Since Europeans first introduced apples into the North American colonies, these cultivars (Malus domestica) have been destined for a range of uses. Depending on the variety, apples grown on family farms and in commercial orchards could be eaten on their own (fresh, dried, or cooked), used as an ingredient in sweet or savory preparations, or made into apple sauce or butter; jams or jellies; apple cider (sweet or hard), brandy, or wine; or apple cider vinegar. Below, explore some of the many historical uses of this versatile fruit through selections from The Henry Ford’s Digital Collections and Historic Recipe Bank.
Apples are great for snacking as soon as they ripen, but they also store well. This made apples an important food item to preserve for the winter, when fresh fruit wasn’t available. They could be sliced and dried or packed in barrels whole to keep in a cellar or other cool space. Nurseries advertised apple varieties well-suited for this use. For example, in the early 1900s, Stark Bro's of Missouri claimed its Starking "Double-Red" Delicious apple—the company’s “latest keeper”—remained “firm, crisp, juicy, months longer than Ordinary Delicious.”
Trade card for Stark Bro's Nurseries, Starking "Double-Red" Delicious apple trees, 1914–1940. / THF296714
As a cooked ingredient, apples featured in an array of dishes for every meal of the day—and, of course, dessert. Peeled, cored, and sliced or segmented (tasks made easier with the emergence of mechanical tools such as apple parers by the 19th century), they could be paired with any number of meats, vegetables, or other fruits, or prepared as the star, often in baked goods. The Henry Ford’s holdings include recipes for pork pie (1796), fried sausages (1896), and pork chops (1962) with apples, as well as sweet preparations like apple fritters (1828), apple-butter custard pie (1890), sweet potatoes with apples (1932), and apple crisp (1997).
Trade card depicting apple preparation in a late 1800s kitchen. / THF296481
Apples could be pickled or cooked down and made into sweet jams and jellies, applesauce, or apple butter. Pressed apples yielded sweet juice, which could be fermented into hard cider—an overwhelmingly popular beverage in colonial America and beyond. Byproducts of the cidermaking process included a kind of apple brandy (known as applejack) and cider vinegar, which was an affordable replacement for imported vinegars and could also be served as a drink called switchel. Cider “champagne” and apple wine rounded out the alcoholic beverages made from apples.
To see how the Heinz company processed apples into apple butter and cider vinegar in the early 1900s, check out this expert set.
Streetcar advertising poster for Heinz apple butter, circa 1920. / THF235496
Adding to their amazing versatility, apples could also feed livestock, and wood from apple trees added flavor to smoked meats. Discover some of the many uses of apples firsthand on the working farms of Greenfield Village, and stop into Eagle Tavern to sample hot apple cider, hard cider, or applejack!
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Automatic Pinion Cutter, Used by the Waltham Watch Company, circa 1892 / THF110250
The roles women play in manufacturing are occasionally highlighted, but are often hidden—opposing states that these two stories from our collections demonstrate.
The Waltham Watch Company in Massachusetts was a world-famous example of a highly mechanized manufacturer of quality consumer goods. Specialized labor, new machines, and interchangeable parts combined to produce the company's low-cost, high-grade watches. Waltham mechanics first invented machines to cut pinions (small gears used in watch movements) in the 1860s; the improved version above, on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, was developed in the 1890s.
This article, “The American Watch Works,” from the July-December 1884 issue of Scientific American, discussed the women workers of the Waltham Watch Company. / THF286663
In the late 19th century, reports on the world-renowned company featured women workers. An 1884 Scientific American article specifically called out women’s work. The article explained that, “For certain kinds of work female operatives are preferred, on account of their greater delicacy and rapidity of manipulation.” Recognizing that gendered experiences—activities that required manual dexterity, such as sewing, or the exacting work of textile production—had prepared women for a range of delicate watchmaking operations, the Waltham company hired them to drill, punch, polish, and finish small watch parts, often using machines like the pinion cutter above. The company publicized equal pay and benefits for all its employees, but women workers were still segregated in many factory facilities and treated differently in the surrounding community.
The same reasoning that guided women’s work at Waltham in the 19th century led 20th-century manufacturers to call on women to produce an early form of computer memory called core memory. Workers skillfully strung tiny rings of magnetic material on a wire grid under the lens of a microscope to create planes of core memory, like the one shown above from the Burroughs Corporation. (You can learn more about core memory weaving here, and more about the Burroughs Corporation here.) These woven planeswould be stacked together in a grid structure to form the main memory of a computer.
However, unlike the women of Waltham, the stories of most core memory weavers—and other women like them in the manufacturing world—are still waiting to be told.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
Lawn care takes commitment. Implements designed to reduce the time required to improve a lawn's appearance hit the commercial market during the mid-1800s. Push-powered lawn mowers in a variety of configurations from that era gave way to motorized models, with riding mowers gaining popularity in the 1950s. (For more on the evolution of lawn mowers, check out this expert set.) The American Marketing and Sales Company (AMSC) went one step further in the 1970s. AMSC’s autonomous Mowtron mower, the company proclaimed, “Mows While You Doze.”
AMSC released the futuristic mower, invented in 1969 by a man named Tyrous Ward, in Georgia in 1971. Its designers retained the familiar form of a riding mower, even incorporating a fiberglass “seat”—though no rider was needed. But Mowtron’s sleek, modern lines and atomic motif symbolized a new day in lawn care.
If the look of the mower promised a future with manicured lawns that required minimal human intervention, Mowtron’s underground guidance system delivered on that promise. Buried copper wire, laid in a predetermined pattern, operated as a closed electrical circuit when linked to an isolation transformer. This transistorized system directed the self-propelled, gasoline-powered mower, which, once started, could mow independently and then return to the garage.
AMSC understood that despite offering the ultimate in convenience, Mowtron would be a tough sell. To help convince skeptical consumers to adopt an unfamiliar technology, the company outfitted Mowtron with safety features, such as sensitized bumpers that stopped the mower when it touched an obstacle, and armed its sales force with explanatory material.
Mowtron’s market expanded from Georgia throughout the early 1970s. The Mowtron equipment and related materials in The Henry Ford’s collection belonged to Hubert Wenzel, who worked as a licensed Mowtron dealer as a side job. Wenzel had two Mowtron systems: he displayed one at lawn and garden shows and installed another as the family mower at his homes in New Jersey and Indiana. Wenzel’s daughter recalled cars stopping on the side of the road to watch whenever it was out mowing the lawn.
Display used by Mowtron dealer Hubert Wenzel. / THF623554, detail
Mowtron sales were never brisk—in fact, Hubert Wenzel never sold a mower—but company records show that the customers willing to try the new technology appreciated Mowtron’s styling, convenience, and potential cost savings. One owner compared her mower to a sleek Italian sports car. Another expressed pleasure at the ease of starting the mower before work and returning home to a fresh-cut yard. And one customer figured his savings in lawn care costs would pay for the machine in two years (Mowtron retailed at around $1,000 in 1974, including installation).
Despite its limited commercial success, the idea behind Mowtron had staying power. Today, manufacturers offer autonomous mowers in new configurations that offer the same promise: lawn care at the push of a button. (Discover one modern-day entrepreneur’s story on our YouTube channel.)
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Weathervanes have helped humans for millennia.In ancient cities, streamers or pennants mounted at high points communicated wind patterns to watchers below. In more recent centuries, weathervanes in the form we might recognize today perched atop high structures, pointing into the wind to reveal its precise direction. These devices heralded weather changes by indicating shifts in prevailing winds—essential information for farmers or mariners whose businesses depended entirely on the weather.
Weathervanes of this type rotated freely, in perfect balance, with weight distributed across a longer “tail” end that was pushed by the wind, and a shorter “arrow” end that pointed in the direction from which it blew. Starting with this basic form, tradesmen and commercial manufacturers created a vast array of weathervane ornaments by the late nineteenth century. These could communicate more than practical information about the wind. A weathervane might represent regional identity or personal interests, convey religious or political symbolism, or advertise goods or services.
Commercial manufacturers produced a vast array of weathervane ornaments by the late nineteenth century. / THF622046 (detail)
Farm animals were a popular choice for rural weathervane customers. Roosters, with their biblical associations, also conveyed religious symbolism and often served as visible moral reminders atop church spires. / THF622073 and THF622074
Specialty weathervanes, like this one depicting a malt shovel and beer barrel, doubled as trade advertisements. / THF622201 (detail)
The United States Weather Bureau began generating weather reports based on data collected from across the country in the late 1800s, precipitating the decline of traditional weathervanes. When radio stations began broadcasting national weather reports in 1921, weathervanes became functionally obsolete for most Americans. Nevertheless, weathervanes remained popular. Collectors celebrated them as remarkable examples of American folk art, and twentieth-century manufacturers continued to produce them as nostalgic ornaments for suburban homeowners.
Supplanted by national weather reporting in the early twentieth century, weathervanes like these became the special interest of folk art collectors. / THF186724, THF186720, THF145466, and THF186729
By the mid-twentieth century, most weathervanes were strictly ornamental, as illustrated by this 1959 catalog. / THF622033 and THF622034
In updated forms, weathervanes remain important weathercasting tools. As instant indicators of prevailing winds, they are particularly useful at airports, marinas, and sporting events. And meteorologists still rely on weathervanes—often in combination with anemometers, which measure the speed of the wind, as “aerovanes”—to gather data that documents and helps predict weather patterns.
Weathervanes provide evidence of age-old efforts to identify patterns in natural phenomena and predict changes that might affect human survival. These utilitarian artifacts are mostly understood today as whimsical adornments (Hallmark has even released weathervane Christmas ornaments!) only because most Americans have little to no training in meteorology. Yet, weathervanes remain essential weathercasting devices. They can also aid citizen scientists intent on recording climate change locally and globally.
The next time you visit The Henry Ford, look up as you walk around the museum and village to spot weathervanes atop spires and towers. Note how they point into the wind and shift as the breezes blow. In the meantime, you can browse a selection of weathervanes and trade catalogs from weathervane manufacturers in our Digital Collections.
Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment and Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Working in his small home shop in the mid-1950s, Norman Swanson built a new style of lawn mower. He’d set out to tackle a personal problem, but his solution had universal appeal. The mowing system Swanson devised would revolutionize an industry.
Norman Swanson was born in central Wisconsin in 1919. A self-described tinkerer from an early age, Swanson cultivated his skills through a range of experiences as a young man—including enrolling in the Civilian Conservation Corps after high school, working at a machine shop, and serving in the U.S. Army during World War II—before landing a job producing motion picture film projectors for an Illinois-based production company in 1946. There, Swanson displayed his ability to not only visualize creative technological solutions, but implement them. Swanson developed a new timing device for film projectors that was so impressive, a mentor suggested he apply for his first patent.
Norman Swanson first patented technology he developed for film projectors after World War II. / Image from Google Patents
Swanson set up a small shop in his garage where he could work on overtime jobs for the production company. His operation included a lathe, milling machine, band saw, welder, and other equipment for building film projectors—and, it turned out, just about anything else Swanson could think up. So when he conceived an idea to improvethe irksome chore of mowing his property, Swanson was well-equipped to bring it to life.
Norman Swanson lived on five acres with an apple orchard of 21 trees, each surrounded by a little mound of earth. By combining components of several conventional mowers, Swanson had devised a makeshift machine that could cut a swath of about 6 feet—but it was no match for the undulating landscape, which was peppered not only with stationary tree trunks, but often also loose tree limbs. During one frustrating mow around 1956, Swanson said to himself, “This is crazy. I’m going to do something about it.” Inspired by a Montgomery & Ward mower with a single rotating blade, Swanson acquired and cut down three mower blades, arranged them, and attached the system to his walk-behind garden tractor to create his first prototype "multiple cutter power mower." He also designed a deflector above the blades to better pulverize the grass clippings. For the next iteration, Swanson mounted a multiple-cutter system beneath his International Harvester Cub Lo-Boy tractor. He recalled being “so pleased with the results.” Three small blades required less horsepower than one big one, and he “could go right up to the trees and around. It was unbelievable.” Swanson applied for two patents on these lawn mowing innovations and received them in 1959.
Norman Swanson mounted his innovative multiple-cutter system to his walk-behind garden tractor (see image at very top of post) and then beneath his International Harvester Cub Lo-Boy tractor to create his first prototype lawn mowers. /THF175803
Patent drawings illustrate Swanson’s multiple-cutter system (top) and deflector (bottom), which helped pulverize grass clippings. / Images from Google Patents
Swanson wasn’t the only one impressed with his new lawn mower design. A neighbor requested a multiple-cutter system for his own tractor and then introduced Swanson to a farm equipment manufacturer, Pennington Manufacturing, who supplied Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s Bradley line of lawn and garden equipment. Swanson contracted with Pennington, building a successful demonstration prototype for Sears and a second prototype that became the basis for the Bradley mower manufactured by Pennington and sold through Sears from 1958–1960. Unfortunately, a conflict over royalties ended Swanson’s arrangement with Pennington, and he settled without receiving full payment or credit for his patented designs—even though they remained central to mowers sold by Sears and other major manufacturers.
Norman Swanson built and demonstrated a prototype (top) for Sears executives, convincing them to use his design (bottom) for the company’s Bradley line of lawn mowers. / THF175758 and THF175760
Though somewhat dismayed, Swanson pressed on. He explored the possibility of producing a new riding mower, called the Wil-Mow, with a metal parts manufacturer in Michigan. Though the Wil-Mow never went into production, the partnership was not fruitless. Along the way, Swanson collaborated with a fellow lawn mower enthusiast to design and patent supports to secure a mower’s blades and keep them from damaging turf. The Wil-Mow prototype—manufactured in Michigan with a transmission built by Norman Swanson and his son, Curtis—included this patented feature.
Having weathered troubled partnerships for nearly a decade, Norman Swanson decided to try going into business for himself. He and his son built and sold 50 mowers under the Swanson name before ultimately deciding to step away from lawn mower manufacture.
Though the “Wil-Mow” (top) never went into production, and only fifty of Swanson’s mowers (bottom) were ever sold, these machines represent the lasting technological change Norman Swanson contributed to lawn mower manufacture. / THF175761 and THF175759
Curtis Swanson poses with one of his father’s prototype lawn mowers in November 2018. / Photo by Debra Reid.
Norman Swanson didn’t gain fame or fortune, but he understood the lasting importance of his contributions to lawn mower development. In an interview conducted by Debra Reid, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Agriculture & the Environment, in November 2018—less than a year before his 100th birthday—Swanson acknowledged that “the whole industry [was] operating” with the basic ideas he patented. Indeed, the technological improvements Norman Swanson developed remain standard on many lawn mowers sold today. The machines he built, now in the collections of The Henry Ford, continue to tell his story.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. This post was based on the research and writing of Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment.
Bees—one short name for about 20,000 species of flying insects classified into seven families. All live within social communities that depend on strict work routines; all seek the same food sources (pollen and nectar); and all process their harvest and preserve it in hives built in the ground, in hollow trees, or in human-designed apiaries.
Bees help plants reproduce by facilitating pollination as they search for pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their young. This relationship has long served plants well—DNA research confirms that bees coexisted with flowering plants from their beginning 130 million years ago.
Bees and humans have a much shorter, but more emotional, relationship. As pollinators, bees provide a critical link between humans and their food source: plants. Over millennia, humans domesticated one species of bee, native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, to satisfy their needs—Apis mellifera, the Western or European honeybee. As Europeans colonized North America, they imported honeybees and the crops that honeybees pollinated from the bees’ native ecosystems.
Illustrations of Apis mellifera, the Western or European honeybee / THF621311
Humans clustered hives of honeybees around orchards, grape arbors, and other areas of intense flowering-plant cultivation to ensure pollination. From the hives, they harvested honey—a natural sweetener that required little processing. The hives also produced honey, pollen, and bee venom, which had medicinal value. Beeswax was used to seal containers, produce candles, and create art. And queens from the hives propagated even more honeybees.
Group of beehives (apiary) designed for pollinating a grape arbor / THF621283
The Honeybee Hunt
Historically, honey-seeking humans learned to identify the location of an existing hive, usually in a hollow tree trunk. Some “baited” bees by setting out a little honey to attract a bee and following it back to its hive. This involved “lining” a bee—watching until it flew out of sight, moving closer to that location, waiting to see another bee in flight, and repeating the process. In short increments, this led honey-seekers to hives.
To secure their “own” honey supply and facilitate pollination of crops, humans sometimes moved existing hives closer to their gardens, orchards, and clover fields. They also hunted bee swarms. When a colony becomes too large, a queen will “hive off,” leaving with a portion of the hive’s population. (In the meantime, the remaining bees create a new queen to lead the original hive.) The departing bees swarm together near their former home, lingering only temporarily as scout bees search for a new nesting site. The reward for aspiring beekeepers who successfully encourage a swarm to take up residence in a hive of their own choosing is sweet.
Aspiring beekeepers lured swarms or moved existing hives closer to their crops and kitchens. / THF621285
Beekeepers first mimicked nature, luring swarms of bees into hollow logs much like the tree trunks they’d abandoned. Before long, humans devised prefabricated housing to keep pollinators close to gardens, orchards, and clover fields, and to keep honey close to the kitchen table. These hives, often grouped together in apiaries, took many forms, from simple boxes to highly decorated contrivances.
Manmade beehives ranged from hollow logs to simple boxes to complex, highly decorated inventions. / THF177143, THF172336, and THF172095
Some beekeepers made bee “skeps,” hives made of coiled rye straw held in place with a wooden splint, to house bees and protect honey stores. Skeps held real meaning for those who relied on them to house bees and protect honey stores. But bee skeps also took on symbolic meaning rooted in religious associations with worker bees and the biblical beekeeper, Deborah. Over time, skeps came to represent the industry of a productive household and the dependability of workers. Utah, known as “The Beehive State,” even adopted the coiled beehive as its official state symbol.
Some farm families made inexpensive skeps to house bees and protect honey stores. / THF177141
Medals awarded at the 1882 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition featured a bee skep (at bottom), symbolizing industry. / THF154061
During the mid-19th century, the U.S. Patent Office issued numerous patents for improved beehives. Arguably the most important went to Philadelphia pastor Lorenzo L. Langstroth in 1852 for his “Improved Mode of Constructing Beehives.” Langstroth's enduring contribution to beekeeping came through careful observation. He determined that bees naturally left a space of 3/8” between honeycombs (constructed within the hive to house larvae, honey, and pollen). Langstroth designed a beehive with 3/8” spacing (later coined the “bee space”) between the frames, sides, and bottom. This improved access, allowing beekeepers to remove and replace frames of honeycomb without harming bees, and more easily inspect for bee moth infestation, which could seriously damage a hive. The hive Langstroth devised, along with the guide he first published in 1853, revolutionized beekeeping, and Langstroth-style beehives remain standard today.
Lorenzo L. Langstroth’s careful observation of honeybees led to a revolutionary beehive design. / detail, THF621310
Careful spacing within Langstroth-style hives improved access for beekeepers and helped protect the bees. / THF172338
In Defense of Native Bees
Because they did not evolve in tandem with native plants, honeybees are not the best pollinators for all crops grown in North America. They seek nectar more than pollen to produce honey, and many plant blossoms do not produce enough nectar to mobilize honeybees. Native bees and other flying insects find blossoms of native plants—including tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, avocadoes, and cranberries—more appealing than do honeybees, and they do a better job of moving pollen from blossom to blossom, ensuring fertilization. As a consequence, many market-garden and truck-farm crops (cabbage, carrots, squash, and melons), berries (strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries), and orchard crops (apples, pears, peaches, and plums) depend on native bees and other pollinators, even as honeybees play their role. All also pollinate crops that livestock eat (buckwheat and clover) and crops that produce fibers we use to make cloth (cotton and flax).
Native bees pollinate many food crops, including orchard fruits like pears. / THF293065
Vegetables, fruits, and other agricultural products result from the intimate relationships, millions of years in the making, between bees and the plants they pollinate. When colonists imported honeybees to North America, they introduced direct competition to different genera and species like squash bees, bumblebees, and solitary bees. Even today, humans’ special treatment of honeybees puts native bees at a disadvantage. As the disrupters of natural relationships, humans bear responsibility for creating a balance between honeybees and native species that are too often neglected in popular conversations. While we depend on honeybees for our honey supply, we depend on all pollinators to sustain our food system. To learn more, explore the U.S. Geological Survey’s documentation of native bees at the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, check out this excerpt from Dave Goulson’s “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees,” or browse beekeeping-related artifacts in The Henry Ford’s Digital Collections.
This post was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from several write-ups on bees and beekeeping by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to work with our curator of domestic life, Jeanine Head Miller, on a new Expert Set featuring alphabet blocks and spelling toys from our collections. We chose one example based on a nearly 20-year-old photograph from our collections database. It was dated between 1860 and 1880 and appeared to be a set of wooden alphabet blocks with images printed on the reverse that could be assembled to complete two puzzles. Notes in the database and an image on the box lid alluded to more, so we decided to re-photograph the blocks before adding them to our Digital Collections.
Image taken in 2000; touched up in 2017 by Jim Orr, image services specialist / THF133429
While conducting research for the Expert Set, I visited our photographic studio to see the blocks in person. They were in good condition, and I was able to carefully – with gloves and on a clean surface – assemble each of eight possible solutions, revealing not only the alphabet and two 12-block puzzles visible in our existing photograph (“The Farm” and “Anna’s Delight”), but two other pastoral scenes of the same size (“Grandfather’s Visit” and “My Country Residence”), two full-size, 24-block historical images (“William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians” and “Mount Vernon – Washington’s Residence”), and a map of the United States. The borders and place names on the map gave us hope that we might be able to narrow the date range for these blocks, but some text on the Mount Vernon puzzle gave us an even better clue – the lithographer’s name!
Reference image showing lithographer information [REG2017_1103]
A quick Internet search (an invaluable tool for modern museum research) revealed that Thomas S. Wagner worked as the sole proprietor of his Philadelphia lithography firm for a short time, between a dissolved partnership with fellow lithographer James McGuigan in 1858 and Wagner’s death in 1863. (Interestingly, according to the Library Company of Philadelphia, Wagner was “one of the few publishers of wooden lithographic puzzles” at that time.) Not only were we able to considerably narrow our date range from 1860–1880 to 1858–1863, we could now add creator information to our records!
We decided to have our photographer, Rudy Ruzicska, and digital imaging specialist, Jillian Ferraiuolo, create just a few official images of the picture puzzle – enough to document the box and individual blocks and to give online viewers a sense of the possible solutions. But I also captured reference photographs of each of the 8 completed puzzles for our collections database. These wouldn’t typically be available to the public, but to celebrate our recent digital collections milestone – 100,000 artifacts! – I’ve shared a few of them below.
When production of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation began in 2013, we knew the show would provide a tremendous opportunity to share our stories with new audiences. We also knew it would require tremendous resources. But we couldn’t have predicted the show’s longevity or success, with six seasons and three Emmy awards to date – or the important role our digital collections would play in the project. From planning to post-production and beyond, the images and information we’ve made available through digitization have become TV stars in their own right.
Digital Collections pages are a handy resource for the Innovation Nation producers. They provide information about artifacts – like this tomato harvester, which will be featured in season 8 – and help the stories take shape.
Our Digital Collections factor into the earliest stages of story development for Innovation Nation. Even before the show’s producers begin to discuss potential angles for a particular topic with the experts at The Henry Ford, they’ve often explored related Digital Collections pages. This provides background information, helping to guide the story and ground it in solid historical research. It also shapes the producers’ vision for the story, helping to determine where it will be filmed and what we might need to bring out for the cameras.
After a story is filmed, our work is just beginning. We add any featured artifacts that aren’t already online to our queue for digitization. Including them as part of our Digital Collections makes them accessible to wider audiences and gives us the option to include them in future digital content. In addition to the “on camera” collections, supporting graphic and video assets from our holdings often appear in the final cut. We research our collections, digitizing new material as needed, and provide high-resolution image and video files to the story’s producer and editor. Sometimes, the producer will even write a script that highlights these supporting assets. An artifact doesn’t have to be two-dimensional or in video format to be considered – photographs of our three-dimensional collections may be featured, as well.
Though informative, the short-form stories that air on Innovation Nation can only say so much. Our Digital Collections and content offer viewers a chance to dig even deeper. Each episode has a dedicated webpage on thf.org that provides links to resources – such as blog posts, expert sets, or groups of related digital collections – that provide context for a particular topic and further highlight our holdings and expertise. Often, the “Dig Deeper” section of an episode webpage contains brand-new content, created specially to support that Innovation Nation story. So, whether you’re a long-time viewer or just learning about the show, it’s worth visiting thf.org to explore more. To get started, consider checking out content related to some of our most recent episodes here, or browse featured artifacts from all the seasons of Innovation Nation in our Digital Collections.
In the years following the introduction of the automobile, women had few chances to challenge prevailing, gendered beliefs about their place behind the wheel. But where limited opportunities did exist, women seized them. They competed in organized races and reliability tours, volunteered for motor service during World War I, and drove to rally support for women’s suffrage.
The Henry Ford is committed to collecting artifacts that document the ways businesses demonstrated resourcefulness and ingenuity—both to address people’s needs and to remain sustainable—in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. These bottles of hand sanitizer produced by West Michigan distilleries may be unassuming, but they have big stories to tell about local and national responses to the crisis.
Alcohol-based hand and surface sanitizer is an important tool for fighting the spread of viruses, in addition to hand washing and social distancing. As COVID-19 reached communities across America, hospitals and other healthcare organizations, charities, law enforcement agencies, and the general public began using far more hand sanitizer than ever before. Demand quickly exceeded the available supply.
Distilleries that produced beverage alcohol already had what they needed to make ethyl alcohol, a main ingredient in hand and surface sanitizer. In March 2020, the Food and Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced policies that temporarily allowed beverage alcohol producers – with some restrictions – to begin making and distributing sanitizer immediately, tax free. Distilleries nationwide referenced World Health Organization guidelines, surveyed their equipment and supplies, and decided to retool to produce hand sanitizer.
In West Michigan, a hotbed of craft distilling, many distilleries shifted full-time to producing sanitizer or added it to their regular operations. COVID-19 had disrupted business as usual. Food and beverage sales had fallen as Michiganders, following state guidelines, stopped drinking and dining out. Selling hand sanitizer could help a distillery stay afloat—and even generate good press. But making it required additional resources and could limit beverage alcohol production, threatening a distillery’s bottom line. By and large, the choice to produce sanitizer was not about profit. Instead, the decision was about meeting a community need. When distillers heard about sanitizer shortages, they wanted to help. And when local groups and individuals learned that distillers might produce it, they reached out with hopeful requests. These stories from a selection of West Michigan distilleries showcase the resourcefulness, ingenuity, generosity, and care that has defined so many American businesses’ responses to the pandemic.
After the owners of Eastern Kille Distillery (Grand Rapids) closed their tasting room and cocktail bar, they decided to divert extra employee resources and excess production capacity to making hand sanitizer. According to co-founder Steve Vander Pol, the shift wasn’t easy – the distillery had to source unfamiliar ingredients (glycerol and hydrogen peroxide), locate suitable containers, and train staff in safe chemical handling and new production methods. Eastern Kille produced hand sanitizer for sale and partnered with a logistics company to donate thousands of bottles to essential workers. When its supply of raw materials dwindled after about a month of sanitizer production, the distillery returned to making beverage alcohol. Vander Pol expressed pride in the craft distilling industry for continuing “to help fill the gap in hand sanitizer supply.” Looking back on the experience, he remarked, “In a time when everything in the world felt crazy it was very nice to be able to use our business to help, even if it was just a small part of keeping people safe.”
Sanitizer produced by the gallon at Wise Men Distillery (photo courtesy of Wise Men Distiller)
The staff at Wise Men Distillery (Kentwood) overcame similar challenges in retooling operations to produce sanitizer – just as many large companies began seeking new sources for it. Wise Men ramped up production to fill huge orders from national companies, including Amazon, but also to meet a growing need for sanitizer across the state. The distillery donated hundreds of gallons to first responders and frontline workers in surrounding Kent County, and, almost immediately after general manager Tom Borisch learned about devastating floods in Midland County, more than 100 miles away, sent 600 more to support relief efforts there. Speaking with a local TV station, Borisch explained the distillery’s approach: “We’re going gangbusters trying to make as much as possible and trying to honestly sell it at a price where we can just stay open and keep doing it." He also expressed pride in his team and in broader efforts to endure the pandemic, saying, “it’s amazing to see what the world is doing... Everyone’s coming around each other. It’s good stuff.”
The day authorities eased restrictions on sanitizer production, Coppercraft Distillery (Holland) announced plans to donate thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer to organizations in need. The first delivery went to Holland Hospital, where healthcare workers were using four times as much hand sanitizer as usual. Within a few weeks, the distillery had expanded production, both to continue its donation program and for public sale. Coppercraft CEO Brian Mucci saw in the hand sanitizer shortage “an opportunity to step into a need, assist our community, and express our gratitude...” Production manager Shaun McLarty summed up the distillery’s decision for a local TV station, saying, “You can think of a million reasons not to do it – if it’s cost, or time, or labor – but the reason to do it outweighs that significantly."
Hand sanitizer production at Long Road Distillers (photo courtesy of Long Road Distillers)
At Long Road Distillers (Grand Rapids), with a shuttered restaurant and cocktail bar, hand sanitizer offered an alternative way to remain in business – and an opportunity for resourceful collaboration. Beginning with neighboring Mitten Brewing Co., and eventually working with several Michigan breweries, Long Road Distillers turned unused grain – destined to become beer before the pandemic – into hand sanitizer. Among those using its product, Long Road Distillers listed hospitals, nursing homes, grocers, logistics companies, and social service agencies. A video documenting the distillery’s collaborative efforts highlighted donations to the Grand Rapids Police Department and Metro Health Hospital. Reflecting on the partnership, Mitten Brewing Co. cofounder Chris Andrus remarked, “I hope that what we remember from this crisis is not the virus and the pandemic, but the extraordinary efforts that came about because of it.”
The kitchen at Bier Distillery (Comstock Park) had only been open a few weeks when owner John Bierling had to shut its doors to dine-in customers. To help drive food sales during the closure, he shifted from beverage alcohol to hand sanitizer production and began offering a free bottle with every takeout purchase. Soon, large-scale sanitizer orders rolled in from local organizations, and Bier Distillery pushed to meet the unforeseen demand. In a video explaining sanitizer production at the distillery, Bierling reflected on what had begun as a marketing opportunity: “Never in a million years would I have thought I would be making hand sanitizer. But, I like making alcohol – I like the process, I like the science behind it all.” The undertaking allowed him to redirect that passion to help the community.“I can apply all that knowledge and my technique and expertise,” Bierling said, “to making hand sanitizer – and hopefully keeping people safe.”
Like so many American businesses, large and small, these distillers acted nimbly and demonstrated resourcefulness to meet the challenge brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. They refocused skills, equipment, and operations to not only remain in business, but supply their communities with a crucial product.
Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford, looks forward to sampling these distillers’ other products someday soon. She thanks Eric Hermann for his enthusiastic and invaluable support of this project.