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As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we have had the opportunity to explore a number of fascinating stories of entrepreneurs represented in our collections. Recently, we’ve examined the life and work of aspiring entrepreneur and automobile designer McKinley Thompson, Jr.

While working for Ford Motor Company, Thompson conceived of an idea for an all-terrain vehicle that would do for Third World countries what the Model T did for America. This post highlights Thompson’s life and career as the first African-American automobile designer and sheds light on his little-known project for a vehicle ahead of its time, dubbed the Warrior.

Finding His Passion
On an October afternoon in 1934, 12-year-old McKinley Thompson, Jr., was stopped in his tracks while walking home from school. The reason? He had spotted a brand-new silver DeSoto Airflow, the first silver-colored and streamlined vehicle he had ever seen. In an interview from 2001, Thompson recalled that “the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through… It lit that car up like a searchlight.” Awestruck by the unique design of the car, it was right then and there that Thompson knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: an automobile designer.

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McKinley Thompson, Jr., undated (Photograph Courtesy of McKinley Thompson, Jr.)

In his youth, Thompson showed promise in drawing and was particularly interested in futuristic themes. He participated in commercial art courses throughout high school and, upon graduation in 1940, completed drafting courses where he learned to plan projects and present his ideas through drawings and concept illustrations. With these skills, Thompson acquired his first job as a draftsman with the National Youth Administration. He then worked as an engineering design layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps until he was drafted to serve in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Following the war, he continued working for the Signal Corps until 1953, when he found an opportunity to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an automobile designer. 

Seizing the Opportunity

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“Do you want to be an Automotive Designer” contest article from Motor Trend magazine, March 1953 THF299257

In March of 1953, Motor Trend magazine sponsored an Automotive and Industrial Design contest with the goal of discovering talented young adults. The prize? One of five, four-year tuition-free scholarships to the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles – one of the most respected schools for industrial design. Contest entry required several drawings and sketches, photographs, or models of cars and other products, along with an essay responding to the prompt, “What I think the trend in automotive design will be in the next ten years.” For McKinley Thompson, this was the chance of a lifetime – and he won.

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Motor Trend magazine’s winning contest entries, September 1953 THF299267

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McKinley Thompson’s winning entry in the article, “From Dream to Drawing Board to…?” in Motor Trend magazine, September 1953. In his essay, Thompson wrote that cars of the future would sacrifice aerodynamics to accommodate “more functional roominess and reduced size.” THF299268

Thompson’s gas turbine car, which incorporated reinforced plastic (an unusual choice of material at the time), won him the top prize. Thompson became the first African American to attend the Art Center, where he excelled throughout his course of study. After graduation, Thompson was offered a job with Ford Motor Company in the Advanced Styling Studio, finally realizing his childhood dream and breaking a barrier by becoming the first African-American automobile designer.

In the Advanced Styling Studio, designers were given a great deal of creative freedom. This suited Thompson’s interest in futuristic themes, allowing him to contribute sketches for fantastical ideas, such as a flying car and a nuclear-powered multi-trailered truck. He also worked on the Allegro and Gyron concept cars and collaborated on design ideas for the production Mustang and Bronco.

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1961 Ford Gyron  THF299432

The Warrior
While Thompson’s career at Ford gave him the opportunity to work on a variety of vehicles and concepts that could change the automotive industry, his most innovative idea had the potential to change the world. Thompson envisioned an all-terrain vehicle for Third World countries that would be easy to build and maintain, with low production costs. But his vision extended beyond the vehicle, which he dubbed the Warrior. He anticipated auto plants – located in the developing nations that would use the car – bringing jobs, better roads, and eventual economic independence to the host countries. Much like how the Model T brought America into the modern age and stimulated the economy through accessible and affordable mobility, Thompson believed the Warrior could do the same for Third World nations.

His program was called “Project Vanguard.” The plan was to use Uniroyal plastic components – known as Royalex – because they were lightweight, durable, and relatively cost-efficient. The first phase of the plan involved building a facility where Royalex could be fabricated for use on the Warrior and other assets. The second phase would involve the building of the vehicle division (to encompass the Warrior and other future vehicles), followed by a marine division for constructing boats, and a container division where “habitat modules” would be fabricated for housing. Though Ford Motor Company was supportive when Thompson first brought his idea to the company in 1965, Ford ultimately passed on the project in 1967, believing that the vehicle would not sell in large enough quantities to warrant the investment. 

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1974 Warrior Concept Car  THF92162

Despite this setback, Thompson still believed that his vehicle could succeed. He thought that if he produced a prototype car and could demonstrate the possibilities of this unique application of Royalex, he could garner interest for investment in the program. He gathered several friends to help in financing the Warrior prototype, including Wally Triplett – the first African American to play in the National Football League (for the Detroit Lions). By day, McKinley Thompson drafted concept drawings for Ford, but by night he worked tirelessly to bring his Warrior to life in a rented garage on Detroit’s west side.

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McKinley Thompson and Crew Testing the Warrior Concept Car, 1969. Click here to check out other images of the Warrior from a scrapbook compiled by Wally Triplett!  THF113754

Once his prototype was complete, Thompson and his partners attempted to market it to other investors and groups. They reached out to the Small Business Administration, which turned them down because the endeavor would take place outside the United States. They tried to gain assistance from the Agency for International Development but received little interest. A group of people at Chrysler, who assisted small businesses in getting started, suggested to Thompson that he first establish a market for Royalex in the United States. Plastic-bodied vehicles were still an unusual concept, and American automakers at the time were only experimenting with the idea on a limited scale. Thompson realized he was caught in a classic catch-22: He needed a Royalex facility to establish a market for plastic-bodied vehicles, but he couldn’t get the facility built without an existing market for plastic-bodied vehicles.

Instability on the African continent derailed opportunities to conduct business with the nations themselves. Thompson even tried to secure a bank loan to build Warrior cars in Detroit, but he was ultimately denied in this attempt as well. (Triplett later recounted that he felt that race played a role.) While every potential investor he approached told him it was a good idea, Thompson simply was unable to secure the funding needed to pursue his idea, eventually causing him to shut down the project in 1979.

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Image from a 1965 Royalex sales brochure, showing the possibilities of an amphibious vehicle using Royalex materials. Interestingly, the Warrior was designed to be an all-terrain vehicle – including use for crossing rivers and small inland lakes! Click here to check out the rest of this brochure in which Uniroyal has suggested other uses for Royalex. THF290896

An Inspiring Career
Around the same time that the doors were closing on the Warrior, Thompson developed another way to influence and change people’s lives. He coordinated a traveling exhibit, featuring the work of other African-American automobile designers, to motivate and encourage young people toward careers in design. Thompson traveled across the country, staging his exhibit in schools and shopping centers.

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Photograph from the Ford Motor Company publication, “Rouge News,” March 19, 1962 THF299429

McKinley Thompson had an impressive 28-year career with Ford. In 1962 he was awarded Ford’s highest honor for community service, the Citizen of the Year Award. He contributed to a variety of projects (including experimental concept cars), worked in the Thunderbird and Falcon design studios, and eventually oversaw 50 craftspeople and modelers before retiring in 1984.

Despite his career success, Thompson continued to regret that his Warrior vehicle and overall program never materialized – though he was proud of his accomplishment in building the Warrior and proving it’s basic feasibility. The Warrior project was ahead of its time in design and philosophy. The extensive use of plastic, so common today, was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Thompson’s larger economic prophecy was partially fulfilled in 1995 when Ewert Smith’s URI, an all-terrain vehicle designed for African topography, was manufactured in the small town of Witvlei, Namibia. The URI plant became Witvlei’s largest employer, providing economic stability to the area.

Even though the Warrior never made it to market, Thompson kept the car as a leisure vehicle, taking it on family vacations and occasionally using it to run errands – usually attracting a fair amount of attention. Thompson donated his prototype to The Henry Ford in 2001.

McKinley Thompson, Jr., passed away at the age of 83, after battling Parkinson’s disease, in 2006.

Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. This post expands upon Bart Bealmear’s “The Warrior,” blog post from February 2014. Special thanks to Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation, for his help in reviewing the content.

design, by Samantha Johnson, Michigan, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, entrepreneurship, Detroit, cars, African American history

Travel has changed a lot over the past 150 years, from something that only the wealthy could afford to something for everyone. This post looks at the relationship between forms of luggage and methods of transportation, from stagecoaches through airline travel.

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THF206455 / Concord Coach Hitched to Four Horses in Front of Post Office, circa 1885.

In the 19th century, travel was relatively uncommon. People who traveled used heavy trunks to carry a great number of possessions, usually by stagecoach and rail. The traveler didn't usually hand his or her luggage, porters did all the work. As late as 1939, railway express companies transferred trunks to a traveler's destination.

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THF288917 / Horse-Drawn Delivery Wagon, "Express Trunks Transferred & Delivered, We Meet All Trains"

A typical 19th century American trunk, this example was used by Captain Milton Russell during the Civil War.

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THF174670 / Carpet Bag, 1870-1890

People used valises or other types of lighter bags in the 19th century. This is a carpet bag made of remnants of "ingrain" carpet.

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THF145224 / Trunk Used for File Storage By Harvey S. Firestone, circa 1930

In the 19th and 20th centuries, "steamer trunks" were used on ocean-going vessels in your state room. It was literally a closet in a box. This example was used by Harvey Firestone to hold important papers.

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THF105708 / Loading Luggage into the Trunk of 1939 Ford V-8 Automobile

With the rise of automobile travel, more people had access and suitcases (as we know them) became the norm. Much easier to manager than steamer trunks, they fit a car trunk.

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THF166453 / Oshkosh "Chief" Trunk, Used by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, 1920-1955

This is a standard 1920s/1930s suitcase made by the Oshkosh Suitcase Co. of Oshkosh, Wisc. This was for auto travel, etc. It was for everything! This belonged to Elizabeth Parke Firestone.

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THF285021 / Passengers Entering Ford Tri-Motor 4-AT Airplane, 1927

With the rise of air travel, passengers were limited to lighter-weight bags due to weight restrictions.

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THF169109 / Orenstein Trunk Company Amelia Earhart Brand Luggage Overnight Case, 1943-1950

Famed aviator Amelia Earhart licensed her own line of luggage beginning in 1933. It was marketed as "real 'aeroplane' luggage." It was lightweight and made to last. (Learn more about the famed aviator as an entrepreneur in this expert set.)

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THF318431 / Postcard, Plymouth Savoy 4-Door Sedan, 1961-1962

By the 1960s, fashionable Americans bought luggage in colorful sets, like this lady directing the porters. Notice she also has a steamer trunk!

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THF154923 / Travelpro Rolling Carry-On Suitcase, 1997

With the explosive growth of air travel in the '80s & '90s, & the growth of airports, travelers needed light and portable bags. Roller bags were the answer. They could be carried on or checked.

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THF94783 / American Airlines Duffel Bag, circa 1991

Flight attendants need to carry extremely light bags. This American Airlines tote bag was used by a flight attendant in the 1990s.

How have your luggage choices and preferences evolved over time?

Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. These artifacts were originally shared as part our weekly #THFCuratorChat series. Join the conversation! Follow @TheHenryFord on Twitter.

If you’re enjoying our content, consider a donation to The Henry Ford. #WeAreInnovationNation

design, #THFCuratorChat, by Charles Sable, travel

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Mary Blair was the artist for this hand-pulled silkscreen print, used in a guest room at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Walt Disney World, 1973 to early 1990s. THF181161

When Disney’s Contemporary Resort opened at Walt Disney World in 1971—coinciding with the opening of Magic Kingdom—guests almost immediately complained about their rooms. The rooms seemed cold and hard. They lacked personality. Guests couldn’t even figure out how to operate the new-fangled recessed lighting. So, within two years, the rooms were refurbished with new textiles, fabrics, traditional lamps, and high-quality prints of Mary Blair’s original design. These prints were adapted from the individual scenes of a massive tile mural that she had created for the Contemporary Resort’s central atrium. The hand-pulled silk-screened prints, framed and hung on the walls over the beds, brought much-needed warmth, color, and a sense of playful exuberance to the rooms. More importantly—but probably unbeknownst to most guests—they reinforced Mary Blair’s deep, longstanding connection to Disney parks, attractions, and films that ultimately dated back to a personal friendship with Walt Disney himself.

Mary Blair was born Mary Browne Robinson in 1911 in rural Oklahoma. She developed a love of art early in her childhood and went on to major in fine arts at San Jose State College. She won a prestigious scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (which later became the California Institute of the Arts) and studied under the tutelage of Chouinard’s director of illustration, Pruett Carter. Carter was one of the era’s most accomplished magazine illustrators and stressed the importance of human drama, empathy, and theatre in illustration. Mary later recalled that he was her greatest influence.

By the late 1930s, Mary and her husband, fellow artist Lee Blair, were unable to survive off the sales of their fine art and began to work in Los Angeles’s animation industry. In 1941, both were working at Disney and had the opportunity to travel with Walt Disney and a group of Disney Studio artists to South America to paint as part of a government-sponsored goodwill trip. While on this trip, Mary grew into her own as an artist and found the bold and colorful style for which she would be known.

Mary Blair became one of Walt Disney’s favored artists, appreciated for her vibrant and imaginative style. She recalled, “Walt said that I knew about colors he had never heard of.” In her career at Disney, she created concept art and color styling for many films, including Dumbo (1941), Saludos Amigos (1942), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953). She left Disney after her work on Peter Pan to pursue freelance commercial illustration, but returned when Walt Disney specifically requested her help to create the “it’s a small world” attraction for the 1964-5 New York World’s Fair (later brought back to Disneyland and also recreated in Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World).

Before Walt Disney passed away in 1966, he commissioned Mary to produce multiple large-scale murals, including the one for the interior of the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida. The mural, completed in 1971, was her last work with Disney. Entitled “The Pueblo Village,” it featured 18,000 hand-painted, fire-glazed, one-foot-square ceramic tiles celebrating Southwest American Indian culture, prehistoric rock pictographs, and the Grand Canyon. (Because Mary’s depictions of Native Americans admittedly lack attention to the serious study of indigenous people in that region, they might be criticized as racial stereotyping).

When the guest rooms at the Contemporary Resort were renovated again in the early 1990s, the high-quality prints were removed. But the massive tile mural stoically remains at the center of the Resort’s ten-story atrium—a reminder of Mary Blair’s exuberant artistry and her many contributions to Disney parks and films.

For more on Mary Blair’s contributions, along with the previously unrecognized contributions of numerous other female artists who worked on Disney films, see the book The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History, by Nathalia Holt (2019).

This blog post was a collaborative effort by Donna Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, and Katherine White, Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.

design, women's history, Mary Blair, Disney

As with many entrepreneur stories, this one begins with immigrants coming to the United States to pursue the American dream. That dream was to create stylish, attractive silver housewares, but a national economic crisis forced them to get creative with a new material – aluminum – and resulted in the creation of the Everlast Metal Products Corporation. This blog highlights the company’s nearly 30-year history.

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Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Yours From Everlast The Finest – Bar None!” 1947 THF125124

When the Great Depression gripped the nation during the 1930s, demand for consumer products fell as many people struggled to get by in the faltering economy. Up to this point, silver had been the primary material used for creating fashionable housewares. With few buyers able to purchase silver products, manufacturers turned to aluminum. One of the most prolific manufacturers of aluminum giftware was the Everlast Metal Products Corporation of New York City.

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Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Everlast Hand-Forged Aluminum, So Beautiful – So Versatile!” 1948-1949 THF295633

Everlast founders Louis Schnitzer and his brother-in-law, Nathan Gelfman, were experienced metalworkers in their homeland of Kiev, Russia before immigrating to the United States in the 1910s. In the early 1920s, the two men created a silver housewares business in New York City called Western Silver Works, Inc., where they polished and plated silver. By 1930, Schnitzer and Gelfman began producing silver- and chrome-plated items under the name Western Silver Novelty Company.

Affected by the decline of buyers for silver products during the Great Depression, Schnitzer and Gelfman decided to adapt, attempting to work with the modern and more affordable metal, aluminum. Aluminum was more costly than gold from its discovery in the 1800s until the first smelting methods were invented in 1886. Inexpensive aluminum cookware and kitchen utensils were manufactured in the 1890s, but poor manufacturing quality made customers skeptical of the new material. During the first World War, aluminum’s light weight and rust-resistant properties made the metal ideal for use in soldiers’ canteens and military vehicles. From this, aluminum gained wider acceptance, and consumer confidence in the metal led to a surge in aluminum products in the next few decades.

In 1932, Schnitzer and Gelfman formed Everlast Metal Products Corporation and began producing high-quality, hand-forged aluminum giftware. Hammered aluminum giftware products were, at once, both “old” and “new.” In an era of growing uniformity via factory production, the “made by hand” aspect of these products held an aesthetic appeal for consumers, while their aluminum material made them seem decidedly modern.

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Everlast “Forged” Gravy Boat, 1938-1950 THF125117
Everlast’s first product line, “Forged Giftware,” was introduced in 1933 and continued until the company closed. Featuring Colonial Revival- and Neoclassical Revival-inspired designs, this line – with items like this gravy boat – appealed to customers with traditional tastes.

 

Schnitzer, the creative force behind the company, recognized the necessity of increased marketing to promote Everlast’s products. Around 1935, Jack Orenstein was brought on as National Sales Manager. Orenstein, skilled in merchandising techniques and in building relationships with clients, was essential in the success of the company. Already successful in the giftware industry before joining the company, Orenstein organized a highly effective sales force which gave Everlast a national presence in the decorative aluminum giftware market.

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Everlast “Forged” Tray, 1933-1936 THF144106

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Everlast “Forged” Tray, 1938-1947 THF144107
Through innovative manufacturing and creative marketing, Everlast was able to expand its “Forged Giftware” product line. Instead of creating new product forms each year, the company combined new handles and design motifs with previous years’ product forms to create “new” pieces. This cost-effective method for product development enabled Everlast to introduce new items regularly while also keeping up with rapidly changing design trends. The two trays pictured here have the same form, but the second piece now features handles and a different motif.

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Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Yours from Everlast for ‘Dining Out’ at Home!” THF295629  

When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the production of aluminum for consumer goods was halted to focus on the production of military equipment. While some aluminum houseware companies struggled to adapt, Everlast rose to the challenge, securing government contracts and upgrading their facilities to produce military equipment under the name Browning Precision Tool Co.

Throughout the war, Everlast created partnerships with various businesses in the floral, woodworking, and ceramic industries, enabling the company to remain in the public awareness, despite not producing consumer goods itself. As the war was winding down, Everlast turned its focus back to manufacturing consumer products. The upgrades made to its facilities during wartime put the company in a better position to manufacture mass-produced giftware in a more cost-effective manner – just in time for increased consumer spending during a time of post-war prosperity.

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Everlast “Bali Bamboo” Ice Bucket, 1953-1959 THF125114
Everlast’s most successful line, “Bali Bamboo,” was a direct result of America’s fascination with the South Pacific following World War II. More than 60 different items, produced between 1946 and 1959, featured raised bamboo shoots and a satin finish. Together these features provided the added advantage of hiding scratches.

Following the war, Everlast resumed its advertising and marketing strategies. To increase its accessibility to consumers in the Midwest, the company also established a showroom in Chicago in 1946. Unfortunately, despite the initial post-war momentum for aluminum housewares, the industry and company struggled throughout the 1950s, experiencing setbacks that ultimately led to its demise.

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Everlast “Silvercrest” Tumbler, circa 1952 THF125119
In 1952, Everlast introduced a line called “Silvercrest,” featuring a highly polished aluminum finish. By this time, as a cost-cutting measure, the products’ “hand-forged” hammer marks were actually produced by a machine.

The first blow to the Everlast company came in 1951 when the Korean War initiated a restriction on the use of aluminum for consumer goods once again. Soon after, Jack Orenstein left the company to pursue a career in the new era of modern housewares – ceramics and plastics. Compared to these materials, which were colorful and lacked ornamentation, aluminum was beginning to be seen as old-fashioned and outdated. Despite several attempts to reinvent its products, Everlast floundered, failing to revive consumer interest in aluminum housewares.

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Everlast “Modern” Three-Tier Tidbit Tray, circa 1953 THF125116
In an attempt to reinvent its products amidst the growing popularity of plastics, Everlast introduced a contemporary line in 1953 called, “Everlast Modern.”

Like other manufacturers of the time, the company also chose to forego quality in favor of machine-made, mass-produced goods. This ultimately over-saturated the housewares market and crushed any interest in “hand-forged” household items. After nearly thirty years in business, Louis Schnitzer and Nathan Gelfman closed Everlast in 1961.

The two men from Russia had forged their American dream, adapting early on to pursue their entrepreneurial vision. It can be said that advances in technology and rapidly changing consumer interests secured the downfall of the aluminum industry. It cannot be said, however, that Everlast’s founders went down without a fight. Though their entrepreneurial journey came to an end in 1961, the founders experienced undeniable success during their company’s thirty-year history to become one of the eminent manufacturers of aluminum housewares and giftware.

To see more artifacts from the Everlast Metal Products Corporation, visit our Digital Collections.

Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from the Pic of the Month from April 2007, written by Donna Braden and Kira Macyda. Special thanks to Constance Levi for sharing her knowledge of the company and for reviewing this content.

immigrants, entrepreneurship, design

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Robert O. Derrick, about 1930. THF 124645


As part of our 90th anniversary celebration the intriguing story of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation’s design bears repeating. It was last discussed in depth in the 50th anniversary publication “A Home for our Heritage” (1979).

Our tale begins on the luxury ocean liner R.M.S. Majestic, then the largest in the world, on its way to Europe in the spring of 1928. On board were Henry and Clara Ford, their son Edsel and Edsel’s wife Eleanor. Serendipitously, Detroit-based architect Robert O. Derrick and his wife, Clara Hodges Derrick, were also on board. The Derricks were approximately the same age as the Edsel Fords and the two couples were well-acquainted. According to Derrick’s reminiscence, housed in the Benson Ford Research Center, he was invited by Henry Ford to a meeting in the senior Fords’ cabin, which was undoubtedly arranged by Edsel Ford. During the meeting Derrick recalled that Mr. Ford asked how he would hypothetically design his museum of Americana. Derrick responded, “well, I’ll tell you, Mr. Ford, the first thing I could think of would be if you could get permission for me to make a copy of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It is a wonderful building and beautiful architecture and it certainly would be appropriate for a collection of Americana.” Ford enthusiastically approved the concept and once back in Detroit, secured measured drawings of Independence Hall and its adjacent 18th century buildings which comprise the façade of the proposed museum. Both Derrick and Ford agreed to flip the façade of Independence Hall to make the clock tower, located at the back side of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a focal point of the front of the new museum in Dearborn.

Robert Ovens Derrick (1890-1961) was an unlikely candidate for the commission. He was a young architect, trained at Yale and Columbia Universities, with only three public buildings to his credit, all in the Detroit area. He was interested in 18th century Georgian architecture and the related Colonial Revival styles, which were at the peak of their popularity in the 1920s.

In his reminiscence, he states that he was overwhelmed with the commission, but was also confident in his abilities: “I did visit a great many industrial and historical museums and went to Chicago. I remember that I studied the one abroad in Germany, [The Deutsches Museum in Munich] which is supposed to be one of the best. I studied them all very carefully and I did make some very beautiful plans, I thought. Of course, I was going according to museum customs. We had a full basement and a balcony going around so the thing wouldn’t spread out so far. We had a lot of exhibits go in the balcony. I had learned that, in museum practice, you should have a lot more storage space, maintenance space and repair shops than you should have for exhibition. That is why I had the big basement. I didn’t even get enough there because I had the floor over it plus the balconies all around.”

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Original museum proposal, aerial view. THF 170442

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Original museum proposal, facade design. THF 170443

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Original museum proposal, side view. THF 170444

In the aerial view [THF0442], the two-story structure is a warren of courtyards and two-story buildings, with exhibition space on the first floor and presumably balconies above, although no interior views of this version survive. A domed area on the upper right was to be a roundhouse, intended for the display of trains. THF0443 shows a view of the front of the museum from the southeast corner. This view is close to the form of the completed museum, at least from the front. An examination of the side of the building [THF0444] shows a two-storied wing.

Derrick recalled Mr. Ford’s initial response to his proposals, “What’s this up here? and I said, that is a balcony for exhibits. He said, I wouldn’t have that; there would be people up there, I could come in and they wouldn’t be working. I wouldn’t have it. I have to see everybody. Then he said: What’s this? I said, that is the basement down there, which is necessary to maintain these exhibits and to keep things which you want to rotate, etc. He said, I wouldn’t have that; I couldn’t see the men down there when I came in. You have to do the whole thing over again and put it all on one floor with no balconies and no basements. I said, okay, and I went back and we started all over again. What you see [today] is what we did the second time.”

thf294368Henry Ford Museum proposed Exhibit Hall. THF294368

A second group of presentation drawings show the museum as it was built in 1929. THF294368 is the interior of the large “Machine Hall,” the all-on-one-floor exhibit space that Mr. Ford requested.  The unique roof and skylight system echo that of Albert Kahn’s Ford Engineering Laboratory, completed in 1923 and located just behind the museum. Radiant heating is located in the support columns through what appear to be large flanges or fins. The image also shows how Mr. Ford wanted his collection displayed – in long rows, by types of objects – as seen here with the wagons on the left and steam engines on the right.

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Proposal for museum corridor. THF 294390

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Proposal for museum corridor. THF 294388

These corridors, known today as the Prechter Promenade, run the width of the museum. Floored with marble and decorated with elaborate plasterwork, the promenade is the first part of the interior seen by guests. Mr. Ford wanted all visitors to enter through his reproduction of the Independence Hall Clock Tower. The location of Light’s Golden Jubilee, a dinner and celebration of the 50th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s development of incandescent electric lamp, held on October 21, 1929 is visible at the back of THF294388. This event also served as the official dedication of the Edison Institute of Technology, honoring Ford’s friend and mentor, Thomas Edison. Today the entire institution is known as The Henry Ford, which includes the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village.

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Museum Auditorium. THF 294370

Just off the Prechter Promenade is the auditorium, now known as the Anderson Theater.  Intended to present historical plays and events, this theater accommodates approximately 600 guests. During Mr. Ford’s time it was also used by the Greenfield Village schools for recitals, plays, and graduations. Today, it is used by the Henry Ford Academy, a Wayne County charter high school, and the museum for major public programs.

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Virginia Courtyard inside Henry Ford Museum. THF294374  

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Pennsylvania Courtyard inside Henry Ford Museum. THF294392

Derrick created two often-overlooked exterior courtyards between the Prechter Promenade and the museum exhibit hall. Each contains unique garden structures, decorative trees and plantings, and both are accessible to the public from neighboring galleries.

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Greenfield Village Gatehouse front view, about 1931. THF 294382

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Greenfield Village Gatehouse rear view, about 1931. THF 294386

The Greenfield Village Gatehouse was completed in 1932 by Robert Derrick, in a Colonial Revival style to complement the Museum. From its opening in 1932 until the Greenfield Village renovation of 2003, the gatehouse served as the public entrance to the Village. Today, visitors enter the Village through the Josephine Ford Plaza behind the Gatehouse.  Although the exterior was left unchanged in the renovation, the Gatehouse now accommodates guests with an updated facility, including new, accessible restrooms and a concierge lounge with a will-call desk for tickets.

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Lovett Hall in 1941. THF 98409

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Edison Institute students dancing in Lovett Ballroom, 1938. THF 121724

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Edison Institute students in dancing class with Benjamin Lovett, instructor, 1944. THF 116450

In 1936 Robert Derrick designed the Education Building for Mr. Ford.  Now known as Lovett Hall, the building served many purposes, mainly for the Greenfield Village School system. It housed a swimming pool, gymnasium, classrooms, and an elaborately-decorated ballroom, where young ladies and gentlemen were taught proper “deportment.” Like all the buildings at The Henry Ford, it was executed in the Colonial Revival style. Today the well-preserved ballroom serves as a venue for weddings and other special occasions.

Obviously, Mr. Derrick was a favorite architect of Mr. Ford, along with the renowned Albert Kahn, who designed the Ford Rouge Factory. The museum was undoubtedly Derrick’s greatest achievement, although he went on to design Detroit’s Theodore J. Levin Federal Courthouse in 1934. Unlike the Henry Ford commissions, the courthouse was designed in the popular Art Deco, or Art Moderne style. Derrick is also noted for many revival style homes in suburban Grosse Pointe, which he continued to design until his retirement in 1956. He is remembered as one of the most competent, and one of the many creative architects to practice in 20th century Detroit.

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

Michigan, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, design, THF90, Henry Ford Museum, drawings

thf137271Portraits of Robert Propst. THF137271

PROFESSION: Designer (Although he preferred to be called "searcher")

INNOVATION: The Action Office II System (1968) and the movable "coherent structures” of the Co/Struc System designed for hospitals (1971)

ATTRIBUTES: Empathetic observer, serial problem solver, unorthodox thinker

You could be forgiven if you aren’t familiar with the work of Robert Propst. After all, if his designs were working as he intended, they simply disappeared.

Propst became director of the Herman Miller Research Division (HMRD) in 1960, setting up shop in a small concrete building in Ann Arbor, Mich. The founder of Herman Miller, D.J. DePree, saw potential in Propst’s ambitious thinking and hired him to broaden the company’s product range. Very few guidelines were in place at HMRD: Nothing should be connected to military use, no furniture designs — and whatever was designed should simply “be useful.”

thf137214Robert Propst Outside Herman Miller Research Division Office, Ann Arbor, Michigan, July 1964. THF137214

Deliberately choosing a building more than 150 miles away from Herman Miller’s headquarters in Zeeland, Mich., Propst exercised his freedom to research without the distraction of corporate meetings. For every idea he had that went into production, hundreds more were filed away.

Two of Propst’s most impactful projects were holistic environments designed for high-impact workplaces: the improved Action Office II system (1968) and the movable “coherent structures” of the Co/Struc system designed for hospitals (1971).

In Propst’s mind, offices had become chaotic wastelands. Cobbled together furniture, nonergonomic chairs and an invasion of technology onto ad hoc surfaces. Action Office — a modular system of free standing panel walls — could be fluidly arranged into nooks for working, conference areas and other purpose-driven needs. An idealistic vision for the birth of the modern office cubicle.

Propst wasn’t always a designer of “things” but of situations. He attacked issues from the reverse, finding clues in the algorithms of human behavior working in high-stakes spaces. How did people move while working? Where was time being spent? Wasted? How can we support safety? Privacy? Collaboration? The physical solutions he engineered encouraged ideas of access, mobility and efficiency. His modular approach to office landscapes was intended to have a 1+1=3 effect. Which is to say that by implementing physical change, “knowledge” workers could then springboard off an improved relationship with their workspaces, which were suddenly more hospitable to launching new ideas, productive workflows and transformative projects.

thf241708Action Office Project Drawing by Robert Propst, April 6, 1964. THF241708

Did You Know
- The proliferation of the office cubicle is almost single-handedly due to the introduction of the Action Office II system in 1968. Unfortunately, the mobile aspect of Action Office became rooted to the floor, quite literally. Large businesses filled their buildings with Action Office (or its various knock-offs) to create Dilbertesque “cubicle farms.”

- The first version of Action Office was conceived by Robert Propst and designed by George Nelson in 1964, but sales were lackluster. Corporate managers worried about the porous borders being offered to their staff, now called “knowledge workers,” and the cost was simply too high. Propst returned to the drawing board alone for AO2.

- Robert Propst did not like to be referred to as a designer. He also didn’t like the term “researcher,” because it implied looking backward. His ideal description for his activities was “searcher.”

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.  

furnishings, design, Robert Propst, Innovation Nation



Pioneering modern designer Ruth Adler Schnee’s bold textiles have broad appeal. Her furnishing and drapery fabrics were favorites of the everyday consumer and leading architects alike, including Minoru Yamasaki, Paul Rudolph, and Buckminster Fuller. Adler Schnee’s textiles, which feature vivid color and abstracted organic forms, added whimsy and depth to the sleek, minimal aesthetic popular in the mid-century period.

Learn more about Ruth's work in this video, and see examples of her designs in this expert set.

design, furnishings, women's history

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This alphabet quilt, likely made in Berks County, Pennsylvania, dates from about 1910.   THF168579  (Purchased through the Eleanor B. Safford Memorial Textile Fund.)

“A, B, C, D, E, F, G—   H, I, J, K, L-M-N-O-P—.… Now I know my ABCs”

The alphabet song gave us a fun way to learn our ABCs—and the order of the letters.  (I don’t know about you, but I sometimes still find myself singing it as I alphabetize something.)  Even before kids head off to school, we not only sing the alphabet song to them, but surround them with images of alphabet letters—on building blocks, children’s dishes, and even, wallpaper—to help them learn their ABCs. 

Alphabet letters also appear on quilts. Quilt block patterns published in the 20th century made it easier to plan and create these quilts. In 1906, Ladies Art Company, a mail order business that published hundreds of quilt patterns, offered a series of alphabet block designs. The Henry Ford’s alphabet quilt was likely made using these patterns.

The letters on this alphabet quilt may look like they are curved—but they are actually made up of triangles, squares, rectangles and trapezoids.  The letter blocks were designed to avoid curved seams, which are more difficult to execute than these other geometric shapes. Yet, even using these Ladies Art Company patterns offered challenges.  Some letters, like the G and Q, required more intricate piecing.  Some quiltmakers simply deviated a bit in piecing the blocks for these, and other letters.  Our quiltmaker managed the Q, but made a few small changes in creating the G.

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Though working from the same pattern, each individual quiltmaker created her own unique quilt through her choice of fabric, the exact arrangement of the letter blocks, the design of the sashing and borders, and the quilt patterns used in the decorative corner blocks that complete the quilt. Some quiltmakers arranged the letter blocks in rows of three and five. Others placed them in four rows of five letter blocks—and then figured out what to do with the leftover Z! Our quilt maker tucked the Z into one corner, creating a delightfully whimsical effect.

We don’t really know who made this quilt, or who they made it for.  But it is easy to imagine a child cuddling with this charming alphabet quilt—and learning his or her letters at the same time.

Continue Reading

making, design, by Jeanine Head Miller, quilts

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"Seedy Weeds," Fabric Sample Designed by Ruth Adler Schnee, 1953. THF169002

0062_019920170710_KMSPhotographyWalking through the House Industries "A Type of Learning" exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation you're sure to notice the attention given to printed textiles, from kitchen tea towels to handmade dolls.

The textiles created by the House Industries team are just one of their popular offerings and make us think about other well-known textiles that reside within our collections.

Another set of bold textiles that have broad appeal are those created by pioneering modern designer Ruth Adler Schnee. Her furnishing and drapery fabrics were favorites of the everyday consumer and leading architects alike, including Minoru Yamasaki, Paul Rudolph, and Buckminster Fuller. Adler Schnee’s textiles, which feature vivid color and abstracted organic forms, added whimsy and depth to the sleek, minimal aesthetic popular in the mid-century period.

Take a look at a few of Adler Schnee's pieces in The Henry Ford collections in this expert set.

midcentury modern, furnishings, design, women's history

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

design, making, #THFCuratorChat, by Ryan Jelso, Decorative Arts, beverages