On April 30, The Henry Ford was thrilled to welcome 150 student inventors from across the state to participate in the state finals of Invention Convention Michigan (ICM), the Michigan affiliate for Invention Convention Worldwide. The event marked the return of an in-person Invention Convention after two years of virtual programming.
Out of 1,290 young inventors who competed in regional STEM competitions across the state of Michigan, 150 were selected to participate in Invention Convention Michigan. / Photo by Purple Frog Photography
The atmosphere was electric as students in grades 3 through 12 presented their original inventions on the floor of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation alongside some of the greatest innovations in American history. The young inventors were buzzing with nervous energy when it came time for judging, but once the pressure was off, they felt a rush of accomplishment and were free to explore the museum, garnering more inspirational energy for the year ahead.
Students pitch their inventions to volunteer judges and share their process, from identifying a problem to developing a solution and designing a prototype. / Photos by Purple Frog Photography
During their lunch break, students were given the opportunity to participate in the Innovation Passport Zone. Traveling from booth to booth around the plaza, inventors learned about some of ICM’s sponsors—including Hagerty, Michigan Soybean Committee, and presenting sponsor Delta Dental of Michigan—and got their “passports stamped” for a chance to win a hefty grand prize of donations offered by the sponsors.
Students interact with representatives from Delta Dental of Michigan, Hagerty, and Michigan Soybean Committee in the Innovation Passport Zone. / Photos by Purple Frog Photography
After the scores had been tabulated, students gathered under the DC3 for the awards ceremony, which began with a special word from the president of The Henry Ford, Patricia Mooradian, and a keynote address by Kwane Watson, inventor of the mobile dental unit.
Students enjoyed interacting with Dazzle, mascot for Delta Dental of Michigan, and The Henry Ford’s own Mike Moseley served as emcee for the event. / Photos by Purple Frog Photography
In all, over $3,500 in cash prizes was awarded to 21 of Michigan’s student inventors. Of these, 13 students were selected to advance to the Raytheon Technologies Invention Convention U.S. Nationals taking place at The Henry Ford June 1-3. To watch a replay of the awards ceremony, click here.
Congratulations to these 21 student inventors, who were recognized with awards during the awards ceremony. / Photo by Purple Frog Photography
A special congratulations goes out to Meera R., who was the Grand Prize Winner, presented by Delta Dental of Michigan, as well as the winner of the Make the World Award, presented by Stanley Black & Decker; the Originality Award, presented by Hagerty; and the Safety Award, presented by Hitachi Astemo. Meera will also be among the 13 inventors selected to represent Michigan at U.S. Nationals in June. / Photo by Purple Frog Photography
It was wonderful to see the museum plaza filled with passionate and joyous students, along with proud families and educators. We look forward to experiencing the thrill of Invention Convention U.S. Nationals in a few weeks and want to congratulate all of our student inventors once again for all of their hard work.
Katie Dallos is Program Coordinator, Invention Convention Michigan, at The Henry Ford and Samantha Rhoads is inHub Marketing Specialist at The Henry Ford.
Through an initiative funded by The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation and The Avangrid Foundation, the Invention Convention Worldwide team at The Henry Ford has created a pathway to connect sustainability to invention for our students in the classroom. Through the lens of biomimicry, student inventors examine how some of humanity’s greatest inventions have been formed by the world around them and how they can tap into nature to find sustainable solutions, while problem solving by using biomimicry.
A great example of this comes from Florida fifth grader and 2020 Invention Convention participant Xavier Baquero-Iglesias and his invention SoleX Turf: Good for Your Sole, Good for Your Plant. SoleX Turf is an invention that uses the principle of photosynthesis and the practice of biomimicry. This artificial turf uses the principles of photosynthesis to collect and create energy from the sun while cooling the temperature of the turf to be more enjoyable for players.
Opening Day is behind us, so baseball season is now in full swing (pun intended), and the return of Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village is just around the corner. Celebrate this beloved sport with a few artifacts and stories from our collections.
H.J. Heinz Company Baseball Team, circa 1907 / THF292401
The H.J. Heinz Company, at the forefront of employee welfare during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, offered many recreational activities for its workers. This photograph from 1907 shows the Heinz company baseball team, comprised of its employees.
Portrait of a Baseball Player, circa 1880 / THF94413
In the decades following the Civil War, base ball clubs came to represent a community’s identity and honor. Players donned colorful uniform shirts to make the team readily visible to its supporters and opponents alike.
This bright red wool base ball shirt is a great example of uniforms of that time. The oversized “A” would have identified the community, company, or school the team represented, while the “BBC” stood for “Base Ball Club” – the two-word phrase later changed to “baseball” in 1884.
World Tournament of Historic Baseball in Greenfield Village, August 2007 (Photographed by Michelle Andonian) / THF52274
In 1867, Detroit hosted the World Base Ball Tournament. To commemorate this event, Greenfield Village hosts the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball every summer—one of the finest exhibitions of historic base ball in the country, playing by 1867 rules.
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball was canceled last year, but it will be back in 2021! Until then, you can learn more about historic baseball at Greenfield Village by watching this video.
In 2019, The Henry Ford launched the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, an institution-wide initiative focused on providing resources and encouragement for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. As Project Curator for the initiative, I have been working with other curators to identify entrepreneurial stories within our collections, select artifacts to be digitized, and research and write digital content to share these stories with the public. As this project comes to an end this month, I wanted to provide a wrap-up of all the entrepreneurial stories we’ve worked on.
The first six months of the initiative focused on entrepreneurial stories from our collecting themes of Agriculture and the Environment, and Social Transformation, but my first task was to determine what exactly we mean by “entrepreneurship.” Check out the blog post "Exploring Entrepreneurship," where I discuss what it means to be an entrepreneur.
The first collection I worked with was the H.J. Heinz Company Collection. Most people associate the Heinz name with ketchup, or even pickles, but the company’s first product was actually horseradish. Young Henry Heinz learned to prepare horseradish with his mother in their family home in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, eventually selling the product to local housewives. In 1869, Heinz started his first official business selling horseradish out of his family home.
After initial success selling horseradish, Heinz’s company began selling other products like celery sauce and pickled cucumbers (pickles). Unfortunately, by 1875, the company went out of business, but Heinz learned from this failure and tried again. In 1876, Heinz persuaded family members to open a new company, F. &. J. Heinz, where Heinz could run the business behind the scenes while rebuilding his reputation. By 1888, Heinz had saved enough money to buy the company, renaming it the H.J. Heinz Company. To learn more about the rise of the H.J. Heinz Company, check out this Innovation Journeys Live! program where I discuss H.J. Heinz’s journey through the lens of our Model i habit “Learn from Failure.”
One characteristic of an entrepreneur is being a creative thinker. H.J. Heinz was a master of marketing, finding creative ways to advertise his products. With elaborate store displays and other strategies, the Heinz brand became a household name. In viewing advertisements and salesman catalogs, I learned about the many varieties of products that the H.J. Heinz Company produced. Did you know that Heinz sold heat-to-serve spaghetti and macaroni products? I sure didn’t!
Streetcar Advertising Poster for Heinz Spaghetti, circa 1930 / THF292241
H.J. Heinz recognized that the success of his business relied on his employees. Heinz was at the forefront of the employee welfare movement, offering amenities and conveniences for his workers, such as a swimming pool, gymnasium, and self-improvement classes.
Advertising Layout Photograph of Heinz Company Employee Swimming Pool and Baseball Team, circa 1912 / THF292794
One of my favorite parts of this job is that I have gotten to research individual artifacts and discover interesting facts about them. Ever wonder how we do this work? Check out the blog post "The Secret Life of a Heinz Recipe Book," where I discuss how we researched an employee recipe book found in the Heinz Collection. You can also check out the expert set "H.J. Heinz: His Recipe for Success," to learn more about H.J. Heinz’s entrepreneurial journey.
The next collection I examined was the Label Collection, and specifically, fruit and vegetable labels from the early produce industry. Labels distinguished one brand’s products from another and the artwork on them was meant to stand out and entice potential customers. Early product labels were made by a process called lithography, where skilled artists drew their images on flattened, smooth pieces of stone—traditionally limestone—to be inked and then transferred to paper via a printing press. The artists who worked in this medium are called lithographers. To learn more about lithography and the history of labels, click through to the post "Unpacking the History of Labels."
Lithography companies created label designs for growers, packers, and distribution companies, often including a “signature” so others knew who created the design—like “Schmidt Litho. Co.” in the example below. Schmidt Lithograph Company was a recurring company name among the labels in the collection. I researched this company further and uncovered how Max Schmidt became one of the most well-known lithographers in the industry by 1900. Explore his entrepreneurial journey with the blog post "Max Schmidt: A Leader in Lithography."
The Label Collection also tells the story of entrepreneurial companies that packaged and distributed produce. This led me to the story of Joseph Di Giorgio, founder of the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation. Through research and reading oral history transcripts from Di Giorgio’s relatives and former employees, I discovered how hard work and determination led Di Giorgio to be known as “The Fruit King.” Learn more about his story by reading the blog post “'The Fruit King': Joseph Di Giorgio."
Crate Label, “Oh Yes! We Grow the Best California Fruits,” 1930-1940 / THF293029
This collection also gave me the opportunity to examine the entrepreneurial farmers who grew and harvested produce. For this, the Detroit Publishing Company Collection was extremely useful. From 1895 to 1924, the Detroit Publishing Company produced, published, and distributed photographic views from all over the world. Photographers captured special events and everyday activities, as well as views of cities and countryside. Photographs showing the harvesting and crating process, like this one of grapefruit being picked and crated for shipping, provided a unique look into the entrepreneurial farming industry.
Picking and Crating Grapefruit for Riverside Fruit Exchange, Riverside, California, circa 1905 / THF295680
To learn how these products and crops were marketed to and used by the general public, I delved into the Recipe Booklet Collection. Recipe booklets were a great source of marketing for companies, offering creative uses for products. With so many different companies represented in this collection, I was able to research the history of some of America’s well-known brands and compiled the expert set "Recipe Booklets from the Early 20th Century" so you can discover these histories. Within the booklets, you’ll also find recipes to try!
Recipe Booklet, “Kraft-Phenix Cheese Corp., Cheese and Ways to Serve It,” 1931 / THF294910
I found myself particularly drawn to the colorful and vibrant recipe booklets from the Jell-O Company. I was both delighted and surprised to find recipes ranging from beautiful and delicious-sounding creations to quirky and unusual flavor combinations (corned beef loaf, anyone?). Jell-O was first invented by Pearle Wait in 1897 when he combined fruit flavoring and sugar with gelatin powder. Unfortunately, Wait was unable to market the product, selling it to Orator F. Woodward two years later. By 1902, the Jell-O business was a quarter-million-dollar success. To learn more about this entrepreneurial enterprise, check out the blog post, “America’s Most Famous Dessert.”
Page from the recipe booklet, “Jell-O, America’s Most Famous Dessert,” 1916 / THF294400
The final step in the agricultural chain is public consumption, particularly in restaurants. In 2019, The Henry Ford acquired the largest collection of materials related to American diners, donated by leading diner expert Richard J.S. Gutman. Within the Gutman Diner Collection, photographs, trade catalogs, menus, and other items tell stories of innovation and entrepreneurship—from the craftspeople and designers who built the dining cars to the owners and operators who served customers every day. Learn more about the history of diners and how the industry embodies innovation and entrepreneurship in "Diners: An American Original," written by Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life Donna Braden.
Leviathan Grill, Newark, New Jersey, circa 1930 / THF296786
As part of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, The Henry Ford launched an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program. Melvin Parson, founder of We The People Grower’s Association and We the People Opportunity Farm, was our first EIR, participating in programs to encourage entrepreneurs in urban farming. Driven by his mission for equality and social justice, Farmer Parson uses vegetable farming as a vehicle to address social ills. He works to educate those in his community about farming and provides employment and training for individuals returning home from incarceration. You can view clips from the interview we did with Melvin Parson about his entrepreneurial journey at his urban farm in Ann Arbor in this expert set: "Melvin Parson: Market Gardener and Social Entrepreneur."
Melvin Parson during the Entrepreneurship Interview, 2019 / THF295361
This year, The Henry Ford and Saganworks, a technology start-up from Ann Arbor, Michigan, have partnered together to create a new virtual experience where people from around the world can interact with our digitized collections in a curated virtual space. What we created was a Sagan: a virtual room experienced like a gallery. The Henry Ford’s Entrepreneurship Sagan highlights the artifacts we digitized from the collections previously mentioned related to Agriculture and the Environment, and Social Transformation. To learn more about our Sagan you can watch this narrated walkthrough or read "Exploring Entrepreneurship, Virtually: The Henry Ford’s Sagan." You can also interact with an embedded version of the Sagan in this post: "Tour Our Entrepreneurship Sagan."
A view of the barn section of The Henry Ford’s Entrepreneurship Sagan, featuring items from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, the Label Collection, and Melvin Parson’s EIR program. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Johnson)
The second six months of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship focused on our collecting themes of Design & Making, and Communications & Information Technology. The first entrepreneurial story I delved into here was the Everlast Metal Products Corporation. Experienced metalworkers and brothers-in-law Louis Schnitzer and Nathan Gelfman immigrated to the U.S. and entered the silver housewares business in the early 1920s. Soon, the Great Depression caused them to turn to a more affordable metal: aluminum.
Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Yours from Everlast, the Finest—Bar None!” 1947 / THF125124
In 1932, the pair formed Everlast Metal Products Corporation and began producing high-quality, hand-forged aluminum giftware. In an era of growing uniformity via factory production, the “made by hand” products (like this bowl) held an aesthetic appeal for consumers. Even with its initial success, by the 1950s, aluminum housewares were seen as old-fashioned compared to consumer interests in materials like ceramics and plastics. As an attempt to reinvent its products, Everlast produced a line of “modern” giftware, like coasters. If I could choose any Everlast piece to use at my house, it would definitely be this three-tier tidbit tray from the “modern” line.
Despite attempts to modernize, advances in technology and rapidly changing consumer interests led to the downfall of the aluminum industry. Schnitzer and Gelfman’s entrepreneurial journey ended in 1961 but they experienced undeniable success in Everlast’s 30-year history. Interested in learning more about this company? Check out "Forging an Enterprise: Everlast Aluminum Giftware," or click here to view over 100 items from our collection of Everlast products.
The next collection I worked with was the Trade Card Collection, filled with all kinds of entrepreneurial stories. As color printing became popular in the late 19th century, trade cards became a major means of advertising goods and services to potential customers. Cheap and effective, trade cards promoted products like medicine, seeds, food, stoves, sewing machines, and notions. Americans often saved these little advertisements found in product packages and distributed by local merchants
Trade Card for John Kelly’s Fine Shoes, 1879-1890 / THF296402
Companies employed a variety of methods to make their trade cards stand out, like using vibrant colors or endearing images. One of the most popular image themes throughout our collection, and Victorian trade cards in general, is the depiction of children (for example, in this trade card for Ayer’s Sarsaparilla). Another common theme is cute – and sometimes silly – animals. Something about the expressions on these dogs reading the newspaper always makes me laugh.
Trade Card for the Standard Rotary Shuttle Sewing Machine, Standard Sewing Machine Co., 1891-1900 / THF296692
I found trade cards that offered an optical illusion especially intriguing. When you hold this card up to a light, the woman’s eyes appear open and the logo for the company’s Garland Stoves and Ranges appears in the open window. But my absolute favorite trade card is the one below, for Nick Pettine’s tuxedo rental and tailoring service. These two figures came in an envelope. They are the same size when placed side-by-side (see first image), but when you put one figure’s nose on the collar of the other, one appears smaller!
Mr. Smyley and Mr. Happy’s Optical Illusion Trade Card for Nick Pettine Tuxedo Rentals, 1924 / THF298632, THF298633
I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so I was excited to have the opportunity to research early Grand Rapids companies found within the Trade Card Collection, which you can check out in the expert set "Trade Cards from Early Grand Rapids Businesses." To learn about other entrepreneurial companies represented in the Trade Card Collection, check out "Trade Cards Catch the Eye."
While researching the trade cards, I became fascinated with the story behind one particular entrepreneurial company: the Larkin Company. In 1875, John D. Larkin established a soap manufacturing company. Its first salesman, Elbert Hubbard, adopted a marketing strategy to offer a premium (a free giveaway) with the purchase of a product such as Boraxine.
By 1883, as the company’s product line expanded, finer premiums were offered, such as silver-plated eating utensils. Larkin & Hubbard saw this promotion’s potential. They eliminated middlemen (including the salesforce) and entered the mail-order industry. In 1885, Hubbard developed “The Larkin Idea,” incorporating his promotion of offering giveaways with purchases into mail-order catalogs. The money saved by eliminating middlemen went towards creating desirable premiums available to customers with purchases. By 1910, product offerings expanded to include foodstuffs, clothing, and housewares, with over 1,700 premiums to choose from, ranging from children’s toys to clothing to furniture. This cover from a 1908 catalog advertises “stylish wearing apparel given as premiums.”
Cover for Larkin Company Catalog, “Stylish Wearing Apparel Given as Premiums with the Larkin Products,” Spring/Summer 1908 / THF297766
While looking through Larkin catalogs, I was amazed at all of the product and premium offerings and the fact that you could literally furnish your entire house with Larkin premiums. I was most shocked to find this premium: a singing canary! However, despite tremendous success, by the mid-1920s, the company was faltering, making the decision to stop manufacturing products and premiums in 1941. However, due to an abundance of inventory, the company was still able to fill orders until 1962. To learn more about this incredible story, check out “The Larkin Idea.”
Page from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The World’s Greatest Premium Values, Larkin Co. Inc.,” Fall and Winter 1930 / THF298067
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were digitizing some of the materials The Henry Ford acquired in 2017 from the now closed American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. (Read more about this acquisition in the blog, "Collecting in the 2010s", under the “Throstle Spinning Frame” entry.) In the collection are many sample books from various companies—records of fabrics produced by that manufacturing company within a given year or season. They are strikingly beautiful, offering a glimpse of the evolution of fabrics and patterns over time. This book from the Cocheco Manufacturing Company in New Hampshire, for example, notes the date (1880), fabric, and pattern information, and the page below is from the Fall 1927 sample book for Lancaster Mills’ “Klinton Fancies.”
Page from Sample Book for Lancaster Mills, “36 Inch Klinton Fancies,” Fall 1927 / THF299920
I wasn’t sure what patterns or colors I was going to find in these sample books, but I was completely surprised when I saw this one from Hamilton Manufacturing Company from 1900. These colors are so vibrant and the patterns seem so modern. Beyond the zigzag pattern below, it contains what look like modern-day animal prints, and printed patchwork that resembles a pieced quilt pattern, similar to a crazy quilt. Crazy quilts consist of fabric of irregular shapes and sizes sewn onto a backing, with decorative embroidery patterns covering the seams. These fabrics gave you the look of a crazy quilt—without all the effort.
Page from Sample Book for Hamilton Manufacturing Company, April 9, 1900 to May 27, 1901 / THF600027
The next collection I researched, the Burroughs Corporation Collection, is related to the Communications & Information Technology theme. This company might sound familiar to those in the Detroit area, as Burroughs had its main plant in Plymouth, Michigan. William S. Burroughs was a banker who wanted to ease the work of figuring mathematical calculations by hand. His solution led to his patented adding machine and the creation of his company in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1886, first known as the American Arithmometer Company.
Advertisement for the Burroughs Adding Machine Class 1, 1901-1907 / THF299361
By 1904, the company had outgrown its St. Louis facility, moving operations to Detroit. In 1905, it became the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, and by the 1930s had over 450 models of manual and electric calculation devices, bookkeeping machines, and typewriters.
The company’s focus shifted in the 1950s to include defense and space research, banking and business technology, and advanced computer and electronics research. To reflect this diversification, the company was renamed Burroughs Corporation in 1953. Having contracted with the National Defense Program during WWII, Burroughs was awarded additional government and defense contracts throughout the 1960s. A Burroughs transistorized guidance computer was deployed to launch the Mercury and Gemini space flights.
One of my favorite artifacts from the Burroughs Collection is this copy of a custom “baby calculator” presented to Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. They made two calculators for the Queen’s children, Ann and Charles. This blue one was made for Charles (note the “C” on the front). On the inside of the case, you can see the Royal Stewart tartan, the personal tartan plaid of the Queen.
Copy of a Custom “Baby Calculator” Presented to Queen Elizabeth II for Prince Charles, 1953 / THF170191
From the adding machine to office equipment to computers that helped to send people into space, the Burroughs Corporation adhered to its founding principles – to respond to human problems with relevant technologies. Learn more about the company (now Unisys) by reading “Wherever There’s Business There’s Burroughs.”
The Fall 2019 Entrepreneur in Residence was Rich Sheridan, CEO and co-founder of Menlo Innovations, a software development company. Sheridan is known for his unique approach to the office environment, emphasizing teamwork and encouraging joy in the workplace. During an interview, Sheridan shared how visits to Greenfield Village—specifically Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park lab—sparked an idea to re-imagine the software industry’s work environment in a similar way to how Edison ran his lab. Listen to Sheridan talk about this in the clip, “Creating Menlo Innovations.” You can also check out Sheridan’s entire interview in the expert set "Rich Sheridan: Re-imagining Workplace Culture."
Video screenshot of Rich Sheridan, 2019 / THF600469
The third phase of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship was dedicated to the collecting themes of Power & Energy, and Mobility. Unfortunately, the pandemic curtailed our ability to digitize new materials, but we were grateful to have completed the digitization project for one mobility-related entrepreneur story before we were quarantined: the story of McKinley Thompson, Jr.
Photograph of McKinley Thompson, Jr., undated (Photograph Courtesy of McKinley Thompson, Jr.)
Thompson broke barriers by being the first African American to attend the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles for automotive design (having won a scholarship to the school as the grand prize in a design contest). After graduating, Thompson was hired by Ford Motor Company to work in its Advanced Styling Studio, breaking another barrier to become the first African American automobile designer. There he contributed to concept cars like the Allegro and Gyron, and he collaborated on production vehicles like the Mustang and Bronco. While at Ford, Thompson recognized the important role mobility played in the growth of developing nations. Specifically, Thompson believed an affordable, reliable vehicle would stimulate the economies of third-world countries in Africa, much in the same way that the Model T revolutionized American transportation and contributed to the economy via Ford’s Five Dollar Day. Thompson’s vision gave way to an all-terrain vehicle he dubbed the Warrior.
The Warrior was made in part from a plastic-composite material known as Royalex. In fact, the Warrior was only one part of Thompson’s larger “Project Vanguard,” where he envisioned a facility to fabricate Royalex, a building to assemble Warrior cars, a facility to build marine transportation, and eventually a place to build plastic habitat modules for housing. Ford Motor Company was initially supportive, but ultimately passed on the project in 1967.
Despite this setback, Thompson believed his vehicle had potential. Hoping to garner interest for investment in the program, he gathered some friends and produced a prototype to demonstrate the possibilities of his unique application of Royalex. Unfortunately, while every potential investor he approached told him it was a good idea, Thompson was unable to secure the funding, eventually shutting down the project in 1979.
McKinley Thompson and Crew Testing the Warrior Concept Car, 1969 / THF113754
Our third and final Entrepreneur in Residence for the Initiative for Entrepreneurship was Jessica Robinson, co-founder of the Detroit Mobility Lab, Michigan Mobility Institute, and Assembly Ventures, a venture capital firm. With dramatic new transportation technologies on the horizon, Robinson encourages technological education and understanding for the benefit of our increasingly mobile society. Throughout her time with The Henry Ford, Robinson had the opportunity to delve into the history of electric vehicles and share her expertise through several programs, including this Innovation Journeys Live! program. As quarantine restrictions relaxed a bit, Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson and I had the opportunity to interview Jessica. The entire interview is coming soon to our website, so stay tuned!
Jessica Robinson during an Interview for the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, 2020 (Photograph courtesy Brian James Egen)
During the final months of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, I had the opportunity to delve into the fascinating world of patent medicine. A popular option for treatment throughout the 1800s, patent medicines were readily available and relatively inexpensive. They were often advertised as "cure-alls," with packaging and advertisements listing all of the illnesses and complaints that the product was believed to "cure." This trade card for Brown's Iron Bitters claims that it cures such ailments as indigestion, fatigue, and even malaria, among other things.
Trade Card for Brown’s Iron Bitters, Brown Chemical Co., 1890-1900 / THF277429
The popularity of patent medicines encouraged entrepreneurs to manufacture their own remedies and enter the industry. Some of the entrepreneurs were practitioners-turned-businessmen. Others were savvy businessmen with a flair for marketing. Dr. John Samuel Carter, maker of Carter's Little Liver Pills, was actually a pharmacist before establishing his patent medicine business. Unfortunately, other entrepreneurs were con artists, concocting their own remedies that either did absolutely nothing or were harmful to those who consumed them. As time would tell, many popular patent medicines were found to contain harmful ingredients such as morphine, cocaine, or dangerous levels of alcohol. This trade card advertises Burdock Blood Bitters, which was found to contain 25.2% alcohol by volume.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn & Co., circa 1885 / THF215182
While there were hundreds of patent medicines created during this time, the most popular were the ones that were heavily advertised. Trade cards of the era inform us of the major players in the industry and allow us to examine the advertising tactics used by manufacturers to entice potential customers. To learn more about patent medicines and the entrepreneurs behind some of the most popular companies, check out the post “Patent Medicine Entrepreneurs: Friend or ‘Faux’?”
The Initiative for Entrepreneurship, funded by the William Davidson Foundation, has given The Henry Ford an amazing opportunity to analyze our collections through an entrepreneurial lens and highlight the stories of entrepreneurs from the past so that they might inspire the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. To learn more about what The Henry Ford is doing to support and encourage entrepreneurship, please visit the initiative’s landing page.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to all of the curators who have worked with me to share these stories over the last two years, and to the Initiative for Entrepreneurship digitization staff for making the collections accessible to the public.
Before modern pharmaceuticals and medical practice came to be widely accepted, people had essentially three choices to try to cure what ailed them, none of which was perfect. The first choice was to be treated by a doctor, if one was available, affordable, and trustworthy. The second option was to try a home remedy, found in cookbooks or periodicals or passed down through a family member. The third choice was patent medicines. Readily available and relatively inexpensive—though often suspect and sometimes downright dangerous—patent medicines were a popular option for treatment throughout the 1800s.
The popularity of patent medicines encouraged entrepreneurs to manufacture their own remedies and enter the flourishing patent medicine industry. Some of these entrepreneurs were licensed doctors who decided to become businessmen instead of practitioners. Others were businessmen with a flair for marketing who saw an opportunity to use their skills to peddle an acquired formula or small medicine business they purchased. Unfortunately, some entrepreneurial manufacturers were complete con artists concocting their own remedies that either did absolutely nothing or were quite dangerous to whomever consumed them. Through this blog post, we'll explore the stories behind various entrepreneurial patent medicine manufacturers.
Trade Card for Brown’s Iron Bitters, Brown Chemical Co., 1890-1900. Patent medicines were often advertised as “cure-alls” with packaging and advertisements listing illnesses and complaints that the product was intended to “cure.” This trade card for Brown’s Iron Bitters claims that it cured “indigestion, dyspepsia, intermittent fevers, want of appetite, loss of strength, lack of energy, malaria and malaria fevers,” and other things. / THF277429
The term “patent medicine” is misleading as the medicine advertised was very rarely patented. It originally referred to medicine in which the ingredients were “granted protection for exclusivity,” meaning that the same composition could not be sold by another manufacturer. While it was relatively simple to obtain a patent for medicine, most manufacturers didn’t apply for one because it meant that they would have to divulge the remedy’s ingredients. More often than not, these medicines contained dangerous substances like morphine, cocaine, and high levels of alcohol.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn & Co., circa 1885. A study conducted by the American Medical Association in 1917 found that Burdock Blood Bitters, a popular patent medicine, contained 25.2% alcohol by volume. This medicine, and others like it, would most likely dull any pain (thanks to the alcohol) but its contents also increased the likelihood of developing dependency or addiction in adults, and could be fatal to children. / THF215182
Having originated in England in the 17th century, patent medicines made their way to America in the 18th century and were a major industry by the 1850s. The last half of the 1800s is considered the “golden age” of American patent medicine, with hundreds of products flooding the market. A number of factors led to this boom in the industry. For one, advances in industrial and manufacturing technology made the process of producing bottles, containers, labels, and the medicine itself more efficient. As the century progressed, advanced transportation methods opened new markets across the continent. Additionally, the introduction of color printing created an advertising frenzy with thousands of newspaper, magazine, trade card, and poster advertisements. And finally, there were essentially no regulations imposed on the drug trade at this time, meaning that individuals could put whatever they wanted into a remedy and advertise it however they pleased. All of this culminated to ensure that the patent medicine trade was highly lucrative, encouraging enterprising individuals to launch their own brand of medicines regardless of medical knowledge or background.
Trade Card for Dr. Harter’s Iron Tonic, 1875-1890. Trade cards were the most popular method for advertising patent medicines. This puzzle card for Dr. Harter’s Iron Tonic featured hidden figures within a drawing for customers to find. / THF214474
While there were hundreds of patent medicines created during this time, the most successful were the ones that were heavily advertised. Consumers encountered many advertisements and brand recognition became extremely important with so many patent medicines on the market. Trade cards of the era inform us who the major players were in the patent medicine industry. They also allow us to examine the advertising tactics used by patent medicine manufacturers to entice potential customers.
Foster, Milburn & Co.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn, & Co., circa 1885. / THF215179
Orrin Foster and Thomas Milburn were patent medicine manufacturers and distributors. They organized their first business in the 1870s in Toronto before opening a distribution office in Buffalo, New York. The company’s best-known product was Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil, which the pair had purchased from Dr. Samuel N. Thomas in 1876 and marketed heavily to the general public. The back of this trade card for Burdock Blood Bitters—another well-known product by the company—features a popular strategy for advertising patent medicines: testimonials. Testimonials provided prospective buyers with “first-hand experiences” of those who had tried the product. With praises sung by doctors, reverends, and members of the general public, testimonials instilled confidence in the products, persuading consumers to buy. Whether the testimonials were truthful or fabricated is up for debate.
Humphreys’ Homeopathic Medicine Company is an example of a patent medicine company that actually had a proprietor in the medical field. The company was founded by Frederick K. Humphreys in 1853. He graduated in 1850 from the Pennsylvania Homeopathic Medical College with a Doctor of Homeopathic Medicine degree and established a successful medical practice. Homeopathy is an alternative medical practice based in the belief that the same substances that cause disease in healthy people can be used to treat those who are sick with similar symptoms. According to the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors, Humphreys helped “form the New York State Homeopathic Medical Society and became an important member of the American Homeopathic Institute.” In 1854, Humphreys began manufacturing and selling homeopathic remedies. Witch Hazel Oil—for curing itching, pain from cuts and burns, chapped hands and feet, bug bites, sunburns, etc.—became one of Humphreys' most popular products over time.
Lydia E. Pinkham’s Medicine Company
Trade Card for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, 1880-1890. / THF298977
Lydia E. Pinkham was one of the most prominent names in the sector of the patent medicine industry that catered to “female complaints.” Before entering the business, Pinkham was a teacher and mother. It is said that she was known among her neighbors for mixing her own herbal remedies, keeping a personal notebook she called “Medical Directions for Ailments.” Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound is believed to have been a secret formula given to Lydia’s husband as payment for money owed to him. The couple began producing the compound in 1875, thus entering the patent medicine business. Their sons, Will and Dan, were tasked with marketing the product. In 1879, Dan came up with the idea of using Lydia’s portrait in advertisements—the first woman’s likeness to be used in advertising. Attaching her likeness and signature to advertising was a huge hit, providing women with a friendly and “knowing” face, which instilled confidence in the product.
Carter Medicine Company
Trade Card for Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Carter Medicine Company, 1880-1890. Trade cards were generally printed as small rectangles but unique shapes, like the painter’s palette shape of this card, were also created and were a beneficial advertising tool. / THF297541
The Carter Medicine Company provides another example of a patent medicine manufacturer with a background in the medical field. Pharmacist Dr. John Samuel Carter began selling “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” out of his pharmacy in Pennsylvania for those with “digestive distress.” The product gained popularity throughout the 1850s and in 1880, Carter formed a partnership with New York businessman Brent Good to establish Carter Medicine Company. By World War I, "Carter's Little Liver Pills" had become such a staple in American households that the company remained in business despite a global economic downturn.
C.I. Hood & Co.
Trade Card for C.I. Hood & Co. with Hood’s Photos of the World, “Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris,” 1890-1910. Trade Cards from Hood’s Photos of the World series gave customers views of faraway places, providing a window to the broader world. / THF297455
C.I. Hood & Co. was one of the most recognized names in the patent medicine industry. In 1875, Charles Ira Hood opened his drug store, C.I Hood & Company, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Within a few years, Hood’s was one of the largest patent medicine producers in the United States. The thing that set Hood’s company apart was its state-of-the-art factory, which included its own advertising department. Hood’s factory produced all sorts of ephemera, including calendars, trade cards, and even cookbooks, which helped make it one of the most successful patent medicine manufacturers.
Seth Arnold worked in a series of industries before entering the patent medicine business in the late 1840s. Following a venture in hotel management, Arnold took several years off due to his health, beginning in 1835. He was said to have used this time to create a remedy for his illness, a medicine that came to be called “Dr. Arnold’s Balsam.” In the New England Union Directory of 1849, Arnold was cited as an “eclectic physician and patent medicine manufacturer” in Smithfield, Rhode Island, where he was also a physician for cholera. In addition to his balsam, two additional products were created—“Cough Killer” and “Bilious Pills”—to be sold by his company, known as Dr. Seth Arnold’s Medical Corporation. Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer was believed to be his most popular product, but the others were successful as well. If the testimonial on the back of the trade card above is to be believed, customers as far away as Nebraska used Dr. Seth Arnold’s Bilious Pills.
Sterling Remedy Company
Trade Card for “No-To-Bac” Tobacco Habit Cure, Sterling Products Co., circa 1894. / THF298541
Sterling Remedy Company provides an example of a businessman entering the patent medicine industry without any medical knowledge or background. H.L. Kramer was a self-made businessman who established a publishing and advertising company in Lafayette, Indiana, and held interest or managerial positions in the Humane Remedy Company and the Universal Remedy Company (both manufacturers of patent medicines). One of Kramer’s advertising clients was John W. Heath, a local Indiana banker who owned Sterling Remedy Company. Heath also consulted with Kramer on a project to develop a local health spring into a medicinal spa. Following Heath’s death in 1890, Kramer bought out his widow’s interest in the Sterling Remedy Company and the medical springs. By the mid-1890s, Kramer had launched the springs as a “fashionable Midwestern health resort” known as “Mudlavia” because of its specialty mud bath cures. Under Kramer’s leadership (and with thousands of dollars spent on advertising yearly), Sterling Remedy Company gained popularity. Universal Remedy Company’s “No-To-Bac,” a popular tobacco habit cure, was merged with Sterling Remedy Company’s product line. A common side effect of No-To-Bac was constipation, so the company produced Cascarets to help with this inconvenience. Cascarets became the company's most popular product. Despite success, Kramer sold the company in 1909.
Dr. J.C. Ayer & Co.
Trade Card for Ayer’s Hair Vigor, circa 1885. Ayer’s Hair Vigor became a popular hair restorative following its introduction in the 1860s. Examples of packaging for this patent medicine are on display at the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village. / THF297658
James C. Ayer was one of the most recognized names in the patent medicine industry. This is largely due to the fact that Ayer was an advertising genius, producing thousands of advertisements in the form of trade cards, almanacs, posters, and newspaper and magazine ads. Young Ayer apprenticed for several years at Jacob Robbins’ Apothecary Shop in Ledyard, Connecticut, and studied under Dr. Samuel Dana. Within a few years, Ayer purchased the apothecary shop and began manufacturing his own medicines, including Cherry Pectoral. His medicine was so popular that he was forced to find a larger manufacturing facility, moving operations to Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1855, Ayer entered into a partnership with his brother to form J.C. Ayer & Company, manufacturing patent medicines. Additional remedies created by Ayer since introducing Cherry Pectoral included Cathartic Pills in 1853, Sarsaparilla and Ague Cure in 1858, and restorative Hair Vigor in 1867. In 1860, the Philadelphia Medical University awarded Ayer with an honorary medical degree, leading to the addition of “Dr.” to the company’s name.
While trade cards were certainly one of the most effective advertising methods for patent medicines, major manufacturers printed their own almanacs as well. Dozens of almanacs littered the counters of local general stores and urban pharmacies. In an average year, J.C. Ayer & Co. produced roughly 16 million almanacs. In 1889, Ayer’s distributed 25 million almanacs in 21 languages.
While the masses were content to self-prescribe patent medicines for themselves, there were some who questioned the effectiveness of the products and the legitimacy of their proprietors. As previously mentioned, relatively few restrictions were placed on the drug trade at this time and manufacturers were not inclined to provide a list of ingredients for their products. Some reputable doctors took it upon themselves to conduct studies to see what some of the most popular patent medicines were made of, and the results were often startling.
Many medicines were found to contain dangerous levels of alcohol. For instance, one study found that Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound contained roughly 20% alcohol. Other remedies were found to contain morphine (like Dr. Seth Arnold's Cough Killer) and cocaine. With reports such as these making the general public aware of dangerous substances in some of their favorite medicines, and growing concern against the manufactured food industry regarding sanitation practices and food additives, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, placing federal regulations on these trades. For patent medicines, the passage of the act called for manufacturers to list any harmful ingredients on their containers and prohibited any false or misleading advertising.
Page from “Ayer’s American Almanac, 1907” noting that its products do not contain alcohol. / THF285178
Following the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, there was a significant decrease in the number of patent medicines on the market, but there were some companies that were able to remain in business. One of the most successful was Carter Medicine Company. It sustained its legitimacy even with the passage of the Act, and throughout the 20th century, the company diversified its products, leading to research in anti-perspirants and deodorant. The company is still in business today as Carter-Wallace, with well-known products such as Arrid, an antiperspirant and deodorant, and Nair, a hair remover for women.
Two other manufacturers previously mentioned—the Lydia Pinkham Company and Humphreys' Homeopathic Medicine Company (now Humphreys' Pharmacal, Inc.)—also remain in business today with their products available for purchase online.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Donna Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and resources on the patent medicine industry and for reviewing this content.
In 2017, The Henry Ford acquired a significant collection of materials from the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) when financial challenges forced that organization to close its doors. Founded in 1960, ATHM was located in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city key to the story of the Industrial Revolution and to the American textile industry. For decades, ATHM gathered and interpreted a superb collection of textile machinery and tools, clothing and textiles, and an extensive collection of archival materials. The Henry Ford was among the many museums, libraries, and other organizations to which ATHM's collections were transferred. The Henry Ford acquired textile machinery, clothing, and textiles, as well as archival material that includes approximately 3,000 cubic feet of printed materials and fabric samples from various textile manufacturers, dating from the early 1800s into the mid-to-late 1900s. As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, The Henry Ford has digitized many sample books, as well as product literature, from the archival material within the ATHM collection.
So, what is a sample book? Textile manufacturing companies – commonly referred to as mills or print works – kept a record of fabrics produced by the company within a given year or season. These records typically consist of a fabric sample attached to a blank page in a bound book, and are often accompanied by information including pattern name, inventory number, dyestuffs, and in a few cases, the retail company for which the fabric was made.
The pages of these books offer a rich look at the broad range of fabrics produced by an increasingly mechanized textile industry, allowing researchers to see the evolution in textile design, materials, and manufacturing techniques. They also allow a glimpse into the various methods of recordkeeping among the many companies represented in the collection. Finally, the books—and the fabric samples within them—provide us with a broad view into the rich color palate of American textiles of the 1800s and 1900s. This is especially helpful for exploring clothing and textiles in the era before widespread color photography, where our understanding of the period is dulled by black-and-white depictions. The sample books are strikingly beautiful, offering an intriguing glimpse of the evolution of styles and patterns over time.
In addition to the sample books, we had the opportunity to digitize several examples of product literature from the 1900s, including catalogs and brochures. The product literature was used for marketing and sales, rather than as a record of production. These materials offer insight into the fabric and designs available for clothing or domestic use during the 1900s.
Have I piqued your interest? Below are a few favorite items I’ve come across in this collection.
Cocheco Manufacturing Company (Dover, New Hampshire & Lawrence, Massachusetts)
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, 1876-1877 / THF670738, THF670787, THF670757
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, November to December 1877 / THF670668, THF670707, THF670697
Sample Book, January 9, 1880 to April 22, 1880 / THF600226
Hamilton Manufacturing Company (Lowell, Massachusetts)
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford for sharing her expertise of the textile industry and for reviewing this content.
The Henry Ford has long explored creative ways to share our world-renowned collections and provide our guests and visitors with exciting new ways to interact with them. Earlier this year, we launched a new virtual experience that we created in partnership withSaganworks, a technology startup from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
What we created is a Sagan: a virtual room capable of storing content in a variety of file formats, and experienced like a virtual gallery. The Henry Ford curated this Sagan to highlight some of the work the museum has done under the auspices of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, which focuses on providing resources and encouragement for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. Our Sagan highlights entrepreneurial stories and collections, displaying a sampling of objects we’ve digitized and content we’ve created, all in one place.
As a startup, Saganworks is continuously adapting and evolving its product, and we are happy to announce that we now have the ability to embed our Sagan right here within our blog for you to interact with. (Though please note that this is best experienced on desktop—to experience the Sagan on your phone, you’ll be prompted to download the Saganworks app.) Continue Reading
As The Henry Ford celebrates the milestone of digitizing its 100,000th artifact, we have been given the opportunity to reflect on the importance of this work and how it positively impacts our ability to share our stories with the world.
What does digitization mean? Digitization is the process of getting an artifact online for the public to view in a digital format. The Digitization and Digital Content pillar of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship directly contributes to the museum’s digitization effort. As Project Curator, I work with other curators to identify entrepreneurial stories within our collections and select items to be digitized by the Entrepreneurship team. I am then able to use the digitized artifacts within pieces of digital content, such as blog posts and expert sets, to share these stories with the public.
Product Catalogue of F. & J. Heinz Company, circa 1878. Through the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we were able to digitize this amazing catalog of F. & J. Heinz products from The Henry Ford’s sizable H.J. Heinz Company collection. Digitization of this catalog, as well as other objects from the Heinz collection, provide greater resources for researchers and visitors interested in learning more about the history of this company / THF291879 & THF291887
So how does this process begin? For me, it starts with doing background research on the individual, company, or collection identified, and then spending time in the Benson Ford Research Center looking at every item in that particular collection. This can take hours—sometimes days—depending on the size of the collection, but it’s fun to work with the physical documents, photographs, and other materials within the collection and see what interesting things I discover.
Project Curator Samantha Johnson with items from the H.J. Heinz Company Collection in the Benson Ford Research Center.
While looking through the collection, a story begins to unfold and I can start to see how we might utilize some of the items to tell that story in a blog post or expert set. When selecting items for digitization, I really start to think about what items would visually represent the story I’m trying to tell. I also look for items that I find personally interesting and artifacts that I think others will enjoy. But to use the items in digital content, they must be cataloged and imaged.
What does it mean to catalog an artifact? Cataloging is the process of entering important identifying information about an artifact into the museum’s collection’s management database. Important information includes the artifact’s unique ID number, title, maker history, date, location, and description of the artifact, among other things. Catalog records are not only accessed by internal staff, but much of the information is also made accessible to a global audience through our Digital Collections – one of the many ways we present information about our collections to researchers, other organizations, and the general public around the world.
Project Cataloging Specialist Katrina Wioncek cataloging a sample book from the American Textile History Museum Collection. (Photograph by Samantha Johnson)
For the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, after individual items have been selected for digitization, the Project Cataloging Specialist makes sure that the items are cataloged and any important information is included within the catalog record. It is extremely helpful if the catalog record has an image of the object available, which is one reason why the next process, imaging, is so important.
What does imaging mean? Imaging is the process of rendering an object, document, photograph, etc. into a digital format. For 3D objects, imaging occurs through photography—for example, to learn how we photograph our quilt collection, check out this blog post. For 2D materials, digitization can occur by scanning or by photographing the objects, depending on their size, material, fragility, and other considerations. The images must also be cropped and processed through programs such as Adobe Photoshop—but it is important to note that we do not use these types of programs to make the objects look better. Our imaging goal is to provide an accurate representation of the physical object.
Project Digitization Specialist Karen Wissink imaging an artifact. (Photograph by Katrina Wioncek)
For the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, after the item is cataloged, the Project Digitization Specialist images the object and processes the image(s), then uploads it to our collection management database. When the artifacts are both cataloged and imaged, they are harvested to our Digital Collections, for people all over the world to enjoy.
Once artifacts are online, I can then use them in digital content like blog posts, using the objects to help share stories with the public. “The Larkin Idea” is one of my favorite posts, because we had the opportunity to tell the entrepreneurial story of the Larkin Company utilizing a variety of digitized artifacts.
Digitization for the Initiative for Entrepreneurship began in February 2019, and since then our team has digitized nearly 2,500 artifacts from 19 different collections! This initiative, funded by the William Davidson Foundation, has given The Henry Ford an amazing opportunity to analyze our collections through an entrepreneurial lens and highlight the stories of entrepreneurs from the past so that they might inspire the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. Check out our blog for more about these stories and The Henry Ford’s digitization program.
The Henry Ford is facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the impact of our 16-week closure and reduced operations. We need your help in securing our future. Love the Henry Ford? Please support all that we treasure—including our digitization program. Longtime supporters of The Henry Ford will match your donation dollar for dollar, so your contribution will have double the impact.
Trade Card for the Larkin Soap Company, 1900 / THF224516
As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we had the opportunity to delve into the history of the Larkin Company. What began as a small soap manufacturing business in 1875 became one of the nation’s leading mail-order businesses by 1900. This post highlights the Larkin Company’s rise to popularity under the multi-faceted, ingenious marketing strategy known as “The Larkin Idea."
While the Larkin Company sold its products throughout the country, the company had special appeal for rural customers, offering a broader range of product choices than stores in nearby villages and towns. The company would eventually develop a distribution system, contracting with local deliverymen to deliver Larkin products right to customers’ doorsteps – rather than customers having to pick them up in town. In the early 21st century, people today welcome this same opportunity for conveniently delivered goods!
In 1875, having worked in the soap business for more than a decade, John D. Larkin created his own soap company in Buffalo, New York, called J.D. Larkin, Manufacturer of Plain and Fancy Soaps. This would later become known as the Larkin Company. The first product, made for laundry use, was a yellow bar known as Sweet Home Soap. Boraxine, a flaked laundry soap, quickly followed, and continued to be a signature item in product lists throughout the company’s history.
The first salesman for the company was Larkin’s brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard was a skilled promoter and successful salesman, devising advertising strategies and boosting sales. In 1878, Hubbard was made a partner in the business, resulting in the company’s name change to J.D. Larkin & Company. With this partnership, Larkin oversaw the manufacturing of the products and Hubbard was placed in charge of advertising and promotion. One of the first strategies Hubbard adopted was offering a chromolithograph (color print) as a premium, or free giveaway, in each box of Boraxine. By 1883 – after additional products were added to Larkin’s line – Hubbard began offering finer premiums, such as a Japanese silk handkerchief in each box of “Elite” Toilet Soap.
Back of a Trade Card for J.D. Larkin & Co.’s “Elite” Toilet Soap, 1882 / THF296327
After years of “slinging soap,” Hubbard noted that direct sales to housewives were more profitable than selling to local merchants. The company was doing quite well – having distributors in every state east of the Rocky Mountains in its first decade – but Larkin and Hubbard believed that the company had even greater potential. In order to maximize profits, the company decided to eliminate all middlemen (including the sales force), thus entering the mail-order industry. The mail-order business was not new – Montgomery Ward & Company had made this popular a decade earlier. But in 1885, Hubbard developed a plan, called “The Larkin Idea,” that offered giveaways with the purchase of particular items from the company’s mail-order catalogs.
Page advertising Rugs as Larkin Premiums, in Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan: Factory-to-Family,” Fall and Winter 1917-1918 / THF298153
“The Larkin Idea” was simple: In cutting out all middlemen and selling Larkin products directly to housewives, the money that would have gone to the payroll of the middlemen would instead be used to create desirable premiums that would be given to customers with the purchase of Larkin products. This idea was encapsulated by the slogan, “Factory-to-Family,” and the tagline of “The Larkin Idea” became, “Save All Cost Which Adds No Value.”
Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Factory-To-Family Plan,” Spring and Summer, 1915 / THF297907
The first iteration of “The Larkin Idea” came in 1886 with the introduction of a Combination Box. By this time, the company was offering nine different soap products. At first, the Combination Box sold for $6, but a few years later, a $10 option emerged, offering enough products to last a family the entire year. The $10 Combination Boxes quickly gained popularity as customers could receive 142 products – 100 of those being Sweet Home Soap – and a free premium worth $10. Larkin also introduced a 30-day policy in which customers had 30 days to try a product before paying for it. This gave peace of mind to customers who wanted to try a product, risk-free, and also developed trust between the company and consumer. The public embraced “The Larkin Idea” with enthusiasm, ordering nearly 91,000 Combination Boxes a year!
Advertisement for Larkin Premiums, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298080
By 1892, the company changed its name once more, to Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company. As the popularity of the Combination Boxes grew, Larkin sought to expand its product and premium offerings. In 1897, Larkin offered 16 products – including 14 different soaps, a cold cream, and tooth powder – and that number increased every year. This led to the company eventually dropping “soap” from its name to become the Larkin Company in 1904.
Did You Know?
After leaving the Larkin Company, Elbert Hubbard would go on to found the Roycroft community of East Aurora, New York, in the mid-1890s. At the Roycroft community, hundreds of artisans came to live and work as part of an Arts and Crafts utopian community. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged quality craftsmanship of handcrafted works of simple form as a reaction to poorly made factory produced goods. With his marketing prowess and passion, Hubbard led the Roycrofters to become one of the most successful communities of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Explore more on the Arts and Crafts movement on our blog and in this Expert Set.
With the success of the Combination Box and the increasing number of customers nationwide, the company introduced another facet of “The Larkin Idea,” which would prove to be invaluable: Larkin Clubs. Women across the country were encouraged to become Larkin Secretaries, and as such they would gather friends and family to purchase products together. A Club-of-Ten was encouraged to have all members buy $1 worth of products each month, and a different member of the club would receive a premium of their choice every month.
Advertisement for a Larkin Club-of-Ten in the Trade Catalog, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298079
This Larkin Company infant swing/bed, was given to a woman by her sister, who sold Larkin products. (Gift of Ellen J. Adams) / THF174549
Women found a sense of pride in their participation in the clubs and enjoyed the social aspect of monthly meetings. At its peak, there were 90,000 Larkin Secretaries around the country. The Larkin Clubs were such a tremendous promotional force that the company stopped selling Combination Boxes in order to focus on its ever-increasing product and premium offerings. By 1905, the company began offering teas, spices, and additional foodstuffs among its products. Five years later, the company had added paints and varnishes, as well as rugs, clothing, and other textiles to its product line – along with 1,700 premiums to choose from, ranging from children’s toys to clothing to furniture. In 1915, the catalog featured 700 Larkin products spread over 33 pages, and offered 131 pages of premiums. One of the company’s advertising campaigns involved the idea that customers could furnish their entire house with Larkin products. This catalog for Larkin Wallpaper is an example of this idea in action.
Page showing a variety of Larkin products from the Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Home-Helper,” circa 1910 / THF297831
Larkin Premiums advertised in the publication, “My Larkin Clubs Earned These for Me,” circa 1912 / THF298076
Page from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The World’s Greatest Premium Values,” Fall and Winter 1930. The catalog from 1930 included one of the more unusual premiums Larkin offered - Hartz Mountain Canaries (guaranteed to sing) or a pair of mated Love Birds. Clickhereto view the 1930 catalog! / THF298067
As “The Larkin Idea” continued to gain popularity, the Larkin Company sought to bring those companies that produced the premiums under the Larkin umbrella. At its height, Larkin had over 30 subsidiary companies, and had furnished seed money to establish such businesses as the Barcolo Manufacturing Company, to produce furniture, and Buffalo Pottery to produce pottery and kitchenware. Since 1896, the company had begun expanding its manufacturing complex. This process continued through 1912, with 21 new structures built to accommodate the rapidly growing product and premiums list.
Deldare Candlestick, produced by Buffalo Pottery, 1911 / THF176916
Page from Larkin Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908. The Larkin Administration Building, completed in 1906 in Buffalo, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. / THF297783
Beginning in 1905, the company established branches and warehouses – first in Cleveland, and then in Boston, Chicago, New York City, Peoria and Philadelphia. With this expansion, Larkin was able to better serve its customers across the country. Despite experiencing significant growth, by 1918 the company found it had a surplus of food products far exceeding demand. Unable to move the product fast enough through mail order or the Secretary system, Larkin created retail establishments called “Larkin Economy Stores” as a way to sell these products. By 1922, there were 103 stores in Buffalo and northwestern New York, as well as others near the additional branches.
Back cover from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908 / THF297811
“The Larkin Idea” had taken the company to significant heights. By the mid-1920s, however, the company was beginning to falter for a number of reasons. National chains like A&P grocery stores and Woolworth’s presented stiff competition. Automobiles made going shopping easier, causing mail-order businesses to become less popular. Perhaps the greatest influence in Larkin’s demise was World War I, which had brought many Larkin Secretaries out of their homes and into the workforce, weakening the Larkin sales structure. The crippling economy during the Great Depression also impacted the company.
Between 1924 and 1926, all of the company’s top leadership either retired or passed away, including Larkin himself. Having failed to pass along knowledge and nurture younger leadership, the company was left with little expertise, leading to the company’s gradual closing.
Cover for Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan, Factory-To-Family,” Fall & Winter, 1917-1918 / THF298101
In 1939, the decision was made to stop manufacturing soap products, and two years later the manufacture of all products and premiums ceased as well. With an abundance of remaining inventory of both products and premiums, the Larkin Company was still able to fill orders until 1962.
What had started as a small soap manufacturing company became prominent enough to hold its own despite the tremendous popularity of mass-marketers, like Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward & Company. Through innovative marketing strategies and an entrepreneurial spirit, the Larkin Company experienced significant growth in a short period of time, finding its way into households across America.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and for reviewing this content.
In recent months, we previewed a new virtual experience that we’ve created in partnership withSaganworks, a technology startup from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Today, we are happy to officially launch this experience for you to interact with!
A view of the Produce Industry section, featuring items from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, the Label Collection, and photographs of Entrepreneur-in-Residence Melvin Parson’s time at The Henry Ford.
What we’ve created is a Sagan: a virtual room capable of storing content in a variety of file formats, and experienced like a virtual gallery. The Henry Ford and Saganworks have partnered together to use this Sagan to highlight some of the work the museum has done under the auspices of theWilliam Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, which focuses on providing resources and encouragement for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. Through this grant, we have been given the opportunity to examine some of our collections through an entrepreneurial lens, digitizing thousands of artifacts and sharing these stories through blog posts, expert sets and interviews with our Entrepreneurs in Residence. Our Sagan highlights these entrepreneurial stories and collections, displaying a sampling of objects we’ve digitized and content we’ve created all in one place – starting with those related to our collecting themes of Agriculture and the Environment and Social Transformation.
Text panels, like the one seen here, are featured throughout the Sagan to provide information about the items you’re seeing in that section.
As previously mentioned, our Sagan is experienced like a virtual gallery with objects and photographs arranged on the walls – similar to an exhibit. Unlike an exhibit, however, the Sagan does not have extensive labels throughout. Instead, one brief text panel can be found in each section of the Sagan describing the collection within that space and how it relates to entrepreneurship.
Once you’re in the Sagan, you’ll have the opportunity to move throughout the space using the arrow or WASD keys on your keyboard and can scan the room by right-clicking and dragging your mouse in the direction you want to view. (Laptop users can hold the “control” key and use the trackpad to scan the room as well.) Within the Sagan, you’ll find photos and documents that we’ve digitized as part of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship. To view an item up close, select the artifact and click on the description that appears or double-click the artifact itself. On tables throughout the Sagan, you’ll also find digital content elements, such as blog posts and artifact sets, that provide further context. Double-clicking these elements will take you to the blog or set on The Henry Ford’s website.
This stack of vinegar barrels was customized and created by Saganworks exclusively for The Henry Ford’s Sagan.
One of the exciting features we were able to incorporate within our Sagan is 3D artwork customized for The Henry Ford by the talented artists at Saganworks. Our 3D artwork includes an orange tree, fruit crate stands with life-like fruit, pickle barrels, and a larger-than-life stack of vinegar barrels, representing the vinegar products sold by the H.J. Heinz Company. Also visible within the space are virtual furniture pieces created by Saganworks and available to anyone who uses the program to help customize a space and create a mood within each room.
There are tons of furniture options to help furnish your virtual space from bookshelves and couches to sculptures and decorative artwork.
So what else makes The Henry Ford’s Sagan extra special? Our collections, of course. Items from the following collections are featured within our Sagan:
Production – Entrepreneur H.J. Heinz entered the processed food industry in 1869 when he began selling horseradish out of his family home. Upon achieving success, his product line quickly expanded to include other products, such as pickled foods, condiments, and preserves. The items shown here document the production aspect of the H.J. Heinz Company, including photographs of the farms where the fruits and vegetables were grown and harvested, as well as images of the factory where the items were processed and packaged and the employees who worked there. The featured content element describes a Heinz employee notebook we found in our collection.
Marketing – H.J. Heinz was at the forefront of creative marketing. He rarely missed an opportunity to market his “57 Varieties” – a catchy slogan he created despite offering a line of more than 60 packaged food products. A prolific promoter, Heinz aimed to reach consumers in stores, at home, and everywhere in-between. The items shown here document the many advertising strategies of the H.J. Heinz Company, including streetcar advertisements, trade cards, labels, advertising drawings and illustrations, and photographs of elaborate grocery store displays. The featured content element explores other aspects of H.J. Heinz’s entrepreneurial journey.
Richard J.S. Gutman Diner Collection – The American diner is recognized as an icon of roadside architecture and entrepreneurial enterprise. The items shown here come from the collection of Richard J.S. Gutman, the leading expert on American diners. Photographs, trade catalogs, menus, and matchbooks help tell the story of innovation and entrepreneurship from the craftsmen and designers who built the dining cars to the owners and operators who served customers every day. Explore further by visiting the press release,finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.
Recipe Booklet Collection – Recipe booklets allow us to examine the changing eating habits of Americans and discover early products from some of the well-known companies in the food industry today. For many companies, recipe booklets were a method of marketing, offering creative uses for their products. Featured content elements include a history of the Jell-O Company and an opportunity to browse the booklets from the entrepreneurial companies included in this section. Explore further by visiting the finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.
Detroit Publishing Company Collection – The Detroit Publishing Company (1895–1924) was an entrepreneurial venture that produced, published and distributed photographic views of the world. The company’s photographers captured images ranging from the exotic to the ordinary, including special events, everyday activities, infrastructure, various industries and views of cities and countrysides. The images shown here document the West Coast fruit industry, including photographs of the fields and groves where the fruit was grown, and images of the fruit being packaged and crated for shipping. Explore further by visiting the collection record,finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.
Label Collection - Labels are important advertising tools that inform customers what a product is, who produced it and where it comes from. As competition increased within the West Coast fruit industry and the canned food industry in the late 1800s, labels and brand identification became even more important. The labels shown here include some of the entrepreneurial companies within our larger Label Collection. Featured content elements explore the history of labels, the process of lithography (how labels were made) and the entrepreneurial journey of “The Fruit King.” Explore further by visiting the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.
Entrepreneur-In-Residence Program, Melvin Parson – Melvin Parson, founder of We The People Growers Association, was the Spring 2019 Entrepreneur in Residence at The Henry Ford, funded by the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship. Driven by his mission for equality and social justice, Farmer Parson uses vegetable farming as a vehicle to address social ills. The featured content element links to an interview with Parson where he shares his journey and mission to secure equality and social justice through urban farming. Explore further by visiting the artifacts related to Parson that we’ve digitized.
Visitors to our Sagan have the opportunity to click on individual items located on the walls or can interact with our content elements (blog posts and expert sets) throughout the Sagan. The content element featured here is an expert set of video clips from an interview with Melvin Parson, spring 2019 Entrepreneur in Residence at The Henry Ford.
Have we piqued your interest yet? Click here to explore our Sagan on your own (please note that this experience will be best in the Chrome browser on a desktop computer). After providing your name and email, you’ll be able to fully enjoy this new virtual experience we’ve created. Or, if you're on your mobile device, check out our narrated walkthrough right here: