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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, 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

A 15th birthday is very special for many young women in Hispanic culture. Quinceañera, Spanish for “15 years,” marks her passage from girlhood to womanhood. Both a religious and a social event, quinceañera emphasizes the importance of family and community in the life of a young woman.

Open, tri-fold invitation with pink text on cream paper and embossed image of girl in a tiered gown
Invitation to Detroiter Maritza Garza’s quinceañera mass and reception, April 4, 1992. / THF91662

Historically, the quinceañera signified that a girl—having been taught skills like cooking, weaving, and childcare—was ready for marriage. The modern celebration is more likely to signal the beginning of formal dating. Today, the custom of quinceañera remains strongest in Mexico, where it likely originated. It is also celebrated not only in the United States, but also in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas.

Woman with long dark hair and glasses wearing pink gown with tiers and white lace holds an elaborate flower arrangement
Maritza Garza in her formal quinceañera gown. She selected a dress in a traditional pastel color, pink, purchasing it at a local bridal shop in Detroit. / THF91665

Diamond or rhinestone tiara with swirling design
Quinceañera tiara, 2011. / THF150077

An occasion shared with family and friends, the celebration is as elaborate as the family’s wishes and budget allow. The honoree wears a formal gown, along with a tiara or other hair ornament. The oldest tradition was a white dress, with other conventional choices being light pink, blue, or yellow. Now, quinceañera dresses come in many shades—from pastels to darker hues.

Two pages with pink text
Maritza Garza’s quinceañera court of honor. / THF207367

A “court” of family and friends help her celebrate her special day—the young women wear dresses that match and the young men don tuxedos.

Profile of woman in pink dress holding a bouquet of roses in a formal building (church?)
Maritza Garza during her quinceañera mass at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in April 1992. Holy Redeemer is located in the heart of Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood. Here, masses have been offered in Spanish since 1960 for the Mexican American congregation. / THF91666

A quinceañera begins with a religious service at a Catholic church. Then comes a party with food and dancing. Dancing at the “quince” traditionally includes a choreographed waltz-type dance—one of the highlights of the evening. Toasts are often offered. Sometimes, the cutting of a fancy cake takes place. Symbolic ceremonies at this celebration may include swapping out the honoree’s flat shoes for high heels, slipped onto her feet by her father or parental figure.

Blue magazine cover with three photos of people in formal dress with decorated cars; also contains text
Quinceañera celebrations may also include a ride in a lowrider. Arising from Mexican American culture, lowriders are customized family-size cars with street-scraping suspensions and ornamental paint. / THF104135

Some girls choose to celebrate their 15th birthday in a less traditional way, perhaps with a trip abroad. Like other celebrations and rites of passage, quinceañera traditions continue to evolve.

Traditional or non-traditional, a quinceañera celebration makes a young woman feel special as she continues her journey to adulthood.


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.

Michigan, Detroit, home life, childhood, women's history, Hispanic and Latino history, by Jeanine Head Miller

Large glass display case containing a wooden trunk and a number of garments and other pieces of apparel
Our current
What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features clothing from generations of one family. / THF188474

In 1935, 59-year-old Louise Hungerford sent a trunk full of clothing to Henry Ford—clothing that had belonged to her mother’s family, the Mitchells, who had lived in the village of Port Washington, New York, for six generations.

Page of hand-written (cursive) letter
Page of hand-written (cursive) letter
Letter from Louise Hungerford to Henry Ford, September 9, 1935. / THF624791 and THF624793

Ford had opened his museum to the public only two years before. Louise Hungerford was one of the hundreds of people who sent letters to Henry Ford at this time offering to give or sell him objects for his museum. The clothing she sent remains among the oldest in The Henry Ford’s collection.

Map of Port Washington with irregularly shaped area outlined in red
Map of Port Washington in 1873—the Mitchell home is highlighted in red. / (Not from the collections of The Henry Ford.)

The Mitchell Family and Port Washington


Since the 1690s, the Mitchells had been respected members of the Long Island community of Port Washington as it evolved from farming to shellfishing and construction sand and gravel. In the early 1800s, Port Washington (then called Cow Neck) provided garden produce for New York City residents and hay for their horses—all shipped to the city by packet ships. By the mid-1800s, oystering was profitable in the area. After the Civil War, the sand and gravel industry took hold, providing construction materials for the growing city of New York.

By the early 1900s, the village had become a summer resort and home for the wealthy. The Long Island Railroad reached Port Washington in 1898, providing convenient transportation to the area from New York City. The city’s Knickerbocker Yacht Club moved to Port Washington in 1907. By the mid-1930s—when Louise Hungerford sent Henry Ford the letter and trunk full of family clothing--Port Washington’s quaint homes and wooded hills had been giving way to prestigious residences and sailboats for over 30 years.

Town with two-story wooden houses by a body of water; also contains text
People wave from long, wooden dock over a body of water with houses visible along shoreline behind them; also contains text
Postcard views of Port Washington sent by tourists to family or friends about 1910. /
THF624985 and THF624981

Mitchell family occupations evolved through the years along with Port Washington’s local economy: farmer, ship’s captain, stagecoach operator, land developer, highway commissioner, librarian.

Preserving the Past


The Mitchell family had changed with the times—yet hung onto vestiges of its past. Family clothing had been stored for over a century, first in Manhasset Hall, the house that had been home to the Mitchells since the late 1760s. Generations of the extended Mitchell family were born there, grew up there, married there, raised families there, and died there.

Large, two-story wooden house with wrap-around porch; also contains printed and hand-written text
By the early 1900s, the Mitchell family home—added onto over the years before being sold out of the family—offered accommodations to tourists. The house was later torn down to make way for a housing development. / THF624821

When the Mitchell home was sold in 1887, the trunk full of clothing remained in the family. By the early 1900s, it was probably kept by Louise Hungerford’s aunt, Wilhelmina, and then by Louise’s mother, Mary. Wilhelmina had remained in Port Washington, helping establish the town’s first library and serving as its first librarian.

Brick building with sloping lawn and steps down to sidewalk in front; also contains text
Port Washington Public Library, where Wilhelmina Mitchell served as the first librarian. / THF624979

Wilhelmina’s sister, Mary Hungerford, lived most of her adult life in Watertown, New York, after her marriage to produce dealer Egbert Hungerford. But, sometime before 1930, Mary—now a widow—returned to her hometown of Port Washington, along with her daughter, Louise. Wilhelmina Mitchell passed away in 1927; Mary Mitchell Hungerford died in 1933. Fewer Mitchell family members remained in Port Washington to cherish these tucked-away pieces of the family’s past. So Louise Hungerford wrote her letter, offering the trunk and its contents to Henry Ford for his museum.

Looking Inside


Wooden trunk with open arched lid
Trunk, 1860-1880. / THF188046

What clothing was in the Mitchell family trunk? Once-fashionable apparel. Garments outgrown. Clothing saved for sentimental reasons—perhaps worn on a special occasion or kept in someone’s memory. Everything was handsewn; much was probably homemade.

Louise Hungerford—if she knew—didn’t provide the names of the family members who had once worn these items, and Henry Ford’s assistants didn’t think to ask. For a few garments, though, we made some guesses based on recent research. For many, the mystery remains.

Pink fabric slippers with small ruffle on top of body
Women’s Slippers, about 1830. / THF156005

Flat-soled slippers were the most common shoe type worn by women during the first part of the 1800s. The delicate pair above might have been donned for a special occasion. Footwear did not yet come in rights and lefts—the soles were straight.

Pale pink dress with empire waist; slight puff at top of long sleeves; tiers at bottom of body
Child’s Dress, 1810-1825. / THF28528

The high-waisted style and pastel silk fabric of the child’s dress depicted above mirror women’s fashions of the 1810s. This dress was probably worn with pantalettes (long underwear with a lace-trimmed hem) by a little girl—though a boy could have worn it as well. Infants and toddlers of both genders wore dresses at this time. The tucks could be let down as the child grew.

Simple brown booties with seam up center and laces on inseam
Woman’s Gaiters, 1830-1860. / THF31093

Gaiters—low boots with fabric uppers and leather toes and heels—were very popular as boots became the footwear of choice for walking. To give the appearance of daintiness, shoes were made on narrow lasts, a foot-shaped form. By the late 1850s, boots made entirely of leather were the most popular.

Long-sleeved, floor-length dress gathered at waist and neck, made of brown floral material
Dress, 1780-1795. / THF29521

By the late 1700s, women’s fashions were less full and less formal than earlier. The side seams of this dress are split—allowing entry into a pair of separate pockets that would be tied around the waist. The dress, lined with a different fabric, appears to be reversible. The dress above was possibly worn by Rebecca Hewlett Mitchell, who died in 1790—or by her sister Jane Hewlett, who became the second wife of Rebecca’s husband, John Mitchell, Jr. 

Two pear-shaped patchwork pockets connected by a cord or string
Pockets, 1790-1810. / THF30851

In the 1700s and early 1800s, women’s gowns didn’t have pockets stitched in. Instead, women wore separate pockets that tied around their waist. A woman put her hand through a slit in her skirt to pull out what she needed. This pocket has the initials JhM cross-stitched on the back. They were possibly owned by John Mitchell, Jr.’s second wife, Jane Hewlett Mitchell (born 1749), or by his unmarried daughter, Jane H. Mitchell (born 1785).

Dark gray suit with simple pants and a jacket with several rows of large black buttons converging at the waist in a W shape
Boy’s Eton Suit, 1820-1830. / THF28536

During the early 1800s, boys wore Eton suits—short jackets with long, straight trousers—for school or special occasions. The trousers buttoned to a shirt or suspenders under the short jacket. This one, made of silk, was a more expensive version, possibly worn by Charles W. Mitchell, who was born in 1816.

White sacks filled with something and gathered with ribbon at necks
Sleeve Puffs, about 1830. / THF188039

The enormous, exaggerated sleeves of 1830s women’s fashion needed something to hold them up. Sleeve plumpers did the trick, often in the form of down-filled pads like these that would tie on at the shoulder under the dress.

Beige corset with wide shoulder straps
Corset, 1830-1840. / THF30853

A corset was a supportive garment worn under a woman’s clothing. A busk—a flat piece of wood, metal, or animal bone—slid into the fabric pocket in front to keep the corset straight, while also ensuring an upright posture and a flatter stomach.

Simple light blue quilted skirt
Quilted Petticoat, 1760-1780. / THF30943

In the mid-to-late 1700s, women’s gowns had an open front or were looped up to reveal the petticoat underneath. Fashionable quilted petticoats usually had decorative stitching along the hemline. Women might quilt their own petticoats or buy one made in England—American merchants imported thousands during this time.

Brown pants with a houndstooth or checked pattern
Man’s Trousers, 1820-1850. / THF30007

These trousers appear to have been worn on an everyday basis for work. Both knees, having seen a lot of wear, have careful repairs.

Brown shoes with leather at bottom and quilted fabric above, tied with laces
Woman’s House Slippers, 1840-1855. / THF156001

The quilted fabric on these house slippers made them warmer—quite welcome during cold New York winters in a house heated only by fireplaces or cast-iron stoves.

Off-white bonnet with rows of boning and shirred fabric between them; ruffle at neck
Calash Bonnet, 1830-1839. / THF188043

Collapsible calash bonnets were named after the folding tops of horse-drawn carriages. These bonnets had been popular during the late 1700s with a balloon-shaped hood that protected the elaborate hairstyles then in fashion. Calash bonnets returned in the 1820s and 1830s, this time following current fashion—a small crown at the back of the head and an open brim. The ruffle at the back shaded the neck.

When Henry Ford was collecting during the mid-1900s, many of the objects were gathered from New England or the Midwest—often from people of similar backgrounds to his. We are looking to make our clothing collection and the stories it tells more inclusive and diverse. Do you have clothing you would like us to consider for The Henry Ford’s collection? Please contact us.



Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Joan DeMeo Lager of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society, Phyllis Sternemann, church historian at Christ Church Manhasset, and Gil Gallagher, curatorial volunteer at The Henry Ford, for meticulous research that revealed the story of generations of Port Washington Mitchells. Thanks also to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

women's history, home life, by Jeanine Head Miller, fashion, What We Wore, Henry Ford Museum

Sewing machine built into wooden table with intricate, decorative metal base
This 1881 Singer sewing machine is on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Isaac Singer developed the first practical sewing machine for home use in the 1850s. / THF173635


Innovation has intended, and often unintended, effects. Take the sewing machine, for example. Its invention in the mid-1840s would make clothing more available and affordable. Yet, ironically, the sewing machine also resulted in a decline of sewing skills—not immediately, but over time. Nowadays, few of us know how to make clothing.

Once, things were very different. For centuries, sewing a family’s clothing by hand was a time-consuming and constant task for women. A woman often made hundreds of garments in her lifetime; all young girls were taught to sew.

Young girl sews the back of a young boy's jacket in an area with trees; also contains text
A trade card for Clark's O.N.T. Spool Cotton from the late nineteenth century depicts a young girl using her sewing skills to repair a rip in her brother’s jacket so that “It will be as good as new and Ma won’t know!” / THF298697

When the sewing machine came on the scene during the mid-1800s, this handy invention made a big difference. For example, it now took about an hour to sew a man’s shirt by machine—rather than 14 hours by hand. In the 1850s, clothing manufacturers quickly acquired sewing machines for their factories, and, as they became less expensive, people bought them for home use.

While machines made it easier to make clothing at home, buying clothing ready-made was even less work. By the early 1900s, the ready-to-wear industry offered a broad range of attractive clothing for men, women, and children. Increasingly, people bought their clothing in stores rather than making it themselves.

Woman in pink sleeveless dress with full skirt, wearing white gloves, poses in front of a couch
Patricia Jean Davis wears a prom dress she made herself in 1960. / THF123841

Sewing skills may have declined, but what have we gained? A lot. Mass-produced clothing has raised our standard of living: stylish, affordable clothing can be had off the rack. For many, sewing remains a creative outlet, rather than a required task. For them, making clothing is no longer something you have to do, but something you want to do.


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

Henry Ford Museum, women's history, THF Connect app, manufacturing, making, home life, fashion, by Jeanine Head Miller

“Whenever Henry Ford visited England, he always liked to spend a few days in the Cotswold Country, of which he was very fond … during these sojourns I had many happy times driving Mr. Ford around the lovely scenes which abound in this part of Britain.”

—Herbert Morton, Strange Commissions for Henry Ford

Curving dirt road with low stone buildings on either side and a wall on one side
A winding road through a Cotswold village, October 1930. / THF148434, detail

The Cotswolds Catch Henry Ford’s Eye


Henry Ford loved the Cotswolds, a rural region in southwest England—nearly 800 square miles of rolling hills, pastures, and small villages.

During the Middle Ages, a vibrant wool trade brought the Cotswolds great prosperity—at its heart was a breed of sheep known as Cotswold Lions. For centuries, the Cotswold region was well-known throughout Europe for the quality of its wool. Raising sheep, trading in wool, and woolen cloth fueled England’s economic growth from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Cotswold’s prosperity and its rich belt of limestone that provided ready building material resulted in a distinctive style of architecture: limestone homes, churches, shops, and farm buildings of simplicity and grace.

During Henry Ford’s trips to the Cotswolds in the 1920s, he became intrigued with the area’s natural beauty and charming architecture—all those lovely stone buildings that “blossomed” among the verdant green countryside and clustered together in Cotswold’s picturesque villages. By early 1929, Ford had decided he wanted to acquire and move a Cotswold home to Greenfield Village.

A letter dated February 4, 1929, from Ford secretary Frank Campsall described that Ford was looking for “an old style that has not had too many changes made to it that could be restored to its true type.” Herbert Morton, Ford’s English agent, was assigned the task of locating and purchasing a modest building “possessing as many pretty local features as might be found.” Morton began to roam the countryside looking for just such a house. It wasn’t easy. Cotswold villages were far apart, so his search covered an extensive area. Owners of desirable properties were often unwilling to sell. Those buildings that were for sale might have only one nice feature—for example, a lovely doorway, but no attractive window elements.

Low stone houses and fences among rolling meadows
Cotswold Cottage (buildings shown at left) nestled among the rolling hills in Chedworth, 1929–1930. / THF236012

Herbert Morton was driving through the tiny village of Lower Chedworth when he saw it. Constructed of native limestone, the cottage had “a nice doorway, mullions to the windows, and age mellowed drip-stones.” Morton knew he had found the house he had been looking for. It was late in the day, and not wanting to knock on the door and ask if the home was for sale, Morton returned to the town of Cheltenham, where he was staying.

The next morning Morton strolled along a street in Cheltenham, pondering how to approach the home’s owner. He stopped to look into a real estate agent’s window—and saw a photograph of the house, which was being offered for sale! Later that day, Morton arrived in Chedworth, and was greeted by the owner, Margaret Cannon Smith, and her father. The cottage, constructed out of native limestone in the early 1600s, had begun life as a single cottage, with the second cottage added a bit later.

Bare interior of room with low ceiling, large fireplace, and door open to reveal spiral staircase leading upwards
Interior of Cotswold Cottage, 1929-1930. / THF236052

The home was just as quaint inside—large open fireplaces with the mantels supported on oak beams. Heavy oak beams graced the ceilings and the roof. Spiral stone staircases led to the second floor. Morton bought the house and the two acres on which it stood under his own name from Margaret Smith in April 1929 for approximately $5000. Ford’s name was kept quiet. Had the seller been aware that the actual purchaser was Henry Ford, the asking price might have been higher.

Stone building with peaked rooves
Cotswold Cottage (probably built about 1619) as it looked when Herbert Morton spotted it, 1929–1930. / THF236020

“Perfecting” the Cotswold Look


Over the next several months, Herbert Morton and Frank Campsall, Ford’s personal secretary, traded correspondence concerning repairs and (with the best of intentions on Ford’s part) some “improvements” Ford wanted done to the building: the addition of architectural features that best exemplified the Cotswold style. Morton sent sketches, provided by builder and contractor W. Cox-Howman from nearby Stow-on-the-Wold, showing typical Cotswold architectural features not already represented in the cottage from which to choose. Ford selected the sketch which offered the largest number of typical Cotswold features.

Ford’s added features on the left cottage included a porch (a copy of one in the Cotswold village of Rissington), a dormer window, a bay window, and a beehive oven.

Stone house with porch
Cotswold Cottage, 1929–1930, showing modifications requested by Henry Ford: the beehive oven, porch, and dormer window. / THF235980

Interior view of bay window with four paned windows set in stone wall
Bay window added to the left cottage by Henry Ford (shown 1929–1930). Iron casement windows were added throughout. / THF236054

The cottage on the right got a doorway “makeover” and some dove-holes. These holes are commonly found in the walls of barns, but not in houses. It would have been rather unappealing to have bird droppings so near the house!

Door and window set in stone wall
Stone house with garden
Ford’s modifications to the right cottage—a new doorway (top) and dove-holes (bottom) on the upper wall. /
THF236004, THF235988

Stone house
Cotswold Cottage, now sporting Henry Ford’s desired alterations. / THF235984

Ford wanted the modifications completed before the building was disassembled—perhaps so that he could establish the final “look” of the cottage, as well as be certain that there were sufficient building materials. The appearance of the house now reflected both the early 1600s and the 1920s—each of these time periods became part of the cottage’s history. Ford’s additions, though not original to the house, added visual appeal.

The modifications were completed by early October 1929. The land the cottage stood on was transferred to the Ford Motor Company and later sold.

Cotswold Cottage Comes to America


Partially disassembled stone building, with scaffolding around it and architectural elements laid out on the grass surrounding it
Cotswold Cottage being disassembled. / THF148471

By January 1930, the dismantling of the modified cottage was in process. To carry out the disassembly, Morton again hired local contractor W. Cox-Howman.

People around a group of crates and large stone building blocks in front of a stone house
Building components being crated for shipment to the United States. / THF148475

Doors, windows, staircases, and other architectural features were removed and packed in 211 crates.

Construction site with piles of loose stones and many pallets; stone building in background
Cotswold building stones ready for shipment in burlap sacks. / THF148477

The building stones were placed in 506 burlap sacks.

Stone building with several wooden doors
Cotswold barn and stable on original site, 1929–1930. / THF235974

The adjacent barn and stable, as well as the fence, were also dismantled and shipped along with the cottage.

Train with many open cars packed with pallets
Hauled by a Great Western Railway tank engine, 67 train cars transported the materials from the Cotswolds to London to be shipped overseas. / THF132778

The disassembled cottage, fence, and stable—nearly 500 tons worth—were ready for shipment in late March 1930. The materials were loaded into 67 Great Western Railway cars and transported to Brentford, west London, where they were carefully transferred to the London docks. From there, the Cotswold stones crossed the Atlantic on the SS London Citizen.

As one might suspect, it wasn’t a simple or inexpensive move. The sacks used to pack many of the stones were in rough condition when they arrived in New Jersey—at 600 to 1200 pounds per package, the stones were too heavy for the sacks. So, the stones were placed into smaller sacks that were better able to withstand the last leg of their journey by train from New Jersey to Dearborn. Not all of the crates were numbered; some that were had since lost their markings. One package went missing and was never accounted for—a situation complicated, perhaps, by the stones having been repackaged into smaller sacks.

Despite the problems, all the stones arrived in Dearborn in decent shape—Ford’s project manager/architect, Edward Cutler, commented that there was no breakage. Too, Herbert Morton had anticipated that some roof tiles and timbers might need to be replaced, so he had sent some extra materials along—materials taken from old cottages in the Cotswolds that were being torn down.

Cotswold “Reborn”


In April 1930, the disassembled Cotswold Cottage and its associated structures arrived at Greenfield Village. English contractor Cox-Howman sent two men, mason C.T. Troughton and carpenter William H. Ratcliffe, to Dearborn to help re-erect the house. Workers from Ford Motor Company’s Rouge Plant also came to assist. Reassembling the Cotswold buildings began in early July, with most of the work completed by late September. Henry Ford was frequently on site as Cotswold Cottage took its place stone-by-stone in Greenfield Village.

Before the English craftsmen returned home, Clara Ford arranged a special lunch at the cottage, with food prepared in the cottage’s beehive oven. The men also enjoyed a sight-seeing trip to Niagara Falls before they left for England in late November.

Workers on a partially constructed building
By the end of July 1930, the cottage walls were nearly completed. / THF148485

Man stands next to rows of stacked shingles in foreground; two partially constructed buildings in background
On August 20, 1930, the buildings were ready for their shingles to be put in place. The stone shingles were put up with copper nails, a more modern method than the wooden pegs originally used. / THF148497

Stone wall with stone building and stone tower visible behind it
Cotswold barn, stable, and dovecote, photographed by Michele Andonian. / THF53508

Free-standing dovecotes, designed to house pigeons or doves which provided a source of fertilizer, eggs, and meat, were not associated with buildings such as Cotswold Cottage. They were found at the homes of the elite. Still, for good measure, Ford added a dovecote to the grouping about 1935. Cutler made several plans and Ford chose a design modeled on a dovecote in Chesham, England.

Henry and Clara Ford Return to the Cotswolds


Ivy-covered stone building; road in front
The Lygon Arms in Broadway, where the Fords stayed when visiting the Cotswolds. / THF148435, detail

As reconstruction of Cotswold Cottage in Greenfield Village was wrapping up in the fall of 1930, Henry and Clara Ford set off for a trip to England. While visiting the Cotswolds, the Fords stayed at their usual hotel, the Lygon Arms in Broadway, one of the most frequently visited of all Cotswold villages.

Group of people pose for photo in front of bushes
Henry (center) and Clara Ford (second from left) visit the original site of Cotswold Cottage, October 1930. / THF148446, detail

While in the Cotswolds, Henry Ford unsurprisingly asked Morton to take him and Clara to the site where the cottage had been.

Street with buildings
Cotswold village of Stow-on-the-Wold, 1930. / THF148440, detail

At Stow-on-the-Wold, the Fords called on the families of the English mason and carpenter sent to Dearborn to help reassemble the Cotswold buildings.

Road running between stone buildings with stone walls
Village of Snowshill in the Cotswolds. / THF148437, detail

During this visit to the Cotswolds, the Fords also stopped by the village of Snowshill, not far from Broadway, where the Fords were staying. Here, Henry Ford examined a 1600s forge and its contents—a place where generations of blacksmiths had produced wrought iron farm equipment and household objects, as well as iron repair work, for people in the community.

Run-down looking stone and wood building
The forge on its original site at Snowshill, 1930. / THF146942

A few weeks later, Ford purchased the dilapidated building. He would have it dismantled, and then shipped to Dearborn in February 1931. The reconstructed Cotswold Forge would take its place near the Cotswold Cottage in Greenfield Village.

To see more photos taken during Henry and Clara Ford’s 1930 tour of the Cotswolds, check out this photograph album in our Digital Collections.

Cotswold Cottage Complete in Greenfield Village—Including Wooly “Residents”


Dog and sheep in snowy field in front of stone house, with another stone building to right side
Completed the previous fall, Cotswold Cottage is dusted with snow in this January 1931 photograph. Cotswold sheep gather in the barnyard, watched over by Rover, Cotswold’s faithful sheepdog. (Learn Rover's story here.) / THF623050

Cat reclining on a sheep's back, with stone fences or walls behind and to their side
A Cotswold sheep (and feline friend) in the barnyard, 1932. / THF134679

Beyond the building itself, Henry Ford brought over Cotswold sheep to inhabit the Cotswold barnyard. Sheep of this breed are known as Cotswold Lions because of their long, shaggy coats and faintly golden hue.

Photo taken from inside a window of people dismounting from an omnibus outside a garden with a gate
Cotswold Cottage stood ready to welcome—and charm—visitors when Greenfield Village opened to the public in June 1933. / THF129639

By the Way: Who Once Lived in Cotswold Cottage?


Page containing image of stone house and text
Cotswold Cottage, as it looked in the early 1900s. From Old Cottages Farm-Houses, and Other Stone Buildings in the Cotswold District, 1905, by W. Galsworthy Davie and E. Guy Dawber. / THF284946

Before Henry Ford acquired Cotswold Cottage for Greenfield Village, the house had been lived in for over 300 years, from the early 1600s into the late 1920s. Many of the rapid changes created by the Industrial Revolution bypassed the Cotswold region and in the 1920s, many area residents still lived in similar stone cottages. In previous centuries, many of the region’s inhabitants had farmed, raised sheep, worked in the wool or clothing trades, cut limestone in the local quarries, or worked as masons constructing the region’s distinctive stone buildings. Later, silk- and glove-making industries came to the Cotswolds, though agriculture remained important. By the early 1900s, tourism became a growing part of the region’s economy.

A complete history of those who once occupied Greenfield Village’s Cotswold Cottage is not known, but we’ve identified some of the owners since the mid-1700s. The first residents who can be documented are Robert Sley and his wife Mary Robbins Sley in 1748. Sley was a yeoman, a farmer who owned the land he worked. From 1790 at least until 1872, Cotswold was owned by several generations of Robbins descendants named Smith, who were masons or limeburners (people who burned limestone in a kiln to obtain lime for mixing with sand to make mortar).

As the Cotswold region gradually evolved over time, so too did the nature of some of its residents. From 1920 to 1923, Austin Lane Poole and his young family owned the Cotswold Cottage. Medieval historian, fellow, and tutor at St. John’s College at Oxford University (about 35 miles away), Poole was a scholar who also enjoyed hands-on work improving the succession of Cotswold houses that he owned. Austin Poole had gathered documents relating to the Sley/Robbins/Smith families spanning 1748 through 1872. It was these deeds and wills that revealed the names of some of Cotswold Cottage’s former owners. In 1937, after learning that the cottage had been moved to Greenfield Village, Poole gave these documents to Henry Ford.

In 1926, Margaret Cannon Smith purchased the house, selling it in 1929 to Herbert Morton, on Henry Ford’s behalf.

“Olde English” Captures the American Imagination


At the time that Henry Ford brought Cotswold Cottage to Greenfield Village, many Americans were drawn to historic English architectural design—what became known as Tudor Revival. The style is based on a variety of late Middle Ages and early Renaissance English architecture. Tudor Revival, with its range of details reminiscent of thatched-roof cottages, Cotswold-style homes, and grand half-timbered manor houses, became the inspiration for many middle-class and upper-class homes of the 1920s and 1930.

These picturesque houses filled suburban neighborhoods and graced the estates of the wealthy. Houses with half-timbering and elaborate detail were often the most obvious examples of these English revival houses, but unassuming cottage-style homes also took their place in American towns and cities. Mansion or cottage, imposing or whimsical, the Tudor Revival house was often made of brick or stone veneer, was usually asymmetrical, and had a steep, multi-gabled roof. Other characteristics included entries in front-facing gables, arched doorways, large stone or brick chimneys (often at the front of the house), and small-paned casement windows.

Large building, seen across lawn containing trees
Edsel Ford’s home at Gaukler Pointe, about 1930. / THF112530

Henry Ford’s son Edsel and his wife Eleanor built their impressive but unpretentious home, Gaukler Pointe, in the Cotswold Revival style in the late 1920s.

Building seen across lawn and garden
Postcard, Postum Cereal Company office building in Battle Creek, Michigan, about 1915. / THF148469

Tudor Revival design found its way into non-residential buildings as well. The Postum Cereal Company (now Post Cereals) of Battle Creek, Michigan, chose to build an office building in this centuries-old English style.

Page with image of house, floor plan, and text
Plan for “An Attractive English Cottage” from the American Face Brick Association plan book, 1921. / THF148542

Page with image of house, floor plan, and text
Page with image of house, floor plan, and text
Page with image of house, floor plan, and text
Plans for English-inspired homes offered by Curtis Companies Inc., 1933. /
THF148549, THF148550, THF148553

Tudor Revival homes for the middle-class, generally more common and often smaller in size, appeared in house pattern books of the 1920s and 1930s.

Wooden sideboard with carved legs and carving and inlay on body
Sideboard, part of a dining room suite made in the English Revival style, 1925–1930. / THF99617

The Tudor Revival called for period-style furnishings as well. “Old English” was one of the most common designs found in fashionable dining rooms during the 1920s and 1930s.

Card with images of carolers in front of buildings; also contains text
Christmas card, 1929. / THF4485

Even English-themed Christmas cards were popular.

Cotswold Cottage—A Perennial Favorite


Stone house with ivy growing on it, behind stone wall and garden
Cotswold Cottage in Greenfield Village, photographed by Michelle Andonian. / THF53489

Henry Ford was not alone in his attraction to the distinctive architecture of the Cotswold region and the English cottage he transported to America. Cotswold Cottage remains a favorite with many visitors to Greenfield Village, providing a unique and memorable experience.


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.

home life, design, farm animals, travel, Henry Ford, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village, by Jeanine Head Miller