In my last three blog posts, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and became part of the Fords’ inner circle. We know this through correspondence, designs, and records held in the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford. The single document that details the relationship best is a brochure—more a portfolio of projects—published by Houghton in the early 1930s to promote his design firm.
From Houghton’s reference images in the brochure, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. This post centers on Houghton’s later work for the Fords, and my evaluation of why the relationship ended.
According to Ford historian Ford Bryan in his book, Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, the Dearborn Country Club was created for executives at the Ford Motor Company. By the middle of the 1920s, Ford’s operations were centered in Dearborn, with nearly all the company’s upper echelon working from the Ford Engineering Laboratory or the nearby Ford Rouge Plant. According to Ford Bryan, the idea came from Henry and Clara Ford to provide Dearborn with the same amenities as elite suburbs such as the Grosse Pointes or the northern suburbs. They also wanted their associates and friends to have the best that money could buy. The project was an incentive for Ford executives to remain in Dearborn, but proved to be unprofitable for the company. Further, when Henry Ford tried to impose his wishes against smoking and drinking, the membership essentially ignored him. Because of this, the Fords rarely visited the Club.
Architect Albert Kahn, who famously designed the Rouge Plant, was hired to design the clubhouse, seen above. The building was finished in the fall of 1925 and was designed in the “Old English” or Tudor style, popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Formal Dance at the Dearborn Country Club, 1931. / THF99871
Dearborn Country Club Chef at Banquet Table, 1931. / THF99875
Light's Golden Jubilee Ushers at the Dearborn Country Club, October 21, 1929. / THF294674
We know through documents that Sidney Houghton worked on the interiors. What we have in the way of documentation is a furnishings plan, but little else. Period photos, such as those above, show the elaborate beamed ceiling in the ballroom designed by Albert Kahn, and the elegant lighting and window treatments, likely provided by Houghton.
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1931. / THF127760
Nurses in front of Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1926. / THF117484
One of Henry Ford’s great humanitarian efforts was in founding Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. It was created in 1915 and in 1917 was turned over to the federal government during World War I for military use. By the middle of the 1920s, the hospital was considered the major medical center in Detroit. In 1925, Clara Ford organized the Henry Ford Hospital School of Nursing, and she funded the building housing it, the Clara Ford Nurses Home, on the hospital campus.
Living Room inside Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1925. / THF127777
Only one photograph of the original interior survives, showing the living room on the first floor. This is absolutely the work of Sidney Houghton, done in what he would call the Elizabethan or Tudor style. The walls are covered with heavy, inlaid panels and the furniture is heavily proportioned, with carved turnings. The wood of choice during this period was oak, which Houghton described as the “Age of Oak.” The upholstered furniture is likewise heavy and large in scale.
Houghton Brochure, Furniture from the "Age of Oak." / THF121217a
The End of the Relationship
By 1925, Houghton’s commissions were at or nearing completion. After this date, there is an abrupt end to the correspondence between Houghton and the Fords. The only subsequent communications are a telegram from 1938, congratulating the Fords on their 50th wedding anniversary, and a letter dating to 1941, thanking Henry Ford II for his work on supplying aid for Britain during the second World War. While we have no documentation on how the relationship ended, we do have documentation of one artifact that may shed light on this period. In 1925, Houghton gave the Fords a sterling silver model galleon or ship. Perhaps this is a reference to Houghton’s love of sailing. It appears on the cover of the Houghton brochure at the top of this post.
Was this a peace offering from Houghton to the Fords? Or was it a token of generosity from Houghton, a great navigator, to the Fords? We will never know, but it is interesting to contemplate the implications of this extraordinary gift.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my journey through an unknown aspect of the Fords’ life. Researching and writing about Sidney Houghton has been a pleasure.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
That is a very good question! While I don’t recommend moving from a larger space to a smaller one unless you haveto (which we did), with time and effort, lots of help, and boxes, it can be done. Being photographers, it’s in our nature to document—well, everything—so come along on a Photo Studio–moving journey with me.
Edsel Ford, Charlie Chaplin, and Henry Ford Touring the Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, October 1923 / THF134659
Every month, staff from our library and archives select some interesting items from our collections to showcase on The Henry Ford’s Instagram account. In our every-first-Friday History Outside the Box offering, our collections experts share photographs, documents, and other artifacts around a given theme. Last summer, Reference Archivist Kathy Makas showcased some celebrity sightings from our archives—actors, actresses, and other luminaries visiting Ford Motor Company’s factories, World’s Fairs, and The Henry Ford’s own campus; showcasing their cars; and more. If you missed the Insta story, you can check out the presentation below.
Ford Novelty Band Playing at Ford Baseball Team Game, 1941 / THF271722
Every month, we feature some items from our archives in our History Outside the Box program. You can check the new story out on The Henry Ford’s Instagram account on the first Friday of the month, but we’re reposting some of the stories here on our blog as well. In May 2021, Reference Archivist Kathy Makas shared photographs, articles, and other documents ranging from the 1910s through the 1950s that detail how employees at Ford Motor Company spent their leisure time. Learn more about Ford’s musical groups, sports teams, gardeners, and social/service clubs in the video below.
Aggressive advertising got the public’s attention, and the tractor’s price—$750—made it a reasonable investment. It quickly became a bestseller. Just three years after its debut, on February 21, 1920, the 100,000th Fordson rolled off the assembly line in Dearborn, Michigan.
In November 2020, a full century after the photographic print above marking the tractor’s milestone manufacturing moment was taken, it became The Henry Ford’s 100,000th artifact to be digitized.
You can find out more about our digitization program and celebration of reaching 100,000 digitized artifacts on our blog here, and can explore more artifacts related to Fordson tractors in our Digital Collections here.
(For clarity’s sake, it is important to note that the Fair Lane estate is a historic house museum, independent of The Henry Ford. The house is currently undergoing a major restoration. You can learn more about the Fair Lane estate here.)
The single document that best details the relationship between Sidney Houghton and the Fords is a brochure, more a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm. From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. Unfortunately for us, images of Fair Lane were not included in the 1930s Houghton brochure, likely because of the private nature of the commission.
However, The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center holds exterior and interior photographs of the house, taken at a variety of dates. Additionally, our archives holds a select group of Houghton’s designs for Fair Lane’s furniture. These are the only surviving drawings of Houghton’s Ford-related furniture. One of my greatest joys in researching this blog was locating the completed pieces of furniture in historic photographs.
The Story of Fair Lane
The story of Fair Lane began in 1909, when Henry Ford bought large tracts of land in Dearborn Township, the place of his birth. At that time, Henry, his wife, Clara, and their son, Edsel, were living comfortably in the fashionable Boston-Edison neighborhood of Detroit, not far from the Highland Park plant where the famous Model T automobiles were manufactured. Henry was considering options for building a larger home, where he and his family could have more space and greater privacy. They were also considering building in Grosse Pointe, a community where many of Detroit’s leaders of industry were constructing homes. They even bought a parcel of land there that eventually became the site of Edsel and his wife Eleanor’s home in the 1920s.
In the summer of 1909, Ford visited the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park, Illinois, studio. The result was a commission for a large estate along the Rouge River in Dearborn. Scholars believe that Henry Ford heard about Wright from one of his chief engineers and neighbor, C. Harold Wills, who previously contracted Wright to build a home for his family in Detroit. By November of 1909, Wright had closed his studio and turned his practice over to the Chicago architectural firm of Von Holst and Fyfe, with his best draftsperson, Marion Mahony, overseeing all of Wright’s remaining projects. Wright felt that his architectural practice was at a “critical impasse” and went to Europe to work on a summary portfolio of his career, published in 1910. He was accompanied by Mrs. Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. This scandalous situation seems not to have affected the Fords, as Marion Mahony continued work on Fair Lane.
Presentation Drawing of Fair Lane, 1914 / THF157872
The project continued slowly through the next few years, until circumstances in the Fords’ lives made securing a new home a priority. In January 1914, Henry Ford announced his famous “five dollar day” wage for factory workers. His home on Edison Avenue near the plant was besieged by job seekers and the Fords lost any semblance of privacy. They soon realized that that the new Dearborn house was a priority. In February 1914, Clara Ford, who had taken the leadership role on the new house, called a meeting of Von Holst, Mahony and related designers. A number of elegant presentations of the home were shown to Clara Ford, including the design above. Many of these are now in public collections and give us a sense of the proposed estate. Two can be accessed here and here.
Instead of continuing to work with Marion Mahoney, Clara Ford chose Pittsburgh architect William Van Tine to complete the house. Van Tine was known in New York and the East, and it is generally thought that Clara Ford was seeking to emulate the tastes of women of her social status. Another key factor was the direction of American taste: the Prairie style promoted by Frank Lloyd Wright and Marion Mahony was rapidly losing currency and Americans increasingly favored revival styles, including Colonial and Medieval Revivals.
When I look at images of Van Tine’s house, completed in early 1916, I am struck by the odd composition, such as the sloping horizontal rooflines, especially to the left of the front entrance. These seem derived from Marion Mahony’s designs. There are vertical, castle-like forms, such as the one just to the right of the entrance, which are not at peace with the rest of the house. The result is a hodge-podge of disharmonious elements that barely coexist with each other.
Planting Plan for Fair Lane Grounds Number 5, November 1915 / THF155894
The planting plan above gives us a sense of Van Tine’s arrangement of the house. To the far left is Henry Ford’s power house, which is connected to the house through a tunnel under the rose garden. The tunnel ends near the indoor swimming pool intended for son Edsel’s use.
Entry Hall from the Living Room around 1925 / THF126547
The main rooms of the house are indicated in an area labeled as “residence” on the plan. The first-floor entrance consists of a grand hall and wide staircase. To the right of the hall is a small library. The hall leads into what the Fords described as their living room, the heart of the house. At the rear of the photograph above, please note the player organ installed in late 1915.
The entrance to the music room is to the right of the player organ in the living room. It is by far the largest and grandest room in the house. The photograph above shows it in its final incarnation, shortly after Clara Ford’s death.
The dining room leads off the living room and is another grand room, although it lacks the scale of the music room. As you can see, all the large public rooms at Fair Lane are rather dark and heavily decorated.
Sun Porch, Identified as the Loggia on the Ground Plan, about 1925 / THF137033
The sun porch is unlike any other public room in Fair Lane. It was filled with light and was said to have been one of the Fords’ favorite rooms. Also, unlike the rest of the house, it was filled with wicker furniture.
As you can see, Fair Lane was a very dark and heavily decorated home. We know that the Fords—Clara in particular—were unhappy with the interior. For example, sometime in the 1920s or the 1930s, Clara Ford went so far as to paint the walnut paneling in the music room. This north facing room must have appeared very dark, especially on a cloudy winter day.
Sidney Houghton’s Work at Fair Lane
Records in the Benson Ford Research Center indicate that Sidney Houghton began consulting on furnishings for Fair Lane in 1919. The records and correspondence continue through 1925, with proposals and payments through the entire period. The only “before” and “after” photographs that we have are of the living room.
By 1940, the furnishings of 1919 have been completely removed. The clutter of the 1919 furnishings have been replaced with groups of furniture oriented around the fireplace. The whole arrangement appears coherent and logical. The furniture styles of the 1940 living room are a mixture of historic English and American. Is this the work of Sidney Houghton? While we know that Houghton was working extensively at Fair Lane, we have no surviving renderings for furniture in this room.
Like the living room, the master bedroom contains a mixture of furnishings in historic English and American styles. For example, the mantelpiece is described as a “Wedgewood,” as the colored decoration derives from Wedgewood’s English Jasperware, first made in the 18th century. There are also pieces that are American in origin, such as the William and Mary–style table in front of the fireplace, and the Federal-style slant front desk in the corner, to the right of the window.
This room also contains two twin beds, likely designed by Sidney Houghton. They are made of veneered walnut with inlaid medallions done in a Chinoiserie style, a western interpretation of oriental design.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bed, 1921-1923 / THF626014
The headboard and footboard, as well as the crest rail and legs, of this bed are identical to those on the twin beds in the 1951 photograph. Houghton may have presented this design to Clara Ford, and she chose to have twin beds without a canopy produced instead.
The opposite wall in the master bedroom shows us again a combination of English and American historic furniture. They include an American Queen Anne oval table in the left corner. To the right of it is a Queen Anne style dressing table, partly obscured by an upholstered armchair. What is of interest is the dressing table and mirror at the center of the back wall. These are Houghton’s designs.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bedroom Dressing Table and Looking Glass, 1921-1923 / THF626012
We can see that the dressing table matches the bed—the inlaid medallions are also done in a Chinoiserie style—so this appears be part of a bedroom suite. Indeed, there is another design that does not appear in the room.
Design by Sidney Houghton Design for Fair Lane, Bedroom Cabinet or Chest, 1921-1923 / THF626016
This piece likely was presented to Clara Ford and rejected, or, if produced, removed before the photograph was taken in 1951.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Chest of Drawers and Case, possibly for Bedroom, 1921-1923 / THF626010
This chest of drawers appears to relate to the bedroom suite, as it is similar in scale, although it lacks the inlaid medallions.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Ladies Writing Table, 1921-1923 / THF626008
This elegant ladies desk may have been intended for the Fords’ bedroom. Like the chest, it may have been rejected or removed later.
The Benson Ford Research Center holds more of Houghton’s furniture designs for Fair Lane, although none appear in the historic photographs.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Center Table or Partners Desk, 1921-1923 / THF626002
This heavy, masculine-looking piece was likely not part of the bedroom suite. If fabricated, it would have been a large, clunky piece of furniture.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table, 1921-1923 / THF625998
This piece, done in the Louis XV or 18th-century Rococo style is a departure from anything visible at Fair Lane. Clara Ford likely rejected it.
There are also Houghton sketches and working drawings in the archive.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Slant Front Desk and Chair, 1921-1923 / THF625994
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table or Stool, 1921-1923 / THF626000
These designs were likely drawn on-site and presented as ideas for Clara’s approval.
As these drawings suggest, Sidney Houghton was extremely talented. He could work in a variety of styles and produced high-quality furniture. He transformed Fair Lane during the early 1920s from an eclectic mix to a more simplified combination of 18th-century English and American styles. This post represents the beginning of inquiry into the role of Houghton at Fair Lane, which should be continued over time. My next blog post will examine Sidney Houghton’s later work for the Fords and the end of their relationship.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Corey Williams, Dearborn Truck Plant Manager, will tell you that the culture at the plant where the F-150 is built is one of a kind. / Photo by Nick Hagen
Corey Williams has been a part of the Dearborn Truck Plant management team for nearly four years, promoted to plant manager in January 2021, and he’s worked at many Ford facilities in a variety of management positions over the 25-plus years he’s been with Ford. He’ll tell you with conviction that the Dearborn Truck Plant, where the Ford F-150 is built and The Henry Ford’s Ford Rouge Factory Tour welcomes thousands of visitors a year, is unlike anywhere else in the world.
“Every Ford plant has the same goals, metrics and objectives—we all want to deliver the best, highest-quality product to the customer that we can,” said Williams. “But at Dearborn Truck, the culture is different. And when I say different, I mean everyone here understands that we are building America’s bestselling truck and the sense of pride in that is like no other.”
“Everybody knows that we are leaders, never followers,” he added. “That if it can be done, it will be done at DTP [Dearborn Truck Plant]—at not only the highest rate and volumes but with the greatest efficiency.”
Ford F-150 Truck Assembly at the Dearborn Truck Plant at the Ford Rouge Complex
That attitude and mental mantra fit perfectly with Williams’ persona. He’s not afraid to admit he’s an ultracompetitive guy who feeds off having to face the next challenge.
“I’ve been a sports guy my entire life,” he said. “I love to compete and like the idea of a team—the collaborative part of it and how you have to work together toward a common goal.”
And when asked about the new set of players—vehicles as well as workers—that are now ready to call the Ford Rouge Complex home along with Dearborn Truck Plant, Williams couldn’t be more excited. In 2022, the new Rouge Electric Vehicle Center is slated to open, employing hundreds of new hires and manufacturing the all-new battery-electric F-150. “Not a day goes by that people don’t ask me about our new hybrid, the EV center, and electric truck—the buzz and amazement just grows,” said Williams. “It’s a huge step in continuing our truck leadership and dominance. We are changing the game.”
Play to Work
Staff from Ford Motor Company and The Henry Ford trace some of their interest in STEM and manufacturing to childhood television, toys, and games, like this 1960s Clue set in our collection. / THF188744
We asked Corey and other members of Ford Motor Company’s vehicle launch team and The Henry Ford’s Ford Rouge Factory Tour what games, TV shows, toys, etc., they remember growing up that helped spark their interest in STEM and manufacturing.
Corey Williams, Plant Manager at Ford: Playing team sports in his younger years is a key precursor to his manufacturing management skills today. “Involving yourself in team events where you need to collaborate and compete as a team toward a common objective is extremely relevant from a STEM standpoint,” he said.
James Housel, Bodyshop Launch Manager at Ford: “Saturday morning cartoons watching ‘Wile E. Coyote, SUUUUUUPER Genius.’” The cartoon character is always obtaining crazy gizmos from fictional mail-order company Acme in the hopes of capturing the Road Runner.
Cynthia Jones,Director, Museum Experiences & Engagement, at The Henry Ford: “I loved to play the board games Risk and Clue. Both of those helped me identify patterns, test hypotheses, set strategy goals and learn from failure.” Like Williams, Jones, a dedicated swimmer through high school, credits competitive sports too.
Doug Plond, Senior Manager, Ford Rouge Factory Tour, at The Henry Ford: “As a really young tyke, I loved to build with my red cardboard brick set—knocking them down was the fun part. Once I got a bit older, I moved up to Lincoln Logs.”
In my last blog post, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and, following the war, became part of the Fords’ inner circle.
The Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford holds significant correspondence, designs, and records relating to commissions between Houghton and Henry and Clara Ford. Probably the single document that details the variety of Ford commissions associated with Houghton is a brochure, more of a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm.
From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that no longer survive, as well as provide background for some that are still do. This post centers on two projects, the Fair Lane rail car and Henry and Edsel Ford’s offices in the Ford Engineering Laboratory, which still exist. Fortunately, aspects of both still exist in The Henry Ford’s collection!
Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara Ford, and Mina and Thomas Edison pose on the car’s rear platform about 1923. / THF97966
Images of the Fair Lane rail car from Houghton brochure. / THF121225a
The Fair Lane rail car was built by the Pullman Rail Car Company in Pullman, Illinois, and delivered to Henry and Clara Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, in summer 1921. A detailed history and background on the rail car by Matt Anderson, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Transportation, can be found here.
Sidney Houghton was responsible for creating the interiors and furnishings for the car. Many sources state that he worked with Clara Ford on the designs. What is likely is that Clara Ford approved or disapproved of Houghton’s design work. This is especially evident in the public rooms of the rail car—what Houghton called the “dining saloon” and the “observation parlour.”
The dining room walls are paneled in dark walnut, with veneered elements of mahogany. The effect suggests a richly appointed room from which to view the passing scenery. The styles that Houghton employed, and Clara Ford approved, derived from a combination of eighteenth-century English classical styles, including the caned and oval-backed side chairs and the elegantly carved three-quarter relief columns around the walls. China and glassware were stored in built-in units fitted with slots or pegs to keep the objects from shifting during travel.
What Houghton called the “observation saloon” was where passengers would spend their days while traveling. It was fitted out with sets of upholstered armchairs below the windows and a slant front desk and bookcase against the inner wall. This was an extremely useful piece of furniture; while at the desk, you could read or write correspondence, and when done, store your letters in one of the many drawers in the desk. The upper case allowed plenty of room to store books and other reading materials. Dials above the door to the observation platform displayed the miles per hour, the time, and the outdoor temperature.
As you can see in the recent photographs, over time the painted woodwork in this room was stripped and refinished. Also, the wonderful slant front desk and original light fixtures have not survived. Fortunately, after the Fords sold the rail car in 1942, a subsequent owner lovingly restored the interior, including reproducing much of the furniture, before donating it to The Henry Ford.
The Ford Engineering Laboratory Offices
In the early 1920s, Henry Ford commissioned his favorite architect, Albert Kahn, to design what Ford called his Engineering Laboratory in Dearborn. Completed in 1923, this building came to be the heart of the Ford Motor Company enterprise. Both Henry and his son, Edsel, had offices in the building, and Henry commissioned Sidney Houghton to design identical furniture and woodwork for each. Both offices survive, as does most of the furniture, which is now in the collections of The Henry Ford. Of all of Houghton’s projects for the Fords, it is the best preserved.
Edsel Ford’s office (top) and Henry Ford’s office (bottom) from Houghton brochure. /THF121221a
In looking at the offices, one thing comes to mind: they were designed to impress. Like the rail car, they are paneled in rich walnut, with matching walnut furniture. Both have large conference tables; Henry’s is round, while Edsel’s is rectangular.
Conference table used in Edsel Ford’s office. / THF158754
The chairs and tables all feature heavy, turned, and curved legs, known as cabriole legs. They are also inlaid with woods with their grains carefully arranged to their fullest and most luxurious effect.
The style of this furniture is English Jacobean, deriving from forms used in the seventeenth century. The intent with this furniture was to show off wealth and good taste—as befit a person of Henry Ford’s status.
This console table, seen in the photograph behind Henry Ford’s desk, is inlaid with matched veneers along the drawer front and handles in the shapes of shells. The elaborately turned legs, which look like upside down trumpets, are characteristic of the Jacobean style in England. Combined with the cabriole legs on the chairs, Houghton has mixed and matched English furniture styles here in what decorative arts historians call an eclectic fashion.
Tall Case Clock, works by Waltham Clock Company. / THF158743
If the rest of the office furniture was meant to impress, the tall case clock takes it over the top. Henry Ford was known for his love of clocks and watches. This piece was undoubtedly something that he was proud to possess and show off to guests in his office.
We know from documents that Henry Ford rarely used his office. He preferred to be out in the field visiting with employees or, in later years, in Greenfield Village. Consequently, the furniture shows little signs of wear. Further, there are few photographs of Henry Ford in his office, other than those taken in 1923 when it was newly installed.
On the wall behind the desk is a painting by artist Edward Pennoyer, used as an illustration for a 1931 advertisement. Henry Ford undoubtedly liked the image of himself with the Quadricycle, his first automobile, and hung it behind his desk.
Photograph of Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, to Henry Ford’s right, surrounded by unknown figures, November 1941. / THF240734
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241506
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241508
Only three photographs survive of Henry Ford in his office. All date to November 1941, when the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, visited Henry Ford and toured the Rouge Factory. Guests to the Engineering Laboratory were almost always photographed outside the building or in the adjacent Henry Ford Museum or Greenfield Village.
The third photograph above shows another work of art in the office. The landscape shows Henry Ford’s Wayside Inn, in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, purchased in 1923. This, of course, was a place near and dear to Henry Ford, and helped him to realize his goal of creating Greenfield Village.
As we can see, Sidney Houghton was close to Henry and Clara Ford, designing Henry’s office and the Fair Lane rail car intimate environment, used on a very regular basis. In the next blog post, I will look at the most intimate of the Fords’ interiors—their Fair Lane Estate, onto which Houghton put his own influence during the first half of the 1920s.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Fans of The Henry Ford know that we are a big, (wonderfully) complicated, messy (in a good way) place—we are definitely not just a car museum. Our collections are so broad that they can sometimes confuse visitors. As just one example, take a look at the five most-viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections during the second quarter of 2021.
This GIF shows the most-viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections during Q2 2021: 1) 1896 Ford Quadricycle Runabout, First Car Built by Henry Ford; 2) Slave Collar, circa 1860; 3) Melting Pot Ceremony at Ford English School, July 4, 1917; 4) "Whites Only" Drinking Fountain, 1954; and 5) Letter from Clyde Barrow to Henry Ford Praising the Ford V-8 Car, 1934. / THF90758, THF13425, THF106481, THF13419, THF103458
Do you see any connections? Right off the bat, perhaps you see a connection between the Quadricycle (the first car built by Henry Ford) and the alleged Clyde Barrow letter about the Ford V-8—certainly both revolve around the larger-than-life figure of Henry Ford. Or maybe it seems obvious that the slave collar and the segregated drinking fountain both tell a story of the oppression of Black Americans over time.
But The Henry Ford’s collections contain many more artifacts than just these five, and there are many ways to find connections between them. When The Henry Ford’s curatorial, digital, experience, and web teams, as well as our experience design partners at Bluecadet, began working on Intersection of Innovation, a new multimedia experience in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, we set out to explore the various ways the artifacts in our collection work together as a disparate yet cohesive whole to tell a variety of stories.
You’ll find the Intersection of Innovation right under the Douglas DC-3 in the center of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / Photo by Marvin Shaouni
One of the features you’ll see in the Intersection, probably the one that involved the most work, is a twelve-foot-long touch table. This table contains images and a little bit of information on nearly 32,000 artifacts from our collection, a number that will continue to grow. But it will never contain all of our digitized artifacts, and it is not meant to be the deep dive into individual artifacts or stories that our Digital Collections and online content are—instead, it’s designed to help quickly reveal connections between artifacts in a responsive, fun, and colorful interface. Those connections take two distinct forms, each with their own strengths and limitations.
First, we started with connections created by our curators. Curators are used to illuminating the many interweaving connections between seemingly different artifacts. We tried to go beyond very straightforward connections (for example, artifacts used by George Washington Carver, or artifacts created in New York) and find unexpected connections that might catch your attention. If you’ve ever watched one of our Connect3 videos, you might be familiar with this kind of connection.
For example, for the table, we used the concept of weaving to connect an oriole’s nest, a machine used to strand transatlantic cable, and a childhood artwork by Edsel Ford in which he wove a bear out of brown yarn. These connections are surprising, unexpected, and often subtle—something artificial intelligence might not (at least today) be able to achieve. But the limitation to human-created connections is the physical limitations of the human—our staff will never be able to create these types of complex connections for tens of thousands of artifacts.
So we also added connections created by artificial intelligence. The computer that runs the table analyzes the artifact images in bulk and creates threads between them according to their color and shape—no human intervention required. The advantage of artificial intelligence connections is that computers can process much more information much more quickly than any human brain. There is no way that we could ever establish the mass of interconnections that the table’s computer does. Artificial intelligence can also pick up fine distinctions of color and shape that may be challenging for human eyes. However, the drawback of artificial intelligence is that, despite what science-fiction books and movies may tell us, computers do not function like the human brain (which is probably for the best).
Some of the early results of artificial intelligence analysis of shape (left) and color (right) gradients among our collections artifacts. We were excited to see that the computer analysis got better as it looked at more artifacts—the machine really did learn! / Image courtesy Bluecadet
Our conclusion, therefore, was that both humans and computers bring something to the table (pun intended). Artificial intelligence can help our visitors and staff see our collections in new ways—but humans also provide a unique sensibility that computers cannot, at least today.
The entire Intersection of Innovation, including the connections table, suffered from an incredibly unfortunate accident of timing—it was installed in the museum just before The Henry Ford closed for three months last year due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. When we reopened, the table remained turned off until we were sure it could be operated safely. But today it is on—and it really is a lot of fun. Swiping your fingers along the table bring up seemingly infinite dynamic and colorful strings of artifacts for which you can explore both human- and artificial intelligence-created connections.
Try to resist the connections table—we dare you. / Media courtesy Bluecadet
If you haven’t yet had a chance to check out the table, we hope you’ll stop by and check it out, along with the rest of the Intersection. And if you are a tech geek (or just really interested), Bluecadet has a nice general overview of the table on their website, and an in-depth article about the process of tweaking and training the artificial intelligence on Medium.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections and Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
“Women at the Wheel,” like the duster-clad driver at the controls of this 1907 Cadillac Model K, were spotlighted at this year’s Old Car Festival.
After a longer-than-usual pause, Old Car Festival returned to Greenfield Village on September 11–12, 2021. Our celebration of early American motoring included more than 700 registered cars, trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles dating from the 1890s to 1932.
Each year we shine our spotlight on a particular make, model, or theme. For 2021, we celebrated “women at the wheel” in commemoration of the 101st anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. The automobile played a significant part in the fight for women’s suffrage. Cars expanded the range and reach of suffragists, allowing them to spread their message to smaller villages and hamlets located away from railroads. The automobile also provided a prominent mobile platform on which to hang signs and banners, and a traveling stage from which to make speeches and calls to action.
Ford Motor Company advertisements promoted the Model T as a source of freedom for American women.
From the start, automakers appealed specifically to women with targeted advertisements and booklets. Makers of early electric cars made a special point of advertising to well-to-do female buyers. Unlike early gasoline cars, electrics were clean, quiet, and required no crank starting or gear shifting. But many women weren’t bothered in the least by the gasoline car’s disadvantages. Alice Huyler Ramsey drove a gas-powered Maxwell across the United States in 1909, becoming the first woman to make the coast-to-coast road trip.
This 1912 Baker Electric was used by five First Ladies of the United States. / THF67884
Dancing under the streetlights, to the music of the River Raisin Ragtime Review, capped off Saturday evening.
Show participants and guests enjoyed a variety of activities built around the three decades represented by Old Car Festival’s vehicles. From the 1900s, we had a group of aged Civil War veterans enjoying a Grand Army of the Republic picnic. From the 1910s, we had a Ragtime Street Fair with music and dancing up and down Washington Boulevard. We had a few American doughboys stationed near Cotswold Cottage as well, lest we forget the Great War and its impact on daily life and industrial production. We commemorated the Roaring ’20s with a community garden party near the Bandstand, and—in keeping with our theme—with a presentation by historian Joseph Boggs on the “New Woman,” who challenged traditional gender norms during that exciting decade.
Expert narrators commented on cars, like this rare 1907 Richmond Merry Widow built by Wayne Works, during Pass-in-Review.
Naturally, those who came for the cars weren’t disappointed. We had everything from Auburns to Willys-Knights parked on every patch of open grass in Greenfield Village. As usual, our team of expert historians was on hand to narrate Pass-in-Review parades that included everything from 19th-century bicycles (brought by the always entertaining Michigan Wheelmen) to commercial trucks, wreckers and depot hacks. (If you weren’t able to see the Pass-in-Review in person, or would like to catch something again, you can watch the early vehicles, commercial vehicles, and bicycles parades on our Facebook page.) We finished off on Saturday evening with the gaslight tour. Anyone who’s experienced it will agree that watching those early autos parade through the village with their flickering gas and early electric lamps is a magical sight.
Old Car Festival attracts a variety of motive power, but steam cars like this 1909 White Model O are always a hit.
There’s just something special about Old Car Festival. Several participants have told me that the show is the highlight of the year for them—bigger than birthdays and holidays. I think we all found a little extra joy this time out, resuming a beloved tradition that’s been a part of Greenfield Village for 70 years. We’ll look forward to seeing all our friends again in 2022.