Sustenance is not usually associated with flowers or the horticultural industry, but cut flowers and ornamental plants have been nourishing humans for centuries. Flowers aid people through hard times by providing joy, mental health benefits, and ephemeral beauty unmatched in many eyes. Additionally, cut flower cultivation is a critical source of revenue and ecosystem service for agricultural entrepreneurs.
Stereograph of a blooming tree peony, circa 1865 / THF66255
The horticulture industry grew rapidly during the 19th century. New businesses, such as Mount Hope Nursery and Gardens out of Rochester, New York, used an expanding transportation infrastructure to market ornamental plants to Midwesterners starting during the 1840s. Yet, while consumers’ interest in ornamentation grew, so did their displeasure with distant producers distributing plants of unverifiable quality. Soon enough, local seed companies and seedling and transplant growers met Detroiters’ needs, establishing greater levels of trust between producer and consumer (Lyon-Jenness, 2004). D.M. Ferry & Co., established in Detroit in 1867, sold vegetable and flower seeds, as well as fruit tree grafts, direct to consumers and farmers.
At the heart of horticulture lies a tension between respect for local, native species and the appeal of newly engineered, “perfect” cultivars. Entrepreneurs such as Hiram Sibley invested in the new and novel, building fruit, vegetable, and flower farms, as well as distribution centers, in multiple states.
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542
Plant breeders such as Luther Burbank sought a climate to support year-round experimentation. As a result, he relocated from Massachusetts to California, where he cultivated roses, crimson poppies, daisies, and more than 800 other plants over the decades. Companies in other parts of the country—Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. in Louisiana, Missouri, and the W. Atlee Burpee Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—partnered with Burbank or established their own California operations to maintain a competitive edge. These larger farms had to send their flowers by rail across the country and as such, engineered for consistency and mass production.
Field of Burbank's Rosy Crimson Escholtzia, April 13, 1908, Santa Rosa, California. / THF277209
Advertising fueled growth. Companies marketed seeds directly to homeowners, farmers, and market gardeners through a combination of colorful packets, seed boxes, catalogs, specimen books, trade cards, and purchasing schemes. Merchants could reference colorful trade literature issued by D.M. Ferry & Company as they planned flower seed purchases for the next year. The 1879 catalog even oriented merchants to its seed farms and trial grounds near Detroit. A D.M. Ferry trade card (seen below) advertised more than the early flowering sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) in 1889, featuring twelve “choice kinds” available in Ferry seed boxes or through orders submitted by merchants directly to the company (Little and Kantor, Journal of Heredity, 1941). Customers who returned ten empty seed packets earned a copy of Ferry’s Floral Album.
Trade Card for Sweet Pea Seeds, D.M. Ferry & Company, 1889. / THF214415
Additionally, magazines such as Vick’s Illustrated Family Magazine, published by Rochester, New York, seedsman James Vick, served as a clearinghouse of information for consumers and growers alike.
Flowers were not always grown in isolation. Cultivating and selling vegetables side-by-side with flowers was common practice, as it provided farmers diversity in income with the ebb and flow of seasons. The addition of flowers proved mutually beneficial to both profits and productivity for farms, as they attract pollinators and receive a high mark-up in the market. Furthermore, flowers could be placed alongside vegetables on farm stands as a means to decorate and draw the attention of market goers.
Market gardeners who also grew flowers saw the potential in Detroit, and this helped develop the floriculture industry. John Ford, a Scottish immigrant, gained visibility through his entries at the Annual Fair of Michigan State Agricultural Society, winning awards for cut flowers, dahlias, and German asters, as well as culinary vegetables, strawberries, and nutmeg melons, throughout the 1850s and 1860s (The Michigan Farmer, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1861/62, 1863/64). Ford served on the Detroit City Common Council. After that body approved construction, in 1860, of a new Vegetable Shed for Detroit’s City Hall Market (also known as Central Market), Ford or members of his family operated a stand in the market until at least 1882.
Another market gardener, John Breitmeyer, an immigrant from Bavaria, settled in Detroit in 1852 and grew a booming floral business. He anticipated the growth of the floral industry, building hot houses for roses in 1886 and establishing the first florist shop in Detroit in 1890 off Bates Street (The American Florist, April 28, 1900, pg. 1213). He worked with his two sons, who had studied floriculture in Philadelphia, to raise plants and flowers, but “the latter seemed the most profitable” (Detroit Journal, reprinted in Fort Worth Daily Gazette, August 12, 1889, pg. 4). There were 200 floral shops in Detroit by 1930, when the Breitmeyer family operation grew to specialize in “chrysanthymums [sic], carnations, and sweet peas” in addition to roses (Detroit Free Press, April 6, 1930).
Detroit City Business Directory, Volume II, 1889-1890, page 125 / THF277531
Florists sold cut flowers to satisfy consumers willing to part with hard-earned money on such temporary satisfaction. Many factors influenced their decisions: weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage; brightening a home interior; thanking a host; or treating a sweetheart. Whatever the reason, Breitmeyer and Ford and others responded to the zeal for floral ornamentation.
Memorial Floral Arrangement, circa 1878 / THF210195
The Michigan Farmer encouraged readers to “bring a few daisies and butter-cups from your last field walk, and keep them alive in a little water; aye, preserve but a branch of clover, or a handful of flower grass—one of the most elegant, as well as cheapest of nature’s productions and you have something on your table that reminds you of the beauties of God’s creation, and gives you a link with the poets and sages that have done it most honor. Put but a rose, or a lily, or a violet, on your table, and you and Lord Bacon have a custom in common.” (July 1863, pg. 32). Though the preferences varied, flowers inside the home were simultaneously a luxury and something that everyday people could afford, and connected them to poets and lords.
Publications encouraged the trade through how-to columns on decorating with flowers. This clipping from the Michigan Farmer explained how to construct a centerpiece featuring cut flowers.
Description of simple DIY floral ornaments in the household. Excerpt from Michigan Farmer, August, 1863/64, pg. 84. / Image via HathiTrust
What types of flowers might growers raise to fill their baskets and ornament their tables? The Michigan Farmer indicated that “no garden” should be without dahlias “as a part of its autumn glory” (April 1857, pg. 115) and that growers should “never be without” a Moutan peony (February 1858, pg. 48).
Urban markets featured many more plants and cut flowers to satisfy consumer demand. The Detroit News reported in May 1891 that “tulips of every hue and the modest daisy or bachelor’s button still linger on the stalls, but they are the first floral offerings of the spring, and their day is now about over.” The florists rapidly restocked, filling their southern row of stalls in the vegetable market with “floral radiance and beauty…. The hydrangeas with their pink or snow-white balls; fuchsias, with their bell-like cups and purple hearts; geraniums, in all the colors of the rainbow; the heliotrope, with its light-pink blossom; the begonia, with its wax green leaves; verbenas in pink, purple and white; the marguerite, with its white and yellow star; the kelseloria [Calceolaria] in blushing red or golden yellow; the modest mignonette, with its neutral tints but exquisite perfume; and the blue and fragrant forget-me-not” (“Seen on the Streets,” May 24, 1891).
Florists stood at the ready to satisfy customers’ needs, especially for a beau seeking a bouquet to woo his lover (Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1870). On one occasion, a woman reluctantly bought sunflower seeds and catnip instead of climbers that would make her house look “almost like Paradise,” fearing that this ornamentation would cause the landlord to raise her rent (Detroit Free Press, April 27, 1879). In other instances, men “commissioned” by their wives stopped by the flower stands in Central Market, perusing “roses, pansies, and hyacinth bulbs” (Detroit Free Press, January 10, 1890).
Shoppers at Central Market crowd around potted lilies and cut flowers wrapped in paper, undated (BHC glass neg. no. 1911). / Image from Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library (EB02e398)
By the late 19th century, customers had many options to satisfy their appetite for flowers. Many Detroiters purchased their flowers and ornamental plants at the Vegetable Building in Central Market. One huckster turned florist, Mary Judge, engaged customers at her Central Market floral stand with a pretty rose bush for a quarter (not 20 cents, or she’d make no profit), geraniums for 10 cents, or a “beyutiful little flower” for 5 cents (Detroit News, May 24, 1891).
They could also frequent florist shops like John Breitmeyer’s by 1890, or purchase seed from merchants to raise their own. Many reasons motivated them, from satisfying a sweetheart to keeping up with their neighbors’ ornamental plantings. No doubt, beautiful trade cards helped stir up allure and demand for popular garden flowers such as pansies.
Trade Card for Pansies Seeds, D. M. Ferry & Co., 1889 / THF298777
The entrepreneurs and florists of the 19th century sowed the seeds for an industry that remains vigorous but is far more globalized. There are botanic stories still to uncover and after centuries of cultivation, these beautiful ornaments still sustain something deeper within us.
Stewart, Amy. Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. Algonquin Books, 2008.
Lyon-Jenness, C. (2004). Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America. Business History Review,78(3), 381-421. doi:10.2307/25096907
The Columbus Buggy Company’s sprawling factory, depicted as it was in 1889. / THF124829
When we hear the name “Firestone,” our thoughts inevitably turn to motor vehicle tires, proving themselves where the rubber meets the road. It’s a bit surprising, then, to learn that members of the Firestone family were building horse-drawn vehicles decades before the first Model T turned a wheel.
Clinton Firestone, in partnership with the brothers George and Oscar Peters, established the Columbus Buggy Company in Columbus, Ohio, in 1875. The firm grew into one of the largest buggy manufacturers in the world. By 1900, it employed more than 1,000 people and operated branch offices throughout the United States.
Clinton Firestone was a first cousin to Benjamin Firestone. Benjamin was a prosperous farmer in Columbiana, Ohio, and the father to future tire magnate Harvey Firestone. (Greenfield Village visitors will recognize the brick farmhouse that Benjamin and Catherine Firestone called home.) After a stint selling patent medicines and flavor extracts, young Harvey went to work at his cousin Clinton’s buggy company in the early 1890s. Harvey Firestone bounced between bookkeeping and sales duties at branch offices in Columbus, Des Moines, and Detroit. He remained with the firm until 1896. Four years later, he established his own business selling rubber buggy tires—the famous Firestone Tire & Rubber.
Harvey Firestone, pictured here about 1920, worked at several Columbus Buggy Company branch offices throughout the Midwest. / THF124780
Working in sales, Harvey Firestone was a first-hand witness to one of the problems that led to Columbus Buggy’s demise. While the company offered well-built wagons priced around $100, a growing number of competitors, like Durant-Dort, offered similar-quality wagons for around $35. Some buyers continued to pay the premium for Columbus Buggy’s perceived prestige, but most were content to get a comparable vehicle elsewhere for one-third the price.
There was another problem too: the horseless carriage. Columbus Buggy tackled that challenge by introducing an automobile of its own in 1903. Despite a marvelous slogan—“A vehicle for the masses, not a toy for the classes”—the $750, ten-horsepower high-wheeler auto could not save the firm. Columbus Buggy Company went bankrupt in 1913.
Harvey Firestone, of course, did make a successful transition into the new motorized world. In 1906, Firestone Tire & Rubber secured its first contract to supply Ford Motor Company with automobile tires. That prosperous business relationship grew into a lifelong personal friendship between Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford’s Columbus Buggy Company surrey.
In 2015, The Henry Ford acquired a beautifully-restored Model 300½ four-passenger surrey manufactured by Columbus Buggy. Open-sided surreys were a favorite warm-weather conveyance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Ask anyone who’s seen Oklahoma!) Given the Columbus Buggy Company’s family ties, the surrey was an ideal fit for programming use at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village. A surrey of this style and quality would have been within the means of an upper middle-class family like the Firestones—the sort of carriage they might have taken to church on Sunday, or to town on social calls.
Automobiles may have put the Columbus Buggy Company out of business, but we’re glad to keep a little part of its legacy rolling along.
Central Market in Downtown Detroit, Michigan, circa 1890 / THF96803
The historic Detroit Central Market vegetable shed will re-create a local food environment within Greenfield Village
Few mid-19th-century public market structures survive. Detroit’s vegetable shed or building, which opened in 1861, is one of the oldest of those survivors in the nation.
This ornamental bracket from the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed will be one of the architectural elements visitors will see when the building is reconstructed in Greenfield Village. / THF173219
The shed’s story is certainly harrowing. It escaped fire in 1876 and dismantling in 1894. A relocation to nearby Belle Isle saved it. There, it served many purposes until 2003, when The Henry Ford acquired it. And now, generous donors have made its reconstruction in Greenfield Village possible. (Follow @thehenryford on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and/or via our e-mails for more on when the shed will officially open in the village.)
Detroit Central Market’s Vegetable Shed, repurposed as a “horse shed,” circa 1900, on Detroit’s Belle Isle. / THF139104
As a reconstructed event space, the shed will serve as an open-air market of ideas, a place where food and common cause will bring people together to discuss meaty subjects, such as land use and regenerative agriculture, social entrepreneurship, urban and alternative agriculture, and food security. It will shelter a vibrant historic market vignette where florists, fishmongers, hucksters (hucksters being another term for market gardeners, people who raised vegetables to sell at market to retail customers), and peddlers all vied for sales. The scripted exchanges will inform us about ways that vendors historically managed ethnic tensions and provided a social safety net to the homeless, impoverished, and downtrodden. This content will be carefully curated and managed by The Henry Ford’s dedicated staff, who will ensure programming on the stuff of life in perpetuity.
Heart of a City
The Henry Ford’s vision for the restored Detroit Central Market vegetable shed as a communal center in Greenfield Village is akin to what Detroit city officials envisioned when they adopted a nearly 1,000-year-old tradition to establish a public market in 1802.
View of Detroit Central Market (here called “Cadillac Square Market”) from the roof of City Hall, circa 1875 / THF146289
The market grew near the city hall and was maintained by the city for decades, calling attention to the symbiotic relationship between urban governments, the market gardeners and farmers in and near the city, and the health and well-being of city dwellers. The market, in fact, was called City Hall Market until the city hall moved across the centrally located downtown gathering space known as Campus Martius. Thereafter, the name Detroit Central Market came to be—denoting the market’s location, but also its centrality to the civic, cultural, and ceremonial heart of the city. Within an easy walk lay city hall, the Michigan Solders’ and Sailors’ Monument, churches, schools, playhouses, and the opera, among other attractions. Within this vibrant environment, vendors went about their daily business helping customers feed themselves, a routine that fed a city.
Theoretically, a thriving city market eased Detroiters’ worries about the source of their next meal. It freed them to build a livelihood around something other than agriculture, while farmers and market gardeners knew they had a steady market for their produce and fresh meat. Today, we would call Detroit’s Central Market a “local food environment,” the place where customers bought foodstuffs directly from butchers, hucksters, florists, fishmongers, and confectioners.
A community grew within and around the market that facilitated entrepreneurship. Vendors, usually sole proprietors and startups, had a fixed number of resources—the vegetables, fruit and flowers they raised, fish they caught, fresh meat they butchered, knickknacks or “Yankee trinkets” they sold, or services such as chimney sweeping that they hawked to customers.
They had to be ingenious to draw attention to their resources and thus increase the likelihood of a sale. This made for vibrant market days.
People & Prejudices
Practicality dictated that the market be in the center of downtown Detroit and in the shadow of city hall. These were heavily trafficked areas, and structures were built as enclosed spaces to protect vendors and customers from the weather. The Detroit Common Council authorized, funded, maintained, and updated structures and built new ones as needed. It authorized a “clerk of the market” to collect rents, monitor compliance, mediate conflicts, and report to elected officials.
All did not go smoothly at Detroit’s Central Market, however. The fish market in the Catholic city of Detroit was, by many accounts, the poorest fish market in the country. Why? As one fish dealer explained, people in Detroit fished. Therefore, they did not have to buy. Yet care went into designating northern stalls in the vegetable building as the purview of fishmongers, available for auction and then for rent by the month, for ten months of the year.
People gather at the vegetable building at Detroit's Central Market, circa 1885 / THF136886
Records indicate that there was no love lost between fishmongers and butchers, likely because butchers held power that fishmongers did not. Butchers were organized. Some even served as elected officials. They held membership in community associations and had strong ties to ethnic and immigrant communities.
The vegetable shed at Detroit Central Market most obviously housed hucksters, many of them women. Of the 32 greengrocers and market hucksters who listed their business address as City Hall Market (CH Market) in the 1864–1865 Detroit City Directory, nearly one-third (ten) were women. In 1874, the percentage of women hucksters increased to nearly 40%. Racial diversity also existed. Several Black hucksters had market addresses over the years, and at least one had a relatively stable business selling garden vegetables at the market from the early 1860s to the mid-1870s. Overall, however, newspaper accounts stereotyped hucksters as country bumpkins unable to handle their market wagons. This indicated a lack of respect on the part of city dwellers who depended on these growers for their food.
Cultural conflict erupted at the market as individuals from numerous ethnic groups, some well-established and others newcomers, had to cohabitate and compete at the public market. Louis Schiappecasse, an Italian immigrant identified as the first outdoor fruit merchant in Detroit, provides a good case in point. He established himself on Jefferson Avenue across from the Biddle House in 1870. When he died in 1916, the headline read: “Millionaire Fruit Merchant Is Dead.” Yet, in the fever pitch of anti-immigrant sentiment in 1890, a newspaper reporter, without naming names, quoted shop owners near Central Market who were frustrated with Italian fruit salesmen too cheap to pay rent for a market stall. Instead, they claimed that fruit salesmen set up pop-up stands that obstructed sidewalks and made it difficult for patrons to enter some stores.
A customer at the Detroit Central Market vegetable building, 1885–1893 / THF623871
Finally, one of the most notable entrepreneurs at Central Market, who appears regularly in minutes of Detroit Common Council meetings, gained attention for her refusal to accept the city’s decision to close the market. Mary Judge was a widow, listed her address as an alleyway at least once, and changed her market specialty almost every year—sometimes selling vegetables, sometimes flowers, sometimes candy, sometimes refreshments. She also received special dispensation from Detroit’s Committee on Markets when she was cited for violating three market standards. She was allowed to sell vegetables out of stall No. 44 because she was “very poor and unfit for any other occupation.” This last affirmed the function of the public market as a social safety net.
Vendors practiced benevolence, too, operating as social entrepreneurs, at least in relation to residents in the Home for the Friendless. The Ladies’ Christian Union organized the Home for the Friendless in May 1860 to aid homeless women, children (including the children of incarcerated individuals), and elderly women. Twice each week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the market season, boys from the home carried a basket to the market. Butchers and hucksters filled the basket with produce and meats, which helped make ends meet at the home.
The Detroit Central Market vendors helped feed hundreds of thousands of mouths in downtown Detroit. When reconstructed in Greenfield Village, the vegetable shed where they once sold their wares will support programming that will enrich millions of minds on topics as wide ranging as agricultural ethics and food justice.
Countless stories await exploration: Stories based on the lives of vendors and their customers; city council members and market staff; and the business owners, entertainers, and entrepreneurs at work around the marketplace can all teach us lessons that we can adapt to help shape a better future.
What is your personal connection to The Henry Ford? For many, it’s the memories that have been made during visits to the museum and village. Others, it’s the stories told, artifacts observed, or the people who paved the way for future generations. For Linda Apsey, it was Thomas Alva Edison—his commitment to the utility industry, collaboration with Henry Ford, and future electrification of our society. For Carla Walker-Miller, it is the outreach that The Henry Ford is doing with Detroit Public Schools, the Rosa Parks Bus, and the story that sheds light on the importance of equality, diversity, and inclusion.
While each connection is different, they both share a common theme—access to education, history, and innovation for all, regardless of background or barrier. At this time in our institution’s history, we believe that both leaders will bring invaluable knowledge and perspective based on their experiences. These women are truly remarkable individuals who value our mission and will inspire others for generations to come.
Linda Apsey is currently the President and CEO of ITC Holdings Corp. and is responsible for the company’s strategic vision, business operations, and all subsidiaries. She has held many roles throughout her career that have shaped her into the successful businesswoman she is today. Before she was President and CEO, she served as Executive Vice President and Chief Unit Officer at ITC Holdings Corp.
Linda Apsey is inspired by the stories The Henry Ford can tell with its collections related to Thomas Edison, including his patent model for the electrical distribution system. / THF154126
Apsey is most looking forward to Invention Convention Worldwide. “Invention Convention provides kids across the country with a space and place for imagination to come to life. And that is amazing to observe and be part of!” This program at The Henry Ford allows young minds to tap into their can-do spirit and engage with other students and professionals throughout the world. Invention Convention is one of the unique, educational programs and initiatives that The Henry Ford is using to emphasize the importance of learning and access to education. “THF has developed many exciting programs to tap into the energy, passion, and creative minds of our future generations through teaching, experimentation, and competitions, all of which provides opportunity, access, and collaboration for growing minds.”
Carla Walker-Miller is the founder and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services. She is a changemaker in the energy industry and strives to inspire those she encounters. Walker-Miller Energy Services is one of the largest energy waste reduction companies in the country founded and owned by an African American woman.
Walker-Miller is greatly inspired by the community outreach The Henry Ford (THF) is doing in metro Detroit, particularly Detroit Public Schools. “Like most people, I had no idea before I joined the board the amount of work this institution is doing and the commitment The Henry Ford has made in educating our children. The work THF is doing with Detroit Public Schools is so thoughtful and intentional and I’m amazed at the impact The Henry Ford is having.”
Carla Walker-Miller feels welcomed by the presence of the Rosa Parks Bus in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF167250
Being able to inform and educate others about the many different stories and lessons we have learned throughout American history is very important. The Henry Ford is committed to telling the stories of the brave men and women who were the catalysts for change in racial equity. Carla Walker-Miller agrees that the acquisition of the Rosa Parks Bus in the early 2000s was a monumental step for The Henry Ford. “In my heart, that acquisition felt like an acknowledgement that Black history is American history. It may as well have been a bridge, because it felt like a welcome, like a personal invitation to visit. I will never forget the photo of President Barack Obama on that bus. It spoke to me and so many other people of many races.”
Linda Apsey and Carla Walker-Miller both agree that The Henry Ford is a place that is meant to be treasured. To our current donors who believe in the mission and value of The Henry Ford, thank you! For those who may be new to The Henry Ford and are still learning about the institution, we invite you to dive deeper into our mission. For Apsey, “Investing in THF is not only an investment in our rich industrial history of innovation and automation, but more importantly an opportunity to invest in the hearts, souls, and minds of future generations. THF is a world-class institution whose history has just begun!” To Carla Walker-Miller, “The Henry Ford offers a warm introduction to this country’s history. They are committed to making the institution inclusive and accessible to all and to say, ‘Everyone is welcome here.’” We are very lucky to have these two passionate executives help take The Henry Ford to new levels and reach the hearts and minds of future generations.
Working in his small home shop in the mid-1950s, Norman Swanson built a new style of lawn mower. He’d set out to tackle a personal problem, but his solution had universal appeal. The mowing system Swanson devised would revolutionize an industry.
Norman Swanson was born in central Wisconsin in 1919. A self-described tinkerer from an early age, Swanson cultivated his skills through a range of experiences as a young man—including enrolling in the Civilian Conservation Corps after high school, working at a machine shop, and serving in the U.S. Army during World War II—before landing a job producing motion picture film projectors for an Illinois-based production company in 1946. There, Swanson displayed his ability to not only visualize creative technological solutions, but implement them. Swanson developed a new timing device for film projectors that was so impressive, a mentor suggested he apply for his first patent.
Norman Swanson first patented technology he developed for film projectors after World War II. / Image from Google Patents
Swanson set up a small shop in his garage where he could work on overtime jobs for the production company. His operation included a lathe, milling machine, band saw, welder, and other equipment for building film projectors—and, it turned out, just about anything else Swanson could think up. So when he conceived an idea to improvethe irksome chore of mowing his property, Swanson was well-equipped to bring it to life.
Norman Swanson lived on five acres with an apple orchard of 21 trees, each surrounded by a little mound of earth. By combining components of several conventional mowers, Swanson had devised a makeshift machine that could cut a swath of about 6 feet—but it was no match for the undulating landscape, which was peppered not only with stationary tree trunks, but often also loose tree limbs. During one frustrating mow around 1956, Swanson said to himself, “This is crazy. I’m going to do something about it.” Inspired by a Montgomery & Ward mower with a single rotating blade, Swanson acquired and cut down three mower blades, arranged them, and attached the system to his walk-behind garden tractor to create his first prototype "multiple cutter power mower." He also designed a deflector above the blades to better pulverize the grass clippings. For the next iteration, Swanson mounted a multiple-cutter system beneath his International Harvester Cub Lo-Boy tractor. He recalled being “so pleased with the results.” Three small blades required less horsepower than one big one, and he “could go right up to the trees and around. It was unbelievable.” Swanson applied for two patents on these lawn mowing innovations and received them in 1959.
Norman Swanson mounted his innovative multiple-cutter system to his walk-behind garden tractor (see image at very top of post) and then beneath his International Harvester Cub Lo-Boy tractor to create his first prototype lawn mowers. /THF175803
Patent drawings illustrate Swanson’s multiple-cutter system (top) and deflector (bottom), which helped pulverize grass clippings. / Images from Google Patents
Swanson wasn’t the only one impressed with his new lawn mower design. A neighbor requested a multiple-cutter system for his own tractor and then introduced Swanson to a farm equipment manufacturer, Pennington Manufacturing, who supplied Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s Bradley line of lawn and garden equipment. Swanson contracted with Pennington, building a successful demonstration prototype for Sears and a second prototype that became the basis for the Bradley mower manufactured by Pennington and sold through Sears from 1958–1960. Unfortunately, a conflict over royalties ended Swanson’s arrangement with Pennington, and he settled without receiving full payment or credit for his patented designs—even though they remained central to mowers sold by Sears and other major manufacturers.
Norman Swanson built and demonstrated a prototype (top) for Sears executives, convincing them to use his design (bottom) for the company’s Bradley line of lawn mowers. / THF175758 and THF175760
Though somewhat dismayed, Swanson pressed on. He explored the possibility of producing a new riding mower, called the Wil-Mow, with a metal parts manufacturer in Michigan. Though the Wil-Mow never went into production, the partnership was not fruitless. Along the way, Swanson collaborated with a fellow lawn mower enthusiast to design and patent supports to secure a mower’s blades and keep them from damaging turf. The Wil-Mow prototype—manufactured in Michigan with a transmission built by Norman Swanson and his son, Curtis—included this patented feature.
Having weathered troubled partnerships for nearly a decade, Norman Swanson decided to try going into business for himself. He and his son built and sold 50 mowers under the Swanson name before ultimately deciding to step away from lawn mower manufacture.
Though the “Wil-Mow” (top) never went into production, and only fifty of Swanson’s mowers (bottom) were ever sold, these machines represent the lasting technological change Norman Swanson contributed to lawn mower manufacture. / THF175761 and THF175759
Curtis Swanson poses with one of his father’s prototype lawn mowers in November 2018. / Photo by Debra Reid.
Norman Swanson didn’t gain fame or fortune, but he understood the lasting importance of his contributions to lawn mower development. In an interview conducted by Debra Reid, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Agriculture & the Environment, in November 2018—less than a year before his 100th birthday—Swanson acknowledged that “the whole industry [was] operating” with the basic ideas he patented. Indeed, the technological improvements Norman Swanson developed remain standard on many lawn mowers sold today. The machines he built, now in the collections of The Henry Ford, continue to tell his story.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. This post was based on the research and writing of Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment.
Sarah Fisher with Lyn St. James. Photo courtesy Lyn St. James.
Born October 4, 1980, in Columbus, Ohio, Sarah Fisher raced quarter midgets and go-karts before age 10, and earned multiple karting championships in her teens. When she competed in her first Indianapolis 500 in 2000, she was only the third woman to do so (after Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James) and—at age 19—the youngest. With her third-place finish at Kentucky Speedway later that season, Fisher became the first woman to earn a place on the podium in an IndyCar Series event.
Racing suit worn by Sarah Fisher in 2009, which will be on exhibit in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF176380
Fisher retired from driving after 2010 (and after nine starts in the Indy 500), but continued as a team owner. In 2011, Fisher became the first female owner to earn an IndyCar victory, with driver Ed Carpenter at the wheel.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
In 2019, The Henry Ford launched the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, an institution-wide initiative focused on providing resources and encouragement for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. As Project Curator for the initiative, I have been working with other curators to identify entrepreneurial stories within our collections, select artifacts to be digitized, and research and write digital content to share these stories with the public. As this project comes to an end this month, I wanted to provide a wrap-up of all the entrepreneurial stories we’ve worked on.
The first six months of the initiative focused on entrepreneurial stories from our collecting themes of Agriculture and the Environment, and Social Transformation, but my first task was to determine what exactly we mean by “entrepreneurship.” Check out the blog post "Exploring Entrepreneurship," where I discuss what it means to be an entrepreneur.
The first collection I worked with was the H.J. Heinz Company Collection. Most people associate the Heinz name with ketchup, or even pickles, but the company’s first product was actually horseradish. Young Henry Heinz learned to prepare horseradish with his mother in their family home in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, eventually selling the product to local housewives. In 1869, Heinz started his first official business selling horseradish out of his family home.
After initial success selling horseradish, Heinz’s company began selling other products like celery sauce and pickled cucumbers (pickles). Unfortunately, by 1875, the company went out of business, but Heinz learned from this failure and tried again. In 1876, Heinz persuaded family members to open a new company, F. &. J. Heinz, where Heinz could run the business behind the scenes while rebuilding his reputation. By 1888, Heinz had saved enough money to buy the company, renaming it the H.J. Heinz Company. To learn more about the rise of the H.J. Heinz Company, check out this Innovation Journeys Live! program where I discuss H.J. Heinz’s journey through the lens of our Model i habit “Learn from Failure.”
One characteristic of an entrepreneur is being a creative thinker. H.J. Heinz was a master of marketing, finding creative ways to advertise his products. With elaborate store displays and other strategies, the Heinz brand became a household name. In viewing advertisements and salesman catalogs, I learned about the many varieties of products that the H.J. Heinz Company produced. Did you know that Heinz sold heat-to-serve spaghetti and macaroni products? I sure didn’t!
Streetcar Advertising Poster for Heinz Spaghetti, circa 1930 / THF292241
H.J. Heinz recognized that the success of his business relied on his employees. Heinz was at the forefront of the employee welfare movement, offering amenities and conveniences for his workers, such as a swimming pool, gymnasium, and self-improvement classes.
Advertising Layout Photograph of Heinz Company Employee Swimming Pool and Baseball Team, circa 1912 / THF292794
One of my favorite parts of this job is that I have gotten to research individual artifacts and discover interesting facts about them. Ever wonder how we do this work? Check out the blog post "The Secret Life of a Heinz Recipe Book," where I discuss how we researched an employee recipe book found in the Heinz Collection. You can also check out the expert set "H.J. Heinz: His Recipe for Success," to learn more about H.J. Heinz’s entrepreneurial journey.
The next collection I examined was the Label Collection, and specifically, fruit and vegetable labels from the early produce industry. Labels distinguished one brand’s products from another and the artwork on them was meant to stand out and entice potential customers. Early product labels were made by a process called lithography, where skilled artists drew their images on flattened, smooth pieces of stone—traditionally limestone—to be inked and then transferred to paper via a printing press. The artists who worked in this medium are called lithographers. To learn more about lithography and the history of labels, click through to the post "Unpacking the History of Labels."
Lithography companies created label designs for growers, packers, and distribution companies, often including a “signature” so others knew who created the design—like “Schmidt Litho. Co.” in the example below. Schmidt Lithograph Company was a recurring company name among the labels in the collection. I researched this company further and uncovered how Max Schmidt became one of the most well-known lithographers in the industry by 1900. Explore his entrepreneurial journey with the blog post "Max Schmidt: A Leader in Lithography."
The Label Collection also tells the story of entrepreneurial companies that packaged and distributed produce. This led me to the story of Joseph Di Giorgio, founder of the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation. Through research and reading oral history transcripts from Di Giorgio’s relatives and former employees, I discovered how hard work and determination led Di Giorgio to be known as “The Fruit King.” Learn more about his story by reading the blog post “'The Fruit King': Joseph Di Giorgio."
Crate Label, “Oh Yes! We Grow the Best California Fruits,” 1930-1940 / THF293029
This collection also gave me the opportunity to examine the entrepreneurial farmers who grew and harvested produce. For this, the Detroit Publishing Company Collection was extremely useful. From 1895 to 1924, the Detroit Publishing Company produced, published, and distributed photographic views from all over the world. Photographers captured special events and everyday activities, as well as views of cities and countryside. Photographs showing the harvesting and crating process, like this one of grapefruit being picked and crated for shipping, provided a unique look into the entrepreneurial farming industry.
Picking and Crating Grapefruit for Riverside Fruit Exchange, Riverside, California, circa 1905 / THF295680
To learn how these products and crops were marketed to and used by the general public, I delved into the Recipe Booklet Collection. Recipe booklets were a great source of marketing for companies, offering creative uses for products. With so many different companies represented in this collection, I was able to research the history of some of America’s well-known brands and compiled the expert set "Recipe Booklets from the Early 20th Century" so you can discover these histories. Within the booklets, you’ll also find recipes to try!
Recipe Booklet, “Kraft-Phenix Cheese Corp., Cheese and Ways to Serve It,” 1931 / THF294910
I found myself particularly drawn to the colorful and vibrant recipe booklets from the Jell-O Company. I was both delighted and surprised to find recipes ranging from beautiful and delicious-sounding creations to quirky and unusual flavor combinations (corned beef loaf, anyone?). Jell-O was first invented by Pearle Wait in 1897 when he combined fruit flavoring and sugar with gelatin powder. Unfortunately, Wait was unable to market the product, selling it to Orator F. Woodward two years later. By 1902, the Jell-O business was a quarter-million-dollar success. To learn more about this entrepreneurial enterprise, check out the blog post, “America’s Most Famous Dessert.”
Page from the recipe booklet, “Jell-O, America’s Most Famous Dessert,” 1916 / THF294400
The final step in the agricultural chain is public consumption, particularly in restaurants. In 2019, The Henry Ford acquired the largest collection of materials related to American diners, donated by leading diner expert Richard J.S. Gutman. Within the Gutman Diner Collection, photographs, trade catalogs, menus, and other items tell stories of innovation and entrepreneurship—from the craftspeople and designers who built the dining cars to the owners and operators who served customers every day. Learn more about the history of diners and how the industry embodies innovation and entrepreneurship in "Diners: An American Original," written by Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life Donna Braden.
Leviathan Grill, Newark, New Jersey, circa 1930 / THF296786
As part of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, The Henry Ford launched an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program. Melvin Parson, founder of We The People Grower’s Association and We the People Opportunity Farm, was our first EIR, participating in programs to encourage entrepreneurs in urban farming. Driven by his mission for equality and social justice, Farmer Parson uses vegetable farming as a vehicle to address social ills. He works to educate those in his community about farming and provides employment and training for individuals returning home from incarceration. You can view clips from the interview we did with Melvin Parson about his entrepreneurial journey at his urban farm in Ann Arbor in this expert set: "Melvin Parson: Market Gardener and Social Entrepreneur."
Melvin Parson during the Entrepreneurship Interview, 2019 / THF295361
This year, The Henry Ford and Saganworks, a technology start-up from Ann Arbor, Michigan, have partnered together to create a new virtual experience where people from around the world can interact with our digitized collections in a curated virtual space. What we created was a Sagan: a virtual room experienced like a gallery. The Henry Ford’s Entrepreneurship Sagan highlights the artifacts we digitized from the collections previously mentioned related to Agriculture and the Environment, and Social Transformation. To learn more about our Sagan you can watch this narrated walkthrough or read "Exploring Entrepreneurship, Virtually: The Henry Ford’s Sagan." You can also interact with an embedded version of the Sagan in this post: "Tour Our Entrepreneurship Sagan."
A view of the barn section of The Henry Ford’s Entrepreneurship Sagan, featuring items from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, the Label Collection, and Melvin Parson’s EIR program. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Johnson)
The second six months of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship focused on our collecting themes of Design & Making, and Communications & Information Technology. The first entrepreneurial story I delved into here was the Everlast Metal Products Corporation. Experienced metalworkers and brothers-in-law Louis Schnitzer and Nathan Gelfman immigrated to the U.S. and entered the silver housewares business in the early 1920s. Soon, the Great Depression caused them to turn to a more affordable metal: aluminum.
Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Yours from Everlast, the Finest—Bar None!” 1947 / THF125124
In 1932, the pair formed Everlast Metal Products Corporation and began producing high-quality, hand-forged aluminum giftware. In an era of growing uniformity via factory production, the “made by hand” products (like this bowl) held an aesthetic appeal for consumers. Even with its initial success, by the 1950s, aluminum housewares were seen as old-fashioned compared to consumer interests in materials like ceramics and plastics. As an attempt to reinvent its products, Everlast produced a line of “modern” giftware, like coasters. If I could choose any Everlast piece to use at my house, it would definitely be this three-tier tidbit tray from the “modern” line.
Despite attempts to modernize, advances in technology and rapidly changing consumer interests led to the downfall of the aluminum industry. Schnitzer and Gelfman’s entrepreneurial journey ended in 1961 but they experienced undeniable success in Everlast’s 30-year history. Interested in learning more about this company? Check out "Forging an Enterprise: Everlast Aluminum Giftware," or click here to view over 100 items from our collection of Everlast products.
The next collection I worked with was the Trade Card Collection, filled with all kinds of entrepreneurial stories. As color printing became popular in the late 19th century, trade cards became a major means of advertising goods and services to potential customers. Cheap and effective, trade cards promoted products like medicine, seeds, food, stoves, sewing machines, and notions. Americans often saved these little advertisements found in product packages and distributed by local merchants
Trade Card for John Kelly’s Fine Shoes, 1879-1890 / THF296402
Companies employed a variety of methods to make their trade cards stand out, like using vibrant colors or endearing images. One of the most popular image themes throughout our collection, and Victorian trade cards in general, is the depiction of children (for example, in this trade card for Ayer’s Sarsaparilla). Another common theme is cute – and sometimes silly – animals. Something about the expressions on these dogs reading the newspaper always makes me laugh.
Trade Card for the Standard Rotary Shuttle Sewing Machine, Standard Sewing Machine Co., 1891-1900 / THF296692
I found trade cards that offered an optical illusion especially intriguing. When you hold this card up to a light, the woman’s eyes appear open and the logo for the company’s Garland Stoves and Ranges appears in the open window. But my absolute favorite trade card is the one below, for Nick Pettine’s tuxedo rental and tailoring service. These two figures came in an envelope. They are the same size when placed side-by-side (see first image), but when you put one figure’s nose on the collar of the other, one appears smaller!
Mr. Smyley and Mr. Happy’s Optical Illusion Trade Card for Nick Pettine Tuxedo Rentals, 1924 / THF298632, THF298633
I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so I was excited to have the opportunity to research early Grand Rapids companies found within the Trade Card Collection, which you can check out in the expert set "Trade Cards from Early Grand Rapids Businesses." To learn about other entrepreneurial companies represented in the Trade Card Collection, check out "Trade Cards Catch the Eye."
While researching the trade cards, I became fascinated with the story behind one particular entrepreneurial company: the Larkin Company. In 1875, John D. Larkin established a soap manufacturing company. Its first salesman, Elbert Hubbard, adopted a marketing strategy to offer a premium (a free giveaway) with the purchase of a product such as Boraxine.
By 1883, as the company’s product line expanded, finer premiums were offered, such as silver-plated eating utensils. Larkin & Hubbard saw this promotion’s potential. They eliminated middlemen (including the salesforce) and entered the mail-order industry. In 1885, Hubbard developed “The Larkin Idea,” incorporating his promotion of offering giveaways with purchases into mail-order catalogs. The money saved by eliminating middlemen went towards creating desirable premiums available to customers with purchases. By 1910, product offerings expanded to include foodstuffs, clothing, and housewares, with over 1,700 premiums to choose from, ranging from children’s toys to clothing to furniture. This cover from a 1908 catalog advertises “stylish wearing apparel given as premiums.”
Cover for Larkin Company Catalog, “Stylish Wearing Apparel Given as Premiums with the Larkin Products,” Spring/Summer 1908 / THF297766
While looking through Larkin catalogs, I was amazed at all of the product and premium offerings and the fact that you could literally furnish your entire house with Larkin premiums. I was most shocked to find this premium: a singing canary! However, despite tremendous success, by the mid-1920s, the company was faltering, making the decision to stop manufacturing products and premiums in 1941. However, due to an abundance of inventory, the company was still able to fill orders until 1962. To learn more about this incredible story, check out “The Larkin Idea.”
Page from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The World’s Greatest Premium Values, Larkin Co. Inc.,” Fall and Winter 1930 / THF298067
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were digitizing some of the materials The Henry Ford acquired in 2017 from the now closed American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. (Read more about this acquisition in the blog, "Collecting in the 2010s", under the “Throstle Spinning Frame” entry.) In the collection are many sample books from various companies—records of fabrics produced by that manufacturing company within a given year or season. They are strikingly beautiful, offering a glimpse of the evolution of fabrics and patterns over time. This book from the Cocheco Manufacturing Company in New Hampshire, for example, notes the date (1880), fabric, and pattern information, and the page below is from the Fall 1927 sample book for Lancaster Mills’ “Klinton Fancies.”
Page from Sample Book for Lancaster Mills, “36 Inch Klinton Fancies,” Fall 1927 / THF299920
I wasn’t sure what patterns or colors I was going to find in these sample books, but I was completely surprised when I saw this one from Hamilton Manufacturing Company from 1900. These colors are so vibrant and the patterns seem so modern. Beyond the zigzag pattern below, it contains what look like modern-day animal prints, and printed patchwork that resembles a pieced quilt pattern, similar to a crazy quilt. Crazy quilts consist of fabric of irregular shapes and sizes sewn onto a backing, with decorative embroidery patterns covering the seams. These fabrics gave you the look of a crazy quilt—without all the effort.
Page from Sample Book for Hamilton Manufacturing Company, April 9, 1900 to May 27, 1901 / THF600027
The next collection I researched, the Burroughs Corporation Collection, is related to the Communications & Information Technology theme. This company might sound familiar to those in the Detroit area, as Burroughs had its main plant in Plymouth, Michigan. William S. Burroughs was a banker who wanted to ease the work of figuring mathematical calculations by hand. His solution led to his patented adding machine and the creation of his company in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1886, first known as the American Arithmometer Company.
Advertisement for the Burroughs Adding Machine Class 1, 1901-1907 / THF299361
By 1904, the company had outgrown its St. Louis facility, moving operations to Detroit. In 1905, it became the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, and by the 1930s had over 450 models of manual and electric calculation devices, bookkeeping machines, and typewriters.
The company’s focus shifted in the 1950s to include defense and space research, banking and business technology, and advanced computer and electronics research. To reflect this diversification, the company was renamed Burroughs Corporation in 1953. Having contracted with the National Defense Program during WWII, Burroughs was awarded additional government and defense contracts throughout the 1960s. A Burroughs transistorized guidance computer was deployed to launch the Mercury and Gemini space flights.
One of my favorite artifacts from the Burroughs Collection is this copy of a custom “baby calculator” presented to Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. They made two calculators for the Queen’s children, Ann and Charles. This blue one was made for Charles (note the “C” on the front). On the inside of the case, you can see the Royal Stewart tartan, the personal tartan plaid of the Queen.
Copy of a Custom “Baby Calculator” Presented to Queen Elizabeth II for Prince Charles, 1953 / THF170191
From the adding machine to office equipment to computers that helped to send people into space, the Burroughs Corporation adhered to its founding principles – to respond to human problems with relevant technologies. Learn more about the company (now Unisys) by reading “Wherever There’s Business There’s Burroughs.”
The Fall 2019 Entrepreneur in Residence was Rich Sheridan, CEO and co-founder of Menlo Innovations, a software development company. Sheridan is known for his unique approach to the office environment, emphasizing teamwork and encouraging joy in the workplace. During an interview, Sheridan shared how visits to Greenfield Village—specifically Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park lab—sparked an idea to re-imagine the software industry’s work environment in a similar way to how Edison ran his lab. Listen to Sheridan talk about this in the clip, “Creating Menlo Innovations.” You can also check out Sheridan’s entire interview in the expert set "Rich Sheridan: Re-imagining Workplace Culture."
Video screenshot of Rich Sheridan, 2019 / THF600469
The third phase of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship was dedicated to the collecting themes of Power & Energy, and Mobility. Unfortunately, the pandemic curtailed our ability to digitize new materials, but we were grateful to have completed the digitization project for one mobility-related entrepreneur story before we were quarantined: the story of McKinley Thompson, Jr.
Photograph of McKinley Thompson, Jr., undated (Photograph Courtesy of McKinley Thompson, Jr.)
Thompson broke barriers by being the first African American to attend the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles for automotive design (having won a scholarship to the school as the grand prize in a design contest). After graduating, Thompson was hired by Ford Motor Company to work in its Advanced Styling Studio, breaking another barrier to become the first African American automobile designer. There he contributed to concept cars like the Allegro and Gyron, and he collaborated on production vehicles like the Mustang and Bronco. While at Ford, Thompson recognized the important role mobility played in the growth of developing nations. Specifically, Thompson believed an affordable, reliable vehicle would stimulate the economies of third-world countries in Africa, much in the same way that the Model T revolutionized American transportation and contributed to the economy via Ford’s Five Dollar Day. Thompson’s vision gave way to an all-terrain vehicle he dubbed the Warrior.
The Warrior was made in part from a plastic-composite material known as Royalex. In fact, the Warrior was only one part of Thompson’s larger “Project Vanguard,” where he envisioned a facility to fabricate Royalex, a building to assemble Warrior cars, a facility to build marine transportation, and eventually a place to build plastic habitat modules for housing. Ford Motor Company was initially supportive, but ultimately passed on the project in 1967.
Despite this setback, Thompson believed his vehicle had potential. Hoping to garner interest for investment in the program, he gathered some friends and produced a prototype to demonstrate the possibilities of his unique application of Royalex. Unfortunately, while every potential investor he approached told him it was a good idea, Thompson was unable to secure the funding, eventually shutting down the project in 1979.
McKinley Thompson and Crew Testing the Warrior Concept Car, 1969 / THF113754
Our third and final Entrepreneur in Residence for the Initiative for Entrepreneurship was Jessica Robinson, co-founder of the Detroit Mobility Lab, Michigan Mobility Institute, and Assembly Ventures, a venture capital firm. With dramatic new transportation technologies on the horizon, Robinson encourages technological education and understanding for the benefit of our increasingly mobile society. Throughout her time with The Henry Ford, Robinson had the opportunity to delve into the history of electric vehicles and share her expertise through several programs, including this Innovation Journeys Live! program. As quarantine restrictions relaxed a bit, Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson and I had the opportunity to interview Jessica. The entire interview is coming soon to our website, so stay tuned!
Jessica Robinson during an Interview for the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, 2020 (Photograph courtesy Brian James Egen)
During the final months of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, I had the opportunity to delve into the fascinating world of patent medicine. A popular option for treatment throughout the 1800s, patent medicines were readily available and relatively inexpensive. They were often advertised as "cure-alls," with packaging and advertisements listing all of the illnesses and complaints that the product was believed to "cure." This trade card for Brown's Iron Bitters claims that it cures such ailments as indigestion, fatigue, and even malaria, among other things.
Trade Card for Brown’s Iron Bitters, Brown Chemical Co., 1890-1900 / THF277429
The popularity of patent medicines encouraged entrepreneurs to manufacture their own remedies and enter the industry. Some of the entrepreneurs were practitioners-turned-businessmen. Others were savvy businessmen with a flair for marketing. Dr. John Samuel Carter, maker of Carter's Little Liver Pills, was actually a pharmacist before establishing his patent medicine business. Unfortunately, other entrepreneurs were con artists, concocting their own remedies that either did absolutely nothing or were harmful to those who consumed them. As time would tell, many popular patent medicines were found to contain harmful ingredients such as morphine, cocaine, or dangerous levels of alcohol. This trade card advertises Burdock Blood Bitters, which was found to contain 25.2% alcohol by volume.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn & Co., circa 1885 / THF215182
While there were hundreds of patent medicines created during this time, the most popular were the ones that were heavily advertised. Trade cards of the era inform us of the major players in the industry and allow us to examine the advertising tactics used by manufacturers to entice potential customers. To learn more about patent medicines and the entrepreneurs behind some of the most popular companies, check out the post “Patent Medicine Entrepreneurs: Friend or ‘Faux’?”
The Initiative for Entrepreneurship, funded by the William Davidson Foundation, has given The Henry Ford an amazing opportunity to analyze our collections through an entrepreneurial lens and highlight the stories of entrepreneurs from the past so that they might inspire the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. To learn more about what The Henry Ford is doing to support and encourage entrepreneurship, please visit the initiative’s landing page.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to all of the curators who have worked with me to share these stories over the last two years, and to the Initiative for Entrepreneurship digitization staff for making the collections accessible to the public.
Before modern pharmaceuticals and medical practice came to be widely accepted, people had essentially three choices to try to cure what ailed them, none of which was perfect. The first choice was to be treated by a doctor, if one was available, affordable, and trustworthy. The second option was to try a home remedy, found in cookbooks or periodicals or passed down through a family member. The third choice was patent medicines. Readily available and relatively inexpensive—though often suspect and sometimes downright dangerous—patent medicines were a popular option for treatment throughout the 1800s.
The popularity of patent medicines encouraged entrepreneurs to manufacture their own remedies and enter the flourishing patent medicine industry. Some of these entrepreneurs were licensed doctors who decided to become businessmen instead of practitioners. Others were businessmen with a flair for marketing who saw an opportunity to use their skills to peddle an acquired formula or small medicine business they purchased. Unfortunately, some entrepreneurial manufacturers were complete con artists concocting their own remedies that either did absolutely nothing or were quite dangerous to whomever consumed them. Through this blog post, we'll explore the stories behind various entrepreneurial patent medicine manufacturers.
Trade Card for Brown’s Iron Bitters, Brown Chemical Co., 1890-1900. Patent medicines were often advertised as “cure-alls” with packaging and advertisements listing illnesses and complaints that the product was intended to “cure.” This trade card for Brown’s Iron Bitters claims that it cured “indigestion, dyspepsia, intermittent fevers, want of appetite, loss of strength, lack of energy, malaria and malaria fevers,” and other things. / THF277429
The term “patent medicine” is misleading as the medicine advertised was very rarely patented. It originally referred to medicine in which the ingredients were “granted protection for exclusivity,” meaning that the same composition could not be sold by another manufacturer. While it was relatively simple to obtain a patent for medicine, most manufacturers didn’t apply for one because it meant that they would have to divulge the remedy’s ingredients. More often than not, these medicines contained dangerous substances like morphine, cocaine, and high levels of alcohol.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn & Co., circa 1885. A study conducted by the American Medical Association in 1917 found that Burdock Blood Bitters, a popular patent medicine, contained 25.2% alcohol by volume. This medicine, and others like it, would most likely dull any pain (thanks to the alcohol) but its contents also increased the likelihood of developing dependency or addiction in adults, and could be fatal to children. / THF215182
Having originated in England in the 17th century, patent medicines made their way to America in the 18th century and were a major industry by the 1850s. The last half of the 1800s is considered the “golden age” of American patent medicine, with hundreds of products flooding the market. A number of factors led to this boom in the industry. For one, advances in industrial and manufacturing technology made the process of producing bottles, containers, labels, and the medicine itself more efficient. As the century progressed, advanced transportation methods opened new markets across the continent. Additionally, the introduction of color printing created an advertising frenzy with thousands of newspaper, magazine, trade card, and poster advertisements. And finally, there were essentially no regulations imposed on the drug trade at this time, meaning that individuals could put whatever they wanted into a remedy and advertise it however they pleased. All of this culminated to ensure that the patent medicine trade was highly lucrative, encouraging enterprising individuals to launch their own brand of medicines regardless of medical knowledge or background.
Trade Card for Dr. Harter’s Iron Tonic, 1875-1890. Trade cards were the most popular method for advertising patent medicines. This puzzle card for Dr. Harter’s Iron Tonic featured hidden figures within a drawing for customers to find. / THF214474
While there were hundreds of patent medicines created during this time, the most successful were the ones that were heavily advertised. Consumers encountered many advertisements and brand recognition became extremely important with so many patent medicines on the market. Trade cards of the era inform us who the major players were in the patent medicine industry. They also allow us to examine the advertising tactics used by patent medicine manufacturers to entice potential customers.
Foster, Milburn & Co.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn, & Co., circa 1885. / THF215179
Orrin Foster and Thomas Milburn were patent medicine manufacturers and distributors. They organized their first business in the 1870s in Toronto before opening a distribution office in Buffalo, New York. The company’s best-known product was Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil, which the pair had purchased from Dr. Samuel N. Thomas in 1876 and marketed heavily to the general public. The back of this trade card for Burdock Blood Bitters—another well-known product by the company—features a popular strategy for advertising patent medicines: testimonials. Testimonials provided prospective buyers with “first-hand experiences” of those who had tried the product. With praises sung by doctors, reverends, and members of the general public, testimonials instilled confidence in the products, persuading consumers to buy. Whether the testimonials were truthful or fabricated is up for debate.
Humphreys’ Homeopathic Medicine Company is an example of a patent medicine company that actually had a proprietor in the medical field. The company was founded by Frederick K. Humphreys in 1853. He graduated in 1850 from the Pennsylvania Homeopathic Medical College with a Doctor of Homeopathic Medicine degree and established a successful medical practice. Homeopathy is an alternative medical practice based in the belief that the same substances that cause disease in healthy people can be used to treat those who are sick with similar symptoms. According to the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors, Humphreys helped “form the New York State Homeopathic Medical Society and became an important member of the American Homeopathic Institute.” In 1854, Humphreys began manufacturing and selling homeopathic remedies. Witch Hazel Oil—for curing itching, pain from cuts and burns, chapped hands and feet, bug bites, sunburns, etc.—became one of Humphreys' most popular products over time.
Lydia E. Pinkham’s Medicine Company
Trade Card for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, 1880-1890. / THF298977
Lydia E. Pinkham was one of the most prominent names in the sector of the patent medicine industry that catered to “female complaints.” Before entering the business, Pinkham was a teacher and mother. It is said that she was known among her neighbors for mixing her own herbal remedies, keeping a personal notebook she called “Medical Directions for Ailments.” Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound is believed to have been a secret formula given to Lydia’s husband as payment for money owed to him. The couple began producing the compound in 1875, thus entering the patent medicine business. Their sons, Will and Dan, were tasked with marketing the product. In 1879, Dan came up with the idea of using Lydia’s portrait in advertisements—the first woman’s likeness to be used in advertising. Attaching her likeness and signature to advertising was a huge hit, providing women with a friendly and “knowing” face, which instilled confidence in the product.
Carter Medicine Company
Trade Card for Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Carter Medicine Company, 1880-1890. Trade cards were generally printed as small rectangles but unique shapes, like the painter’s palette shape of this card, were also created and were a beneficial advertising tool. / THF297541
The Carter Medicine Company provides another example of a patent medicine manufacturer with a background in the medical field. Pharmacist Dr. John Samuel Carter began selling “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” out of his pharmacy in Pennsylvania for those with “digestive distress.” The product gained popularity throughout the 1850s and in 1880, Carter formed a partnership with New York businessman Brent Good to establish Carter Medicine Company. By World War I, "Carter's Little Liver Pills" had become such a staple in American households that the company remained in business despite a global economic downturn.
C.I. Hood & Co.
Trade Card for C.I. Hood & Co. with Hood’s Photos of the World, “Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris,” 1890-1910. Trade Cards from Hood’s Photos of the World series gave customers views of faraway places, providing a window to the broader world. / THF297455
C.I. Hood & Co. was one of the most recognized names in the patent medicine industry. In 1875, Charles Ira Hood opened his drug store, C.I Hood & Company, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Within a few years, Hood’s was one of the largest patent medicine producers in the United States. The thing that set Hood’s company apart was its state-of-the-art factory, which included its own advertising department. Hood’s factory produced all sorts of ephemera, including calendars, trade cards, and even cookbooks, which helped make it one of the most successful patent medicine manufacturers.
Seth Arnold worked in a series of industries before entering the patent medicine business in the late 1840s. Following a venture in hotel management, Arnold took several years off due to his health, beginning in 1835. He was said to have used this time to create a remedy for his illness, a medicine that came to be called “Dr. Arnold’s Balsam.” In the New England Union Directory of 1849, Arnold was cited as an “eclectic physician and patent medicine manufacturer” in Smithfield, Rhode Island, where he was also a physician for cholera. In addition to his balsam, two additional products were created—“Cough Killer” and “Bilious Pills”—to be sold by his company, known as Dr. Seth Arnold’s Medical Corporation. Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer was believed to be his most popular product, but the others were successful as well. If the testimonial on the back of the trade card above is to be believed, customers as far away as Nebraska used Dr. Seth Arnold’s Bilious Pills.
Sterling Remedy Company
Trade Card for “No-To-Bac” Tobacco Habit Cure, Sterling Products Co., circa 1894. / THF298541
Sterling Remedy Company provides an example of a businessman entering the patent medicine industry without any medical knowledge or background. H.L. Kramer was a self-made businessman who established a publishing and advertising company in Lafayette, Indiana, and held interest or managerial positions in the Humane Remedy Company and the Universal Remedy Company (both manufacturers of patent medicines). One of Kramer’s advertising clients was John W. Heath, a local Indiana banker who owned Sterling Remedy Company. Heath also consulted with Kramer on a project to develop a local health spring into a medicinal spa. Following Heath’s death in 1890, Kramer bought out his widow’s interest in the Sterling Remedy Company and the medical springs. By the mid-1890s, Kramer had launched the springs as a “fashionable Midwestern health resort” known as “Mudlavia” because of its specialty mud bath cures. Under Kramer’s leadership (and with thousands of dollars spent on advertising yearly), Sterling Remedy Company gained popularity. Universal Remedy Company’s “No-To-Bac,” a popular tobacco habit cure, was merged with Sterling Remedy Company’s product line. A common side effect of No-To-Bac was constipation, so the company produced Cascarets to help with this inconvenience. Cascarets became the company's most popular product. Despite success, Kramer sold the company in 1909.
Dr. J.C. Ayer & Co.
Trade Card for Ayer’s Hair Vigor, circa 1885. Ayer’s Hair Vigor became a popular hair restorative following its introduction in the 1860s. Examples of packaging for this patent medicine are on display at the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village. / THF297658
James C. Ayer was one of the most recognized names in the patent medicine industry. This is largely due to the fact that Ayer was an advertising genius, producing thousands of advertisements in the form of trade cards, almanacs, posters, and newspaper and magazine ads. Young Ayer apprenticed for several years at Jacob Robbins’ Apothecary Shop in Ledyard, Connecticut, and studied under Dr. Samuel Dana. Within a few years, Ayer purchased the apothecary shop and began manufacturing his own medicines, including Cherry Pectoral. His medicine was so popular that he was forced to find a larger manufacturing facility, moving operations to Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1855, Ayer entered into a partnership with his brother to form J.C. Ayer & Company, manufacturing patent medicines. Additional remedies created by Ayer since introducing Cherry Pectoral included Cathartic Pills in 1853, Sarsaparilla and Ague Cure in 1858, and restorative Hair Vigor in 1867. In 1860, the Philadelphia Medical University awarded Ayer with an honorary medical degree, leading to the addition of “Dr.” to the company’s name.
While trade cards were certainly one of the most effective advertising methods for patent medicines, major manufacturers printed their own almanacs as well. Dozens of almanacs littered the counters of local general stores and urban pharmacies. In an average year, J.C. Ayer & Co. produced roughly 16 million almanacs. In 1889, Ayer’s distributed 25 million almanacs in 21 languages.
While the masses were content to self-prescribe patent medicines for themselves, there were some who questioned the effectiveness of the products and the legitimacy of their proprietors. As previously mentioned, relatively few restrictions were placed on the drug trade at this time and manufacturers were not inclined to provide a list of ingredients for their products. Some reputable doctors took it upon themselves to conduct studies to see what some of the most popular patent medicines were made of, and the results were often startling.
Many medicines were found to contain dangerous levels of alcohol. For instance, one study found that Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound contained roughly 20% alcohol. Other remedies were found to contain morphine (like Dr. Seth Arnold's Cough Killer) and cocaine. With reports such as these making the general public aware of dangerous substances in some of their favorite medicines, and growing concern against the manufactured food industry regarding sanitation practices and food additives, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, placing federal regulations on these trades. For patent medicines, the passage of the act called for manufacturers to list any harmful ingredients on their containers and prohibited any false or misleading advertising.
Page from “Ayer’s American Almanac, 1907” noting that its products do not contain alcohol. / THF285178
Following the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, there was a significant decrease in the number of patent medicines on the market, but there were some companies that were able to remain in business. One of the most successful was Carter Medicine Company. It sustained its legitimacy even with the passage of the Act, and throughout the 20th century, the company diversified its products, leading to research in anti-perspirants and deodorant. The company is still in business today as Carter-Wallace, with well-known products such as Arrid, an antiperspirant and deodorant, and Nair, a hair remover for women.
Two other manufacturers previously mentioned—the Lydia Pinkham Company and Humphreys' Homeopathic Medicine Company (now Humphreys' Pharmacal, Inc.)—also remain in business today with their products available for purchase online.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Donna Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and resources on the patent medicine industry and for reviewing this content.
In 2017, The Henry Ford acquired a significant collection of materials from the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) when financial challenges forced that organization to close its doors. Founded in 1960, ATHM was located in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city key to the story of the Industrial Revolution and to the American textile industry. For decades, ATHM gathered and interpreted a superb collection of textile machinery and tools, clothing and textiles, and an extensive collection of archival materials. The Henry Ford was among the many museums, libraries, and other organizations to which ATHM's collections were transferred. The Henry Ford acquired textile machinery, clothing, and textiles, as well as archival material that includes approximately 3,000 cubic feet of printed materials and fabric samples from various textile manufacturers, dating from the early 1800s into the mid-to-late 1900s. As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, The Henry Ford has digitized many sample books, as well as product literature, from the archival material within the ATHM collection.
So, what is a sample book? Textile manufacturing companies – commonly referred to as mills or print works – kept a record of fabrics produced by the company within a given year or season. These records typically consist of a fabric sample attached to a blank page in a bound book, and are often accompanied by information including pattern name, inventory number, dyestuffs, and in a few cases, the retail company for which the fabric was made.
The pages of these books offer a rich look at the broad range of fabrics produced by an increasingly mechanized textile industry, allowing researchers to see the evolution in textile design, materials, and manufacturing techniques. They also allow a glimpse into the various methods of recordkeeping among the many companies represented in the collection. Finally, the books—and the fabric samples within them—provide us with a broad view into the rich color palate of American textiles of the 1800s and 1900s. This is especially helpful for exploring clothing and textiles in the era before widespread color photography, where our understanding of the period is dulled by black-and-white depictions. The sample books are strikingly beautiful, offering an intriguing glimpse of the evolution of styles and patterns over time.
In addition to the sample books, we had the opportunity to digitize several examples of product literature from the 1900s, including catalogs and brochures. The product literature was used for marketing and sales, rather than as a record of production. These materials offer insight into the fabric and designs available for clothing or domestic use during the 1900s.
Have I piqued your interest? Below are a few favorite items I’ve come across in this collection.
Cocheco Manufacturing Company (Dover, New Hampshire & Lawrence, Massachusetts)
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, 1876-1877 / THF670738, THF670787, THF670757
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, November to December 1877 / THF670668, THF670707, THF670697
Sample Book, January 9, 1880 to April 22, 1880 / THF600226
Hamilton Manufacturing Company (Lowell, Massachusetts)
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford for sharing her expertise of the textile industry and for reviewing this content.
The Henry Ford has long explored creative ways to share our world-renowned collections and provide our guests and visitors with exciting new ways to interact with them. Earlier this year, we launched a new virtual experience that we created in partnership withSaganworks, a technology startup from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
What we created is a Sagan: a virtual room capable of storing content in a variety of file formats, and experienced like a virtual gallery. The Henry Ford curated this Sagan to highlight some of the work the museum has done under the auspices of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, which focuses on providing resources and encouragement for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. Our Sagan highlights entrepreneurial stories and collections, displaying a sampling of objects we’ve digitized and content we’ve created, all in one place.
As a startup, Saganworks is continuously adapting and evolving its product, and we are happy to announce that we now have the ability to embed our Sagan right here within our blog for you to interact with. (Though please note that this is best experienced on desktop—to experience the Sagan on your phone, you’ll be prompted to download the Saganworks app.) Continue Reading