One of the most respected names in the fire apparatus manufacturing business is Seagrave. The company was founded in Detroit in 1881 by Frederic S. Seagrave, who got his start making ladders for northern Michigan fruit orchards and soon was making fire ladders and hand-drawn ladder trucks. By 1886 he was producing hook-and-ladder trucks.
The firm moved to Columbus, Ohio, in 1891 as Seagrave and Company. By 1902, it was building the highly successful Seagrave Spring Hoist Aerial Ladder and by 1907, the company was offering motor-driven fire apparatus powered by air-cooled engines of its own design.
The Seagrave fire truck in The Henry Ford’s collection (pictured at the top of this post) was purchased by the city of Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, in 1924. The truck is powered by a 6-cylinder, water-cooled Seagrave engine rated at 150 horsepower. Its dual ignition system duplicated key engine components, to ensure that the truck kept pumping water at 750 gallons per minute. In 1938, it was returned to the factory in Columbus for a complete overhaul and updating, including new fenders, wheels, and lights. The engine then faithfully served the Grosse Pointe Shores community for another 25 years. The gold-leaf decorations and the paintings on the hood side panels testify to the pride firefighters took in their truck.
Seagrave was acquired by FWD in 1963 and still operates as FWD Seagrave out of Clintonville, Wisconsin.
Austin W. Curtis (left) assisting George Washington Carver (right) during a lecture at Starr Commonwealth for Boys School, Albion, Michigan, 1939. /THF213740
Austin Wingate Curtis, Jr. (1911–2004) assisted George Washington Carver for nearly eight years (1935–1943). Biographers often measure Curtis by his association with Carver, the renowned Black scientist who spent his career at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Mark D. Hersey described Curtis as “Carver’s best-known assistant” in his 2011 biography of Carver, titled My Work Is That of Conservation (page 181).
Curtis might be Carver’s best-known assistant, but his association with Carver accounted for only eight of Curtis’s ninety-three years. After Carver’s death, Curtis remained at Tuskegee until 1944 when the board decided not to retain him. He relocated to Detroit, Michigan, launched a business that emphasized his association with Carver, raised a family, pursued various business ventures, ran for political office, and added to The Henry Ford’s collection documenting George W. Carver. The following provides a fuller picture of Austin Curtis.
The Early Years
Austin Wingate Curtis, Jr., was born July 28, 1911, in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Support for education ran deep in his family. His maternal great-grandfather, Samuel I. Cabell (1802–1865), owned the land that the state acquired to build the West Virginia Colored Institute (which became the West Virginia Collegiate Institute in the early 20th century and is now West Virginia State University). This was one of 17 Black land-grant institutions that the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1890 partially funded by 1920.
Austin Curtis’s mother, Dora Throne Brown (1875–1960), enrolled at West Virginia Colored Institute to train as a teacher. His father, Austin Wingate Curtis, Sr. (1872–1950), graduated in 1899 from the Black land-grant college in North Carolina (now North Carolina A&T State University at Greensboro). He began teaching agriculture at the West Virginia Institute that same year. He and Dora Brown married in 1905. They had two children, Alice Cabell Curtis (1908–2000) and Austin Wingate Curtis, Jr.
The Henry Ford has no photographs of the Curtis family, but the Library of Congress does. These provide a rare glimpse into rural Black culture during the period when more Black families owned land than at any other time in U.S. history (approximately 25 percent of Black farmers nationwide identified as landowners in the 1920 census).
A support system operated out of the Black land-grant colleges that linked farm families to information shared by experts trained in agriculture and domestic science. Tuskegee Institute’s moveable school drew a lot of attention from the media, and might be the best-known example of the ways that experts reached farmers across the countryside, but it was one approach among many.
Training often focused on livestock, especially pigs.
Austin Curtis, Sr., agricultural expert, instructs George Cox, a 13-year-old 4-H club member and son of a “renter” or tenant farmer, in pork nutrition near the West Virginia Collegiate Institute (near Charleston). / Photograph by Lewis W. Hine, on assignment for the National Child Labor Committee, October 10, 1921, from the Library of Congress.
Austin Curtis, Sr., conveyed the latest information about swine management to young people organized through local 4-H clubs. His son, Austin Curtis, Jr., participated in these efforts, raising a sow and tending her piglets as part of his pig project. This work helped stabilize farm incomes, a critical step in farm solvency for owners and tenant farm families. Bulletins like “How to Raise Pigs With Little Money” (1915), by George Washington Carver, facilitated this type of instruction.
Austin Curtis, Jr., 10 years old, participated in the pig clubs that his father, Director of Agriculture at West Virginia Collegiate Institute, helped organize. / Photograph by Lewis W. Hine, on assignment for the National Child Labor Committee, October 10, 1921, from the Library of Congress.
Austin Curtis, Jr., grew up immersed in Black land-grant networks, but alternatives existed. Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950), who held the position of Dean at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute between 1920 and 1922, proved that working in a West Virginia coal mine could lead to higher education. Woodson became the second Black man to earn a doctoral degree at Harvard University in 1912. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) in 1915 and launched the Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History) in 1916 to encourage Black and white scholars to study Black history. Woodson also launched Negro History Week (now Black History Month) in 1926 to facilitate exchange.
Curtis’s father took summer classes at Cornell University to remain current in livestock management. Ultimately, Curtis, Jr., selected Cornell University, too, and studied plant physiology there, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1932. After graduation he returned to West Virginia and worked in a greenhouse, for a landscaping business, and drove a cab, before accepting a teaching position at his father’s alma mater in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In 1935 Curtis, Jr., accepted a fellowship funded by the General Education Board to serve as George Washington Carver’s research assistant at Tuskegee Institute. He began work at Tuskegee in September 1935.
Tuskegee Institute football pennant, 1920–1950. / THF157606
As Austin Curtis, Jr., built his career as a chemist, he also pursued a personal life. While teaching at the A&T College in Greensboro, he met Belle Channing Tobias, head of biology at Bennett College for Women (now Bennett College). She was the daughter of Mary Pritchard and Channing Heggie Tobias, a minister, civil rights activist, and director of YMCA work among Black residents in New York City. The media reported on the Curtis-Tobias wedding as a society event held in St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University, New York City, on June 15, 1936.
Austin and Belle Curtis planned to honeymoon in West Virginia and then drive to Tuskegee Institute. Tragically, Belle fell ill from kidney disease during the honeymoon, and died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City on October 7, 1936, just four months after the wedding (“Death Claims Belle Tobias,” New York Amsterdam News, October 10, 1936).
Work with Carver consumed Curtis after his wife’s death. His loss coincided with the growth of chemurgy, a branch of chemistry dedicated to industrial uses of plant byproducts. Correspondence between Henry Ford and George W. Carver ensured that Carver (and Curtis) were well informed about industrialist Ford’s investment in chemurgy. This drew increased attention to their work.
Somehow Curtis found time to court Tuskegee Institute art teacher Oreta Adams (1905–1991). Her parents, King P. Adams (1870–1944) and Sarah Bibb Adams (1870–1944), lived in Lawrence, Kansas. Her father was a janitor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and a member of the Black Masons, an organization which supported leadership and service within Black neighborhoods. Curtis and Adams married at Adams’s parents’ home, 318 Locust Street in Lawrence, on August 3, 1938.
The Chicago Defender reported that the couple spent a week in Lawrence, then traveled through Illinois on their way back to Tuskegee, where they both resumed their posts. Their Illinois destination, in addition to Chicago, was the University of Illinois. This land-grant university was noted for soybean research. It had soybean experts on faculty and staff, and research in soybean genetics and in soybean uses ongoing. (“Kansas Girl Marries Aide to Dr. Carver,” Chicago Defender, August 13, 1938). Curtis also spent one summer working in the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village. He stayed with his uncle, Cornelius S. Curtis, who lived in Detroit (Curtis Oral Interview, July 23, 1979, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford, page 31–32).
Curtis: Carver’s Support System
Curtis provided a lot of support to Carver over the years, including driving him to public engagements.
Between the death of Belle and his marriage to Oreta, Curtis drove Carver to Dearborn, Michigan. They participated in the third Dearborn Conference on Industry held in 1937. Curtis presented information on Carver’s products, including peanut and sweet potato extracts, and on his own chemical work, including isolating pigments from wild plants and devising uses for oil extracted from magnolias (“Tuskegee Chemist in Address at Detroit,” Chicago Defender, June 5, 1937).
Curtis and Carver also toured Greenfield Village. Carver described it as “one of the greatest educational projects I have ever seen” in a thank-you letter to Henry Ford, written on Dearborn Inn letterhead. One highlight was their interaction with Francis Jehl, a research assistant to Thomas Edison and an advisor on the lab reconstruction in Greenfield Village. On the drive back to Tuskegee, they stopped to visit the Curtis family in Institute, West Virginia (“Tuskegee Chemist in Address at Detroit,” Chicago Defender, June 5, 1937).
Left to right: Austin W. Curtis, George Washington Carver, William Simonds, and Francis Jehl at Menlo Park Laboratory, Greenfield Village, 1937. / THF213745
One of the most important services Curtis provided involved promoting Carver’s work at every opportunity. Sometimes this took the form of public speaking. During the ceremony that recognized Carver’s 40 years of service to Tuskegee Institute, Curtis delivered a ten-minute overview of Carver’s life and work, broadcast on WJDX radio (“To Unveil Bust of Dr. Carver June 2,” Chicago Defender, May 22, 1937).
Curtis claimed to have started the Carver Museum (now part of the National Park Service’s Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site) at Tuskegee. Installed on the third floor of the Institute’s library building initially, it featured Carver’s paintings, needlework, extracts, and other plant byproducts (Curtis Oral Interview, page 27). Carver toured Henry Ford through the museum during Ford’s first of three visits to the Tuskegee campus in March 1938. The group inspected peanut oil, which Carver promoted as part of massage therapy for infantile paralysis (“Ford Visits Tuskegee; Talks on Science with Dr. Carver,” Chicago Defender, March 19, 1938).
The museum received more attention as the relationship between Carver and Ford grew. In March 1941, during Ford’s third trip to Tuskegee, the group dedicated a new George Washington Carver Museum. Curtis helped a Tuskegee student insert soy-based plastic composite material into concrete blocks as part of the ceremonies.
George Washington Carver, Clara Ford, and Henry Ford at dedication of George Washington Carver Museum, March 1941. / THF213788
Cultivating Carver’s legacy took Curtis and Carver on the road regularly. Trips often consisted of multiple speaking engagements with Curtis assisting. Audiences ranged from children to peers equally invested in chemurgy research. The photo at the top of this post shows one of those appearances.
Curtis urged Carver to leave a legacy. This took the form of an endowment to carry on Carver’s work. The media reported on formation of the George W. Carver Foundation during the 15th Negro History Week celebration, which occurred February 11–17, 1940 (“This Day in History,” Chicago Tribune, February 14, 1946).
A gentleman’s agreement of a sort apparently existed between Curtis and Carver. Curtis fully expected to continue Carver’s work, and he informed Henry Ford of that fact in a January 1943 letter. Tuskegee president F.D. Patterson had other ideas. The two disagreed over royalties specified in a publishing contract, and the Tuskegee board terminated Curtis in April 1944 (“Aide to Dr. Carver Eased Out at Tuskegee,” Atlanta Daily World, April 22, 1944). By that time, the book, George Washington Carver: An American Biography (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1943), was selling well, and Carver’s contract with the publisher had guaranteed Curtis a percentage of the royalties.
Curtis after Tuskegee
Curtis pivoted rapidly after his firing. He had to. His wife, Oreta, had just given birth to their first child, Kyra. He had relatives in Detroit, and his association with Henry Ford and awareness of chemurgy networks likely drew him to the city. He launched A.W. Curtis Laboratories to manufacture health care products and cooking oil derived from Carver’s research. The Curtises’ second child, daughter Synka, was born in Detroit in 1946.
Curtis Rubbing Oil, circa 1987, for fast relief of minor aches and pains of arthritis and rheumatism. Theback of the bottle describes best uses and warnings for children. The active ingredients are listed as "Peanut Oil, Methyl Salicylate.” / THF170781
Product marketing stressed Curtis’ connection to Carver. A. W. Curtis Laboratories held the grand opening of its sales office on National Carver Day, January 4, 1947 (he had died on January 5, 1943). The Detroit Tribune advertisement included a photograph of Carver and Curtis at work together in their Tuskegee laboratory and the oft-quoted phrase attributed to Carver: “through [Curtis] I see an Extension of my Work.” Curtis also arranged for Rackham Holt, author of George Washington Carver: An American Biography, to be available to sign books. To sweeten the prospects of a sales-office visit, Curtis offered three prizes for ticket holders, including one-half gallon of “our Peanut Cooking Oil” (January 4, 1947, page 8).
Austin Curtis, Jr., remained in touch with The Henry Ford, off and on, during his years in Detroit. He conducted an interview with Doug Bakken and Dave Click in 1979. Curtis visited Greenfield Village on August 17, 1982, to reminisce about the dedication ceremony that had occurred 40 years before.
Austin W. Curtis visiting the George Washington Carver Cabin in Greenfield Village, August 17, 1982. / THF287706
Curtis helped expand The Henry Ford’s collection of Carver items by offering, in 1997, a microscope and typewriter used by Carver at Tuskegee. By then, Curtis was also reducing his involvement in his business. The Reverend Bennie L. Thayer, chairman of the board for Natural Health Options, Inc. acquired A.W. Curtis Laboratories in 1999, and the next year, Dr. E. Faye Williams purchased the company and manufacturing rights. Curtis died in Culver City, California, on November 5, 2004.
Newspaper articles mentioned Curtis in coverage of Carver through the years they worked together (and beyond). Newspaper accounts of Curtis, Jr., provided leads to follow. These appeared in the Chicago Defender (Arnold De Mille, January 29, 1955) and the New York Amsterdam News (Julian Jingles, February 24, 1996, and Herb Boyd, October 9, 2014).
Ancestry.com confirmed genealogical details. Newspapers articles affirmed events (as referenced throughout the text).
Secondary sources documenting Curtis, Sr., and Jr. and West Virginia history include:
Askins, John. “Austin W. Curtis, Jr.: He Lives in Shadow of G. W. Carver,” Biography News (May/June 1975), pg. 511.
“Austin Wingate Curtis [1872-1950],” History of the American Negro. West Virginia Edition. A. B. Caldwell, editor. Vol. 7. Atlanta, Georgia: A. B. Caldwell Publishing Company, 1923.
Moon, Elaine Latzman. “Austin W. Curtis, [Jr.,] D.S.C.” in Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918–1967. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994, pp. 253-255.
Morgan, B.S., and J.F. Cork. “Beginning of West Virginia State University.” History of Education in West Virginia. Charleston: Moses W. Donnally, 1893, pp. 189-94.
Turner, Ruby M. “The Life and Times of Dr. Austin Wingate Curtis, Jr.,” Simpson College Archives, Indianola, Iowa.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Saige Jedele and Sophia Kloc shared comments that improved this blog.
When thinking about the celebrated figures in decorative arts history, one first thinks of individuals like Thomas Chippendale, Duncan Phyfe, and Gustav Stickley in furniture, Paul Revere and Tiffany and Company in silver, and Josiah Wedgwood in ceramics. All these prominent figures have something in common—they all are men. There are few celebrated female leaders in the decorative arts. This may be due to the scholarly focus on great men, to the detriment of women, until recent years.
Cover of Tried by Fire by Susan Frackelton, 1886. / THF627718
One of the most important and underrecognized women in decorative arts history was Susan Frackelton (1848–1932). She was a founder of the field of women’s china painting in the 1870s and 1880s. She was also a catalyst in transforming that pastime into a profession with the evolution of china painting into art pottery in the 1890s. Unlike her more famous peers, Susan Frackelton earned her living and supported her family on the proceeds of her publishing, teaching, and collaborations with like-minded artists.
Susan Frackelton faced many challenges in her personal and professional life. In many ways, she was a trailblazer for the modern, independent woman. Only in recent years have her contributions been recognized. Like other major figures in the decorative arts, including Thomas Chippendale, she is best remembered for a publication, her 1886 Tried by Fire. In the introduction, she states, “If the rough road that I have traveled to success can be made smoother for those who follow, or may hereafter pass me in the race, my little book will have achieved the end which is desired.”
Why Was China Painting a Means for Women’s Liberation?
Many factors fueled the growth of amateur china painting in late-19th-century America. As America became wealthier after the Civil War, women of the middle and upper middle classes gained more leisure time for personal pursuits. China painting became a socially acceptable pastime for women because it allowed them to create decorative objects for the home. Further, the influence of the English Aesthetic movement and later the Arts and Crafts movement advocated that the creation of art should be reflected in the home. By the 1870s and 1880s, wealthy women were freer to leave the confines of the home through organizations that they set up to create and exhibit their work.
What Is China Painting?
Pitcher, 1890–1910, decorated by an amateur china painter. / THF176880
This pitcher is a good example of the work of an amateur china painter. The artist would take a “blank”—a piece of fired, undecorated, white porcelain, in this case a pitcher made by the English firm Haviland—and paint over the glaze. These blanks could be purchased in multiples at specialty stores. One of the most prominent of these was the Detroit-based L.B. King China Store. It was founded in 1849 and closed during the Great Depression, about 1932. According to a 1913 advertisement, the retailer sold hotel china, fine china dinnerware, cut glass, table glassware, lamps, shades, art pottery, china blanks, and artists materials. Elbert Hubbard, founder and proprietor of the Roycrofters, a reformist community of craft workers and artists that formed part of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote enthusiastically about the products of the L.B King China Store: “The store is not only a store—it is an exposition, a school if you please, where the finest displays of hand and brain in the way of ceramics are shown.” A woman seeking to learn about china painting could literally walk into the L.B. King Store and walk out with paints, blanks, and a manual like Frackelton’s Tried by Fire and start painting her own china.
The pitcher above is part of a large group of serving pieces in our collection. Also in our collections is a full set of china decorated by a young woman and her friends who learned china painting at what is now Michigan State University. They decorated the dinnerware service in preparation for the young woman’s wedding in 1911. According to family history, the young woman purchased the blanks at the L.B. King Store.
How Did China Painting Evolve in the Late 19th Century?
During the 1870s, Cincinnati was the center of American china painting. The movement was led by two wealthy women, Maria Longworth Nichols (1849–1932), who later founded the Rookwood Pottery, and her rival, Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939). Both studied with European male ceramic artists who had made their way to Cincinnati. Both evolved from amateur status into extraordinary artists, who moved from painting over the glaze to learning how to throw and fire their own vessels, create designs, and formulate glazes for their vessels. This all occurred during the late 1870s, following a display of ceramic art at the Women’s Pavilion of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Both sought to outdo each other in the formulations of glazes. It is generally believed McLaughlin was the first to learn the technique of underglaze decoration, although Nichols later claimed that she was the first to do so. Nichols’ most important achievement was in creating the Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati in 1880. It was essentially the first commercial art pottery company in America, and it led the way in the development of new techniques that were widely imitated by other firms. Rookwood and its competitors began to hire women to decorate ceramics, opening a new livelihood for women less well off than Nichols and McLaughlin.
Vase, 1917, decorated by Lenore Asbury at the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176918
Tile, 1910–1920, made by the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176941
Essentially, through the pastime of china painting, a new industry, art pottery, came into being by 1900. Under the influence of popular magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal and House Beautiful, Americans eagerly acquired art pottery. In fact, tastemakers like the young architect Frank Lloyd Wright filled his houses with art pottery. He considered it very much part of his total aesthetic. Through the first three decades of the 20th century, art pottery was considered a must in any well-furnished American home. It only fell out of fashion in the 1930s, when the Great Depression drastically altered lifestyles.
How Does Susan Frackelton’s Story Fit into All of This?
Susan Stuart Goodrich Frackelton was a contemporary of both Maria Longworth Nichols and Mary Louise McLaughlin, born in 1848 like Maria Longworth Nichols, and just a year older than Mary Louise McLaughlin. Unlike either of these women, she came from a modest background. Her father was a brick maker in Milwaukee, and she was raised in a middle-class environment. Susan began her artistic career studying painting with the pioneer Wisconsin artist Henry Vianden. In 1869, she married Richard Frackelton and eventually raised three sons and a daughter.
Richard’s business was importing English ceramics and glass and was relatively successful. Within a few years, however, the business began a sharp decline and Susan stepped in to help. She later said that she learned about American taste in ceramics and business while working with her husband. Concurrently, she began to experiment with china painting, applying her experience in painting with Henry Vianden. She was essentially self-taught, unlike her contemporaries in Cincinnati. Through publications, she was aware of what was going on in the field. She was also aware of the innovations of Mary Louise McLaughlin in glazes, and by the late 1870s was experimenting in underglaze painting herself.
Frackelton’s contributions to china painting began in 1877, when she opened Frackelton’s Decorating Works in Milwaukee. She trained young women in the art of china painting. By 1882 she opened a related business called Mrs. Frackelton’s Keramic Studio for Under and Overglaze, where she sold her own work, wares made by her students, commercial china, and glassware, as well as painting supplies. Like Detroit’s L.B. King store, she created a one-stop shop for young women interested in exploring china painting and, later, art pottery.
Frackelton made a national name for herself in 1886 with the publication of Tried by Fire. It differed from other manuals for china painters in that it was written by a teacher for beginning students. Frackelton’s conversational style and advice on not expecting too much too soon appealed to readers and the book became a best seller, reprinted in two revised editions in 1892 and 1895. As a teacher, Frackelton had no equal in the world of art pottery. She advocated that both wealthy and poor women could enjoy the art of china painting: “Beauty is the birthright of the poor as well as the rich, and he lives best who most enjoys it.”
Pitcher, 1890–1910, decorated by an amateur china painter. Note that the botanical decoration on this pitcher is similar to the Tried by Fire color plates. / THF176879
Another major innovation was the development of a patented gas-fired kiln, first offered in the advertising section of Tried by Fire. By 1888 she was granted a second patent for a new and improved version.
Advertising section of Tried by Fire showing Frackelton’s portable gas kiln. / THF627793
By 1890 Frackelton was a well-known figure and was noted for displaying her work in international exhibits. In 1893 she won eight awards for her work in a competition held at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition. Additionally, she became renowned for her work in a variety of ceramic media, especially for her blue and white salt-glazed stoneware. She also worked to create new and easier-to-use paints for decoration. She went so far as to organize the National League of Mineral Painters in 1892, an organization “aimed to foster a national school of ceramic art and provide a link between china painters throughout the country.”
By the late 1890s, Frackelton’s reputation was secure, as were her finances. In 1897 she divorced Richard Frackelton and moved to Chicago and spent much of her time lecturing and promoting ceramic art. She collaborated with several ceramic artists, including the now famous George Ohr, a unique artist who called himself “the mad potter of Biloxi.” Together, they created several highly unusual pieces, now in the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
In her later years, Frackelton moved away from working in ceramics, preferring to return to painting and working as an illuminator of manuscripts. However, Frackelton’s promotion of the ceramic arts made her one of the most admired female artists in America in the first decade of the 20th century. Susan Frackelton was a remarkable figure in American ceramics, justifiably earning her status as one of the prominent figures in the decorative arts and certainly in broadening the role of women in American society.
Charles Sableis Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
American auto racing traditionally has been a white, male activity. In the early 20th century, people of color were outright banned from participating in several series. After those bans were lifted, Black drivers like Wendell Scott still faced discrimination from some fans and officials, and even from some of their fellow competitors.
Several racers fought intolerance by forming their own sanctioning bodies and sponsoring their own contests. Others worked within the existing system. They created associations to support marginalized drivers and teams, and to recognize the achievements of groundbreaking Black racers who had come before. Few people did as much for the cause as Leonard W. Miller, racing team owner and co-founder of the Black American Racers Association.
Leonard Miller became a lifelong gearhead after working on his parents’ 1937 Ford. / THF91674
Leonard Miller was born in 1934 and raised in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He traced his love of automobiles to his parents’ 1937 Ford. As a boy, Miller devoted countless hours to hot rodding the car—tweaking the engine in pursuit of a few more horsepower and a little more speed. His considerable mechanical skills grew even more in the late 1950s when he served in an automotive support company in the U.S. Army.
Miller’s interest in automobiles remained a lifelong passion. As a co-owner of Vanguard Racing, he entered a car in the 1972 Indianapolis 500. White driver John Mahler piloted the #31 car for the Vanguard team, but a broken piston forced him out of the race after 99 laps. Regardless of the results, Miller made history that day—Vanguard was the first Black-owned team to compete in the Indy 500. (It would be another 19 years before Willy T. Ribbs became the first Black driver to race in the 500.)
In 1973 Miller formed a new team, Black American Racers (BAR), with headquarters in New Jersey near Miller’s consulting firm. Over the next few years, and with African American drivers Benny Scott and Tommy Thompson added to the team, BAR raced in Formula 5000 and Formula Super Vee competitions. Miller obtained a corporate sponsorship and began planning a return to the Indianapolis 500 with Black American Racers.
Wendell Scott co-founded the Black American Racers Association with Leonard Miller. As the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race, Scott knew the hardships that Miller fought. / THF147632
At the same time, Leonard W. Miller championed Black racers everywhere. Together with Ron Hines, Wendell Scott, and Malcolm Durham, Miller formed the Black American Racers Association (BARA) in 1973. BARA provided support and recognition for African American drivers, mechanics, and car owners in all forms of auto racing. The organization had nearly 5,000 members at its peak. BARA celebrated Black racing history too, and it published a review of past achievements in its Black American Racers Association Yearbook in 1974. In recognition of Miller’s efforts and achievements, he was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976—along with BAR driver Benny Scott.
Just when Miller’s dream for a return to Indy seemed within reach, his sponsor ended its racing activities after the 1975 season. Miller was unable to attract new sponsorship dollars. Then in 1978, Tommy Thompson died from injuries he suffered in a crash at Trenton International Speedway. Thompson’s death left Miller and the Black American Racers Association heartbroken, and the organization never really recovered. BARA disbanded in 1981.
Current racers like Bubba Wallace continue Leonard Miller’s work to diversify the sport. / THF146999
As early as 1920, Chesapeake Bay’s seemingly limitless oyster population had been diminished by up to one-third, both by overharvesting and by habitat destruction caused by siltation and dredging. By 2001, the harmful effects of pollution and disease had taken their toll, and the bay’s native Virginica oysters dwindled to less than 1% of their historic numbers. The bay had all but collapsed.
It was under these conditions that cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton decided to revitalize their family’s historic oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Co. Founded in 1899 by their great-grandfather, James Croxton, on Virginia’s Rappahannock River, the company wasn’t much more than mud by the time the cousins took over the leases in 2001. But in that rich tideland, the cousins saw an opportunity to salvage a family legacy and renew their community.
Cousins Travis (left) and Ryan Croxton have transformed their great-grandfather’s oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Co., into a model of sustainability that is practicing food production methods that are healthier for the consumer, the Chesapeake Bay they call home and the native oyster they are 100% committed to preserving. / Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Because they were starting from the mud up, the cousins were able to develop sustainable new methods that not only produce the highest-quality shellfish but also contribute to the health of the bay and repopulation of its aquatic life.
“Aquacultured oysters are a win-win for everybody—the farmer, the waters, the consumer that gets a better product,” said Travis Croxton, whose off-bottom method of growing oysters in wire cages not only protects the oysters but also allows them to reproduce naturally—a vital factor in restoring native oyster populations. And because oysters feed on excess nutrients in the water, their presence also helps keep the bay clean, as well as helping native grasses and other sea creatures to proliferate.
The number of oysters harvested in the Chesapeake Bay has grown wildly in the last two decades.
Perhaps the most satisfying thing for the cousins has been the ability to provide an opportunity to work, grow, and live in what has been a depressed rural economy. “Too often, rural communities such as ours lose promising talent as people look elsewhere due to lack of opportunity,” said Croxton. “We’re proud that our employees have a reason to stay.”
Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
By 2004, Rappahannock had developed a thriving wholesale business. Now with their tasting room, Merroir, four stand-alone oyster bars from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, California, and a restaurant, Rappahannock, in Richmond, Virginia, the cousins are able to share their oysters and their dedication to “good people doing great things.”
When we checked in during spring 2020, owner Travis Croxton didn’t deny that it had been tough for Rappahannock Oyster since the COVID-19 pandemic had hit. He and cousin Ryan Croxton had to furlough hundreds of employees at their oyster company and restaurants. But, as Travis Croxton said, “You have to perform a hard pivot and await what the future may hold.” Rappahannock quickly set up an employee relief fund for those in need and shifted their restaurants to solely curbside pickup/takeout. On the oyster company side, they had to make additional hard pivots, focusing mostly on internet sales (which Travis Croxton said have greatly increased) and designing completely new business models, which included working with vineyards and breweries to sell 25-count bags of their oysters on consignment on weekends.
In 1899, James Croxton, great-grandfather of Travis and Ryan Croxton, laid claim to two acres of Rappahannock River bottom for the purpose of growing oysters. / Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Despite these challenges, by trying to sustain nature, not tame it, the Croxtons have carried on their great-grandfather’s legacy, this time on a foundation of sustainability.
Great Lakes Brewing Co. has been around for more than 30 years, brewing award-winning craft beer in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. Its founders, brothers Daniel and Patrick Conway, focused on sustainability from the start by renovating the 19th-century buildings that house their brewery and brewpub.
By the early 2000s, they’d also decided they wanted to do more for their community, the environment, and the health and well-being of their workers. “We view business as a force for good in our communities,” said Daniel Conway. “Our role is essentially one of stewardship.”
A Brewing Good community clean-up effort by Great Lakes Brewing Co. / Photo courtesy Great Lakes Brewing Co.
The brothers have developed a triple bottom line business model that addresses profit, people, and planet, with initiatives that include water stewardship, renewable and clean energy, and inclusive economic growth.
An early adopter in the local food movement, the company established its own farm, Pint Size Farm, in collaboration with Hale Farm and Village in 2008 to supply its brewpub, and in 2010 co-founded Ohio City Farm, one of the largest urban farms in the United States (learn more about these two farms here). The solar panels on their brewery offset 13 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually—a widget on their website shows how much beer is brewed using solar energy. And by inviting employees to become owners through an employee stock program, the company allows everyone a stake in its sustainability.
Ohio City Farm, co-founded by Great Lakes Brewing Co. / Photo courtesy Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Great Lakes’ Brewing Good giving program also commits a percentage of company sales back to the community through initiatives that preserve history, advocate environmentalism, and focus on critical needs in the local area. The company’s nonprofit Burning River Foundation, which annually hosts the Great Lakes Burning River Fest, strives to maintain and celebrate the vitality of the region’s freshwater resources. “Burning River,” also the name of a Great Lakes Brewing Co. pale ale, references a particular incident: the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, in which an oil slick on the heavily polluted river caught fire and caused damage in the six figures. The incident sparked further outrage and interest in environmentalism, driving significant policy changes for the Cleveland area and beyond.
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced Great Lakes Brewing Co. to close its brewpub temporarily, beer continued to be brewed and to flow through the local distribution footprint and to-go service. Beers such as the 107 IPA and Siren Shores Passion Fruit Saison, the first employee team recipe ever created on Great Lakes Brewing’s Small Batch Pilot System, debuted in spring 2020. Social media channels continued to keep the community in the know on what Great Lakes was up to, from its Hop College going online and posting video tutorials and sessions on Facebook, to owner Daniel Conway’s heartfelt request to join him in supporting the Race for Relief fundraiser benefiting the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Cleveland hunger centers.
Statistics on Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s sustainability efforts as of mid-2020.
The Conway brothers have long had an understanding of how each part of their business ecosystem feeds into the next. By continuing to innovate new strategies of sustainability, they’ve led by example and helped to revive both an industry and their community.
Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker. / Photo by Thomas S. England/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
Sometimes serious work leads to serious play—with seriously successful results. Did you know that the Super Soaker® water gun was an accidental invention by NASA rocket scientist Lonnie Johnson?
Johnson was passionate about inventing not only at his day job as an engineer working with hundreds of colleagues, but also working on his own inventions in his spare time. In 1982, Johnson was in his home workshop developing an environmentally friendly cooling system. To test his idea of using circulating water and air pressure, instead of the chemical Freon, Johnson connected a high-pressure nozzle to his bathroom faucet, aimed the nozzle, turned it on, and then blasted a powerful stream of water into the bathtub. He quickly recognized its potential as a toy—a pressurized water gun that didn’t require batteries and was safe enough for kids to play with.
Johnson quickly produced a prototype using Plexiglas, PVC pipe, a two-liter soda bottle and other materials. Over the next few years, he continued to make improvements. In 1989, Johnson licensed his design for the Super Soaker® to Larami. The company launched the toy in 1990.
Within two years, the Super Soaker® generated over $200 million in sales, becoming the top-selling toy in the United States. Improved versions of the Super Soaker® debuted during the following years. By 2016, Super Soaker sales were approximately $1 billion.
Johnson didn’t just take his royalty money and retire. It was a means to achieving his real goal—to establish his own research company, Johnson Research & Development Co. Today, Johnson has more than 100 patents and is currently developing innovative technology to efficiently convert solar energy into electricity with world-changing results.
Johnson’s Super Soaker®, familiar to millions of kids, can inspire new generations of inventors and entrepreneurs. The message? Creative play can lead to great achievements.
Karl Koehler printed, folded, scored, and snipped paper to create three-dimensional Christmas cards and decorations. His post–World War Two pop-up designs added an unexpected dimension to Christmas holiday greetings at a time when most American card companies produced flat, center-folded Christmas cards. Koehler's paper engineering followed in a line of other creative pop-up designs—only he applied it to Christmas cards. Eventually, others would come to see the joy in three-dimensional Christmas cards.
Karl Koehler is pictured in this advertisement piece from the early 1950s. / THF621157
Karl Koehler (1913–2000) was born in Hennepin County, Minnesota. When Koehler was fourteen, his father died, and the family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to live with his uncle. Koehler trained at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, and by 1940 was employed at the Pictograph Corporation in New York City. Working under Rudolf Modley, Koehler designed pictorial symbols used in business, corporate, and government publications to communicate statistical data.
During the Second World War, Koehler directed artwork for military training manuals, and in 1942, co-created two award-winning posters for the National War Poster Competition. He returned to Pennsylvania after the war and settled in Coopersburg. There he began designing Christmas cards and holiday decorations.
In 1950, Koehler dreamed up a Christmas tree that people could construct from the flat pages of the December 25th issue of Life magazine—a holiday surprise for the whole family. / THF624861
Koehler's whimsical three-dimensional, hand-assembled decorations and cards delighted children and adults alike. He made traditional folded holiday greeting cards for businesses and corporations, but none rivaled the depth-filled creations Koehler handcrafted in his studio. He trademarked the name "Mantelpiece"—where better to display pop-up Christmas greetings?—and sold his holiday creations in high-end department stores and museums. His list of clients included Nelson Rockefeller, Greer Garson, and Benson Ford. Koehler's artwork was fresh, colorful, and bright, incorporating a bit of fantasy and fun into the traditional symbols of the seasons. And his cards literally added an unexpected dimension to holiday greetings. One European design journal stated, "Karl Koehler has … swept clean the dusty structure of greeting card design."
Christmas cards, as we know them today, first appeared in England in the early 1840s. Historians note that the first card showed a happy scene of holiday feasting flanked by images depicting acts of charity. The custom of sending Christmas cards, though not initially widespread, grew slowly and by 1850, Americans had joined the holiday tradition. By the late 1800s, more and more Americans began giving inexpensive and colorful cards—made possible by low-cost postage and new printing technologies—to friends, family, and acquaintances.
Many valentines in the 19th and early-20th centuries contained layers of embossed paper or other materials. Others had a pop-up element that made the valentine three-dimensional. / THF99091, THF166622, and THF313817
While Karl Koehler focused on crafting high-end Christmas cards, he appears to have drawn much of his card design and construction from late-19th- and early-20th-century valentines. Most 19th-century Christmas cards tended to be relatively flat and remained so well into the 20th century. Valentines, however, had greater dimensionality. English and American manufacturers produced elaborate valentines constructed of highly embossed paper, layered with colorful inserts and, more importantly, pop-up elements that made the valentines three-dimensional. One clue that valentines played a role in Koehler's Christmas card production is a listing from the estate auction advertisement after his death in 2000: "100 old pop-up/pull-out mechanical Valentines."
Other influences, such as pop-up and movable books, may have played a part in Koehler's designs. Movable and pop-up books usually included flaps, revolving discs (volvelles), pull tabs, and other mechanical devices that made elements on the pages move. By the late 1800s, publishers and designers produced these books—some with elaborate works hidden between the pages—mainly for children. New York-based McLoughlin Brothers began producing movable books in the late-19th century in the United States—one of the first American companies to do so. One of McLoughlin's earliest efforts contained colorful illustrations that folded or popped out into three-dimensional displays. While there is no documented connection with these types of books, several of Koehler's Christmas cards created a three-dimensional stage-like quality reminiscent of movable or pop-up books.
In the late 1950s, Koehler applied for a patent for a collapsible and expandable pyramid structure design used for "greeting cards, calendars, containers, advertising novelties, displays, geometric educational devices, etc." But a few years later, in November 1961, the last printed mention of his Christmas card production appeared. That same year, Koehler traveled to Ireland to help create an industrial design course at that country's National School of Art. He made other trips to Europe and later traveled to Brazil and wrote of his excursions. Existing documentation suggests that Koehler did not create any new three-dimensional holiday cards during the last decades of the 20th century.
Today, card companies such as Graphics3, LovePop, Hallmark, and others create an array of elaborate holiday pop-up cards meant to delight both giver and recipient. Few have probably ever heard of Karl Koehler, but they would appreciate his designs and revel in his amusing creations.
Side Chair, Created by Lambert Hitchcock, 1825-1835. / THF81928
Many people believe that mass production started with Henry Ford and the Model T. But the ideas that led to this breakthrough were already being put into practice back in the early 1800s, in mills and manufactories dotting the countryside across New England. It was here that Lambert Hitchcock applied early mass production techniques to turn out chairs by the thousands—uniform, durable, attractive, affordable, and, for a time, wildly popular.
Julia Barton Hunting of Pine Plains, New York, sat on a Hitchcock chair while posing for this portrait by Ammi Phillips, about 1830. / THF95303
Invention was in the air in New England during the early 1800s. Burgeoning industries like firearms, clocks, and textiles were experimenting both with new machinery—to increase production and make up for labor shortages—and with new factory arrangements that integrated materials and activities under one roof.
Furniture making had a long tradition of handcraftsmanship, and manufacturers varied in their adoption of machine production over generations-old hand processes. Hand-crafted pieces were made to order, resulting in low production and fairly high costs. With water- or steam-powered machines to rough out the pieces, furniture makers could turn out more products at lower costs to sell to a wider market. Neither of these processes was right or wrong—the choice was essentially a business decision.
Lambert Hitchcock chose machine- over hand-production, inspired by the bustling firearms and clock industries in his home state of Connecticut. He had started out learning the craft of fine furniture-making. But Hitchcock dreamed of manufacturing affordable furniture, using uniform parts that were quickly and cheaply made by machine, and easy to assemble.
In 1818, Hitchcock chose a site in northwestern Connecticut, where two fast-moving rivers came together. Here, using the rivers’ power to operate his machinery, Hitchcock produced a line of chairs that was so affordable he basically created a brand-new market. Before long, Hitchcock’s chair factory—in the newly named village of Hitchcocks-ville—was turning out some 15,000 chairs per year.
The price, ranging from 45 cents to $1.75 (about $10.15 to $39.40 today), certainly appealed to people. Also appealing was the idea that machines could be harnessed to produce sturdy, functional chairs that everyone could enjoy. But Hitchcock did not ignore aesthetics. His characteristic stenciling across the back chair rails served as an attractive substitute for the hand-carving on more expensive custom-made chairs.
In 1825, Hitchcock went one step further. He erected a three-story factory, arranged into sections, in which specific tools and materials were associated with logical steps in the assembly process. The ground floor held areas for rough-cutting work, like sawing, turning, and planing. On the second floor, the chair parts were bonded together with glue, then dried in a kiln until their joints were firm. On the third floor, the chairs were painted and decorated, using pre-cut stencils and pre-arranged patterns. Each of these stencils, designed to create a different part of the overall composition, was positioned on the chair back, then carefully rubbed with bronze powders to achieve the special tone and shading.
Professional male stencilers probably cut the stencils and lent their expertise, but women did much of the actual stenciling at Hitchcock’s factory. Many had learned this skill as young women at female academies popular in New England at the time. There they practiced the art of theorem painting—that is, creating stylized pictures of fruits and flowers that similarly used pre-cut stencils, metallic powders, and prearranged patterns.
An example of a theorem painting, created in 1835 by Caroline Bennett, a young woman who would have attended a female academy. / THF119757
Women also worked as seat rushers and caners, while children often did the painting and striping. At its peak of production, in the late 1820s and early 1830s, Hitchcock employed over 100 workers.
Lambert Hitchcock was innovative in his manufacturing techniques: integrated work processes, division of labor, and application of fast and inexpensive, yet still attractive, decorative techniques. Hitchcock was also an assertive salesman, opening retail stores in Hitchcocks-ville and Hartford (the state capital), selling chairs wholesale to dealers and store owners, and distributing his chairs far and wide through the network of itinerant Yankee peddlers.
Unfortunately, Lambert Hitchcock also made some costly mistakes. He located his factory in a very isolated area, with deplorable roads to Hartford and other markets. In 1844, Hitchcock moved his factory to a town called Unionville, banking on the construction of a new canal. But, alas, the canal construction was halted, and a new railroad bypassed the town. For all his tremendous contributions, Hitchcock died at the age of 57 with few assets to his name.
But Hitchcock’s name and his chairs lived on. The chairs were so popular during their heyday that many competitors tried to imitate both their aesthetics and production techniques. To this day, chairs of this general style are referred to as Hitchcock (or Hitchcock-type) chairs. Hitchcock chairs were also painstakingly reproduced by succeeding generations of artisans, a tribute to the genius and foresight of Lambert Hitchcock, a true American innovator.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran in March 2008 as part of our Pic of the Month series.
Henry Ford’s first official Ford Motor Company portrait, 1904. / THF97952
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. But more than any other single individual, he was responsible for transforming the automobile from an invention of unknown utility into an innovation that profoundly shaped the 20th century and continues to affect the 21st.
Innovators change things. They take new ideas—sometimes their own, sometimes other people’s—and develop and promote those ideas until they become an accepted part of daily life. Innovation requires self-confidence, a taste for taking risks, leadership ability, and a vision of what the future should be. Henry Ford had all these characteristics, but it took him many years to develop all of them fully.
Portrait of the Innovator as a Young Man
Ford’s beginnings were perfectly ordinary. He was born on his father’s farm in what is now Dearborn, Michigan, on July 30, 1863. At this time, most Americans were born on farms, and most looked forward to being farmers themselves. Early on, Ford demonstrated some of the characteristics that would make him successful. In his family, he became infamous for taking apart his siblings’ toys as well as his own. He organized other boys to build rudimentary waterwheels and steam engines. He learned about full-size steam engines by becoming acquainted with the engines’ operators and pestering them with questions. He taught himself to fix watches and used the watches themselves as textbooks to learn the basics of machine design. Thus, at an early age, Ford demonstrated curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, the capacity for leadership, and a preference for learning by trial and error. These characteristics would become the foundation of his whole career.
Artist Irving Bacon depicted Henry Ford in his first workshop, along with friends, in this 1938 painting. / THF152920
Ford could simply have followed in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. But young Henry was fascinated by machines and was willing to take risks to pursue that fascination. In 1879, he left the farm to become an apprentice at a machine shop in Detroit. Over the next few years, he held jobs at several places, sometimes moving when he thought he could learn more somewhere else. He returned home in 1882 but did little farming. Instead, he operated and serviced portable steam engines used by farmers, occasionally worked in factories in Detroit, and cut and sold timber from 40 acres of his father’s land.
By now, Ford was demonstrating another characteristic—a preference for working on his own rather than for somebody else. In 1888, Ford married Clara Bryant, and in 1891 they moved to Detroit. Ford had taken a job as night engineer for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company—another risk on his part, because he did not know a great deal about electricity at this point. He took the job in part as an opportunity to learn.
Henry Ford (third from left, in white coat) with other employees at Edison Illuminating Company Plant, November 1895. / THF244633
Early Automotive Experiments: Failure and Then Success
Henry was a skilled student, and by 1896 had risen to chief engineer of the Illuminating Company. But he had other interests. He became one of the scores of other people working in barns and small shops trying to make horseless carriages. Ford read about these other efforts in magazines, copying some of the ideas and adding some of his own, and convinced a small group of friends and colleagues to help him. This resulted in his first primitive automobile, the Quadricycle, completed in 1896. A second, more sophisticated car followed in 1898.
Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle Runabout, the first car he built. / THF90760
Ford now demonstrated one of his most important characteristics—the ability to articulate a vision and convince other people to sign on and help him achieve that vision. He convinced a group of businessmen to back him in the biggest risk of his life—starting a company to make horseless carriages. But Ford knew nothing about running a business, and learning by doing often involves failure. The new company failed, as did a second.
To revive his fortunes, Ford took bigger risks, building and even driving a pair of racing cars. The success of these cars attracted additional financial backers, and on June 16, 1903, just before his 40th birthday, Henry incorporated his third automobile venture, the Ford Motor Company.
The early history of Ford Motor Company illustrates another of Henry Ford’s most valuable traits—his ability to identify and attract outstanding talent. He hired a core of young, highly competent people who would stay with him for years and make Ford Motor Company into one of the world’s great industrial enterprises.
Print of Norman Rockwell's painting, "Henry Ford in First Model A on Detroit Street." / THF288551
The new company’s first car was called the Model A, and a variety of improved models followed. In 1906, Ford’s 4-cylinder, $600 Model N became the best-selling car in the country. But by this time, Ford had a vision of an even better, cheaper “motorcar for the great multitude.” Working with a small group of employees, he came up with the Model T, introduced on October 1, 1908.
The Automobile: A Solution in Search of a Problem
As hard as it is for us to believe, in 1908 there was still much debate about exactly what automobiles were good for. We may see them as a necessary part of daily life, but the situation in 1908 was very different. Americans had arranged their world to accommodate the limits of the transportation devices available to them. People in cities got where they wanted to go by using electric street cars, horse-drawn cabs, bicycles, and shoe leather because all the places they wanted to go were located within reach of those transportation modes.
This Boston street scene, circa 1908, shows pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages on the road—but no cars. / THF203438
Most of the commercial traffic in cities still moved in horse-drawn vehicles. Rural Americans simply accepted the limited travel radius of horse- or mule-drawn vehicles. For long distances, Americans used our extensive, well-developed railroad network. People did not need automobiles to conduct their daily activities. Rather, the people who bought cars used them as a new means of recreation. They drove them on joyrides into the countryside. The recreational aspect of these early cars was so important that people of the time divided motor vehicles into two large categories: commercial vehicles, like trucks and taxicabs, and pleasure vehicles, like private automobiles. The term “passenger cars” was still years away. The automobile was an amazing invention, but it was essentially an expensive toy, a plaything for the rich. It was not yet a true innovation.
Henry Ford had a wider vision for the automobile. He summed it up in a statement that appeared in 1913 in the company magazine, Ford Times:
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
This 1924 Ford ad, part of a series, echoes the vision expressed 11 years earlier by Henry Ford: “Back of all of the activities of the Ford Motor Company is this Universal idea—a wholehearted belief that riding on the people’s highway should be in easy reach of all the people.” / THF95501
It was this vision that moved Henry Ford from inventor and businessman to innovator. To achieve his vision, Ford drew on all the qualities he had been developing since childhood: curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, leadership, a preference for learning by trial and error, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to identify and attract talented people.
One Innovation Leads to Another
Ford himself guided a design team that created a car that pushed technical boundaries. The Model T’s one-piece engine block and removable cylinder head were unusual in 1908 but would eventually become standard on all cars. The Ford’s flexible suspension system was specifically designed to handle the dreadful roads that were then typical in the United States. The designers utilized vanadium alloy steel that was stronger for its weight than standard carbon steel. The Model T was lighter than its competitors, allowing its 20-horsepower engine to give it performance equal to that of more expensive cars.
1908 advertisement for the 1909 Ford Model T. In advertisements, Ford Motor Company emphasized key technological features and the low prices of their Model Ts. Ford's usage of vanadium steel enabled the company to make a lighter, sturdier, and more reliable vehicle than other early competitors. / THF122987
The new Ford car proved to be so popular that Henry could easily sell all he could make, but he wanted to be able to make all he could sell. So Ford and his engineers began a relentless drive both to raise the rate at which Model Ts could be produced and to lower the cost of production.
In 1910, the company moved into a huge new factory in Highland Park, a city just north of Detroit. Borrowing ideas from watchmakers, clockmakers, gunmakers, sewing machine makers, and meat processors, Ford Motor Company had, by 1913, developed a moving assembly line for automobiles. But Ford did not limit himself to technical improvements.
When his workforce objected to the relentless, repetitive work that the line entailed, Ford responded with perhaps his boldest idea ever—he doubled wages to $5 per day. With that one move, he stabilized his workforce and gave it the ability to buy the very cars it made. He hired a brilliant accountant named Norval Hawkins as his sales manager. Hawkins created a sales organization and advertising campaign that fueled potential customers’ appetites for Fords. Model T sales rose steadily while the selling price dropped. By 1921, half the cars in America were Model Ts, and a new one could be had for as little as $415.
Norval Hawkins headed the sales department at Ford Motor Company for 12 years, introducing innovative advertising techniques and increasing Ford’s annual sales from 14,877 vehicles in 1907 to 946,155 in 1919. / THF145969
Through these efforts, Ford turned the automobile from an invention bought by the rich into a true innovation available to a wide audience. By the 1920s, largely as a result of the Model T’s success, the term “pleasure car” was fading away, replaced by “passenger car.”
The assembly line techniques pioneered at Highland Park spread throughout the auto industry and into other manufacturing industries as well. The high-wage, low-skill jobs pioneered at Highland Park also spread throughout the manufacturing sector. Advertising themes pioneered by Ford Motor Company are still being used today. Ford’s curiosity, leadership, mechanical ability, willingness to take risks, ability to attract talented people, and vision produced innovations in transportation, manufacturing, labor relations, and advertising.
What We Have Here Is a Failure to Innovate
Henry Ford was slow to admit that customers no longer wanted the Model T. However, in 1927, he finally acknowledged that shift, and Henry Ford and his son, Edsel Ford, drove this last Model T—number 15,000,000—off the assembly line at Highland Park. / THF135450
Henry Ford’s great success did not necessarily bring with it great wisdom. In fact, his very success may have blinded him as he looked to the future. The Model T was so successful that he saw no need to significantly change or improve it. He did authorize many detail changes that resulted in lower cost or improved reliability, but there was never any fundamental change to the design he had laid down in 1907.
He was slow to adopt innovations that came from other carmakers, like electric starters, hydraulic brakes, windshield wipers, and more luxurious interiors. He seemed not to realize that the consumer appetites he had encouraged and fulfilled would continue to grow. He seemed not to want to acknowledge that once he started his company down the road of innovation, it would have to keep innovating or else fall behind companies that did innovate. He ignored the growing popularity of slightly more expensive but more stylish and comfortable cars, like the Chevrolet, and would not listen to Ford executives who believed it was time for a new model.
But Model T sales were beginning to slip by 1923, and by the late 1920s, even Henry Ford could no longer ignore the declining sales figures. In 1927, he reluctantly shut down the Model T assembly lines and began the design of an all-new car. It appeared in December 1927 and was such a departure from the old Ford that the company went back to the beginning of the alphabet for a name—it was called the Model A.
Edsel and Henry Ford introduce the new Model A at the Ford Industrial Exposition in New York in January 1928. Edsel had worked to convince his father to replace the outmoded Model T with something new. / THF91597
One area where Ford did keep innovating was in actual car production. In 1917, he began construction of a vast new plant on the banks of the Rouge River southwest of Detroit. This plant would give Ford Motor Company complete control over nearly all aspects of the production process. Raw materials from Ford mines would arrive on Ford boats, and would be converted into iron and steel, which were transformed into engines, transmissions, frames, and bodies. Glass and tires would be made onsite as well, and all of this would be assembled into completed cars. Assembly of the new Model A was transferred to the Rouge. Eventually the plant would employ 100,000 people and generate many innovations in auto manufacturing.
But improvements in manufacturing were not enough to make up for the fact that Henry Ford was no longer a leader in automotive design. The Model A was competitive for only four years before needing to be replaced by a newer model. In 1932, at age 69, Ford introduced his last great automotive innovation, the lightweight, inexpensive V-8 engine. It represented a real technological and marketing breakthrough, but in other areas Fords continued to lag behind their competitors.
The V-8 engine was Henry Ford’s last great automotive innovation. This is the first V-8 engine produced, which is on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF101039
By 1936, the company that once sold half of the cars made in America had fallen to third place behind both General Motors and the upstart Chrysler Corporation. By the time Henry Ford died in 1947, his great company was in serious trouble, and a new generation of innovators, led by his grandson Henry Ford II, would work long and hard to restore it to its former glory. Henry’s story is a textbook example of the power of innovation—and the power of its absence.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Henry Ford and Innovation: From the Curators.”