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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.

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.

furnishings, ceramics, women's history, teachers and teaching, making, entrepreneurship, education, decorative arts, 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.

Sidney Houghton, drawings, research, archives, design, Michigan, Dearborn, Clara Ford, Henry Ford, home life, furnishings, decorative arts, by Charles Sable

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.

Page with text and photo of statue of ship with figures in waves at base
Cover of Houghton brochure. / THF121214

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!

The Fair Lane Rail Car


Long, army-green rail car on tracks in a field
The Fair Lane rail car. / THF80274

Black-and-white photo of six people on the back platform of a rail car, most of them smiling and waving
Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara Ford, and Mina and Thomas Edison pose on the car’s rear platform about 1923. / THF97966

Page with text, image of rail car, and four interior room shots
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.”

Interior of room with wood paneling, arched ceiling, and furniture
Dining saloon in 1921. / THF148009

Interior of room with wood paneling, arched ceiling, dining table, and chairs
The same view in 2021. / THF186285

Wooden shelving with pegs on some shelves and a few glasses on top shelf
Glassware storage. / THF186283

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.

Black-and-white photo of room showing two chairs, windows, and glass door
The observation saloon in 1921. / THF148015

Interior of room with two upholstered chairs and dresser with cabinet above
The observation saloon in 1921. / THF148012

Room interior with arched ceiling, blue upholstered furniture, and wood paneling
The observation saloon in 2021. / THF186264

Part of interior wall with wood paneling, doorway, and three silver clocks/dials
Detail of the observation saloon. / THF186263

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.

Black-and-white photo of office with wood paneling and wooden furniture
Henry Ford’s office in 1923. / THF237704

Interior of office with wood paneling, wooden furniture, and built-in bookshelves
Henry Ford’s office in 1923. / THF237702

Page with text and two photos of office interiors
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.

Long, narrow wooden table with decorative legs
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.

Brown leather office chair with wooden base, arms, and back edging
Desk chair. / THF158365

Brown leather chair with wooden legs, arms, and back edging
Armchair. / THF158349

Brown leather easy chair with wooden legs
Easy chair. / THF158367

Brown leather sofa with decorative wooden legs
Sofa. / THF158750

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.

Wooden console table with decorative legs and shell-shaped drawer pulls
Console table. / THF158371

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.

Wooden grandfather clock with glass door and chimes visible inside
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.

Interior of office with carpet, wooden furniture, and two windows behind desk
Henry Ford’s office in 1949. / THF149868

Taken two years after Henry Ford’s death in 1947, this image shows how he used the office.

Framed painting of man in overalls pushing an early open automobile as a man holding a horse hitched to a carriage looks on
Henry Ford by Edward Pennoyer, 1931. / THF174088

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.

Five men in suits stand behind a desk in an office
Photograph of Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, to Henry Ford’s right, surrounded by unknown figures, November 1941. / THF240734

Two men, one holding onto the back of a chair, talk in an office
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241506

Two men talk over an open box in an office; one peers in
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.

decorative arts, Sidney Houghton, railroads, Michigan, Henry Ford, furnishings, Ford Motor Company, Fair Lane railcar, Edsel Ford, design, Dearborn, by Charles Sable

Sidney Houghton is one of the most interesting and yet-to-be-documented figures in the group surrounding Henry and Clara Ford. Many in the Fords’ entourage are colorful and well-researched, including Harry Bennett, Henry’s security chief, known as the notorious head of the Ford Motor Company “Service” Department; Henry’s business manager, Ernest Liebold, who handled all financial transactions; and even their son, Edsel Ford, whose life and important cultural contributions are thoroughly documented. The great Ford historian Ford R. Bryan tells the story of these figures in his book, Henry’s Lieutenants (1993). Bryan frequently mentions Sidney Houghton, most notably in his book Friends, Family, and Forays (2002).

Perhaps Houghton remains undocumented because he was British, and in the decades before Internet resources became widely available, American researchers like Bryan had limited access to British sources. Today, we are fortunate to not only have the profound resources of the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford at our disposal, but also digital access to repositories around the world. As Curator of Decorative Arts, I have spent considerable time trying to fully grasp the enigmatic Mr. Houghton—his biography, his business, and, most importantly, his relationship with Henry and Clara Ford. This blog is the first in a series that will delve into this mostly hidden story.

Now, you may ask, why should we care about the Fords’ interior designer? Seeing and understanding the interior environments that the Fords created to live and work provides us with great insight into their characters, creating a well-rounded picture of their lives. We can understand their motivations and desires and see how these changed over time. We can peel back the larger-than-life personas of the Fords that come with such public lives and see them as individuals.

What Do We Know About Sidney Houghton’s Early Life?


Researching Houghton was not easy. The first place I looked was Ancestry.com, but Houghton is a very common name in Britain. After a lot of digging and working with colleagues at The Henry Ford, I located Sidney Charles Houghton, who was born in 1872 and died in 1950. He was the son of cabinetmaker Charles Houghton, which likely led to his interest in furniture-making and interior design.

One of the questions still in my mind is: Where was Houghton educated? To date, I have not been able to find out which art school he attended—these records do not appear to be available online. What I do know is that he married in 1895, and had a family consisting of two sons by 1898. By 1910, according to the British census, his business, Houghton Studio, was established in London.

Houghton in World War I


From Ford R. Bryan’s publications and resources in the Benson Ford Research Center, I knew that Houghton was in the British Navy during World War I. I searched the British National Archives and found his fascinating military service record. Houghton, I discovered, was an experienced yachtsman, and was commissioned as a commander. He helped to create patrol boats, called P-boats, that swiftly located enemy submarines. In 1917, he was sent to the United States to work with Reginald Fessenden (1866–1932), a Canadian-American inventor who worked in early radio. Together, they developed an early sonar system to locate enemy ships, submarines, and mines. For his contributions to the war effort, Houghton was awarded the Order of the British Empire, or O.B.E., in 1919.

Through the reminiscences of Ernest Liebold, held in the Benson Ford Research Center, I discovered that Houghton was brought into the Ford Motor Company’s war effort to create what Liebold called the Eagle boats. These were similar to the British P-boats. Unlike the relatively simple P-boats, though, the Eagle boats would be like a “young battleship,” according to Liebold. He went on to state that the boats would “have the eye of an eagle and would flit over the seas.”

Long, narrow boat on elevated trestle with a large group of people on land looking on
Eagle Boat #1 on Launching Trestle at the Ford Rouge Plant, July 11, 1918. / THF270275

Long, narrow boat decorated with flags and bunting on elevated trestle above water, as a crowd looks on
Eagle Boat #60 Lowered to Water, August 1919. / THF270277

Liebold continued:

Houghton came along, and he said, “We ought to have a listening device put on those ships to detect submarines.” That is where [Thomas] Edison came in to develop this listening device, and I think Houghton is the man who contacted him. I remember him coming out with a long rod and stuff, and it was so darned secret that nobody knew a thing about it.

They had a special room provided for it in the Eagle boats. It was to be this listening chamber in which the apparatus was placed. They could detect a submarine by the beat of its propellers. A magnetic signal could determine just exactly in what direction it was, [sic] and approximately, from the intensity of the sound of the beating of the propeller, they could tell just what distance and in what direction it was.

They would radio that information to the nearest battleship in a cordon of battleships, or destroyers or whatever they had. They would be able to attack the submarine, you see. That was the object of it.

As an integral member of the Eagle boat team, it is highly likely that Houghton travelled to Dearborn and met Henry Ford. We know from later correspondence that Henry and Clara developed an abiding personal friendship with Houghton which continued through the 1920s. They commissioned a series of projects, beginning with the Fords’ yacht, the Sialia—but I am getting ahead of myself. At this point, I would like to discuss Houghton’s work in interior design, specifically his role as an interior architect.

Sidney Houghton’s Studio


Page with text and image of sculpture featuring boat and figures in water
Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121214

Page with text
Back Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121230

This brochure or trade catalogue gives us great insight into the Houghton Studio. We date it to the late 1920s, when the projects Houghton worked on for the Fords were complete. From the text, we can see just what the firm’s capabilities were. The back cover reads: “Designs and estimates for decoration and furnishing of every kind / from the simplest to the most exotic / always in good style / always at exceptional values.” What this tells us is that Houghton Studio was a rarity in the interior design world.

Houghton was an interior architect, meaning that he designed both interiors and furnishings—the woodwork, wall treatments, lighting, furniture, textiles, and accessories—to create a unified interior environment. In new construction, an interior architect would collaborate with the architect to create an interior in harmony with the architecture. This contrasts with our present-day conception of an interior designer as a person who simply selects existing furnishings that harmonize to create a unified interior aesthetic. Obviously, Houghton Studio’s clients were wealthy and able to afford the best.

Page with text and three images: Two showing room interiors and one in a round inset showing the exterior of a building
Chateau Laurier National Hotel, Ottawa Canada. / THF121219a

Page with text and drawings of furniture--a wardrobe, dressing table and stool, dresser, nightstand, and two beds with a large headboard and two side tables
Designs for Modern Furniture. / THF121226a

Like most of his contemporaries, Houghton worked in a variety of styles, as demonstrated in the images above—from period revivals as seen in the Chateau Laurier National Hotel, in Ottawa, Canada, to his renderings for “Modern” furniture, done in what we would describe as the Art Deco style, which was synonymous with high-end 1920s taste.

Page with text
List of Commissions in the Houghton Catalogue. / THF121229b

One of the most interesting pages in the catalogue notes several commissions to design interiors for yachts, which was a specialty of the Houghton Studio. The most important of these was a commission for the Sialia, Henry Ford’s yacht. The Fords purchased the yacht just before World War I, and it was requisitioned for use by the U.S. Navy in 1917. The ship was returned to Henry Ford in 1920. At this point, Sidney Houghton was asked to redesign the interiors.

Henry Ford’s Sialia


Long boat docked next to an industrial crane or craneway
Henry Ford’s Yacht, Sialia, Docked at Ford Rouge Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, 1927. /THF140396

According to Ford R. Bryan, the cost of the interiors was approximately $150,000. As seen here, the interiors are comfortable, but relatively simple. During the 1920s, the Fords occasionally used the Sialia, but Henry and Clara Ford preferred other means of travel, usually by large Ford corporate ore carriers, when they traveled to their summer home in Michigan’s upper peninsula. According to the ship’s captain, Perry Stakes, Henry Ford never really liked the Sialia, and he sold it in July of 1927.

Room interior with piano, desk, upholstered chair
Parlor on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92100

Small room containing double bed with a dresser on either side and a round mirror above each dresser
Bedroom on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92098

Following the Sialia commission, the Fords found a kindred spirit in Houghton. The archives contain ample correspondence from the early 1920s, with the Fords asking Houghton to return to Dearborn. Houghton subsequently received a commission to design the interior of the Fords’ Fair Lane railroad car in 1920. Between 1920 and 1926, Houghton was deluged with projects from the Fords, including the redesign of the Fair Lane Estate interiors, design of Henry and Edsel’s offices in the new Ford Engineering Laboratory, interiors for the Dearborn Country Club, as well as interiors for the Henry Ford Hospital addition.

In the next post in this series, we will look closer at several of these projects and present surviving renderings from the Fair Lane remodeling, as well as furniture from the Engineering Laboratory offices.


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.

Sidney Houghton, World War I, technology, research, home life, Henry Ford, furnishings, Ford Motor Company, design, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, archives

Pottery vase with impressionistic landscape scene in blues and greens

Vase, 1917 / THF176918

This Rookwood Pottery vase from our collection, on view in the Art Pottery of the 20th Century exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, can tell us an unexpected story about women’s work and craft in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the late 19th century, ladies of high social standing in America were encouraged to broaden their interests beyond their homes. One of the most acceptable ways to do this was by taking up decorative china painting. Over time, these privileged women created associations with classes in china painting for women of all economic backgrounds. Probably the most important of these women was socialite Maria Longworth Nichols of Cincinnati, Ohio, who went beyond the accepted norm and established her own pottery that she called Rookwood.

Complex of several intricately timbered buildings
Rookwood Pottery, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1900-1906 / THF297612

Beginning in 1880, Nichols hired talented young women—who would not have opportunities elsewhere—as well as men to create innovative ceramic wares in this novel commercial venture. At Rookwood, pioneering glazes and imagery made the Cincinnati-based company famous from coast to coast. One of the most significant innovations at Rookwood was its introduction of the “vellum” glaze in 1904. This signature glaze, seen on the vase at the top of this post, features a light-colored background where pictorial landscapes and flowers could appear almost like a painting.

Even before the development of the “vellum” glaze, competitors noticed Rookwood’s innovations and lured away some of their best potters and decorators. Also, over time, artists left Rookwood and started their own companies. They adopted Rookwood’s distinctive techniques, spreading the look of what was called “Art Pottery” around the United States. So, by the early decades of the 20th century, the pastime of ladies’ china painting evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry. Although Art Pottery flourished in the early 20th century, the arrival of the Great Depression and World War II all but extinguished Americans’ interest in decorative ceramics for the home.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

art, furnishings, Henry Ford Museum, women's history, making, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, THF Connect app

Plate showing a batter holding a baseball bat and a catcher; also contains text
"American Sports, Base Ball, Striker & Catcher" Plate, circa 1850 / THF135816


"On Saturday afternoon, Sept. 10, at the farm of Louis Bradley, might have been seen a small gathering of people. They came to see the final game between the Lah-da-dahs, of Waterford, and the White Lakes of Webster neighborhood." 

–Pontiac Bill Poster, September 14, 1887


In the 1880s, many Michigan towns supported baseball teams, including Waterford, in Oakland County, but the game's history goes back further. The game of base ball (as it was often spelled into the 1890s) had its origins in a number of children's games, but especially a British game called "Rounders." Rounders rules called for the game to be played on a diamond, with a striker (batter) who faced a feeder (pitcher).

The American game of base ball gained in popularity in the mid-1800s, so much so that English ceramic makers produced dishes such as the "Base Ball" plate above, depicting a "Striker & Catcher," to appeal to American consumers. American interest in base ball in the late 1800s is evident in the production and marketing of such a plate.

Americans purchased these English-made ceramics to celebrate their national game, but base ball did not have all the regulations we know in modern baseball today. Until the 1880s, rules stated that the pitcher had to deliver the ball underhanded with a straight arm. The batter could call for a high or low pitch. A high pitch was considered one between the belt and shoulders, and a low pitch was to be delivered between the belt and knees, a range close to the modern strike zone. Balls and strikes were usually not called until the 1870s.

Some rules called for home plate to be made of marble or stone, but there was no batter's box, only a line that bisected the plate. Consequently, today's historic base ball umpires will frequently signal the start of a game by calling, "Striker to the line!" Early rules discouraged, and often forbade, players being paid.

You can browse artifacts related to both the early and more modern forms of baseball in our Digital Collections. Or, if you want to see vintage base ball firsthand, check out the schedule for the Greenfield Village Lah-De-Dahs, who borrowed the name of the old Waterford team. The Village nine suit up to play teams from Ohio and Michigan throughout the summer as a part of Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village. Though the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was not written until 1908, you might hear the band play it. If you wish, you can sing along and cheer on the base ball strikers for the Lah-De-Dahs.


This post was adapted from the July 2000 entry in our former Pic of the Month series.

furnishings, sports, home life, Historic Base Ball, Greenfield Village, events, decorative arts, baseball

The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against ornate and what it considered “overwrought” decoration. Led by the British designer, philosopher, and social reformer William Morris (1838–1896), the movement sought to redirect public taste toward simpler esthetics. He also sought to reform industry and politics. Members of the movement used the term “arts and crafts” because they worked to reunify the fine arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture) with the crafts (such as metalwork, ceramics, and textiles) that had been demoted to second-class status with the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

Morris created the first interior design firm, Morris and Company, in London in the 1860s. His idea was to reform society through the home. The ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement were widely disseminated, and its influence began to be felt in the United States by the 1880s and 1890s. By the turn of the 20th century, America had its own Arts and Crafts tastemaker, Gustav Stickley, who echoed many of the arguments put forth by William Morris. Stickley produced furniture and published an influential magazine called The Craftsman.

Upholstered yellow chair with multiple types of fabric, decorated with many large tassels
Armchair from "Turkish" Parlor Set, 1885-1895 / THF154405

Armchair with wooden, slatted slides and brown leather upholstered seat and back
Morris Chair, 1912-1916, Made by Gustav Stickley / THF159902

Comparing Stickley’s “Morris” armchair with a “Turkish” style late Victorian armchair clearly shows the distinction between the two. The Stickley chair is very rectilinear, with the solid oak structure exposed, where the “Turkish” style armchair is covered with lavish upholstery and highly decorative tassels and swags. Both are intended to be comfortable seating, but the Stickley chair has a mission—to reform taste. In fact, much American Arts and Crafts furniture is described as “Mission” furniture.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, began to emerge as a furniture-making center long before the Arts and Crafts Movement evolved in America. Beginning in the 1870s, and certainly by the 1880s, Grand Rapids became the center of furniture-making in America. There were an estimated 40 different companies producing furniture in the city by 1900. Two of the most interesting were the Stickley Brothers Company and the Charles Limbert Company.

Wooden furniture on casters with drawers topped by a slanted flat surface (that presumably folds down to form a desk)
Slant-Front Desk, 1910-1920, Made by Stickley Brothers Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan / THF160413

The Stickley Brothers Company, headquartered in Grand Rapids, was one of three Stickley family furniture firms. The others were headed by older brother Gustav, called “Craftsman Furniture,” and located in Eastwood, New York, now part of Syracuse. Gustav was the most famous of the Stickley brothers because of his Craftsman magazine. Two younger brothers formed the L. and J.G. (Leopold and John George) Stickley Furniture Company in Fayetteville, New York. This firm also produced important Arts and Crafts Furniture. Ironically, the Grand Rapids enterprise was the first chronologically, with Gustav, Leopold, and John George departing over time to create their own companies.

Page with text and small image of furniture craftsman at top left
Page with text and image of multistory square building
Page with text and image of building within oval shape
Pages from Limbert Trade Catalogue, about 1910 / THF610595, THF610593, and THF610594

Charles Limbert’s company began in 1889 as a typical Victorian furniture maker. With the rise of the Stickley Brothers firm in the 1890s, Limbert began to hire designers knowledgeable in the most current trends in order to compete. From 1900 to 1910, Limbert became one of the most varied in production of any of the Arts and Crafts furniture makers. Their sales dramatically increased, and in 1910 they added a second factory in Holland, Michigan. The Henry Ford is fortunate to have a broad range of Limbert furniture in our collection, as well as a detailed trade catalogue dating to the height of the firm’s production, around 1910.

Wooden dresser topped with large mirror
Limbert Dresser with Mirror, 1905-1915 / THF159601

This dresser with mirror is typical of the standard types of Limbert’s production, a well-made and well-proportioned chest of drawers. It is typically Arts and Crafts, made of oak and expressing its method of construction via visible structural elements, like the stretchers or struts holding the legs together.

Simple wooden table
Limbert Library Table, 1905-1915 / THF159607

This library table, which could also be used in a parlor or living room, is a quintessential form in Arts and Crafts furniture making. Limbert, however, provides several unique features for how this table may be used.

Wooden table with piece extended to form writing surface
Where other furniture makers would place a drawer along the long side of the table, Limbert’s designers added an ingenious pull-out writing surface, transforming it into a desk. / THF159606

Wooden table with top extended and hinged open to reveal storage space inside
The designers also hinged the writing surface, allowing for storage space in what otherwise would have been a simple drawer. / THF159605

Page with text and shadow of windmill in the background
Page with text and two small images of windmills
Pages from Limbert Trade Catalogue, about 1910 / THF610527, THF610536

One of the interesting things about Limbert’s marketing strategy was their interest in linking themselves with the Dutch origins of many in western Michigan, as seen in these pages from their 1910 catalogue.

Small wooden table or stool with four wide, uniquely shaped legs and octagonal top
Tabouret, 1905-1915 / THF185486

With the benefit of historical perspective, we can see that Limbert’s designers were looking at a variety of sources, some highly original. This small table, or tabouret, is an example of a design unique to the Limbert shop, as it lacks the angular forms typical in most Arts and Crafts furniture.

Page with text and images of chairs, rocking chairs, tables, and a bench
Page from Limbert 1910 Catalogue Showing Tabourets / THF610591

Looking at the catalogue, we can see that the tabouret was sold in a variety of sizes.

Color illustration of dining room very full of furniture and decorative accessories
Dining Room from Limbert 1910 Catalogue / THF610531

This elaborate illustration from the 1910 catalogue shows the ideal dining room with an adjacent breakfast nook. While many of the furnishings are standard Arts and Crafts designs that could have been made by many American makers, the unconvential dining room chairs are unique to Limbert. Specifically, the chair backs show a solid central splat vertical element and feature open squares along the top. This may derive from contemporary English or German sources, which were available to Limbert’s staff through design magazines.

Bedroom very full of furniture and other decorative accessories
Bedroom and Sleeping Porch from Limbert 1910 Catalogue / THF610535

A bedroom with an adjacent sleeping porch was very popular in the era before air conditioning. It was considered healthy to sleep surrounded by fresh air when diseases like tuberculosis were common. The furniture is typical for Arts and Crafts, but the bright blue walls are a departure from the earth tones which were promoted by tastemakers like Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Room with sloped wooden ceiling very full of furniture and other decorative accessories
Attic Bedroom from Limbert 1910 Catalogue / THF610534

The room shown above was probably intended for an older child about ready to head off to college—note the Michigan pennant hanging above the bed. The use of an attic space as a bedroom was unusual. The library table mentioned earlier is pushed up against the back wall.

The Arts and Crafts period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the most inventive in the history of American decorative arts. Within that period, one of the most creative of American firms was the Charles Limbert Company, as these image and objects demonstrate. At The Henry Ford, we are fortunate to hold these collections and pleased to be able to share them.


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.

design, Michigan, home life, furnishings, decorative arts, by Charles Sable

Weathervanes have helped humans for millennia. In ancient cities, streamers or pennants mounted at high points communicated wind patterns to watchers below. In more recent centuries, weathervanes in the form we might recognize today perched atop high structures, pointing into the wind to reveal its precise direction. These devices heralded weather changes by indicating shifts in prevailing winds—essential information for farmers or mariners whose businesses depended entirely on the weather.

Weathervanes of this type rotated freely, in perfect balance, with weight distributed across a longer “tail” end that was pushed by the wind, and a shorter “arrow” end that pointed in the direction from which it blew. Starting with this basic form, tradesmen and commercial manufacturers created a vast array of weathervane ornaments by the late nineteenth century. These could communicate more than practical information about the wind. A weathervane might represent regional identity or personal interests, convey religious or political symbolism, or advertise goods or services.

Drawings of weathervanes in the shape of animals and ornamental patterns
Commercial manufacturers produced a vast array of weathervane ornaments by the late nineteenth century. / THF622046 (detail)

Several drawings of weathervanes featuring different sheep varieties; also contains text
Several drawings of weathervanes featuring different roosters; also contains text
Farm animals were a popular choice for rural weathervane customers. Roosters, with their biblical associations, also conveyed religious symbolism and often served as visible moral reminders atop church spires. /
THF622073 and THF622074

Drawing of weathervane featuring shovel and barrel along with arrows labeled E, W, S, N; also contains text
Specialty weathervanes, like this one depicting a malt shovel and beer barrel, doubled as trade advertisements. / THF622201 (detail)

The United States Weather Bureau began generating weather reports based on data collected from across the country in the late 1800s, precipitating the decline of traditional weathervanes. When radio stations began broadcasting national weather reports in 1921, weathervanes became functionally obsolete for most Americans. Nevertheless, weathervanes remained popular. Collectors celebrated them as remarkable examples of American folk art, and twentieth-century manufacturers continued to produce them as nostalgic ornaments for suburban homeowners.

GIF cycling through several images of weathervanes
Supplanted by national weather reporting in the early twentieth century, weathervanes like these became the special interest of folk art collectors. / THF186724, THF186720, THF145466, and THF186729

Catalog cover featuring drawing of house with lamppost and mailbox out front; also contains text
Catalog page with three illustrations of weathervanes featuring a duck, a rooster, and an eagle; also contains text
By the mid-twentieth century, most weathervanes were strictly ornamental, as illustrated by this 1959 catalog. /
THF622033 and THF622034

In updated forms, weathervanes remain important weathercasting tools. As instant indicators of prevailing winds, they are particularly useful at airports, marinas, and sporting events. And meteorologists still rely on weathervanes—often in combination with anemometers, which measure the speed of the wind, as “aerovanes”—to gather data that documents and helps predict weather patterns.

Weathervanes provide evidence of age-old efforts to identify patterns in natural phenomena and predict changes that might affect human survival. These utilitarian artifacts are mostly understood today as whimsical adornments (Hallmark has even released weathervane Christmas ornaments!) only because most Americans have little to no training in meteorology. Yet, weathervanes remain essential weathercasting devices. They can also aid citizen scientists intent on recording climate change locally and globally.

The next time you visit The Henry Ford, look up as you walk around the museum and village to spot weathervanes atop spires and towers. Note how they point into the wind and shift as the breezes blow. In the meantime, you can browse a selection of weathervanes and trade catalogs from weathervane manufacturers in our Digital Collections.


Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment and Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

decorative arts, home life, by Saige Jedele, by Debra A. Reid