Like an actor cast in a role, this 1985 Modena Spyder California was chosen to play the part of a Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. / Photo by Matt Anderson
For those who haven’t visited Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in recent months, we have a wonderful new display space created in partnership with the Hagerty Drivers Foundation. Each year, we’ll share a couple of significant automobiles included on the foundation’s National Historic Vehicle Register. The (currently) 32 vehicles on the register each made a lasting mark on American history—whether through influence on design or engineering, success on the race track, participation in larger national stories, or starring roles on the silver screen.
Our first display vehicle is Hollywood through and through. It’s a “1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder” (those quotes are intentional) used in the 1986 Gen-X classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Those who’ve seen the film know that the car is a crucial part of the plot—ferrying Ferris, Sloane Peterson, and Cameron Frye around Chicago; threatening to expose their secret skip day; and forcing a difficult conversation between Cameron and his emotionally distant father.
In true movie fashion, though, not all is what it appears to be.
This 1958 Ferrari 250 GT California is the real thing, as featured in Henry Ford Museum’s Sports Cars in Review exhibit in 1965. / THF139028
The Ferrari 250 is among the most desirable collector cars in the world. GT street versions sell at auction for millions of dollars. And GTO competition variants—well, the sky’s the limit. Even in the mid-1980s, these autos were too pricey for film work—particularly when the plot calls for the car to be (spoiler alert) destroyed. Instead, Ferris Bueller director John Hughes commissioned three replicas for the shoot: two functional cars used for most scenes, and a non-runner destined to fly out the back of Mr. Frye’s suburban Chicago garage.
Replica cars were nothing new in the 1980s. For years, enterprising manufacturers had been offering copies of collector cars that were no longer in production and too expensive for most enthusiasts. The coveted Duesenberg Model J is a prime example, having been copied by replica manufacturers for decades. Some replica cars were more about convenience than cost. Glassic Industries of West Palm Beach, Florida, produced fiberglass-bodied copies of the Ford Model A with available niceties like automatic transmissions and tape decks. Occasionally, the line between “real” and “replica” got blurry. Continuation cars like the Avanti II (based on Studebaker’s original) or post-1960s Shelby Cobras (based on Carroll Shelby’s racing sports cars) were sometimes built with formal permission or participation from the original automakers.
So, if the Ferris Bueller car at The Henry Ford isn’t a real Ferrari, then what is it?
The replica’s builder, Modena Design & Development, was founded in the early 1980s by Californians Neil Glassmoyer and Mark Goyette. When John Hughes read about Modena in a car magazine, he called the firm. As the story goes, Glassmoyer initially hung up on the famous writer/director—believing that it had to be a prank. Hughes phoned again, and Modena found itself with a desirable movie commission. Paramount Pictures, the studio behind Ferris Bueller, leased one car and bought two others.
The Modena replicas featured steel-tube frames and Ferrari-inspired design cues like hood scoops, fender vents, and raked windshields. While the genuine Ferrari bodies used a blend of steel and aluminum components, Modena’s bodies were formed from fiberglass—purportedly based on a British MG body and then fine-tuned for a more Ferrari-like appearance.
The replica Ferrari’s V-8 was sourced from a 1974 Ford Torino, not too different from these 1973 models. / THF232097
The most obvious differences were under the cars’ skin. Rather than a 180-cubic-inch Ferrari V-12, the Modena at The Henry Ford features a 302-cubic-inch Ford V-8 (originally sourced from a 1974 Ford Torino). While the Ford engine was rated at 135 horsepower from the factory, this one has been rebuilt and refined—surely capable of greater output now. And instead of the original Ferrari’s four-speed manual gearbox, the Modena has a Ford-built three-speed automatic transmission. (According to lore, actor Matthew Broderick wasn’t comfortable driving a manual.)
After filming wrapped, the leased car was sent back to Modena’s El Cajon, California, facility. After some work to repair damage from a stunt scene, the car was sold to the first in a series of private owners. By 2003, this beloved piece of faux Italiana/genuine Americana had been relocated to the United Kingdom. The current owner purchased it at auction in 2010 and repatriated the car to the United States. The Modena was much modified over the years, so the current owner had it carefully restored and returned to its on-screen appearance—as you see it today.
Imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can also be the quickest route to a lawsuit. Following the release of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferrari sued Modena Design & Development (along with other replica builders). The matter was settled out of court when Modena agreed to make some minor changes per the Italian automaker’s specifications. Replica production then resumed for a few more years.
The Modena Spyder California may not be a real Ferrari, but it’s certainly a real pop-culture icon. That’s reason enough to include it on the National Historic Vehicle Register, and to celebrate it at The Henry Ford.
Supercharger Assembly Drawing of Offenhauser Engine by Leo Goossen, April 21, 1934 / THF175170
Leo Goossen was an automotive draftsman, engineer, and one of the most influential engine designers in American auto racing. In a presentation from our monthly History Outside the Box series on Instagram earlier this year, Processing Archivist Janice Unger recognized Goossen’s 130th birthday with a quick biography and look at some of Goossen’s work from our collections. If you missed it on Insta, you can watch below.
Our latest installation of What We Wore: Bonnie Cashin. / THF191461
The current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features clothing by Bonnie Cashin. American designer Bonnie Cashin’s ideas, radical when introduced, have become timeless.
Who was Bonnie Cashin? An inscription in her senior yearbook provided a hint of things to come: “To a kid with spark—may you set the world on fire.” She did. By the 1950s, Cashin had become “a mother of American sportswear” and one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century.
Born in 1908 in California, Bonnie Cashin apprenticed in her mother’s custom dress shop. At 16, she began designing chorus costumes for a Hollywood theater. Next stop—the Roxy Theatre in New York City, where the 25-year-old was the sole designer. The street clothes Cashin designed for a fashion-themed revue led to a job at the prestigious ready-to-wear firm Adler & Adler in 1937. Cashin left for California in 1943, where she spent six years at 20th Century Fox, designing costumes for approximately 60 films.
Cashin’s designs for the 1944 movie Laura were the most influential of her 20th Century Fox creations. Motion pictures of the 1940s tended to showcase female stars as wealthy and glamorous women. Cashin’s designs for actress Gene Tierney suggested clothing chosen by the character of Laura herself, rather than costumes worn for an actress’s role. A revolutionary concept for the time, the garments reflected Cashin's real-life views. / THF700871
Cashin and actress Olivia de Haviland look over costumes created for the motion picture The Snake Pit in 1948. / THF703254
In 1949, back in New York, Cashin created her first ready-to-wear collection under her own name. Cashin designed for “the woman who is always on the go, who is doing something.” She introduced the concept of layering, with each piece designed to work in an ensemble, alone, and in different combinations. The fashion world took notice. In 1950, Cashin won both the prestigious Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award and the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award.
This 1952 ad dates from the year Bonnie Cashin opened her own design studio. It captures the spirit of Cashin’s intended customers—women always on the go. / THF701655
In 1952, Cashin opened her own one-woman firm, Bonnie Cashin Designs. Cashin insisted on total creative control as she worked with the manufacturers who produced her designs. Cashin chose craftsmanship over commercial success. She never wavered in her artistic vision—functional simplicity and elegant solutions.
Jacket (Wool, Brown Leather Binding, Brass Toggle Closures), 1965–1970, Designed by Bonnie Cashin and Made by Philip Sills & Co., New York City. / THF188918
Trousers (Suede), 1955–1960, Designed by Bonnie Cashin and Made by Philip Sills & Co., New York City. / THF188947
Many Cashin designs were practical solutions to problems she herself experienced. Her tailored poncho was born after she cut a hole in a blanket to cope with temperature fluctuations while driving her convertible through the Hollywood Hills.
Coat (Mohair, Suede Bindings, Brass Clip Closure), 1955–1964, Designed by Bonnie Cashin and Made by Philip Sills & Co., New York City. / THF188928
Sweater (Cashmere, Brass Buttons), 1955–1964, Designed by Bonnie Cashin, New York City, and Made by Ballantyne, Innerleithen and Peebles, Scotland. / THF188908
Trousers (Leather, Brass Toggle Closures), 1965–1970, Designed by Bonnie Cashin and Made by Philip Sills & Co., New York City. / THF188945
Cashin is most well-known for her innovative use of leather, mohair, suede, knits, and nubby fabric, as well as heavy hardware used as fastenings. Cashin had a deep love of color and texture—she personally selected, designed, or commissioned her fabrics.
In this 1972 ad for Singer sewing machines, examples of Bonnie Cashin’s favored textiles—suede, leather, knits, and nubby tweeds—appear on the shelves behind her. / THF700873
Traveling widely during her career, Cashin closely studied the traditional clothing of other cultures. Her international focus and attention to refining traditional shapes down to their most modern and mobile forms led to her distinctive “Cashin Look.”
Jacket (Mohair Bouclé, Leather Bindings, Brass Sweater Guard Closure), about 1965, Designed by Bonnie Cashin and Made by Philip Sills & Co., New York City; Fabric Made by Bernat Klein, Galashiels, Scotland. / THF188913
Bonnie Cashin created dazzling costumes for the stage and screen—then excelled at exquisite minimalism in her sportwear. The intersection? Cashin’s garments always moved with the wearer and were designed to be set against a backdrop—whether a theatrical scene or contemporary life.
Coat (Wool, Leather Binding), 1965–1972, Designed by Bonnie Cashin and Made by Philip Sills & Co., New York City. / THF188933
Trousers (Leather, Brass Toggle Closures), 1965–1972, Designed by Bonnie Cashin and Made by Philip Sills & Co., New York City. / THF188943
Jacket (Leather, Brass Toggle Closures), 1965–1972, Designed by Bonnie Cashin and Made by Philip Sills & Co., New York City. / THF188938
Innovative and influential, Cashin continued to design until 1985. Following her death in 2000, among the handwritten notes jotted on scraps of paper in her apartment was one that read, “How nice for one voice to ignite the imaginations of others.”
Looking out the window at snowy Michigan probably had any Ford Motor Company engineer, researcher, or scientist thinking that developing and researching space systems, air cushioned vehicles, and computer components in sunny Newport Beach, California, was the way to go.
Aeronutronic Systems, Inc. was formed as a subsidiary of Ford in 1956 under the leadership of G.J. Lynch. The group was originally organized to develop and manufacture products for military purposes in the fields of Complete Weapons Systems, Aeronautics, Electronics, Computers, and Nucleonics and Physics. By 1959, the group was a made a division of Ford and had expanded into research and development beyond military purposes.
The division was headquartered in Newport Beach, California. Brochures for the division flaunted its cutting-edge research facilities, testing laboratories, research library, and proximity to deep-sea fishing, sailing, skiing, and the fact that the temperature rarely dropped below 44 or rose above 75.
The groups within the division worked on a variety of projects. The Space Systems group completed projects including the Blue Scout vehicle, which tested equipment in space; a lunar capsule, designed to land on the moon with scientific testing equipment to gather data on the lunar environment; and a design for a space station.
Group of women who worked on the Blue Scout project. / THF627401
Artist's rendering of lunar capsule built by Ford Motor Company Aeronutronic Division, 1960. / THF141214
In Weapons Systems, they worked on several missile projects, including the Shillelagh Guided Missile for the Army Missile Command, and ARTOC (Army Tactical Operations Central), which was a mobile command post for the Army Signal Corp.
The Electronics and Computers division worked on BIAX computer components, as well as MIND (Magnetic Integration Neuron Duplication), an electronic neuron that duplicated the function of live nerve cells, among other things.
Research projects included surface tension tests; developing thin films solid state components; manufacturing the FLIDEN Flight Data Entry Unit, which was used as part of the FAA air traffic control system; and developing an air cushioned vehicle.
FLIDEN unit, demonstrated by Ellen Arthur. / THF627397
The employees at the Aeronutronic division had fun too, with an employee newsletter to keep them up to date on company happenings as well as their many recreation leagues, which included bowling, basketball, and baseball among other sports, as well as chess and bridge clubs.
Fred Ju, team captain, bowling in the Men’s Bowling League. / THF627399
Aeronutronic continued to change with the times. In 1962, it became a division of the Ford subsidiary Philco, and in 1976 became Ford Aerospace and Communication Corporation, before being sold by Ford in 1990.
In 2017, at age 22, Sara Trail launched the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) to empower youth to advocate for social justice through textile making. Though she was notably young to found a nonprofit, she was not new to sewing. She took needle to cloth for the first time at age 4, under the guidance of her mother and grandmother, and quickly showed a propensity for it. Within a few years, she had gained mastery and could sew clothing, quilts, and upholstery. A wunderkind, by age 15, she had written a book for other kids, Sew with Sara, about how to sew and sell one’s work, and licensed her own pattern and fabric collections.
She was, for all intents and purposes, content with her sewing practice. “I liked the freedom and independence it gave me,” she recalled. “I liked the idea that I could make something that was going to last and that I could do something that a lot of other kids my age couldn’t do.”
And then her attitude—and self-expectation—changed profoundly in 2012, when Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager in Florida, was shot by a white man for no apparent reason other than he thought Martin looked suspicious. “I went from wanting to learn skills, make gifts, master something to knowing I needed to take the skills my mentors had given me and use them for a purpose,” Trail said. She made a fabric portrait of Martin wearing the hoodie he had on the night he was shot, and that quilt became the seed of SJSA.
Sara Trail’s handmade quilt, Rest in Power, commemorates the life of murdered Black teenager Trayvon Martin and marks her first experience combining her lifelong interest in sewing with social activism. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy
Today, Trail describes the volunteer-run organization she founded as a 21st-century sewing circle that bridges social, racial, ethnic, generational, and geographic lines. The quilts begin in workshops in schools, community centers, and prisons across the United States. Participants, typically aged 12 and up, create art blocks to express their concerns, thoughts, and beliefs, gluing fabric in place if they are not inclined to sew.
The blocks are forwarded to volunteers around the world to finish the necessary stitching and join them together into a patchwork. Hundreds of SJSA quilts have gone on to be exhibited at quilt shows, museums, and galleries nationwide.
Trail often thinks back to the time in middle school when she was teaching sewing to kids in her neighborhood. “My class was $75 and my students were rich white kids. Low-income kids couldn’t pay that much to learn how to make something they may or may not have even liked in the end or end up using. Through conversations, especially with my parents, I realized what a privilege it was to make.”
She now seeks to pass on that privilege, an understanding of the power that resides in our hands, to make textiles—and to make change.
This block, made by SJSA participant Autumn Roberts during a workshop on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, is a statement about culture and tribe. Her artist statement: “…I created this as an image of what had happened at the DAPL [Dakota Access Pipeline protest] camp. I shall be the change the reservation will wish to see. / Photo courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy
“I want to make sewing accessible and equitable,” Trail said. “I want to make quilts that matter.”
Deborah Sussman began her design career as an intern at the Eames Office in 1953. There, over the course of a decade, she was promoted to an art director and worked on graphic design, exhibitions, films, toy design, packaging, and photography. In 1963, she acted as designer for the “Beware of Imitations” image below, with Charles and Ray Eames as creative directors. Appearing as an advertisement in Arts & Architecture magazine, it celebrated Eames-designed furniture produced by Herman Miller. The image is a fascinating herald, hinting at how Sussman’s approach toward the power of large-scale graphics to communicate within environments would define her future vision.
Herman Miller “Beware of Imitations” Advertisement. / THF147716
The foundation image was printed to poster size and affixed to the outside wall of the Eames Office, where it was photographed in situ. The weathered brick wall, scrabbly Californian plant life, and spray-painted stencil additions surrounding the paste-up add texture to the image, revealing it to be evidence of a process. An image at the Library of Congress takes us one step further into this moment, revealing Sussman pasting up the original work.
If you look closely toward the bottom left of this image, you will also see a bouquet of flowers on a placard with the text, “Zeeland, Michigan.” Zeeland is, of course, home to the Herman Miller company, but the floral design has its own interesting lifespan. It appears on Herman Miller’s stock certificates and on the underside of a kiosk designed by the Eames Office for the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Sussman is credited with contributing to both projects.
Kiosk from the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. / THF156766
Detail of the underside of the IBM Kiosk. / THF171121
Sussman left the Eames Office temporarily to continue her design studies through a Fulbright scholarship in Germany, but was eventually “lured back” to California to work on the Mathematica exhibit. When The Henry Ford acquired the 1964 version of the Mathematica exhibit (now on permanent view in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation), extensive research was undertaken in the Charles & Ray Eames Papers at the Library of Congress to create the most historically accurate version of the exhibit possible. Photographs at the Library of Congress documented numerous contributions made by women to the exhibit’s design, including Sussman, Ray Eames, and many others. Sussman, for her part, once recounted setting the type for the mathematician biographies that appear on the History Timeline and also appears in a photograph working on the graphics for the base of the Multiplication Cube interactive.
Detail of the Multiplication Cube from the Eames Office-designed Mathematica exhibit. / THF164150
Detail of the History Timeline in Mathematica. / THF170845
In 1968, Sussman formed an independent design practice as Sussman/Prejza & Co. with her husband, Paul. Together they designed things like the “urban branding” for the cities of Long Beach and Santa Monica, California, and wayfinding signage for Walt Disney World and EuroDisney. Her favorite kind of work involved vibrant, larger-than-life graphic and typographic treatments installed in architectural spaces and outdoor urban areas. For this work, she is credited as a pioneer of “environmental design” and “Supergraphics.”
Design Preview / Brand Identity Guidelines for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. / THF287946
This approach is especially obvious in her design identity work for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The look and feel of the LA Olympics—created by Sussman/Prejza & C0. in collaboration with the Jerde Partnership—transformed the city of Los Angeles. The holistic plan was for “an energetic montage of color and form [to] appear on everything from tents to tickets.” There were 43 art installations, 28 game venues, 3 Olympic villages, and wayfinding signage. There was a monumental 145-foot tower of colorful scaffolding erected in Exposition Park. Color-coded gateways and walkways lined with concrete “Sonotubes” wrapped in bright abstract graphics. Uniforms for officials and volunteers.
An entire issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the project, in which the designers explained their hopes for a successful event as “a modern environment that recalls the imageable qualities of a medieval jousting festival” and one that anticipated that “the city will be transformed overnight, as if an invasion of butterflies has descended upon it.”
Souvenir Street Banner designed by Deborah Sussman for the LA 1984 Olympics. / THF171692
Color played an essential role in unifying the visual language of color, graphics, and typographic treatments. Notably, Sussman broke away from the palette of traditional red, white, and blue, and captured the “Southern California spirit” through shades of vibrant magenta, vermillion, aqua, purple, and sunset orange. A favorite quote in the Design Quarterly issue states: “The glorious colors—the banners, the kiosks and booths, even the trash cans and hot dog napkins—were happily original, all Toyland confetti, in light and airy shades all their own. We get enough of red-white-and-blue everywhere else, don’t we?”
Partial credit to Sussman’s approach can be connected to her early training at the Eames Office, where her mentors emphasized the value of playfulness. There, she had the opportunity to document festivals in other countries. She learned to appreciate folk art and the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Rim. And the “kit of parts” approach to design was part of everyday life at the Eames Office too, which undoubtedly influenced Sussman’s own adaptable “visual alphabet” for the 1984 LA Olympics. Today, her contributions for this and other projects stand as beloved and masterful examples of environmental graphic design. Like many designers who passed through the Eames Office, Deborah Sussman took what she learned, remixed it, and made it an evolved and color-saturated language all her own.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
The auditorium at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference before guests arrive. / THF610598
The setting is sparse. The downward sweep of theatre curtains, a man seated stage left, backed by a hinged office cubicle wall. Technology in this image is scarce, and yet it defines the moment. A video camera is perched on top of the wall, its electronic eye turned downwards to surveil a man named Douglas Engelbart, seated in a modified Herman Miller Eames Shell Chair below. A large projection screen shows a molded tray table holding a keyboard at its center, a chunky-looking computer mouse made of wood on the right side, and a “chording keyboard” on the left. Today, we take the computer mouse for granted, but in this moment, it was a prototype for the future.
The empty auditorium chairs in this image will soon be filled with attendees of a computer conference. It is easy to imagine the collective groan of theater seating as this soon-to-arrive audience leans a little closer, to understand a little better. With the click of a shutter from the back of the room, this moment was collapsed down into the camera lens of a young Herman Miller designer named Jack Kelley. He knew this moment was worth documenting because if the computer mouse under Douglas Engelbart’s right hand onstage was soon going to create “the click that was heard around the world,” this scene was the rehearsal for that moment.
Entrance to the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco Civic Auditorium. / THF610636
“The Mother of All Demos”
On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) hosted a session at the Joint Computer Conference at the Civic Center Auditorium in San Francisco. The system presented—known as the oNLine System (or NLS)—was focused on user-friendly interaction and digital collaboration.
Douglas Engelbart demonstrates the oNLine System. / THF146594
In a span of 90 minutes, Engelbart (wearing a headset like the radar technician he once was) used the first mouse to sweep through a demonstration that became the blueprint for modern computing. For the first time, computing processes we take for granted today were presented as an integrated system: easy navigation using a mouse, “WYSIWYG” word processing, resizable windows, linkable hypertext, graphics, collaborative software, videoconferencing, and presentation software similar to PowerPoint. Over time, the event gained the honorific “The Mother of all Demos.” When Engelbart was finished with his demonstration, everyone in the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Fixing the Human-Hardware Gap
In 1957, Engelbart established the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at SRI to study the relationship between humans and machines. It was here, in 1963, that work on the first computer mouse began. The mouse was conceptualized by Engelbart and realized from an engineering standpoint by Bill English. All the while, work on NLS was percolating in the background.
Douglas Engelbart kicks back with the NLS at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). / THF610612
While Engelbart was gearing up to present the NLS, Herman Miller Research Corporation’s (HRMC’s) president and lead designer Robert Propst was updating the “Action Office” furniture system. Designed to optimize human performance and workplace collaboration, Action Office caught Engelbart’s attention. He was excited by its flexibility and decided to consult with Herman Miller to provide the ideal environment for people using the NLS. Propst sent a young HMRC designer named Jack Kelley to California so he could study the needs of the SRI group in person.
Jack Kelley and Douglas Engelbart testing Herman Miller’s custom Action Office setup at Stanford Research Institute. / THF610616
After observing and responding to the needs of the team, Kelley recommended a range of customized Action Office items, which appeared onstage with Engelbart at the Joint Computer Conference. One of the items that Kelley designed was the console chair from which Engelbart gave his lecture. He ingeniously paired an off-the-shelf Shell Chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames with a molded tray attachment to support the mouse and keyboard. This one-of-a-kind chair featured prominently in The Mother of All Demos.
An unobstructed view of Jack Kelley’s customization of an Eames Shell Chair with removable, swinging tray for the NLS. The chording keyboard is visible at left, and the prototype mouse is at right. / THF610615
During the consultation, Kelley also noticed that Engelbart’s mouse prototype had difficulty tracking on hard surfaces. He created a “friendly” surface solution by simply lining the right side of the console tray with a piece of Naugahyde. If Engelbart was seen to be controlling the world’s first mouse onstage in 1968, Kelley contributed one very hidden “first” in story of computing history too: the world’s first mousepad. Sadly, the one-of-a-kind chair disappeared over time, but luckily, we have many images documenting its design within The Henry Ford’s archival collections.
A closer view of the world’s first mousepad – the beige square of Naugahyde inset into the NLS tray at bottom right. / THF610645
The computer scientist Mark Weiser said, “the most profound technologies are the ones that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” If this is true, the impact of Engelbart’s 1968 demonstration—supported by Kelley’s console chair and mousepad—are hidden pieces of the computing history. So as design shaped the computer, the computer also shaped design.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Disneyland was created from a combination of Walt Disney’s innovative vision, the creative efforts and technical genius of the team he put together, and the deep emotional connection the park elicits with guests when they visit there. Walt Disney himself claimed, “There is nothing like it in the entire world. I know because I’ve looked. That’s why it can be great: because it will be unique.” Here’s the story of how Walt created Disneyland, the first true theme park.
Disneyland is much like Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida, but it’s smaller and more intimate. To me, it seems more “authentic.” It’s like you can almost feel the presence of Walt Disney everywhere because he had a personal hand in things.
Walt Disney posing the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1940. THF 109756
In creating Disneyland, Walt Disney challenged many rules of traditional amusement parks. We’ll see how. But first…since he insisted that everyone he met call him by his first name, that’s what we’ll do. From now on, I’ll be referring to him as Walt!
DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Do you know where Walt Disney’s inspiration for Main Street, USA, came from? ANSWER: Born in 1901, Walt loved the bustling Main Street of his boyhood home in Marceline, Missouri. Marceline later provided the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street, USA.
Map and guide, “Hollywood Movie Capital of the World,” circa 1942. THF 209523
After trying different animated film techniques in Kansas City, Walt left to seek his fortune in Hollywood.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Valentine, 1938. THF 335750
There, he made a name for himself with Mickey Mouse (1927) and—10 years later—the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White. Walt innately understood what appealed to the American public and later brought this to Disneyland.
Walt claimed the idea of Disneyland came to him while watching his two daughters ride the carousel in L.A.’s Griffith Park. There, he began to imagine a clean, safe, friendly place where parents and children could have fun together!
DISNEY INSIDER INFO: That carousel in Griffith Park was built in 1926 by the Spillman Engineering Company—a later name for the Herschell-Spillman Company, the company that made the carousel now in our own Greenfield Village in 1913! Here’s what ours looks like.
1958 Edsel Bermuda Station Wagon Advertisement, “Dramatic Edsel Styling is Here to Stay.” THF 124600
The decline of these older amusement parks ironically coincided with the rapid growth of suburbs, freeways, car ownership, and an unprecedented baby boom—a market primed for pleasure travel and family fun!
Young Girl Seated on a Carousel Horse, circa 1955. THF 105688
Some amusement parks added “kiddie” rides and, in some places, whole new “kiddie parks” appeared. But that’s not what Walt had in mind. Adults still sat back and watched their kids have all the fun.
Chicago Railroad Fair Official Guidebook, 1948. THF 285987
Walt’s vision for his family park also came from his lifelong love of steam railroads. In 1948, he and animator/fellow train buff Ward Kimball visited the Chicago Railroad Fair and had a ball. Check out the homage to old steam trains in this program.
After the Railroad Fair, Walt and Ward visited our own Greenfield Village, where they enjoyed the small-town atmosphere during a special tour. At the Tintype Studio, they had their portrait taken while dressed up as old-time railroad engineers.
Walt Disney and Artist Herb Ryman with illustration proposals for the Ford Pavilion, 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. THF 114467
DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Walt Disney used the word Imagineers to describe the people who helped him give shape to what would become Disneyland. What two words did he combine to create this new word?
ANSWER: Walt hand-picked a group of studio staff and other artists to help him create his new family park. He later referred to them as Imagineers—combining the words imagination and engineering. This image shows Walt with Herb Ryman—one of his favorite artists.
Postcard viewbook of Los Angeles, California. THF 7376
Walt continually looked for new ideas and inspiration for his park, including places around Los Angeles, like Knott’s Berry Farm, the Spanish colonial-style shops on Olvera Street, and the bustling Farmer’s Market—one of Walt’s favorite hangouts.
Times Square – Looking North – New York City, August 7, 1948. THF 8840
Walt also worried about how people got fatigued in large and crowded environments. So, he studied pathways, traffic flow, and entrances and exits at places like fairs, circuses, carnivals, national parks, museums, and even the streets of New York City.
Studying these led to Walt’s first break from traditional amusement parks: the single entrance. Amusement park operators argued this would create congestion, but Walt wanted visitors to experience a cohesive “story”—like walking through scenes of a movie.
Another new idea in Walt’s design was the central “hub,” that led to the park’s four realms, or lands, like spokes of a wheel. Walt felt that this oriented people and saved steps. Check out the circular hub in front of the castle on this map.
Disneyland cup & saucer set, 1955-1960. THF 150182
A third rule-challenging idea in Walt’s plan was the attractor, or “weenie” for each land—in other words, an eye-catching central feature that drew people toward a goal. The main attractor was, of course, Sleeping Beauty Castle.
To establish cohesive stories for each land, Walt insisted that the elements in them fit harmoniously together—from buildings to signs to trash cans. This idea—later called “theming”—was Walt’s greatest and most unique contribution.
DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Which came first, Disneyland the park, or Disneyland the TV show?
ANSWER: To build his park, Walt lacked one important thing—money! So, he took a risk on the new medium of TV. While most Hollywood moviemakers saw TV as a fad or as the competition, Walt saw it as “my way of going direct to the public.” Disneyland the TV show premiered October 27, 1954—with weekly features relating to one of the four lands and glimpses of Disneyland the park being built.
Disneyland, the park, opened July 17, 1955, to special guests and the media. So many things went wrong that day that it came to be called “Black Sunday.” But Walt was determined to fix the glitches and soon turned things around.
Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom guidebook, 1988. THF 134722
Today, themed environments from theme parks to restaurants to retail stores owe a debt to Walt Disney. Sadly, Walt Disney passed away in 1966. It was his brother Roy who made Walt Disney World in Florida a reality, beginning with Magic Kingdom in 1971.
Torch Lake steam locomotive pulling passenger cars in Greenfield Village, August 1972. THF 112228
DISNEY INSIDER INFO:In an ironic twist, a steam railroad was added to the perimeter of Greenfield Village for the first time during a late 1960s expansion—an attempt to be more like Disneyland!
Marty Sklar speaking at symposium for “Behind the Magic” at Henry Ford Museum, November 11, 1995. THF 12415
In 2005, The Henry Ford celebrated Disneyland’s 50th anniversary with a special exhibit, “Behind the Magic: 50 Years of Disneyland.” The amazing and talented Marty Sklar, then head of Walt Disney Imagineering, made that possible.
DISNEY INSIDER INFO: Check out this blog post I wrote to honor Marty’s memory when he passed away in 2017.
During these unprecedented times, Disneyland has begun its phased reopening. When you feel safe and comfortable going there, I suggest adding it to your must-visit (or must-return) list. When you're there, you can look around for Walt Disney's influences, just like I do.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
A scene from the 1940 motion picture, “Young Tom Edison,” starring Mickey Rooney. THF125222
Spencer Tracy portrayed the inventor in the film, “Edison the Man,” released later that same year. THF58062
Thomas Alva Edison is an American “superhero.” It is not surprising, then, that his life story found its way into the movies during Hollywood’s golden age. It is, in fact, quite fitting, since Edison and an associate were instrumental in the development of early movie technology in the 1890s.
In 1940, Edison was the subject of not one, but two, Hollywood films: “Young Tom Edison,” starring Mickey Rooney, and “Edison the Man,” starring Spencer Tracy. These classic motion pictures were filmed in California. But Henry Ford’s well-known collection of Edison-related buildings and artifacts in Dearborn played a supporting role in MGM’s research for script development and set design.
To help prepare for their roles, MGM wanted the actors playing Thomas Edison to visit the Museum and Village to learn more about Edison. Here, Mickey Rooney records his voice on an early Edison tinfoil phonograph. THF125217
In February 1939, MGM scriptwriters Dore Schary and Hugo Butler came to Greenfield Village to see the Menlo Park Laboratory and the Edison-related artifacts in the Museum. (Schary and Butler later received an Academy Award nomination for their script for “Edison the Man.”) MGM also wanted the actors playing Thomas Edison in the films to be inspired by their own visits to Dearborn. Rooney arrived on October 23, 1939, just before filming of “Young Tom Edison” began in Hollywood. Tracy came a few days later.
A few weeks after his visit, Spencer Tracy wrote this letter of appreciation to Henry Ford. THF125214
Tracy was deeply impressed by his visit and wrote a letter to Henry Ford, “I am unable to find words to adequately express the deep and lasting imprint my short visit has made upon me…I shall make a supreme effort to do some small justice and no harm to the memory of your dear friend.”
Henry Ford lent an 1850s locomotive and some railroad cars from his museum for the publicity train that carried special guests from Detroit to Port Huron for the February 1940 premiere of “Young Tom Edison.” THF96236, THF96230
As the train rolled along from Detroit to Port Huron, Mickey Rooney hawked candy and newspapers to the passengers, just as Edison had done as a boy years before. Here, Rooney offers Edison’s widow, Mina Miller Edison Hughes, a newspaper. THF119959
As the special train arrived in Port Huron, fans rushed to greet Mickey Rooney. THF119966
Souvenir from “Young Tom Edison” February 1940 movie premiere. THF96232
Filming began on “Young Tom Edison” in early November 1939. By Christmas, it was complete, and MGM was planning for the film’s February 10, 1940, premiere in Port Huron, Michigan, where Edison had grown up. The festivities included a train ride from Detroit to Port Huron--the same route traveled by Edison in his youth when he sold candy and newspapers on the Grand Trunk railroad. Artifacts from the Museum added authenticity. Henry Ford loaned the 1858 “Sam Hill” steam locomotive and some train cars for the trip. Among the passengers were the film’s star, Mickey Rooney; Edsel Ford; Thomas Edison’s widow, Mina Miller Edison Hughes; and MGM studio executive Louis B. Mayer. In evening, “Young Tom Edison” premiered at three Port Huron theaters, with Rooney appearing at each.
Henry Ford shows Spencer Tracy around the Menlo Park Lab in Greenfield Village during Tracy’s October 1939 visit. THF123498
With the help of photographs and other documentation provided by Greenfield Village staff, MGM built an impressive full-sized version of the Menlo Park laboratory in California for “Edison the Man.” The movie set looked astonishingly like its Greenfield Village counterpart! THF125210
In mid-January 1940, filming began on “Edison the Man.” With the help of photographs and other documentation provided by Greenfield Village staff, MGM built an impressive full-sized version of the Menlo Park Laboratory, with its equipment, furnishings, and rows of bottles on the shelves. The movie set looked astonishingly like its Greenfield Village counterpart.
During the filming, Henry Ford put William Simonds on loan to MGM as a technical assistant. Simonds, a public relations manager for the Village and Museum, had published an Edison biography five years before. During the two-month filming of “Edison the Man” at MGM, Simonds reported back regularly. His letters provide an engaging behind-the-scenes look at the making of this classic Hollywood film.
Simonds told how Rita Johnson’s nervousness at playing her first big role--as Edison’s wife Mary--forced extra takes to complete some scenes. In one instance, Tracy ate five pieces of apple pie during numerous retakes of a scene. Simonds humorously described director Clarence Brown facing a long line of mothers and crying babies to choose an infant to play Edison’s child. He revealed how the stage crew had to scramble to repair the damage when part of the Menlo Park Laboratory set fell over, breaking many of the “chemical” bottles and spilling colored water all over the floor.
The model was sent to Henry Ford as a keepsake. Art director Cedric Gibbons, director Clarence Brown, cinematographer Harold Rosson, and the film’s stars Spencer Tracy and Rita Johnson signed it. THF49762
Filming of “Edison the Man” wrapped up in mid-March 1940 and it premiered May 16, 1940. There had been talk of holding its premiere in Dearborn, but, at the request of Edison’s son Charles, the film premiered in West Orange, New Jersey, where Edison developed many of his later inventions.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Anyone who’s been following automotive news – or any news – over the past few years knows that autonomous vehicles are no longer science fiction. They’re here today, right now. Sure, they may not be in every garage just yet, but in cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and even right here in Dearborn, they’re practically everyday sights as engineers put increasingly-refined prototypes through their paces on public roads.