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Posts Tagged decorative arts

Tinsmiths with Their Work Tools, circa 1875

Tinsmiths pose with hand tools, machines, sheets of tinplate and examples of tinware, circa 1875. / THF228486

In early America, most tin shops were small family businesses. As the popularity of tinware grew, so did its production. Connecticut became the earliest tin manufacturing center. From there, the craft spread south and westward as skilled tinsmiths and their trained assistants brought tools, patterns and know-how to establish shops in new places.

The tinsmith held an important position as an artisan in the 19th century. Successful tinsmiths were enterprising and ambitious. As entrepreneurs, their goal was to make items that customers wanted, through means that saved as much time and labor as possible. Tinsmiths produced a vast array of utilitarian wares to meet a range of consumer needs. In addition to new goods, they offered repair services. Customers might bring their local tinsmith an article of tin or another material, such as pottery or glass, with a broken part to be repaired with a tin replacement.

Tinsmiths repaired these glass items during the second half of the 19th century.

Tinsmiths repaired these glass items during the second half of the 19th century. The glass portions are original; the tin portions are later replacements. / THF174369, THF174614, THF174041

Whenever possible, tinsmiths used machines in addition to hand tools to help them produce more of the same goods in less time and at a lower cost. Individual artistry was important – an item or its decoration might have a unique variation, either created by the tinsmith or arising out of the traditional or popular aesthetics of that particular region (e.g., Pennsylvania German hearts, tulips and birds). However, if that item proved popular, a tinsmith would produce it by the dozen.

Chromolithograph, "Prang's Aids for Object Teaching, Trades & Occupations-Plate 11, Tinsmith," 1874

This 1874 image depicts tinsmiths at work. Tinware and other metal goods are displayed for sale in the store adjacent to their shop (upper right), where a salesperson assists a customer considering a cast-iron stove. / THF626434

Selling Tinware

Tinsmiths came up with ingenious ways to sell their wares. They might retail them in their shops or at the local general store. But to meet and stimulate demand outside the areas in which they worked, tinsmiths made use of traveling peddlers.

Some peddlers worked directly for or under contract to a tinsmith. But, especially in New England, the most successful peddlers were independent. They bought stock from tin shop owners and sold it in open markets or from portable carts or wagons. These peddlers not only sold standard tinware but also took custom orders and stocked a variety of items beyond tinware, like brooms, dry goods and sewing notions. They primarily accepted barter in trade for their stock. Items accepted in barter — like hides, tallow, spun yarns, rags, wood ashes and feathers — came with standard price equivalents, which the peddler would resell to dealers for a profit. The barter system lasted well into the 19th century because peddlers actually made more profit from reselling these items to dealers than from selling tinware and other goods to customers for cash.



Magazine page of people selling items

This 1868 illustration of a peddler selling his wares includes tinware as well as brooms, textiles and other items. / THF705605


Decline of the Tinsmith

By the 1870s, large tin manufactories turning out dozens of items had evolved into full-fledged tinware factories using steam-driven presses. It became no longer economical for most tinsmiths (except in the remotest of areas or because of longtime customer loyalty) to make or repair simple items, as factory-made goods were so much less expensive. Into the 20th century, some tinsmiths stayed in business by producing gutters, downspouts and furnace ducts. But even these were replaced later in the 20th century by galvanized steel and aluminum, which were more durable and easier to maintain. By the end of the 20th century, handmade tinware had come to be considered a heritage craft or folk art.

Donna R. Braden is senior curator and curator of public life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, associate curator, digital content.

decorative arts, Tin, by Donna R. Braden, 19th century

Tinsmiths with Their Work Tools, circa 1875

Tinsmiths pose with hand tools, machines, sheets of tinplate and examples of tinware, circa 1875. / THF228486

Until the first decade of the 19th century, tinsmiths in both Europe and America manufactured virtually all tinware by hand, using a wide range of specialized tools. But as tinware became more popular, American tinsmiths developed a unique set of equipment that included patented cast-iron geared machines.

American tinsmithing began in the 18th century, but the production of tinware really took off after the War of 1812, when American tinsmiths could finally obtain a constant supply of tinplate (or tin-coated iron, the material tinsmiths use to make their wares) from England and Wales. (These countries dominated the tinplate industry through most of the 19th century.) The influx of imported tinplate, as well as the immigration of skilled English and Welsh tinsmiths, contributed to the tremendous popularity of tinware in 19th-century America.



Lithograph, "Tinsmiths," circa 1840

This circa 1840 lithograph depicts the hand process of producing tinware, as well as several hand tools and examples of finished goods. / THF626375


Tinplate was a stiff but pliable material, shaped by cutting, bending, crimping (to create folds or pleats), hammering and soldering joints together. Tinsmiths needed training and skill to accomplish these tasks. Overheating could destroy the tin coating. Over-hammering could break the coating. Joints had to be carefully soldered with soldering irons heated over charcoal stoves or braziers. Tinsmiths generally developed their own wooden patterns to help reduce variation and error, but handwork still took much practice.

Increasing American demand for tinware led to the development and enthusiastic embrace of numerous patented hand-powered machines that saved time and labor, making it possible for tinsmiths to produce the same items in quantity in less time and at a lower cost. When they could afford them, American tinsmiths eagerly added these machines to their more traditional sets of hand tools.



Chromolithograph, "Prang's Aids for Object Teaching, Trades & Occupations-Plate 11, Tinsmith," 1874

This 1874 image depicts a tin shop that utilized traditional hand tools as well as at least one hand-cranked machine, visible just behind the tinsmith at center. / THF626434

A unique American characteristic of many crafts and trades in 19th-century America — tinsmithing being no exception — was the preference for speed and uniformity over European traditions of personal, individualized workmanship. Hand-cranked machines revolutionized American tinsmithing by replacing old hand methods — like crimping, bending and locking edges, cutting, forming, slitting, cutting circles, stamping and rolling — with quicker, more efficient steps to produce greater quantities of uniform pieces in less time. And as American tinsmiths embraced machines, their assistants required less training.



Shaw, Clark & Burton Trade Literature, "Burton's Double Seamer," September 1, 1859

The manufacturer of Burton’s Double Seamer, patented in 1859 and illustrated here sealing the bottom of a round pan, advertised it as “the only one of any value to the tinware manufacturer.” Early hand-cranked machines led to a plethora of patented machines developed by American blacksmiths, toolmakers and machinists throughout the 19th century. / THF626369

Circle Shear

This hand-cranked circle shear, patented in 1860, allowed tinsmiths to cut circles of tinplate up to 20 inches in diameter. / THF705411


Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co. Trade Catalog, "P.S. & W. Tinsmiths' Tools and Machines," circa 1895

Tinsmiths used hand-cranked forming machines, like this one depicted in a circa 1895 Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co. trade catalog, to create cylindrical shapes. / Detail, THF626395

By the 1850s, a range of patented geared machines could be found in an increasing number of tin manufactories, which employed up to 30 people and turned out dozens of uniformly made items. The longtime use of precut patterns or templates led, by the late 19th century, to the use of published pattern books, further helping to ensure uniformity. Small tin shops, which persisted into the early 20th century (particularly in rural and remote areas), could order parts – such as lids or bucket handles – from these establishments and pair them with or attach them to their own forms, to avoid purchasing the expensive specialized equipment needed to produce them. See our blog for more on the history of tinsmithing and tinware.

Donna R. Braden is senior curator and curator of public life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, associate curator, digital content.

by Donna R. Braden, decorative arts, 19th century, Tin

Lithograph depicting tinsmiths working in a workshop surrounded by tools of their trade

This circa 1840 lithograph depicts several examples of tinware as well as some of the tools and processes used to make it. / THF626375

During the 19th century, tinplate or tin (actually iron coated with tin) was the dominant material for utilitarian items, both in American homes and in public spaces like offices and stores. Tin was lightweight, inexpensive, easy to clean, nontoxic and durable. As long as its coating remained intact, it resisted corrosion and had a pleasing silvery appearance. Tin goods, known as tinware, could be decorated to further enhance their appearance through japanning (coating with a resin to produce a dark, glossy finish), painting or pierced designs. Middle-class Americans happily purchased articles made of tin in place of equivalent housewares made of earlier materials: heavy cast iron, old-fashioned wrought iron, hard-to-clean wood, dull pewter and breakable pottery.


Page of a trade catalog depicting tools for purchase

A range of japanned tinware sold by Herr & Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, circa 1926. / THF704030

The range of tinware made in local tin shops was almost endless. Most were highly utilitarian articles including kitchen utensils, bakeware, containers, lighting devices, stove piping, food safes and foot warmers. Customers also brought in broken items, whether made of tin or another material, to have them repaired. For example, they might have the tinsmith replace the broken handle of a piece of pottery with a newly fashioned tin one, as this was much less expensive than purchasing a new piece of pottery.


Photograph of a ceramic pitcher that has been reinforced by a tinsmith with a metal structure

A tinsmith replaced the broken handle of this pitcher, dated 1839-1846. / THF174611

Tinware’s dominance persisted until the late 19th century, when it began to be superseded by goods made of materials that were considered even more attractive. These included speckled graniteware (steel with a porcelain-enamel coating) and, for showier items like teapots and coffeepots, Britannia (a combination of tin and antimony with small amounts of zinc, brass and copper) and silver plate (silver-coated iron). By the early 20th century, more durable materials – aluminum and galvanized or stainless steel – were becoming the new standards for utilitarian items. But tin, ever resilient, persists in modern-day products as a coating in aluminum cans and in combination with lead as a solder to join metal pieces together.

Donna R. Braden is senior curator and curator of public life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, associate curator, digital content.

Tin, decorative arts, 19th century, by Donna R. Braden

Western Europe and its former colonies in the Americas were long fascinated with the Eastern cultures Europeans depicted as “mysterious”—specifically their exotic and luxurious trade goods. This is the second of two blog posts that examine this European and American fascination with Asia and the way that was expressed in the decorative arts. In the first post, I discussed the China trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, specifically Chinese export porcelain and the related tea trade. This post focuses on the 19th century, with the decline of the China trade, the opening of Japan to the West, Western eclecticism in the decorative arts, and the beginning of Western understanding of Asian design.

The China Trade in the First Half of the 19th Century


By the early 19th century, Europe and America had learned the secret of “hard paste” or true porcelain, so Westerners could produce their own high-quality wares. In the early American republic, porcelain factories popped up as early as the 1820s. This is not to suggest that that trade in Chinese porcelains declined; rather, it entered a new phase.

Head-on view of interior of shallow, rectangular bowl with blue stripe around rim and image in blue of landscape with building
Canton Ware Serving Bowl, 1800–1850 / THF160724

The serving bowl above would have been a prized possession of an American family in the first half of the 19th century. Part of a dinnerware set, this Canton ware, or “Blue Willow,” pattern appealed to middle-class Americans as an example of the exoticism of a faraway place, and implied the owners’ good taste and sophistication. Compared with the expensive and highly prized 18th-century wares, Canton china was inexpensive. This porcelain was shipped from Guangzhou, then called the Port of Canton by the English, to serve as a ship’s ballast under the more valuable tea chests.

Side view of shallow, rectangular bowl with blue stripe around rim and image in blue of landscape with building
Canton Ware Serving Bowl, 1800–1850 / THF160723

These wares usually depict a landscape with Chinese buildings and a bridge in the center and have a decorated rim. This pattern was widely copied by English makers in the late 19th and 20th centuries and became so inexpensive that it was sold at five-and-ten cent stores in the 20th century.  This example is interesting as it broke at some point during its working life and was mended with visible staples, indicating that it was indeed a valued possession.

Painting showing the inside of a building hung with blue banners with white Chinese characters and many potted plants and many framed artworks hung on the wall
Watercolor Painting, Two Rooms of a Chinese Painter's Studio, circa 1865 / THF119916

The remarkable image above shows the interior of a Chinese porcelain studio, with craftspeople decorating ceramics for the Western market. Visible on the wall on the left are prints or drawings supplied by Western agents, which were then copied by the artists in the foreground. The table on the right is filled with finished pieces of decorated ceramics. This piece itself was a souvenir intended for the Western market.

While the China trade continued throughout the 19th century, imports to America declined with the Civil War in the 1860s and never rebounded. After the Civil War, the United States and Europe became fascinated with another Asian nation, Japan.

Japan and the West


Japan, like China, traded with the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch beginning in the 15th century. However, by the middle of the 17th century, Japanese authorities closed their doors to Europeans, primarily due to the undue influence of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. In 1853, the American Commodore Matthew Perry, under the direction of President Millard Fillmore, arrived in Yokohama harbor with a fleet of steam ships, which impressed the Japanese with their high degree of technology. The Japanese grudgingly agreed to open their markets to the Americans and the West. During the next few decades, traditional Japanese arts flowed to the West, where they profoundly influenced European and American fine and decorative arts.

Woodblock print showing wooden bridge over high, very narrow gorge with a river at the bottom
Japanese River Scene Wood Block Print, 1900–1929 / THF292625

Tall, narrow, woodblock print of a person on a horse and another person on foot on a snowy promontory with trees nearby
Japanese Travelers in a Snow Storm, Wood Block Print, 1900–1929 / THF292633

The wood block prints above are good examples of Japanese exports that excited Western artists and designers. The compositions were like nothing ever seen in Europe or America. The use of flat, unmodulated colors laid down next to each other, combined with diagonals, provided a sense of depth. This influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists in France and designers everywhere.

Black wooden chair with yellow tasseled seat; chair back is ornately carved with a crane and foliage
Folding Side Chair, 1880–1885 / THF92166

The influence of images from Japanese prints on Western decorative arts can be seen in the carved cranes on the side chair above, painted in black to imitate ebony, an expensive wood that late Victorians associated with Japan. This is known as Anglo-Japanese style, which began in England in the 1870s and spread to America by the 1880s. Like many of the Asian imports, this Western style had little to do with Japan itself; rather, it suggested the “exoticism” of the Far East.

Elaborate, tall silver pitcher with engraved birds and foliage on body
Pitcher, 1870–1875, Made by Tiffany and Company, New York, New York / THF190746

Like the side chair, Tiffany and Company’s elegant silver pitcher uses stylized images of birds and foliage done in the Anglo-Japanese style.

Rectangle of wallpaper with pattern of maroon foliage and flowers on a gold background
Floral Wallpaper Sample, 1860–1880 / THF190058

Rectangular piece of wallpaper with pattern of green, red, and yellow flowers and foliage on a cream or puce background
Floral Wallpaper Sample, 1860–1880 / THF190057

Rectangular piece of wallpaper with small windows containing images of urns and vases filled with plants or flowers and other decorative elements in a largely gold and red color scheme
Wallpaper Sample, 1880–1890 / THF190054

The highly stylized wallpapers shown above were derived from the floral patterns of Japanese prints. European and American designers called these abstracted patterns “conventionalized” ornament. These wallpapers appealed to those interested in what was called the “aesthetic” taste. This taste tended to be high style, although by the 1880s, middle-class Americans applied elements of it in their interiors. For example, the sample above was found in the middle-class Firestone Farmhouse, now in Greenfield Village. The date of our interpretation is 1885.

Eclectic Design in the Late 19th Century


What we’ve looked at so far has imagery directly linked to either Chinese or Japanese originals, but there is another category of decorative objects that contain more interpretive elements derived from Chinese, Japanese, or other Asian designs. Some of these pieces contain imaginary elements that the designer created out of thin air.

Cream-colored vase with tall narrow neck and wide, short body, with stippled floral pattern in neutral shades
“Crown Milano” Vase, 1888–1893, Made by the Mount Washington Glass Company, New Bedford, Massachusetts / THF163595

Small round, peach/cream-colored ceramic jar with pattern of stippled flowers, topped with a silver "shaker" lid
“Burmese” Caster, 1885–1895, Made by the Mount Washington Glass Company, New Bedford, Massachusetts / THF167758

The ornate and elegant glass pieces above are clearly influenced by Japanese designs but have been transformed by late-19th-century American glassmakers into something unique. They are highly decorative and distinctly of their time.

Silver box on small legs, with handles on either side and relief on the front of man's face and torso with long drooping mustache and wearing a hat
Silver Tea Caddy, 1875, Made by the Gorham Manufacturing Company, Providence, Rhode Island / THF190070

Silver pieces, including four pitchers of different shapes and sizes and two other containers, one with a lid, all elaborately decorated with bamboo, florals, and other decorative elements
Tea and Coffee Service, 1883–1884, Made by Gorham Manufacturing Company, Providence, Rhode Island / THF154882

In the late 19th century, wealthy Americans demanded ornate silver sets, and above are notable examples of just how wild they could get. The tea caddy references Asian design elements—as perceived by Americans, who had little true understanding of Asian cultures. Likewise, the full tea set picks up on the Anglo-Japanese style, but takes it much farther, into something truly Victorian—and, like the glass examples, totally unique.

Attempts at Understanding Asia


Small vase with narrow base rounding out, then narrowing again at mouth, with mottled reddish colors ranging from peach to dark maroon
Vase, 1896–1908, Made by Hugh Robertson at the Dedham Pottery, Dedham, Massachusetts / THF176707

By the beginning of the 20th century, there were several designers looking for true sources of inspiration in Asian design. One of the most interesting of these was the English-born potter Hugh Robertson (1845–1908). During his time at the Dedham Pottery in Massachusetts, Robertson was obsessed with recreating the well-known Chinese oxblood glaze, seen on the vase above. He spent decades experimenting and perfecting the glaze, first at his family's Chelsea Keramic Art Works and later at Dedham. He was also interested in recreating the forms of Chinese porcelain made for domestic production rather than for export.

I hope you have enjoyed this quick journey through The Henry Ford's collection of Asian-influenced decorative arts. All of these artifacts, as well as many more, are available for browsing online in our Digital Collections.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

Europe, 19th century, Asia, paintings, glass, furnishings, design, decorative arts, ceramics, by Charles Sable, art

During the 1930s and 1940s, Scottish Terriers, or “Scotties,” popped up all over popular culture, from jewelry to ceramics to greeting cards. I've found various types of Scottie memorabilia in The Henry Ford's collections of this period. The question is, why were Scotties so popular?

According to the American Kennel Club, Scottish Terriers first became popular in America in the early 20th century, with the “Golden Age” arriving in the 1930s. This may be due to the personality of Scotties. The American Kennel Club references this description of the Scottish Terrier’s temperament: “Contented in his ways, conscious of the affection he bears to master or mistress, he regards life philosophically, takes the best when he can get it, makes the best when he cannot.”

Of course, the 1930s represents one of the most desperate economic periods in American history: the Great Depression. It makes perfect sense that Americans loved the spirited Scottie during this dark time.

Also, celebrities as diverse as Bette Davis, Dorothy Parker, Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Humphrey Bogart adopted Scotties and helped make them popular—both as pets and on memorabilia.

Some of the most common places that they appear are in Christmas cards.

Two Scottie dogs in the snow amid evergreens and in front of a red doghouse; one holds a stocking with a toy coming out of it
Christmas Card, "A Merry Christmas," 1933 / THF36815

This card shows a pair of mischievous Scotties, one of whom shows us a Christmas stocking with a puppet tumbling out of it.

Two napkin rings, one beige and one brown, in the shape of Scottie dogs with red eyes
"Scottie" (Scottish Terrier) Napkin Rings, 1930-1950 / THF189764

Plastics were used for inexpensive items such as these adorable napkin rings, likely purchased at a five-and-ten-cent store. They would have brightened up a Depression-era dining room table.

White arc-shaped dish with orange decorations and an orange Scottie dog on top, sitting with four small rectangular dishes with orange Scottie dogs inside the bottom
"Scottie Dog" Cigarette Holder and Ash Trays, 1935-1940 / THF169674

This inexpensive, yet fashionable, ceramic cigarette set, like the napkin rings, was likely retailed at a five-and-ten-cent store. It would have been a novelty or conversation piece in a middle-class living room.

Fala: The Most Famous Presidential Pet


Black-and-white image of man sitting on something in a grassy field, holding a Scottie dog, with a car and another person behind him
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Fala, 1940 / Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

The photograph above shows President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his new Scottish Terrier, Fala, a gift from Roosevelt’s cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. Was Roosevelt aware of the popularity of Scotties, or was it just serendipity? Probably a little of both. Fala was named by Roosevelt after a Scottish ancestor, the “outlaw” John Murray of Falahill. “Murray the Outlaw of Falahill” was soon shortened to “Fala,” and like his namesake, the Scottie's legend grew. Fala’s adorable antics soon made him popular, and perhaps beloved, by the White House press corps.

Black-and-white photo of Scottie dog with front paws on camera, facing several kneeling men with cameras, in front of a large imposing building
Fala “Photographing” White House Photographers, 1942 / Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

Fala and the Barkers for Britain Campaign


As you can see, Fala’s instant fame, plus national interest in Scottish Terriers, created a public relations bonanza. During 1941, as World War II raged in Europe, the Roosevelt administration sought to help Great Britain, the lone country in Western Europe left standing against the forces of Nazi Germany. Although the United States was officially neutral, many Americans sympathized with and sought to aid the British. They were led by the British War Relief Society, an umbrella organization based in New York City. A constituent group called “Bundles for Britain” collected clothing and money for humanitarian aid. “Barkers for Britain” was created for dog lovers, with paid memberships benefiting the Bundles group. For a fee of 50 cents, dog owners could get a tag with their dog’s name inscribed with a Barkers for Britain label. President Roosevelt volunteered Fala as president of the group, and Fala got membership tag number one.

Christmas card of two snowpeople singing from sheet music against a blue sky filled with stars as a black Scottie dog looks on
Christmas Card, "Cheerio," 1941 / THF702390

Interior of a Christmas card depicting two snowpeople walking from a red building (church?) across snowy slopes against a blue sky filled with stars, and a Scottie dog; also contains text
Interior of Christmas Card, “Cheerio,” 1941 / THF702391

Dating to 1941, this Christmas card references Scottish Terriers and Britain, with “Cheerio” on the outside and “The Englands” on the inside.

Fala’s Moment of Fame in 1944


As a favorite companion, Fala was constantly by Roosevelt’s side. He traveled everywhere with the president. In the late summer of 1944, with the United States now fully engaged in World War II, Fala accompanied Roosevelt on the USS Baltimore to Hawaii, where Roosevelt met with General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz on plans to retake the Philippines and attack the Japanese mainland. The Baltimore then traveled to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, where Roosevelt met with local leaders on asserting American control over islands that had been taken by the Japanese early in the war. The ship returned to the American mainland via Seattle, where Roosevelt and Fala took a train back to Washington, D.C.

In 1944, a presidential election year, Roosevelt was seeking an unprecedented fourth term. Republicans sought any “dirt” they could find on Roosevelt, an extremely popular Democrat and president since 1933. It is unclear how the rumor got started, but Republicans began circulating a story that Fala had been left behind in the Aleutian Islands and a destroyer had been sent from Seattle, at taxpayers’ expense, to retrieve him. Roosevelt was accused of wasting some 20 million dollars in this effort. Ever the canny politician, the president used this to his advantage. Speaking to the Teamsters Union while kicking off his reelection campaign, Roosevelt gave a speech that many say ensured his reelection. Here is an excerpt:

"These Republican leaders have not been content to make personal attacks upon me—or my wife or my sons—they now include my little dog, Fala. Unlike the members of my family, Fala resents this. When he learned that the Republican fiction writers had concocted a story that I had left him behind on an Aleutian Island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayer of two or three or twenty million dollars—his Scottish soul was furious! He has not been the same dog since."

Not only did Roosevelt get a positive reaction from his Teamster audience, but he was also heard on radio from coast to coast. The voting public realized that the president still had fight in him and that his feisty little dog was a great asset. As part of the Roosevelt campaign, young girls began sporting Scottie dog pins, like this one.

Brown wooden pin carved to depict two Scottie dogs wearing red collars running
"Scottie" (Scottish Terrier) Pin, circa 1940 / THF30462

In a broader context, Fala started the tradition of presidential pets serving as surrogates in the political arena. Some notable examples include Richard Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech in 1952 and Socks the cat, the pet of Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill Clinton, in the 1990s. Nearly every president since 1944 has attempted to promote his pets, but none have done so as deftly as Roosevelt.

Black-and-white photo of woman sitting next to Scottie dog
Eleanor Roosevelt with Fala, 1951 / Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

After Roosevelt’s sudden death in April of 1945, Fala lived with Eleanor Roosevelt at the family’s Hyde Park, New York, home until the dog’s own death in 1952. At Roosevelt’s memorial in Washington, D.C., the president is depicted with Fala at his side.

Statue of a seated man wearing a cape next to statue of a Scottie dog, mounted on granite with a granite wall with inscribed text behind them
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C., 2016 / Photograph by Ellice Engdahl

The Scottie dog is truly a reflection of American life at a difficult period, when tenacity, good spirits, and a can-do mentality helped the nation survive and ultimately prosper.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

Washington DC, 1940s, 1930s, 20th century, World War II, presidents, popular culture, home life, decorative arts, by Charles Sable

Western Europe and its colonies in the Americas have long been fascinated with the Eastern cultures Europeans depicted as “mysterious,” and specifically their exotic trade goods, such as spices, silk, porcelain, and, later, tea. In fact, this interest was the motivation behind the European arrival in the Americas, as Europeans sought a shorter route to reach China and India in the 15th and 16th centuries. This is the first of two blog posts that examine the European and American fascination with Asia and how that was expressed in the decorative arts.

The earliest form of decorative arts that fascinated Europeans was porcelain. Around the 7th or 8th century C.E., the Chinese first produced what Westerners call “hard paste” porcelain—clay that consists of a compound containing the mineral kaolin and is fired at an extremely high temperature, usually around 1400 degrees Celsius. The kaolin in the clay fused the body with the glaze on top during the firing process. The resulting vessel proved to be extremely durable, almost glass-like, and resisted chips and cracking. Should the piece break, it would be a clean break.

Western ceramics were mostly made from earthenware, usually fired at a relatively low temperature with a slip (watered-down clay) glaze or a true glaze. Both processes cover the vessel with fine particles which fuse into a glasslike layer, sealing the pores of the clay body. There are two main types of glazed earthenware. The first is covered with a transparent lead glaze, where the earthenware body to which this glaze is applied has a creamy color, known as creamware. The second type, covered with an opaque white glaze, is called tin-glazed earthenware, popularly known as majolica, faience, or delft. Both types of earthenware chipped and broke easily.

When Europeans were first exposed to Chinese porcelain in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was seen as wondrous and innovative. In addition to its glasslike qualities, the pure white color of the porcelain amazed Europeans. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch traders competed to secure Chinese porcelains for the European markets. The teacup shown below is a good example of what the Europeans craved.

Simple white handleless teacup with blue decorations
Teacup from Vung Tau Shipwreck, Late 17th Century / THF188797

Simple white handless teacup with blue decorations
Teacup from Vung Tau Shipwreck, Late 17th Century / THF188796

This teacup was salvaged from a shipwreck dating around 1690 in the South China Sea, about 100 miles from Vung Tau, Vietnam. During the early 1990s, thousands of porcelain items destined for the Dutch market were brought up from the wreck and sold at auction. The Henry Ford acquired this item from one of the auctions. This small cup would have been prized in the household of a wealthy European. It might even have found its way to the American colonies as a luxury item during the late 17th or early 18th centuries.

Items like this teacup provided a design source for European ceramic makers beginning in the late 17th century. Basically, they attempted to appropriate the Chinese designs in earthenware, as in the storage jar shown below.

White jar with medium base tapering out to wider near top with a narrow mouth; decorated with brown human figures and trees
Storage Jar, 1710-1750, Made in the Netherlands / THF190255

White jar with medium base tapering out to wider near top with a narrow mouth; decorated in brown with water, cliffs, trees, buildings, ships
Storage Jar, 1710-1750, Made in the Netherlands / THF190254

What is so interesting about this piece is that the Dutch decorator is drawing Chinese figures in a Chinese inspired landscape for a European audience. Even the form, known as a ginger jar shape, is based on Chinese precedent. The only missing element here is the circular lid. This is helpful for us because the top rim, where the lid should be, shows us the chips in the glaze that occurred though use. We can see that this is not Chinese porcelain, as the dark-colored earthenware body shows through. Chips are also visible along the base. Clearly this jar was not only a prized object but was used.

White bowl with narrow base and body sloping outward to a wide mouth, with blue decorations of flowers, plants, and bowls of fruit
Punch Bowl, 1700-1730, Made in England / THF188783

White plate with blue floral decorations in three places on rim and large blue floral decoration in center
Plate, 1690-1710, Made in England / THF188779

The punch bowl and plate shown above, both made in England, attempt to copy the look of Chinese porcelains—but, like the storage jar, are made of earthenware. We could really call these the first "knock-offs" in history. They represent the beginnings of what collectors and scholars call “Chinoiserie”—the appropriation and interpretation of Chinese and East Asian design motifs by Europeans. The idea was to create the spirit of a faraway place and give the owner the cachet of owning a luxurious and expensive object. The underlying idea was to project a sense of worldliness and sophistication.

Lacquered box in shades of brown and black with scene of houses and stupa; two silver cannisters with decorated tops sit in front of it
Tea Box and Cannisters, 1800-1840, Made in China for the Western Market / THF190059

Unusually shaped white jar with blue decorations of flowers, vegetation, people, and buildings
Tea Caddy, 1740-1770, Made in England / THF189630

During the 17th and 18th centuries, tea from China became an important trade good, especially in England and America. Elegant Chinese lacquer boxes, complete with Chinoiserie scenes, became the rage, as did tea caddies, a necessary part of a tea set designed to safely store and dispense tea leaves.

Photo of extensive cream colored tea service with intricate multicolored flowers and birds; set contains cups and saucers, small bowls, teapot, and several other miscellaneous dishes
Tea Service, 1765–1770, Made by the Worcester Porcelain Company, Shropshire, England / THF154881

In the later 18th century, tea equipment became extremely sophisticated, as the set above shows. This service uses Chinese or Chinoiserie decorative elements and combines them with the popular French Rococo decorative style to a luxurious effect. The English Worcester Porcelain Company tried to imitate Chinese porcelains with their “soft paste” porcelains, which were close approximations of the true “hard paste” Chinese wares. By 1800, the chemistry of Chinese porcelains was known in Europe—first by the Meissen firm in Germany, then later spreading out across the continent.

Sets of similarly shaped housewares, with one each in silver and ceramic, including two cylindrical teapots, two more spherical teapots, and two bowls
Western Tea Pots and Slop Bowl in Silver Next to Chinese Versions in Porcelain, Late 18th Century / THF139315

An interesting aspect of the China Trade was the production of Chinese versions of Western forms in porcelain. Western traders or agents, known as “supercargoes,” brought examples of Western wares for copy to Guangzhou (then called the port of Canton by the English). There, they presented them to their Chinese counterparts, who took these items to the porcelain factories located in Jingdezhen, then the porcelain capital of China.

Short-ish bowl with wide base and even wider sides, decorated with a wharfside scene of buildings, people, docks, boats, and water
“Hong” Bowl, about 1780, Made in China for the Western Market / THF190085

Short-ish bowl with wide base and even wider sides, decorated with a wharfside scene of buildings, people, docks, boats, and water, with the Union Jack flying in the middle
“Hong” Bowl, about 1780, Showing Trading Offices, Indicated by the Flags of Great Britain, the Hanseatic League (Now Germany), and Sweden / THF190086

Short-ish bowl with wide base and even wider sides, decorated with a wharfside scene of a harbor, mountains, buildings, people, docks, boats, and water
“Hong” Bowl, about 1780, Showing the Port of Guangzhou and the Trading Office of Denmark, Indicated by the Flag / THF190088

One of the most interesting aspects of the China Trade was souvenir “Hong” bowls that showed panoramic views of offices, warehouses, and living spaces for foreign merchants in Guangzhou in the late 18th century. These were brought back to the West by supercargoes and used for serving punch at parties. Western merchants were allowed access only to the port area and needed Chinese intermediaries to send their orders to the porcelain factories inland.

In addition to porcelain tea and lacquerware, Westerners sought out luxurious Chinese silks, but relatively little else was imported to the West. One exception is the teapot shown below, made of a Chinese alloy of nickel and copper known as Paktong that resembles silver. In fact, the term “Paktong” is a corruption of the Chinese “bai tong,” meaning “white copper.”

Oval-shaped cylindrical silver teapot with black handle
Teapot with Stand, Made for Export, circa 1800 / THF92948

This teapot, made around 1800, was created for sale in the newly independent United States. Following the Revolutionary War, Americans were eager to establish international trade, and the lucrative China Trade was at the top of their list. This teapot would have appealed to Americans as it was executed in the fashionable Federal or Neoclassical style, which emphasized geometric forms, ovals, and cylindrical shapes.

By 1800, the China Trade began to transform. The American market broadened the China Trade, especially as the 19th century progressed and the United States grew. Also, Chinese goods were no longer viewed as unique and luxurious, as they were in the 18th century. This is partly due to the Western discovery of true or “hard paste” porcelain. The Chinese monopoly was gone. Still, Asian goods were depicted as exotic and the romanticized mystery of the Far East continued. In a second installment of this story, we will examine the transformation and role of Japanese influence on the West in the later 19th century.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

18th century, 17th century, Europe, Asia, manufacturing, making, home life, design, decorative arts, ceramics, by Charles Sable

When thinking about the celebrated figures in decorative arts history, one first thinks of individuals like Thomas Chippendale, Duncan Phyfe, and Gustav Stickley in furniture, Paul Revere and Tiffany and Company in silver, and Josiah Wedgwood in ceramics. All these prominent figures have something in common—they all are men. There are few celebrated female leaders in the decorative arts. This may be due to the scholarly focus on great men, to the detriment of women, until recent years.

Brown book cover with decorative round pattern and pot with text "Tried by Fire"
Cover of Tried by Fire by Susan Frackelton, 1886. / THF627718

One of the most important and underrecognized women in decorative arts history was Susan Frackelton (1848–1932). She was a founder of the field of women’s china painting in the 1870s and 1880s. She was also a catalyst in transforming that pastime into a profession with the evolution of china painting into art pottery in the 1890s. Unlike her more famous peers, Susan Frackelton earned her living and supported her family on the proceeds of her publishing, teaching, and collaborations with like-minded artists.

Susan Frackelton faced many challenges in her personal and professional life. In many ways, she was a trailblazer for the modern, independent woman. Only in recent years have her contributions been recognized. Like other major figures in the decorative arts, including Thomas Chippendale, she is best remembered for a  publication, her 1886 Tried by Fire. In the introduction, she states, “If the rough road that I have traveled to success can be made smoother for those who follow, or may hereafter pass me in the race, my little book will have achieved the end which is desired.”

Why Was China Painting a Means for Women’s Liberation?


Many factors fueled the growth of amateur china painting in late-19th-century America. As America became wealthier after the Civil War, women of the middle and upper middle classes gained more leisure time for personal pursuits. China painting became a socially acceptable pastime for women because it allowed them to create decorative objects for the home. Further, the influence of the English Aesthetic movement and later the Arts and Crafts movement advocated that the creation of art should be reflected in the home. By the 1870s and 1880s, wealthy women were freer to leave the confines of the home through organizations that they set up to create and exhibit their work.

What Is China Painting?


White pitcher with decorative gold striping on handle and at top and botanical design on side
Pitcher, 1890–1910, decorated by an amateur china painter. / THF176880

This pitcher is a good example of the work of an amateur china painter. The artist would take a “blank”—a piece of fired, undecorated, white porcelain, in this case a pitcher made by the English firm Haviland—and paint over the glaze. These blanks could be purchased in multiples at specialty stores. One of the most prominent of these was the Detroit-based L.B. King China Store. It was founded in 1849 and closed during the Great Depression, about 1932. According to a 1913 advertisement, the retailer sold hotel china, fine china dinnerware, cut glass, table glassware, lamps, shades, art pottery, china blanks, and artists materials. Elbert Hubbard, founder and proprietor of the Roycrofters, a reformist community of craft workers and artists that formed part of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote enthusiastically about the products of the L.B King China Store: “The store is not only a store—it is an exposition, a school if you please, where the finest displays of hand and brain in the way of ceramics are shown.” A woman seeking to learn about china painting could literally walk into the L.B. King Store and walk out with paints, blanks, and a manual like Frackelton’s Tried by Fire and start painting her own china.

The pitcher above is part of a large group of serving pieces in our collection. Also in our collections is a full set of china decorated by a young woman and her friends who learned china painting at what is now Michigan State University. They decorated the dinnerware service in preparation for the young woman’s wedding in 1911. According to family history, the young woman purchased the blanks at the L.B. King Store.

How Did China Painting Evolve in the Late 19th Century?


During the 1870s, Cincinnati was the center of American china painting. The movement was led by two wealthy women, Maria Longworth Nichols (1849–1932), who later founded the Rookwood Pottery, and her rival, Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939). Both studied with European male ceramic artists who had made their way to Cincinnati. Both evolved from amateur status into extraordinary artists, who moved from painting over the glaze to learning how to throw and fire their own vessels, create designs, and formulate glazes for their vessels. This all occurred during the late 1870s, following a display of ceramic art at the Women’s Pavilion of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Both sought to outdo each other in the formulations of glazes. It is generally believed McLaughlin was the first to learn the technique of underglaze decoration, although Nichols later claimed that she was the first to do so. Nichols’ most important achievement was in creating the Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati in 1880. It was essentially the first commercial art pottery company in America, and it led the way in the development of new techniques that were widely imitated by other firms. Rookwood and its competitors began to hire women to decorate ceramics, opening a new livelihood for women less well off than Nichols and McLaughlin.

Brown vase with painted portrait of young man with long hair, beard, and mustache
Vase, 1902, decorated by Grace Young, Rookwood Pottery Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176709

Vase with narrow bottom widening slightly to top with impressionistic painting of trees
Vase, 1917, decorated by Lenore Asbury at the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176918

Square tile with image of ship sailing on a blue sea against a blue sky with clouds
Tile, 1910–1920, made by the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176941

Essentially, through the pastime of china painting, a new industry, art pottery, came into being by 1900. Under the influence of popular magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal and House Beautiful, Americans eagerly acquired art pottery. In fact, tastemakers like the young architect Frank Lloyd Wright filled his houses with art pottery. He considered it very much part of his total aesthetic. Through the first three decades of the 20th century, art pottery was considered a must in any well-furnished American home. It only fell out of fashion in the 1930s, when the Great Depression drastically altered lifestyles.

How Does Susan Frackelton’s Story Fit into All of This?


Susan Stuart Goodrich Frackelton was a contemporary of both Maria Longworth Nichols and Mary Louise McLaughlin, born in 1848 like Maria Longworth Nichols, and just a year older than Mary Louise McLaughlin. Unlike either of these women, she came from a modest background. Her father was a brick maker in Milwaukee, and she was raised in a middle-class environment. Susan began her artistic career studying painting with the pioneer Wisconsin artist Henry Vianden. In 1869, she married Richard Frackelton and eventually raised three sons and a daughter.

Richard’s business was importing English ceramics and glass and was relatively successful. Within a few years, however, the business began a sharp decline and Susan stepped in to help. She later said that she learned about American taste in ceramics and business while working with her husband. Concurrently, she began to experiment with china painting, applying her experience in painting with Henry Vianden. She was essentially self-taught, unlike her contemporaries in Cincinnati. Through publications, she was aware of what was going on in the field. She was also aware of the innovations of Mary Louise McLaughlin in glazes, and by the late 1870s was experimenting in underglaze painting herself.

Frackelton’s contributions to china painting began in 1877, when she opened Frackelton’s Decorating Works in Milwaukee. She trained young women in the art of china painting. By 1882 she opened a related business called Mrs. Frackelton’s Keramic Studio for Under and Overglaze, where she sold her own work, wares made by her students, commercial china, and glassware, as well as painting supplies. Like Detroit’s L.B. King store, she created a one-stop shop for young women interested in exploring china painting and, later, art pottery.

Book open to title page with text and frontispiece with painted portrait of a child
Title page, Tried by Fire, 1886. / THF627720

Frackelton made a national name for herself in 1886 with the publication of Tried by Fire. It differed from other manuals for china painters in that it was written by a teacher for beginning students. Frackelton’s conversational style and advice on not expecting too much too soon appealed to readers and the book became a best seller, reprinted in two revised editions in 1892 and 1895. As a teacher, Frackelton had no equal in the world of art pottery. She advocated that both wealthy and poor women could enjoy the art of china painting: “Beauty is the birthright of the poor as well as the rich, and he lives best who most enjoys it.”

Book open to one page of text and one page with illustration of white plate and mug with blue floral pattern
Color plate from Tried by Fire, 1886. / THF627772

Book open to one page with colorful floral and decorative pattern and one page with text
Color plate from Tried by Fire, 1886. / THF627773

Book open to page with illustration of seashells and seaweed in water and a page with text
Color plate from 
Tried by Fire, 1886. / THF627775

Book open to one page of text and one of illustration of a beach, the ocean, seashells, and seaweed
Color plate from Tried by Fire, 1886. / THF627774

White pitcher with gold piping on handle and at top and painted illustration of bird atop vegetation
Pitcher, 1890–1910, decorated by an amateur china painter. Note that the botanical decoration on this pitcher is similar to the Tried by Fire color plates. / THF176879

Another major innovation was the development of a patented gas-fired kiln, first offered in the advertising section of Tried by Fire. By 1888 she was granted a second patent for a new and improved version.

Book open to two ad pages: one with text and image of kiln and one with text and two logos
Advertising section of Tried by Fire showing Frackelton’s portable gas kiln. / THF627793

By 1890 Frackelton was a well-known figure and was noted for displaying her work in international exhibits. In 1893 she won eight awards for her work in a competition held at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition. Additionally, she became renowned for her work in a variety of ceramic media, especially for her blue and white salt-glazed stoneware. She also worked to create new and easier-to-use paints for decoration. She went so far as to organize the National League of Mineral Painters in 1892, an organization “aimed to foster a national school of ceramic art and provide a link between china painters throughout the country.”

By the late 1890s, Frackelton’s reputation was secure, as were her finances. In 1897 she divorced Richard Frackelton and moved to Chicago and spent much of her time lecturing and promoting ceramic art. She collaborated with several ceramic artists, including the now famous George Ohr, a unique artist who called himself “the mad potter of Biloxi.” Together, they created several highly unusual pieces, now in the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

In her later years, Frackelton moved away from working in ceramics, preferring to return to painting and working as an illuminator of manuscripts. However, Frackelton’s promotion of the ceramic arts made her one of the most admired female artists in America in the first decade of the 20th century. Susan Frackelton was a remarkable figure in American ceramics, justifiably earning her status as one of the prominent figures in the decorative arts and certainly in broadening the role of women in American society.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

Illinois, Wisconsin, 20th century, 19th century, women's history, teachers and teaching, making, furnishings, entrepreneurship, education, decorative arts, ceramics, by Charles Sable, books, art

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.


Page with text and photo of statue of ship and figures in water
Cover of Sidney Houghton Brochure. / THF121214

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.

The Dearborn Country Club


Black-and-white photo of large Tudor-style two-story (?) building
Dearborn Country Club in 1925. / THF135797

Two-story Tudor building with circular driveway
Dearborn Country Club in 1927. /THF135798

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.

Aerial shot of group of people in suits and formal gowns in a ballroom
Formal Dance at the Dearborn Country Club, 1931. / THF99871

Man in chef's outfit and hat stands behind long buffet table filled with plates and displays of food
Dearborn Country Club Chef at Banquet Table, 1931. / THF99875

Men in tuxedos and white gloves pose for a photo, some standing and some sitting
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


Large five (?) story brick building, with three people in nurses' outfits on the lawn in front
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1931. / THF127760

Entrance to brick building, with walkway and several people wearing nurses' uniforms outside
Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1931. / THF127754

Group of women in nurses' uniforms stand on the steps of a building inscribed "Clara Ford Nurses Home"
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.

Paneled room with fireplace, couches, chairs, and other furniture
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.

Page with text and two images of room interiors
Houghton Brochure: A Tudor Interior. / THF121227b

Page with line drawings of furniture with textual key underneath
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.

design, healthcare, Detroit, Michigan, Dearborn, Clara Ford, Henry Ford, Sidney Houghton, furnishings, decorative arts, by Charles Sable

In my last two blog posts (“The Enigmatic Sidney Houghton, Designer to Henry and Clara Ford,” and “Sidney Houghton: The Fair Lane Rail Car and the Engineering Laboratory Offices”), I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872-1950), a British interior designer and interior architect met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I, and worked on projects like Henry Ford’s yacht Sialia, Henry and Clara Ford’s private railcar Fair Lane, and offices for Henry and Edsel Ford in the Ford Engineering Laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan. This blog centers on the most intimate of Houghton’s work for the Fords, the Fair Lane estate.

(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 Fair Lane Commission


Page with text and image of sculpture of ship surrounded by human figures in the waves, one sounding a conch-shell horn
Cover of Houghton Brochure / THF121214

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.

Drawing of large white house with trees and other greenery in front
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.

Fair Lane as Built


Construction site of large house by a body of water
Fair Lane from the Rouge River, 1915 / THF98284

Black-and-white photo of large stone house with turrets
Fair Lane Entrance, 1916 / THF149961

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.

Blueprint showing aerial layout of large house and extensive gardens
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.

Interior of house with carved wood, heavy draperies, and staircase
Entry Hall from the Living Room around 1925 / THF126547

Room interior with carved wood, ornately patterned ceiling, bookcases, and upholstered chairs among other furniture
Library in 1951 / THF98258

Page with text and photograph or drawing of room interior with carved wood, fireplace, and upholstered furniture
Living Room in March 1916 / THF126073

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.

Black-and-white photograph of room with large, dark fireplace and ornate ceilings and furniture
Music Room in 1951 / THF126543

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.

Room interior with round dining table and four chairs, oriental rug, and ornately carved wooden walls and plastered ceiling
Dining Room in 1925 / THF98262

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.

Black-and-white photo of long, narrow room filled with wicker furniture with many windows along one wall
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.

Room interior with intricately carved wood and fireplace, filled with upholstered chairs, a table, and other furniture
Living Room in 1919 / THF132991

THF136074
Living Room in 1940 / THF136074

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.

Houghton’s Documented Designs for Fair Lane


Bedroom interior with two twin beds, a fireplace, and other furniture
Master Bedroom in 1951 / THF149959

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.

Yellowed and torn drawing of a four-poster, canopied bed
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.

Interior of bedroom with twin bed, chairs, and other furniture
Master Bedroom in 1951 / THF149955

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.

Yellowed drawing of dressing table or vanity
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.

Yellowed, torn drawing of a cabinet topped with a mirror
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.

Yellowed drawing of a chest of drawers
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.

Yellowed drawing of a semi-circle shaped desk with raised cubbies around the edge
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.

Round desk with drawers or cubbies around outside
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.

Drawing of a wooden side table
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.

Drawings of front and side of sideboard or cabinet and front and side of chair
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Slant Front Desk and Chair, 1921-1923 / THF625994

Page with drawing of stool or table and measurements and notes written above
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.

Conclusion


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.

20th century, 1920s, 1910s, Sidney Houghton, research, Michigan, home life, Henry Ford, furnishings, drawings, design, decorative arts, Dearborn, Clara Ford, by Charles Sable, archives

A variety of ceramic plates, bowls, and platters, all featuring white and blue painted patterns

Michele Michael, who discovered ceramics in 2010, likes to create utilitarian objects for the tabletop, loving the feel and meditative properties of the clay in her hands. She is always experimenting with new techniques and processes to make her housewares, like painting freehand with indigo and cobalt underglazes. / Photo by Michele Michael

Michele Michael and Patrick Moore understand the importance of ordinary days and have a renewed appreciation for the concept of time.

Today, Michael creates ceramics that reflect the natural beauty, quiet, and peacefulness that surround her in midcoast Maine. Mostly she creates utilitarian objects for the tabletop. She builds, fires, and glazes her wares—typically porcelain, sometimes stoneware—on the first floor of, or in season outside on the porch of, a light-drenched, barn-style studio that she shares with her husband, Moore, a woodworker.

Michael came to ceramics serendipitously back in 2010. At the time, she and Moore were leading a higher-octane lifestyle in New York City, where they owned a successful prop house together. Michael curated a large collection of tabletop items that she would rent out for photo shoots for magazines, cookbooks, and advertising. Moore built surfaces and other props for their business and also sets for film and music videos, often out of wood he salvaged from dumpsters at construction sites around the city.

On one fateful spring day, Michael ventured into a ceramics studio in their Brooklyn neighborhood (to see if they had any plates or bowls she might want to buy for her inventory), then on a whim signed up for a class that started that very week. It was kismet. Michael loved everything about her experience: the feel of the clay in her hands, the meditative process of forming it into her desired shapes, the warm and supportive community of fellow makers.

“In my career as a magazine editor, then photo stylist and business owner, I was constantly multitasking,” Michael said. “Right away, it felt so good to do something where I was fully in the moment, plus it was just nice to be using my hands to make something again.”

White rectangular platter with rounded corners with slightly visible dark mesh pattern underneath
Here, Michele Michael created texture by rolling out the clay between two pieces of handwoven linen. / Photo by Michele Michael

Within just three years, Michael and Moore had sold their apartment and moved full-time to what had until then been a summer home in the small town of Dresden, Maine. By consigning their prop collection to another company similar to theirs, they could keep some of that income stream flowing while changing their way of life dramatically. They would build a studio where Michael could devote herself to her ceramics practice and Moore could do his woodworking.

Today, they are able to live a life they fantasized about away from the city: in sync with not only the natural world that nourishes them but also the creative curiosity that drives them. Michael creates her wares—mostly platters and vases—and then photographs and posts them to their retail website, called Elephant Ceramics, in batches several times a year. Moore’s one-of-a-kind cutting boards, which he makes out of birch, maple, black walnut, cherry, oak, and hickory he sources from a nearby mill, are also for sale on the site. Inventory sells out fast but isn’t replenished until months later, when they feel ready to create a new body of work.

Four wooden cutting boards of different sizes, leaning against a dark gray wooden wall
Patrick Moore seeks out wood with unusual grain with which to make his cutting boards. As he cuts, planes, sands, and finishes each piece, his aim is to showcase and maximize the wood’s natural beauty. / Photo by Michele Michael

“We are constantly in a process of learning and trying new things,” said Michael. “I can’t imagine a life without making things. I think it’s in my DNA.”

In between these bursts of making, the two are able to slow down and enjoy ordinary pleasures: walks, birdwatching, gardening, cooking nourishing meals, kayaking on the river that borders their property—and following those ever-important whims. Moore might transform random lobster rope that washes up on the beaches into boat fenders and other nautical knots, weave sticks and saplings collected while pruning in the yard into vessels to be used as planters or compost bins, or teach himself to knit, inspired by a collection of old needles he picked up at a yard sale. Michael sometimes sets off on trips to faraway places and takes workshops—block printing in India, ceramics and cooking in Japan, and weaving in Mexico so far—or she might stay home and hook a chair cushion using yarn from her stash and strips of wool cut from old clothing.

As Michael shared, “Often my inspiration comes from an idea of something I’d like to have but cannot find. I think making things yourself helps you see the value in items that are handmade. You realize how much goes into something that is carefully thought-out and crafted. It also teaches you patience."

With our hands, we take agency over our lives. We connect with others, past and present, near and far, with a similar passion. We feel a sense of belonging, not only to one another but to the planet.


Melanie Falick is an independent writer, editor, and creative director. This post was adapted from “Keeping in Touch,” an article in the June–December 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

decorative arts, 21st century, 2020s, 2010s, The Henry Ford Magazine, making, home life, furnishings, ceramics, by Melanie Falick