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.
At a time when Americans are traveling less and the lodging industry is making big changes, let’s take a look back at the story of Kemmons Wilson, whose Holiday Inns revolutionized roadside lodging in the mid-20th century.
In the early days of automobile travel, motorists had few lodging options. Some stayed in city hotels; others camped in cars or pitched tents. Before long, entrepreneurs began to offer tents or cabins for the night.
Auto Campers with Ford Model T Touring Car and Tent, circa 1919 THF105459
More from The Henry Ford: Here’s a look inside a 1930s tourist cabin. Originally from the Irish Hills area of Michigan, the cabin is now on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. For motorists weary of camping out, these affordable “homes away from home” offered a warmer, more comfortable night’s sleep than a tent. You can read more about tourist cabins and see photos of this one on its original site in this blog post.
Soon, “motels” -- shortened from “motor hotels” -- evolved to meet travelers’ needs. Compared to other lodging options, these mostly mom-and-pop operations were comfortable and convenient. They were also affordable. This expert set showcases the wide variety of motels that dotted the American landscape in the mid-20th century.
Crouse's Motor Court, a motel in Fort Dodge, Iowa THF210276
More from The Henry Ford: Photographer John Margolies documented the wild advertising some roadside motels employed to tempt passing motorists (check out some of his shots in our digital collections), and our curator of public life, Donna Braden, chatted with MoRocca about motorists’ early lodging options on The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation (you can watch here).
After World War II, more Americans than ever before hit the open road for business and leisure travel. Associations like Best Western helped travelers find reliable facilities, but motel standards were inconsistent, and there was no guarantee that rooms would meet even limited expectations. When a building developer named Kemmons Wilson took a family road trip in 1951, he got fed up with motel rooms that he found to be uncomfortable and overpriced (he especially disliked being charged extra for his children to stay). Back home in Memphis, Tennessee, he decided to build his own group of motels.
As a young man, Wilson (born in 1913) displayed an entrepreneurial streak. To help support his widowed mother, Wilson earned money in many ways, including selling popcorn at a movie theater, leasing pinball machines, and working as a jukebox distributor. By the early 1950s, Wilson had made a name for himself in real estate, homebuilding, and the movie theater business.
Later in life, Kemmons Wilson tracked down his first popcorn machine and kept it in his office as a reminder of his early entrepreneurial pursuits. Detail, THF212457
Kemmons Wilson trusted his hunch that other travelers had the same demands as his own family -- quality lodging at fair prices. He opened his first group of motels, called “Holiday Inns,” in Memphis starting in 1952. Wilson’s gamble paid off -- within a few years, Holiday Inns had revolutionized industry standards and become the nation’s largest lodging chain.
An early Holiday Inn “Court” in Memphis, 1958THF120734
What set Holiday Inns apart? Consistent, quality service and amenities Guests could expect free parking, air conditioning, in-room telephones and TVs, free ice, and a pool and restaurant at each location. And -- Kemmons Wilson determined -- no extra charge for children!
Swimming Pool at Holiday Inn of Daytona Beach, Florida, 1961 THF104037
Thanks to the chain’s reliable offerings (including complimentary toiletries!), many guests chose a Holiday Inn for every trip.
Inspired by Holiday Inns’ success, competitors began offering many of the same services and amenities. Kemmons Wilson had set a new standard -- multistory motels with carpeted, air conditioned rooms became the norm.
"Sol-Mar Motel," an example of a Holiday Inn-style motel in Jacksonville Beach, Florida THF210272
Kemmons Wilson knew location was key. He chose sites on the right-hand side of major roadways (to make stopping convenient for travelers) and took risks, buying property based on plans for the new Interstate Highway System.
Holiday Inn adjacent to highways in Paducah, Kentucky, 1966 THF287335
Holiday Inns’ iconic “Great Signs” beckoned travelers along roadways across the country from the 1950s into the 1980s. Kemmons Wilson’s mother, Ruby “Doll” Wilson, selected the sign’s green and yellow color scheme. She also designed the décor of the original Holiday Inn guestrooms!
Holiday Inns unveiled a new "roadside" design in the late 1950s: two buildings -- one for guestrooms and one for the lobby, restaurant, and meeting spaces -- surrounding a recreational courtyard. These roadside Holiday Inns featured large glass walls. The inexpensive material lowered construction costs while creating a modern look and brightening guestrooms. The recreated Holiday Inn room in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation demonstrates the “glass wall” design. Take a virtual visit here.
Holiday Inn Courtyard, Lebanon, Tennessee, circa 1962 THF204446
After becoming a public company in 1957, Holiday Inns developed a network of manufacturers and suppliers to meet its growing operational needs. To help regulate and maintain standards, property managers (called “Innkeepers”) ordered nearly everything -- from linens and cleaning supplies to processed foods and promotional materials -- from a Holiday Inns subsidiary. This menu, printed by Holiday Inns’ own “Holiday Press,” shows how nearly every detail of a guest’s stay -- even meals -- met corporate specifications.
Holiday Inn Dinner Menu, February 15, 1964 THF287323
By the 1970s, with more than 1,400 locations worldwide, Holiday Inns had become a fixture of the global and cultural landscape. Founder Kemmons Wilson even made the cover of Time magazine.
We hope his story inspires you to make your own mark on the American landscape -- or at least take a fresh look at the roadside the next time you’re out for a drive, whether down the street or across the country!
Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford, has happy poolside memories from a childhood stay at one of Holiday Inns’ family-friendly “Holidome” concepts. For more on the Holiday Inn story, check out chapter 9 of "The Motel in America," by John Jakle, Keith Sculle, and Jefferson Rogers.
This full-color, large-format book is a compilation of Buster Brown comic strips that originally ran in the New York Herald in 1903 and 1904.THF297428
You may not know his name, but you’re likely familiar his work. Richard Outcault, a talented comic illustrator with a keen eye for marketing, found his ultimate success with the character Buster Brown in the early 1900s.
Born in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1863, Richard Felton Outcault showed an early interest in art. As a teenager, he attended the McMicken School of Design (now the Art Academy of Cincinnati) and found work painting decorative scenes for a Cincinnati safe manufacturer. By 1889, Outcault had taken a position as an artist at Thomas Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory, working primarily on corporate exhibitions.
Richard Outcault created this illustration for Edison’s exhibit at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It depicts the Menlo Park laboratory complex in 1879, when Edison first demonstrated his experimental lighting system. THF236600
Around 1890, Outcault left West Orange for New York City, where he began contributing mechanical drawings to technical publications like Electrical World and Street Railway Journal. He also submitted comic illustrations to some of the popular weekly humor magazines that had emerged in the 1880s, including Judge, Life, and Puck.
As public interest in comic publications grew, new advances in color printing technology became available, and newspaper publishers saw an opportunity to cash in. In 1893, the New York World introduced a weekly color comic supplement that, at first, reprinted illustrations from the humor magazines it mimicked. Richard Outcault joined the staff of the World as a cartoonist and published his first original comic for the paper in September 1894.
The Yellow Kid By 1896, one of the recurring characters in Outcault’s comics – a little baldheaded boy wearing a bright yellow nightshirt – had become a sensation. World readers began buying the paper every Sunday to check in on the adventures of the “Yellow Kid,” who the paper also licensed for merchandising. The Yellow Kid became the face of a wide range of products, from cigarettes and packaged foods to fashion accessories and household appliances.
The Yellow Kid’s popularity demonstrated the commercial value of comics and helped establish the medium as a newspaper fixture. Richard Outcault likely never benefitted directly from the licensing of the Yellow Kid – at that time, newspapers owned the rights to the images published in them, and copyright law didn’t protect characters – but he noted the marketing potential of a popular comic character.
Buster Brown With the success of the Yellow Kid, Outcault himself became something of a commodity. Demand for his comics kept him busy, and Outcault continued illustrating for several newspapers and magazines through the turn of the century. In 1902, he introduced Buster Brown, a mischievous 12-year-old boy from a well-heeled Manhattan family. Readers went crazy for Buster Brown’s shenanigans (and for his pet dog, Tige). Outcault had another hit on his hands.
Richard Outcault was a pioneer in the strip style of comic illustration, with sequential image panels and accompanying text (often in speech bubbles) that contributed to the narrative. By about 1900, this format had become standard for comics. THF297493
This time, he managed to profit from it. Though he never owned the legal rights to Buster Brown, Outcault licensed the character’s name and face to hundreds of companies. Buster Brown promoted everything from bread and cigars to toys and – perhaps most famously – shoes.
This bank is just one example of the hundreds of products manufactured during the first quarter of the twentieth century that bore Buster Brown’s likeness. Buster’s canine companion, Tige, sits at the horse’s feet. THF304975
The St. Louis-based Brown Shoe Company (now Caleres) is probably the best-known Buster Brown licensee. Buster and Tige promoted the Brown company’s shoes – commonly called “Buster Browns” – into the 1990s. THF297402
Americans purchased these branded products for decades after Outcault introduced Buster Brown. The character became a household name that outlived its comic strip, which was last published in 1921. By then, Richard Outcault was focusing less on illustrating and more on marketing. Eventually, he stepped away from comics altogether, returning to painting before his death in 1928. Eighty years later, the comic industry formally recognized Outcault’s important career, inducting him into its hall of fame at the 2008 San Diego Comic Convention.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford
When host Mo Rocca offered Marc Greuther, chief curator at The Henry Ford, a sample of “Monnaise” on the set of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, it was difficult not to laugh out loud. We were filming in the Heinz House in Greenfield Village, among original artifacts documenting some of Henry J. Heinz’s earliest innovations and successes. Mo’s plastic condiment containers with their silly labels (fabricated by the show’s producers as props) looked absurd in this setting, to be sure! But looking back, they weren’t as out of place as it might have seemed.
Ice harvesters guide rafts of cut ice through a channel, probably on Lake St. Clair, Michigan, circa 1905 (THF110292)
It’s been a cold winter at The Henry Ford. Record low temperatures have closed schools and businesses, lengthened commutes, and hardened lakes and ponds across southeast Michigan. Though some schoolchildren, ice skaters, snowmobilers, and ice fishermen may rejoice, it’s difficult to imagine braving these frigid conditions daily as part of a job. But until the 1920s, the nation depended on men who did just that, year after year, to harvest the ice essential to the American way of life.
By 1830, foods that required refrigeration were staples of American diets. For decades, rural communities in colder regions of the country had harvested ice to keep certain foods from spoiling during the summer months. But as American cities swelled in the nineteenth century, so did the demand for fresh meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and even beer. Before long, the local, small-scale ice harvest grew into a major industry. Wherever ice on a pond, canal, lake, or reservoir was thick enough, companies deployed teams of men, horses, and machines to harvest it for distribution across the United States.
Some of the ice harvesters worked as farmers or fishermen in warmer months; some were imported from nearby cities to work the ice fields. Whatever their makeup, when ice harvesting crews gathered in January and February, they faced a complex and sometimes dangerous challenge. First, the ice had to be scraped clear of snow and, when the surface was too rough to be cut, planed smooth. Workers bored holes to measure the thickness of the ice, and then used a marker or groover to etch a grid of rectangles across the ice field. Next, an ice plow followed these lines, cutting about two-thirds of the way into the ice. If the ice was going to be used locally, the rectangular blocks of ice – called “cakes” – were chipped off and loaded onto wagons or sleighs for direct delivery. Otherwise, harvesters broke off large sections of the grooved ice field using saws and other hand tools. Workers guided these rafts of ice through a channel, where men broke the sheets into individual cakes and fed them up an elevator conveyor into an ice house. There, workers arranged the ice cakes into layers for storage and later delivery. If the ice house was located along the railway – and many were – blocks of ice could be loaded directly into refrigerated rail cars.
Tools of the harvest, illustrated in Joseph C. Jones, Jr.’s America’s Icemen (find this book and more at the Benson Ford Research Center).
Improved ice harvesting and storage techniques revolutionized American businesses and diets. For the first time, meatpackers, dairies, and produce growers could ship their products across great distances. Brewers could regulate the temperature of their facilities to produce beer year-round. And restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and home cooks could keep a variety of fresh ingredients on-hand.
This refrigerated rail car was built and operated by Fruit Growers Express, who maintained a nationwide network of icing stations to keep onboard produce fresh during long-distance shipping (THF68309)
Natural ice allowed brewers to keep their ingredients and breweries cool enough to produce beer throughout the summer (THF210591)
Ice in the top compartment of this home refrigerator helped preserve perishable food below (THF81022)
Natural ice harvesting, storage, and shipping processes become more efficient as innovative entrepreneurs and workers improvised new tools, machinery and systems. Eventually, the invention of the artificial ice machine would put ice harvesting companies out of business. Today, mechanical refrigeration has all but replaced natural ice—in our kitchens, at shops and restaurants, and on ships, trains, and trucks. We can expect fresh food and cool beverages year-round. But machines didn’t shape those expectations. Americans grew dependent on refrigeration because of the nationwide network of natural ice distribution made possible through the hard work of ice harvesters.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Lights have been a part of the Christmas tree tradition since at least the seventeenth century, when German families decorated evergreen boughs with wicks burning in tallow, oil, or more expensive wax. By the 1800s, candles had become commonplace in German and American homes, and people devised clever ways to affix them to Christmas trees.
Some selected long, thin rope candles that could be wrapped around Christmas tree branches. Others used wire to secure thicker candles, “glued” them to the tree with melted wax, or stuck them to branches using tacks or stick pins. The first commercially manufactured Christmas tree candleholders employed the stick pin method but offered additional support—turned-up metal tabs that held the candle.
Into the nineteenth century, innovators sought a remedy for dripping wax—a perennial holiday annoyance. A home lighting technology, the bobeche, or wax-catching dish, was patented for Christmas trees in 1867. Christmas tree candleholders soon featured crimped tin bobeches and wire or sharp tacks that united candle, wax-catcher, and tree branch.
As one might imagine, the clunky combination of tall candle, flimsy tin, and drooping branch—secured only by a bit of wire or small tack—lacked stability. Candles that leaned, even slightly, dripped wax onto ornaments or the floor. They were also potential fire hazards.
On Christmas Eve 1867, New Jersey inventor Charles Kirchhof received a patent for his counterweight candleholder—a solution to the tilting candle problem. Kirchhof designed a candleholder that hooked simply over a Christmas tree branch. Beneath it, a weight suspended from a wire ensured that the candle stayed upright. The effective, attractive design was a hit.
Counterweighted candleholders were popular in the late nineteenth century because they worked—and because their dangling weights added a pop of color or sparkle to the Christmas tree. Counterweights ranged from simple clay balls painted with solid or glittery lacquer to lead or tin shaped as pine cones, acorns, icicles, stars, birds, cherubs, or even Santa Claus.
Left: Candleholder featuring a brightly-painted clay counterweight, 36.637.9 (THF155315)
Right: This star-shaped counterweight is made of heavy lead, 188.8.131.52 (THF155314)
But the weight that made Kirchhof’s design so effective and so popular was also its biggest flaw. Counterweighted candleholders were heavy. They couldn’t be hung from small or dry boughs and caused even healthy branches to droop, sometimes sending a lighted candle tumbling into the tree or onto the floor.
In New York, inventor Frederick Arzt worked to improve the Christmas tree candleholder. In 1879, he introduced the spring clip candleholder. Light, reliable, and available in a variety of eye-catching designs and colors, the Christmas candle clip would remain prevalent into the 1920s.
These are Christmas Lights?
Candles weren’t the only nineteenth-century lighting source, even for the Christmas tree. Manufacturers applied other existing technologies, producing Christmas tree lanterns made of tin or thin glass. One inventor even patented a miniature Christmas tree oil lamp. A very early and popular American alternative to candleholders were glass “Christmas lights,” manufactured to be hung with wire from Christmas tree branches. Beautiful patterns in the clear or colored glass reflected light from inside, where a wick burned in cork or wood floating atop oil or water.
The Edison Electric Company released the technology that made electric Christmas lights a possibility in 1879, but American and German companies produced Christmas tree candleholders into the 1920s. Candle clips remained common, although they became less colorful and much simpler in form. Manufacturers continued to experiment, using soft wire and strips of tin in search of ever-safer designs.
Eventually, as electrification reached more American households and people gained trust in the new technology, electric Christmas tree lights caught consumers’ attention. Manufacturers wisely advertised the advantages of electric Christmas lights over candles: strands of electric lights (called “festoons”) could be turned on or off all at once—even better, they could stay lit for any desired amount of time with minimal attention. By the 1930s, Americans had made the switch from Christmas tree candles to electric Christmas lights—but the spirit of innovation that drove the development of Christmas tree candleholders lives on.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
If you’ve visited Henry Ford Museum, you may know that Corning Glass Works’ patented ribbon machines manufactured incandescent bulb blanks faster than ever before. But did you know that these machines could also mass-produce Christmas ornaments?
By the 1950s, a retrofitted glass ribbon machine at Corning’s Wellsboro, Pennsylvania plant could turn out 1,000 glass ornament bulbs per minute! Read on to discover how a bit of innovative engineering, a world war, and some prodding from industry leaders helped Corning become America’s primary glass ornament supplier. (To see our 1928 Corning Glass Ribbon Machine, look here.)
Americans flirted with imported glass Christmas tree ornaments before the Civil War, and by the 1890s, it seemed they were in love. European artisans turned out huge quantities of shiny glass ornaments for the American market—glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany produced 600 ornaments per day! The affair even outlasted the blockades and embargoes of World War I, although American consumers nearly exhausted huge quantities of German ornaments stockpiled before the war. A few domestic manufacturers tried, but could never quite master the intricate glassblowing techniques or silvered lacquers that made European ornaments so popular. As postwar production ramped up overseas in the 1920s, European imports grew to 99% of the 50 to 80 million ornaments sold in the United States each year.
Stateside importers and retailers had a great deal to lose should anything impede the lucrative European-American ornament trade. One major stakeholder was the F.W. Woolworth Company. F.W. Woolworth first imported European glass ornaments in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, consumers depended on Woolworth stores nationwide for their yearly Christmas decorations. Max Eckardt, a German immigrant, also relied on the success of the ornament industry. Eckardt—who began importing ornaments around 1907, opened his own German ornament factory in 1926, and oversaw product distribution from his offices in New York City—had extensive knowledge of the German-American Christmas trade. In the late 1930s, as World War II rumbled ominously on the European horizon, he set out to secure the future of his ornament business on American soil.
In the summer of 1939, just as an Allied blockade of threatened to sever the German ornament supply, Eckardt and a representative from F.W. Woolworth Company visited Corning Glass Works, a large American glass manufacturer headquartered in New York. Corning had only experimented briefly with ornament manufacture before this meeting, but the two businessmen urged the company to begin full-scale production. It was a calculated choice—the company owned high-speed ribbon machine technology that could be converted to mass-produce ornament bulbs. Armed with this patented machinery and the promise of large orders from Eckardt and Woolworth, Corning agreed to enter the glass ornament business. Within a few months, Corning Glass Works was manufacturing more than half of the Christmas tree decorations sold in the United States.
Wartime Ornament Decoration
Though Corning converted just one ribbon machine to manufacture ornament bulbs, production was staggering. In 1940, Corning produced 40,000,000 clear glass ornament bulbs at its Wellsboro, Pennsylvania plant. About 1/3 of these were decorated in-house. The remainder was sold to outside decorating companies.
The first domestically-produced ornaments mimicked European imports. The inside of each bulb received a coat of silver lacquer; the outside was tinted with colored dye. Then, after any desired hand decoration, the shiny baubles were topped with tight metal caps.
But in 1941, when the United States entered World War II, decorators were forced to rethink the American ornament. Popular lacquers became impossible to import, and most metals were diverted to the war effort. Despite material restrictions and wartime shortages, many innovative companies used available paints, sprays of tinsel, and even cardboard to decorate ornaments throughout the war.
Max Eckardt, who’d been instrumental in securing blank bulbs from Corning for his four New Jersey decorating plants before the war, produced some of the most popular domestic ornaments under the name Shiny Brite. Examples of Shiny Brite ornaments from The Henry Ford’s collection document the development of American ornaments through World War II.
This year’s holiday season is definitely special. The first day of Hanukkah (25 Kislev, 5774) overlaps with Thanksgiving Day (November 28, 2013). Call it Chanksgiving; call it Thanksgivukkah; call it what it is: a rare intersection of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars. Unless either or both calendars change, 25 Kislev won’t intersect with the fourth Thursday of November until the year 79,811! To commemorate this extraordinary meeting of two holidays closely associated with food traditions, let’s look at a Hanukkah staple: latkes.
Although deep-fried turkey achieved some popularity on American Thanksgiving tables over the past decade*, foods fried in oil are much older and more symbolic traditions for many Jews during Hanukkah.
Hanukkah celebrates a 165 B.C.E. victory over Syrian-Greeks who had seized the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. According to Rabbinic tradition the Jewish victors, a rebel army known as the Maccabees, set out to purify and rededicate the defiled temple but could only find one day’s worth of ritual oil. Miraculously, the small amount of purifying oil burned in the temple’s lamp stand, or menorah, for eight days!
Remembering the Miracle of the Oil
Lighting the menorah is another Hanukkah tradition that plainly commemorates the miracle of the oil. Many Jewish families light a branch of this special candelabrum each night of Hanukkah in remembrance of the Temple’s historic rededication.
Many foods, especially desserts, are prepared with or fried in oil during Hanukkah to commemorate this miracle. But perhaps no recipe is more closely associated with the holiday than the latke – whose name can be translated to mean “little oily.”
By the mid-19th century, when German immigrants brought latkes to America, the little potato pancakes were a product of centuries of transformation. Hanukkah pancakes probably began in southern and central Europe as dairy treats: cakes of soft cheese fried in butter or oil and accompanied by sour cream. In other areas, where cooking oils were scarce and expensive, fried foods were usually prepared with animal fat. Cheese and butter were also hard to come by in these regions—besides, Jewish dietary laws forbid mixing meat and dairy products. Innovative cooks fried cakes of batter or vegetable patties instead.
Then, slowly, the potato took root in European cuisine. French and German cooks incorporated the starchy South American transplant into existing dishes around the turn of the nineteenth century. Some German Jews fried cakes of grated potato in schmaltz, or rendered poultry fat, to serve alongside a Hanukkah goose.
In the coming decades, as Europe’s population boomed and other crops failed, the inexpensive and abundant potato became an important staple across the continent. Eastern European Jews borrowed potato recipes from their German coreligionists, and the potato latke – along with applesauce, its newest consort – became the most widespread Hanukkah pancake.
Jewish Americans continued the potato latke tradition. In the early 20th century, when vegetable shortening – and, later, vegetable oil – became available, fried latkes with sour cream were once again a kosher dairy option. The versatile latke, already a cornerstone of Hanukkah tradition, only grew more popular in the United States as the holiday transitioned from a modest occasion to an elaborate domestic celebration throughout the 1900s. Not unlike fine olive oil, you’d be hard pressed to find a twentieth-century Jewish cookbook that doesn’t include latkes among its Hanukkah recipes.
Check out The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center for books that help document and preserve the latke’s traditional place on the Hanukkah table. And for more on these storied little pancakes, see Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
Hanukkah in Postwar America
Holidays numbered among the many changes Americans experienced after World War II. In this “baby boom” era, American families celebrated with new traditions and more decorations, gifts, and parties than ever before. Jewish organizations published books and manuals that suggested ways to maintain centuries-old domestic religious traditions, and the 1950s saw a revived and enhanced American Hanukkah. In addition to preparing special foods, families might light several menorahs, exchange gifts for eight nights, decorate their homes, and host gatherings.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford and lover of most things potato.
*Frying has been a popular turkey preparation in areas of the Southern United States since at least the early 20th century.
In the last third of the 19th century, an unprecedented variety of consumer goods and services flooded the American market. Advertisers, armed with new methods of color printing, bombarded potential customers with trade cards. Americans enjoyed and often saved the vibrant little advertisements. We’ve just finished digitizing over 800 trade cards from The Henry Ford’s collection, including this example promoting a theatrical event. Visit our collections site to read the back, which promises “a Gorgeous Pagent [sic], Bewildering to the Mind and Dazzling to the Senses.”
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford. Thanks to this week's co-author, Saige Jedele, Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.