Edsel Ford and Eleanor Ford with Their Children, Henry, Benson, Josephine and William, at Gaukler Pointe, circa 1938. THF99953
Edsel Bryant Ford was born in Detroit to Henry and Clara Ford on November 6, 1893. As their only son, Edsel seemed destined for a career at Ford Motor Company. He began working for Ford after his high school graduation in 1912 and rose through the ranks to President by age 26. Edsel spent 31 years with the organization, but his life was tragically cut short when he passed away from cancer on May 26, 1943 at just 49 years old.
While his career at Ford was extremely important to Edsel, his wife, Eleanor, and their four children – Henry, Benson, Josephine, and William – were most precious to him. During his limited leisure time he enjoyed painting and collecting art, spending time outdoors, and relaxing with his family at their home in Grosse Pointe Shores. Edsel was also a prolific philanthropist, and, 75 years after his death, exploring his extensive philanthropy is a fitting way to honor his life and legacy of good will.
Edsel Ford at Yale-Harvard Boat Races, New London, Connecticut, 1939. THF94864
Edsel Ford is perhaps best-known for his involvement with the arts. Millions have viewed the Edsel Ford-sponsored and funded Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts or visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, of which Edsel was a trustee from 1935 until 1943. Eleanor became a MoMA trustee in 1948, and the Ford Foundation (which was founded by Edsel in 1936) donated one million dollars to the museum in Edsel’s memory in 1963. He also attended many concerts at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and was a generous patron of the Detroit Symphony Society.
Oil Portrait of Edsel Ford by Diego Rivera, 1932. THF116599
Edsel donated regularly to the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts – which is now the College for Creative Studies – and attended painting classes in the late 1920s. By 1933 the Society had altered its original mission of keeping handmade craftmanship alive in an increasingly industrialized world and was one of the first art institutions to acknowledge the automobile as an art form. In the book “Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design,” author Terry Smith describes this new relationship between art and industry in relation to the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts:
“Like the shift from the Model T, like the basic move within design itself, this group negotiated a passage from applying ‘art’ to industrial products (decorative devices, elaborate ornamentation) toward seeing ‘art’ in them (their ‘natural simplicity’, ‘precise’ beauty, their matching of ‘form’ and ‘function’). This implied the possibility of designing art into them, of controlling the matching so skillfully that the result would be ‘a work of art’.”
This emphasis on the intersection of art and design was also reflected in Edsel’s work at Ford. He was instrumental in moving the company beyond the Model T into a new automotive era in which both form and function were equally incorporated into the design process.
Edsel Ford as a Child, Fishing, Lake Orion, Michigan, 1899. THF99836
Another of Edsel’s lifelong passions was nature. He engaged in many outdoor hobbies, including fishing, golfing, camping, and sailing, and these interests are reflected in his philanthropy. He supported our national parks – “America’s best idea” – through his contributions to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the nonprofit National Parks Association (now the National Parks Conservation Association). In 1931 Congress authorized the creation of Isle Royale National Park in Michigan and Edsel served on the Isle Royale National Park Commission, which managed land acquisition. After the commission acquired most of Isle Royale the land was transferred back to the National Park Service to create the park.
State of Michigan Certificate Reappointing Edsel Ford to the Isle Royale National Park Commission, June 22, 1939. THF256194
Edsel unsurprisingly gave to Henry Ford Hospital, which was founded by his father in Detroit in 1915, but he also donated to many healthcare organizations across the United States and around the world. He contributed to the building fund of King George Hospital in London five years after King George’s son Prince Edward visited Ford Motor Company to learn more about methods of large-scale manufacturing.
Edsel Ford, Edward Albert the Prince of Wales, and Henry Ford at Fair Lane, Dearborn, Michigan, 1924. THF116352
He gave nearly every year to the Frontier Nursing Service, which provided nurse midwifery services to women in rural Kentucky and was one of his mother’s favorite charities. In 1939 he sent the nurses a used Ford station wagon, which they christened “Henrietta," and a second new station wagon in 1941. The American Red Cross, the American Foundation for the Blind, The Seeing Eye, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now March of Dimes), and many other health organizations also received generous contributions from Edsel.
Fundraising Letter from Mary Breckinridge, Frontier Nursing Service, to Edsel Ford, June 3, 1940. THF130768
Vanda Summers of the Frontier Nursing Service, with Automobile Donated by Edsel Ford, May 1940. THF130772
This list represents a miniscule fraction of Edsel’s charitable career, and the impact of his philanthropy is still felt today through the work of the hundreds of organizations that benefitted from his time and contributions. While remembering Edsel’s career and philanthropy in his 1956 Reminiscences for Ford Motor Company his longtime secretary A.A. Backus stated, “Yes, Mr. Edsel Ford was a swell individual and in my twenty-seven years with the Ford Motor Company I never heard anyone say anything different.”
Edsel Ford on the Beach with Henry Ford II and Benson Ford, 1921. THF95355
Meredith Pollock was formerly Special Assistant to the Vice President at The Henry Ford.
This summer, The Henry Ford hosted Meredith Pollock as our 2016 Edsel B. Ford Design History Fellow. Her work here investigated the materials in our collections related to Edsel Ford’s philanthropy, and turned up a great deal of information on the kinds of charities to which Edsel donated.
One thing that caught our eye, particularly in light of this year’s National Park Service centennial, is Edsel’s ongoing relationship with America’s national parks. We’ve just digitized a number of letters, photographs, and other artifacts that help explain how Edsel supported the park system, including this certificate reappointing Edsel to the Isle Royale National Park Commission.
Earlier this week we shared another set of items that were recently digitized for our online collections: football artifacts to supplement our latest traveling exhibit, Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of those items is Edsel Ford’s 1934 season pass to home games of the Detroit Lions, which is actually on display inside the exhibit. In the picture of the pass you'll see that "Cancelled" is written in one of the top corners. After we shared the photo on Twitter yesterday Dave Birkett sent us this Tweet:
Anyone have any idea why "cancelled" would be written on that pass? @thehenryford
The explanation wasn't included in the online narrative for the pass and actually had several of us scratching our own heads - why was the pass cancelled? Thanks to Brian Wilson, Digital Processing Archivist at The Henry Ford, we found the answer.Here's Brian's report as he took a trip to our archives. - Lish Dorset Social Media Manager, The Henry Ford.Continue Reading
It should come as no surprise, given the founder of this institution, that our digital collections already contain hundreds of items related to Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. We’ve just expanded this selection by digitizing some of Edsel’s childhood artwork. My personal favorite is this bear, made of brown thread stitched into paper and likely created when Edsel was between 5 and 10 years old, but other pieces include family portraits, highly geometric works, and slightly later, more sophisticated works. View these and other items related to Edsel Ford in our online collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Visitors to Henry Ford Museum will see a new vehicle in Driving America. Edsel Ford’s 1941 Lincoln Continental convertible is now in the exhibit’s “Design” section, located just behind Lamy’s Diner. The original Lincoln Continental, built between 1939 and 1948, is regarded as one of the most beautiful automobiles ever to come out of Detroit. It’s an important design story that we’re delighted to share.
The Continental’s tale began in the fall of 1938 as Edsel Ford returned from a trip to Europe. While overseas, Ford was struck by the look of European sports cars with their long hoods, short trunks and rear-mounted spare tires. When Ford got home, he approached Lincoln designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie and asked him to create a custom car with a “continental” look. Using the Lincoln Zephyr as his base, Gregorie produced an automobile with clean, pure lines free of superfluous chrome ornaments or then-standard running boards.
Edsel Ford commissioned Charles Hart, a New York-based architect affiliated with the Treadway Service Company to reproduce a group of late 18th- and early 19th-century houses for an addition to the Dearborn Inn. Dearborn-based landscape architect Marshall Johnson prepared this rendering. The aerial photograph shows the Inn from the southwest, one year before construction. Note the adjacent Ford Airport and the clock tower of Henry Ford Museum in the background. (Left: Object ID P833.63669E, THF107996; Right: Object ID 59.13.2)
This is the third of three blog entries on objects related to the Dearborn Inn in the collections of The Henry Ford. The first centered on a remarkable scrapbook documenting the original furnishings of the Inn, which opened in 1931. The second concerned Edsel Ford’s pivotal role in commissioning the Inn and hiring the L.G. Treadway Service Company to furnish and manage it.
By late 1935, Edsel Ford, in consultation with the L.G. Treadway Company of New York City, was hard at work on a plan to add additional accommodations. A promotional brochure published by Treadway sums up the need for expansion:
“The Inn eventually became so popular that additional guest rooms were necessary. As the architectural plan of the Inn would not, with good taste or economic soundness, allow an addition, it was decided, after a thorough survey of the problem, to build separate cottages, or houses, to accommodate travelers. To be in keeping with the traditional environment these should be, externally, exact replicas of houses famous in American history, and, inside, afford the same comfort as enjoyed by guests at the Inn. The scheme calls for several houses to be grouped harmoniously as a Colonial Village.”
The brochure goes on to state that the landscape was to be carefully arranged, “such as might have grown around the original houses.”
A series of telegrams between A.J. Lepine, Edsel Ford’s secretary, and architect Charles Hart documents the design approval process.
Landscape design proposalssubmitted to Edsel Ford for the “Colonial Village” at the Dearborn Inn.
Work on the “Colonial Village” progressed through the winter and spring of 1936. A series of landscape designs were submitted to Edsel Ford for his approval. In mid-March a meeting among Edsel Ford, architect Charles Hart, and landscape architect Marshall Johnson was held in Dearborn. Ultimately the designs, including swimming pools and a bath house, were scaled down to just five houses: the Barbara Fritchie House, from Frederick, Maryland, the Governor Oliver Wolcott House, from Litchfield, Connecticut, the Patrick Henry House, from Red Hill, Virginia, the Edgar Allan Poe House from the Bronx, New York, and the Walt Whitman Birthplace, from Huntington, Long Island, New York. Selection of these houses for a “Colonial Village” seems questionable when one considers that three of the famous individuals, Barbara Fritchie, Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, were active in the 19th century, long past the colonial period. Perhaps the selection of these figures relates to romantic perceptions of American history in the 1930s, combined with an interest in the broader “Colonial” past.
Correspondence between Charles Hart and A.J. Lepine, Edsel Ford’s secretary, suggesting purchase of the original Walt Whitman Birthplace for Greenfield Village.
A fascinating exchange between Charles Hart and A.J. Lepine, Edsel Ford’s secretary, in late April and early May, 1936, suggests that there was discussion between Edsel Ford and Hart about purchasing the original Walt Whitman Birthplace, located in Huntington, Long Island, New York, for Greenfield Village. The Birthplace was currently on the market for $30,000. Hart states that Edsel Ford asked him “. . .to hold up on this particular house until you had a chance to talk with your Father [sic] to determine whether he would be interested in the purchase of it for his Greenfield Village.” The response was that the house would not be “further considered, as it has been determined that the price is too high.” In this exchange, the bath house and pool were likely eliminated as well, because of the high cost.
Over the summer and fall of 1936 the five reproduction houses were completed at the rear of the Inn. The houses opened for guests in the spring of 1937. Interiors were filled with reproductions of 18th- and 19th-century furnishings, updated to the needs and comfort of the discriminating traveler of the 1930s: promotional brochures boasted that the houses were outfitted with radios, telephones, and private bathrooms in each suite.
The Treadway Company managed the Inn and the “Colonial Village” for just three more years, until 1939, when their contract expired. The Inn and the reproduction homes have endured and prospered over the decades. Today, visitors to Dearborn may experience these houses in much the same manner as guests in the 1930s. Fortunately for us, the Marriott Corporation, who manages the Village and Inn, have maintained the high standards set in the 1930s.
For more insights on the Inn and “Colonial Village”, take a look at Jennifer Czerwick Ganem’s Images of America: Dearborn Inn (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011).
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
Edsel Ford and Henry Ford II at the National Air Tour, Ford Airport, Dearborn, 1928. Sponsored in part by Ford, the National Air Tour brought pilots and visitors to Dearborn in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The need to house guests and participants was one of the factors that led to the construction of the Dearborn Inn. (Object ID P.O.8527)
This is the second of three blog posts on objects related to the Dearborn Inn in the collections of The Henry Ford. The first concerned a remarkable scrapbook documenting the original furnishings of the Inn, which opened in 1931.
In the first piece, I discussed the unique nature of the Dearborn Inn, intended as an airport hotel and as a “front door” for visitors to our campus, Ford Motor Company and the Dearborn community. What I did not address was who conceived of the Inn and oversaw the project to its fruition. That individual was Edsel Ford. While it is generally acknowledged that Edsel Ford was a pivotal figure in the management of the Ford enterprise, individual achievements are rarely accorded to him. In the case of the Dearborn Inn, it is generally considered to be the conception of Henry Ford. While researching the scrapbook, I ran across reminiscences in our archives of Ernest Gustav Liebold (1884-1956), who served as Henry Ford’s executive secretary and financial manager. Mr. Liebold oversaw nearly all of Henry Ford’s business outside of Ford Motor Company. Mr. Liebold categorically states that the idea for the Dearborn Inn came from Mr. Edsel Ford. He continues to briefly discuss the construction of the Inn, specifically the interaction of architect Albert Kahn’s office with the Ford organization. Finally, Mr. Liebold states the following:
“Mr. Edsel Ford brought in Treadway to operate the Dearborn Inn. He also had Treadway at his Inn up in Maine. (Edsel Ford owned a large summer home near Seal Harbor, Maine.) Edsel bought it shortly after Mr. (Henry) Ford bought the Wayside Inn (in Sudbury, Massachusetts). He had that as an inn of his own, and Treadway operated it. Treadway was brought here at the same time and given a contract, I think for five years.”
This statement led me to investigate the Treadway Inn and its history. According to The Motel in America (1996) Treadway Inns were America’s earliest motel chain. They were founded accidentally by Mr. L.G. Treadway. In 1912 he took over operations at the Williams Inn at Williamstown, Massachusetts. (This inn continues today.) It was an old coaching inn, dating back to the early 19th century. Under Treadway’s management, the establishment was attractive, comfortable, and provided good meals. Treadway’s innovation came in 1920 when he and the owners of inns in nearby towns, specifically the Ashfield House of Ashfield, Massachusetts, and the Dorset Inn of Dorset, Vermont, combined resources. Guests were recommended to the associated inns, and employee exchanges took place. The three inns found economies of scale by combining advertising and purchasing; the resulting increase in business and decrease in costs brought increased profits – the affiliation grew into a chain, with many other New England inns added over time.
Each inn maintained its own character, but they all shared comfort, good food and efficiency. They did not attempt to duplicate the hotels of big cities, but rather extend to all travelers old-fashioned rural New England hospitality. Once established, the chain made its headquarters, ironically, in New York City and always included the trademark, “The Real New England Inns” with a distinctive logo of a colonial innkeeper pointing with a cane in the left hand, lantern held high in his right.
While traveling from Michigan to his summer home in Maine, Edsel Ford likely encountered the Treadway chain. After experiencing “The Real New England Inns” it must have been a foregone conclusion for Edsel Ford to invite Treadway to manage the Dearborn Inn. According to articles in Ford News, Ford Motor Company’s in-house magazine, announcing the Inn’s opening in the summer of 1931, a number of the Inn’s staff was recruited from Treadway Inns throughout New England.
Reproduction 18th and 19th century furniture filled the public and guest rooms of the Dearborn Inn (Object ID 59.13.7).
The Dearborn Inn differed from typical Treadway Inns in a major way – it was a totally new construction. In keeping with their corporate identity, the Treadway staff sought to recreate interiors reminiscent of a New England inn, filling the public and guest rooms with reproduction 18th and 19th century furniture.
The Treadway firm managed the Dearborn Inn until 1939, when the contract with Ford was not renewed. A subsidiary of Ford known as Seaboard properties operated the Inn until 1983, when the Marriott Corporation took over.
This 1966 brochure for the Treadway Publick House, at the Old Sturbridge Village living history museum, documents a typical Treadway Inn property. It was described as “A 1771 Coaching Tavern,” and visitors had the option of staying in the Inn, Treadway House (a “Colonial Farmhouse”) or the adjacent, modern Treadway Motor Inn. (Object ID 90.281.40).
Following World War II, Treadway changed with the times and oriented itself to the automobile traveler. While maintaining “The Real New England Inns” trademark and logo, they added motor inns across the northeast and north-central United States. In 1971, the firm turned to franchising, reaching a peak of 55 inns by the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, like many aging motel chains, including competitor Howard Johnson’s, the firm sold many properties, eventually liquidating the entire chain. Today, only one hotel, in Oswego, New York, operates under the Treadway name. Many of the original coaching inns, like the Williams Inn in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the Publick House in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, continue to operate as independent inns.
For more insights on the Dearborn Inn and lots of great images, take a look at Jennifer Czerwick Ganem’s Images of America: Dearborn Inn (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011).
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.