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Large museum display case containing four mannequins wearing clothing, luggage, and signage

Our latest installation of What We Wore: Traveling by Ocean Liner. / THF190376

The current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features garments worn by the Roddis family of Marshfield, Wisconsin, while traveling by ocean liner.

Postcard of large ocean liner at sea; also contains text
Postcard of Cunard’s White Star Line RMS Queen Mary, about 1949. / THF256419

During the mid-20th century, more Americans had the means and opportunity to experience a vacation abroad. Whether looking for relaxation or seeking adventure, these travelers enjoyed visiting places very different from home. Travel by ocean liner had become faster, more comfortable, and less expensive—and was part of the adventure.

Beige page with text and red decorations, including the outline of a ship
Passenger list for Cunard White Star Line’s RMS Queen Mary, 1949. / THF701257

Traveling on an ocean liner in elegant first-class surroundings—a kind of five-star floating hotel—meant dressing up nearly every evening. So, into trunks and suitcases went formal dresses and tuxedos, along with daywear for shipboard activities and sightseeing on land. Enjoying the superb service and elegant atmosphere on shipboard—while dressing the part— was half the fun for travelers like the Roddis family of Marshfield, Wisconsin.

By the mid-1960s, most people would choose speedy airplane travel over grand ocean liners, and travel would become increasingly less formal.



Packing for ocean liner travel required careful planning. Nearly every evening, passengers donned formal dresses and tuxedos. Catherine Roddis took the evening dress below along on a 1948 cruise through the Caribbean to Brazil onboard the SS Nieuw Amsterdam.

Black-and-white photo of three people seated at a table look toward the camera; two more people stand behind the table
Catherine Roddis (shown here with her daughter Augusta and husband Hamilton) wore the evening dress below in the Champlain Dining Room of the SS Nieuw Amsterdam, 1948. / Photo courtesy of the Estate of Augusta Denton Roddis

White or beige dress with short-sleeved lace top and long, slim skirt
Evening Dress, about 1941, worn by Catherine Roddis. / THF166578

Augusta Roddis wore the dress shown below for daytime activities during a 1949 European trip onboard the RMS Queen Mary—the world’s fastest ocean liner in the late 1940s.

Beige dress with pattern of flowers and fairies, short flutter sleeves, and mid-calf skirt
Day Dress, 1945. Worn by Augusta Roddis. / THF166561

Black-and-white photo of a woman and man seated at a tablecloth-covered table among other diners
Augusta Roddis, with her luncheon partner, in the first-class dining room of the RMS Queen Mary, September 1949. / Photo courtesy of the Estate of Augusta Denton Roddis

Catherine Roddis packed the dress shown below for a trip to Europe onboard RMS Queen Elizabeth. Margery Wilson, author of a 1941 etiquette book, recommended lace for travelers—it held its shape in any climate, required little ironing, and always looked elegant.

Light bluish-gray lace dress with translucent three-quarters sleeves, full shirt, and sweetheart bodice
Dress, about 1948, worn by Catherine Roddis. / THF166563

Black-and-white photo of two men in tuxedos and two women in evening gowns and short fur jackets
Catherine Roddis (shown here with her son-in-law and daughter, Henry and Sara Jones, and husband Hamilton) wore the dress depicted above during a trip to Europe onboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth in 1950. / Photo courtesy of the Estate of Augusta Denton Roddis

While packing for ocean liner travel might be less complicated for male passengers like Hamilton Roddis, it still required suits and ties—and often a tuxedo.

Tan-colored man's suit
Suit, 1951, worn by Hamilton Roddis. / THF165826

Black and white photo of man in suit and woman in dress playing shuffleboard on a boat with passengers in lounge chairs nearby
Hamilton Roddis and his daughter Augusta play shuffleboard on the SS Manhattan in 1938. / Photo courtesy of the Estate of Augusta Denton Roddis


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

by Jeanine Head Miller, travel, fashion, Henry Ford Museum, What We Wore

Accidents happen—and not all have a bad outcome. Sometimes they launch loads of fun, like these classic toys that delight us as kids.

Slinky


Advertisement with tree shape containing blocks of color, each with various Slinky-based toy images and text
Advertisement for Slinky, "Insist on Slinky Toys," 1957 / THF109573

Image with metal coil (Slinky toy) in arch shape in front of yellow and red with text and image of Slinky coil
Slinky, 1970-1980 / THF309090

In 1942, marine engineer Richard James of Philadelphia was working on a sensitive marine meter designed to monitor horsepower on naval battleships. His quest? To develop an inner spring that would assure that the device—even if rocked at sea—would give an accurate reading. As James worked, he accidentally knocked one of the rejected prototypes off his desk. The spring hit the ground—then kept spiraling, coil by coil, over the office floor!

This unexpected response intrigued James, who immediately realized that it would make a great toy. For several years he tested various metals, thicknesses, and proportions to come up with the perfect design. His wife, Betty, came up with the perfect name—Slinky. Then James began to sell his Slinkys in local stores. But people weren’t buying.

Clearly customers needed to be shown what a Slinky could do. Richard and Betty James, determined to find success, convinced the Gimbels department store to let them do an in-store demonstration. James had arranged with a local machine ship to manufacture 400 Slinkys—98 coils of high-grade, blue-black Swedish steel piled 2 ½ inches high. Armed with a small set of stairs, the Jameses set out for Gimbels with their Slinkys. As the department store’s curious customers looked on, the Slinky gracefully moved down the stairs. Within minutes, the entire stock of 400 had sold.

Slinkys look simple—but they are actually quite intricate. The original dark steel was later replaced with a silver-colored steel. And, while Slinkys now come in colored plastic, the classic Slinky has remained virtually unchanged.

There’s something rather lifelike about a Slinky, whether walking down some stairs or a sloped board, or shuffling back and forth between one’s hands. And the sound of a Slinky in motion—quite melodious. I have fond childhood memories of a Slinky gliding coil over coil down our stairs—each move punctuated by that distinctive Slinky “snap”—as my siblings and I looked on mesmerized by its flowing passage. How did it know how to do that?

Silly Putty


Plastic blister pack containing blue plastic egg with red and white label "Silly Putty" against blue, silver, and woodgrain background with text
Silly Putty, circa 1962 / THF135811

During World War II, the Japanese invasion of the Far East cut off the United States’ rubber supply—rubber badly needed for the mass production of tires and boots. The War Production Board asked General Electric to develop an inexpensive rubber substitute. Chemical engineer James Wright set to work at the company’s New Haven, Connecticut, lab, experimenting with boric acid and silicone oil. Unexpectedly, the two substances gelled. The result was a gooey compound that bounced when tossed on the floor—even higher than rubber did. It stretched farther and retained its properties over a wide temperature range. And oddly enough, it had the ability to lift text or images off the pages of newspapers and comic books. Quite amazing stuff. But the United States War Production Board rejected it as a rubber substitute. And—despite investigation into other possibilities—one seemingly without a practical use.

Silly Putty became a curiosity that made the rounds of New Haven cocktail parties, where it found itself an amusing “guest.” Ruth Fallgatter, who owned a toy store, and Peter Hodgson, her advertising consultant, took notice. Soon, the putty appeared in the store’s holiday catalog as a novelty gift for adults called Bouncing Putty. There was no image, only a description of the product. You guessed it. Bouncing Putty was a huge hit among Fallgatter’s customers.

Fallgatter lost interest in continuing to market the product, but Hodgson persevered. He purchased a large batch of the putty from General Electric, hired Yale students to separate it into one-ounce portions, then packaged it in multicolored plastic eggs. Since “bouncing” didn’t cover everything this remarkable putty could do, Hodgson called it Silly Putty.

Silly Putty’s reception at the 1950 New York Toy Fair didn’t go too well. Hodgson managed to get only a few accounts. One of these was Doubleday bookshops—and that proved to be enough. Silly Putty soon got its “big break” when a staff writer for The New Yorker discovered it when he stopped in the chain’s Manhattan store, then mentioned Silly Putty in the magazine’s popular “Talk of the Town” column. A few days later, Hodgson had orders for over 250,000 items. Since then, the contents of hundreds of millions of Silly Putty eggs have been bounced and stretched by kids and adults alike.

Oh—that thing about Silly Putty not having a practical purpose? Apparently, it does for some. People have used it to clean typewriter keys or level the legs of wobbly tables. Silly Putty even orbited the moon in 1968 with the Apollo 8 astronauts, helping to keep their tools fastened down in the weightless environment.

Like other kids, I would grab Silly Putty and the Sunday comics, then lift an image from the page. At first, I pulled carefully to distort the image in interesting ways. By the end of pulling, the image was so distorted that it was no longer recognizable—then every trace magically disappeared as I kneaded the putty. (I hear this no longer works, since the printing process for color comics has changed.) But perhaps my favorite Silly Putty-related activity was bouncing it—Silly Putty had an energetic, almost otherworldly bounce. And I can’t recall childhood memories of Silly Putty without thinking of the time my sister took it to bed with her. For years afterwards, a perfectly oval Silly Putty stain graced the sheets.

Colorforms


White page with sailor character Popeye holding a large black umbrella underneath blue raindrops; also contains text
Open box with lid standing on end behind it; box contains colorful pieces on a sheet; box lid contains image of sailor Popeye character with umbrella and text
Colorforms Set, Popeye the Weatherman, 1959 / THF135813,
THF135805

You’ve heard of starving artist stories. Well, this is one.

In 1951, Harry and Patricia Kislevitz were experimenting with various materials and mediums—preferably of the least expensive sort. A friend who owned a handbag business gave them a large roll of flexible vinyl that he didn’t want. The Kislevitzes discovered that it stuck really well to the semi-gloss paint on their bathroom walls—then proceeded to cut out basic shapes and arrange them artistically. When guests visited, they found vinyl and scissors lying on the bathroom counter, beckoning them to join in. A good time was had by all as everyone added to or rearranged the giant collage!

The Kislevitzes decided to market their idea. They created vinyl pieces in standard geometric shapes and primary colors. Then they packaged them with a sheet of black laminated paperboard. Colorforms caught on! And they soon came in new sets—pieced, die-cut, and screened to look like characters or everyday objects.

A kid could design dinosaurs, dress ballet dancers, or send vinyl superheroes on adventures. Scenes from favorite movies or TV shows like Mary Poppins or Sesame Street were within two-dimensional reach. The possibilities were rich—and less messy, done without scissors, paste, or paint.

My favorite Colorforms in young childhood? A set where you dressed a character for the weather—similar to the Popeye version above.

Play-Doh


Yellow packaging with text and photo of two children playing
Set of Play-Doh, circa 1979 / THF190091

When a New Jersey nursery schoolteacher happened to mention that the modeling clay used by her students was too firm for their small fingers, her brother-in-law took note. Joe McVicker, who was working for his father’s Cincinnati soap and cleaning products company, thought he might have an answer. In the mid-1950s, McVicker formulated a putty-like non-toxic substance and sold it as a wallpaper cleaner. Not only could it be easily shaped, but this compound also stayed soft indefinitely if stored in a tightly sealed container.

McVicker double-checked to assure that it was safe, then mailed some off to his sister-in-law’s school. Kids loved the putty—and so did the teachers. He knew he was on to something.

McVicker contacted the Cincinnati Board of Education, who bought the product for all the kindergartens and elementary schools in the district. Next, the putty made its debut at an educational convention, where it was noticed by the wife of a buyer for the Woodward & Lothrop department store in Washington, DC. After a successful in-store demo there, major retailers like Macy’s and Marshall Field placed their own orders.

By 1956, this wallpaper-cleaner-turned-kid’s-toy became known as Play-Doh. And the company? The family business transformed from Kutol Chemicals—not very kid-friendly—to Rainbow Crafts.

Play-Doh was originally offered only in white. By its second year on the market, it came in an even softer consistency and three colors: red, yellow, and blue—developed by company chemist Dr. Tien Liu. In the early 1980s, pink, purple, green, and orange made playtime with Play-Doh even more colorful. Day-glo and glitter versions would later follow.

What’s Play-Doh modeling compound made of? Apparently, that formula is a closely guarded secret.

I grew up in the red-yellow-blue era. I loved the way mixing these not-quite-primary colors could create other beautiful Play-Doh hues. The only downside? Once mixed and kneaded, you couldn’t return them back into their primary basics.

Super Soaker


Purple and pink box containing large yellow and green water gun; also contains text
Super Soaker 50 Water Gun, 1991-1992 / THF185767

Engineers, businesspeople, artists—and NASA scientists. Accidental toy inventions have landed in toy boxes through these “out of the box” thinkers.

NASA rocket scientist? Yes, that would be Lonnie Johnson and his Super Soaker water gun.

Johnson was passionate about inventing not only at his day job as an engineer working with hundreds of colleagues, but also working on his own inventions in his spare time. In 1982, Johnson was in his home workshop developing an environmentally friendly cooling system. To test his idea of using circulating water and air pressure instead of the chemical Freon, Johnson connected a high-pressure nozzle to his bathroom faucet, aimed the nozzle, turned it on, and then blasted a powerful stream of water into the bathtub. He quickly recognized its potential as a toy—a pressurized water gun that didn’t require batteries and was safe enough for kids to play with!

Johnson quickly produced a prototype using Plexiglas, PVC pipe, a two-liter soda bottle, and other materials. Over the next few years, he continued to make improvements. In 1989, Johnson licensed his design for the Super Soaker to Larami. The company launched the toy in 1990.

Kids loved it! Within two years, the Super Soaker generated over $200 million in sales, becoming the top-selling toy in the United States. Improved versions of the Super Soaker debuted have debuted since then—delighting millions of kids and adults, too.

Johnson didn’t just take his royalty money and retire. It was a means to achieving his real goal—establishing his own research company, Johnson Research & Development Co., where Johnson develops innovative technology.

You can see more artifacts related to Slinky, Colorforms, Play-Doh, and Super Soaker, as well as hundreds of other toys, in our Digital Collections.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. 

engineering, making, inventors, popular culture, by Jeanine Head Miller, toys and games

Man in leather jacket and cap sits beside woman in hat, veil, and long coat among the structure of an apparatus
Katharine Wright and Wilbur Wright Preparing to Fly, Pau, France, February 15, 1909 / adapted from THF112388


It’s an old story: women keeping the home fires burning for their loved ones. Katharine Wright handled household responsibilities for her family, giving her brothers, Wilbur and Orville, the freedom to focus on achieving the first heavier-than-air flight in 1903. Yet along the way, she pushed a few boundaries of her own—experiencing things most women of her era did not.

After her mother’s death in 1889, Katharine took over running the Wright home for her father and older brothers at age 15. Later, after Wilbur and Orville had established their aircraft company, she also handled much of their business correspondence.

Two women wash dishes among tubs of water in front of a window with a closed blind
Katharine Wright and Harriet Silliman Washing Dishes, Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, 1896 / THF243313

Unlike her quiet mother, Katharine was spunky, encouraged by her father to seek education and a profession. She did, graduating not only from high school—something most people, men or women, didn’t do at this time—but college as well, which was even rarer. She was, in fact, the only Wright child to complete college.

A Latin teacher at Dayton’s Steele High School, she walked away from her beloved profession to help Orville convalesce after a plane crash in 1908. A year later, she would join her two brothers in France as they held public demonstrations of their latest airplane. Unafraid and heedless of the February cold, she made several flights with Wilbur at the controls, flying longer and farther than any American woman at that time. Witty and extroverted, she also delighted foreign reporters with her unaffected Midwestern manner and quickly became a celebrity in her own right—the only woman ever invited to a dinner at the Aéro-Club de France during aviation’s early years.

Matted photograph of woman in dress and hat walking between two men in coats and bowlers
Orville Wright, Katharine Wright, and Wilbur Wright in France, 1909 / THF112379

She later would serve on the board of Oberlin College, devote time to causes such as women’s suffrage, and eventually marry for the first time at age 52. With domestic responsibilities always tugging, she never stopped pushing boundaries.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from an article in the June–December 2019 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

flying, Wright Brothers, home life, women's history, The Henry Ford Magazine, by Jeanine Head Miller

Large glass display case with three dresses, four hats, and signage with text and imagesOur latest installation of What We Wore, featuring designer Peggy Hoyt. / THF189263


Our current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features garments and hats designed by Peggy Hoyt.

Page with line drawing of house, car, and women walking, as well as text
Advertisement for Peggy Hoyt, Inc., 1923. / THF624600

Illustration of seated woman in dress, hat, and fur coat with text "Peggy Hoyt"
Peggy Hoyt, from “The Right Angle,” The Christy Walsh Syndicate, 1922. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF626352, detail

Peggy Hoyt began her career making hats as a milliner’s apprentice and went on to become a highly successful fashion designer whose creations would rival those of Paris.

The Early Years


Peggy Hoyt was born Mary Alice Stephens in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1886, to Charles J. Stephens, a partner in a wholesale lumber business, and Carrie Stiff Stephens.

As a child, Mary Alice liked to draw and paint. She had a keen interest in clothes, often designing and making clothing for her large family of paper dolls. When her father’s illness resulted in his inability to resume his business activities, the family’s fortunes declined. A Civil War veteran, Charles Stephens was by 1905 living in the National Home for Disabled Soldiers in Hampton, Virginia, where he died in 1915.

Carrie Stephens moved with her daughter to New York City about 1900. Here, she felt she would have a better chance to get work that offered more than a bare living, as well as provide educational advantages for her daughter, Mary Alice. Though finding work turned out to be harder than anticipated, Carrie Stephens eventually found a job as a comparison shopper for a large department store. In the years following, Carrie Stephens worked her way up to a position as one of the highest salaried European buyers for the department store B. Altman.

In 1905, 18-year-old Mary Alice Stephens married Frank Hoyt in Monterey, Massachusetts—though the couple separated after only 18 months of marriage and Mary Alice then returned to New York City. Life on a 500-acre farm in the Berkshires didn’t suit Mary Alice—she missed the excitement of urban life. She and Frank Hoyt finally divorced in 1911; she kept her married name.

Becoming Peggy Hoyt


In her late teens, Hoyt worked as an apprentice in a Fifth Avenue millinery (hat) shop. By 1910, with a talent for design, a flair for business, and $300 borrowed from her mother, Hoyt established her own millinery shop in tiny quarters on upper Fifth Avenue, a shopping destination lined with luxurious stores. A year later, the business was successful enough to warrant an upgrade. She rented a larger room in the same building and hired an assistant. By 1915, Peggy Hoyt, Inc. was born.

In February 1918, Hoyt married Aubrey Eads—an officer in the American Naval Aviation Detachment who had recently returned after 14 months in France during World War I. Eads became her business partner.

A Leading American Designer


In the late 1910s, Hoyt moved her growing business into the elegant Phillip Rhinelander mansion at 16 East 55th Street in Manhattan, where she added women’s clothing to her offerings. The mansion, located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side shopping area, provided over 27,000 square feet of space with a stately white marble hall and a magnificent stairway. Hoyt transformed the mansion into one of the most exquisite fashion centers in America. The first floor became a reception room, salon, and fitting rooms. The second floor was devoted entirely to millinery. The top floors held workrooms and a lunchroom for employees.

Interior of upscale mansion with sweeping staircase and luxurious furnishings
Upscale room with marble fireplace and luxurious furnishings
Peggy Hoyt leased the Phillip Rhinelander mansion on at 16 East 55th Street, transforming it into a stunning setting for her increasingly successful salon.
Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF120772, THF120770

A few years after she moved to the Rhinelander mansion, Peggy Hoyt ventured into theatrical costume design for a brief time. Her elegant costumes for Henry W. Savage’s revival of The Merry Widow in September 1921 were a huge success. The following year, she created costumes for the Savage musical The Clinging Vine.

Blue program cover with text and shield-shaped image of woman with lorgnette, next to sword and decorative elements
Page with text
Page with text
Program for
The Merry Widow. The operetta ran for 56 performances in fall of 1921 at the Knickerbocker Theatre in New York. Note the credits for Peggy Hoyt at the top of page 33 (you can click through to our Digital Collections to zoom in). / THF624648, THF624630, THF624638

Hoyt quickly became one of the foremost American designers of gowns and millinery. Her designs were creative and unique, employing her signature pastels, rhinestone ornaments, and handkerchief hems. Hoyt designed each of the hundreds of gowns and hats in her shop, taking great pride in her work. For nearly twenty years, Hoyt dressed a small, but exclusive, clientele in every large American city.

Page with decorative script text and line drawings of floral arrangements and women in hats
Advertisement: "Peggy Hoyt: New York's Smartest Millinery and Dressmaking Establishment," April 1925. / THF624602

Peggy Hoyt discussed the type of garment, color, style, and fabric with her client, and then sketched the designs. Hoyt oversaw the next steps in the workroom, where staff cut and sewed the garment. Clients had their very own dress form, an adjustable mannequin on which Hoyt’s designs came to life. At the client’s next appointment, the garment was taken to the front of the salon for the final fitting.

A Peggy Hoyt Client: Elizabeth Parke Firestone


Black-and-white photo of seated woman in dress and hat
Elizabeth Parke Firestone, about 1927. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF119839

Beige receipt with printed letterhead and hand-written text
Receipt for Mrs. H.S. Firestone, Jr. from Peggy Hoyt, Inc., 1934. Gift of Martha F. Ford. / THF626330

Elizabeth Parke Firestone of Akron, Ohio—wife of tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone, Jr.—was among the wealthy women who frequented Peggy Hoyt’s salon. Mrs. Firestone traveled to New York, where Hoyt would confer with her client and then create the beautiful garments and hats for Mrs. Firestone shown here.

Pale blue and beige dress with beaded bow detailing
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6688

Peach-colored shift dress with beaded detailing
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1928-1929. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6720

Pale blue dress with beige lace and skirt gores
Chemise dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1929. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6710

Beige or pale peach sleeveless dress with beaded detailing
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1931. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6731

Straw hat with brown velvet ribbon
Cloche designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1920-1935. Gift of Martha Firestone Ford and Anne Firestone Ball. / THF17330

Blue cap with embroidered detailing
Cloche designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1925-1936. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF30500

Floppy, delicate beige hat with pale blue ribbon
Picture hat designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1925-1935. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6754

Black straw hat with black ribbon and feather detailing in black, pale blue, and pink
Picture hat designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1926-1936. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6747

An Unhappy Ending


Pink card with decorative script text
Peggy Hoyt, Inc., box lid, 1925-1935. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF188547

At its height, Peggy Hoyt, Inc., earned over $1 million annually and had hundreds of employees. Yet Peggy Hoyt, Inc.—and Peggy herself—would not survive the depression of the 1930s as the faltering economy brought down the thriving business.

Peggy Hoyt died by suicide on October 26, 1937 (though her family maintained that her death resulted from pneumonia). Hoyt, who had an intense dislike of personal publicity, had asked her mother and husband to honor her wishes for privacy upon her death. At the request of Hoyt’s employees, her husband did consent to a small service at the Little Church Around the Corner (the Church of the Transfiguration) before Hoyt’s body was brought to Detroit and laid to rest in Elmwood Cemetery.

Peggy Hoyt, Inc., briefly continued after Hoyt’s passing, with her mother and husband maintaining the salon until its bankruptcy and liquidation in 1939–1940.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Stacy McNally, Local History & Genealogy Librarian at the Public Libraries of Saginaw, and Gil Gallagher, curatorial volunteer at The Henry Ford, for their meticulous research assistance on Peggy Hoyt. Many thanks also to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

Elizabeth Parke Firestone, women's history, What We Wore, Michigan, making, Henry Ford Museum, hats, fashion, design, by Jeanine Head Miller

Mustard yellow wagon with three glass doors on side; miniature scenes visible inside doors“The Busy World” automaton, 1830–1850. / THF187282


I was about nine years old when I first saw it. My family and I were visiting Henry Ford Museum when I spotted “The Busy World”—an intriguingly detailed and well-populated automaton displayed along the museum’s Street of Shops displays. I was entranced. “The Busy World” would remain among my most vivid memories of this visit. Little did I know that many years later I would be involved in further research on this fascinating, whimsical object.

An automaton is a non-electric moving machine that performs a predetermined set of operations. With approximately 300 moving figures, “The Busy World” automaton is a kind of mechanized diorama with six individual platforms powered by gears, belts, and pulleys. When the automaton is cranked, the figures go into motion.

Map with different areas shaded in yellow, green, and pink
1869 Beers Atlas map of Delaware County, New York. / Image courtesy of the Delaware County Historical Association

Delaware County in upstate New York—where “The Busy World” was likely built and spent much of its working life—was a place of farms and small villages during the 19th century. The wagon's lively, hand-cranked animations would have had tremendous popular appeal for adults and children alike at country fairs and small exhibitions.

“The Busy World” features six different animated scenes. Click on the links under the scenes below to see those images in our Digital Collections, where you can zoom in on the details.

Wooden platform with two carved scenes with human figures, one above the other
Left section of “The Busy World.” / THF187276, detail

At the upper left, figures perform activities of everyday life, including rocking a baby, getting warm by the stove, chopping food, spinning thread, churning butter, and sharpening a tool.

In the scene at lower left, people attend a ballroom dance while musicians play. At the left of the dance scene are caricatured figures of African Americans. This “Busy World” scene reflects not only the activities of the time period but also the racism of the era.

Wooden platform with two carved scenes with human figures, one above the other
Center section of “The Busy World.” / THF187277, detail

The scene at upper center shows men making rakes and grain cradles in a factory. Delaware County had at least one rake factory. During the early 19th century, New York was the grain belt of the United States. Wooden rakes were essential tools on farms.

Black-and-white photo of scene with human figures wearing robes on a stage with carved details around them
Biblical scene from “The Busy World.” / THF125152

At lower center, a small revolving “stage” features eight Biblical stories.

Wooden platform with two carved scenes with human figures, one above the other
Right section of “The Busy World.” / THF187278, detail

At upper right, soldiers in uniform promenade with ladies.

The scene at lower right features a regiment of soldiers parading in formation to the “sounds” of a military band.

“The Busy World” Comes to The Henry Ford


“The Busy World” came to The Henry Ford in 1963. The museum purchased the automaton from Janos and Mary Williams of Stone Henge Antiques in Sidney, New York. Where was it before that? Well, we know part of the story.

The Williamses had acquired “The Busy World” from a man named David Smith. About 1944, David Smith (1923–2002) saw an ad in a Walton, New York, newspaper offering “The Busy World” for sale: “Will sell cheap, if sold this week, ONE busy world.” Twenty-one-year-old Smith, who lived in nearby Delhi, New York, couldn’t resist. He drove the 17 miles to Walton to take a look. Amazed and delighted with what he saw, Smith purchased the automaton with his own savings, over the objections of his family. For the first seven years that he owned it, Smith stored “The Busy World” in his family’s barn in Delhi. David Smith got it to run, at least sporadically.

It wasn’t until September 1951 that “The Busy World” once again had a public showing. David Smith’s mother had offered the family barn to the Delaware County Horticultural Society as a place to hold their annual Harvest Show. “The Busy World” delighted local people who came to see the choice vegetables, flower arrangements, and potted plants on display there. Some of those attending recalled 30 or so years before when the automaton had appeared at county fairs in the area.

Next stop for “The Busy World”? David Smith opened an antique store in his hometown of Delhi, where he displayed the automaton. The name of the shop? Busy World Antiques.

David Hoy Takes “The Busy World” on the Road


Exhibit with small wooden scenes on a platform underneath a banner
“The Busy World” platforms exhibited in an unidentified location, probably in the early 20h century. An advertising banner hangs above—one that may date from the late 1860s or 1870s. / THF125153

David Smith had purchased “The Busy World” from Elizabeth Hoy Thomas (1874–1949). She was the daughter of David Hoy (1848–1934), the man who exhibited “The Busy World” at local fairs and carnivals at the turn of the 20th century. According to David Smith, Elizabeth Hoy Thomas told him that “The Busy World” took 17 years to build and was constructed by two men—one carved the figures and the other assembled the machinery.

David Hoy’s 1934 obituary recalled Hoy’s yearly exhibitions of the “World at Work” or “Busy World” automaton at local fairs. Hoy is said to have charged five or ten cents to see “The Busy World” in motion. David Hoy exhibited “The Busy World” regularly until the mid-1910s, and then for one last time at the Walton Armory in late 1933. After his death the following year, the automaton remained in a shed at Hoy’s daughter’s home in Walton. She placed the newspaper ad offering it for sale about ten years later—the ad seen by young David Smith.

Beige tickets with words "THE ANDROIDES ADMIT ONE" in decorative font
These tickets were found in the wagon. They appear to date between 1890 and 1910 and may have been used as “The Busy World” made the rounds of country fairs and carnivals in the latter portion of its career. In Latin, androides means “resembling a man,” and was used during the 19th century to describe an automaton resembling a human being in form and movement. / THF187284

Looking for Answers


We had many unanswered questions about “The Busy World.”

Curatorial research volunteer Gil Gallagher worked many months to dig up some answers, trolling census records and countless newspapers online. Ray LaFever, archivist at the Delaware County Historical Association, lent his research skills and familiarity with Delaware County history to the quest. Here’s what their research turned up.

When they sold it, antique dealers Janos and Mary Williams mistakenly told The Henry Ford that “The Busy World” had been built by David Hoy. And that he “began it in 1830 and took 17 years to make it.” As we found, not quite so—at least the part about David Hoy. Our research showed that Hoy didn’t build it. He acquired the automaton some time later.

The general dates given for the construction of “The Busy World” appear to be correct. The figures and objects shown in the scenes reflect the era of the 1830s—including the women’s fashions, the Franklin heating stove (upper left section), and the serpent, a musical instrument (lower right section).

Therefore, David Hoy couldn’t have made it. Hoy was born in Bovina in Delaware County—but not until 1848. His family moved to Iowa when he was ten. By the mid-1870s, Hoy returned to Delaware County, where he married and had three children. During the following decades, he would make his living as a farmer, carpenter, stone mason, and teamster. Hoy must have acquired “The Busy World” sometime after he returned to Delaware County as an adult. (A 1905 newspaper article noted that the automaton was “now run by a Walton man, David Hoy,” so someone else probably toured it before Hoy.) The wagon that now carries “The Busy World” was a later addition—one likely added by Hoy, who mounted the automaton figures and machinery in the wagon to make it easier to transport. (One newspaper article mentions that the automaton platforms were originally displayed in a tent.)

So, we found some answers—yet questions remain.

Was the automaton originally called “The Busy World”? It seems that it may have acquired that title in the late-19th or early-20th century, since it is not mentioned on the banner or tickets.

And, despite all our efforts, the identities of the original makers of “The Busy World”—whoever these talented individuals were—remain a mystery for now.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic 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.

making, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, popular culture, research, by Jeanine Head Miller

The Henry Ford’s curatorial team works on many, many tasks over the course of a year, but perhaps nothing is as important as the task of building The Henry Ford’s collections. Whether it’s a gift or a purchase, each new acquisition adds something unique. What follows is just a small sampling of recent collecting work undertaken by our curators in 2021 (and a couple in 2020), which they shared during a #THFCuratorChat session on Twitter.

In preparation for an upcoming episode of The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation, Curator of Domestic Life Jeanine Head Miller made several new acquisitions related to board games. A colorful “Welcome to Gameland” catalog advertises the range of board games offered by Milton Bradley Company in 1964, and joins the 1892 Milton Bradley catalog—dedicated to educational “School Aids and Kindergarten Material”—already in our collection.

Yellow page with text and image of family walking through "doors" made of two giant board game boxes turned on end
Milton Bradley Company Catalog, “Welcome to Gameland,” 1964. / THF626388

Page with elaborate text and illustration of children, one holding a number toy or board
Milton Bradley Company Trade Catalog, “Bradley’s School Aids and Kindergarten Material,” 1892. / THF616712

We also acquired several more board games for the collection, including “The Game of Life”—a 1960 creation to celebrate Milton Bradley’s centennial anniversary that paid homage to their 1860 “The Checkered Game of Life” and featured an innovative, three-dimensional board with an integrated spinner. “The Game of Life,” as well as other board games in our collection, can be found in our Digital Collections.

GIF that cycles through images of several board games: Life, Candy Land, Clue, and Settlers of Catan
Board games recently acquired for use in The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation. / THF188740, THF188741, THF188743, THF188750

This year, Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content, was thrilled to unearth more of the story of designer Peggy Ann Mack. Peggy Ann Mack is often noted for completing the "delineation" (or illustration) for two early 1940s Herman Miller pamphlets featuring her husband Gilbert Rohde's furniture line. After Rohde's death in 1944, Mack took over his office. One commission she received was to design interiors and radio cases for Templetone Radio. The Henry Ford recently acquired this 1945 radio that she designed.

Rectangular brown radio with two knobs and tan-colored fabric on front
Radio designed by Peggy Ann Mack, 1945. / Photo courtesy Rachel Yerke

Peggy Ann Mack wrote and illustrated the book Making Built-In Furniture, published in 1950, which The Henry Ford also acquired this year. The book is filled with her illustrations and evidences her deep knowledge of the furniture and design industries.

Book cover in rose and mauve with text and image of tools and book
Making Built-In Furniture, 1950. / Photo courtesy Katherine White

Mack (like many early female designers) has never received her due credit. While headway has been made this year, further research and acquisitions will continue to illuminate her story and insert her name back into design history.

Katherine White also worked this year to further expand our collection of Herman Miller posters created for Herman Miller’s annual employee picnic. The first picnic poster was created by Steve Frykholm in 1970—his first assignment as the company’s internal graphic designer. Frykholm would go on to design 20 of these posters, 18 of which were acquired by The Henry Ford in 1988; this year, we finally acquired the two needed to complete the series.

Graphic poster with stylized lollipops with text on sticks and at top of poster
Herman Miller Summer Picnic Poster, “Lollipop,” 1988. / THF626898

White poster with text at top and stylized peach wedges at bottom
Herman Miller Summer Picnic Poster, “Peach Sundae,” 1989. / THF189131

After Steve Frykholm, Kathy Stanton—a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s graphic design program—took over the creation of the picnic posters, creating ten from 1990–2000. While The Henry Ford had one of these posters, this year we again completed a set by acquiring the other nine.

GIF that cycles slowly through a number of graphic posters
Recently acquired posters created by Kathy Stanton for Herman Miller picnics, 19902000 / THF626913, THF626915, THF626917, THF626921, THF189132, THF189133, THF189134, THF626929, THF626931

Along with the picnic posters, The Henry Ford also acquired a series of posters for Herman Miller’s Christmas party; these posters were created from 1976–1979 by Linda Powell, who worked under Steve Frykholm at Herman Miller for 15 years. All of these posters—for the picnics and the Christmas parties—were gifted to us by Herman Miller, and you can check them out in our Digital Collections.

GIF cycling through a number of graphic posters with text and a few images
Posters designed by Linda Powell for Herman Miller Christmas parties, 19761979 / THF626900, THF189135, THF189137, THF189136, THF189138, THF626909, THF626905

Thanks to the work of Curator of Communications and Information Technology Kristen Gallerneaux, in early 2021, a very exciting acquisition arrived at The Henry Ford: the Lillian F. Schwartz and Laurens R. Schwartz Collection. Lillian Schwartz is a groundbreaking and award-winning multimedia artist known for her experiments in film and video.

Lillian Schwartz was a long-term “resident advisor” at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. There, she gained access to powerful computers and opportunities for collaboration with scientists and researchers (like Leon Harmon). Schwartz’s first film, Pixillation (1970), was commissioned by Bell Labs. It weaves together the aesthetics of coded textures with organic, hand-painted animation. The soundtrack was composed by Gershon Kingsley on a Moog synthesizer.

Thick red text reading "PIXILLATION" over black background with blue digital pattern
“Pixillation, 1970 / THF611033

Complementary to Lillian Schwartz’s legacy in experimental motion graphics is a large collection of two-dimensional and three-dimensional materials. Many of her drawings and prints reference the creative possibilities and expressive limitations of computer screen pixels.

Framed artwork filled with colorful abstract shapes
“Abstract #8” by Lillian F. Schwartz, 1969 / THF188551

With this acquisition, we also received a selection of equipment used by Lillian Schwartz to create her artwork. The equipment spans from analog film editing devices into digital era devices—including one of the last home computers she used to create video and still images.

Storage shelves filled with electronic equipment
Editing equipment used by Lillian Schwartz. / Image courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

Altogether, the Schwartz collection includes over 5,000 objects documenting her expansive and inquisitive mindset: films, videos, prints, paintings, sculptures, posters, and personal papers. You can find more of Lillian Schwartz’s work by checking out recently digitized pieces here, and dig deeper into her story here.

Katherine White and Kristen Gallerneaux worked together this year to acquire several key examples of LGBTQ+ graphic design and material culture. The collection, which is currently being digitized, includes:

Illustrations by Howard Cruse, an underground comix artist…

Cartoon-like line drawing of three people, one in a wheelchair, most holding signs
Illustration created by Howard Cruse. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

A flier from the High Tech Gays, a nonpartisan social club founded in Silicon Valley in 1983 to support LGBTQ+ people seeking fair treatment in the workplace, as LGBTQ+ people were often denied security clearance to work in military and tech industry positions...

Tri-fold page with text under plastic mounted on cardboard
High Tech Gays flier. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

An AIDSGATE poster, created by the Silence = Death Collective for a 1987 protest at the White House, designed to bring attention to President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to publicly acknowledge the AIDS crisis...

Acid yellow/lime green poster with image of Ronald Reagan's face and text
“AIDSGATE” Poster, 1987. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

A number of mid-1960s newspapers—typically distributed in gay bars—that rallied the LGBTQ+ community, shared information, and united people under the cause...

Page with text
“Citizens News.” / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

A group of fliers created by the Mattachine Society in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which paints a portrait of the fraught months that followed...

Pink page with text
Flier created by the Mattachine Society. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

And a leather Muir cap of the type commonly worn by members of post–World War II biker clubs, which provided freedom and mobility for gay men when persecution and the threat of police raids were ever-present at established gay locales. Its many pins and buttons feature gay biker gang culture of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Black leather cap covered in buttons with images and text
Leather cap with pins. / Photo courtesy Kristen Gallerneaux

Another acquisition that further diversifies our collection is the “Nude is Not a Color” quilt, recently acquired by Curator of Domestic Life Jeanine Head Miller. This striking quilt was created in 2017 by a worldwide community of women who gathered virtually to take a stand against racial bias.

Brown quilt with text "NUDE IS NOT A COLOR" and quilted image of woman wearing dress with many short-sleeved shirts on it
“Nude is Not a Color” Quilt, Made by Hillary Goodwin, Rachael Door, and Contributors from around the World, 2017. / THF185986

Fashion and cosmetics companies have long used the term “nude” for products made in a pale beige—reflecting lighter skin tones and marginalizing people of color. After one fashion company repeatedly dismissed a customer’s concerns, a community of quilters used their talents and voices to produce a quilt to oppose this racial bias. Through Instagram, quilters were asked to create a shirt block in whatever color fabric they felt best represented their skin tone, or that of their loved ones.

Fabric panel featuring a number of short-sleeved shirts on a white background with brown around the edge
Shirt blocks on the “Nude is Not a Color” quilt. / THF185986, detail

Quilters responded from around the United States and around the world, including Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia. These quilt makers made a difference, as via social media the quilt made more people aware of the company’s bias. They in turn lent their voices, demanding change—and the brand eventually altered the name of the garment collection.

Jeanine Head Miller has also expanded our quilt collection with the addition of over 100 crib quilts and doll quilts, carefully gathered by Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy over a period of forty years. These quilts greatly strengthen several categories of our quilt collection, represent a range of quilting traditions, and reflect fabric designs and usage—all while taking up less storage space than full-sized quilts.

GIF cycling through a variety of quilts
A few of the crib quilts acquired from Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy. / THF187113, THF187217, THF187075, THF187187, THF187251, THF187197

During 2021, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid has been developing a collection documenting the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that employed around three million young men. This year, we acquired the Northlander newsletter (a publication of Fort Brady Civilian Conservation Corps District in Michigan), a sweetheart pillow from a camp working on range land regeneration in Oregon, and a pennant from a camp working in soil conservation in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest.

GIF cycling through newsletter front page, pillowcover with elk and fringe, and green and maroon pennant
Recent Civilian Conservation Corps acquisitions. / THF624987, THF188543, THF18854

We also acquired a partial Civilian Conservation Corps table service made by the Crooksville China Company in Ohio. This acquisition is another example of curatorial collaboration, this time between Debra Reid and Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable. These pieces, along with the other Civilian Conservation Corps material collected, will help tell less well-documented aspects of the Civilian Conservation Corps story.

White plate with blue edge and blue internal ring and text "C.C.C."
Civilian Conservation Corps Dinner Plate, 1933–1942. / THF189100

If you’ve been to Greenfield Village lately, you’ve probably noticed a new addition going in—the reconstructed Vegetable Building from Detroit’s Central Market. While we acquired the building from the City of Detroit in 2003, in 2021, Debra Reid has been working to acquire material to document its life prior to its arrival at The Henry Ford. As part of that work, we recently added photos to our collection that show it in service as a horse stable at Belle Isle, after its relocation there in 1894.

Page with black-and-white photograph of low open building among trees by dirt road; also contains text
“Seventy Glimpses of Detroit” souvenir book, circa 1900, page 20. While this book has been in our collections for nearly a century, it helps illustrate changes in the Vegetable Building structure over time. / THF139104

Black-and-white photograph of two-story building
Riding Stable at the Eastern End of Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, October 27, 1963. / THF626103

Elaborate two-story building with cars parked along street in front
Horse Stable on Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, July 27, 1978. / THF626107

This year, Debra Reid also secured a photo of Dorothy Nickerson, who worked with the Munsell Color Company from 1921 to 1926, and later as a Color Specialist at the United States Department of Agriculture. Research into this new acquisition—besides leading to new ideas for future collecting—brought new attention (and digitization) to a 1990 acquisition: A.H. Munsell’s second edition of A Color Notation.

Woman with bob wearing round glasses in front of a porch
Dorothy Nickerson of Boston Named United States Department of Agriculture Color Specialist, March 30, 1927. / THF626448

All of this is just a small part of the collecting that happens at The Henry Ford. Whether they expand on stories we already tell, or open the door to new possibilities, acquisitions like these play a major role in the institution’s work. We look forward to seeing what additions to our collection the future might have in store!


Compiled by Curatorial Assistant Rachel Yerke from tweets originally written by Associate Curators, Digital Content, Saige Jedele and Katherine White, and Curators Kristen Gallerneaux, Jeanine Head Miller, and Debra A. Reid for a curator chat on Twitter.

quilts, technology, computers, Herman Miller, posters, women's history, design, toys and games, #THFCuratorChat, by Debra A. Reid, by Jeanine Head Miller, by Kristen Gallerneaux, by Katherine White, by Saige Jedele, by Rachel Yerke, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Everyday objects are more than just things. Ultimately, they are about people—and about community. As humans, we need a sense of belonging—it’s what connects us to each other and to the larger world.

While our individual strengths are important, they are even stronger when joined within a common goal and purpose. Ordinary objects—like a bucket, hardware display, piano, blouse, and computer—might attract little notice. Yet they reflect larger stories of community that engage, unite, and inspire.

Everyday objects. Rich stories.

Fire Bucket, 1803


Tall, narrow, black leather bucket with a handle, with writing and decoration on side
THF166604

Community was once defined by geographic location and close patterns of human interaction—and, as this 1803 fire bucket shows, often involved collective action. In the event of a fire, people formed a bucket brigade to come to each other’s aid.

L. Miller & Son Store Display of Snips, Planes, Plumb Bobs, and Measuring Tools, 1923–1928


Display case containing a variety of tools hung against a green background
THF150965

Tools and hardware from Louis Miller’s Chicago store provide a lens into an Eastern European immigrant community of the 1920s. To make it easier for customers who did not speak English, Miller showcased his store’s stock in an extensive wall display. His customers simply pointed to the item they wished to buy.

Piano, Used at Club Harlem, Detroit, Michigan, 1934


Beige upright piano and piano bench
THF166445

This unassuming little piano belies its jazzy past at Club Harlem in Detroit’s Paradise Valley. Racial discrimination had sequestered the city’s Black population into a tight-knit, vibrant community where Black-owned businesses dotted the streets. Paradise Valley—with its clubs, theaters, and dance halls—became Detroit’s major entertainment spot in the 1930s and 1940s.

Blouse, Made for Farm or Factory Workers During WWII, circa 1943


Short-sleeved blue button-down shirt
THF173334

This unpretentious work blouse reveals a powerful World War II story of community. As men left to join the military, women heeded the call to “do the job he left behind,” working in factories to produce planes, jeeps, and tanks. They helped win the war.

Google Pixel Slate, 2018–2019


Tablet computer with keyboard and monitor propped up on stand
THF185319

Computers and the internet have offered new—and increasingly complex—layers of virtual community. No longer bound by physical proximity, communities form online and cover the globe.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from an article first published in the January–May 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

The Henry Ford Magazine, by Jeanine Head Miller

Small red brick building with bell tower
Scotch Settlement School in Greenfield Village. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller


Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village offers an engaging look into the ways Americans celebrated Christmas in the past. At Scotch Settlement School, the holiday vignette reflects the Christmas programs that took place in the thousands of one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the landscape of rural America.

Black-and-white photo of group of African American boys and girls standing with an African American woman outside a small wooden building
Students and teacher pose outside their rural one-room school in Summerville, South Carolina, about 1903. / THF115900

The schoolhouse—often the only public building in the neighborhood—was a center of community life in rural areas. It was not only a place where children learned to read, write, and do arithmetic, but might also serve as a place to attend church services, go to Grange meetings, vote in elections, or listen to a debate.

Matted black-and-white photo of group of children wearing stars and stripes sitting and standing with a man in a suit in front of a wooden building
Students dressed in patriotic costumes for a school program, pageant, or parade, about 1905. / THF700057

People in rural communities particularly looked forward to the programs put on by the students who attended these schools—local boys and girls who ranged in age from about seven to the mid-teens. School programs were often presented throughout the year for occasions such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, Arbor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and eighth-grade graduation. People came from miles around to country schools to attend these events.

Page with handwritten text and holly leaf and berries drawn with crayon (?)
Folded page with handwritten text
Handwritten Christmas program from Blair School, Webster County, Iowa, December 23, 1914
. / THF700097, THF700098

Among the most anticipated events that took place at the schoolhouse was the Christmas program—it was a highlight of the rural winter social season. Preparations usually started right after Thanksgiving as students began learning poems and other recitations, rehearsing a play, or practicing songs. Every child was included. Students might have their first experience in public speaking or singing before an audience at these school programs.

Room interior containing Christmas tree, wood-burning stove, bookshelves, and American flag hanging from wall
Interior of Scotch Settlement School during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller.

The schoolroom was often decorated for the occasion, sometimes with a Christmas tree. During the late 1800s, when the presence of Christmas trees was not yet a widespread tradition, many children saw their first Christmas tree at the school Christmas program. Presents like candy, nuts, fruit, or mittens—provided by parents or other members of the community—were often part of the event. Growing up in 1870s frontier Iowa, writer Hamlin Garland recalled the local minister bringing a Christmas tree to the schoolhouse one Christmas—a tree with few candles or shiny decorations, but one loaded with presents. Forty years later, Garland vividly remembered the bag of popcorn he received that day.

Teachers were often required to organize at least two programs a year. Teachers who put on unsuccessful programs might soon find themselves out of a teaching position. Teachers in rural schools usually came from a similar background to their students—often from the same farming community—so an observant teacher would have understood the kind of school program that would please students, parents, and the community.

Children at times performed in buildings so crowded that audience members had to stand along the edges of the classroom. Sometimes there wasn’t room for everyone to squeeze in. To see their parents and so many other members of the community in the audience helped make these children aware that the adults in their lives valued their schoolwork. This encouraged many of the students to appreciate their opportunity for education—even if they didn’t fully realize it until years later. Some children might even have been aware of how these programs contributed to a sense of community.

Postcard with handwritten text, blurred address, and one-cent stamp
Postcard with the handwritten message, “Our school have [sic] a tree & exercises at the Church across from the schoolhouse & we all have a part in it,” from 11-year-old Ivan Colman of Tuscola County, Michigan, December 1913. / THF146214

These simple Christmas programs—filled with recitations, songs, and modest gifts—created cherished lifelong memories for countless children.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic 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.

childhood, music, actors and acting, events, holidays, Christmas, education, school, Scotch Settlement School, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Holiday Nights, by Jeanine Head Miller

Postcard with Santa in an old-fashioned airplane flying over a snowy scene as a woman waves; also contains textSanta Claus employs the latest in transportation technology to share his greetings in this Christmas postcard, 1910. / THF93052


During the first two decades of the 20th century, people were likely to find colorful Christmas postcards when they reached into their mailboxes as the holiday neared. Americans were experiencing a postcard craze!

A New Idea: Sending Holiday Greetings


Postcard with several children in old-fashioned dress holding hands and dancing around a small Christmas tree
A pre-postcard era Christmas card by Louis Prang & Company of Boston, 1880. During the mid-1870s, Prang began publishing Christmas and other greeting cards, creating a highly successful Christmas card industry. / THF16646

It’s not that people didn’t send Christmas cards before that time. They did, especially during the 1870s and 1880s as Christmas became more widely celebrated in homes and in the community. Sending a Christmas greeting card was a way to keep in touch with distant family and friends. In the decades following the Civil War, as Congress increasingly standardized delivery, mail traveled more rapidly, dependably, and cheaply than it had before, transporting Christmas cards and other mail throughout the nation.

Matted black-and-white photo of a man and woman in a room filled with mail bins and cubbies with items sorted into them
Post office in the small town of Hoxie, Kansas, about 1913. / THF700079

Yet interest in giving or sending printed holiday greetings through the mail had waned somewhat by the 1890s. That is, until circumstances—lower postal rates and improved delivery service to all areas of the country—helped create a postcard boom for urban and rural residents alike and encouraged a Christmas card revival.

The Postman Brings Postcard Cheer


n 1898, the United States Post Office reduced the cost of mailing privately printed postcards to one cent. As postcards caught the public’s fancy in the first decade of the 20th century, these cards blossomed with colorful images, humorous messages, or holiday greetings. Postcards quickly became an attractive and ready means of inexpensive communication, with room for a personal message on the reverse.

During the “Golden Age” of postcards, from about 1900 to 1914, people bought and mailed billions. In 1904, the New York City post office alone handled about 30,000 cards per day. Many of these billions of postcards were holiday-themed—Christmas postcards were the most popular.

Black-and-white photo of small delivery trucks lined up in front of a large brick building
United States Post Office delivery trucks, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, 1908. / THF700044

Double arch-shaped image of postman by mailbox on a residential street adding items to mailbag; a bike leans against postbox and a large sack is nearby
Mail carrier, about 1925. / THF289999

By 1902, rural mail routes had become a permanent part of the postal service. Instead of having to make a trip into town to the post office to retrieve their mail, rural residents now had the same advantage as city dwellers—mail was delivered directly to their homes.

Man sits in very small boxy cart/wagon hitched to a horse in front of a building
Rural Free Delivery in a horse-drawn mail delivery wagon, 1895–1920. / THF143935

Silver arch-shaped mailbox with text on front and side
Rural Free Delivery mailbox, 1900–1916. / THF158049

Christmas Postcard Greetings—Inexpensive and Colorful


Postcard with eye-shaped illustration of children skating on an icy pond; border contains holly and text
Back of postcard with printed text and place for writing message, address, and stamp
Postcard advertising the Souvenir Post Card Company’s line of Christmas postcards, about 1910. /
THF700082 and THF700083

These colorful seasonal greetings were not only affordable, they were attractive and appealing.

The time was right. Between 1900 and 1910, entrepreneurs established most of the American greeting card companies, including Hallmark Cards, American Greetings, Rust Craft, and the Gibson Art Company. Many of the colorful postcards companies sold to their American customers were printed in Germany—American printing technology lagged behind that of the Germans.

Postcard with Santa in sleigh being pulled by four reindeer; also contains a Christmas tree and child sleeping
German-made postcard of Santa and reindeer and sleeping child, 1907-1910. / THF136483

The postcards displayed a range of what we now think of as symbols of Christmas, including Santa Claus, children with toys, Christmas trees, houses and churches in the snow, ice skating, bells, holly, and angels.

Postcard with images of birds, holly berries, and a holly leaf containing an image of a stone bridge and houses in snow
This postcard combines holly with a snowy landscape. / THF6869

Vertical postcard with text and image of Santa holding his hands out to two reindeer
Young girl in spats, blue coat, and hat with blue ribbon pulls a small cart with a doll in it; also contains text
Postcards sporting images of Santa with reindeer, 1907–1910, and a child with toys, 1905–1910. /
THF136481 and THF4503

Postcard with decorative background containing holly and bells; also contains text and image of church in snow
Vertical blue postcard with image of winged angel in white robes holding a small Christmas tree lit with candles; also contains text
Christmas postcards—with a snow-covered church, holly, and bells, and with an angel holding a Christmas tree, 1910 and 1915. /
THF700046 and THF700048

Up-to-date technology made its appearance in these Christmas postcards as well.

Postcard with Santa with sack of toys on his back on left side and young child on right side, talking to each other on old-fashioned telephones; also contains text
A child uses the telephone, rather than a letter, to communicate her wish list to Santa, 1907. / THF135741

Postcard of two people in an open car decked with holly in a snowy woods
Postcard of two people in an open car driving through snow
Images of automobiles often appeared on Christmas cards of the era, 1907
1910 and 1910. / THF135815 and THF143923

Postcard of St. Nick in purple cape on motorcycle with toys in front basket; contains text and border of holly leaves and berries
Santa tries out motorcycle delivery of presents rather than reindeer-powered transportation, 1910–1920. / THF4508

The postcard craze peaked between 1907 and 1910—it was particularly popular among rural and small-town women in the northern United States. Some 700 million postcards were mailed during the year ending June 30, 1908, alone.

Yet the postcard craze would soon ebb. In 1909, a tariff was placed on imported postcards, making the German-printed imports more expensive. The quality of available postcards began to fall. Public interest waned and artistic tastes changed. In 1914, World War I further disrupted the postcard industry, as German-produced cards and high-quality dyes used for ink became unavailable. As the war continued, many companies shifted to greeting card—rather than postcard—production. The telephone probably contributed as well, as more households had phones to reach family and friends more quickly. The “Golden Age” of postcards was drawing to a close.

Step into Christmas Postcards Past


Small, beige, one-story wooden building with wreath on door and lights strung above it
Phoenixville Post Office in Greenfield Village during Holiday Nights. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller

Today, strolling past the Phoenixville Post Office during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village offers a glimpse into this slice of Christmas postal history.

Two people stick their faces through holes in a life-size holiday postcard among evergreens
Two people stick their faces through holes in a life-size holiday postcard among evergreens
Photos courtesy of Jeanine Miller and Glenn Miller.

Visitors can experience the early 20th century postcard craze for themselves by posing behind enlarged versions of Christmas postcards placed near the Phoenixville Post Office—and then act as digital “postal carriers” by sending these images to family and friends by text or email.

A row of large wooden backdrops with holes cut for people's faces stands in front of a building along a sidewalk
Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller.

From a curator’s point of view, it’s a wonderful to see these postcards of Christmas Past become part of Christmas Present! You can take a “peek” into Christmas mailboxes of the past by clicking here to see additional early-20th-century postcards in our collection.

Merry Christmas!


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic 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.

events, postcards, holidays, Holiday Nights, Greenfield Village, correspondence, Christmas, by Jeanine Head Miller

African American man wearing round glasses smiles and points large water gun toward camera
Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker. / Photo by Thomas S. England/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Sometimes serious work leads to serious play—with seriously successful results. Did you know that the Super Soaker® water gun was an accidental invention by NASA rocket scientist Lonnie Johnson?

Johnson was passionate about inventing not only at his day job as an engineer working with hundreds of colleagues, but also working on his own inventions in his spare time. In 1982, Johnson was in his home workshop developing an environmentally friendly cooling system. To test his idea of using circulating water and air pressure, instead of the chemical Freon, Johnson connected a high-pressure nozzle to his bathroom faucet, aimed the nozzle, turned it on, and then blasted a powerful stream of water into the bathtub. He quickly recognized its potential as a toy—a pressurized water gun that didn’t require batteries and was safe enough for kids to play with.

Johnson quickly produced a prototype using Plexiglas, PVC pipe, a two-liter soda bottle and other materials. Over the next few years, he continued to make improvements. In 1989, Johnson licensed his design for the Super Soaker® to Larami. The company launched the toy in 1990.

Large yellow and green water gun in black and purple cardboard packaging; also contains text
Super Soaker® 50 Water Gun, 1991-1992 / THF185767

Kids loved it!

Within two years, the Super Soaker® generated over $200 million in sales, becoming the top-selling toy in the United States. Improved versions of the Super Soaker® debuted during the following years. By 2016, Super Soaker sales were approximately $1 billion.

Johnson didn’t just take his royalty money and retire. It was a means to achieving his real goal—to establish his own research company, Johnson Research & Development Co. Today, Johnson has more than 100 patents and is currently developing innovative technology to efficiently convert solar energy into electricity with world-changing results.

Johnson’s Super Soaker®, familiar to millions of kids, can inspire new generations of inventors and entrepreneurs. The message? Creative play can lead to great achievements.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic 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.

entrepreneurship, inventors, African American history, childhood, toys and games, The Henry Ford Magazine, by Jeanine Head Miller