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:
Throughout its history, the Burroughs Corporation adhered to the founding principles of William S. Burroughs – to respond to the human problems of the times with relevant technologies. As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we had the opportunity to delve into the Burroughs Corporation Collection, which consists of machinery, photographs, publications, and marketing materials for the business equipment that Burroughs manufactured.
William Seward Burroughs – grandfather to the Beat Generation author sharing the same name – was a banker from Auburn, New York. He was also an inventor with an aptitude for mechanical design. Burroughs suffered from tuberculosis and moved his family to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1882 on the suggestion of his doctor, who thought the warmer climate would be better for his health. While there, Burroughs rented bench space from a local machine-shop owner, Joseph Boyer, and began designs on a machine that could ease the work of figuring and re-figuring mathematical calculation by hand – work that proved tedious for bankers and shopkeepers alike. In 1886, with a working machine complete, Burroughs formed the American Arithmometer Company with co-founders Thomas Metcalfe, RM Scruggs, and William R. Pye, to produce and market his machine.
The company’s first device was a simple addition and subtraction machine. Unfortunately, the machines didn’t work as well as planned. It was quickly discovered that accurate calculations required a specific amount of pressure to be applied to the handle. This was an unforeseen mechanical flaw that produced inaccurate calculations and caused bankers to lose faith in the machine, nearly causing the fledgling company’s failure. Burroughs was incredibly disappointed. In fact, he was in the process of quite literally throwing the machines out the window of his second-story workroom when he had the idea to use a dash-pot. A dash-pot is a mechanical device which resists motion – for instance, preventing heavy doors from slamming. This provided a uniform motion for the handle regardless of the force exerted upon it, regulating the mechanism.
With the handle problem solved, bankers renewed their trust in the machines and bought them with enthusiasm. In the first decade, the company grew in staff and sales, increasing their product line to four models by 1898. Unfortunately, William S. Burroughs died the same year, but his company was left in good hands. Under President Joseph Boyer, the company experienced significant growth. By 1904, the company had outgrown its St. Louis facility, moving operations to Detroit, Michigan, where a 70,000-square foot factory was built. In 1905, the company was renamed the Burroughs Adding Machine Company as a tribute to its late founder.
In the 1920s, the company continued to expand its operations, establishing worldwide sales in 60 countries and production in South America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. In the mid-1930s, recognizing the potential for additional advanced equipment, the company’s product line diversified to include over 450 models of manual and electric calculation devices, bookkeeping machines, and typewriters.
During World War II, Burroughs’ production was halted as the company collaborated with the National Defense Program to enter into military and war contracts. Its most influential contribution to the war effort was the development of the Norden bombsight in 1942. According to the Burroughs’ “History” booklet, this apparatus made “accurate, high-altitude bombing possible, and was considered by some military authorities as the single most significant device in shortening the war.” This same bombsight was used on the Enola Gay to accurately drop the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
Burroughs’ work throughout the war launched the company onto a different trajectory once military production was no longer required. Wartime needs had accelerated computer and electronics research, becoming a significant part of the company’s focus in the 1950s, along with defense, space research, banking, and business technology. In 1952, Burroughs built the core memory system for the ENIAC – the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer.
The 1950s were a time for diversification for Burroughs as the company acquired many other entities in order to expand its product capabilities. In 1953, to reflect its increasingly diverse product and service offerings, the company was renamed the Burroughs Corporation, and was recognized as a single outlet for a variety of business management products. One of the most significant acquisitions came in 1956, when Burroughs acquired ElectroData Corporation of Pasadena, California. This allowed Burroughs to further expand into the electronic computing market and led to the development of the B5000 series in 1961, which was celebrated as a groundbreaking scientific and business computer.
Successful collaboration during wartime prompted Burroughs Corporation to be awarded additional government and defense contracts throughout the 1960s. The company provided electronic computing solutions in the Navy’s POLARIS program, the Air Force’s SAGE, ALRI, ATLAS, and BUIC air defense networks, and the NORAD combat computing and data display system. According to the Burroughs’ “History” booklet, during the Cold War Burroughs computers were being “used to make split-second evaluations of threats to the North American continent using input from satellites and radar throughout the world.”
Burroughs also produced a transistorized guidance computer in 1957, which was used in the launch of Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – this same system was deployed in the 1960s to launch Mercury and Gemini space flights.
By the 1970s, Burroughs had emerged as a major player in the computer industry, but was still in the shadow of powerhouses like IBM. To further its influence and market potential, the company began thinking about office automation and information management in a holistic way, providing all scales of computers from mini- and micro-computers to networks and large modular systems – along with the software and peripherals (printers, communications systems, displays, and keyboards) to complement them.
Throughout the early 1980s, additional acquisitions were achieved in order to fill technology voids and strengthen areas targeted for future growth. The company also developed joint ventures to strengthen business relationships. Despite this growth, IBM continued to dominate the market as the unrivaled leader of the computer industry. Hoping to challenge IBM, Burroughs embarked on a substantial entrepreneurial undertaking with Sperry Corporation in 1986. Combining the market positions, talent, and resources of both corporations, the merger was meant to signal a new era of competition. What resulted was one of the largest mergers ever to occur in the computer industry, and the creation of the new entity in information technology, Unisys.
From the adding machine to office equipment to computers that helped to send people into space, the Burroughs Corporation was steadfast in its pursuit of the latest research and in its development of cutting-edge technology. To view additional items we’ve already digitized from our Burroughs Corporation Collection, check out our Digital Collections page!
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communications & Information Technology, for sharing her knowledge and resources to assist in the writing of this post.
While working for Ford Motor Company, Thompson conceived of an idea for an all-terrain vehicle that would do for Third World countries what the Model T did for America. This post highlights Thompson’s life and career as the first African-American automobile designer and sheds light on his little-known project for a vehicle ahead of its time, dubbed the Warrior.
Finding His Passion On an October afternoon in 1934, 12-year-old McKinley Thompson, Jr., was stopped in his tracks while walking home from school. The reason? He had spotted a brand-new silver DeSoto Airflow, the first silver-colored and streamlined vehicle he had ever seen. In an interview from 2001, Thompson recalled that “the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through… It lit that car up like a searchlight.” Awestruck by the unique design of the car, it was right then and there that Thompson knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: an automobile designer.
McKinley Thompson, Jr., undated (Photograph Courtesy of McKinley Thompson, Jr.)
In his youth, Thompson showed promise in drawing and was particularly interested in futuristic themes. He participated in commercial art courses throughout high school and, upon graduation in 1940, completed drafting courses where he learned to plan projects and present his ideas through drawings and concept illustrations. With these skills, Thompson acquired his first job as a draftsman with the National Youth Administration. He then worked as an engineering design layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps until he was drafted to serve in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Following the war, he continued working for the Signal Corps until 1953, when he found an opportunity to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an automobile designer.
Seizing the Opportunity
“Do you want to be an Automotive Designer” contest article from Motor Trend magazine, March 1953 THF299257
In March of 1953, Motor Trend magazine sponsored an Automotive and Industrial Design contest with the goal of discovering talented young adults. The prize? One of five, four-year tuition-free scholarships to the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles – one of the most respected schools for industrial design. Contest entry required several drawings and sketches, photographs, or models of cars and other products, along with an essay responding to the prompt, “What I think the trend in automotive design will be in the next ten years.” For McKinley Thompson, this was the chance of a lifetime – and he won.
McKinley Thompson’s winning entry in the article, “From Dream to Drawing Board to…?” in Motor Trend magazine, September 1953. In his essay, Thompson wrote that cars of the future would sacrifice aerodynamics to accommodate “more functional roominess and reduced size.” THF299268
Thompson’s gas turbine car, which incorporated reinforced plastic (an unusual choice of material at the time), won him the top prize. Thompson became the first African American to attend the Art Center, where he excelled throughout his course of study. After graduation, Thompson was offered a job with Ford Motor Company in the Advanced Styling Studio, finally realizing his childhood dream and breaking a barrier by becoming the first African-American automobile designer.
In the Advanced Styling Studio, designers were given a great deal of creative freedom. This suited Thompson’s interest in futuristic themes, allowing him to contribute sketches for fantastical ideas, such as a flying car and a nuclear-powered multi-trailered truck. He also worked on the Allegro and Gyron concept cars and collaborated on design ideas for the production Mustang and Bronco.
The Warrior While Thompson’s career at Ford gave him the opportunity to work on a variety of vehicles and concepts that could change the automotive industry, his most innovative idea had the potential to change the world. Thompson envisioned an all-terrain vehicle for Third World countries that would be easy to build and maintain, with low production costs. But his vision extended beyond the vehicle, which he dubbed the Warrior. He anticipated auto plants – located in the developing nations that would use the car – bringing jobs, better roads, and eventual economic independence to the host countries. Much like how the Model T brought America into the modern age and stimulated the economy through accessible and affordable mobility, Thompson believed the Warrior could do the same for Third World nations.
His program was called “Project Vanguard.” The plan was to use Uniroyal plastic components – known as Royalex – because they were lightweight, durable, and relatively cost-efficient. The first phase of the plan involved building a facility where Royalex could be fabricated for use on the Warrior and other assets. The second phase would involve the building of the vehicle division (to encompass the Warrior and other future vehicles), followed by a marine division for constructing boats, and a container division where “habitat modules” would be fabricated for housing. Though Ford Motor Company was supportive when Thompson first brought his idea to the company in 1965, Ford ultimately passed on the project in 1967, believing that the vehicle would not sell in large enough quantities to warrant the investment.
Despite this setback, Thompson still believed that his vehicle could succeed. He thought that if he produced a prototype car and could demonstrate the possibilities of this unique application of Royalex, he could garner interest for investment in the program. He gathered several friends to help in financing the Warrior prototype, including Wally Triplett – the first African American to play in the National Football League (for the Detroit Lions). By day, McKinley Thompson drafted concept drawings for Ford, but by night he worked tirelessly to bring his Warrior to life in a rented garage on Detroit’s west side.
Once his prototype was complete, Thompson and his partners attempted to market it to other investors and groups. They reached out to the Small Business Administration, which turned them down because the endeavor would take place outside the United States. They tried to gain assistance from the Agency for International Development but received little interest. A group of people at Chrysler, who assisted small businesses in getting started, suggested to Thompson that he first establish a market for Royalex in the United States. Plastic-bodied vehicles were still an unusual concept, and American automakers at the time were only experimenting with the idea on a limited scale. Thompson realized he was caught in a classic catch-22: He needed a Royalex facility to establish a market for plastic-bodied vehicles, but he couldn’t get the facility built without an existing market for plastic-bodied vehicles.
Instability on the African continent derailed opportunities to conduct business with the nations themselves. Thompson even tried to secure a bank loan to build Warrior cars in Detroit, but he was ultimately denied in this attempt as well. (Triplett later recounted that he felt that race played a role.) While every potential investor he approached told him it was a good idea, Thompson simply was unable to secure the funding needed to pursue his idea, eventually causing him to shut down the project in 1979.
Image from a 1965 Royalex sales brochure, showing the possibilities of an amphibious vehicle using Royalex materials. Interestingly, the Warrior was designed to be an all-terrain vehicle – including use for crossing rivers and small inland lakes! Click here to check out the rest of this brochure in which Uniroyal has suggested other uses for Royalex. THF290896
An Inspiring Career Around the same time that the doors were closing on the Warrior, Thompson developed another way to influence and change people’s lives. He coordinated a traveling exhibit, featuring the work of other African-American automobile designers, to motivate and encourage young people toward careers in design. Thompson traveled across the country, staging his exhibit in schools and shopping centers.
Photograph from the Ford Motor Company publication, “Rouge News,” March 19, 1962 THF299429
McKinley Thompson had an impressive 28-year career with Ford. In 1962 he was awarded Ford’s highest honor for community service, the Citizen of the Year Award. He contributed to a variety of projects (including experimental concept cars), worked in the Thunderbird and Falcon design studios, and eventually oversaw 50 craftspeople and modelers before retiring in 1984.
Despite his career success, Thompson continued to regret that his Warrior vehicle and overall program never materialized – though he was proud of his accomplishment in building the Warrior and proving it’s basic feasibility. The Warrior project was ahead of its time in design and philosophy. The extensive use of plastic, so common today, was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Thompson’s larger economic prophecy was partially fulfilled in 1995 when Ewert Smith’s URI, an all-terrain vehicle designed for African topography, was manufactured in the small town of Witvlei, Namibia. The URI plant became Witvlei’s largest employer, providing economic stability to the area.
Even though the Warrior never made it to market, Thompson kept the car as a leisure vehicle, taking it on family vacations and occasionally using it to run errands – usually attracting a fair amount of attention. Thompson donated his prototype to The Henry Ford in 2001.
McKinley Thompson, Jr., passed away at the age of 83, after battling Parkinson’s disease, in 2006.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. This post expands upon Bart Bealmear’s “The Warrior,” blog post from February 2014. Special thanks to Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation, for his help in reviewing the content.
As Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, part of my job is to select items related to entrepreneurs within our collection to be digitized. Sometimes this calls for additional research to provide context and significance. Searching for the significance of an object or photograph can often feel like detective work. Sometimes we are able to do some sleuthing and find what we are looking for and other times we run out of leads. Recently, while working with the H. J. Heinz Company Records – the first archival collection selected for this project – we had the opportunity to dig deeper into the significance of a notebook and learn more about its owner.
This notebook containing hand-written recipes from the H. J. Heinz company has been on display at the Heinz House in Greenfield Village for the past several years. Upon getting a closer look, we discovered that there was a name written on the outside: Jn Koehrer.
The cover of the notebook states that it belongs to Jn Koehrer.
Who was this Jn (John) Koehrer? Unaware of any immediate connections to H. J. Heinz, we turned to Ancestry.com, where we discovered that John Koehrer (1871-1945) was listed as a foster son of Heinz’s cousin, Frederick Heinz. Census records noted that he worked for a “Pick Co.” – which we assumed was supposed to say “Pickle Co.” – and that his occupation was that of a “pickler” or a “foreman.” So now we have a connection to H. J. Heinz, but what does his notebook have to do with the company history?
A Google search for “‘John Koehrer’ Heinz” led us to our answer. An Architectural and Historical Survey of Muscatine, Iowa, noted that, “On January 29, 1893, the Muscatine Improvement and Manufacturing Company closed the contract with Heinz to build its first plant outside of Pittsburgh… The three-story brick building… Opened in 1894 under the management of John Koehrer.” There it was! – the reason he had a notebook of recipes, and why it was significant to company history, was because he was to manage the new Heinz factory and needed to make sure he could replicate the products.
Handwritten recipe from the notebook for “Chilli Sauce.” Half-way down the page you’ll notice that the recipe calls for “1/2 pound of xxx.” The three x’s can be found in other recipes too and represent a secret ingredient.
Additional research from online newspaper articles allowed us to discover what was primarily produced at the plant – sauerkraut, horseradish, pickles, ketchup, and other tomato products – and we inferred that the recipes within the notebook would have been fairly simple to produce at the factory. From previous conservation and cataloguing reports, we had dated the notebook to around 1890, which fit perfectly into the timeline for John to have used these recipes in Iowa.
With this new information we are now able to more accurately describe the notebook on display and the research we uncovered can be added to our records for future use. When it comes to historical research, you never truly know what you’re going to find. In this digital age, and with more resources at our fingertips than ever before, more hidden gems like this one can be uncovered – a joy to behold in the history field.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Aimee Burpee, Associate Registrar – Special Projects, for helping us uncover the mystery behind this notebook!