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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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Large red wheeled piece of equipment in a field with a number of people riding on itFMC Cascade Tomato Harvester in Use, circa 1985 / THF146505


The adoption of mechanical tomato harvesters in the 1960s both industrialized tomato production and ushered in a countermovement of small growers and local food advocates. How could one machine prompt such contradictory but real changes in agriculture? The full story spans decades and reveals complex relationships of supply and demand—for both agricultural products and the people who grow and harvest them.

Shortage and Struggle


Green label with logo, text, and image of peppers and tomato half
California’s labor shortage threatened the supply of processing tomatoes for ketchup, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products. Can label, "Del Monte Brand Spanish Style Tomato Sauce," circa 1930. / THF294183, detail

To meet rising demand for processing tomatoes (to be made into ketchups, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products) in the early 20th century, growers needed laborers to pick them. Those laborers, in turn, needed living wages. Tensions between growers and laborers came to a head during the New Deal era of the 1930s, when government policies promised minimum wages, maximum hours, and workers’ compensation. Yet, lobbyists working for growers and agricultural processers convinced policy makers to exempt agricultural workers from these protections.

Laborers voted with their feet, seeking employment beyond farm fields. This caused a critical labor shortage that became even more acute during World War II for growers raising tomatoes and other crops in California and beyond. To meet demand, the United States and Mexican governments negotiated the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. This guest labor program brought millions of farmworkers, known as braceros, from Mexico to work in the United States for short periods of time between 1942 and 1964.

Man sits on a stack of wood or doors with a field behind him, looking in a box; four other men look on
This photograph illustrated a news report on braceros resuming the tomato harvest near Danville, Illinois, in August 1945. / THF147934

A chain of events during the 1960s called attention to the plight of agricultural laborers. Edward R. Murrow’s television documentary Harvest of Shame (1960) highlighted the precarious existence of migrant laborers who worked picking perishable fruits and vegetables in the Midwest and along the East Coast. The Bracero Program expired in 1964, reducing the number of available laborers and increasing growers’ dependence on the existing labor pool. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, along with other anti-poverty and housing legislation, made it clear that migratory and seasonal laborers had the right to humane treatment.

On the West Coast, Filipino laborers organized as part of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Seeking better wages and a more favorable rate of payment, they launched a grape strike that expanded into Delano, California, in 1965. The National Farm Workers Association, consisting mostly of Mexican migratory workers, joined the cause. This coordinated effort resulted in a new organization, the United Farm Workers (UFW), with Cesar Chavez as president.

Red flag with white circle containing stylistic, blocky silhouette of eagle and text "FARMWORKERS AFL-CIO"
The organizing efforts of groups like the United Farm Workers to secure better wages and living conditions for agricultural laborers in California gained national attention in the 1960s. United Farm Workers flag, circa 1970. / THF94392

The UFW devised innovative solutions to increase pressure on growers, and—especially due to the efforts of co-founder Dolores Huerta—built the Delano grape strike into a national boycott. This focused attention on basic needs for migratory and seasonal laborers. In addition to ensuring some protections for individuals, the coordinated effort secured the right for migratory and seasonal laborers as a class to collectively bargain.

Engineering a Solution to Labor Shortages


Tomato growers, keen on getting their crop planted, cultivated, and harvested at the optimum times, were interested in mechanical solutions that could address labor shortages. Mechanizing the harvest of this perishable commodity, however, proved to be a time-consuming challenge.

Scientists at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), sought a labor shortage solution through mechanical and biological engineering. Research and development begun in the 1940s finally resulted in the successful design of both a mechanical tomato harvester (created in partnership with Blackwelder Manufacturing Company) and a tomato that could withstand mechanical harvesting (the VF145).

Black-and-white photo of man holding vegetable (sweet potato?) in a field
Large piece of mobile equipment in field with a number of people on it
Top: UC Davis vegetable crops researcher Gordie “Jack” Hanna developed the machine-harvestable VF145 tomato. Bottom: An early mechanical tomato harvester underway. Images from the 1968 USDA Yearbook,
Science for Better Living. / THF621133 and THF621134

By 1961, Blackwelder had released a commercial harvester and recommended the VF145 tomato for optimum mechanical harvesting. FMC Corporation released a competing harvester by 1966. Manufacturers touted the labor-saving value of mechanical harvesters at a time when the supply of laborers was too small to meet demand, and the adoption of this new technology was swift. In 1961, 25 mechanical harvesters picked about one-half of one percent of California’s tomato crop. Between 1965 and 1966, the number of harvesters doubled from 250 to 512 and the percentage of mechanically harvested tomatoes in California rocketed from 20 percent to 70 percent. By 1970, the transition was complete, with 99.9 percent of California’s tomato crop harvested mechanically. (For more, see Mark Kramer’s essay, "The Ruination of the Tomato," in the January 1980 issue of The Atlantic.)

Contradictory Impact


Some might claim mechanical harvesters helped save California’s processed tomato industry—by 1980, California growers produced 85 percent of that crop. But a closer look reveals a more complicated cause-and-effect. While growers could theoretically save their crop by replacing some labor with machines, many small-scale growers could not save their businesses from large-scale competition. By 1971, the number of tomato farmers had dropped by 82 percent. (This consolidation was mirrored elsewhere in the industry, as just four companies—Del Monte, Heinz, Campbell, and Libby’s—processed 72 percent of tomatoes by 1980.)

Page with text, image of tomatoes on tomato plants in field, and small image of piece of farm equipment
Tomato harvester advertisements promised farmers could save their businesses by replacing scarce laborers with machines, but many small-scale growers could not save themselves from large-scale competitors. Advertisement for FMC Corporation Tomato Harvester, circa 1966. / THF610767

A group of growers sued UC Davis, challenging the school for investing so much to develop the tomato harvester without spending comparable resources to address the needs of small farmers. In response, UC Davis opened its Small Farm Center, an advocacy center for alternative farmers, in 1979. These events coincided with wider efforts to hold the United States Department of Agriculture accountable for unequal distribution of support, resulting in increased attention at the national level to economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse farmers. Around this same time, food activist Alice Waters raised awareness through her advocacy of locally sourced foods. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, founded in Berkeley, California, in 1971, became an anchor for the burgeoning Slow Food movement.

So, while mechanical tomato harvesters—like the one on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—represent large-scale scientific and industrial advances, they also offer insight into this country’s complex labor history and help tell stories about small-scale farmers and their connections to communities, customers, and all of us who eat.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

farming equipment, research, labor relations, Hispanic and Latino history, food, farms and farming, by Saige Jedele, by Debra A. Reid, agriculture

Man at wheel of vehicle with large conveyor built filled with tomatoes and tomato plants; another man stands at side and one behind

Machine-harvesting new tomato varieties, as depicted in the 1968 USDA Yearbook, Science for Better Living. / detail, THF621132

For millennia, people have domesticated plants and animals to ensure survival—this process is agriculture. And while most of us neither grow crops nor raise livestock, agriculture affects all our lives, every day: through the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the fuel we use to move from place to place.

But agriculture is also the changing story of how this work is done. At every step, people have created new technology and tools to challenge nature’s limitations and to reduce the physical labor required to plant, cultivate, and harvest.

People produced much of what they ate until processed foods became big business in the United States during the late 1800s. As market demand increased, and commercial growing and canning grew, it prompted changes in farming. Take the tomato. Canning required ample quantity to guarantee supply, and vast fields of perishable crops required rapid harvest to ensure delivery of the best crop to processors.

Black-and-white image of a tomato field with workers in it and boxes of tomatoes at the end of some rows
Workers harvest tomatoes by hand at a Heinz farm in 1908. / THF252058

But mechanizing the tomato harvest required changing the crop—the tomato itself—so it could tolerate mechanical harvesting. During the 1940s and 1950s, crop scientists cross-pollinated tomatoes to create uniform sizes and shapes that matured at the same time, and with skins thick enough to withstand mechanical picking.

Agricultural engineers developed harvesting machines that combined levers and gears to dislodge tomatoes from the stalk and stem. But humans remained part of the harvesting process. At least eight laborers rode along on the machines and removed debris from the picked fruit.

In 1969, the first successful mechanical harvester picked tomatoes destined for processing as sauce, juice, and stewed tomatoes.

two hands holding three tomatoes, at least two of them oblong; also contains text
The 1968 United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook, Science for Better Living, depicted new machine-harvestable tomato varieties that “all ripen near same time, come from vine easily, and are firm fruited.” The oblong shape reduced rolling and bruising. / THF621135

Today, all processed tomatoes—the canned products you find on grocery store shelves—make their way from field to table via the levers, gears, and conveyor belts of a mechanical harvester. But you can still buy a hand-picked tomato at your local farmers’ market—or grow your own.

The process of growing food still involves planting and nurturing a seed. But exploring agriculture in all its complexity helps us recognize the many effects of human interference in these natural processes—an ever-changing story that affects all our daily lives.


Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from a film in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation’s Agriculture and the Environment exhibit. The team that wrote and refined the film script included Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment; Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content; Ellice Engdahl, Manager, Digital Collections & Content; and Aimee Burpee, Associate Registrar—Special Projects.

Henry Ford Museum, farming equipment, food, farms and farming, by Saige Jedele, agriculture

Print showing house and barns, orchards, cows, horses pulling wagons full of hay

William Ford’s farm, depicted in an 1876 county atlas. / THF116253

Farm families in the late 1800s often maintained orchards. Just a couple of apple, pear, plum, or cherry trees could ensure a varied diet and foodstuffs to preserve for winter. And those with land to spare could raise enough excess produce to bring to market.

William Ford, Henry Ford’s father, raised apples for market on his Dearborn, Michigan, farm. The image above, from an 1876 county atlas, shows orchard trees, and the 1880 census of agriculture (collected by the census taker in the summer of 1879) reported 200 apple trees on 4½ acres of the Ford farm—a number that would produce apples well beyond the Ford family’s needs.

Forty years later, apple trees remained part of the landscape at the farmhouse, which was restored by Henry Ford in 1919. Ford’s historical architect, Edward Cutler, drew a map that situated the homestead among outbuildings and trees. It’s difficult to make out, but Cutler identified three varieties of apple trees there—Wagner, Snow, and Greening—that were presumably grown during Henry Ford’s childhood.

At that time, illustrations from horticultural sales books and descriptions in period literature would have helped customers like the Fords determine what fruit tree varieties to buy. An 1885 book on American fruit trees described the Wagner as an early bearer of tender, juicy apples that could be harvested in November and keep until February. A nurseryman’s specimen book itemized the merits of the Snow, “an excellent, productive autumn apple” whose flesh is “remarkably [snow-]white, tender, juicy and with a slight perfume.” And an 1867 book touted the Rhode Island Greening as “a universal favorite” that bears an enormous fruit superior for cooking.

Color print with image of reddish-golden apple on bough with leaves; contains text "WAGNER"
Print with text and image of bright red apple on bough with leaves
Print of mostly yellow apple with green and red blush with bough and leaves; also contains text
Wagner, Snow, and Rhode Island Greening apple varieties, as illustrated in nurseryman’s specimen books. / THF620189, THF620326, THF620178


When Ford Home was relocated to Greenfield Village in early 1944, Edward Cutler made efforts to represent the surrounding vegetation as Henry Ford remembered it. He included apple trees, though age and condition took their toll on those plantings in the decades that followed. In 2019, The Henry Ford’s staff collaborated with Michigan State University’s Extension Office on a plan to keep the fruit trees of the historic landscapes throughout Greenfield Village healthy. Their strategy involved replacing heritage trees with young stock of the same variety. As part of this project, in April of that year, groundskeepers at The Henry Ford planted new Wagner, Snow, and Rhode Island Greening trees at Ford Home.

Man wearing camouflage jacket and green baseball cap kneels by a sapling with shovel on green lawn nearby; white picket fence and building in background
Kyle Krueger of The Henry Ford’s Grounds team plants a new Wagner apple tree near Ford Home in Greenfield Village, April 18, 2019. / Photograph by Debra Reid

It will take as many as five years before these new trees bear fruit—as long as weather conditions and the trees’ health allow it—but in the meantime, visitors to Greenfield Village can walk the orchards to check on their progress!


Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content. It originally ran in a spring 2019 issue of The Henry Ford’s employee newsletter.

food, by Saige Jedele, by Debra A. Reid, agriculture, farms and farming, Ford family, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

Color print with text "OCTOBER" at bottom and scene with people and animals working around barrels and a large pile of apples

Wood engraving showing cidermaking, 1854. / THF118316

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.”

Page with text and image of bright red apple and golden/blush apple
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).

Two girls sit on a bench in front of a stove; one pares an apple into a pan
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.

Blue sign with text and image of apple bough and jar of apple butter
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.

making, beverages, by Saige Jedele, recipes, food

Piece of machinery
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.

Page with text and five illustrations of a factory and factory workers
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.

Square of woven material in frame; also contains text label underneath
Burroughs B5000 Core Memory Plane, 1961. / THF170197

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 planes would 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.

THF Connect app, women's history, technology, manufacturing, Made in America, Henry Ford Museum, computers, by Saige Jedele

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.”

Low lawnmower with red plastic body on white platform with four black wheel
Mowtron Mower, 1974. / THF186471

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.

GIF that rotates through three images of equipment
Components of Mowtron’s transistorized guidance system. / THF186481, THF186480, and THF186478

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.

Lawmower on trailer behind truck, with sign containing text
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.

autonomous technology, technology, lawn care, home life, by Saige Jedele, by Debra A. Reid

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.

Drawings of weathervanes in the shape of animals and ornamental patterns
Commercial manufacturers produced a vast array of weathervane ornaments by the late nineteenth century. / THF622046 (detail)

Several drawings of weathervanes featuring different sheep varieties; also contains text
Several drawings of weathervanes featuring different roosters; also contains text
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

Drawing of weathervane featuring shovel and barrel along with arrows labeled E, W, S, N; also contains text
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.

GIF cycling through several images of weathervanes
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

Catalog cover featuring drawing of house with lamppost and mailbox out front; also contains text
Catalog page with three illustrations of weathervanes featuring a duck, a rooster, and an eagle; also contains text
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.

decorative arts, home life, by Saige Jedele, by Debra A. Reid

Rough lawnmower with flat attachment and two small wheels in front; two large wheels behind; and crude handlebars

THF175762

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.

Technical drawing featuring equipment with numbers and labels
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 improve the 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.


Close-up of red metal plate mounted beneath red tractor
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

Technical drawing of equipment parts with numbers and labels
Technical drawing of equipment parts with numbers and labelsPatent 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.

Wheeled cart with machinery on top of it
Minimal riding lawnmower, with open green base topped with black seat with machinery underneath
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.

Simple red riding lawnmower with white metal seat and triangular handle
Simple red riding lawnmower with white seat and triangular handle
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

Man in denim shirt and shop apron stands in workshop next to machinery
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.

lawn care, making, inventors, home life, entrepreneurship, by Saige Jedele

Man standing at what appears to be a white wooden beehives, with other similar beehives around him and a building in the background
Detail,
THF278671

An Introduction


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.

Page with illustrations of bees and text
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.

Illustration of small building with five-sided fence around yard and multiple structures holding vines in yard
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.

Drawing of man with saw on pole sawing a tree limb with a beehive hanging from it
Aspiring beekeepers lured swarms or moved existing hives closer to their crops and kitchens. / THF621285

Housing Honeybees


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.

Wooden stump with rough wooden lid on top
Roughly rectangular wooden box with wooden lid on top
Yellow, drum-shaped form painted with text and decorations, on wooden stool with three legs
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.

Woven structure with cylindrical bottom topped with a dome
Some farm families made inexpensive skeps to house bees and protect honey stores. / THF177141

Gold coin with text and illustration of two women in classical robes with other items around them
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.

Portrait of man wearing glasses, suit, and clerical collar
Lorenzo L. Langstroth’s careful observation of honeybees led to a revolutionary beehive design. / detail, THF621310

Birdhouse-shaped box made out of wooden planks
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).

Colorful illustration of yellow pears and rows of trees with mountains in the background, also contains text
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.

farming equipment, nature, by Saige Jedele, by Debra A. Reid, agriculture

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.

box, standing vertically with blocks with image on them in it; box lid lying in front with image on it
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!

Corner of blocks with image and text at lower right corner
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.

Thanks for reading!

Set of blocks arranged together to display the alphabet in elaborate letters
Blocks arranged together to show several buildings and a yard with farm animals, along with text "My Country Residence"
Blocks arranged to show a line drawing of the United States, with states shaded in various colors

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toys and games, photography, by Saige Jedele, digitization, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K