from the Library of Congress, and the details just leapt out at us. This photograph, which we know was taken in 1900, documents exactly how the Wright Brothers designed and put up their Christmas tree. We examined all the minutiae in the photo and have attempted to recreate this tree as exactly as possible.
Wright Home Parlor Decorated for Christmas, Original Site, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF119489
The toys, the various ornaments—it's all in line with what's typical in the time period. So if you look at the tree in the Wright Home, you’ll see it lit with candles—this is not an electrified house yet in 1900. There's a variety of ornaments designed to hold candies and similar things. It has strung popcorn, which would have been homemade, but it also has store-bought German tinsel garland, glass ornaments (either from Poland or Germany), and all kinds of additional decorations that may have been saved from year to year. There's a homemade star on top that has tinsel tails coming off it.
For many years, we just had a low-resolution, fuzzy photograph of the tree, and we reproduced things as faithfully as we could—for example, what appeared to be a paper scrap-art angel. The first glimpse of the high-resolution photograph absolutely flabbergasted us, because front-and-center on the tree is a little scrap-art of a screaming, crying baby. It must have been some sort of inside joke within the family. We were able to reproduce it exactly as it would have looked on the tree.
The screaming baby scrap-art on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
In keeping with tradition, the tree is also covered with gifts for different members of the family. It seems that the adult gifts were hung unwrapped on the tree, whereas many of the children's things were either wrapped or just placed under the tree, based on the photograph. For example, on the tree, we see a pair of what are known as Scotch gloves—you would have found examples of these in Sears catalogues of the early 1900s. There's also a fur scarf, toy trumpets, and even a change purse, all hung on the tree.
Scotch gloves hanging on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
Beneath the tree, the arrangement of toys and gifts is quite fun. There’s a pair of roller skates, a little toy train, tea sets, furniture sets, and all kinds of different things geared specifically toward all the Wright nieces and nephews who would have come to visit on that Christmas morning.
There's also a wonderful set of photographs associated with the tree after Christmas. For example, there’s one of Bertha Wright, one of Reuchlin’s middle daughters, in the next room over, sitting playing with her toys. She's clearly been interrupted in her play, and you can see that in the expression on her face: “Okay, let's get this over with.”
Bertha Wright, Age Five, Niece of the Wright Brothers, Daughter of Reuchlin Wright, circa 1900 / THF243319
There are also photos outside the house, featuring the sleigh (which is prominent under the tree in the high-res photograph, stacked with books). Behind them in all these photographs is a little fir tree—the tree that was inside the house for Christmas has now been placed out there and propped up in the corner, probably for the winter season.
Milton, Leontine, and Ivonette Wright at Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF243321
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we have a wonderful large high-resolution blow-up of the tree photograph set up in the Wright Home for our guests to compare-and-contrast with the recreated tree in the corner. Be sure to stop by the Wright Home to see it on your next Holiday Nights visit!
The original historic photo of the Wright family Christmas tree, displayed in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Brian James Egen)
This post was adapted from the transcript of a video featuring Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Throughout the month of November 2020, we’ve been celebrating reaching the milestone of 100,000 digitized artifacts by sharing out blog posts and fun facts, hosting Twitter chats with our digitization staff, and counting down the 20 most-viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections. In case you missed any of these great resources, we wanted to share them all here for easy reference.
If you follow us on social media, you might have seen the “top 20” countdown of our most-viewed digitized artifacts of all time, but if you’d like to get a broader look, you can check out the top 100 in this Expert Set. Fans of The Henry Ford will recognize many of the artifacts, but there may be some on the list that surprise you.
The Henry Ford's all-time top 20 most-viewed digitized artifacts. Do any of them surprise you?
Here, also, are all of the fun facts about our digitization program and our Digital Collections that we shared out on social media.
Twenty fun facts about digitization and our Digital Collections.
During the first week of November, we provided a general introduction to our Digital Collections, our digitization program, and our workflows.
First was our announcement that we had just digitized our 100,000th artifact, and were kicking off the month-long celebration. You can also read our press release here.
If you’re interested in becoming an expert in using our Digital Collections, or just not sure where to start, this blog post will give you a run-down of the ways you can search, view, and use our digitized artifacts.
Associate Curator, Digital Content Andy Stupperich shared how we add context to artifacts in our Digital Collections in this post.
Like many other people around the world, a lot of our staff have spent time this year working from home. Find out how we continued to digitize artifacts despite the closure of our campus this spring in this post.
If you’ve done any of these things, then you’ve had an encounter with our digitization program.
As you might be able to tell from that list, digitization of our collection now underpins much of what we do, and helps us fulfill our mission to inspire people to learn from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation to help shape a better future. For about a decade, The Henry Ford has been systematically adding artifacts to our website, and today we are proud to announce that we have just added our 100,000th artifact. We are using this opportunity to kick off a month-long celebration during the month of November, and will be giving you behind the scenes looks at the digitization process, sharing fun facts about digitization and our Digital Collections, and counting down the most popular digitized artifacts of all time.
Our 100,000th digitized artifact is this photo--of the 100,000th Fordson tractor. / THF146392
As an institution that holds artifacts in the public trust, we have always cared for them and documented them. But the amazing expansion of the digital realm over the last decade has given us new ways to expand access to our fascinating and significant stories. According to the Pew Research Center, when we embarked on this effort in earnest around 10 years ago, one-quarter of Americans did not use the Internet, only 4 of 10 Americans participated in social media, and American smartphone usage was rare.
Our original Digital Collections website.
Our beginnings, too, were humble. Our initial digitization efforts in the early 2010s were funded by generous gifts from Lynn and Paul Alandt and Benson Ford, Jr., on behalf of the Benson and Edith Ford Fund. Our first collections website began with only 500 artifacts included—the very first being this 1929 Ford Model A Coupe used by Henry Ford.
Our first digitized artifact was this 1929 Ford Model A Coupe, used by Henry Ford. / THF87486
As time went on, the number—and breadth—of artifacts we had digitized grew. By 2012, we’d reached 8,000 digitized artifacts; by late 2013, we’d hit 20,000; and two years ago, we hit 75,000. At the same time, technology proliferated—smartphone usage skyrocketed, and web users started to rely on being able to access information anywhere, any time.
Over the years, we’ve digitized artifacts being put on display in new exhibits both large and small, new additions to the collection, artifacts used in The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, objects that tell innovation learning stories, and many other “hidden gems” that may not have been on display for many years. They underpin innovative new interactive experiences in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, and allowed us to present a comprehensive online content program during the current coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that if you’re a fan of The Henry Ford, you’ve probably benefitted in some way from our digitization program.
So we invite you to join us throughout the month of November here on our blog, as well as our social media channels, to learn more about the many steps that go into this process and the experts on our staff who make it happen—and to learn some fun and interesting facts about our collections along the way. The first week will provide an overview of our work; the week of November 9 will focus on collections management and conservation; week three will focus on the work of our registrars; and we’ll wrap up Thanksgiving week with a highlight on our imaging staff.
And don’t forget to check out our Digital Collections for yourself—share your favorites with us on social media using the hashtag #digitization100K.
Promotional image for #AskAnArchivist Day 2020 from the Society of American Archivists.
One day every October (American Archives Month), archivists flock to Twitter for #AskAnArchivist Day. The event, organized by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), allows archivists to explain what they do and answer questions from the public in real-time.
This year, four representatives from our Archives--Sr. Manager, Archives & Library, Brian Wilson; Reference Archivist Kathy Makas; Processing Archivist Janice Unger; and Processing Archivist Hilary Severyn--took shifts answering questions from The Henry Ford's Twitter account. Between the four of them, they covered topics ranging from the availability of research assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic to our Ford Motor Company records to mustache-related puns. Below are some highlights from the day's Q&A.
We are truly living in unprecedented times. On Friday, March 13, 2020, The Henry Ford closed its doors due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. We did not open them again until Thursday, July 2—and even then, only on certain days, with many new guidelines in place about masks, social distancing, and capacity, to protect our visitors and staff. None of us predicted that we would remain closed for 16 weeks—but then, there is much happening now in the world that would have been difficult to predict.
One of the many unusual things that happened over that four-month period is that the most-viewed section of our website was our Digital Collections. While our online collections typically get tens of thousands of views each month, they’ve always fallen well short of our “Visit” section—until COVID-19 shut our doors. Between mid-March and late June, visitors viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections about 285,000 times. This whetted our curiosity about what artifacts people were looking at during our closure, and why—so we decided to put a list together and take a closer look.
The Quadricycle was the third-most viewed artifact in our Digital Collections during our pandemic closure in 2020. / THF90760
One group of artifacts that was not on last year’s list, but that was highly viewed during our closure (and since), is items related to the challenging history of race in America. Given the nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, many Americans are seeking to broaden their understanding in this area, which might explain this uptick in interest. A slave collar, a “Whites Only” drinking fountain, a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, and an Emancipation Day photograph are all artifacts on exhibit in “With Liberty and Justice for All” in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation illustrating this disturbing history—and all were sought out by hundreds to thousands of online visitors between mid-March and late June.
This slave collar was featured in an online article called “Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About George Floyd’s Neck.” / THF13425
Another group of items that seems pandemic-specific are documents and photographs from the World War II era. In George Washington Carver’s last agricultural bulletin, published in February 1942, he encourages Americans to consider wild plants (what many might call weeds) as an alternative to green vegetables, should the war cause shortages. In March, journalist Nicholas Kristof referenced our Willow Run expert set as an example of ramping up production in a short timeframe in a New York Timeseditorial about the coronavirus. Likely as a result, a B-24 Liberator bomber production flowchart and a photograph of a B-24 in flight made it into our top artifacts over this period. A “United We Win” poster speaks to both World War II and issues of race relations.
Ford Motor Company’s fast ramp-up of B-24 Liberator bomber production during World War II provides insight on the ramp-up of coronavirus testing and treatment supplies in 2020. / THF251440
The last pattern we noticed was the popularity of artifacts related to recent films, at a time when many Americans stayed at home and increased their movie watching. Three auto racing photos—including the single-most viewed item during our closure, this photograph of race car driver Ken Miles at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans—demonstrate the continuing popularity of Ford v Ferarri, the 2019 movie about that very race. This letter, allegedly from Clyde Barrow to Henry Ford, has been popular ever since last year, when Netflix released The Highwaymen, a movie about the race to apprehend Bonnie and Clyde. During our closure, it was the fifth-most viewed artifact in our online collections.
This portrait of Ken Miles at the 24 Hours of Le Mans Race in 1966 was the most-viewed artifact from our Digital Collections during our closure. / LeMans06-66_441
It’s interesting to see patterns in views of our digital artifacts that map so closely to what has been going on in the world. To see if you can find any additional patterns we missed, check out the entire list of the most-viewed digitized artifacts during our COVID-19 closure here. And check out our Digital Collections for yourself—you might just find something there of value to you during these strange times.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
In an ironic twist, one of the artifacts we were able to digitize remotely during the pandemic is this roll of toilet paper, on exhibit in Your Place in Time in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
If you’ve visited our Digital Collections lately, you may have noticed they now feature more than 95,000 digitized artifacts. We’ve previously written about the process we use to digitize artifacts—as you might suspect, it involves lots of close physical contact with other human beings and with the artifacts themselves. Right now, during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, this is not possible: some of our digitization colleagues whose work requires campus access are on temporary unpaid leave, and others whose work is more computer-based continue working from our basements, dining rooms, and dens.
Still, between March 14 and May 22, we added almost 3,300 new artifacts to our Digital Collections—all in the 10 weeks since decamping from our offices. But how can we continue to add new items to our Digital Collections without access to the actual collections themselves?
A lot of the answer is infrastructure. We’ve been digitizing our collections in a consistent way for almost a decade now, and over those years have built out a robust system to support adding hundreds of new items to our Digital Collections every day. Our collections database is available to us from home, and we have automated processes in place to pick up new items daily. We can do research on items, and add this information to our database, from home. But what about the images?
A very modern-looking textile from a 1900-1901 sample book, digitized during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When we left campus, there were many objects we’d imaged in the last few months for ongoing projects that hadn’t yet been put online. We are continuing to work through this backlog, adding the images to our collections database and updating our cataloging so they can be reviewed and flagged for online use. Some notable additions in this category since mid-March are more than 700 Hallmark ornaments from the sizeable collection we acquired last year, nearly 200 items digitized through the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship (including trade cards and textile sample books), and more than 150 artifacts digitized through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
In addition, we have a number of collections that were already in digital format, whether natively or digitized by the collector, when they came to us. A sizeable example is the Dave Friedman Collection, which was partially scanned by Dave Friedman before being donated to us. There are now more than more than 32,000 auto racing photographs and documents from the Friedman collection in our Digital Collections—including the more than 1,000 we’ve added remotely.
One of the many Dave Friedman Collection auto racing images we've added to our Digital Collections during the pandemic. This one shows the Chevrolet Corvette C1 driven by Dave MacDonald in the Production Sports Car Race before the 4th Annual Grand Prix for Sports Cars in Riverside, California, in 1961.
We also are lucky, as an institution in its 91st year of existence, to have a sizeable backlog of older images that are often quite acceptable (or can be made acceptable, by some strategic Photoshop work) for online access. We always prefer to get a new image of an artifact when possible—but during the pandemic, that has not been possible. So we’re combing through the existing images we have, whether those are scans of old black-and-white images from our first few decades, 20th century slides that were scanned later on, or images taken on 35mm film that have been transferred to digital format.
In this last category, artifacts with legacy images, to date we’ve had a couple of top priorities: 1) artifacts being utilized for our extensive series of online content and programming, and 2) artifacts that are on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—since you can’t see these in person right now, you’ll at least be able to see them digitally! Since we left campus, we’ve added nearly 200 objects on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation to our Digital Collections, bringing the total number of artifacts on exhibit in the museum that you can also see in our Digital Collections to more than 2,300—check them all out here. The recently added artifacts are mostly in Your Place in Time and Made in America, ranging from a Coty face powder box to an eight-track tape of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Next, we plan to tackle some of the many artifacts on exhibit in Greenfield Village, as well as items brought into our collection in the last couple of decades.
Weaving You Can Wear, one of many books in Your Place in Time digitized recently from existing images.
Across all these categories, there are thousands of artifacts we can add to our Digital Collections without access to our collections—and we will continue working through them until we can safely return to The Henry Ford’s campus and are back up to full capacity. In the meantime, we invite you to dig into our Digital Collections to revisit your old favorites and maybe turn up some new surprises.
If you aren’t sure where to start, you might check out some Expert Sets we recently completed. Our curators selected artifact highlights from our collection in a number of focus areas, namely:
Once we complete our Sagan, it will seamlessly integrate artifacts, textual content, furnishings, and custom-created 3D artwork--something like this example we’ve been playing around with.
For nearly a decade, The Henry Ford has been adding items to our Digital Collections, which now contain over 95,000 digitized artifacts. For almost as long, we’ve been exploring creative ways to work with those world-renowned assets--from including our entire digitized collection on touch-screen kiosks in Driving America back in 2012 to linking tens of thousands of digital artifacts using curator- and AI-created connections in our latest exhibit, Intersection of Innovation.
Some of the best explorations of our digitized collections come through collaborations with partners who can take our content to new levels. Working with other organizations and companies to figure out how we can simultaneously highlight both their platforms and technologies and our own digital assets is a challenge in innovation. Today, we’re excited to tease one such partnership project that is coming soon: a new “Sagan,” created in collaboration with Saganworks.
This is what our Sagan looked like before we added any furnishings or artifacts to the space. Different collections will be highlighted in each “room” within the Sagan.
Saganworks is an Ann Arbor, Michigan–based technology startup with a big goal--to bring multimedia into 3D space and change the way people interact with either their personal content or traditionally in-person spaces, such as museums and storefronts. Individuals can build a virtual room, otherwise known as a Sagan, capable of storing content in a wide variety of file formats, and virtually walk through their rooms like a gallery. With the combination of audio, visuals and a wide variety of customizations to choose from (such as furniture and room layout), individuals are able to experience their Sagans holistically, making Saganworks not just an alternative to in-person spaces, but a unique adventure.