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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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A new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in our What We Wore exhibit, this time examining how fashion trends can highlight, or manipulate, the human form.

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Dress and Pelerine, 1830-1835

(Purchased with funds from the Eleanor B. Safford Memorial Textile Fund)


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What makes these sleeves puffy?
A stiffened underlining--pleated muslin fabric--helps support the sleeves. Sometimes a “sleeve plumper” was used--down-filled pads that tied on at the shoulder under the dress.

The wide silhouette created by these “leg-of-mutton” sleeves and matching pelerine (small cape that covers the shoulders) not only drew attention to the wearer’s arms, but also emphasized the smallness of her waist!

Who wore this dress?
During the 1830s? We don’t know. Later, Tasha Tudor (1915-2008), author and illustrator of children’s literature, owned the dress.

Tudor admired the objects and rural lifestyle of the early 19th century. She lived in a secluded New England farmhouse with no plumbing or electricity, surrounded by an orchard, rambling garden, and lively farm animals. Tasha Tudor also collected antique clothing--and wore it.

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Dress, 1884-1885
(
Gift of Ruth W. Crouse)

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What supported the elaborately draped fabric at the back of this dress?
A bustle--a support of parallel horizontal slats made of wood or steel bent in a half circle. The bustle attached to the body around the waist. A tightly laced corset helped create her extremely small waist.

But how did she sit down? The slats would all collapse together as she sat, then spring back in place when she stood up--maintaining her fashionable silhouette.Between the fabric of the dress and the bustle, garments of this period could be quite heavy to wear!

Who wore this dress?
Mary Stevens (1861-1910), the daughter of wealthy capitalist. The Stevens family lived on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, a street lined with the homes of prosperous Detroiters.

Mary Stevens had a privileged lifestyle. She had the money to purchase finely made fashionable clothing. And led a social life that gave her opportunities to wear it. A few days before Christmas 1884, Mary’s mother gave an elegant reception at the Stevens home--complete with elaborate floral decorations, refreshments, and a full orchestra. Could this be the dress that Mary wore that afternoon?

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Dress, 1927-1929
(Gift of Audrey K. Wilder)

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What undergarment helped achieve this slender, youthful silhouette?
A straight-line, one-piece garment called a corselette. It de-emphasized the bust and smoothed the natural curves of the body--emphasizing the straight, unbroken line of that era’s “boyish” silhouette.

The movement of the uneven hemline, while walking or dancing, would subtly call attention to the wearer’s legs.

Who wore this dress?
Audrey K. Wilder (1896-1979) likely owned this dress.  Audrey attended college--quite unusual for women of her time. She graduated from Albion College, then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1921.

In the late 1920s, Audrey Wilder was appointed Dean of Women at Ohio Northern University. One of her first projects was the creation of the first social hall for women on campus--a place where female students could hold teas, receptions, musicals, and dinners. Those who knew her described Audrey as a “dynamic dean” and a woman “of exquisite grooming.”

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Cocktail Dress by Christian Dior, 1952
(Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr.)

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What undergarment helped create the “hourglass” silhouette of the 1950s?
Christian Dior’s “New Look”--with its close-fitting hourglass silhouette--dominated the 1950s. This look emphasized a tiny waistline and feminine curves. Longline bras helped slim the waistline and create a smooth line under garments.

This dress, Dior’s “Sonnet” design, also accentuated the waist through the angled side bodice seams, bows at the waist, and rounded skirt.

Who wore this dress?
This dress was custom-made for Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990), wife of tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone, Jr. Elizabeth felt it her duty to represent her husband, family, and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company with dignity and grace. She was always flawlessly dressed--whether for informal camping trips, world travel, business functions, or society parties.

Elizabeth had a fine eye for fashion and favored New York and Parisian designers, including Christian Dior. These designers created garments to her specifications, including perfect fit, style, color, fabric, and construction. During the 1950s the New York Dress Institute named Elizabeth one of the "Best Dressed Women in the World.”

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

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

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As we continue to celebrate our first year of What We Wore--our new collections platform in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation--a new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut.

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This season it’s all about kids.

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Sailor Suit, about 1925
Sailor suits were popular from the 1870s into the 1930s—with short or long pants for boys and skirts for girls. These nautically-themed outfits were usually made of sturdy washable fabrics and, though stylish, allowed kids a bit more freedom of movement.

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Jumper and Blouse, 1958–1960
(Gift of Mary Sherman)
In the 1950s, girls still wore dresses or skirts much of the time—for formal occasions and for school. Pants were play clothes—what girls wore after school to run around the yard or play indoors.

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"Wrecker" Coordinating Shirt and Pants, 1978
(Gift of Diana and John Mio)
Designs with kid appeal often appear on children’s casual clothing— images like cars and trucks, princesses, dinosaurs, animals, butterflies, and monsters.

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Blouse and Pant Outfit, about 1935
This girl’s casual outfit was inspired by adult fashion—beach pajamas, informal resort wear sporting wide pantlegs. Cheerful, pastel prints were popular during the Depression era.

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Leisure Suit, 1977
(Gift of Diana and John Mio)
The casual and versatile leisure suit reached the height of popularity with adult men in 1977, when John Travolta wore a white version to the disco in the movie Saturday Night Fever.  Even kids donned this ultimate—and short-lived—1970s fashion trend.

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Dress, about 1920
(Gift in Memory of Augusta Denton Roddis)
In the 1920s, simple dresses were preferred for younger girls. Linen fabric and pale colors were popular for summer wear. The understated details on this dress are embroidered, crocheted and tatted—the children’s mother was a skilled needlewoman.

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The Building Blocks of Childhood

Children love to build things--whether they create imaginary worlds or smaller versions of the real one.  Construction toys are quite literally and figuratively “the building blocks of childhood.”  Playing with them builds physical and intellectual skills--and encourages creativity.  Toy bricks, logs, and girders are the stuff of playtime joy!

Entrepreneurs have introduced innovative construction toys that have delighted new generations of children.  Which is your favorite? For the LEGO fans, Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO® Bricks, a first-of-its-kind, limited-engagement exhibition, is rising up in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation October 12 through January 5, 2020.

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Erector Set No. 1, about 1915

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Junior Tinkertoy for Beginners Set, 1937-1946

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American Plastic Bricks, about 1955 (
Gift of Miriam R. Epstein)

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Lincoln Logs, about 1960 (
Gift of Steven K. Hamp)

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Lego Building Set, 1976-1983

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Dream Builders Super Blocks Building Set, 1991-1992

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

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With mail order catalogs, rural Americans could choose from among a much wider variety of goods than at their local general store. THF119939 and THF115221

Today, shopping opportunities are everywhere—as a way to purchase things we need, as well as leisure time entertainment. We cruise the mall, trod the aisles of big-box stores, browse the shelves of trendy boutiques, roll our carts down the grocery store aisle, stop off at the convenience store, flip through store catalogs delivered to our door, and shop online. We can even shop from the convenience of our smartphone or tablet. Shopping is now a 24-7 opportunity filled with endless choices of goods made all over the world.

During the late 19th century, things were quite different. Most Americans lived on farms or in small villages--shopping choices were limited. Yet, the advent of mail order shopping was opening up a world of new possibilities.

Shopping Locally
Where did most rural people shop during the late 19th century? Usually the small stores located at a nearby village or town or perhaps a general store located at a country crossroads.  These stores provided a narrow selection of items that served the needs of the locals, yet offered shoppers the tactile experience of handling the goods before deciding to purchase. Factories were turning out consumer goods of all kinds, advertising trumpeted the merits of the products to potential customers, and railroads made it easier to get those goods to rural stores as well urban ones—so rural shoppers in America’s hinterland could obtain some of the same or similar items found in the city. 

Still—small town shopkeepers couldn’t afford to stock an endless variety of merchandise to broaden their customers’ choices. So, instead of selecting from dozens of shoe styles or tableware patterns, or printed fabric designs, rural customers often made their choices from whatever goods were at hand in the local merchant’s store.

Mail Order Shopping Debuts
During the final decades of the 19th century, America’s farmers developed a growing discontent towards institutions they felt were stealing too large a share of their hard-earned profits: “middlemen” like the grain elevator operators who they felt were paying too low a price for their crops and the storekeepers who they felt charged them too high a price for the goods they bought at retail. Farmers organized themselves into “the Patrons of Husbandry,” also known as the Grange, to protest these inequities as well as seek opportunities to form cooperatives through which they could purchase goods at wholesale prices.

Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago recognized that his innovative idea for direct-mail marketing meshed well with this growing discontent on the part of farmers. In 1872, Montgomery Ward & Company launched what would become the first general mail order company in American history.  Advertising his company as “The Original Wholesale Grange Supply House,” Ward stated that the firm sold its goods to “Patrons of Husbandry, Farmers and Mechanics at Wholesale Prices.” His recipe for success—high volume, a wide selection of goods, ease of handling, and low prices—enabled Ward to extend the advantages found in urban marketplace directly to rural customers.

As Montgomery Ward & Company’s mail order business quickly grew, other companies joined in. The other mail order giant, Sears, Roebuck and Company, also located in Chicago, began offering mail order in 1888.  By 1900, these two mail order houses were the two greatest merchandisers in the world. Countless other firms offered a variety of goods from ready-made clothing to hardware and farm equipment, using the direct-marketing of mail order to extend their reach to customers all over the nation.

Mail order catalogs brought city and country together. The enticing products shown on their pages represented the new and modern to their rural readers, promising higher standards of living and material progress through the attractive goods and labor-saving devices displayed there. Mail order catalogs offered rural residents a “taste” of the urban experience, offering goods found in the shops and department stores that blossomed in the commercial districts of America’s burgeoning cities. Catalogs, of course, broadened the merchandise selection for some city people as well.

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Montgomery Ward & Company launched America’s first general mail order company.  Over 22 years later, their 1894-1895 catalog still proudly trumpeted this fact:  “Originators of the Mail Order Business.”
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A Cornucopia of Material Delights
Flipping through these mail order catalogs brought a visual feast of tens of thousands of products—some satisfying needs and some gratifying wants.  For a farm family whose lives and daily activities brought little variety, these catalogs opened a world of new material possibilities:  fashionable ready-made clothing, hats and hat trimmings, jewelry of all kinds, sewing machines, cook stoves, and hardware for use on the farm or stylish hinges to update farmhouse doors. Even carriages and automobiles could be shopped for by mail.  

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The northern Indiana family shown in this circa 1900 parlor photograph could have obtained many of the goods by mail order—even the piano. 
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The photograph above depicts a middle-class family from a farm or small town surrounded by the mass-produced goods that provided an attractive, comfortable lifestyle.  Many of the items could have been purchased from a mail order catalog. (Keep in mind that, while rural residents might have access to many of the same goods, they often had far less spending power than urban America.)

Delivering the Catalogs—and the Goods

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From placing the order to delivery of the goods, the image on the cover of this 1880s Jordan Marsh catalog suggests the ease of “successful” shopping by mail—allaying any concerns for those new to the process.  THF119786

Mail order catalogs came to farmers—not surprisingly--through the mail. Yet, for many years, that did not mean convenient delivery to their doorstep. Though city dwellers had enjoyed free home delivery of mail since 1863, rural residents still had to pick up their own mail at the nearest post office—even though they paid the same postage as the rest of the nation. Bad roads and distance often meant that farmers rarely picked up their mail more than once a week. So placing a catalog order could take longer for farm folk than city dwellers.  A farm family might pick up a catalog on a trip to town one week, then place the order the next time someone went to town. Payment for mail orders was made by money order, purchased through the post office.
In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added.  In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added.  In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added. In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

How did merchandise ordered get to the person who ordered it? Before the advent of rural free delivery, people could pick up small packages at the post office. Private express companies delivered larger packages shipped to the nearest railroad station, transporting them to the customer’s home. Farmers might use their own wagons to transport goods shipped by rail to them. 

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Heavy or large packages sent by mail were shipped to the local railroad station.  An express company would then deliver them to the customer.  If the customer owned a horse-drawn wagon, they might pick up the package at the railroad station themselves.
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After the beginning of rural free delivery, mail carriers delivered packages weighing up to four pounds to their customers’ mailboxes. By law, heavier packages had to be delivered by private express companies.  

In January 1913, the U.S. Postal Service established parcel post—now goods could be delivered directly to homes. It was an instant success, boosting mail-order businesses enormously. During the first five days of parcel post service nearly 1,600 post offices handled over 4 million parcel post packages. Within the first six months, 300 million parcels had been delivered. Weight and size limits were gradually expanded. By 1931, parcel post deliveries included packages weighing up to 70 pounds and measuring up to 100 inches.

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In the early years of rural mail delivery, farmers could use whatever was at hand as a mailbox—pails, cans or wooden crates. When rural free delivery became permanent and universal in 1902, the United States Post Office required rural customers to have regulation mailboxes in order to receive their mail.
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Something Gained, Something Lost
While catalog shopping brought variety and convenience to rural Americans during the late 19th and early 20th century, there was an important trade-off. The face-to-face communication and personal relationship that had existed between a local storekeeper and his customers was eroding, helped along by national advertising which told potential customers what to buy—rather than customers seeking the advice of the storekeeper. Too, stores became increasingly self-serve. This trend toward less personal, “non-local” shopping continued to grow throughout the 20th century for rural and urban people alike, involving not only orders by mail, but by phone and, eventually, the internet.  In the 21st century, sales of consumer goods increasingly take place online. 

Yet, more recently, people have come to value the attentive personal service offered and unique goods stocked by many local retailers. Many shoppers combine the advantages of shopping online for the wide variety goods available there, with the personal touch and service-oriented experience of shopping locally. Encouraging this shop-local trend are national campaigns like Small Business Saturday, which takes place Thanksgiving weekend, encouraging shoppers to patronize small retailers.

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

shopping, mail order, by Jeanine Head Miller

What We Wore


What We Wore, a new collections platform in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, offers a much-anticipated opportunity to continually display objects from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories.   

What’s a collections platform? It’s a small, specialized display of objects from our collection.  This new collections platform, the fourth to be installed in the museum, follows those of coverlets, telephones, and violins. 

The theme of the first group of garments displayed is “Home Front Heroes: Women in World War II”--chosen to complement the “Enduing Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt, & the Four Freedoms” exhibit in The Gallery by General Motors. This clothing represents the stories of millions of American women who worked in defense industries, trained to be pilots, volunteered for the Red Cross, or provided a connection to civilian life for servicemen through USO-sponsored activities during World War II.  

What We Wore


What We Wore is located behind the Anderson Theater, across from Mathematica. Every four months, visitors to the museum will enjoy a look at yet another group of interesting garments and their stories from The Henry Ford’s collection.  

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

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

Nostalgia for those who experienced it—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others.

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The Visits with Santa experience in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation this year is a throwback to the 1960s. Kids can tell Santa their wishes as they sit next to him under a colorful kiosk made by Ray and Charles Eames for the IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  Nearby is a cozy 1960s living room vignette—complete with a La-Z-Boy chair, television set, and an aluminum Christmas tree from the era.

This mid-century modern theme coincides with the opening of our newest permanent exhibit in the museum, Mathematica, also designed by Ray and Charles. Several components of Mathematica were featured inside that IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, so we were excited to bring those two experiences together for this year’s holiday programming.

The scene provides a bit of nostalgia for those who experienced the 1960s—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others. Let’s look at some blasts from the 1960s Christmas past.

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Aluminum trees brought a modern look to a mid-1960s Christmas.  THF170112

The early 1960s brought a fresh, new look to Christmas tree aesthetics.  A completely modern look--the aluminum Christmas tree.   It made a shiny, metallic splash in living rooms all over America.  More than a million trees were sold during the decade.   A tree choice that eschewed the traditional pine- or fir-scented Christmas experience when it landed on the Christmas scene in the 1960s, now conjures up images of a retro Christmas past.

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Color wheel sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company, 1960-1965.  THF8379

A color wheel lit up the aluminum tree, with the tree changing from blue to red to green to gold as the wheel revolved.  The color wheel was there for a practical reason—you couldn’t put strings of lights on aluminum trees because of fire safety concerns.   But to those viewing the transformation, the color wheel seemed a no-brainer way to light these trees—so modern and so magical.  It was mesmerizing to watch—whether from a front row seat in your living room or the view through your neighbor’s window.

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The Smith family of Redford, Michigan purchased these ornaments in 1964 to hang on their aluminum Christmas tree.  THF309083

Aluminum trees called for minimalist look. The trees were often sparingly decked with ornaments all of one color. 

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The Wojewidka siblings pose for a Christmas photo in front of their live tree in 1960.  THF125145

Yet, “real” trees remained popular as well—fresh-cut trees chosen from one of the many temporary Christmas tree lots that popped up in cities and towns. (The cut-your-own trend was not yet widespread.)  Scotch pines were favored by many—though there were diehard balsam fans as well.  These trees were bedecked with a varied array of ornaments—glass ones by the Shiny Brite company were popular. And shiny “icicles”—made of lead before it was prohibited—hung from the branches to add to the sparkle.

Holiday Greetings in the Mail

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By the early 1960s, Christmas cards offered a greater variety of seasonal images beyond those traditionally found. This image shows a woman clothed in a pine tree decorated with 1960s trendy-colored ornaments.   THF287028  

By mid-December, mailboxes were filling with Christmas cards, sent by family and friends to let the recipient know that they were being specially thought of during the holiday season. It was exciting to pull out handfuls of cards from the mailbox—it may have been the only time during the year when a kid had much interest in what the postman delivered. And not necessarily because of the cards themselves—the cards were a tangible sign that Christmas was indeed on its way and that Santa would soon be making his deliveries!  

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Christmas card display clothesline and pins, about 1964. THF155082   

Where did people display all these Christmas cards? On a mantle, a table, or the top of the television. Or taped to a wall or a large mirror in the living room. Hanging them from a Christmas-themed clothesline was a more novel way to display them.

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This 1962 stamp carried traditional Christmas images of lighted candles and a wreath.  THF287036

In 1962, the United States Postal Service issued the first Christmas-themed postage stamps in America. (A few other countries had already beaten us to the punch on issuing Christmas-themed postage stamps.) But once begun, Christmas stamps graced more and more Christmas card envelopes to complete the annual presentation of holiday-themed greetings sent through the mail. 

Making a List

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Christmas catalogs like this 1964 Sears, Roebuck & Company got a workout in December. THF135874

Kids were busy deciding what to ask Santa for. Instead of perusing the web, kids looked forward to the arrival of Christmas season catalogs sent by stores like Sears, Roebuck and Company, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward.  Kids (and adults) eagerly leafed through the pages of the toys, clothing, and other gifts offered within, making their wish list for Santa’s perusal before passing the catalog along to another family member.

Television offered additional gift ideas, playing out the merits of products before viewers’ eyes in commercials that one couldn’t speed past with a DVR.

Toys for Girls and Boys
Many 1960s toys that appeared on the Christmas lists of millions of kids during the 1960s—some in updated versions—are still classics.

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Silly Putty modeling compound, about 1962.  THF135811

Silly Putty was invented during World War II as General Electric researchers worked to develop a synthetic substitute for rubber.  While no practical purpose could be found for the stuff, it did turn out to be a great toy. Silly Putty bounced higher and stretched farther than rubber.  It even lifted images off the pages of color comics. (My sister took Silly Putty to bed with her, leaving a perfect egg-shaped stain on the sheets that never came out.)

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Eight-year-old Rachel Marone of New York received this Etch A Sketch as s Christmas gift in 1961.  THF93827

The 1960s saw an innovative new arts and crafts toy—the Etch A Sketch. Turning the knobs at the bottom of the screen (one to create horizontal lines, one for vertical) let the user “draw” on the screen with a mixture of aluminum powder and plastic beads. To erase, you just turned the screen over and shook it.  Incidentally, it was the first toy that Ohio Art, its manufacturer, ever advertised on television.  (Accomplished users could make great drawings on the Etch A Sketch—and some of us were just happy to produce decent-looking curved lines.)

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This 1962 Play-Doh Fun Factory was a childhood toy of Mary Sherman of Minnesota.  THF170363

Play-Doh introduced their Fun Factory in 1960. Now kids could go beyond free-form modeling with their red, yellow, blue and white Play-Doh. The Play-Doh Fun Factory provided instructions on how to create things like trains, planes, and boats—and an extruder with dies to easily make the components. 

Watching Christmas Specials on TV

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Album from A Charlie Brown Christmas television special, about 1965.  THF162745

Kids eagerly listened for announcements on television or leafed excitedly through TV Guide magazine to find out when the holiday specials would air.  You didn’t want to miss them—it was your only shot at watching!  There were no DVRs or DVDs back then. Two animated classics from the mid-1960s--A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas--are among the earliest and most enduring of the Christmas specials developed for television.  

Within their engaging storylines, these two shows carried a message about the growing commercialization of the holiday.  As kids watched the barrage of toy ads that appeared with regularity on their television screens and leafed through catalogs to make their Christmas lists, seeing these cartoons reminded them that Christmas was also about higher ideals—not just about getting presents.  These television shows—and the increasing number and variety of Christmas specials that have since joined them—remain a yearly reminder to temper one’s holiday-related commercialism and to think of the needs of others. 

Not only have Charlie Brown and the Grinch become perennial favorites enjoyed by children and adults alike, but the soundtracks of these shows have joined the pantheon of musical Christmas classics. 

Christmas Music

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The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, with its freshly melodic “Ring-a-ling-a-ling Ding-dong ding” background vocals on this 1963 Phil Spector-produced album, has become an iconic Christmas classic. THF135943

What would a 1960s Christmastime be without Christmas-themed music heard on the stereo at home and over speakers in stores? The 1960s saw a flood of Christmas albums and singles. Various singers—like Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Beach Boys—recorded their versions of old favorites and new tunes.   

The Annual Christmas Photo

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In 1963, the Truby brothers of Royal Oak, Michigan, posed in Santa pajamas given to them by their grandmother. THF287005

After the presents were opened and everyone was dressed in their Christmas finery, it was time to round up the kids for photos. Siblings (and, sometimes, their parents) might be posed together in front of a seasonal backdrop like the Christmas tree or a fireplace. Some families filmed home movies of their celebrations. These home movies often captured only strategic snippets of the Christmas celebration—movie film was expensive. And these home movies were without sound—which was probably sometimes a good thing!

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

correspondence, events, Henry Ford Museum, popular culture, by Jeanine Head Miller, toys, holidays, Christmas

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This alphabet quilt, likely made in Berks County, Pennsylvania, dates from about 1910.   THF168579  (Purchased through the Eleanor B. Safford Memorial Textile Fund.)

“A, B, C, D, E, F, G—   H, I, J, K, L-M-N-O-P—.… Now I know my ABCs”

The alphabet song gave us a fun way to learn our ABCs—and the order of the letters.  (I don’t know about you, but I sometimes still find myself singing it as I alphabetize something.)  Even before kids head off to school, we not only sing the alphabet song to them, but surround them with images of alphabet letters—on building blocks, children’s dishes, and even, wallpaper—to help them learn their ABCs. 

Alphabet letters also appear on quilts. Quilt block patterns published in the 20th century made it easier to plan and create these quilts. In 1906, Ladies Art Company, a mail order business that published hundreds of quilt patterns, offered a series of alphabet block designs. The Henry Ford’s alphabet quilt was likely made using these patterns.

The letters on this alphabet quilt may look like they are curved—but they are actually made up of triangles, squares, rectangles and trapezoids.  The letter blocks were designed to avoid curved seams, which are more difficult to execute than these other geometric shapes. Yet, even using these Ladies Art Company patterns offered challenges.  Some letters, like the G and Q, required more intricate piecing.  Some quiltmakers simply deviated a bit in piecing the blocks for these, and other letters.  Our quiltmaker managed the Q, but made a few small changes in creating the G.

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Though working from the same pattern, each individual quiltmaker created her own unique quilt through her choice of fabric, the exact arrangement of the letter blocks, the design of the sashing and borders, and the quilt patterns used in the decorative corner blocks that complete the quilt. Some quiltmakers arranged the letter blocks in rows of three and five. Others placed them in four rows of five letter blocks—and then figured out what to do with the leftover Z! Our quilt maker tucked the Z into one corner, creating a delightfully whimsical effect.

We don’t really know who made this quilt, or who they made it for.  But it is easy to imagine a child cuddling with this charming alphabet quilt—and learning his or her letters at the same time.

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making, design, by Jeanine Head Miller, quilts

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Susan McCord (at far right) with family at the McCord farm, about 1904.  (with Susan, from left to right:  Susan’s daughter Millie McCord Canaday, husband Green McCord, granddaughter Ruth Canaday). Right: Susan and Green McCord, about 1885. EI.1929.2222

On her family’s farm near McCordsville, Indiana, Susan Noakes McCord (1829-1909) made meals for her husband and children, cleaned the house, sewed and mended the family’s clothing, knitted accessories, cared for the chickens, milked cows, tended the vegetable and flower gardens, read her Bible through each year, and participated in community gatherings.

In her “spare” time, she also made exquisite quilts. Exceptional quilts.

This ordinary Indiana farmwife had an extraordinary genius for designing and making quilts. Her “palette?”  Like other resourceful housewives of her time, Susan used materials that she had on hand: scraps of cotton prints or dress velvets left over from making her family’s clothing. She also cut usable fabric from the family’s worn-out clothing. Susan made some of her quilts in patterns then popular. And she likely used the flowers in her garden as further inspiration. 

But what Susan created with these everyday materials, the inspiration she found around her, and her rich imagination was stunning. Susan could manipulate fabric, color, and design to turn a traditional quilt pattern into something extraordinary. Her workmanship was equally superb. She joined her quilt top, the layer of filling, and the backing with thousands of tiny, even stitches—averaging 10 to the inch.

THF95129Floral Urn by Susan McCord, about 1860. THF 95129

Susan’s Floral Urn quilt is reminiscent of album quilts made of large appliqué floral or wreath blocks that were popular during the mid-19th century. But Susan's version is exceptionally imaginative. Susan's love of gardening likely inspired the fuchsia, tulips, and daisies which spill whimsically from the urns.

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Ocean Waves Quilt by Susan McCord, about 1880. THF 95131

This Ocean Waves quilt pattern was well-known in the late 19th century. But in Susan's hands the design is breathtakingly executed, formed of hundreds of tiny half-inch triangles cut from printed cotton fabrics. Susan finished the borders of this quilt with her unique meandering vines with colorful pieced leaves.

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Fan Variation Quilt by Susan McCord, about 1900. THF 95136

In the late 19th century, decorative "crazy" quilts -- made from silk, velvet, and wool scraps stitched together "crazily" and embellished with embroidery -- were all the rage. This quilt is a variation of a crazy quilt design called fans. Most quilters placed a fan in just one corner of a block. Susan sewed fans of varying sizes in each corner. Then she joined the blocks together to form "wheels" that dazzle with a sense of motion and energy.

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Vine Quilt by Susan McCord, 1880-1890. THF 95128

This stunningly beautiful quilt is Susan's masterpiece. This trailing vine design is a Mc original. Susan pieced together printed and solid cotton fabric scraps to create the over 300 leaves on each of the 13 vine panels. Susan used variations of this vine in the borders of several quilts. But Susan's vine design is rendered to perfection in this work of genius.

Do I sound like a member of the Susan McCord Fan Club? I am—along with hundreds of her other admirers. 

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making, by Jeanine Head Miller, women's history, quilts, design

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Pig Pen Variation and Mosaic Medallion Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73662

African-American quiltmaker Susana Allen Hunter turned the "fabric" of everyday life into eye-catching quilts with an abstract, asymmetrical, and often, modern feel. Created from the 1930s to the 1970s, Susana Hunter's quilts reflect her life in rural Wilcox County, Alabama—one of the poorest counties in the United States.

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Strip Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73619


Susana Hunter made handsome, unique quilts, fashioned literally from the fabric of everyday life.

Susana's quilts are pieced in a design-as-you-go improvisational style found among both blacks and whites in poorer, more isolated pockets of the rural South. People living in these more remote areas had less access to quilt pattern ideas published in newspapers or printed in books. For fabrics, rural women depended on mail order catalogs or whatever was available in the local store.  These "constraints" left quiltmakers like Susana Hunter free to use their imaginations.  

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Bedsheet Pieced Together from Commercial Sugar Sacks by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1970. THF94355

Making an improvisational quilt top required a continual stream of creativity during the entire process, as the quiltmaker made hundreds of design decisions on the fly, fashioning an attractive whole out of whatever materials were at hand.  Overall visual impact mattered most—not minor details such as whether a patch in a row had a square or rectangular shape.  Size and shape was determined by the scraps available at the time.

Creative recycling such as this was not only a means of survival. For many rural quilters, it was also a matter of pride to be able to "make something pretty out of nothing." Represented in the fabrics that make up Susana Hunter's quilts are work clothes worn from the family's toil in the fields, sacks from the cotton seed they planted each spring, scraps from the clothes Susana sewed for her family, and bulk sugar sacks from the food staples the Hunters bought in bulk at the local general store. 

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Sewing Thimble Used by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1969. THF93486

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Handmade Fan Used by Susana Allen Hunter. THF44759


For Susana and her husband Julius, life often meant hard work and few resources.  The Hunters were tenant farmers who grew cotton and corn, tended a vegetable garden, and raised hogs, chicken and cattle. They lived in a simple, two-room house that had no running water, electricity or central heat. The outside world came to them through a battery-powered radio and a wind-up phonograph. Though the Hunters didn't have much in the way of material goods or the latest 20th century technology, they never went hungry, raising much of their own food. 

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Portrait of Susana Allen Hunter, June 1960. THF125834

Susana Hunter wanted all of her quilts to be different. Some of her quilt designs have a warm, homey feel. Many resemble abstract art. Other quilts pulsate with the visual energy created by many small, irregular pieces of vividly-colored fabric sewn together. Still others incorporate cornmeal or rice sacks, often reserved for quilt backing, as part of the design of the carefully-pieced quilt top.

Susana's quilts warmed her family during chilly Alabama winters in the inadequately heated home.  They added splashes of color to the unadorned living space—a cheerful kaleidoscope of vivid pattern and design against newspaper-covered walls.  Susana very rarely bought new fabric for her quilts, she used what was at hand.  Yet the lack of materials didn't restrict this resourceful quilter's creativity.  Susana Hunter could cast her artistic eye over her pile of worn clothing, dress scraps, and left-over feed and fertilizer sacks—and envision her next quilt.

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

African American history, women's history, quilts, making, design, by Jeanine Head Miller

People often send us letters offering items for our collection. Recently, I received a letter in the mail that surprised and absolutely delighted me.

 

Among the notable collections of The Henry Ford are 12 quilts made by an exceptionally talented, unassuming Indiana farm wife named Susan McCord (1829-1909). I opened the letter to find that the family of McCord’s great-grandson was offering us the opportunity to acquire one more: a Triple Irish Chain quilt made for her daughter, Millie McCord Canaday, about 1900.

 

Name tag

 

It was the last remaining quilt known to have been made by Susan McCord. Soon after, this beauty was on its way to Dearborn to join the other 12 McCord quilts in The Henry Ford’s collection.

 

The Triple Irish Chain is a traditional quilt pattern — but in Susan McCord’s hands, this design became much more. Like all of her quilts, the Triple Irish Chain demonstrates McCord's considerable skill at manipulating fabric, color and design to turn a traditional quilt pattern into something extraordinary.

 

Quilt detail

 

I could easily imagine Susan McCord carefully choosing fabric from her bag of scraps, cutting it into thousands of fabric squares, carefully determining their placement within the overall design and sewing the squares together. I could picture McCord then topping off this creation with her utterly unique, “signature” design — a stunning vine border, the leaves expertly pieced from tiny scraps of fabric. And it certainly wasn’t hard to imagine Millie McCord’s delight when she received this lovely gift!

 

To all who see Susan McCord’s quilts - whether experts or casual observers - the remarkable beauty and craftsmanship is evident. Now beautifully photographed, the story of this quilt can be readily accessed through our online collections – so that anyone, near or far, can enjoy McCord's quilt at the click of a mouse.

 

Do you have any special family quilts or other handmade heirlooms? Share your story in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

 

Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, is an unabashed Susan McCord “groupie.”

making, by Jeanine Head Miller, women's history, quilts, design

Dotting the landscape of places like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York are numerous Colonial-era homes and taverns where George Washington is said to have spent the night. Some of these claims are true; some are likely only wishful thinking. But the desire to claim a tangible connection to our Revolutionary War hero and first president runs strong.

As commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, General George Washington usually did sleep and eat in the nearby homes of well-to-do people during the eight years he led the American military campaign. But among George Washington’s camp equipage were tents, this folding bed, cooking and eating utensils, and other equipment that he used when encamped on the field with his troops.

George Washington's 1783 camp chest, which is on display in the With Liberty and Justice for All exhibit inside Henry Ford Museum. (From the collections of The Henry Ford)

Yet the George Washington camp bed in The Henry Ford’s collections is more than just a humble cot, used when no better option was available. This object symbolizes George Washington as a leader who cared more about his men and the cause of democracy than he did for himself.

In Henry Ford Museum’s With Liberty and Justice for All exhibit, visitors stand in quiet contemplation before the Washington camp bed on display, gazing at a humble cot where the great general took some weary rest during the struggle for American independence.

A great many stories of American ingenuity and innovation abound in Henry Ford Museum. But these stories generally do not involve military history. Why, then, display a bed associated with war?

With Liberty and Justice for All explores the proud and painful evolution of American freedom, from the Revolutionary War through the struggle for civil rights. This exhibit, then, is about social innovation:  new ideas that render old ways obsolete and radically alter how people think about themselves, their interactions with others, and the larger world.

The Revolutionary War became about more than just American independence from Britain. It evolved into a new way of thinking:  that it was possible for a people to govern themselves through a democratic system of elected representatives. The Revolutionary War also launched Americans on the road toward a newfound sense of national identity as Americans, rather than British subjects, New Englanders or Virginians. And George Washington was at the center of that new way of thinking.

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by Jeanine Head Miller, Henry Ford Museum, presidents