Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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Henry Ford's achievements, which revolutionized both industry and society, made him a folk hero. His unique and colorful personality helped cement his legend. A study in contrasts, he possessed an original mind and was a strong intuitive thinker, but had a distrust of formal learning and little personal education. Although he shrank from public speaking, he came to relish publicity.

Benson Ford Research Center

Because of his immense popularity and notoriety during his lifetime and since, numerous sayings have been ascribed to Henry Ford. Many of these sound plausible but are incorrect, and some can’t be traced to him at all. Too often, a quote is attributed to Ford simply because its touches upon success in business or innovation: He has become a patron saint of the entrepreneur, a Paul Bunyan of the business world. One of the more popular of these quotations is, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse," which has never been satisfactorily traced to Henry Ford. In fact, the quote only begins to appear in the early 21st century, "quoted" by modern-day business gurus using it as an object lesson, whereas germs of its main idea can be directly sourced to other speakers through the late mid to later 20th century. (See more at the Quote Investigator.)

Compounding the problem of misattribution is what could best be described as the unclear origin of legitimate Henry Ford quotes. As mentioned, Ford had a strong aversion to public speaking. Nervous in front of crowds, he opened up and even sparkled in smaller settings. (Known for avoiding the press, he would grant the rare interview to a changing circle of select reporters.) Moreover, the rough-hewn Henry Ford was no writer, and hence relied on helpers to prepare published materials. Among his ghostwriters were two longtime, trusted staff members: his executive secretary, Ernest G. Liebold; and his publicist, William J. Cameron. Joining them was the journalist Samuel Crowther, who was the prolific ghostwriter of three Henry Ford memoirs (My Life and Work, Today and Tomorrow, and Moving Forward). Crowther spent considerable time with Ford and proved adept at presenting the magnate's ideas for publication.

As a result of the foregoing complexity, many of the quotations attributed to Henry Ford in common circulation today prove at best problematic to verify or challenge.

Work on collecting and authenticating Henry Ford quotations was begun by Ford Motor Company staff in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Library—possibly as early as the mid-1920s. (The library, housed in Ford’s Engineering Department, maintained files on a wide variety of subjects of interest to or about Henry Ford.) A longtime Ford Engineering librarian, Rachel MacDonald, assembled the quotations into a collection, the Henry and Edsel Ford Quotations collection. This collection was later transferred to the Ford Motor Company Archives, in 1955. While we do not know the exact date MacDonald started her research, records indicate that she was at Ford Motor Company at least as early as 1940 (but no earlier than 1936) and up through the transfer of the collection to Ford Motor Company Archives. What we don't know is whether the collection was started before or after Henry Ford's death (or, consequently, how much input Ford himself had in verifying the quotations). The Henry Ford received the collection in 1964 as part of a much larger donation of Ford Motor Company records. Staff, interns, and volunteers of the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford have continued work to authenticate Henry Ford quotes, resulting in this publicly accessible list.

Photo via Ford's Facebook page

The collection includes quotations that have been traced to a primary source or a reliable secondary source. Examples of reliable secondary sources would be a published interview with Henry Ford or other direct quotations of Henry Ford in newspapers contemporary to him, including but not limited to publications such as the Ford Times and Ford News. A book whose ghostwriting or collaboration was authorized by Henry Ford also falls under this category. Among the primary sources drawn on are Henry Ford's own "jot books," or personal notebooks, found in two different archival collections. These notebooks, few in number, provide a good example of Henry Ford's writing style and interests. If you are searching for a quote and do not see it on our list, it means that staff was not able to trace it to a reliable source.

So many of the unverified quotations are now out in the world and on the web that it is no small challenge to track and verify them. Quotations like the “faster horse” quip, as well as other maxims like the one illustrated below appear on a variety of products, including coasters, mugs, and T-shirts. These quotations and their use speak volumes to a natural human tendency to use legendary figures and a historical lens to illustrate the ideas and trends relevant for our time.

If you have questions or comments about the Henry Ford quotations page, please contact the Benson Ford Research Center at research [dot] center [at] thehenryford.org.

Rebecca Bizonet is former Archivist at The Henry Ford.

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Now that school's out and summer is here, many of us turn our thoughts to vacation and travel. Camping has long been a way for Americans to spend time relaxing with their families and friends and experiencing the beauties and wonders of nature — and sometimes just being a kid again.

 

Between 1915 and 1924, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, tire magnate Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs (who took part 1916-1920), calling themselves "the Four Vagabonds," embarked on a series of summer camping trips. Others joined the group at various times, among them family, business associates and politicians, including U.S. presidents. (Photo found here.)

Henry Ford, President Harding, Harvey Firestone, Jr., and family dining on a camping trip to Hagerstown, Maryland, in 1921.

Over the years, the group crisscrossed the mountains, valleys and scenic countryside of Upstate New York, the New England states, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia,Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

 

The group traveled in style and their adventures were well-documented and publicized. Equipment used by the party included a folding circular camp table with lazy Susan seating twenty (pictured above), a twenty-square-foot dining tent, sleeping tents with mosquito netting, a gasoline stove and a refrigerated Lincoln camping truck.  A professional chef prepared the group's meals and film crews and numerous outside journalists followed in their wake. Ford complained of the attention and its hampering effects on their trips, but there are strong indications that he nevertheless relished the publicity. (Photos found here and here.)

The Vagabonds service crew fixing a campfire meal, 1921.

Henry Ford and Clara Bryant Ford on vacation at the Grand Canyon, 1906.

Yet Henry Ford's interest in nature was not new or merely a public relations gambit. Here he is with Clara at the Grand Canyon in 1906.  They were avid birders and had over 500 birdhouses installed amid the naturalistic landscaping (designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen) of their Fair Lane Estate. John Burroughs helped them rehabilitate the adjoining land and reintroduce wildlife to the area.

 

In addition to the collections images online, we've also digitized films of the Vagabonds. Here, John Burroughs plants a tree; the group walks, dines and relaxes at the campsite; and Henry Ford climbs a tree.

 

This short film is part of the Ford Historic Film Collection.  It and others like it, including another featuring the Vagabonds, are viewable on the Benson Ford Research Center's online catalog and on our YouTube channel.)  Books in our research library about the Vagabonds include Norman Brauer's chronicle of their trips, There to Breathe the Beauty.

 

Even more still images from our photographic collections featuring the Vagabonds are available on our Flickr page. Here's Henry clowning around in a cowboy getup. (Below photo found here.)

"Cowboy" Henry Ford outside a tent, 1923.

Though executed on a grander scale than most camping trips, the Vagabonds' journeys spoke to a desire, shared by millions of Americans, to get back to the beauties of nature and, as Burroughs wrote, to "be not a spectator of, but a participator in, it all!"*

 

*(Burroughs, John.  Our Vacation Days of 1918.  Privately printed by Harvey Firestone, ca. 1918-1920s.)

Rebecca Bizonet is former archivist at the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford.  When she's not helping preserve and provide access to her institution's vast and rich archival holdings, she enjoys exploring Michigan's scenic highways (and finds the many opportunities for great whitefish and pasties, not to mention the scenic historic and natural wonders, more than make up for not having a personal chef in tow!). 

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