Edsel Ford, Charlie Chaplin, and Henry Ford Touring the Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, October 1923 / THF134659
Every month, staff from our library and archives select some interesting items from our collections to showcase on The Henry Ford’s Instagram account. In our every-first-Friday History Outside the Box offering, our collections experts share photographs, documents, and other artifacts around a given theme. Last summer, Reference Archivist Kathy Makas showcased some celebrity sightings from our archives—actors, actresses, and other luminaries visiting Ford Motor Company’s factories, World’s Fairs, and The Henry Ford’s own campus; showcasing their cars; and more. If you missed the Insta story, you can check out the presentation below.
Looking out the window at snowy Michigan probably had any Ford Motor Company engineer, researcher, or scientist thinking that developing and researching space systems, air cushioned vehicles, and computer components in sunny Newport Beach, California, was the way to go.
Aeronutronic Systems, Inc. was formed as a subsidiary of Ford in 1956 under the leadership of G.J. Lynch. The group was originally organized to develop and manufacture products for military purposes in the fields of Complete Weapons Systems, Aeronautics, Electronics, Computers, and Nucleonics and Physics. By 1959, the group was a made a division of Ford and had expanded into research and development beyond military purposes.
The division was headquartered in Newport Beach, California. Brochures for the division flaunted its cutting-edge research facilities, testing laboratories, research library, and proximity to deep-sea fishing, sailing, skiing, and the fact that the temperature rarely dropped below 44 or rose above 75.
The groups within the division worked on a variety of projects. The Space Systems group completed projects including the Blue Scout vehicle, which tested equipment in space; a lunar capsule, designed to land on the moon with scientific testing equipment to gather data on the lunar environment; and a design for a space station.
Group of women who worked on the Blue Scout project. / THF627401
Artist's rendering of lunar capsule built by Ford Motor Company Aeronutronic Division, 1960. / THF141214
In Weapons Systems, they worked on several missile projects, including the Shillelagh Guided Missile for the Army Missile Command, and ARTOC (Army Tactical Operations Central), which was a mobile command post for the Army Signal Corp.
The Electronics and Computers division worked on BIAX computer components, as well as MIND (Magnetic Integration Neuron Duplication), an electronic neuron that duplicated the function of live nerve cells, among other things.
Research projects included surface tension tests; developing thin films solid state components; manufacturing the FLIDEN Flight Data Entry Unit, which was used as part of the FAA air traffic control system; and developing an air cushioned vehicle.
FLIDEN unit, demonstrated by Ellen Arthur. / THF627397
The employees at the Aeronutronic division had fun too, with an employee newsletter to keep them up to date on company happenings as well as their many recreation leagues, which included bowling, basketball, and baseball among other sports, as well as chess and bridge clubs.
Fred Ju, team captain, bowling in the Men’s Bowling League. / THF627399
Aeronutronic continued to change with the times. In 1962, it became a division of the Ford subsidiary Philco, and in 1976 became Ford Aerospace and Communication Corporation, before being sold by Ford in 1990.
Ford Novelty Band Playing at Ford Baseball Team Game, 1941 / THF271722
Every month, we feature some items from our archives in our History Outside the Box program. You can check the new story out on The Henry Ford’s Instagram account on the first Friday of the month, but we’re reposting some of the stories here on our blog as well. In May 2021, Reference Archivist Kathy Makas shared photographs, articles, and other documents ranging from the 1910s through the 1950s that detail how employees at Ford Motor Company spent their leisure time. Learn more about Ford’s musical groups, sports teams, gardeners, and social/service clubs in the video below.
Aggressive advertising got the public’s attention, and the tractor’s price—$750—made it a reasonable investment. It quickly became a bestseller. Just three years after its debut, on February 21, 1920, the 100,000th Fordson rolled off the assembly line in Dearborn, Michigan.
In November 2020, a full century after the photographic print above marking the tractor’s milestone manufacturing moment was taken, it became The Henry Ford’s 100,000th artifact to be digitized.
You can find out more about our digitization program and celebration of reaching 100,000 digitized artifacts on our blog here, and can explore more artifacts related to Fordson tractors in our Digital Collections here.
I recently visited the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair site, now part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. I gawked at the still-standing central icon, the Unisphere, then searched for long-forgotten ruins scattered about.
Perhaps most striking were the still-existing pathways with their original concrete benches and drinking fountains. I could picture the people—the fairgoers—who had traveled from near and far to visit this temporary but extraordinary place, a place of wonder and delight, a place of enjoyment, leisure, and playfulness—a world’s fair.
The 1964-65 World’s Fair was a failure in many respects. It never reached its projected attendance and almost went bankrupt. When most large nations declined to participate, smaller nations and American states filled the gap. The fair is probably best remembered as a showcase for American corporations, with an endless array of new products displayed inside midcentury modern structures.
Nowhere was the blend of design and playfulness more apparent than in the corporate attractions designed by Walt Disney and his Imagineers, especially Ford Motor Company’s Magic Skyway. Here guests embarked on “an exciting ride in a company-built convertible through a fantasy of the past and future in 12 minutes.” When Ford added new Mustang convertibles to the ride mere months before the fair’s opening, this only added to the anticipation and enjoyment.
The Unisphere, a 12-story-high model of Earth which embodied the 1964-65 New York World's Fair theme of "Peace Through Understanding," celebrating "Man's Achievement on the Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe," can be seen through the window in this photo of a car on the Magic Skyway. / THF114472
Walt Disney remarked about the attraction: “It could never happen in real life, but we can achieve the illusion by creating an adventure so realistic that visitors will feel they have lived through a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Corey Williams, Dearborn Truck Plant Manager, will tell you that the culture at the plant where the F-150 is built is one of a kind. / Photo by Nick Hagen
Corey Williams has been a part of the Dearborn Truck Plant management team for nearly four years, promoted to plant manager in January 2021, and he’s worked at many Ford facilities in a variety of management positions over the 25-plus years he’s been with Ford. He’ll tell you with conviction that the Dearborn Truck Plant, where the Ford F-150 is built and The Henry Ford’s Ford Rouge Factory Tour welcomes thousands of visitors a year, is unlike anywhere else in the world.
“Every Ford plant has the same goals, metrics and objectives—we all want to deliver the best, highest-quality product to the customer that we can,” said Williams. “But at Dearborn Truck, the culture is different. And when I say different, I mean everyone here understands that we are building America’s bestselling truck and the sense of pride in that is like no other.”
“Everybody knows that we are leaders, never followers,” he added. “That if it can be done, it will be done at DTP [Dearborn Truck Plant]—at not only the highest rate and volumes but with the greatest efficiency.”
Ford F-150 Truck Assembly at the Dearborn Truck Plant at the Ford Rouge Complex
That attitude and mental mantra fit perfectly with Williams’ persona. He’s not afraid to admit he’s an ultracompetitive guy who feeds off having to face the next challenge.
“I’ve been a sports guy my entire life,” he said. “I love to compete and like the idea of a team—the collaborative part of it and how you have to work together toward a common goal.”
And when asked about the new set of players—vehicles as well as workers—that are now ready to call the Ford Rouge Complex home along with Dearborn Truck Plant, Williams couldn’t be more excited. In 2022, the new Rouge Electric Vehicle Center is slated to open, employing hundreds of new hires and manufacturing the all-new battery-electric F-150. “Not a day goes by that people don’t ask me about our new hybrid, the EV center, and electric truck—the buzz and amazement just grows,” said Williams. “It’s a huge step in continuing our truck leadership and dominance. We are changing the game.”
Play to Work
Staff from Ford Motor Company and The Henry Ford trace some of their interest in STEM and manufacturing to childhood television, toys, and games, like this 1960s Clue set in our collection. / THF188744
We asked Corey and other members of Ford Motor Company’s vehicle launch team and The Henry Ford’s Ford Rouge Factory Tour what games, TV shows, toys, etc., they remember growing up that helped spark their interest in STEM and manufacturing.
Corey Williams, Plant Manager at Ford: Playing team sports in his younger years is a key precursor to his manufacturing management skills today. “Involving yourself in team events where you need to collaborate and compete as a team toward a common objective is extremely relevant from a STEM standpoint,” he said.
James Housel, Bodyshop Launch Manager at Ford: “Saturday morning cartoons watching ‘Wile E. Coyote, SUUUUUUPER Genius.’” The cartoon character is always obtaining crazy gizmos from fictional mail-order company Acme in the hopes of capturing the Road Runner.
Cynthia Jones,Director, Museum Experiences & Engagement, at The Henry Ford: “I loved to play the board games Risk and Clue. Both of those helped me identify patterns, test hypotheses, set strategy goals and learn from failure.” Like Williams, Jones, a dedicated swimmer through high school, credits competitive sports too.
Doug Plond, Senior Manager, Ford Rouge Factory Tour, at The Henry Ford: “As a really young tyke, I loved to build with my red cardboard brick set—knocking them down was the fun part. Once I got a bit older, I moved up to Lincoln Logs.”
When you think of museums—particularly history museums—it seems to make sense that they are inevitably all about the past. From an artifact collecting standpoint, there is an element of truth to this—most anything a museum can collect already exists and is already sliding into the past. But, putting aside ideas about the swift passage of time, it is important to understand that many museums—including The Henry Ford—do engage in what is known as “contemporary collecting.”
Contemporary collecting seeks to document history as it is happening, and relates to significant current events, trends, or cultural moments. When this collecting is done in the heat of the moment, especially when the conditions being documented are ever-changing or incredibly brief, it is known as “rapid response” collecting. Rapid response collecting relies on a well-tuned sense of what events will have greater historical significance—even after they are over—and requires a particularly proactive approach to gathering information and objects.
One example of contemporary collecting occurs every four years, when The Henry Ford collects material related to the presidential election cycle. This postcard, created by Sea Dog Press, is from our 2020 collecting initiative. More examples from that initiative can be found here. / THF622210
In early 2020, the world was overtaken by the COVID-19 virus. It soon became clear—as industries ground to a halt, scores of workers were sent home, and international travel all but ceased—that the pandemic would become a major moment in history. Upon this realization, the curatorial staff of The Henry Ford went to work, developing a rapid response plan to document the still-unfolding pandemic. When developing this plan, the curatorial staff was keen to ensure that these collecting efforts not only captured a vivid perspective on the pandemic but also built upon the uniqueness of our collections. They determined to focus on three broad themes: innovation on a nationally significant level, grassroots resourcefulness on the part of individuals, and ingenuity demonstrated by businesses and entrepreneurs. Within each of these categories, curators identified topics that had already begun to emerge, and noted potential objects or types of objects that could be acquired.
With the plan complete, it was presented to The Henry Ford’s Collections Committee—the chartered committee responsible for reviewing and approving all proposed additions to the collections of The Henry Ford. The majority of the committee’s business consists of taking a final vote as to whether or not an item should be accessioned—the term for officially adding an item to the collection. However, some acquisitions are discussed with the group before curators begin making final preparations to acquire them; this gives the committee an opportunity to weigh in on proposed acquisitions that may be more complex, or that would require a greater outlay of the institution’s time or resources. The committee also approves all collecting initiatives, as they typically involve special effort, or result in a larger number of acquisitions; having the committee’s endorsement ensures that the collecting can be adventurous and creative but within clear parameters. Once approved by the committee, the COVID-19 Collecting Initiative was put into place, and curators began gathering information and materials.
Our COVID-19 collecting initiative included outreach to people with items of interest, such as Brighid "Birdie" Pulskamp, a Diné craftswoman who created a beaded facemask featuring a traditional Navajo wedding basket design, as well as fabric masks that she sent to the Navajo Nation to help combat the spread of the virus on reservations. / THF186023, THF186021
While many acquisitions for the collection are actively sought out by our staff, others end up finding us. On September 9, 2020, Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson returned to Collections Committee with word that Ford Motor Company—with whom we have a long and fruitful relationship, particularly in regard to collecting—had reached out to him regarding a prototype COVID-19 testing van that they had developed. Ford Motor Company’s COVID-19 response—particularly their shift from manufacturing automobiles to producing equipment and supplies to aid in the fight against COVID-19—had already been a point of interest on our radar, and had been specifically identified in the collecting initiative.
After hearing the details of the acquisition, the Collections Committee gave Matt a “consensus to proceed” with the acquisition. Consensuses to proceed are given after an initial discussion of a potential acquisition, but before said acquisition is presented for final accessioning; they allow curators to proceed with making any necessary arrangements—like shipping—without overcommitting the institution, should the circumstances of an acquisition change.
Ford Transit Van, Modified for Use as a COVID-19 Mobile Testing Facility, 2020. / THF188109
In working with Ford Motor Company to arrange the donation of the COVID-19 testing van, Matt had the opportunity to discuss other COVID-19–related material that Ford had produced. Of particular interest were the ventilators produced at Ford’s Rawsonville plant. Ford indicated that they would be willing to offer us not one but three of those ventilators: a standard one, one signed by the Rawsonville workers, and one signed by President Donald Trump during his visit to the plant. Would The Henry Ford be interested in all three?
In considering objects, The Henry Ford also considers the stories they represent, and these three ventilators were no different. While one alone would have served to document Ford’s manufacturing response, collecting all three would allow us to tell a more multi-layered story. The blank ventilator is just like all the others that rolled off Ford’s assembly line; the one signed by the Rawsonville employees documents and celebrates the people who made Ford’s manufacturing feat possible; and the one bearing President Trump’s signature captures his historic visit to the plant. While we are always cautious of over-duplication in our collection, in this instance, while the objects themselves were similar, the elements of the story were distinct, and all were important to document via our collection.
In addition to the COVID testing van and ventilators, Ford Motor Company also offered numerous pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) they had prototyped or produced: ventilator connectors, masks, face shields, a gown, and a door pull. Matt accepted all of these items and began preparing them for presentation to Collections Committee, crafting a justification for their addition for the collection and writing a brief summary of their historical significance. On November 11, 2020, the Collections Committee gave their final seal of approval, voting to approve the addition of the van, ventilators, and assorted PPE to The Henry Ford’s collection. With that, the process of rapid collecting—at least in the case of the Ford COVID-19 response acquisitions—had come full circle.
As it turned out, though, just as the pandemic continued on, so too did our collecting opportunities. Ford Motor Company reached out again in the new year with more PPE—this time, though, created for a very unique event: the 2021 inauguration of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. Ford had produced 15,000 single-use masks—in two designs, printed by Hatteras, Inc., in Plymouth, Michigan—to provide to those attending the ceremony. Matt Anderson gratefully accepted the 10 masks Ford offered us, noting their significance, as their production not only furthered Ford’s efforts to combat the spread of the virus, but also demonstrated Ford’s commitment to, in the words of the company’s president and CEO, Jim Farley, “a tradition so fundamental to our democracy.” Just like the testing van and other COVID-19 materials donated by Ford, these masks were presented to the Collections Committee for final approval, which was readily granted, and they became an official part of the collections of The Henry Ford.
This face mask, produced for the 2021 inauguration, represents a unique overlap of two contemporary collecting initiatives undertaken by The Henry Ford: documenting the 2020–2021 presidential election cycle and documenting the COVID-19 pandemic. / THF186524
Thanks to the quick thinking and eager work of the curatorial department and the efficient processes of the Collections Committee, The Henry Ford was able to start documenting the COVID-19 pandemic as it was happening, and—with the help of a well-established relationship with Ford Motor Company—quickly tick an important item (and then some) off our collecting wish list. The thoughtful work of our staff and the relationships they build with outside organizations prove time and again to be key elements of building our collections, whether that be through collecting the past or the present.
Mimi Vandermolen, 1992–93, in front of the Ford Probe. / THF626259
Today, we take things like ergonomic seats and user-friendly dashboard dials in American automobiles for granted. But back in the mid-1980s, these were radical innovations. Much of the credit for bringing these game-changing elements to an American automobile goes to a creative and determined female lead designer named Mimi Vandermolen, who headed up the 1986 Ford Taurus interior design team.
Interior of 1986 Ford Taurus LX Sedan in The Henry Ford’s collection. / THF90338
In the late 1970s, Ford Motor Company had no room for mistakes. The 1978 oil embargo by OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) had resulted in a customer rush to buy economical, fuel-efficient cars made by non-American automobile companies, like Japanese-made Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics. The surge in import sales might have been bad enough. But Ford, unfortunately, had no new models in the works to respond to the rapidly changing market.
However, a new group of leaders at Ford, more familiar with the foreign market, began to implement changes. They envisioned a brand-new “world-class” car—a car that followed and improved upon world-wide trends in engineering and design, that could be sold in any country, and that was second to none in quality (referred to as “best in class”). To accomplish these objectives for what would eventually become the Taurus, Ford executives realized that two things had to change radically: the customer would have to come first, and product integrity could never be compromised.
The design and manufacturing process also had to change. Those who planned, designed, engineered, built, and sold this new car would work as a team. The team concept in developing the Taurus meant that those who styled the interior would work concurrently and in concert with those who developed the car’s exterior. Moreover, the team approach would not be top-down. The input of planners, engineers, designers, promoters, and dealers would be both welcomed and actively invited.
Diagram showing the unique (at the time) integration of departments charged collectively with meeting the new car’s objectives, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625465
Mimi J. Vandermolen was born in the Netherlands and raised in Toronto, and she grew up liking art and drawing. She found her calling when she visited the product design studio at the Ontario College of Art. One of the first female students to attend school there, she graduated in 1969. Disappointingly, she found very few design jobs open to women, as women’s work at the time was primarily narrowed to teaching, nursing, and secretarial jobs. But in 1970, she was hired to work in Ford’s Philco Division, where she designed home appliances like snowblowers and TVs—rather than automobiles.
Still, she was the first female designer in the Ford Design Studio at a time when women were rarely hired by American automotive design studios. Soon enough, her talents were recognized, and after six months she was transferred to car design—working as a trainee on the Mustang II, Cougar, and Granada. All the while, she felt that her ideas were ignored or dismissed, considered too radical or out-of-the-box for a staid American automobile company.
Publicity photo for the 1974 Mustang II. Note the reference to “simulated walnut accents” (rather than real wood), a decorative touch that designers detested and were delighted to see eliminated in the Ford Taurus interior. / THF113139
In 1979, Vandermolen was promoted to Design Specialist at Ford and, in 1980, she was invited to join Team Taurus as the lead designer of the interior. She considered the team approach a “breath of fresh air,” but realized that designers were not used to articulating or defending their ideas. Her design team was going to have to become a lot better at justifying design ideas to have any of them approved and implemented.
She recognized from the start that the key to the potential success of the Taurus was to create an interior that mirrored the style and theme of its exterior body. Each component of the interior—switches, doors, lights, controls, seats—would be designed to meet two key objectives. First, were they “friendly” enough—that is, were they easy to find and use, day or night? And second, did they blend in aesthetically with the car’s exterior and the rest of its interior?
The dashboard (known in the industry as the Instrument Panel, or IP) was traditionally designed to suit the needs of engineers and manufacturers rather than those who actually drove the cars. It tended to be straight and flat, and the driver had to lean forward to reach it—a design already being abandoned in European cars.
The lower image, from the 1986 Ford Taurus press kit, illustrates how the instrumentation and controls were designed to “an exceptional level of passenger comfort.” / THF105522
Vandermolen asked her team to address how a driver could both have easy access to the IP and still ride in a car that was spacious and inviting. In the final design, the Taurus IP was angled in such a way that the instrument and control system would indeed come within quick and easy reach of the driver.
Taurus instrument panel dials, both standard and digital, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625475
Vandermolen encouraged her team to consider how individual controls could be designed to be both manageable and safe. Each component was considered on a case-by-case basis. The speedometer, for example, was redesigned with a large needle to show incremental change in speed. Push-pull switches, like those for the heater, were replaced with rotary knobs, which were easier to operate. Switches had bumps added to the ends, so drivers could locate them easily without taking their eyes off the road. The controls and instruments were in clear view and easy to reach, so with a minimum of effort, one could drive a few times, then operate them by touch without looking away from the road. The IP also came with an optional digital panel, futuristic- and video-game-looking at the time, but foreshadowing future designs.
Driver’s interior front door panel, with integrated features, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625482
The overall interior was designed to mirror the sculpted look of the body, with no straight or sharply angled panels. For example, after sixteen design iterations, the final design of the interior door panel was smoothly sculpted with integrated power controls, curb light, reflector, and map pocket. The interior also exuded a level of quality unlike previous mid-size family cars on the market. Fake woodgrain did not appear anywhere in the interior, to the delight of designers who had long abhorred this cheap substitute for real wood that had become the norm on American cars.
With the Taurus, the design of the seats started from scratch. This was, in fact, the most difficult part of the car to get right. The process took 2½ years—Ford’s most extensive seat evaluation program ever. It involved deconstructing and studying best-in-class car seats on the market (the GM Opel Senator was a front-runner), then simulating and recreating these. The newly designed seats for the Taurus were submitted to many miles of consumer test driving and weeks of test-dummy trials for seat and fabric durability.
Ergonomics—the science of relationships between humans and machines—played a crucial role in seat design. Traditional seats—flat, sofa-like slabs of upholstery or unsupportive bucket seats—had often led drivers to purchase after-market cushions and devices to provide back and leg support. Seats had to support a variety of sizes, shapes, and weights—sometimes for hours at a time. Fabric had to withstand extremes of temperature. The interior foam, providing the cushion, had to be resilient.
Ergonomic seats with armrests, optional power adjustments, and cloth or optional leather upholstery, from the 1986 Taurus marketing manual. / THF625477
Final car seat options offered three configurations, fitting a wide range of physical types, and included lower-back support, heavy-density foam, and headrests for the front seats. In addition, ergonomic tests found that window switches and door handles were traditionally placed too far forward to comfortably use. They were, accordingly, moved and/or adjusted for easy reach. Finally, the rear seats were raised slightly for backseat passengers to be able to see over the front seats, while new storage compartments were tested and added.
Much of Vandermolen’s work on the Taurus, and on later projects, was driven by her passion about the needs of female drivers. “If I can solve all the problems inherent in operating a vehicle for a woman,” she maintained, “that’ll make it that much easier for a man to use.” For this, she solicited opinions from a wide range of female consumers, market testing some features over and over until she, her team, and—most importantly—the female customer were all satisfied.
In the end, the interior of the Taurus was a dramatic departure from the usual American car design. Controls were logical, switches made sense, seats were sturdy and comfortable. Moreover, Team Taurus felt that the team concept had worked. Team members debated, discussed, and listened to each other, working together to solve problems. Designers learned to present their vision and argue for it. Vandermolen instilled confidence in her team by telling them, “Don’t be scared. We’re on the right track. We’re meeting our objectives.”
1986 Taurus LX sedan and station wagon, from a sales brochure cover for the 1986 Taurus. / THF208075
The new Taurus was launched on December 26, 1985, leading to what became known as the American auto industry’s “Rounded Edge Revolution.” Some people ridiculed the 1986 Taurus, likening it to a jellybean or a potato. But it won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year Award, with the compliment, “If we were to describe the Taurus’s design in a word, the word would be ‘thoughtful.’” Car and Driver called it “one of history’s most radical new cars,” praising Vandermolen’s efforts as “a bold attempt to reorder the priorities of American-made family sedans.”
Customers responded in kind. The Taurus soon accounted for 25 percent of Ford’s North American sales. In 1987, Taurus became the number-one selling car in the United States.
1986 Ford Taurus LX Sedan in The Henry Ford’s collection. / THF90332
Ford’s gamble to steer the company from a serious downturn with a “world-class” car paid off. Ergonomics, aerodynamics, sculpted interiors, angled IPs, comfortable and supportive seats, market research with targeted customers, and team-oriented planning—all of these would become standard elements of future American automobile design and manufacturing.
In 1987, Vandermolen was promoted to the position of Design Executive for small cars at Ford Motor Company, overseeing interior and exterior design developments in North America—a first for a woman in the automotive industry. That year, Fortune Magazine named her one of its “People to Watch.” She headed the development of the 1993 Ford Probe from start to finish. Her focus on women consumers remained a particular point of pride throughout her career.
Today. Mimi Vandermolen’s legacy lives on. In February 2021, the Classic Cars.com Journal called her one of “11 women who changed automotive history and the way we drive.”
For more on Vandermolen and her contributions to the 1986 Ford Taurus, see the book Taurus: The Making of the Car That Saved Ford by Eric Taub (1991).
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She learned of Mimi Vandermolen’s story in the 1990s and is pleased to finally write about it so others can appreciate it as well.
In my last blog post, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and, following the war, became part of the Fords’ inner circle.
The Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford holds significant correspondence, designs, and records relating to commissions between Houghton and Henry and Clara Ford. Probably the single document that details the variety of Ford commissions associated with Houghton is a brochure, more of a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm.
From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that no longer survive, as well as provide background for some that are still do. This post centers on two projects, the Fair Lane rail car and Henry and Edsel Ford’s offices in the Ford Engineering Laboratory, which still exist. Fortunately, aspects of both still exist in The Henry Ford’s collection!
Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara Ford, and Mina and Thomas Edison pose on the car’s rear platform about 1923. / THF97966
Images of the Fair Lane rail car from Houghton brochure. / THF121225a
The Fair Lane rail car was built by the Pullman Rail Car Company in Pullman, Illinois, and delivered to Henry and Clara Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, in summer 1921. A detailed history and background on the rail car by Matt Anderson, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Transportation, can be found here.
Sidney Houghton was responsible for creating the interiors and furnishings for the car. Many sources state that he worked with Clara Ford on the designs. What is likely is that Clara Ford approved or disapproved of Houghton’s design work. This is especially evident in the public rooms of the rail car—what Houghton called the “dining saloon” and the “observation parlour.”
The dining room walls are paneled in dark walnut, with veneered elements of mahogany. The effect suggests a richly appointed room from which to view the passing scenery. The styles that Houghton employed, and Clara Ford approved, derived from a combination of eighteenth-century English classical styles, including the caned and oval-backed side chairs and the elegantly carved three-quarter relief columns around the walls. China and glassware were stored in built-in units fitted with slots or pegs to keep the objects from shifting during travel.
What Houghton called the “observation saloon” was where passengers would spend their days while traveling. It was fitted out with sets of upholstered armchairs below the windows and a slant front desk and bookcase against the inner wall. This was an extremely useful piece of furniture; while at the desk, you could read or write correspondence, and when done, store your letters in one of the many drawers in the desk. The upper case allowed plenty of room to store books and other reading materials. Dials above the door to the observation platform displayed the miles per hour, the time, and the outdoor temperature.
As you can see in the recent photographs, over time the painted woodwork in this room was stripped and refinished. Also, the wonderful slant front desk and original light fixtures have not survived. Fortunately, after the Fords sold the rail car in 1942, a subsequent owner lovingly restored the interior, including reproducing much of the furniture, before donating it to The Henry Ford.
The Ford Engineering Laboratory Offices
In the early 1920s, Henry Ford commissioned his favorite architect, Albert Kahn, to design what Ford called his Engineering Laboratory in Dearborn. Completed in 1923, this building came to be the heart of the Ford Motor Company enterprise. Both Henry and his son, Edsel, had offices in the building, and Henry commissioned Sidney Houghton to design identical furniture and woodwork for each. Both offices survive, as does most of the furniture, which is now in the collections of The Henry Ford. Of all of Houghton’s projects for the Fords, it is the best preserved.
Edsel Ford’s office (top) and Henry Ford’s office (bottom) from Houghton brochure. /THF121221a
In looking at the offices, one thing comes to mind: they were designed to impress. Like the rail car, they are paneled in rich walnut, with matching walnut furniture. Both have large conference tables; Henry’s is round, while Edsel’s is rectangular.
Conference table used in Edsel Ford’s office. / THF158754
The chairs and tables all feature heavy, turned, and curved legs, known as cabriole legs. They are also inlaid with woods with their grains carefully arranged to their fullest and most luxurious effect.
The style of this furniture is English Jacobean, deriving from forms used in the seventeenth century. The intent with this furniture was to show off wealth and good taste—as befit a person of Henry Ford’s status.
This console table, seen in the photograph behind Henry Ford’s desk, is inlaid with matched veneers along the drawer front and handles in the shapes of shells. The elaborately turned legs, which look like upside down trumpets, are characteristic of the Jacobean style in England. Combined with the cabriole legs on the chairs, Houghton has mixed and matched English furniture styles here in what decorative arts historians call an eclectic fashion.
Tall Case Clock, works by Waltham Clock Company. / THF158743
If the rest of the office furniture was meant to impress, the tall case clock takes it over the top. Henry Ford was known for his love of clocks and watches. This piece was undoubtedly something that he was proud to possess and show off to guests in his office.
We know from documents that Henry Ford rarely used his office. He preferred to be out in the field visiting with employees or, in later years, in Greenfield Village. Consequently, the furniture shows little signs of wear. Further, there are few photographs of Henry Ford in his office, other than those taken in 1923 when it was newly installed.
On the wall behind the desk is a painting by artist Edward Pennoyer, used as an illustration for a 1931 advertisement. Henry Ford undoubtedly liked the image of himself with the Quadricycle, his first automobile, and hung it behind his desk.
Photograph of Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, to Henry Ford’s right, surrounded by unknown figures, November 1941. / THF240734
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241506
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241508
Only three photographs survive of Henry Ford in his office. All date to November 1941, when the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, visited Henry Ford and toured the Rouge Factory. Guests to the Engineering Laboratory were almost always photographed outside the building or in the adjacent Henry Ford Museum or Greenfield Village.
The third photograph above shows another work of art in the office. The landscape shows Henry Ford’s Wayside Inn, in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, purchased in 1923. This, of course, was a place near and dear to Henry Ford, and helped him to realize his goal of creating Greenfield Village.
As we can see, Sidney Houghton was close to Henry and Clara Ford, designing Henry’s office and the Fair Lane rail car intimate environment, used on a very regular basis. In the next blog post, I will look at the most intimate of the Fords’ interiors—their Fair Lane Estate, onto which Houghton put his own influence during the first half of the 1920s.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Our new limited-engagement exhibit, Collecting Mobility: New Objects, New Stories, opening to the public October 23, 2021, takes you behind the scenes at The Henry Ford to show you how we continue to grow our vast collection of more than 26 million artifacts. One key question the exhibit asks is why we collect the items we collect. To get more insight on the artifacts on exhibit and future trends that may impact our collecting, we reached out to several of our partners. In this post from that series, our friends at Ford Motor Company, donors of the COVID-19 mobile testing van in the exhibit, tackle questions about their efforts to serve the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Similar to the World War II “Arsenal of Democracy” effort, Ford Motor Company joined “Arsenal of Health” efforts through its Project Apollo to fight COVID-19 and serve the community. What Ford practices (or values) helped the company shift gears quickly to ramp up Project Apollo?
For 118 years and counting, Ford has had a culture of innovation and service, which enabled the team to respond quickly and nimbly to the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This Ford Transit van, on display in Collecting Mobility in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation until January 2, 2022, is one of four converted into mobile test units in spring 2020, early in America's COVID-19 pandemic, by Ford Motor Company and Troy Design & Manufacturing. The vehicles collected genetic samples in the field and transported them to labs for testing. Free tests were given to first responders, nursing home residents, and people at substance abuse centers and community shelters in Michigan. / THF188109
How fast did Project Apollo ramp up? How many products did you make?
The earliest seeds of Project Apollo began in mid-March 2020, when concerns around the safety of healthcare workers faced with a shortage of PPE were first raised. Project Apollo has produced face shields, multiple types of masks, gowns, powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs), ventilators, air filtration kits, and mobile testing/vaccination units.
What were some of the unexpected improvisations that happened turning car parts into useful medical products?
Working with 3M, the team was able to use off-the-shelf parts like vehicle ventilator fans and power tool batteries for a PAPR, or airbag material for washable gowns.
Level 1 isolation gowns protect wearers from contaminants in minimal-risk situations. This gown is made from the same fabric used in automobile airbags. Ford set a goal to produce 1.3 million gowns during the COVID-19 pandemic—each one washable up to 50 times. / THF186847
What is a new way of working that came out of Project Apollo that you think will influence manufacturing innovation in the next 10 years?
The team being very clear on a compelling purpose and mission—there was a common mission that was crystal-clear, very ambitious: to build 50,000 ventilators, 20 million face shields, 32,000 PAPRs, 100 million face masks… and more. On a normal day, this would feel like a Herculean task for each individual item—but to do all of it at the same time was a stretch goal. Ford had a mindset of aim high, fail fast, learn, pivot, adjust—but stay focused on that goal, that mission.
Early in America's COVID-19 pandemic, Ford Motor Company converted a portion of its Rawsonville Components Plant to produce more than 51,000 medical ventilators. These critical machines helped patients with the most serious COVID-19 infections to breathe. This unit, the last one off the Rawsonville assembly line, was signed by some of the 1,100 Ford employees involved in the effort. / THF185919
Teams were empowered. In many cases, the teams set their own goals—it often wasn’t a matter of Ford leadership asking, employees stepped up across the company with ideas on how Ford could help. And everyone played a role in eliminating constraints that were getting in the way of the team mission to serve the greater good.
Cynthia Jones is General Manager of Innovation Experiences at The Henry Ford. Ted Ryan is Ford Motor Company Archives and Heritage Brand Manager and Jim Baumbick is Vice President, Enterprise Product Line Management, Strategy, and Planning, at Ford Motor Company. Ford Motor Company is a global company based in Dearborn, Michigan, that is committed to helping build a better world, where every person is free to move and pursue their dreams. See Collecting Mobility for yourself in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation from October 23, 2021, through January 2, 2022.