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Imagine attending a choral concert in a century-old church. Instead of monochromatic robes, the choristers emerge in bright, radiant color with bold geometric design. The colors of the robes are a musical key, made visual—yellow for the soprano, orange for the contralto, red for the tenor, and purple for the bass. As the choristers sing and sway, the robes come alive, a modern counterpoint to the traditional church interior.

Imagination aside, this is a scene familiar to those who have watched the Hope College Chapel Choir perform. Originally a creation of Charles and Ray Eames from the 1950s, faithful replicas of the robes continue to be used.

Group of people in colorful robes with black stripes, standing on bleachers in front of a stained glass window
The Hope College Chapel Choir at Dimnent Chapel, circa 2001. Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.

Although husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames collaborated in nearly everything, it was Ray who showed an early and enduring interest in textiles and fashion design. The daughter of a theatre aficionado and manager, she attended the Bennett School for Girls, a two-year college in Millbrook, New York, earning a degree in Fashion Design in 1933. She completed fashion sketches throughout her life—even creating original paper dolls with custom clothing, complete with the tabs used to affix the clothing onto the doll! She designed a few textiles (one of which—“Crosspatch”—won an honorable mention in a 1946 Museum of Modern Art competition) and dedicated significant energy into the design and creation of her own clothing. The clothes she designed for herself and for Charles are quintessential Eames—functional yet beautiful, with playful delights to be found in the details.

D.J. De Pree, the founder and president of the Herman Miller Furniture Company (which produced Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture), was known for his religious fervor. Further, the company is headquartered in Zeeland, Michigan, a Dutch-American enclave with deep Protestant Christian roots. So, when an employee suggested the creation of a company-sponsored chorus in 1952 (something that might otherwise have been an unusual corporate activity), the De Prees granted it legitimacy, naming it the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus and inviting the chorus to perform at company and company-sponsored events. They soon required choral robes to outfit the company chorus and asked Charles and Ray Eames to design them.

Two white robes with blue bands around the wrists, one with a yellow center panel with black stripes; the other with an orange center panel with black stripes
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Soprano and Contralto Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75585, THF75580

With Ray’s background, it is likely that she was primarily responsible for the design, although as always in collaboration with her husband. The robes are bold and colorful and make a statement, but they are also functional. Their symbolism is evidence of the Eames’ signature research-heavy process and attention to detail. The colors of the robes identify the vocal type (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and each color’s hue (from light to dark) corresponds with the vocal range (from high to low). The horizontal black lines at the center of each robe reference the musical staff. Charles and Ray may have scoured the extensive Eames Office reference library to ensure symbolic depth and accuracy. Or, perhaps, this came from an ingrained knowledge of music. They enjoyed a variety of musical types, like jazz, folk, and classical, and music was a major component of the films they produced throughout their life, often collaborating with talented composers like Elmer Bernstein. The theatrical backdrop of Ray’s childhood, her interest in textiles and fashion, and the Eames’ interest in music coalesce in these robes.

Two white robes with blue bands around the wrists, one with a red center panel with black stripes; the other with an purple center panel with black stripes
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Tenor and Bass Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75574THF75569

The robes were designed at the Eames Office in Los Angeles, but it is unknown whether the robes were created there and shipped, finished, to Zeeland, or if the patterns and fabric were shipped and the robes were then sewn locally.

By 1960, the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus was disbanded, and Hugh De Pree, son of D.J. De Pree, donated the robes to the Hope College Chapel Choir in the neighboring city of Holland, Michigan, where the family had deep connections. The Hope College Chapel Choir was larger than the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus, so more robes had to be made. Doris Schrotenboer and Millie Grinwis, a mother and daughter team from Zeeland, made the extra. Millie Grinwis recalls that the fabric and patterns were shipped from the Eames Office to her mother’s home, where they were painstakingly put together.

After over 44 years in use, the original robes were retired in 2004. Unwilling, however, to part with the signature design, Hope College commissioned replicas, albeit in a slightly lighter fabric. The original robes were donated to several institutions. At The Henry Ford, these robes add an extra dimension to our design collections, as well as another way to better understand the many talents of Charles and Ray Eames.

Black-and-white photo with TV camera in foreground, pointing at group of people in robes being conducted by another person in a robe
The Hope College Chapel Choir recording at Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV, circa 1965. / Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She is also an alumnus of Hope College, where she was first delighted by these robes! Thank you to Geoffrey Reynolds at the Joint Archives of Holland for graciously sharing pictures of the Hope College Chapel Choir through the years.

Michigan, women's history, music, Herman Miller, fashion, Eames, design, by Katherine White

Kalamazoo, Michigan, is known for its industry. For a relatively small midwestern city, it became a leader in the production of an impressive number of products, some more readily remembered today than others—including celery, paper, stoves, taxicabs, guitars, craft beer, and pharmaceuticals. At the turn of the 20th century, the Kalamazoo Corset Company gave the city more reasons to be noticed—for its high output of corsets, the advertising used to sell them, and for an historic labor strike, led primarily by women.

The Kalamazoo Corset Company began as the Featherbone Corset Company. The company’s name changed in 1894, a few years after the company was relocated 70+ miles from Three Oaks, Michigan, to the city of Kalamazoo. As the original name suggests, the company prided itself on its innovative use of turkey wing feathers—“featherbone”—which replaced the occasionally malodorous whalebone corsets (while these corsets were referred to as containing “whalebone,” it was actually whale baleen that was used, which is not bone).

While the company featured numerous lines of corsets, by 1908, they were focusing on advertising for their “American Beauty” line. These corsets were named to reflect a version of an idealized American woman—an “American Beauty.” Charles Dana Gibson had created his version of the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness, the “Gibson Girl,” during the 1890s—this “American Beauty” followed in her footsteps. The company’s use of “American Beauty” also likely referenced a deep crimson hybrid rose bred in Europe in 1875, which by the turn of the 20th century was popularized in America as the rather expensive American Beauty Rose. By associating their corset line with both the concept of the quintessential American girl and the coveted American Beauty Rose, they were sending a message to the consumer—"buy our corset and you too will take on these qualities!”

White corset with hook-and-eyes and belts with clips hanging down, next to box with image of red rose and text "American Beauty"
Kalamazoo Corset Company "American Beauty Style 626" Corsets, 1891-1922 / THF185765

Promotional songs that advertised a product were becoming increasingly popular at the time. Since the end of the Civil War, Americans had been purchasing parlor pianos for their homes in great numbers—as many as 25,000 per year. The parlor piano became the center of most Americans’ musical experience. Music publishers, like those in the famous Tin Pan Alley of New York City, took note and sold sheet music aimed at these amateur musicians. The rise of music publishing led to a new mode of advertising for retailers and manufacturers. How better to promote your product than by creating a tune that consumers could play in their homes? It seems the Kalamazoo Corset Company agreed, hiring Harry H. Zickel and the Zickel Bros. to write three such songs to advertise the “American Beauty” line: the “American Beauty March and Two-Step” (1908), “My American Beauty Rose: Ballad” (1910), and “My American Beauty Girl” (1912).

Page with image of woman surrounded by decorative frame with roses; also contains text
My American Beauty Rose: Ballad, 1910 / THF621565

Around the time these songs were being written, issues at the company began to come to light. The company was a major employer in the area, employing 1026 people, 835 of whom were women, in 1911. This made the company the largest employer of women in Kalamazoo. First in 1911, and then again in 1912, around 800 mostly female workers went on strike. They formed the Kalamazoo Corset Workers’ Union, Local 82 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and protested unequal wages, unsanitary working conditions, and sexual harassment.

The strike gained national attention and the ILGWU headquarters in New York City sent well-known women’s rights advocates Josephine Casey and Pauline Newman to Kalamazoo to assist in the negotiations. The strike looked to New York as an example—the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and subsequent “Uprising of the 20,000” strike of 1909–1910 had sparked more uprisings, some far from New York City, as in Kalamazoo’s example.

Cover with large crowd of women, each carrying a book, with a table filled with books in the foreground; smaller inset image with more women and text "Knowledge Is Power"; also contains more text
The Story of the I.L.G.W.U., 1935 / THF121022

The protesters received support from local unions, but the owner of the company, James Hatfield, was a prominent Kalamazoo businessman and was well-liked among his upper-class peers. Local women’s organizations did not come to the aid of the protestors. Even the local group of suffragettes did not openly support the strike, possibly due to class issues (the suffragettes were upper class, while the women protesting were working class) or because their focus was on getting a women’s suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution passed. The women of the Kalamazoo Corset Company faced an uphill battle to obtain even a semblance of equality in the workplace.

The strike ended on June 15, 1912, ultimately unsuccessful. While an agreement was reached which addressed many of Local 82’s demands, no measures were put in place to ensure adherence, and the company quickly lapsed in its promises. Within just a few years, James Hatfield left the company to begin another, and the company was renamed Grace Corset Company. Between the financial woes wrought by the strike and changing fashions, difficult days for the company were ahead.

The Kalamazoo Corset Company’s business was women—manufacturing garments for women, shaping idealized notions of women—but it was still unable to adequately value the many women it employed by creating an equitable and safe workplace. In the end, the inability of the company to recognize the value of the gender by which they made their business helped to ensure its downfall.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

labor relations, women's history, music, Michigan, manufacturing, fashion, by Katherine White

The story of Frederick Douglass’s life is, at turns, tragic and awe-inspiring. He is a testament to the strength and ingenuity of the human spirit. The Henry Ford is fortunate to have some materials related to Douglass, as well as to the many areas of American history and culture he touched. What follows is an exploration of Frederick Douglass’s story through the lens of The Henry Ford’s collection, using our artifacts as touchpoints in Douglass’s life. 

Man with mustache and bushy hair sits in chair and looks at camera
This portrait of Douglass was taken circa 1860, around the time Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States. / THF210623

Early Life & Escape


Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, Frederick Douglass was named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey by his enslaved mother, Harriet Bailey. Tragically, Douglass only saw his mother a few times before her early death, when Douglass was just seven years old. Though he had few memories of his mother, he recalled her fondly and was proud to learn that she also knew how to read. He wrote that he was “quite willing, and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess” to his mother. Few enslaved people could read at that time—Douglass’s pride in his mother was certainly justified.

In 1826, Douglass was sent to Baltimore, Maryland, to live with the family of Hugh and Sophia Auld—extended family of his master, Aaron Anthony. This move to Baltimore would be transformative for Douglass. It not only exposed Douglass to the wider world, but was also where Douglass learned to read.

Douglass was initially taught to read by Sophia Auld, who considered him a bright pupil.  However, the lessons were put to a stop by Hugh Auld. It was not only illegal to teach an enslaved person to read, but Hugh also believed literacy would “ruin” Douglass as a slave. In a sense, Douglass agreed, as he came to understand the vast power of literacy. Douglass would later remark that “education and slavery are incompatible with each other.”

Douglass was determined to read. He “converted to teachers” some of the friendlier white children in the neighborhood. They showed him a school reader entitled The Columbian Orator, by Caleb Bingham, that he came to rely upon. In 1830, he purchased his own copy for 50 cents. The book—a collection of exceptional oration, poems, dialogue, and tips on the “art of eloquence”—became a great inspiration to Douglass. He carried it with him for many years to come.

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Page with text
The Columbian Orator” features a discussion between an enslaved person and their master which impressed Douglass. The enslaved person’s dialogue—referred to as “smart” by Douglass—resulted in the man’s unexpected emancipation. / THF621972, THF621973

As recollected in his first memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, Douglass’s teenage years were some of his most challenging. He became viewed as a “troublemaker.” He was hired out to different farmers in the area, including one who had the reputation as an “effective slave breaker” and was especially cruel. Knowing that a larger world awaited and facing a terrible quality of life, Douglass attempted an escape in 1836. The escape failed and he was put in jail.  Douglass was surprised to be released. He was sent not to the deep South as he had feared, but instead, back to Baltimore and the family of Hugh Auld, to learn the trade of caulking at the shipyards. While working there, Douglass was subjected to the animosities of his white coworkers, who beat him mercilessly—and were never arrested for it because a white witness would not testify and the word of a Black man was not admissible. He continuously dreamt of escape.

Book standing on end, open to title page containing text
In this first memoir, Douglass provides great detail into his early life. However, because he was still a fugitive at the time of publication, he omitted details related to his escape. / THF8133

Recalling the ships on Chesapeake Bay, Douglass wrote:

“Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of the freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. You are loosed from your moorings and are free; I am fast in my chains and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!”

The ships’ freedom taunted him.

On September 3rd, 1838, Douglass courageously escaped slavery. Dressed as a sailor and using borrowed documents, he boarded a train, then a ferry, and yet another train to reach New York City—and freedom. His betrothed, a free Black woman named Anna Murray, followed, and soon after they were married. Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, with hopes that Frederick could find work as a caulker in the whaling port. Instead, he took on a variety of jobs—but, finally, the money he earned was fully his.

The American Anti-Slavery Society & the Abolitionists


While living in New Bedford, Douglass encountered William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, for the first time. Douglass later wrote that the paper “took its place with me next to the Bible.” The Liberator introduced to Douglass the official abolitionist movement.

In August of 1841, Douglass attended an abolitionist convention. In an impromptu speech, he regaled the audience with stories of his enslaved past. William Lloyd Garrison and other leading abolitionists noticed—Douglass’s career as an abolitionist orator had begun. Douglass became a frequent speaker at meetings of the American Anti-Slavery Society. His personal story of life enslaved humanized the abolitionist movement for many Northerners—and eventually, the world.

In 1845, he published his first memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. By 1847, it had already sold more than 11,000 copies! This would be followed by two more memoirs: My Bondage and Freedom in 1855 and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881.

Newspaper page with text and woodcut illustration as masthead
This copy of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator was published on August 16, 1839—around the time when Douglass first encountered the paper. / THF621979

Women’s Suffrage


Douglass was also supportive of the women’s suffrage movement. He spoke at the famous Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in support of women’s rights.  In fact, the motto of his newspaper, The North Star, was “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren.”

While Douglass forcefully supported women’s suffrage, some of his actions put him at odds with others in the movement. He supported the adoption of the 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, which guaranteed equality to all citizens—which included Black and white males, including the formerly enslaved. It did not include women. He also supported adoption of the 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, which secured Black males the right to vote. Again, the amendment excluded women. Although a dedicated women’s rights activist, Douglass supported the adoption of the 14th and 15th amendments as he believed the matter to be “life or death” for Black people. This put him in disagreement with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, as well as his friends. Despite this disagreement about timing, Douglass would continue to lecture in support of women’s equality and suffrage until his death.

John Brown’s Raid


Douglass was well-acquainted with famous abolitionist leader John Brown, first meeting him in 1847 or 1848. Brown became known for leading a raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, intending to create an “army of emancipation” to liberate enslaved people. Douglass and Brown spoke shortly before John Brown’s raid. Brown had hoped that Douglass would join him, but Douglass declined. He believed that Brown was “going into a perfect steel trap, and that once in he would not get out alive.”

Douglass was right. Brown was captured during the raid and was subsequently tried, convicted, and executed. Brown became seen as an anti-slavery martyr, as the below print shows. Henry David Thoreau remarked about him, “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature…”

A letter from Douglass was found among John Brown’s belongings, leading to warrants for Douglass’s arrest as a conspirator. He was lecturing in Philadelphia at the time of the discovery. John Hurn, Philadelphia’s telegraph operator, was sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. He received a dispatch for the sheriff calling for Douglass’s arrest and both sent a warning to Douglass and delayed relaying the dispatch to the sheriff. Douglass fled and made it to Canada, narrowly escaping arrest. He then went abroad on a lecture tour, resisting apprehension in the States.

Print of Black woman holding child and kneeling at the feet of standing man in suit; man in uniform stands beside them
The text on this Currier & Ives print reads “John Brown—The Martyr: Meeting a Slave Mother and her Child on the steps of Charlestown Jail on his way to Execution. Regarding them with a look of compassion Captain Brown stooped and kissed the Child then met his fate." This did not actually occur, but became popular lore, as well as the subject of artwork and literature. / THF8053

The Civil War & Abraham Lincoln


In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. At the time, Douglass was not optimistic about the cause of abolition under Lincoln’s presidency. As tensions between the North and South grew and Civil War loomed, Douglass welcomed the impending war. As biographer David Blight states, “Douglas wanted the clarity of polarized conflict.”

Douglass got involved in the war effort through the recruitment of Black soldiers. Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the second Black regiment in the Union Army. Douglass first met President Abraham Lincoln in August 1863, when he visited the White House to discuss grievances against Black troops. Even without an appointment and a room full of people waiting, Douglass was admitted to see Lincoln after just a few minutes.

Print of Black men in blue uniforms, led by a white man in a blue uniform, clashing with men in gray uniforms
Two of Frederick Douglass’s sons, Lewis and Charles, fought with the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment. Lewis Douglass was appointed Sergeant Major, the highest rank that a Black person could then hold. / THF73704

Douglass would go on to advise Lincoln over the following years. After Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he asked Douglass his thoughts about it, adding, “There is no man in these United States whose opinion I value more than yours.”

On February 1, 1865, Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of the United States Congress proposing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—the “nail in the coffin” for the institution of slavery in the United States. But before the 13th Amendment could be ratified, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865. While Douglass and Lincoln certainly disagreed on many topics, Douglass remembered him fondly. In his eulogy, Douglass called Lincoln “the Black man’s president: the first to show any respect to their rights as men.”

After the Civil War and even after Reconstruction, Douglass held high-ranking government appointments—often becoming the first Black person to do so. Douglass was appointed the Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti in 1889.

Page with handwritten text and many signatures at the bottom
While Douglass certainly supported the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery, he did not think it went far enough. He remarked, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot. While the legislatures of the south retain the right to pass laws making any discrimination between black and white, slavery still lives there.” / THF118475

Douglass continued to lecture in support of his two primary causes—racial equality and women’s suffrage—until the very end. On February 20, 1895, he attended a meeting of the National Council of Women, went home, and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 77 years old.

Frederick Douglass remains one of the most inspirational figures in American history. We can still feel the weight of the words he wrote and spoke, more than 125 years after his passing. Douglass said, “Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is … the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make it more symmetrical.” This work continues.

Ebony magazine cover with text and image of Black man with bushy hair, beard, and mustache
Frederick Douglass remains a powerful symbol of the fight for racial justice and equality. Here, his image graces the cover of Ebony Magazine’s issue celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. / THF98736_REDACTED


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She appreciated the recently published book by David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, as she conducted research for this post.

Civil Rights, #THFCuratorChat, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, education, women's history, voting, by Katherine White, books, African American history

Book standing on end, open to title page, which contains text
"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," 1845 / THF8133

“I was born in Tuckahoe…in Talbot County, Maryland,” begins Frederick Douglass, in this, his first of three memoirs. In 1818, he was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, to Harriet Bailey, his enslaved mother, and an unknown white father—likely his master, Aaron Anthony. At the age of twenty, he escaped slavery and changed his name to Frederick Douglass. This first memoir, published in 1845, is foremost an account of Douglass’s early life—from the time of his birth until his daring escape.

But it is also a political text that humanized the enslaved and the cause of abolition. Douglass was a master storyteller—as well as a legendary orator—and this memoir is a compilation of the most moving moments of his young life, including the tragically few memories he has of his mother, the gruesome beatings he both endured and witnessed, the joys and challenges of learning to read, and, of course, his courageous escape from slavery. By 1847, it had already sold more than 11,000 copies and supported the young family he was building with his wife, Anna Murray Douglass. 

Portrait of seated Black man, wearing suit with high collar, with mustache and bushy salt-and-pepper hair
Portrait of Frederick Douglass, circa 1860 / THF210623

Douglass is best known for his long and celebrated career as an abolitionist orator, which began with an impromptu speech at an 1841 antislavery meeting. This would be the first of a lifetime of speeches. Douglass would go on to lecture about racial equality all over the world until his death in 1895. He also advised numerous sitting American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, and was the first Black man to hold numerous high-ranking governmental posts.

Douglass was both a witness and a catalyst: he exposed the horrors of slavery and inequality, and then made it his life’s work to create a more just America.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

Henry Ford Museum, THF Connect app, by Katherine White, African American history, books

thf185489

Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, 2018 / THF185488

People might think that curators look at objects in the same way. In fact, every curator at The Henry Ford has a different background and range of expertise, and we interpret things through a varied set of lenses.

Take, for example, an artifact in The Henry Ford’s collection that is related to a top-of-mind subject right now—vaccines. We were asked to offer two interpretations of the Stone Cold Systems Ice-less Vaccine Refrigerator, a 2018 IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) winner (you can find out more about The Henry Ford’s relationship with IDSA here). Here are our thoughts.

Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content:

At its best, design solves problems. Good designers are problem solvers, creatively working through a problem’s constraints towards a competent solution. When I first became familiar with this artifact, the Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, I was taken with its functionality and potential for social impact, all wrapped in a sleek case. This vaccine refrigerator, built within a siren-red carrying cage, aims to improve vaccine distribution to hard-to-reach locations.

The invention of vaccines has had an incredibly positive impact on global health. The World Health Organization estimates that 2–3 million deaths globally are avoided due to immunizations each year. But, perhaps surprisingly, vaccines can be fragile. They often need to be kept at a stable temperature (usually cold) without exposure to light or significant environmental fluctuation. The efficacy of the vaccine could be compromised should these factors not be met. The journey from the scientist’s laboratory to the arm of someone in New York City is a long one—and an even longer journey should that someone live in a rural area or developing country.

Page with illustrations and text
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator Quick Start Guide / THF621440

This vaccine refrigerator aims to increase access to immunizations, regardless of where one calls home. It utilizes a more reliable iceless thermoelectric cooling technology and is rechargeable by multiple methods, including solar energy, so can be used anywhere. Although developed prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, its future in fighting the pandemic is clear.

The late design critic Ralph Caplan is noted as saying that “design is a process of making things right.” Creation of a product which facilitates access to effective immunizations for all people—even far from a modern hospital building—is certainly one way to make things right.

Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life:

This vaccine refrigerator immediately brought to mind the recent research I’ve been doing on Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard, a 19th-century country doctor whose office is now located in Greenfield Village. At the time Dr. Howard was practicing medicine (1855–83), people didn’t understand the nature of germs and contagion, or that diseases were transmitted this way. As a result, infectious diseases—like cholera, tetanus, yellow fever (or malaria), measles, dysentery, scrofula, and typhoid—were the leading causes of death at the time. These often reached epidemic proportions and people constantly feared that they, or members of their families, might contract them. But, without knowledge of what caused and spread disease, or modern pharmaceuticals (including vaccines), safe drinking water, and improved sanitation facilities, 19th-century country doctors constantly fought an uphill battle.

How relevant this is, I thought, to our lives today—to the COVID-19 pandemic; to people fearing they or members of their family might contract the virus; to our current knowledge of germs and our understanding that washing our hands, cleaning surfaces, and wearing masks reduces their spread; and to our hopes for combatting this disease through the application of successful vaccines.

White cooler with red x-shaped frame, open door, and accessories packed inside
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, alternate view / THF185489

What about those deadly infectious diseases of the 19th century that Dr. Howard was attempting to treat, like cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid? One might assume they have disappeared—but they haven’t. Many of them still exist, especially in developing countries that have limited-to-no access to modern medical treatments, sanitation facilities, and vaccines. This refrigerator was, in fact, designed to hold vaccines where there is no electricity—in these very countries.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

design, COVID 19 impact, by Donna R. Braden, by Katherine White, healthcare

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Braniff Airliner with "Jelly Bean" Orange Livery Designed by Alexander Girard, circa 1965//THF275594

Let’s set the scene: it’s the late 1960s, you need to book a flight, and you fancy yourself a stylish and forward-thinking consumer. Which airline do you choose? One airline in particular catered to just such a savvy passenger. Flying with Braniff International Airways in the late 1960s into the 1970s was a fashionable—and colorful—experience. 

In 1965, Braniff International hired designer Alexander Girard to completely and comprehensively redesign its image and each step of the airline passenger’s experience. Girard was a trained architect who became one of those Modernist designers to try his hand at everything—textiles, furniture, objects, interiors, toys, graphics, and more. He was known for a humanistic approach to design. Departing from the white-walled minimalism of the earlier Modernists, Girard valued color, folk art, and designs that evoked joy and delight. In 1965, he was known primarily as the director of design for Herman Miller Furniture Company’s textile division, as well as for his encyclopedic 1960 design of La Fonda del Sol restaurant in New York City’s Time & Life Building.  For La Fonda del Sol, Girard designed everything from the matchboxes to the menus, the dishware to the large-scale murals and sculptural objects.

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Left:
Set of Braniff International Airways Playing Cards, circa 1973//THF175414
Right: Braniff International Airways Bar Soap, 1965-1975//THF172360

Girard’s approach to the Braniff redesign was similar. Braniff named the campaign “The End of the Plain Plane.” It was an absolutely appropriate name, too—Girard implemented over 17,000 design changes in total. Girard wanted to “destroy the monotony” of the traditional airplane and instead, “do something to make the performance lively and interesting.” The exteriors of the airplanes were perhaps the most immediately obvious change. There were seven exterior paint colors: yellow, orange, turquoise, dark blue, light blue, ochre, and beige—each with a black nose, white wings, and white tail. Girard explained, “The idea was to make a plane like a great racing car—with the fuselage painted a solid color clearly expressing its shape.” The airplane interiors featured seven different coordinating color palates. Girard designed 56 new upholstery fabrics for the project, featuring solids combined with patterns of checks and stripes. Television ads for Braniff boasted, “you can fly with us seven times and never fly the same color twice…”

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Undigitized textile samples by Girard for Braniff International Airways in The Henry Ford’s Collection.

The changes didn’t stop at the airplane’s paint scheme and upholstery. Girard designed a new logo, ticketing areas, and airport lounges which featured furniture designed by his friends and colleagues Charles and Ray Eames as well as new furniture that Girard himself designed. His new line was futuristic and colorful with contrasting upholstery, rounded edges, aluminum legs, and cantilevered arms. A plethora of small objects—soap packaging, blankets, playing cards, sugar packets, ticket holders, dishware, luggage tags, litter bags, and more—rounded out the comprehensive redesign.  

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Ottoman Footstool, 1966-1967, from The Girard Group Series//THF93606

To top it all off, Girard suggested the commission of Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci to create a line of uniforms for Braniff pilots and flight attendants. The futuristic space age-themed uniforms were colorful and included go-go boots and translucent plastic helmets. Braniff International’s new flying experience was no longer simply travel between two points, but instead it became an immersive journey. As one television advertisement concluded, “Braniff International announces the end of the plain plane. We won’t get you where you’re going any faster, but it’ll seem that way.”

Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

by Katherine White, travel, flying, design, airplanes

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Brochure for Chicago Merchandise Mart Exhibit, "Herman Miller Modern for Your Home," 1935-1940 (THF229429)


West Michigan is known for its furniture. Furniture factories-turned-apartment or office buildings can be seen throughout Grand Rapids and its surroundings—some with company names like Baker Furniture, John Widdicomb Co., and Sligh Furniture still visible, painted on the brick exterior. While fewer in numbers today than in 1910, West Michigan still boasts numerous major furniture manufacturers. One of these, the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, is known around the world for its long history of producing high quality modern furniture—but the Herman Miller name was not always synonymous with “modern.”

A young man named Dirk Jan (D.J.) De Pree began working as a clerk at the Zeeland-based Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1909, after graduating from high school. It was a small company and De Pree excelled, partly due to his appetite for reading books about business, accounting, and efficiency. Just a decade after starting with the company, he was promoted to president. In 1923, De Pree convinced his father-in-law, Herman Miller, to go in with him to purchase the majority of the company’s shares. The furniture company was renamed the Herman Miller Furniture Company in honor of De Pree’s father-in-law’s contribution, although Miller was never involved in its operation. Renamed, rebranded, and under new ownership, D.J. De Pree pushed a new culture of quality and good design that, he hoped, would help the company stand out amongst a competitive and crowded West Michigan furniture industry.

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Dressing Table, ca. 1933 (Object ID: 89.177.112), Image copyright: Herman Miller, Inc.

At the time, many West Michigan furniture companies were producing stylistically similar pieces that were essentially reproductions of historic forms, especially Colonial and European Revivals. Most of the manufacturers “designed” furniture by copying from books or authentic vintage furniture found in museums. The best designers were known to be the most faithful copyists. The Herman Miller Furniture Company manufactured primarily reproduction furniture until the early 1930s. Their furniture lines were typically very ornate and sold in large suites—and following in the footsteps of other West Michigan companies, Herman Miller released new lines with each quarterly furniture market, despite the undue pressure this placed upon them.  

As the Great Depression crippled industry across America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Herman Miller Furniture Company struggled to survive. With bankruptcy on the horizon, D.J. De Pree reflected on the shortcomings of the furniture industry and issues within the company. A devoutly religious man, he also prayed. Whether by divine intervention or regular old coincidence, Gilbert Rohde—a young designer that would leave an indelible mark on the Herman Miller Furniture Company—walked into the company’s Grand Rapids showroom in July of 1930, bringing with him the message of Modernism.

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The Herman Miller Furniture Company, Makers of Fine Furniture, Zeeland, Michigan, 1933 (Left: THF64292, Right: THF64290). Herman Miller continued to produce historic revival furniture, like the above Chippendale bedroom suite, even while embracing the more modern Gilbert Rohde lines, like the above No. 3321 Dining Room Group.

Born in New York City to German immigrants in 1894, Gilbert Rohde (born Gustav Rohde) showed aptitude for drawing at a young age—he claimed to have drawn an identifiable horse by the age of two-years-old! He was admitted to Stuyvesant High School in 1909, which was reserved for gifted young men. There, he designed covers for the school’s literary magazine, won drawing contents, and began to experiment with furniture design. While he had aspirations (and demonstrated aptitude) to become an architect, he began working as an illustrator and later, a commercial artist. He was successful in this venture for years and learned invaluable lessons about advertising and marketing which would help him—and his future clients—tremendously in the years to come. With determination to become a furniture designer, in 1927 Rohde departed on a months-long European tour of sites associated with the modern design movement. Among his stops, he visited the Bauhaus design school in Germany and the Parisian design studios that featured the modernist ideas exhibited in the breakthrough Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. Returning to the United States months later, he began designing furniture with a clear European modern influence and soon began to focus on designing mass-produced furniture for industry, namely for the Heywood-Wakefield Company of Massachusetts.

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Dresser, 1933-1937 (THF156178). An early example of Rohde-designed furniture manufactured by Herman Miller, this dresser was designed for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair’s “Design for Living Home.” The house and its furniture garnered broad public acclaim, benefitting the budding Rohde and Herman Miller partnership.

By 1930, Rohde was looking for more clients. He visited the Herman Miller showroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan—at the end of a long day of denials by other manufacturers—and met D.J. De Pree. Rohde argued that modern furniture was the future and told him, “I know how people live and I know how they are going to live.” This confidence, despite few years of actual furniture design, convinced De Pree to give Rohde a chance at designing a line for Herman Miller. Further, Rohde was willing to work on a royalty arrangement with a small consultation fee instead of all cash up front. In combination with Herman Miller’s already-precarious financial situation, these factors helped to offset some of the risk in producing this forward-thinking furniture. Herman Miller began selling Rohde’s first design, an unadorned, modern bedroom suite in 1932, but still played it safe by continuing to sell historic revival lines alongside Rohde’s modern furniture. As design historian Ralph Caplan notes, in those early years, Herman Miller was “like a company unsure of what it wanted to be when it grew up.”  But Rohde’s furniture sold. By the early 1940s, Rohde’s modern lines made up the vast majority of Herman Miller’s output.

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Left: Coffee Table, 1940-1942 (THF35998), Right: Rohde Sideboard, 1941-1942 (THF83268)
Gilbert Rohde admired the Surrealist Art Movement. In his early 1940s Paldao Group, the forms and materials pay homage to the work of the Surrealists—and were the first biomorphic forms used in furniture manufactured in the United States.

Tragically, Rohde’s tenure at Herman Miller was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1944, but his impact is lasting. Rohde’s emphasis on simplicity and functionality of design meant the materials and the manufacturing had to be of the highest quality—this honesty of design and emphasis on quality appealed to De Pree’s Christian values. It remains a hallmark of Herman Miller’s furniture to this day and undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of Rohde’s furniture sales. Sales of Rohde’s furniture did not slow the season after it was introduced, like many of the historic reproductions. The Laurel Line, Rohde’s first coordinated living, dining, and sleeping group, remained in production almost his entire tenure with Herman Miller. D.J. De Pree recounted that his lines often sold for 5-10 years instead of the 1-3 that was typical of the historic reproduction styles. Rohde’s design work for Herman Miller extended far beyond furniture and into advertising, catalogues, and showrooms, and he advised on the manufacture of his furniture too. This expansion of the designer’s role and the creative freedom allowed by D.J. De Pree came to define Herman Miller’s relationship with designers and then the company itself.

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Rohde Modular Desk, 1934-1941 (THF159907). This Laurel Group desk was part of one of Rohde’s early—and most successful—lines for Herman Miller. It was part of a coordinated modular line, which meant that new pieces would be added regularly over years. This was in opposition to the new lines for each quarterly furniture market approach that D.J. De Pree counted as an “evil” of the furniture industry.

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Cover and interior page from Catalog for Herman Miller Furniture, "20th Century Modern Furniture Designed by Gilbert Rohde," 1934 (left: THF229409, right: THF229411).
 Gilbert Rohde expanded the role of the designer during his tenure at Herman Miller. In this 1934 catalogue, he was educator as well as designer, explaining to the consumer that “Every age has had its modern furniture…When Queen Elizabeth furnished her castles, she did not order her craftsmen to imitate an Egyptian temple…”

Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree transformed the Herman Miller Furniture Company—from one manufacturing reproductions at the brink of bankruptcy, to one revolutionizing the world of modern furniture. George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard and countless others were able to make incredible leaps in the name of modernism, largely due to the culture and partnership developed by Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree. In George Nelson’s words, “we really stood on Rohde’s shoulders.”

Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.

Herman Miller, by Katherine White, Michigan, furnishings, design

The Henry Ford’s Model i learning framework identifies collaboration as a key habit of an innovator. When considering inspirational collaborators from our collection, Charles and Ray Eames immediately came to mind. So, as part of The Henry Ford’s Twitter Curator Chat series, I spent the afternoon of June 18th sharing how collaboration played an important role in Charles and Ray Eames’ design practice.  Below are some of the highlights I shared.

First things first, Charles and Ray Eames were a husband-and-wife design duo—not brothers or cousins, as some think! Although Charles often received the lion’s share of credit, Charles and Ray were truly equal partners and co-designers. Charles explains, "whatever I can do, she can do better... She is equally responsible with me for everything that goes on here."

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THF252258 / Advertising Poster for the Exhibit, "Connections: The Work of Charles and Ray Eames," 1976

So when you see early advertisements that don’t mention Ray Eames as designer alongside Charles, know that she was equally responsible for the work. Here’s one such advertisement from 1947.

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THF266928 / Herman Miller Advertisement, June 30, 1947, "Now Available! The Charles Eames Collection...."

And here’s another from 1952. I could go on, but I think you get the point!

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THF66372 / Wood, Plastic, Wire Chairs & Tables Designed by Charles Eames, circa 1952

For more on Ray’s background and vital role in the Eames Office, check out this article from the New York Times, as part of their recently-debuted “Mrs. Files” series.

Charles and Ray Eames were experimenting with plywood when America entered World War II. A friend from the Army Medical Corps thought their molded plywood concept could be useful for the war effort—specifically for a new splint for broken limbs. Metal splints then in use were heavy and inflexible. Charles and Ray created a molded plywood version and sent a prototype to the U.S. Navy. They worked together and created a workable—and beautiful—solution for the military.

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THF65726 / Eames Molded Plywood Leg Splint, circa 1943

Out of these molded plywood experiments and products came the iconic chairs we know and love, like this lounge chair.

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THF16299 / Molded Plywood Lounge Chair, 1942-1962

But Charles and Ray Eames wanted to make an affordable, complex-curved chair out of a single shell. The molded plywood checked some of their boxes, but the seat was not a single piece—not a single shell. They turned to other materials.

Around 1949, Charles brought a mock-up of a chair to John Wills, a boat builder and fiberglass fabricator, who created two identical prototypes. This is one of those prototypes—it lingered in Will's workshop, used for over four decades as a utility stool. The other became the basis for the Eames’ single-shell fiberglass chair.

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THF134574 / Prototype Eames Fiberglass Chair, circa 1949

Charles and Ray recognized when their expertise fell short and found people in other fields to help them solve design problems. Their single-shell fiberglass chairs became a rounding success. Have you ever sat in one of them?

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THF126897 / Advertising Postcard, "Herman Miller Furniture is Often Shortstopped on Its Way to the Destination...," 1955-1960

If you’ve been to the museum in the past few years, you’ve surely spent some time in another Eames project, the Mathematica: A World of Numbers…and Beyond exhibit. This too was a project full of collaborative spirit!

While those of us not mathematically inclined might have a hard time finding math fun, mathematicians truly think their craft is fun. Charles and Ray worked with these mathematicians to develop an interactive math exhibit that is playful.

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THF169792 / Quotation Sign from Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond Exhibition, 1960-1961

Charles Eames said of science and play, “When we go from one extreme to another, play or playthings can form a transition or sort of decompression chamber – you need it to change intellectual levels without getting a stomachache."

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THF169740 / "Multiplication Cube" from Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond Exhibition, 1960-1961

Charles and Ray Eames sought out expertise in others and worked together, understanding that everyone can bring something valuable to the table. This collaborative spirit allowed them to design deep and wide—solving in-depth problems across a multitude of fields.

Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. For a deeper dive into this story, please check out her long-form article, “What If Collaboration is Design?”

 

#THFCuratorChat, women's history, Model i, Herman Miller, furnishings, design, by Katherine White

1860s-dress
This vibrant dress was likely dyed using an early aniline purple dye. 
Dress, 1863-1870 (THF182481)

In 1856, British chemistry student William Henry Perkin made a groundbreaking discovery. Perkin’s professor, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, encouraged his students to solve real-world problems. High on the list for Hofmann (and chemists all over the world) was the need to create a synthetic version of quinine. The only effective treatment for the life-threatening malaria disease, quinine could only be found in the bark of the rare Cinchona tree. Just a teenager at the time, Perkin decided to tackle this problem in a makeshift laboratory in his parents’ attic while on Easter holiday. Perkin experimented with coal tar—a coal byproduct in which Professor Hofmann saw promise—and made his discovery. No, not the discovery of a synthetic quinine, but something altogether different and extraordinarily significant nonetheless.

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Wells, Richardson & Company "Leamon's Genuine Aniline Dyes: Purple," 1873-1880 (THF170208)

Perkin’s coal tar experiments resulted in a dark-colored sludge which dyed cloth a vibrant purple color. The purple dye was colorfast too (meaning it did not fade easily). He had discovered aniline purple—also known as mauveine or Perkin’s mauve—the first synthetic dye. Though this was not the medical miracle he had initially sought, he immediately understood the vast significance and marketability of a colorfast, synthetic dye.

Prior to Perkin’s discovery, natural dyes were used to color fabrics and inks and were derived primarily from plants, invertebrates, and minerals. Extracting natural dyes was time consuming and certain colors were rare. For example, arguably the most precious natural dye also happened to be a vibrant purple, called Tyrian Purple. This dye was found in the glands of several species of predatory sea snails. Each snail contained just a small amount of dye, so it took tens of thousands of sea snails to dye a garment a deep purple. Tyrian purple was so expensive that the very wealthy could afford to wear it. It’s no wonder purple was seen as the color of royalty!

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Fabric Dye Swatch Book
, "Kalle & Co. Manufacturers of Aniline Colors," circa 1900 (THF286612 and THF286614)

William Henry Perkin turned out to be multi-talented, finding success both as a chemist and as an entrepreneur. By 1857, with the help of his family, he began commercially manufacturing his aniline dye near London. He first produced purple, but other colors soon followed. The water in the nearby Grand Union Canal was said to have turned a different color each week depending on what dyes were being made. In 1862, Queen Victoria attended the Great London Exposition in a gown dyed with Perkin’s mauve and the color took off. Newspapers even reported a “mauve mania” in the 1860s! These new synthetic dyes were affordable too and other manufacturers around the world began to produce them. By 1880, companies like The Diamond Dye Company of Vermont sold many colors of dye—from magenta to gold or even “drab”—for just 10 cents apiece.

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Trade Card for Diamond Dyes Company, 1880-1890 (THF214453 and THF214454)

Perkin’s discovery spawned an entirely new industry that transformed the world’s access to color. It is fitting that the very first synthetic dye created was purple—the color of Roman emperors and royalty could now be purchased for pennies. Louis Pasteur’s famous quote, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” characterizes Perkin’s serendipitous discovery well. His accidental discovery was far from simple luck – others may have dismissed it as a failed experiment. Instead, Perkin recognized the potential in his mistake and seized the opportunity to bring color to the masses.

Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.

entrepreneurship, #THFCuratorChat, by Katherine White, fashion

Detroit Reacts to the Great Migration: Before the first World War, a majority of Detroit's African American population lived on the East Side and shared the area, known as Black Bottom, with white immigrant populations. At this time, relatively few African Americans, just 1.2% of the total population, called Detroit home. By 1930, the city’s African American population had grown by over 1,991%. The white immigrant population began to vacate the Black Bottom area and were quickly replaced with the growing population of African Americans attracted to the north by the promise of employment in Detroit’s booming auto industry and an escape from the rampant oppression of the south. As the African American population in Detroit increased, racial residential boundaries began to form, due in part to the stress on housing stock, as well as to outright discrimination in institutions such as employment and real estate.

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Photographic print -
"Newspaper Article, "Gold Rush is Started by Ford's $5 Offer," January 7, 1914" - Ford Motor Company

The automobile industry and Henry Ford’s highly-publicized $5-a-day helped to draw people in great numbers to the Detroit area. However, for African American workers, reality often differed from their hopes and expectations in the north. While many of the automotive manufacturers did hire African Americans, it was almost always for the lowest paying jobs, such as in the janitorial department or the foundry. Ford Motor Company led the automotive industry in its hiring of African American workers by 1919. The company paid African American workers the same rate as their white counterparts and hired for a variety of positions, including skilled labor. Across the board, however, African American workers made less money than their white counterparts, and consequently, had less income for quality housing.

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Photographic print - "Pickling Metal Crankcases and Other Parts to Remove Surface Impurities, Ford Rouge Plant, 1936" - Ford Motor Company Photographic Department

Discriminatory real estate practices played a significant role in the housing issues which plagued Detroit. Racially restrictive covenants, which legally ensured the sale of property to only white buyers, became increasingly common in Detroit. Even if a restrictive covenant was not in place, the Detroit Real Estate Board warned area realtors “not to sell to Negroes in a 100 percent white area,” thereby enforcing and perpetuating Detroit’s racial geography. Further, the practice of “redlining,” or the racial categorization of areas by their perceived financial risk in home insurance and mortgage lending, effectively shut out black homebuyers from the market. The practice extended to the lending of new mortgages, but also to home loans, leading to the inability to complete home repairs and, eventually, an abundance of blighted homes in black neighborhoods. In addition, real estate agents erroneously reported to white homeowners that the presence of black families in their neighborhoods would lower their property values. White homeowners, even those without ingrained prejudices against African Americans, certainly did not want their property values to lower, so rallied against any attempt by an African American homebuyer purchasing in their neighborhoods. The infamous story of African American Physician Dr. Ossian Sweet exemplifies the discrimination and mob violence experienced by those who attempted to move into white neighborhoods.  

Discrimination in the workplace meant that African Americans, as a whole, made significantly less money than their white counterparts. Redlining practices forced them into racially-segregated neighborhoods and cemented their inability to access loans for mortgages or home repairs. Yet, the promise of the north continued to draw African Americans to Detroit. Without access to capital, increasingly-crowded neighborhoods became increasingly-deteriorated. At each turn, discriminatory systems excluded an entire population from quality housing. From these conditions, Charles H. Lawrence and his family departed Detroit in search of quality housing and a better life. He became the first African American to settle in Inkster, Michigan, and hundreds soon followed.

African Americans Settle in Inkster
The City of Inkster, also located in Wayne County, is approximately fourteen miles from downtown Detroit. Detroit Urban League President John Dancy fielded many housing inquiries from frustrated African American migrants to Detroit in the post-World War I period and beyond. Unable to locate sufficient housing in the City of Detroit, Dancy broadened his search outside the City with hopes that more rural areas would not have the same restrictive covenants and that lesser demand would persuade landowners to sell to African American buyers. In 1920, Dancy succeeded when he found amenable property owners in possession of 140 acres in rural Inkster.  Although Inkster’s first African American residents’ settlement in Inkster preceded Dancy’s discovery, the 140 acres of available land enabled and impelled hundreds more African American families to move from Detroit to Inkster, despite the lack of a local government or basic public amenities like streetlights or sewer lines.  

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Clipping (Information artifact)
-
""Henry Ford on Unemployment," 1932" - Detroit Free Press (Firm)

A Community Becomes a Project
Henry Ford was vocal about his disdain for institutionalized philanthropy. He wrote an entire chapter, entitled “Why Charity?” in an autobiography, and explained, “philanthropy, no matter how noble its motive, does not make for self-reliance…A philanthropy that spends its time and money in helping the world to do more for itself is far better than the sort which merely gives and thus encourages idleness.” Henry Ford’s brand of philanthropy was characterized by helping people help themselves. During the Great Depression, Henry Ford was called upon by the City of Detroit to provide aid because the City’s welfare offices were overwhelmed. Their argument, aside from civic responsibility, was that the City was not receiving taxes from Ford Motor Company (FMC’s factories were located outside Detroit) yet as many as “36 percent of the families receiving care from the City of Detroit were former Ford employees” in 1931. The public goodwill that Ford’s $5 a day policy brought was quickly dissipating. In 1931, Ford agreed to two philanthropic ventures; he provided a low-interest, short-term $5 million loan to the City of Detroit and essentially took the then-Village of Inkster under the Ford Motor Company’s auspices.

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Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

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Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

THF266604_redacted
Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

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Report - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

By 1931, a few years into the Great Depression’s hardships, the residents of Inkster were struggling. Unemployment and debt were high, public services had been cut, and many residences remained partially-completed, as the Great Depression halted progress in the young village. Controversially, Henry Ford placed FMC’s Sociological Department in charge of what became known as the Inkster Project. The Sociological Department was created in 1914 in order to manage the diverse workforce and ensure employee adherence to the company’s strict standards, which were paternalistic in nature and often crossed the home life-work life boundary. In Inkster, the Sociological Department immediately began implementing programs to comprehensively rehabilitate the village. A commissary, which sold high-quality, low-cost food and essential home goods, was established. Coal was distributed to those who needed it to heat their homes. Debtors were paid off, and a medical clinic and school were constructed. Homes deemed insufficient were rehabilitated. The inability to pay for these services was irrelevant; a type of “I.O.U,” repayable through Ford-provided work and wages, was enough to access all life’s necessities.

THF266608_redacted
Photographic print - "Checking on Ford Employees Home Conditions, Views from "Factory Facts From Ford," 1917"

The Legacy of the Inkster Project
Although the Inkster Project was generally highly-regarded at the time, the FMC Sociological Department’s role was often overreaching. When agreeing to Ford’s aid, an Inkster resident was also agreeing to running their household as preferred by Henry Ford. Although his funds undoubtedly helped Inkster during the Great Depression, Ford’s motives were not entirely altruistic. Besides the much-needed public relations boost he received from the Inkster Project, he also was able to assert his influence and ideals on a community that largely had no choice but to accept his aid -- with all strings attached.

THF266600
Broadside (Notice) - "Big Celebration in Inkster," July 4, 1940"

The Inkster Project’s legacy is complicated; many historians criticize Henry Ford’s paternalistic nature and the perhaps forceful imposition of his will onto the desperate, but others, including former residents of Inkster, praise Henry Ford for his aid. In her reminiscences, Georgia Ruth McKay explains that Inkster became a “jungle village changed into a city” during this period and that, “without his [Henry Ford’s] help, many would not have survived.” The Inkster Project was slowly phased out, but continued to operate in Inkster until 1941 when all programs were withdrawn.

THF266610_redacted
Progress report - "Village of Inkster Welfare Report, 1931-1941" - Ford Motor Company

THF266596
Report - "Village of Inkster Welfare Provision Report, circa 1936" - Ford Motor Company

Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. In writing this piece, she appreciated the research and writings of Beth Tompkins Bates’ “The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford”, Thomas J. Sugrue’s “The Origins of the Urban Crisis; Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,”, and Howard O’Dell Lindsey’s dissertation, “Fields to Fords, Feds to Franchise: African American Empowerment in Inkster, Michigan.”

labor relations, Michigan, home life, Henry Ford, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, Detroit, by Katherine White, African American history