American homes in the Victorian period were designed to showcase their owners’ good taste. This is the Wright home in Greenfield Village, where brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in the 1880s and 1890s.
As the “best” room, parlors were meant to show the family’s good taste to honored guests, so decoration was carefully arranged. This photo, probably taken by Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur, documents the room in the 1890s.
The Firestone Farmhouse, where Harvey Firestone was raised, is also in Greenfield Village. Here is the parlor as curators interpreted it to the mid-1880s. Notice the conscious profusion of pattern, ornament, and what we would call clutter.
Dramatic changes in taste came through the work of English reformer, William Morris. Morris sought to change society by creating the first interior design firm, Morris & Company. Probably his most important design was this reclining chair.
Morris despised “overwrought” decoration. He wanted to return to the simple design of the pre-industrial world. He wanted to reunite the arts with the crafts, destroyed by industrialization. This came to be called the "Arts and Crafts" movement. Ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement were adopted by American tastemakers in the 1890s. Gustav Stickley published a popular magazine called The Craftsman, and marketed a line of furniture, including his version of Morris’ chair.
Stickley advocated simpler, less fussy interiors, with multi-purpose rooms, for less formal living. The concept of the living room was born on the pages of Stickley’s The Craftsman magazine.
This brochure for wallpaper shows the most up-to-date Arts and Crafts interior available to Americans in 1912. As the title says: "A Well Decorated Home is a Potent Aid to Contentment & Happiness." The hall flows into the living room.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright took these ideas further with his Prairie houses, where rooms flowed into one another, and exteriors took their cues from the surrounding landscape. This is an unexecuted design for Henry Ford’s Fair Lane Home.
Textiles were an integral part of the Arts and Crafts interior. Designers emphasized the use of stylized botanical motifs, such as roses, which harmonized with furniture, ceramics, and artwork. The ideal was to create a unified interior environment.
This tile was intended to be a part of a larger composition, perhaps lining a fireplace, where the turtles would follow in a line from head to tail. The effect was intended to harmonize with an Arts and Crafts interior environment.
Detroit's Pewabic Pottery was founded in 1903 as part of the American Arts and Crafts movement. This vase represents naturalistic oak leaves in high relief from the surface of the vase. The matte glaze is typical of Arts and Crafts pottery.
After World War I, interest in the Arts and Crafts waned, as Americans looked toward other styles like the Colonial Revival and new Art Deco for their homes. However, the concept of the multi-purpose living room persisted.
In the post-World War II era, most American homes featured a comfortable living room. In this Christmas 1962 snapshot, note the Victorian rocking chair on the right and the recliner, an updated version of the “Morris” Chair, at the left.
This has been a whirlwind tour of American interiors through the 19th and 20th centuries. If you’d like to learn more about the Arts and Crafts movement, check out this Expert Set and other artifacts within our Digital Collections.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
The Jazz Bowl, originally called The New Yorker, about 1930. THF88363
Cowan Pottery of Rocky River, Ohio, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in early 1930 when a commission arrived from a New York gallery for a New York City-themed punch bowl. The client -- who preferred to remain unknown -- wanted the design to capture the essence of the vibrant city.
The assignment went to 24-year-old ceramic artist Viktor Schreckengost. His design would become an icon of America’s “Jazz Age” of the 1920s and 1930s.
The Artist and His Design The cosmopolitan Viktor Schreckengost was a perfect choice for this special commission. Schreckengost (1906-2008), born in Sebring, Ohio, had studied ceramics at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the late 1920s. He then spent a year in Vienna, where he was introduced to cutting-edge ideas in European art and design. When Schreckengost returned to Ohio, he took a part-time teaching position at his alma mater and spent the balance of his time as a designer at Cowan Pottery.
A jazz musician as well as an artist, Schreckengost had firsthand knowledge of New York, where he frequented jazz clubs during visits. To Schreckengost, jazz music represented the spirit of New York. He wanted to capture its excitement and energy in visual form on his bowl. Schreckengost later recalled: “I thought back to a magical night when a friend and I went to see [Cab] Calloway at the Cotton Club [in Harlem] ... the city, the jazz, the Cotton Club, everything ... I knew I had to get it all on the bowl.”
During its heyday in the 1920s and 30s, the Cotton Club was the place to listen to jazz in New York. THF125266
A “Jazz”-inscribed drumhead surrounded by musical instruments symbolize the Cotton Club. Organ pipes represent the grand theater organs that graced New York City’s movie palaces during the 1920s and 1930s. Schreckengost recalled that he was especially fond of Radio City Music Hall’s Wurlitzer organ. THF88363
A show in progress at Radio City Music Hall auditorium, 1936. THF125259
The images on the Jazz Bowl, then, may be read as a night on the town in New York City, starting out in bustling Times Square; then on to Radio City Music Hall to enjoy a show; next, a stroll uptown past a group of soaring skyscrapers to take in a sweeping view of the Hudson River; afterward, a stop at a cocktail party; and finally--topping off the evening with a visit to the famous Cotton Club.
The blinking traffic signals, and "Follies" and "Dance" signs on the Jazz Bowl portray the vitality of Times Square at night.THF88358
Schreckengost decorated the punch bowl with a deep turquoise blue background he described as “Egyptian,” since it recalled the shade found on ancient Egyptian pottery. According to Schreckengost, the penetrating blue immerses the viewer in the glow of the night air--and the sensation of mystery and magic of a night on the town.
This is the view of the New York skyline and the Hudson River that Schreckengost saw on his trips to the city and later interpreted in the Jazz Bowl. THF125264g
Skyscrapers, a luxury ocean liner, cocktails on a tray, and liquor bottles represent a night on the town.THF88364
The Famous Client In early 1931, the finished bowl was delivered to New York. The pleased patron who had commissioned it immediately ordered two additional punch bowls. To Schreckengost’s delight, the patron turned out to be Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady of New York State. Mrs. Roosevelt had commissioned the bowl to celebrate her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930 reelection as governor. She presumably placed one bowl in the Governor’s Residence in Albany, one in the Roosevelts’ home in Hyde Park, and one in their Manhattan apartment. When the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1933, after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election as President, one of the bowls made its way there as well.
Eleanor Roosevelt commissioned the Jazz Bowl to celebrate her husband’s 1930 reelection as governor of New York. THF208655
Mass Producing the Jazz Bowl? Immediately after the Jazz Bowl was delivered to Eleanor Roosevelt, the New York City gallery placed an order for fifty identical bowls. Unfortunately, Schreckengost’s process was laborious--it took Cowan Pottery’s artisans an entire day to produce the incised decoration on Mrs. Roosevelt’s version. Cowan Pottery sought to mass produce the punch bowl, simplifying the original design to create a second and third version the company originally marketed as “The New Yorker.”
The Henry Ford’s bowl is the third version, known informally as “The Poor Man’s Jazz Bowl.” It is slightly smaller than the original and the decoration is raised, rather than scratched into the surface. No one knows exactly, but perhaps fifty of the original version, only a few of the unsuccessful second version, and possibly twenty of the third version of the Jazz Bowl were made in total. The whereabouts of many of the Jazz Bowls are not known, though they appear periodically on the art market and are acquired by eager collectors. Even the present location of the bowls made for Eleanor Roosevelt seems to be a mystery.
Jazz Bowl as Icon The “Poor Man’s Jazz Bowl” didn’t save the Cowan Pottery from the ravages of the Great Depression -- by the end of 1931, the company folded. Viktor Schreckengost moved on, continuing to teach at the Cleveland Institute of Art and pursuing freelance design for several firms. His Jazz Bowl would come to be recognized as a visual icon of the Jazz Age in America.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.
"Art Deco" refers to the artistic movement prominent during the inter-war period. The 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris was the launching point for the movement, as well as the inspiration for its name. The aesthetic was widely adopted, both geographically and across disciplines.
In this expert set, Art Deco in the Museum, you'll see examples of art deco artifacts that are on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, like this 1937 LaSalle Coupe found in Driving America.
Examining the social and economic context of The Henry Ford's rare Paul Revere teapot. Other examples can be seen in some of the country's premier art museums. THF 166148
Today, coffee and tea are enjoyed by millions of people, including blog readers. While connoisseurs of these beverages take their enjoyment very seriously, the relative affordability of these caffeinated drinks means that almost anyone can “benefit” from a caffeine boost and also enjoy their flavors. The resulting billion-dollar industries help power the world economy – and its workforce.
America has an especially close relationship with these drinks, one that dates back to before the country was formed. In modern times, coffee has dominated American tastes, but until the 20th century, Americans favored tea. Although still popular, tea drinking in America can be traced back to trade with China by Dutch merchants in the early 1600s.
Today, fast-paced Americans prefer their caffeinated beverages on the go, often consuming them from disposable drinkware. This is in marked contrast to colonial America, where these beverages would have been served from vessels made to impress and consumed as part of elaborate entertainments expressing the host’s good taste. THF 102595
Dutch traders not only introduced Chinese tea to their colony in present-day New York, but also introduced it to Europe. The hot drink quickly rose in popularity and by the end of the 1600s, tea became the most favored hot beverage in Britain. To support the mass consumption by its citizens at home and in its colonies, England became heavily involved in the China trade and the importation of tea.
As social customs evolved around the drinking of tea, so did the equipment used to consume the beverage. Wealthy citizens could afford to have their teapots fashioned in silver and silversmiths in the colonies, like Paul Revere, learned how to create silver designs from imported English examples. Son of Apollos Rivoire, a French immigrant and Boston silversmith, Paul Revere got his start as his father's apprentice.
Pictured here, an English teakettle-on-stand. Paul Revere imitated designs from English silver objects and pattern books in order to create silver in the most fashionable styles. THF 155178
After his father died in 1754, Revere started his career producing a wide variety of silver objects, including elaborate teapots for his wealthier clients. By the 1760s, the colonies faced increased taxation as England attempted to pay off their war debt from the French and Indian War. High taxes on imports like tea angered colonists, resulting in boycotts that affected what Revere could produce as a silversmith.
These taxes led Revere to join a resistance group known as the "Sons of Liberty" whose members included some of his customers angered by the increased taxation. The organization helped fuel anti-British sentiment in the colonies and Revere aided the groups’ cause by printing propaganda that provoked colonist anger towards the Crown.
As a member of the Sons of Liberty, Paul Revere helped energize the movement toward American independence by printing illustrations like this one of the Boston Massacre. An active citizen, he was part of numerous other civic organizations. THF 8141
In 1773, with tensions mounting, Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty protested England's control over the tea trade by boarding recently docked British tea ships in the Boston harbor and dumping some of their tea chests overboard. The British responded to the event, known as the Boston Tea Party, by shutting the port of Boston and stripping the Massachusetts colony of its right to self-government.
War erupted in 1775 when Britain moved to seize the colonists' gunpowder and firearms outside of Boston. Revere made his famous midnight ride during this time to warn some of his fellow patriots that the British were on their way to arrest them. While patriot duties limited Paul Revere's silversmithing during the Revolutionary War, he returned to his craft as the war came to an end in the 1780s.
Post-war American silver customers preferred the neoclassical design that became popular in Europe during the war. In the years before the War, silver customers had preferred the Rococo style, an aesthetic known for its ornate decorations and curvilinear body designs. In contrast, neoclassical silver celebrated the classical style of Greece and Rome, making use of symmetry, hard lines, and an emphasis on simple forms. As a master craftsman, Revere developed an elegant and personal interpretation of the neoclassical style.
This 1782 teapot shows Revere’s experimentation with the neoclassical style.
The neoclassical teapot shown above was created in 1782 by Revere. Only six teapots featuring this cylindrical body are known to exist and were some of the last that Revere hand-forged, hammering or "raising" them up from a block of silver. In 1785 Revere acquired silver rolling machinery that he used to produce silver sheets. These sheets were cut to form standardized pieces and allowed Revere's shop to produce silver products more quickly. An example of a Revere teapot made from this later method can be seen in our collections here.
On the bottom of the 1782 teapot, the clear markings of Revere are stamped next to a monogram that can be attributed to Joseph and Sarah Henshaw of Boston. THF 166147
With the assistance of the Massachusetts Historical Society, home of the Revere Family Papers, Revere's own record books identified Joseph Henshaw as the patron for this teapot. The records show that on February 22, 1782 Paul Revere made a note that he needed to make a teapot and spoons for Joseph Henshaw. By April 27, 1782 it appears that Revere had completed the order and marked the weight of the teapot as "16-17". This weight of "16-17" can be seen scratched on the bottom of the teapot in the upper right of the picture above.
Joseph Henshaw was a prominent Boston merchant. With his wife Sarah, the two used their home to help plan further American resistance by occasionally hosting "Sons of Liberty" meetings. It was his membership in this radical group that led Joseph Henshaw to form a friendship with Paul Revere. While this teapot is a good representation of the tea culture that existed in the colonies, it is also a symbol of Revere and Henshaw's relationship, a relationship that helped establish the United States of America.
See more on Paul Revere's life from our Digital Collections in this expert set. Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
With the Davidson-Gerson Modern Glass Gallery opening in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation last fall, Greenfield Village is the site for the next chapter in this exhibit's story.
The Davidson-Gerson Modern Glass Gallery is in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. It opened in October 2016. The Davidson Gerson Gallery of Glass is in Greenfield Village’s Liberty Craftworks District. Its grand opening is set for spring 2017.
Both galleries provide an in-depth look at the American glass story. The museum gallery focuses specifically on the studio glass movement of the 1960s, while the village gallery, supported by the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, surveys the history of American glass, ranging from 18th-century colonial glass through 20th-century mainstream glass as well as studio glass.
Charles Sable, curator of decorative arts, was tasked with updating and reinterpreting The Henry Ford’s American glass collection. He envisioned creating an all-new gallery adjacent to the museum’s Glass Shop in the Liberty Craftworks District of Greenfield Village — a place to exhibit portions of the institution’s 10,000 glass artifacts currently in storage. His vision intersected with that of collectors Bruce and Ann Bachmann, who were seeking to donate their 300-piece studio glass collection.
According to Sable, the studio glass movement, which began in the early 1960s, is recognized as a turning point in the history of glass, as artists explored the qualities of the medium in a studio environment. Their goal was to create fine art. Evolving over a 20-year period, the movement matured in the 1980s with artists producing a myriad of unique works.
While other museums were interested in the Bachmann collection, it was The Henry Ford that garnered the collectors’ full attention and eventually their generous donation. “The Bachmanns had very specific criteria for their collection,” said Sable. “They were looking for an institution that was in an urban area, preferably in the Midwest where they live, had a large visitation, and was capable of exhibiting and maintaining the collection.
“As Bruce told me, it was a good marriage. He felt his collection would live here in perpetuity,” added Sable.
The story of the studio glass movement is now on permanent exhibition in the DavidsonGerson Modern Glass Gallery, which is located in the museum space that once showcased The Henry Ford’s silver and pewter collections. “Our exhibit is a deep dive into how studio glass unfolded,” said Sable. “It’s the story of the combination of science and art that created a new and innovative chapter in the history of glass.”
The exhibition also looks at the impact of studio glass on everyday life and includes a section on mass-produced glass influenced by studio glass and sold today by retailers such as Crate and Barrel, Pier 1 Imports and others.
Once the new Davidson-Gerson Gallery of Glass in Greenfield Village opens this spring, thousands of visitors will have an added opportunity to see larger-scale studio glass pieces from the Bachmann collection as well as the evolution of American glass.
DID YOU KNOW? The Bachmann studio glass collection includes representation of every artist of importance in the movement, including Harvey Littleton, Dominick Labino, Dale Chihuly, Lino Tagliapietra, Laura Donefer and Toots Zynsky.
The gallery is a careful redesign of the McDonald & Sons Machine Shop in the Liberty Craftworks District. BY THE NUMBERS 180: The number of glass artifacts on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation’s Davidson-Gerson Modern Glass Gallery. 155: The number of artists represented in the Bachmann studio glass collection. 300: The number of studio glass pieces in the Bachmann collection
The decorative arts collections at The Henry Ford are unique for their breadth and depth. These vast resources span more than 300 years of American history, allowing us to explore developments in the design and use of items as people’s lives, values, and tastes changed over time. The Henry Ford Museum’s furniture collection is particularly evocative of historic changes, and these objects are central to discussions of design innovations, new manufacturing methods and materials, new ways of buying and selling, and new ways of living. Consisting of more than 6,000 pieces, the furniture collection is acknowledged as one of the best in the nation.
In the late 1990s our staff reinterpreted the furniture exhibit into themes such as Showing Off, Storage, His and Hers and others that we felt would prove relevant to our audience. Studies with visitors in the years since show that although they liked the thematic approach, our visitors also wanted to see a chronological development of American furniture. In 2010 we refined the installation, now called Fully Furnished, including a timeline of American furniture, arranged through broad thematic sweeps. Called In the Latest Fashion— the chronology is divided into loose historical periods, such as Fashion for a New Nation, for the early nineteenth century or Embracing Gentility for the mid-eighteenth century—the display takes visitors on a journey through the entire span of American furniture history. Should a visitor wish to delve into a particular history or style, information is available on the text panels. Because it provides a panorama of American furniture, we selected many stellar examples from the collection to share with the public.
Our graceful Grecian couch is about 200 years old and is believed to have been made in the workshop of Duncan Phyfe in New York City. In its time, this couch was considered the best piece of upholstered furniture in a well-appointed parlor of a sophisticated New Yorker. Although these couches seem to be designed for reclining, they were not intended for repose. They were used by fashionable ladies and gentlemen, who sat in a rigid, upright position. Today, we would find sitting on this couch very uncomfortable.
It is amazing that such a specialized piece survived intact into the early 20th century, when it was acquired by The Henry Ford. This is perhaps due to the flamboyant design of the back and foot rests, which makes it an exceptionally elegant, almost sculptural, piece of furniture. The couch was last reupholstered in 1954 by Ernest LoNano, a well-known furniture restorer of the time. Since then, the upholstery had become quite dirty and worn.
Glittering, prismatic cut glass chandeliers were the most impressive pieces produced by Irish glass houses. This chandelier was made about 1795. (THF99901)
Imagine being invited to dine at a well-appointed house in Philadelphia, New York City, or Charleston at the end of the 18th century. You are welcomed into the house by a servant and led into the reception room by your hosts. After exchanging pleasant conversation, you are escorted into a dining room arrayed with fine china and brilliantly cut glassware. The room is illuminated by a large candlelit chandelier, as well as candlesticks and candelabras. The overall effect is glittering and prismatic.
Much of this cut glass would have been made in Ireland. Even today, when we think of cut glass, an Irish company—Waterford—is the first name that comes to mind.
Ireland’s Glass Industry
In the 18th century, glassmakers in England and Ireland (which was part of Great Britain) created exquisite glassware known as Anglo-Irish glass. These English and Irish craftsmen had learned techniques for producing fine glass from the Venetian artisans who had dominated European high end glassmaking prior to this time.
Yet, these English and Irish artisans evolved a distinct recipe that differed in its composition from Venetian glass: a mixture containing calcinated flints and pebbles, and employing lead oxide as a flux, or binder. The lead gave their glass a higher degree of refraction, creating glass that, when cut, could exude a brilliance unseen in previous European wares, greatly increasing its reflective qualities. In the shadowy, candlelit rooms of the 18th century, this increased illumination was very welcome. Soon, these English and Irish glassmakers specialized in cut glass—clear glass, not colored, since it better showed the brilliance of the faceting. These English and Irish makers built factories during the first half of the 18th century as the unique refractive quality of their glass gained them worldwide fame.
As part of the British Empire, Ireland was subject to British trade policies. Indeed, from 1745 until 1780, the Irish glass industry was not allowed to compete with English-made glass within the British Empire. Irish entrepreneurs put pressure on the British Parliament and in 1780 all restrictions were lifted. This “Period of Freedom,” as it was known, continued until 1825, when Parliament reinstated the tariffs. During this relatively brief span, the Irish glass houses of Dublin, Belfast, Cork, and Waterford produced incomparable wares, based on contemporary English designs. During this period of free trade, Irish glassmakers exported a large amount of glassware of all kinds—everything from tiny salt cellars and wine glasses to large scale candelabras and chandeliers.
Irish Glass in American Homes
The deeply flanged rim combined with alternating cut prisms on this 1800-1815 fruit bowl captured and reflected the candlelight in an elegant dining room. (THF155628)
This 1807-1808 Epergne combines deeply cut Waterford glass inserts with a silver support. Epergnes were used as centerpieces on dining room tables in the most fashionable homes (THF112273).
This circa 1780 fluted tumbler held wine or water at table. Gilded floral garland decorations like the ones on the surface of this tumbler don’t often survive in such good condition. (THF155630)
Beginning in the 1780s, Americans saw significant Irish imports, although these would have been sold alongside glass from Central Europe (Germany and Bohemia) as well as British goods made in England. Nevertheless, the reputation for finely cut and faceted chandeliers and tableware put Irish glass at a premium. Americans loved the look of Irish glass. The dazzling effect of the reflection in candlelight showed that Americans, now independent of Britain, could attain interiors as fashionable as those in London.
In addition to dining rooms where cut glass serving ware predominated, Irish cut glass might be placed in parlors and other public rooms. If the homeowner was very wealthy, a candlelit chandelier could find its way into a parlor, too.
A preference for glass tableware extended well below the upper crust in late 18th-and early 19th-century America. The estate inventory of Robert Palethorp, Jr., a 27-year-old Philadelphia pewterer who died in 1822, reveals much about the contents of his middle class household. The goods in the parlor of Palethorp’s five-room house included four glass salts, 11 wine glasses, five glass tumblers, pme glass decanter and two quart pitchers (that were also probably made of glass) (THF113594).
American Glassmakers Join In
In the years following American independence, there was an interest in building a local glass industry. In the first half of the 19th century, foreign craftsmen, including Irish emigrants, sought greater opportunities in America. By the 1830s and 1840s, various firms—established by American entrepreneurs as well as immigrant craftsmen—located in coastal cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, and inland places such as Pittsburgh and Wheeling, West Virginia. They gained renown for their fine cut glass tableware, many based on Anglo-Irish designs.
During the late 1820s and 1830s, American entrepreneurs also began experimenting with machine-pressed glass as a less costly alternative to cut glass. One of the leaders in this field was the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, based in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Their early works are known as “Lacy” glass, which have a stippled surface intended to hide wrinkles caused by machine pressing on cold glass. Early pressed glass manufacturers sought to imitate the motifs found in expensive cut glass, specifically those pieces made in English and Irish glass houses. Americans of all economic means soon adopted pressed glass, although for the very wealthy, demand continued for cut glass.
Irish glass as a force in the international marketplace declined precipitously in the years after 1825. The impact of inexpensive pressed glass combined with a reinstatement of tariffs quickly decimated Ireland’s glass industry. The last to close was the Waterford house in 1851. (The firm that we know today was reestablished in 1947.)
The legacy of Irish glass lies in the elegant tableware and chandeliers of deeply cut, prismatic glass that we treasure today.
Nearly all of the Irish glass in The Henry Ford’s collection was acquired in the 1920s and 1930s, when Henry Ford began collecting in earnest for his museum. The objects included elegant chandeliers to light the front corridors of the museum (after being electrified), and cut-glass lighting devices and tableware to display in exhibits. For much of his early collecting activities, Henry Ford employed antiquarians such as Charles Woolsey Lyon, who helped locate and acquire decorative arts objects. In addition to Henry Ford, Lyon also acquired works for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Henry Francis du Pont, who went on to found Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
The large and small diamond patterns on these 1825-1845 pressed glass plates derive from Anglo-Irish patterns (THF304774) and (THF113593).
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford Museum has hundreds of pieces of silver and pewter on display. We’ve recently been making upgrades to the cases and labels in this exhibit, and as this work has progressed, we’ve also taken the opportunity to clean, conserve, photograph, and update our documentation for this material. We currently have about 50 of these beautiful objects available for you to peruse on our digital collections site—everything from this early 18th century tankard to a complex mid-19th century compote—and we will be adding more over the coming months.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
I began my internship with Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts, in September of 2011. My assignment: to educate myself on the history of American lighting, research the lighting collection at The Henry Ford, and help to prepare for a visit of four antique lighting clubs that was scheduled for October of 2012.
I was excited for this opportunity; I enjoy research and was curious to see what was in the collection. As I began to learn the history of lighting and understand fuel sources and mechanics, I quickly found the breadth of the project was far greater than I had initially imagined! My preliminary research took about four months; I then began combing through some 7,000 lighting-related objects in the collection to select appropriate examples to present to the lighting collectors. This was done by searching the Henry Ford Museum’s collections management system.
To better understand the lighting collection at The Henry Ford, it's important to know its history, which can be traced back nearly 100 years, when Henry Ford first began collecting in the 1920s. During Ford’s creation of a museum that would “reproduce American life as lived,” (Simands, William A. & Stokes, Frederick A. Henry Ford and Greenfield Village. New York, p. 117) his agents scanned the country for objects that represented the development of the American experience. He was passionate about technological innovations of all kinds, with an interest in the evolution of lighting and the development of electricity, influenced by his close friendship with and admiration for Thomas Edison. This led him to acquire a substantial collection of lighting objects. Though some examples were peculiar and unique, many were rather conventional. These objects represent the technologies of their time period, as Americans searched for the most efficient lighting options.
The origin of much of the collection is difficult to pinpoint. Many objects were acquired before 1940 and were not documented the way objects are today. Luckily, Henry Ford kept the receipts for many of his purchases. These records provide clues that indicate Ford initially began collecting chronologically. He started with the oldest forms of lighting, such as candlesticks and rushlights, and by the 1930s was collecting gasoline-fueled lighting. The initiative to collect lighting ebbed after Ford’s death in 1947, but picked back up again in the 1960s and 1970s under the curatorship of Carleton Brown.
Though the collection was acquired in many stages, its significance is clear: it represents the evolution of lighting, and the search for a fuel that would burn brightly, was safe to use, easily accessible, and affordable.
Working chronologically, as Henry Ford did when assembling the collection, I sorted the objects into categories. The process of selecting those that would be shown to the visiting collectors then began. Working with two representatives from the groups, Charles and I spent several days going through the collection determining which objects would make the cut. The collectors were interested in unique examples, patent models, and rare pieces. After careful consideration, 25 objects were selected, and we ended up with some very interesting and unique picks!
During the weekend of Oct. 12, 2012, the four organizations (the Rushlight Club, The Historical Lighting Society of Canada, The Night Light Club, and the Fairy Lamp Club) visited The Henry Ford. They toured Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village to see the lighting on display, and were able to examine the 25 objects we selected. It was certainly a rewarding experience for everyone involved!
Though much of the lighting collection is not currently on display, visitors to the museum can see lighting examples in the "Made in America" and "Fully Furnished" exhibits, as well as inside many of the homes in Greenfield Village. All the objects chosen to show the collectors have been digitized for public viewing; for the remaining objects not shown here, take a look at our online collections site. You can see the artifacts listed here and more!