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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged entrepreneurship

As The Henry Ford celebrates the milestone of digitizing its 100,000th artifact, we have been given the opportunity to reflect on the importance of this work and how it positively impacts our ability to share our stories with the world.

What does digitization mean? Digitization is the process of getting an artifact online for the public to view in a digital format. The Digitization and Digital Content pillar of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship directly contributes to the museum’s digitization effort. As Project Curator, I work with other curators to identify entrepreneurial stories within our collections and select items to be digitized by the Entrepreneurship team. I am then able to use the digitized artifacts within pieces of digital content, such as blog posts and expert sets, to share these stories with the public.

Product bottles sitting on a table

Arrangement of barrels with text on them
Product Catalogue of F. & J. Heinz Company, circa 1878. Through the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we were able to digitize this amazing catalog of F. & J. Heinz products from The Henry Ford’s sizable H.J. Heinz Company collection. Digitization of this catalog, as well as other objects from the Heinz collection, provide greater resources for researchers and visitors interested in learning more about the history of this company / THF291879 & THF291887

So how does this process begin? For me, it starts with doing background research on the individual, company, or collection identified, and then spending time in the Benson Ford Research Center looking at every item in that particular collection. This can take hours—sometimes days—depending on the size of the collection, but it’s fun to work with the physical documents, photographs, and other materials within the collection and see what interesting things I discover.
Woman sitting at table with boxes and images both standing up and lying flat

Project Curator Samantha Johnson with items from the H.J. Heinz Company Collection in the Benson Ford Research Center.

While looking through the collection, a story begins to unfold and I can start to see how we might utilize some of the items to tell that story in a blog post or expert set. When selecting items for digitization, I really start to think about what items would visually represent the story I’m trying to tell. I also look for items that I find personally interesting and artifacts that I think others will enjoy. But to use the items in digital content, they must be cataloged and imaged.

What does it mean to catalog an artifact? Cataloging is the process of entering important identifying information about an artifact into the museum’s collection’s management database. Important information includes the artifact’s unique ID number, title, maker history, date, location, and description of the artifact, among other things. Catalog records are not only accessed by internal staff, but much of the information is also made accessible to a global audience through our Digital Collections – one of the many ways we present information about our collections to researchers, other organizations, and the general public around the world.

Woman in office cubicle with book open on desk in front of her

Project Cataloging Specialist Katrina Wioncek cataloging a sample book from the American Textile History Museum Collection. (Photograph by Samantha Johnson)

For the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, after individual items have been selected for digitization, the Project Cataloging Specialist makes sure that the items are cataloged and any important information is included within the catalog record. It is extremely helpful if the catalog record has an image of the object available, which is one reason why the next process, imaging, is so important.

What does imaging mean?  Imaging is the process of rendering an object, document, photograph, etc. into a digital format. For 3D objects, imaging occurs through photography—for example, to learn how we photograph our quilt collection, check out this blog post. For 2D materials, digitization can occur by scanning or by photographing the objects, depending on their size, material, fragility, and other considerations. The images must also be cropped and processed through programs such as Adobe Photoshop—but it is important to note that we do not use these types of programs to make the objects look better. Our imaging goal is to provide an accurate representation of the physical object.

Woman looking at camera, standing at table setup with lights and camera

Project Digitization Specialist Karen Wissink imaging an artifact. (Photograph by Katrina Wioncek)

For the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, after the item is cataloged, the Project Digitization Specialist images the object and processes the image(s), then uploads it to our collection management database. When the artifacts are both cataloged and imaged, they are harvested to our Digital Collections, for people all over the world to enjoy.

Once artifacts are online, I can then use them in digital content like blog posts, using the objects to help share stories with the public. “The Larkin Idea” is one of my favorite posts, because we had the opportunity to tell the entrepreneurial story of the Larkin Company utilizing a variety of digitized artifacts.

Digitization for the Initiative for Entrepreneurship began in February 2019, and since then our team has digitized nearly 2,500 artifacts from 19 different collections! This initiative, 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. Check out our blog for more about these stories and The Henry Ford’s digitization program.

The Henry Ford is facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the impact of our 16-week closure and reduced operations. We need your help in securing our future. Love the Henry Ford? Please support all that we treasure—including our digitization program. Longtime supporters of The Henry Ford will match your donation dollar for dollar, so your contribution will have double the impact.
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#digitization100K, digital collections, digitization, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, by Samantha Johnson, entrepreneurship

Green card with text and image of woman in wispy dress with wings
Trade Card for the Larkin Soap Company, 1900 / THF224516

As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we had the opportunity to delve into the history of the Larkin Company. What began as a small soap manufacturing business in 1875 became one of the nation’s leading mail-order businesses by 1900. This post highlights the Larkin Company’s rise to popularity under the multi-faceted, ingenious marketing strategy known as “The Larkin Idea."

While the Larkin Company sold its products throughout the country, the company had special appeal for rural customers, offering a broader range of product choices than stores in nearby villages and towns. The company would eventually develop a distribution system, contracting with local deliverymen to deliver Larkin products right to customers’ doorsteps – rather than customers having to pick them up in town. In the early 21st century, people today welcome this same opportunity for conveniently delivered goods!

Cat and ducks around feed dish, also contains text
Trade Card for “Boraxine” Soap, J.D. Larkin & Co., 1882 / THF296340

In 1875, having worked in the soap business for more than a decade, John D. Larkin created his own soap company in Buffalo, New York, called J.D. Larkin, Manufacturer of Plain and Fancy Soaps. This would later become known as the Larkin Company. The first product, made for laundry use, was a yellow bar known as Sweet Home Soap. Boraxine, a flaked laundry soap, quickly followed, and continued to be a signature item in product lists throughout the company’s history.

Blue, orange and white box with text
Boraxine Soap Powder, 1925-1940 / THF155045

The first salesman for the company was Larkin’s brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard was a skilled promoter and successful salesman, devising advertising strategies and boosting sales. In 1878, Hubbard was made a partner in the business, resulting in the company’s name change to J.D. Larkin & Company. With this partnership, Larkin oversaw the manufacturing of the products and Hubbard was placed in charge of advertising and promotion. One of the first strategies Hubbard adopted was offering a chromolithograph (color print) as a premium, or free giveaway, in each box of Boraxine. By 1883 – after additional products were added to Larkin’s line – Hubbard began offering finer premiums, such as a Japanese silk handkerchief in each box of “Elite” Toilet Soap.

Card with text
Back of a Trade Card for J.D. Larkin & Co.’s “Elite” Toilet Soap, 1882 / THF296327

After years of “slinging soap,” Hubbard noted that direct sales to housewives were more profitable than selling to local merchants. The company was doing quite well – having distributors in every state east of the Rocky Mountains in its first decade – but Larkin and Hubbard believed that the company had even greater potential. In order to maximize profits, the company decided to eliminate all middlemen (including the sales force), thus entering the mail-order industry. The mail-order business was not new – Montgomery Ward & Company had made this popular a decade earlier. But in 1885, Hubbard developed a plan, called “The Larkin Idea,” that offered giveaways with the purchase of particular items from the company’s mail-order catalogs.

Two-page spread with images of rugs and text
Page advertising Rugs as Larkin Premiums, in Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan: Factory-to-Family,” Fall and Winter 1917-1918 / THF298153

“The Larkin Idea” was simple: In cutting out all middlemen and selling Larkin products directly to housewives, the money that would have gone to the payroll of the middlemen would instead be used to create desirable premiums that would be given to customers with the purchase of Larkin products. This idea was encapsulated by the slogan, “Factory-to-Family,” and the tagline of “The Larkin Idea” became, “Save All Cost Which Adds No Value.”

Man standing with hands on hips on porch or gazebo with woman and two children on swing nearby; also contains text
Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Factory-To-Family Plan,” Spring and Summer, 1915 / THF297907

The first iteration of “The Larkin Idea” came in 1886 with the introduction of a Combination Box. By this time, the company was offering nine different soap products. At first, the Combination Box sold for $6, but a few years later, a $10 option emerged, offering enough products to last a family the entire year. The $10 Combination Boxes quickly gained popularity as customers could receive 142 products – 100 of those being Sweet Home Soap – and a free premium worth $10. Larkin also introduced a 30-day policy in which customers had 30 days to try a product before paying for it. This gave peace of mind to customers who wanted to try a product, risk-free, and also developed trust between the company and consumer. The public embraced “The Larkin Idea” with enthusiasm, ordering nearly 91,000 Combination Boxes a year! 

Images of a number of household items and text
Advertisement for Larkin Premiums, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298080

By 1892, the company changed its name once more, to Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company. As the popularity of the Combination Boxes grew, Larkin sought to expand its product and premium offerings. In 1897, Larkin offered 16 products – including 14 different soaps, a cold cream, and tooth powder – and that number increased every year. This led to the company eventually dropping “soap” from its name to become the Larkin Company in 1904.

Did You Know?
After leaving the Larkin Company, Elbert Hubbard would go on to found the Roycroft community of East Aurora, New York, in the mid-1890s. At the Roycroft community, hundreds of artisans came to live and work as part of an Arts and Crafts utopian community. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged quality craftsmanship of handcrafted works of simple form as a reaction to poorly made factory produced goods. With his marketing prowess and passion, Hubbard led the Roycrofters to become one of the most successful communities of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Explore more on the Arts and Crafts movement on our blog and in this Expert Set.


With the success of the Combination Box and the increasing number of customers nationwide, the company introduced another facet of “The Larkin Idea,” which would prove to be invaluable: Larkin Clubs. Women across the country were encouraged to become Larkin Secretaries, and as such they would gather friends and family to purchase products together. A Club-of-Ten was encouraged to have all members buy $1 worth of products each month, and a different member of the club would receive a premium of their choice every month.

Images of women and text
Advertisement for a Larkin Club-of-Ten in the Trade Catalog, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298079

Beige fabric forming a type of hammock, suspended from rectangular frame and four ropes
This Larkin Company infant swing/bed, was given to a woman by her sister, who sold Larkin products. (Gift of Ellen J. Adams) / THF174549

Women found a sense of pride in their participation in the clubs and enjoyed the social aspect of monthly meetings. At its peak, there were 90,000 Larkin Secretaries around the country. The Larkin Clubs were such a tremendous promotional force that the company stopped selling Combination Boxes in order to focus on its ever-increasing product and premium offerings. By 1905, the company began offering teas, spices, and additional foodstuffs among its products. Five years later, the company had added paints and varnishes, as well as rugs, clothing, and other textiles to its product line – along with 1,700 premiums to choose from, ranging from children’s toys to clothing to furniture. In 1915, the catalog featured 700 Larkin products spread over 33 pages, and offered 131 pages of premiums. One of the company’s advertising campaigns involved the idea that customers could furnish their entire house with Larkin products. This catalog for Larkin Wallpaper is an example of this idea in action.

Images of products and text
Page showing a variety of Larkin products from the Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Home-Helper,” circa 1910 / THF297831

Text and images of household items and furnishings
Larkin Premiums advertised in the publication, “My Larkin Clubs Earned These for Me,” circa 1912 / THF298076

Text and images of birds and birdcages
Page from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The World’s Greatest Premium Values,” Fall and Winter 1930. The catalog from 1930 included one of the more unusual premiums Larkin offered - Hartz Mountain Canaries (guaranteed to sing) or a pair of mated Love Birds. Click here to view the 1930 catalog! / THF298067

As “The Larkin Idea” continued to gain popularity, the Larkin Company sought to bring those companies that produced the premiums under the Larkin umbrella. At its height, Larkin had over 30 subsidiary companies, and had furnished seed money to establish such businesses as the Barcolo Manufacturing Company, to produce furniture, and Buffalo Pottery to produce pottery and kitchenware. Since 1896, the company had begun expanding its manufacturing complex. This process continued through 1912, with 21 new structures built to accommodate the rapidly growing product and premiums list.

Multicolored pottery candlestick with botanical and other designs
Deldare Candlestick, produced by Buffalo Pottery, 1911 / THF176916

Images of office workers and building, along with text
Page from Larkin Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908. The Larkin Administration Building, completed in 1906 in Buffalo, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. / THF297783

Beginning in 1905, the company established branches and warehouses – first in Cleveland, and then in Boston, Chicago, New York City, Peoria and Philadelphia. With this expansion, Larkin was able to better serve its customers across the country. Despite experiencing significant growth, by 1918 the company found it had a surplus of food products far exceeding demand. Unable to move the product fast enough through mail order or the Secretary system, Larkin created retail establishments called “Larkin Economy Stores” as a way to sell these products. By 1922, there were 103 stores in Buffalo and northwestern New York, as well as others near the additional branches.

Images of buildings with text
Back cover from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908 / THF297811

“The Larkin Idea” had taken the company to significant heights. By the mid-1920s, however, the company was beginning to falter for a number of reasons. National chains like A&P grocery stores and Woolworth’s presented stiff competition. Automobiles made going shopping easier, causing mail-order businesses to become less popular. Perhaps the greatest influence in Larkin’s demise was World War I, which had brought many Larkin Secretaries out of their homes and into the workforce, weakening the Larkin sales structure. The crippling economy during the Great Depression also impacted the company.

Between 1924 and 1926, all of the company’s top leadership either retired or passed away, including Larkin himself. Having failed to pass along knowledge and nurture younger leadership, the company was left with little expertise, leading to the company’s gradual closing.

Man, woman, and little girl with table and lamp; also contains text
Cover for Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan, Factory-To-Family,” Fall & Winter, 1917-1918 / THF298101

In 1939, the decision was made to stop manufacturing soap products, and two years later the manufacture of all products and premiums ceased as well. With an abundance of remaining inventory of both products and premiums, the Larkin Company was still able to fill orders until 1962.

What had started as a small soap manufacturing company became prominent enough to hold its own despite the tremendous popularity of mass-marketers, like Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward & Company. Through innovative marketing strategies and an entrepreneurial spirit, the Larkin Company experienced significant growth in a short period of time, finding its way into households across America. 


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 knowledge and for reviewing this content.

mail order, shopping, home life, furnishings, entrepreneurship, by Samantha Johnson

In recent months, we previewed a new virtual experience that we’ve created in partnership with Saganworks, a technology startup from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Today, we are happy to officially launch this experience for you to interact with!

Virtual barn-like space with many colorful images on the walls, with fruit tree & crates as well
A view of the Produce Industry section, featuring items from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, the Label Collection, and photographs of Entrepreneur-in-Residence Melvin Parson’s time at The Henry Ford.

What we’ve 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 and Saganworks have partnered together to use 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. Through this grant, we have been given the opportunity to examine some of our collections through an entrepreneurial lens, digitizing thousands of artifacts and sharing these stories through blog posts, expert sets and interviews with our Entrepreneurs in Residence. Our Sagan highlights these entrepreneurial stories and collections, displaying a sampling of objects we’ve digitized and content we’ve created all in one place – starting with those related to our collecting themes of Agriculture and the Environment and Social Transformation.

Virtual space with wood floor, white walls, and black-and-white images on the walls
Text panels, like the one seen here, are featured throughout the Sagan to provide information about the items you’re seeing in that section.

As previously mentioned, our Sagan is experienced like a virtual gallery with objects and photographs arranged on the walls – similar to an exhibit. Unlike an exhibit, however, the Sagan does not have extensive labels throughout. Instead, one brief text panel can be found in each section of the Sagan describing the collection within that space and how it relates to entrepreneurship.

Once you’re in the Sagan, you’ll have the opportunity to move throughout the space using the arrow or WASD keys on your keyboard and can scan the room by right-clicking and dragging your mouse in the direction you want to view. (Laptop users can hold the “control” key and use the trackpad to scan the room as well.) Within the Sagan, you’ll find photos and documents that we’ve digitized as part of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship. To view an item up close, select the artifact and click on the description that appears or double-click the artifact itself. On tables throughout the Sagan, you’ll also find digital content elements, such as blog posts and artifact sets, that provide further context. Double-clicking these elements will take you to the blog or set on The Henry Ford’s website.

Virtual gallery space with artifacts on walls and a stack of barrels
This stack of vinegar barrels was customized and created by Saganworks exclusively for The Henry Ford’s Sagan.

One of the exciting features we were able to incorporate within our Sagan is 3D artwork customized for The Henry Ford by the talented artists at Saganworks. Our 3D artwork includes an orange tree, fruit crate stands with life-like fruit, pickle barrels, and a larger-than-life stack of vinegar barrels, representing the vinegar products sold by the H.J. Heinz Company. Also visible within the space are virtual furniture pieces created by Saganworks and available to anyone who uses the program to help customize a space and create a mood within each room.

Empty virtual room on right; "furniture" panel on left with chair and shelf options
There are tons of furniture options to help furnish your virtual space from bookshelves and couches to sculptures and decorative artwork.

So what else makes The Henry Ford’s Sagan extra special? Our collections, of course. Items from the following collections are featured within our Sagan:

H.J. Heinz Company Collection (broken into two sections) Explore further by visiting the collection record, finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.

  • Production – Entrepreneur H.J. Heinz entered the processed food industry in 1869 when he began selling horseradish out of his family home. Upon achieving success, his product line quickly expanded to include other products, such as pickled foods, condiments, and preserves. The items shown here document the production aspect of the H.J. Heinz Company, including photographs of the farms where the fruits and vegetables were grown and harvested, as well as images of the factory where the items were processed and packaged and the employees who worked there. The featured content element describes a Heinz employee notebook we found in our collection.
  • Marketing – H.J. Heinz was at the forefront of creative marketing. He rarely missed an opportunity to market his “57 Varieties” – a catchy slogan he created despite offering a line of more than 60 packaged food products. A prolific promoter, Heinz aimed to reach consumers in stores, at home, and everywhere in-between. The items shown here document the many advertising strategies of the H.J. Heinz Company, including streetcar advertisements, trade cards, labels, advertising drawings and illustrations, and photographs of elaborate grocery store displays. The featured content element explores other aspects of H.J. Heinz’s entrepreneurial journey.

Richard J.S. Gutman Diner Collection –
The American diner is recognized as an icon of roadside architecture and entrepreneurial enterprise. The items shown here come from the collection of Richard J.S. Gutman, the leading expert on American diners. Photographs, trade catalogs, menus, and matchbooks help tell the story of innovation and entrepreneurship from the craftsmen and designers who built the dining cars to the owners and operators who served customers every day. Explore further by visiting the press release, finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.

Recipe Booklet Collection – Recipe booklets allow us to examine the changing eating habits of Americans and discover early products from some of the well-known companies in the food industry today. For many companies, recipe booklets were a method of marketing, offering creative uses for their products. Featured content elements include a history of the Jell-O Company and an opportunity to browse the booklets from the entrepreneurial companies included in this section. Explore further by visiting the finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.

Detroit Publishing Company Collection – The Detroit Publishing Company (1895–1924) was an entrepreneurial venture that produced, published and distributed photographic views of the world. The company’s photographers captured images ranging from the exotic to the ordinary, including special events, everyday activities, infrastructure, various industries and views of cities and countrysides. The images shown here document the West Coast fruit industry, including photographs of the fields and groves where the fruit was grown, and images of the fruit being packaged and crated for shipping. Explore further by visiting the collection record, finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.

Label Collection - Labels are important advertising tools that inform customers what a product is, who produced it and where it comes from. As competition increased within the West Coast fruit industry and the canned food industry in the late 1800s, labels and brand identification became even more important. The labels shown here include some of the entrepreneurial companies within our larger Label Collection. Featured content elements explore the history of labels, the process of lithography (how labels were made) and the entrepreneurial journey of “The Fruit King.” Explore further by visiting the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.

Entrepreneur-In-Residence Program, Melvin Parson – Melvin Parson, founder of We The People Growers Association, was the Spring 2019 Entrepreneur in Residence at The Henry Ford, funded by the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship. Driven by his mission for equality and social justice, Farmer Parson uses vegetable farming as a vehicle to address social ills. The featured content element links to an interview with Parson where he shares his journey and mission to secure equality and social justice through urban farming. Explore further by visiting the artifacts related to Parson that we’ve digitized.

Virtual space with image of smiling man with shovel and text panel on wooden wall
Visitors to our Sagan have the opportunity to click on individual items located on the walls or can interact with our content elements (blog posts and expert sets) throughout the Sagan. The content element featured here is an expert set of video clips from an interview with Melvin Parson, spring 2019 Entrepreneur in Residence at The Henry Ford.

Have we piqued your interest yet? Click here to explore our Sagan on your own (please note that this experience will be best in the Chrome browser on a desktop computer). After providing your name and email, you’ll be able to fully enjoy this new virtual experience we’ve created. Or, if you're on your mobile device, check out our narrated walkthrough right here:

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Saganworks, technology, entrepreneurship, educational resources, by Samantha Johnson

Melville and Anna Bissell, husband and wife entrepreneurs, solved their own “sweeping” issues--then “swept” the market with their mechanical carpet sweeper.

Needed: A Better Way to Clean
Housework has always been physically demanding and time-consuming--including keeping floors free of dust and dirt. For centuries, people used brooms to tidy their homes. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first mechanical breakthrough in sweeping would appear.

thf208366
This trade card illustrates a more elaborately furnished--and more challenging to clean--home of the late 19th century. While brooms worked well enough on bare floors, they were much less effective at removing tracked-in dirt or coal dust from heating stoves that settled in carpets. THF208366

As house size grew and furnishings increased, people needed more effective methods of cleaning. Carpeting became very popular in middle- and upper middle-class homes during the last half of the 19th century--and it was more challenging to clean than bare floors. Going after dust and dirt with a broom on a carpeted floor wasn't terribly effective--it tended to just spread dust around. “Deep cleaning” one’s carpets was an elaborate process. Carpets had to be taken up once or twice a year, carried outside, and beaten with a carpet beater. The carpet then had to be reinstalled in the room.

Mechanical carpet sweepers made their debut in America during the mid-19th century. Carpet sweepers had a rotary brush connected to a pair of driving wheels. As the sweeper was pushed, the brush revolved, sweeping up and depositing dirt into a container that could be emptied easily. The United States Patent Office granted the first flurry of carpet sweeper patents in the late 1850s--five in 1858 and nine in 1859. Other patents would follow in the coming decades.

thf184126
The fashionably dressed middle-class housewife in this circa 1880 Goshen Sweeper Company trade card “demonstrates” the company’s product. (She reminds me of June Cleaver from the 1950s television show, “Leave it to Beaver”-- who vacuumed while wearing high heels and pearls!) THF184126

Sweeping the Market
Grand Rapids businessman and inventor Melville Bissell would design his own carpet sweeper in 1876.

Melville Bissell was a serial entrepreneur. In 1862, at the age of 19, Melville opened a grocery store with his father Alpheus in Kalamazoo, Michigan. By 1870, the Bissell family had moved to Grand Rapids where father and son operated a successful crockery and glassware store. Melville Bissell had married 19-year-old Anna Sutherland in 1865. Anna would prove to be an astute business partner.

The Bissells’ crockery and glassware stock arrived at their Grand Rapids store packed in sawdust or straw. Unpacking this merchandise before placing it on store shelves created a hard-to-clean-up mess-- sawdust and straw escaped the wooden crates and collected in carpet fibers. While the Bissells owned a mechanical carpet sweeper, they found it just wasn’t up to the task. Melville solved the annoying problem by developing a much better mechanical carpet sweeper and patenting it in 1876.

thf109597
Bissell Crown Jewell No. 3 carpet sweeper, 1889-1900
THF109597

Anna Bissell quickly recognized this improved sweeper’s marketability--American housewives could keep their homes clean even more effectively, reducing the drudgery of housekeeping!  She became the driving force of sales and marketing. The Bissells decided to distribute their product through houseware retailers, rather than door-to-door salesmen. Anna made many sales calls to stores in the Grand Rapids vicinity, succeeding in getting shopkeepers to purchase and display their carpet sweeper.  Soon, hired workmen were turning out 30 sweepers a day on the second floor of the Bissell’s crockery shop to meet demand.

tradecards
The left side of this circa 1880 Bissell trade card shows a vexed couple using a broom to clean their carpets. The right side depicts the couple--much happier now--using a Bissell carpet sweeper. (When holding the two-sided card up to the light, the entire message and images appear.) THF184124; T184125

thf184432
An image of the Bissell company factory and a list of Bissell carpet sweeper products appear on this 1888 invoice. THF184432

In 1883, Melville Bissell organized a stock company with a paid-up capital of $150,000 and built a five-story factory for manufacturing their carpet sweepers. When the factory burned the following year, the Bissells mortgaged the family home and other property to finance its reconstruction. Soon, the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company was on its way to dominating the field as carpet sweepers grew increasingly popular in the 1880s.

It was essential to not only have a good product--but be adept at marketing it effectively to potential customers. This Bissell trade card lists the many advantages of Bissell carpet sweeper--making it unquestionably better than sweeping with a broom! THF213981

thf277410
This "Christmas Bissellisms" advertising brochure suggests that a Bissell carpet sweeper would be a welcome Christmas gift for any woman. THF277410

Tragedy struck when Melville died of pneumonia in 1889 at the age of 45. Anna--now a widow with four children age 21, 7, 4 and 1--stepped in to lead the company. From the company’s beginning, Anna had been intimately involved in business affairs. Anna Bissell served as president of the Bissell company from 1889-1919--the first female CEO in the United States--and then as chair of the board from 1919-1934. She successfully managed the business, defending the company’s patents and marketing the sweepers throughout North America and Europe.

thf17277
This circa 1891 Bissell carpet sweeper was sold by J.C. Black & Son at their store, The Fair, in San Jose, California. THF17277

By the 1890s, the company had an international presence and was producing 1000 sweepers per day. In addition to the company’s branch office in New York, the Bissell company established factories in London, Paris, and Toronto, with agencies in 22 foreign countries. A progressive employer, Anna Bissell was among the first business leaders of the time to provide her employees with pension plans and workers compensation.

Melville and Anna Bissell took a risk and thought big. They might have chosen to remain focused on their crockery business. But their collective vision for success went beyond. Bissell carpet sweepers would dominate the mechanical sweeper market, as people “bisselled” their way to cleaner carpets and rugs.

Bissell, Inc. is still a privately-owned, family-led company today, selling a wide range of home care products.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

home life, entrepreneurship, by Jeanine Head Miller, Michigan

Throughout its history, the Burroughs Corporation adhered to the founding principles of William S. Burroughs – to respond to the human problems of the times with relevant technologies. As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we had the opportunity to delve into the Burroughs Corporation Collection, which consists of machinery, photographs, publications, and marketing materials for the business equipment that Burroughs manufactured.

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Patent Drawing Image for Burroughs’ Calculating Machine, awarded August 21, 1888. THF299109

William Seward Burroughs – grandfather to the Beat Generation author sharing the same name – was a banker from Auburn, New York. He was also an inventor with an aptitude for mechanical design. Burroughs suffered from tuberculosis and moved his family to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1882 on the suggestion of his doctor, who thought the warmer climate would be better for his health. While there, Burroughs rented bench space from a local machine-shop owner, Joseph Boyer, and began designs on a machine that could ease the work of figuring and re-figuring mathematical calculation by hand – work that proved tedious for bankers and shopkeepers alike. In 1886, with a working machine complete, Burroughs formed the American Arithmometer Company with co-founders Thomas Metcalfe, RM Scruggs, and William R. Pye, to produce and market his machine.

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American Arithmometer Company in St. Louis, MO, circa 1904 THF299012

The company’s first device was a simple addition and subtraction machine. Unfortunately, the machines didn’t work as well as planned. It was quickly discovered that accurate calculations required a specific amount of pressure to be applied to the handle. This was an unforeseen mechanical flaw that produced inaccurate calculations and caused bankers to lose faith in the machine, nearly causing the fledgling company’s failure. Burroughs was incredibly disappointed. In fact, he was in the process of quite literally throwing the machines out the window of his second-story workroom when he had the idea to use a dash-pot. A dash-pot is a mechanical device which resists motion – for instance, preventing heavy doors from slamming. This provided a uniform motion for the handle regardless of the force exerted upon it, regulating the mechanism.

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American Arithmometer Company “Bankers and Merchants Registering Accountant,” Adding Machine, circa 1890 THF172030

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Advertisement for the Burroughs Registering Accountant, 1901 THF299361

With the handle problem solved, bankers renewed their trust in the machines and bought them with enthusiasm. In the first decade, the company grew in staff and sales, increasing their product line to four models by 1898. Unfortunately, William S. Burroughs died the same year, but his company was left in good hands. Under President Joseph Boyer, the company experienced significant growth. By 1904, the company had outgrown its St. Louis facility, moving operations to Detroit, Michigan, where a 70,000-square foot factory was built. In 1905, the company was renamed the Burroughs Adding Machine Company as a tribute to its late founder.

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Burroughs Adding Machine Advertisement from 1915 THF299107

In the 1920s, the company continued to expand its operations, establishing worldwide sales in 60 countries and production in South America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. In the mid-1930s, recognizing the potential for additional advanced equipment, the company’s product line diversified to include over 450 models of manual and electric calculation devices, bookkeeping machines, and typewriters. 

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Page from Burroughs Annual Report Showing Burroughs’ United States and Foreign Plants in 1950 THF289007

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Burroughs Corporation Plant in Plymouth, Michigan, 1950-1965. The building was designed by Albert Kahn in 1938 THF288406

During World War II, Burroughs’ production was halted as the company collaborated with the National Defense Program to enter into military and war contracts. Its most influential contribution to the war effort was the development of the Norden bombsight in 1942. According to the Burroughs’ “History” booklet, this apparatus made “accurate, high-altitude bombing possible, and was considered by some military authorities as the single most significant device in shortening the war.” This same bombsight was used on the Enola Gay to accurately drop the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

Burroughs’ work throughout the war launched the company onto a different trajectory once military production was no longer required. Wartime needs had accelerated computer and electronics research, becoming a significant part of the company’s focus in the 1950s, along with defense, space research, banking, and business technology. In 1952, Burroughs built the core memory system for the ENIAC – the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer.

The 1950s were a time for diversification for Burroughs as the company acquired many other entities in order to expand its product capabilities. In 1953, to reflect its increasingly diverse product and service offerings, the company was renamed the Burroughs Corporation, and was recognized as a single outlet for a variety of business management products. One of the most significant acquisitions came in 1956, when Burroughs acquired ElectroData Corporation of Pasadena, California. This allowed Burroughs to further expand into the electronic computing market and led to the development of the B5000 series in 1961, which was celebrated as a groundbreaking scientific and business computer.

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Advertisement for the ElectroData E101 Machine, Part of the ElectroData Division of Burroughs Corporation THF299362

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dvertisement, “Breakthroughput,” for the Burroughs B5500 Information Processing System, 1964 THF299360

Successful collaboration during wartime prompted Burroughs Corporation to be awarded additional government and defense contracts throughout the 1960s. The company provided electronic computing solutions in the Navy’s POLARIS program, the Air Force’s SAGE, ALRI, ATLAS, and BUIC air defense networks, and the NORAD combat computing and data display system. According to the Burroughs’ “History” booklet, during the Cold War Burroughs computers were being “used to make split-second evaluations of threats to the North American continent using input from satellites and radar throughout the world.”

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Burroughs “AN/FST-2 Identification Friend or Foe/Selective Identification Feature (IFF/SIF),” for the SAGE Air Defense Radar System, 1960    THF170242

Burroughs also produced a transistorized guidance computer in 1957, which was used in the launch of Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – this same system was deployed in the 1960s to launch Mercury and Gemini space flights.

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Project Mercury Guidance Computer, 1959-1963. Project Mercury was the first space program dedicated to achieving human spaceflight. THF299110

By the 1970s, Burroughs had emerged as a major player in the computer industry, but was still in the shadow of powerhouses like IBM. To further its influence and market potential, the company began thinking about office automation and information management in a holistic way, providing all scales of computers from mini- and micro-computers to networks and large modular systems – along with the software and peripherals (printers, communications systems, displays, and keyboards) to complement them.

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Pages from the booklet, “Burroughs E8000,” circa 1965. The Burroughs E8000 management system provided a versatile accounting system for electronic data processing. THF298298

Throughout the early 1980s, additional acquisitions were achieved in order to fill technology voids and strengthen areas targeted for future growth. The company also developed joint ventures to strengthen business relationships. Despite this growth, IBM continued to dominate the market as the unrivaled leader of the computer industry. Hoping to challenge IBM, Burroughs embarked on a substantial entrepreneurial undertaking with Sperry Corporation in 1986. Combining the market positions, talent, and resources of both corporations, the merger was meant to signal a new era of competition. What resulted was one of the largest mergers ever to occur in the computer industry, and the creation of the new entity in information technology, Unisys.

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Unisys Equipment, 1986-1996  THF298315

From the adding machine to office equipment to computers that helped to send people into space, the Burroughs Corporation was steadfast in its pursuit of the latest research and in its development of cutting-edge technology. To view additional items we’ve already digitized from our Burroughs Corporation Collection, check out our Digital Collections page!  

Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communications & Information Technology, for sharing her knowledge and resources to assist in the writing of this post.

technology, entrepreneurship, computers, by Samantha Johnson

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This vibrant dress was likely dyed using an early aniline purple dye. 
Dress, 1863-1870 (THF182481)

In 1856, British chemistry student William Henry Perkin made a groundbreaking discovery. Perkin’s professor, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, encouraged his students to solve real-world problems. High on the list for Hofmann (and chemists all over the world) was the need to create a synthetic version of quinine. The only effective treatment for the life-threatening malaria disease, quinine could only be found in the bark of the rare Cinchona tree. Just a teenager at the time, Perkin decided to tackle this problem in a makeshift laboratory in his parents’ attic while on Easter holiday. Perkin experimented with coal tar—a coal byproduct in which Professor Hofmann saw promise—and made his discovery. No, not the discovery of a synthetic quinine, but something altogether different and extraordinarily significant nonetheless.

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Wells, Richardson & Company "Leamon's Genuine Aniline Dyes: Purple," 1873-1880 (THF170208)

Perkin’s coal tar experiments resulted in a dark-colored sludge which dyed cloth a vibrant purple color. The purple dye was colorfast too (meaning it did not fade easily). He had discovered aniline purple—also known as mauveine or Perkin’s mauve—the first synthetic dye. Though this was not the medical miracle he had initially sought, he immediately understood the vast significance and marketability of a colorfast, synthetic dye.

Prior to Perkin’s discovery, natural dyes were used to color fabrics and inks and were derived primarily from plants, invertebrates, and minerals. Extracting natural dyes was time consuming and certain colors were rare. For example, arguably the most precious natural dye also happened to be a vibrant purple, called Tyrian Purple. This dye was found in the glands of several species of predatory sea snails. Each snail contained just a small amount of dye, so it took tens of thousands of sea snails to dye a garment a deep purple. Tyrian purple was so expensive that the very wealthy could afford to wear it. It’s no wonder purple was seen as the color of royalty!

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Fabric Dye Swatch Book
, "Kalle & Co. Manufacturers of Aniline Colors," circa 1900 (THF286612 and THF286614)

William Henry Perkin turned out to be multi-talented, finding success both as a chemist and as an entrepreneur. By 1857, with the help of his family, he began commercially manufacturing his aniline dye near London. He first produced purple, but other colors soon followed. The water in the nearby Grand Union Canal was said to have turned a different color each week depending on what dyes were being made. In 1862, Queen Victoria attended the Great London Exposition in a gown dyed with Perkin’s mauve and the color took off. Newspapers even reported a “mauve mania” in the 1860s! These new synthetic dyes were affordable too and other manufacturers around the world began to produce them. By 1880, companies like The Diamond Dye Company of Vermont sold many colors of dye—from magenta to gold or even “drab”—for just 10 cents apiece.

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Trade Card for Diamond Dyes Company, 1880-1890 (THF214453 and THF214454)

Perkin’s discovery spawned an entirely new industry that transformed the world’s access to color. It is fitting that the very first synthetic dye created was purple—the color of Roman emperors and royalty could now be purchased for pennies. Louis Pasteur’s famous quote, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” characterizes Perkin’s serendipitous discovery well. His accidental discovery was far from simple luck – others may have dismissed it as a failed experiment. Instead, Perkin recognized the potential in his mistake and seized the opportunity to bring color to the masses.

Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.

entrepreneurship, #THFCuratorChat, by Katherine White, fashion

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Once we complete our Sagan, it will seamlessly integrate artifacts, textual content, furnishings, and custom-created 3D artwork--something like this example we’ve been playing around with.

For nearly a decade, The Henry Ford has been adding items to our Digital Collections, which now contain over 95,000 digitized artifacts. For almost as long, we’ve been exploring creative ways to work with those world-renowned assets--from including our entire digitized collection on touch-screen kiosks in Driving America back in 2012 to linking tens of thousands of digital artifacts using curator- and AI-created connections in our latest exhibit, Intersection of Innovation.

Some of the best explorations of our digitized collections come through collaborations with partners who can take our content to new levels. Working with other organizations and companies to figure out how we can simultaneously highlight both their platforms and technologies and our own digital assets is a challenge in innovation. Today, we’re excited to tease one such partnership project that is coming soon: a new “Sagan,” created in collaboration with Saganworks.


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This is what our Sagan looked like before we added any furnishings or artifacts to the space. Different collections will be highlighted in each “room” within the Sagan.

SaganWorksLogoSaganworks is an Ann Arbor, Michigan–based technology startup with a big goal--to bring multimedia into 3D space and change the way people interact with either their personal content or traditionally in-person spaces, such as museums and storefronts. Individuals can build a virtual room, otherwise known as a Sagan, capable of storing content in a wide variety of file formats, and virtually walk through their rooms like a gallery. With the combination of audio, visuals and a wide variety of customizations to choose from (such as furniture and room layout), individuals are able to experience their Sagans holistically, making Saganworks not just an alternative to in-person spaces, but a unique adventure.

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technology, by Shanley Carlton, by Casey Hyde, by Ellice Engdahl, by Samantha Johnson, Saganworks, entrepreneurship, digital collections

Many of us have been baking a bit more than usual while staying at home. So, let’s take look at how America’s favorite cookie, the chocolate chip, was born.

Before we get to chocolate chips, let’s talk chocolate. It’s made from the beans of the cacao tree and was introduced by the Aztec and Mayan peoples to Europeans in the late 1500s.  Then a dense, frothy beverage thickened with cornmeal and flavored with chilies, vanilla, and spices, it was used in ancient ceremonies.

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Map of the Americas, 1550. THF284540

Colonial Americans imported cacao from the West Indies. They consumed it as a hot beverage, made from ground cacao beans, sugar, vanilla and water, and served it in special chocolate pots.

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Chocolate Pot, 1760-1790  THF145291

In the 1800s, chocolate made its way into an increasing number of foods, things like custards, puddings, and cookies, and onto chocolate-covered candy. It was not just for drinking anymore!

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Trade Card, Granite Ironware, 1880-1890 THF299872

Today, most Americans say chocolate is their favorite flavor. Are you a milk or dark chocolate fan? My vote? Dark chocolate.

Cookies were special treats into the early 1800s; sweeteners were costly and cookies took more time and labor to make. Imagine easing them in and out of a brick fireplace over with a long-handled peel.

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Detail of late 18th century kitchen in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. See the kitchen for yourself with this virtual visit.

As kitchen technology improved in the early 1900s, especially the ability to regulate oven temperature, America’s cookie repertoire grew.

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Detail of 1930s kitchen in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. See the kitchen yourself with this virtual visit

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Until the 1930s, baking chocolate was melted in a double boiler before being added to cookie dough. Check out this 1920 recipe for Chocolate Mousse from our historic recipe bank.   

Then came Ruth Graves Wakefield and the chocolate chip cookie. Ruth, a graduate of the Framingham State Normal School of Household Arts, had taught high school home economics and had worked as a dietitian. 

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Image: "Overlooked No More: Ruth Wakefield, Who Invented the Chocolate Chip Cookie" from The New York Times

In 1930, 27-year-old Ruth and her husband Kenneth opened a restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts called the Toll House Inn. The building had never been a toll house, but was located on an early road between Boston and New Bedford. The restaurant would grow from seven tables to 60. 

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Toll House Inn business card, 1930s. THF183299

A quick aside: our 1820s Rocks Village Toll House in Greenfield Village. Early travelers paid tolls to use roads or cross bridges. This one collected fares for crossing the Merrimack River.   

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Rocks Village, Massachusetts toll house in Greenfield Village. THF2033

With Ruth Wakefield’s background in household arts, she was well-prepared to put together a menu for her restaurant. It was a great location. The Toll House Inn served not only the locals, but people passing through on their way between Boston and Cape Cod. 

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Toll House Inn business card, 1930s. THF18330

Over time, Ruth’s reputation grew, and the restaurant became well-known for her skillful cooking, wonderful desserts, and excellent service.  On the back of this circa 1945 Toll House Inn postcard, a customer wrote: “…down here two weeks ago & had a grand dinner.” 

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Toll House Inn postcard, about 1945. THF183298

Ruth Wakefield, curious and willing to experiment, liked to create new dishes and desserts to delight her customers. The inn had been serving a butterscotch cookie--which everyone loved--but Ruth wanted to “give them something different.”

About 1938, Ruth had an inspiration. She chopped up a Nestle’s semisweet chocolate bar with an ice pick and stirred the bits into her sweet butter cookie batter.  The chocolate bits melted--and didn’t spread, remaining in chunks throughout the dough.    

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Recipe Booklet, "Favorite Chocolate Recipes made with Nestle's Semi-Sweet Chocolate," 1940. THF125196

Legend has it that the cookies were an accident--that Ruth had expected to get all-chocolate cookies when the chocolate melted. One of those “creation myths?” A great marketing tale? Ruth was a meticulous cook and food science savvy. She said it was a deliberate experiment.

The marriage of sweet, buttery cookie dough and semisweet chocolate was a hit--the cookies quickly became popular with guests. Ruth shared the recipe when asked. Local newspapers published it.  And she included it in the 1938 edition of her “Tried and True Recipes” cookbook.

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The Toll House, Whitman, Massachusetts, circa 1945. THF183297

Nestle’s saw sales of its semisweet chocolate bar jump dramatically in New England--especially after the cookie was featured on a local radio show.  When Nestle discovered why, they signed a contract with Ruth Wakefield, allowing Nestle to print the recipe on every package. 

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Nestle’s truck, 1934. Z0001194


Nestle began scoring its semisweet chocolate bar, packaging it with a small chopper for easy cutting into morsels. The result was chocolate “chips”--hence the name.   

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Recipe Booklet, "Favorite Chocolate Recipes made with Nestle's Semi-Sweet Chocolate," 1940. THF125194

In 1939, Nestle introduced semisweet morsels. Baking Toll House Cookies became even more convenient, since you didn’t have to cut the chocolate into pieces.

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Toll House Cookies and Other Favorite Chocolate Recipes Made with Nestle's Semi-Sweet Chocolate, 1941. THF183303

Nestle included the Toll House Cookie “backstory” and the recipe in booklets promoting their semisweet chocolate. 

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During World War II, Nestle encouraged people to send Toll House Cookies to soldiers. For many, it was their first taste of a chocolate chip cookie--its popularity spread beyond New England.

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Advertisement, "His One Weakness, Toll House Cookies from Home" November 1943. 
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The homemaker in this 1940s Nestle’s ad celebrates her success as a hostess when serving easy-to-make Toll House Cookies. Chocolate chips would, indeed, soon become our “national cookie.” 

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They Never Get Enough of My Toll-House Cookies!, 1945-1950. THF183304

Chocolate chip morsels were a great idea, so other companies followed suit.

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Recipe Leaflet, "9 Famous Recipes for Hershey's Semi-Sweet Chocolate Dainties," 1956. THF295928

Other delectable treats, like these “Chocolate Refresher” bars shown in this 1960 ad, can be made with chocolate morsels. The possibilities are endless.

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Nestle's Semi-Sweet Morsels Advertisement, "Goody for You," 1960. THF43907

More from The Henry Ford: Enjoy a quick “side trip” to this blog about more American chocolate classics.

Holiday baking is a cherished tradition for many. Chocolate chip cookies are frequently a key player in the seasonal repertoire. Hallmark captured holiday baking memories in this ornament.

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Hallmark "Christmas Cookies" Christmas Ornament, 2004. THF177747

The museum’s 1946 Lamy’s Diner serves Toll House Cookies. Whip up a batch of chocolate chips at home and enjoy a virtual visit

Cookie dough + chocolate chips = America’s favorite cookie! It may have been simple, but no one else had ever tried it before! Hats off to Ruth Wakefield!

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Toll House Cookies and Other Favorite Chocolate Recipes Made with Nestle's Semi-Sweet Chocolate, 1941. THF183301

After all this talk of all things chocolate, are you ready for a cookie? This well-known cookie lover probably is!

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Cookie Monster Toy Clock, 1982-1986. THF318447 

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

restaurants, women's history, recipes, food, entrepreneurship, by Jeanine Head Miller, #THFCuratorChat

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Detail, THF104041

At a time when Americans are traveling less and the lodging industry is making big changes, let’s take a look back at the story of Kemmons Wilson, whose Holiday Inns revolutionized roadside lodging in the mid-20th century.

In the early days of automobile travel, motorists had few lodging options. Some stayed in city hotels; others camped in cars or pitched tents. Before long, entrepreneurs began to offer tents or cabins for the night.

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Auto Campers with Ford Model T Touring Car and Tent, circa 1919 THF105459

More from The Henry Ford: Here’s a look inside a 1930s tourist cabin. Originally from the Irish Hills area of Michigan, the cabin is now on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. For motorists weary of camping out, these affordable “homes away from home” offered a warmer, more comfortable night’s sleep than a tent. You can read more about tourist cabins and see photos of this one on its original site in this blog post.

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THF52819

Soon, “motels” -- shortened from “motor hotels” -- evolved to meet travelers’ needs. Compared to other lodging options, these mostly mom-and-pop operations were comfortable and convenient. They were also affordable. This expert set showcases the wide variety of motels that dotted the American landscape in the mid-20th century.

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Crouse's Motor Court, a motel in Fort Dodge, Iowa THF210276

More from The Henry Ford: Photographer John Margolies documented the wild advertising some roadside motels employed to tempt passing motorists (check out some of his shots in our digital collections), and our curator of public life, Donna Braden, chatted with MoRocca about motorists’ early lodging options on The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation (you can watch here).

After World War II, more Americans than ever before hit the open road for business and leisure travel. Associations like Best Western helped travelers find reliable facilities, but motel standards were inconsistent, and there was no guarantee that rooms would meet even limited expectations. When a building developer named Kemmons Wilson took a family road trip in 1951, he got fed up with motel rooms that he found to be uncomfortable and overpriced (he especially disliked being charged extra for his children to stay). Back home in Memphis, Tennessee, he decided to build his own group of motels.

As a young man, Wilson (born in 1913) displayed an entrepreneurial streak. To help support his widowed mother, Wilson earned money in many ways, including selling popcorn at a movie theater, leasing pinball machines, and working as a jukebox distributor. By the early 1950s, Wilson had made a name for himself in real estate, homebuilding, and the movie theater business.

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Later in life, Kemmons Wilson tracked down his first popcorn machine and kept it in his office as a reminder of his early entrepreneurial pursuits. Detail, THF212457

Kemmons Wilson trusted his hunch that other travelers had the same demands as his own family -- quality lodging at fair prices. He opened his first group of motels, called “Holiday Inns,” in Memphis starting in 1952. Wilson’s gamble paid off -- within a few years, Holiday Inns had revolutionized industry standards and become the nation’s largest lodging chain.

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An early Holiday Inn “Court” in Memphis, 1958
THF120734

What set Holiday Inns apart? Consistent, quality service and amenities Guests could expect free parking, air conditioning, in-room telephones and TVs, free ice, and a pool and restaurant at each location. And -- Kemmons Wilson determined -- no extra charge for children!

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Swimming Pool at Holiday Inn of Daytona Beach, Florida, 1961 THF104037

Thanks to the chain’s reliable offerings (including complimentary toiletries!), many guests chose a Holiday Inn for every trip.

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Holiday Inn Bar Soap, 1960-1970 THF150050

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Holiday Inn Sewing Kit, circa 1968
THF150119

Inspired by Holiday Inns’ success, competitors began offering many of the same services and amenities. Kemmons Wilson had set a new standard -- multistory motels with carpeted, air conditioned rooms became the norm.

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"Sol-Mar Motel," an example of a Holiday Inn-style motel in Jacksonville Beach, Florida THF210272

Kemmons Wilson knew location was key. He chose sites on the right-hand side of major roadways (to make stopping convenient for travelers) and took risks, buying property based on plans for the new Interstate Highway System.

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Holiday Inn adjacent to highways in Paducah, Kentucky, 1966
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Holiday Inns’ iconic “Great Signs” beckoned travelers along roadways across the country from the 1950s into the 1980s. Kemmons Wilson’s mother, Ruby “Doll” Wilson, selected the sign’s green and yellow color scheme. She also designed the décor of the original Holiday Inn guestrooms!

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Holiday Inn "Great" Sign, circa 1960
THF101941

Holiday Inns unveiled a new "roadside" design in the late 1950s: two buildings -- one for guestrooms and one for the lobby, restaurant, and meeting spaces -- surrounding a recreational courtyard. These roadside Holiday Inns featured large glass walls. The inexpensive material lowered construction costs while creating a modern look and brightening guestrooms. The recreated Holiday Inn room in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation demonstrates the “glass wall” design. Take a virtual visit here.

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Holiday Inn Courtyard, Lebanon, Tennessee, circa 1962 THF204446

After becoming a public company in 1957, Holiday Inns developed a network of manufacturers and suppliers to meet its growing operational needs. To help regulate and maintain standards, property managers (called “Innkeepers”) ordered nearly everything -- from linens and cleaning supplies to processed foods and promotional materials -- from a Holiday Inns subsidiary. This menu, printed by Holiday Inns’ own “Holiday Press,” shows how nearly every detail of a guest’s stay -- even meals -- met corporate specifications.

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Holiday Inn Dinner Menu, February 15, 1964 THF287323

By the 1970s, with more than 1,400 locations worldwide, Holiday Inns had become a fixture of the global and cultural landscape. Founder Kemmons Wilson even made the cover of Time magazine.

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Time Magazine for June 12, 1972 THF104041

We hope his story inspires you to make your own mark on the American landscape -- or at least take a fresh look at the roadside the next time you’re out for a drive, whether down the street or across the country!

Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford, has happy poolside memories from a childhood stay at one of Holiday Inns’ family-friendly “Holidome” concepts. For more on the Holiday Inn story, check out chapter 9 of "The Motel in America," by John Jakle, Keith Sculle, and Jefferson Rogers.

#THFCuratorChat, by Saige Jedele, hotels, entrepreneurship, roads and road trips, travel

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

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

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

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

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

Seizing the Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1961 Ford Gyron  THF299432

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

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

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1974 Warrior Concept Car  THF92162

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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