Claude Harvard faced many racial obstacles over the course of his young life, but when he addressed a crowd of students at Tuskegee University in 1935, he spoke with confidence and optimism:
“Speaking from my own experience, brief as it is, I feel certain that the man or woman who has put his very best into honest effort to gain an education will not find the doors to success barred.”
One of the few, if not the only, Black engineers employed by Henry Ford at the time, Claude had been personally sent to Tuskegee by Ford to showcase an invention of his own creation. Even in the face of societal discrimination, the message of empowerment and perseverance that Claude imparted on that day was one that he carried with him over the course of his own career. For him, there was always a path forward.
Claude Harvard practicing radio communication with other students at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272856
Born in 1911, Claude spent the first ten years of his life in Dublin, Georgia, until his family, like other Black families of the time period, made the decision to move north to Detroit in order to escape the poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow laws of the South. From a young age, Claude was intrigued by science and developed a keen interest in a radical new technology—wireless radio. To further this interest, he sold products door-to-door just so he could acquire his own crystal radio set to play around with. It would be Claude’s passion for radio that led him to grander opportunities.
At school in Detroit, Harvard demonstrated an aptitude for the STEM fields and was eventually referred to the Henry Ford Trade School, a place usually reserved for orphaned teen-aged boys to be trained in a variety of skilled, industrial trade work. His enrollment at Henry Ford Trade School depended on his ability to resist the racial taunting of classmates and stay out of fights. Once there, his hands-on classes consisted of machining, metallurgy, drafting, and engine design, among others. In addition to the manual training received, academic classes were also required, and students could participate in clubs.
Claude Harvard with other Radio Club members and their teacher at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272854
As president of the Radio Club, Claude Harvard became acquainted with Henry Ford, who shared an interest in radio—as early as 1919, radio was playing a pivotal role in Ford Motor Company’s communications. Although he graduated at the top of his class in 1932, Claude was not given a journeyman’s card like the rest of his classmates. A journeyman’s card would have allowed Claude to be actively employed as a tradesperson. Despite this obstacle, Henry Ford recognized Claude’s talent and he was hired at the trade school. By the 1920s, Ford Motor Company had become the largest employer of African American workers in the country. Although Ford employed large numbers of African Americans, there were limits to how far most could advance. Many African American workers spent their time in lower paying, dirty, dangerous, and unhealthy jobs.
The year 1932 also saw Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company once again revolutionize the auto industry with the introduction of a low-priced V-8 engine. By casting the crankcase and cylinder banks as a single unit, Ford cut manufacturing costs and could offer its V-8 in a car starting under $500, a steal at the time. The affordability of the V-8 meant many customers for Ford, and with that came inevitable complaints—like a noisy rattling that emanated from the engine. To remedy this problem, which was caused by irregular-shaped piston pins, Henry Ford turned to Claude Harvard.
To solve the issue, Harvard invented a machine that checked the shape of piston pins and sorted them by size with the use of radio waves. More specifically, the machine checked the depth of the cut on each pin, its length, and its surface smoothness. It then sorted the V-8 pins by size at a rate of three per second. Ford implemented the machine on the factory floor and touted it as an example of the company’s commitment to scientific accuracy and uniform quality. Along with featuring Claude’s invention in print and audio-visual ads, Ford also sent Harvard to the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago and to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to showcase the machine.
Piston Pin Inspection Machine at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. / THF212795
During his time at Tuskegee, Harvard befriended famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who he eventually introduced to Henry Ford. In 1937, when George Washington Carver visited Henry Ford in Dearborn, he insisted that Claude be there. While Carver and Ford would remain friends the rest of their lives, Claude Harvard left Ford Motor Company in 1938 over a disagreement about divorcing his wife and his pay. Despite Ford patenting over 20 of Harvard’s ideas, Claude’s career would be forced in a new direction and over time, the invention of the piston pin sorting machine would simply be attributed to the Henry Ford Trade School.
Despite these many obstacles, Claude’s work lived on in the students that he taught later in his life, the contributions he made to manufacturing, and a 1990 oral history, where he stood by his sentiments that if one put in a honest effort into learning, there would always be a way forward.
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lee Iacocca (right) lights a candle with Henry Ford II (center) and Don Frey to celebrate the Ford Mustang’s first birthday in April 1965. (THF113838)
A Born Salesman Lee Iacocca, the charismatic corporate executive whose long careers at Ford and Chrysler made him one of the best-known businessmen in America, passed away on July 2 at age 94. With his passing, the automotive industry lost one of its most colorful figures of the last 60 years.
Born and raised in Allentown, Penn., Iacocca earned a degree in industrial engineering from Lehigh University in 1945. Given his location, one might have expected him to take a job in the steel industry. But Iacocca was one of those people with gasoline in the veins. He wanted to build cars – specifically, he wanted to build them for Ford Motor Company. He joined the Blue Oval in 1946 as an engineer. But for a born salesman like Iacocca, it was an awkward fit at best. He asked for a reassignment to sales in Ford’s Philadelphia district, and his career blossomed from there.
Iacocca first attracted attention from senior Ford managers with a novel promotion in the mid-1950s. He dreamed up a “’56 for 56” gimmick in which customers could buy a new 1956 Ford with 20 percent down and monthly payments of $56 thereafter. It was simple, it was catchy, and it was a hit. The promotion earned him a transfer to Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn.
Total Performance Lee Iacocca made no small plans. Barely into his 30s when he moved to Dearborn, Iacocca resolved that he’d be a Ford vice president by age 35. Though he climbed up the ranks quickly, he missed his goal – Iacocca wasn’t named Vice President and General Manager of the Ford Division until he’d turned 36. By a twist of fate, Ford President Robert McNamara left to become President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense soon after Iacocca’s appointment. Iacocca’s influence at Ford Motor Company increased accordingly.
Young, enthusiastic, and a car guy to the core, Iacocca was the polar opposite of McNamara, whose major accomplishments at Ford included turning the sensuous two-seat Thunderbird into a four-seat family sedan. (Though to be fair, McNamara nearly doubled Thunderbird’s sales as a result.) Iacocca wanted his company to think young. He remembered the Ford V-8 of his own youth which, with help from legions of hot rodders, gave Ford a performance image. Chevrolet snatched that image in the mid-1950s with its small-block V-8 and its classic “Tri Five” Chevys of 1955-57.
Iacocca (right) with Jimmy Clark (center), Benson Ford, and the double overhead cam V-8 that Ford developed for the Indianapolis 500. (THF110520)
Among Iacocca’s first moves were to get Ford Motor Company back into racing. He greenlit a striking mid-engine sports car prototype and then – with Henry Ford II, Leo Beebe, Carroll Shelby, Jacque Passino, and others – launched an all-out assault in nearly every form of racing under the banner “Total Performance.” By decade’s end, Ford had racked up victories in NASCAR, on drag strips, at Indianapolis, and at Le Mans. But Iacocca’s tenure at Ford is forever tied to one car.
The Youth Car Working in secret with a select team, Iacocca pitched the need for a “youth car” targeted at the up-and-coming Baby Boomers. He wanted something with the appeal of a Thunderbird, the look of a Ferrari, and the economy of a Volkswagen – a tall order to be sure. But Ford’s designers and engineers rose to the challenge. In one of the automotive industry’s great triumphs, they put a sporty body on the existing Ford Falcon compact car chassis, produced a seemingly endless menu of options and accessories that encouraged customers to personalize, and dubbed their new creation “Mustang” – a name that evoked freedom, open spaces, and, in the words of one marketing expert, “was American as all hell.”
Ford optimistically hoped to sell 200,000 Mustangs in the first model year. But the car’s splashy launch – at the 1964 New York World’s Fair – and a savvy marketing campaign kicked off a mania rarely seen in automotive showrooms. By the end of the 1965 model year, more than 680,000 buyers had taken a new Mustang home.
Mustang’s success made Iacocca a household name. But his rising star contributed to growing tensions between Iacocca and Henry Ford II, the company’s chairman and ultimate authority. After several difficult years, their strained relationship foundered and, in 1978, led to an acrimonious parting of the ways between Iacocca and Ford Motor Company.
Iacocca found the perfect pitchman for Chrysler – himself. His print and television ads made him one of the best-known business figures in the United States. (THF103024)
A Second Act No one could have blamed Iacocca if he’d retired then and there. The Mustang alone was enough to secure his legacy. But retirement wasn’t Iacocca’s style. He missed being at the center of the action. When the failing Chrysler Corporation offered him the job of CEO, he couldn’t resist. Iacocca’s second act was even more impressive than his first.
Iacocca took over a company in ruin. Chrysler was losing millions with little hope of recovery. His first and most important act was to secure a loan guarantee from the U.S. Congress. He then set about rebuilding the automaker’s product line. First came the K-Car, a highly-adaptable front-wheel drive platform that Chrysler offered under any number of makes, models and designs. Then came another vehicle that, like the Mustang before it, transformed the industry. The minivan, manifested in the Plymouth Voyager and the Dodge Caravan, was born of an idea Iacocca had toyed with at Ford to no avail. At Chrysler, the innovative minivan became a best-seller that redefined the family car for a generation of Americans. To top off his achievements, Iacocca added an evergreen marque to Chrysler’s lineup when he acquired American Motors and its enduring Jeep brand in 1987.
Eager to restore faith in Chrysler vehicles, Iacocca personally vouched for his products in a series of memorable television and print ads. He ended many of them with a simple, straightforward challenge to his audience: “If you can find a better car, buy it.” The ads were effective, and he enjoyed making them. In truth, he enjoyed the limelight. Through the 1980s, Iacocca added to his celebrity by writing two best-selling books, leading a successful effort to restore the Statue of Liberty, and appearing in a bit part on the popular TV series Miami Vice. For a time, there was even serious talk about Iacocca as a candidate for President of the United States.
Enough for Two Lifetimes Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992. He’d returned the company to profitability, restored its reputation, and repaid its government loan. But even then he didn’t really retire. With billionaire Las Vegas developer Kirk Kerkorian, Iacocca launched an unsuccessful takeover attempt of Chrysler in 1995. Ten years later, he returned to Chrysler – by then under German ownership as DaimlerChrysler – to shoot a few commercials, reprising his trademark “If you can find a better car…” slogan.
Lee Iacocca seemed to live two lifetimes in his 94 years. He enjoyed success at two car companies, and he fathered two groundbreaking vehicles. Iacocca lived to see the Mustang turn 50, and to see Chrysler fall into bankruptcy once more before remerging as a part of FCA. He will be remembered as long as there are people who love cars like he did.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Detroit Reacts to the Great Migration: Before the first World War, a majority of Detroit's African American population lived on the East Side and shared the area, known as Black Bottom, with white immigrant populations. At this time, relatively few African Americans, just 1.2% of the total population, called Detroit home. By 1930, the city’s African American population had grown by over 1,991%. The white immigrant population began to vacate the Black Bottom area and were quickly replaced with the growing population of African Americans attracted to the north by the promise of employment in Detroit’s booming auto industry and an escape from the rampant oppression of the south. As the African American population in Detroit increased, racial residential boundaries began to form, due in part to the stress on housing stock, as well as to outright discrimination in institutions such as employment and real estate.
Photographic print - "Newspaper Article, "Gold Rush is Started by Ford's $5 Offer," January 7, 1914" - Ford Motor Company
The automobile industry and Henry Ford’s highly-publicized $5-a-day helped to draw people in great numbers to the Detroit area. However, for African American workers, reality often differed from their hopes and expectations in the north. While many of the automotive manufacturers did hire African Americans, it was almost always for the lowest paying jobs, such as in the janitorial department or the foundry. Ford Motor Company led the automotive industry in its hiring of African American workers by 1919. The company paid African American workers the same rate as their white counterparts and hired for a variety of positions, including skilled labor. Across the board, however, African American workers made less money than their white counterparts, and consequently, had less income for quality housing.
Photographic print - "Pickling Metal Crankcases and Other Parts to Remove Surface Impurities, Ford Rouge Plant, 1936" - Ford Motor Company Photographic Department
Discriminatory real estate practices played a significant role in the housing issues which plagued Detroit. Racially restrictive covenants, which legally ensured the sale of property to only white buyers, became increasingly common in Detroit. Even if a restrictive covenant was not in place, the Detroit Real Estate Board warned area realtors “not to sell to Negroes in a 100 percent white area,” thereby enforcing and perpetuating Detroit’s racial geography. Further, the practice of “redlining,” or the racial categorization of areas by their perceived financial risk in home insurance and mortgage lending, effectively shut out black homebuyers from the market. The practice extended to the lending of new mortgages, but also to home loans, leading to the inability to complete home repairs and, eventually, an abundance of blighted homes in black neighborhoods. In addition, real estate agents erroneously reported to white homeowners that the presence of black families in their neighborhoods would lower their property values. White homeowners, even those without ingrained prejudices against African Americans, certainly did not want their property values to lower, so rallied against any attempt by an African American homebuyer purchasing in their neighborhoods. The infamous story of African American Physician Dr. Ossian Sweet exemplifies the discrimination and mob violence experienced by those who attempted to move into white neighborhoods.
Discrimination in the workplace meant that African Americans, as a whole, made significantly less money than their white counterparts. Redlining practices forced them into racially-segregated neighborhoods and cemented their inability to access loans for mortgages or home repairs. Yet, the promise of the north continued to draw African Americans to Detroit. Without access to capital, increasingly-crowded neighborhoods became increasingly-deteriorated. At each turn, discriminatory systems excluded an entire population from quality housing. From these conditions, Charles H. Lawrence and his family departed Detroit in search of quality housing and a better life. He became the first African American to settle in Inkster, Michigan, and hundreds soon followed.
African Americans Settle in Inkster The City of Inkster, also located in Wayne County, is approximately fourteen miles from downtown Detroit. Detroit Urban League President John Dancy fielded many housing inquiries from frustrated African American migrants to Detroit in the post-World War I period and beyond. Unable to locate sufficient housing in the City of Detroit, Dancy broadened his search outside the City with hopes that more rural areas would not have the same restrictive covenants and that lesser demand would persuade landowners to sell to African American buyers. In 1920, Dancy succeeded when he found amenable property owners in possession of 140 acres in rural Inkster. Although Inkster’s first African American residents’ settlement in Inkster preceded Dancy’s discovery, the 140 acres of available land enabled and impelled hundreds more African American families to move from Detroit to Inkster, despite the lack of a local government or basic public amenities like streetlights or sewer lines.
A Community Becomes a Project Henry Ford was vocal about his disdain for institutionalized philanthropy. He wrote an entire chapter, entitled “Why Charity?” in an autobiography, and explained, “philanthropy, no matter how noble its motive, does not make for self-reliance…A philanthropy that spends its time and money in helping the world to do more for itself is far better than the sort which merely gives and thus encourages idleness.” Henry Ford’s brand of philanthropy was characterized by helping people help themselves. During the Great Depression, Henry Ford was called upon by the City of Detroit to provide aid because the City’s welfare offices were overwhelmed. Their argument, aside from civic responsibility, was that the City was not receiving taxes from Ford Motor Company (FMC’s factories were located outside Detroit) yet as many as “36 percent of the families receiving care from the City of Detroit were former Ford employees” in 1931. The public goodwill that Ford’s $5 a day policy brought was quickly dissipating. In 1931, Ford agreed to two philanthropic ventures; he provided a low-interest, short-term $5 million loan to the City of Detroit and essentially took the then-Village of Inkster under the Ford Motor Company’s auspices.
Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company
Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company
Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company
Report - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company
By 1931, a few years into the Great Depression’s hardships, the residents of Inkster were struggling. Unemployment and debt were high, public services had been cut, and many residences remained partially-completed, as the Great Depression halted progress in the young village. Controversially, Henry Ford placed FMC’s Sociological Department in charge of what became known as the Inkster Project. The Sociological Department was created in 1914 in order to manage the diverse workforce and ensure employee adherence to the company’s strict standards, which were paternalistic in nature and often crossed the home life-work life boundary. In Inkster, the Sociological Department immediately began implementing programs to comprehensively rehabilitate the village. A commissary, which sold high-quality, low-cost food and essential home goods, was established. Coal was distributed to those who needed it to heat their homes. Debtors were paid off, and a medical clinic and school were constructed. Homes deemed insufficient were rehabilitated. The inability to pay for these services was irrelevant; a type of “I.O.U,” repayable through Ford-provided work and wages, was enough to access all life’s necessities.
Photographic print - "Checking on Ford Employees Home Conditions, Views from "Factory Facts From Ford," 1917"
The Legacy of the Inkster Project Although the Inkster Project was generally highly-regarded at the time, the FMC Sociological Department’s role was often overreaching. When agreeing to Ford’s aid, an Inkster resident was also agreeing to running their household as preferred by Henry Ford. Although his funds undoubtedly helped Inkster during the Great Depression, Ford’s motives were not entirely altruistic. Besides the much-needed public relations boost he received from the Inkster Project, he also was able to assert his influence and ideals on a community that largely had no choice but to accept his aid -- with all strings attached.
The Inkster Project’s legacy is complicated; many historians criticize Henry Ford’s paternalistic nature and the perhaps forceful imposition of his will onto the desperate, but others, including former residents of Inkster, praise Henry Ford for his aid. In her reminiscences, Georgia Ruth McKay explains that Inkster became a “jungle village changed into a city” during this period and that, “without his [Henry Ford’s] help, many would not have survived.” The Inkster Project was slowly phased out, but continued to operate in Inkster until 1941 when all programs were withdrawn.
Progress report - "Village of Inkster Welfare Report, 1931-1941" - Ford Motor Company
Report - "Village of Inkster Welfare Provision Report, circa 1936" - Ford Motor Company
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. In writing this piece, she appreciated the research and writings of Beth Tompkins Bates’ “The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford”, Thomas J. Sugrue’s “The Origins of the Urban Crisis; Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,”, and Howard O’Dell Lindsey’s dissertation, “Fields to Fords, Feds to Franchise: African American Empowerment in Inkster, Michigan.”
Dressing Goodfellows dolls has been a Christmas tradition in Detroit since 1924, and the Ford Motor Company Girls’ Club was a major participant in dressing Goodfellows dolls for underprivileged children in Detroit for many years. Starting in 1946 by dressing 65 dolls, the club’s peak donation was 3,000 dresses in 1967, 1969, and 1970, and they averaged between 1,500 to 3,000 dolls most years.
The Ford Girls’ Club was started in 1946 under the Recreation Section of Ford Motor Company. Every female employee – salaried, or hourly – was automatically a member (though active membership did cost $1.00 per year). Any immediate female family member of a club member could join, as could the wives of Ford male employees. The club was primarily social, meeting once a month in addition to dinners, picnics, dances, lectures, and workshops. Members were also service oriented - they held dances for returning veterans, gave gifts and visited veterans in hospitals, and each Christmas they participated in clothing dolls for the Goodfellows to distribute, making thousands and thousands of handmade dresses over the years.
Dolls were usually handed out at the annual November service meeting. The club’s first foray into dress making was in 1946, when women of the club made 65 handmade dresses for dolls. The next year they jumped up to 290, with the dresses being displayed in the Administration Building cafeteria before being sent to the Goodfellows. As more women joined the club, interest grew in this Christmas service project and the club dressed more and more dolls each year, with their finished projects being displayed in various Ford Motor Company buildings’ lobbies, and offices, as well as the Dearborn Virginia Dare storefront window in 1949. The number of dresses made continued to climb each year reaching to almost one thousand in 1954, and the dolls were displayed for the first time at the Rotunda Christmas Fantasy. The next few years were dress-making bonanzas, and in 1957 2,500 dolls were dressed and displayed at the Rotunda for visitors to view before they were distributed to girls in the Detroit area on Christmas Eve. The Girl’s Club maintained a high production rate in the years to come - between 1,750 and 2,000 dresses were made annually and displayed at the Rotunda or Ford Motor Company buildings. In 1966 production saw another jump when the club made almost 3,000, a number they reached the next year and continued to reach or come close to for the next four years.
The handmade dresses were made of all kinds of fabric, from cotton to organdy, satin and lace. Women also knit and crocheted dresses, from wool to angora. Dolls dressed as nurses, astronauts, drum majorettes, hula dancers, Girl Scouts, flying nuns, ballerinas, and ice skaters complete with skates, graced the displays, as did brides, baby dolls, and all kinds of different ethnic dresses. Women could make any type of dress they wanted, but prizes were given by the Goodfellows, and later Ford, in specific categories:
Knit and crocheted
Goodfellows prizes ranged from $1 for a dress placing in a particular division to a grand prize of $10. Ford soon began judging the Girls’ Club’s work and awarding prizes as well, with the dresses usually judged by the wives of the Goodfellows’ president and executive officers. Early on prizes were cash, but when the displays headed to the Rotunda the stakes were raised. Grand prize in the 1950s and early 1960s was a sewing machine and console, second prize being a portable sewing machine, and third prize was a sewing cabinet.
The prizes, of course, were always of secondary importance in the Girls’ Club work with the Goodfellows' goal of “no child without a Christmas.” Over a 27-year period, 1946-1972, the Ford Girls’ Club donated over 45,000 hand-made dresses to the Detroit Goodfellows' organization to distribute to area children. The Ford employee newsletter The Rouge News and later Ford World carried stories and photos of the club’s donations every year, urging members of the club and others in the Ford organization to participate. We lose track of the Ford Girls’ Club here in the archive at about 1973, when Ford World ceased publishing stories on the yearly donation of dolls. However, judging from the 1972 output of 2,000 dolls, it seems likely the club continued the annual service drive for some years after.
The Goodfellows still distribute dolls and people in the metro Detroit area continue to provide dresses each year.
Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford has lost a wonderful friend and colleague. Master Weaver Richard Jeryan passed away on June 25. Richard was an extraordinary individual— not only for his enormous professional contributions, but for his unique personal gifts that he so generously shared. Brilliant, gifted, generous, wise, and caring, Richard will be sorely missed by all who knew him.
Richard grew up in the Philadelphia area. He received a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Drexel University in 1967 and his MS in Mechanical Engineering and Heat Transfer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969.
Richard had a long and illustrious career at Ford Motor Company before coming to The Henry Ford, retiring as Senior Technical Specialist/Technical Leader in 2006 after 42 years. During his years at Ford, Richard used his vast expertise in lightweight automotive structural materials including aluminum and glass/carbon-fiber composites to research, develop, and create production applications for vehicles ranging from Ford passenger cars and trucks to Formula One race cars, America’s Cup yachts, and the 2005 Ford GT. Richard’s expertise was widely recognized among his colleagues in the field--he served first as Chairman and then on the Board of Directors of the Automotive Composites Consortium for nearly 20 years.
Richard was truly a Renaissance man—someone with wide interests and expertise in many areas. Richard always seemed to know something about everything—and sought out a wide variety of life experiences. (A little known fact: Richard had a number of non-singing roles in Michigan Opera Theatre productions, including Katisha’s beleaguered servant in a 1991 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.) Perhaps most importantly for us at The Henry Ford, Richard studied, mastered, and then generously shared his knowledge of handweaving.
Richard and his wife Chris brought their weaving expertise to The Henry Ford in 2006—and a new era dawned in Greenfield Village’s Weaving Shop. Here, Richard’s mechanical engineering and weaving skills came together to transform our weaving program. Richard and Chris worked with Historic Operating Machinery’s Tim Brewer to get our historic weaving machinery working again and keep it well maintained. Richard led the team in reactivating our Jacquard loom in 2007—the 600-warp thread loom that had not run for decades—discovering along the way that Henry Ford had commissioned this Jacquard reproduction during the 1930s for the Weaving Shop and had it built by his workers. It is one of only three working Jacquard looms in North American museums.
Richard and Chris also took the lead on organizing and designing the textile projects, assisting Crafts and Trades manager Larry Watson. Improved, as well as new, items rolled off the looms as the weaving staff worked under the Jeryans’ guidance. Firestone Farmhouse received new, sturdier rag rugs for the everyday parlor; various village buildings got period correct handwoven towels for use in foodways programs and in historic kitchen installations, though most of these towels are eagerly snatched up by visitors to our Liberty Craftworks store; weaving products based on traditional coverlet weaving patterns appeared in our holiday catalog; and, soon, scarfs woven on our historic knitting machine will be offered as well. Richard often donated materials to be used for weaving, even prowling estate sales for desirable yarn.
Richard not only helped “behind the scenes” by researching, making the machinery run, designing the textile products, and teaching the staff to weave, but also frequently demonstrated weaving and interpreted our Weaving Shop stories for our visitors as well. Watching Richard present was truly memorable—his passion was contagious and he made it so clear how these stories of the past connect to our lives today. Richard often lent his expertise in coverlets and other historic woven textiles to curator Jeanine Head Miller. He provided invaluable assistance in evaluating and problem solving some of the issues we have had with the Dymaxion House. Richard and Chris were also co-chairs of our annual employee/volunteer fund drive for many years. And they did all of all of this as members of our unpaid staff. For these generous gifts of knowledge, skill, and time we are most grateful.
Richard’s knowledge of weaving and historic textiles benefited not only The Henry Ford, but other organizations as well. From 2008 to 2013, Richard served on the Board of Directors of the National Museum of the American Coverlet in Bedford, Pennsylvania. Here he did everything from strategic planning to teaching to painting the walls. More recently, Richard was elected the President of the Complex Weavers, an international guild of weavers dedicated to expanding the boundaries of handweaving and the sharing of information and innovative ideas.
There are so very many things we will always remember about Richard. Among them: his leadership, his ability to recognize and nurture hidden talent in those around him, his way of teaching and inspiring others, his keen perception and sense of humor, and his passion for The Henry Ford and its stories.
Richard Jeryan did so incredibly much in his 70 years. He was a truly extraordinary man who chose to use his talents to make the world a much better place.
You will continue to inspire us, Richard--and we will miss you.
From “a bottle of liquid soap, a few bandages, and a pair of scissors” in a small wooden box by the timecards, the Ford Motor Company Medical Department grew to include over 100 physicians, assistants, and other employees. In 1914, Ford Motor Company instituted the five dollar day and with it a number of improvements to their programs for workers. One such program, was to expand and build up the Medical Department, first at Highland Park, where a 23-room state-of-the-art medical facility was built, and then expanding to the Rouge and other factories across the Ford empire. Let’s take a look at what the Medical Department looked like around 1916.
By 1916, the Medical Department included six divisions: Tuberculosis, Roentgenology, Dermatology, Dentistry, Corps. of the First Aid, and Ophthalmology, as well as various surgeons and support staff, counting over 100 people in all. It was headed up by Dr. J.E. Mead, who was assisted by Dr. N.L. Woodry, and Dr. W.R. McClure, and included ten other physicians, mainly from Detroit College of Medicine. In the twelve months before July 1917, these doctors were kept busy handling 558,869 cases including: 278,692 surgical cases, 120,309 medical cases, 5,044 minor operations, 2,473 x-rays, and 1,111 dental exams.
The Emergency Medical Hospital, situated between the Paymaster’s Office and Employment Office at Highland Park, was prepared for all manner of medical needs with x-ray machines, dressing tables and chairs for injuries to the head and “uppers;” and benches, foot rests, and tubs for “foot cases;” a well-supplied stock of pharmaceuticals; and a full operating room (as well as an additional operating room in the Blast Furnace area). There were also six first aid stations around the factory that functioned 24 hours a day manned by assistants who provided basic first aid and referred any cases such as infections, foreign bodies in the eye, or those requiring minor surgery, to the main hospital.
Any injury, no matter if it was just a scratch, was expected to be reported and had to be attended to at a first aid station, and if it warranted further attention, at the Emergency Hospital. Bulletins, posters, articles in the factory papers and Ford Times, as well as lectures, and on the job coaching alerted men to the danger of leaving an injury untreated. Images portraying infected eyes and hands alerted employees to the importance of proper medical attention. A booklet of “Helpful hints” issued to employees included medical tips such as: “All foreign bodies lodged in the eye should be removed by the doctor or first-aid man, and not by a fellow employee, because serious complications may result and probably cause blindness,” and “Do not try to lift anything beyond your strength, as you are liable to rupture yourself,” as well as “Do not wear loose-fitting or ragged clothing, as you are liable to be caught and pulled into a machine and seriously injured” (to say the least).
The Medical Department also played a large role in the hiring process and job placement of employees. Each new hire at Ford had to undergo a medical examination, and doctors determined what jobs they were physically and mentally best suited for, in 1916-17 they examined 13,055 applicants. The doctors would then turn their reports over to the employment office to process. The employment office kept detailed records of the exact physical requirements needed for jobs in the factory, and matched a new hire to a suitable job. Ford boasted that this method allowed them to hire many workers with disabilities in their factories, “there are probably 5,000 jobs at the Ford factories that do not require full physical capacity, and a surprisingly large number of these may be performed by men for whom steady work was at one time considered physically impossible.” Even workers with tuberculosis were hired and put to work, active cases in a separate “Lungers camp” on Oakland Avenue where they sorted and reclaimed scrap outside in fresh air (in line with the prevailing treatment method of the time). In fact, even when workers were convalescing in hospital they were given whatever light work was possible in the form of occupational therapy. There was also a Medical Transfer Division within the department that examined men and recommended transfers or certain adaptions to their workflow after an injury or illness.
As you can see from the above photo from Willow Run in 1942, the Medical Department continued to expand to include hospitals at the Rouge, Northern Michigan operations, and beyond. The department worked, in its own words, “solely for the aid and benefit of the employees; to see that they are in proper physical condition for their work and, if not, to do all that can be done in order that they may be in the best condition possible for the fulfillment of their duties.”
To learn even more about the Ford Medical Department, visit our Benson Ford Research Center. Its open Monday-Friday 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. You can set up an appointment in our reading room or ask us a question here.
Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.
George DeAngelis, a long-time Ford Motor Company employee and devoted student of Henry Ford and his automobiles, passed away on December 14, 2014. Mr. DeAngelis is remembered for his published works on the Ford Model A and the Ford V-8, as well as Henry Ford’s early 999 and Arrow race cars. Here at The Henry Ford, though, we especially remember him for a pair of three-dimensional contributions: his incredible 1963 and 1991 replicas of Henry Ford’s first car, the 1896 Quadricycle.
Regular visitors to Henry Ford Museum know that the Quadricycle – the original car built by Henry Ford himself – occupies a prominent place in our Driving America exhibit. While the original car was used frequently during Henry Ford’s life – indeed, he posed with it less than a year before he died – it was retired to Henry Ford Museum by 1963, the centennial of Henry Ford’s birth. DeAngelis set out to build a working replica for the celebration. DeAngelis had the perfect background for the task. He possessed the skills of a tool and die maker, but with the careful eye of an artist. He had a genuine love for antique automobiles, to boot.
There were no blueprints of the Quadricycle, so DeAngelis gathered every written description and photograph he could find. Of course, he also had the original Quadricycle as a pattern. The historic car sat in an enclosed display case, so DeAngelis estimated his initial measurements through the glass. Amazingly, when the original Quadricycle was removed for confirmation, DeAngelis found he had made only one error – and of just 5/8 of an inch!
What DeAngelis thought would be a one-winter project turned into three years of nights and weekends. He was able to source some of his parts from lawn mower catalogs, and some from antique shops, but most he made himself. While the replica stayed remarkably true to the original, DeAngelis made a few concessions to safety and reliability. Most notably, he gave his replica a brake – something Henry’s Quadricycle never had. The work was finished by June 4, 1963, when DeAngelis drove his replica along the same route Henry Ford took during the original Quadricycle’s first drive on June 4, 1896.
When the festivities ended, The Henry Ford purchased the replica from George DeAngelis. Over the years, the 1963 copy became a staple of our annual Old Car Festival, thrilling visitors each year as museum staff drove it through Greenfield Village. In a neat coda to the story, we commissioned DeAngelis to build a second Quadricycle replica nearly 30 years later. DeAngelis’s 1991 replica now sits in the reconstruction of Henry Ford’s Bagley Avenue shed in Greenfield Village.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
McKinley Thompson Jr., an African American industrial designer, was born and raised in New York City. He knew the road he wanted to travel in life one day in October 1934. He was returning home from school in Queens when he spotted a silver-grey Chrysler DeSoto Airflow (like this 1934 model in our collections) pulling up to a traffic signal. Mr. Thompson, then just a young boy of 12, was about a half a block away. Reliving the moment for The Henry Ford in an oral history interview in 2001, Mr. Thompson recalled many of the details: “There were patchy clouds in the sky, and it just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through. It lit that car up like a searchlight.” He began running towards it, but the light turned green. Though the car drove off before he could get a closer look, the impact had been made. “I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew [then] that that’s what I wanted to do in life—I want[ed] to be an automobile designer.” At the time, there hadn’t been a single African American car stylist.
By 1953, Mr. Thompson was a war veteran with a family and a career as an engineering layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps. He had reached his thirtieth birthday and could have easily settled into a comfortable existence. But he still wanted to be an automobile designer—a life goal he never lost sight of. He decided to enter a contest sponsored by Motor Trend magazine, with four winners each receiving an Art Center College of Design scholarship. His turbine car, which would incorporate reinforced plastic (an unusual choice of material at the time), won him a scholarship. He started at the Art Center in Los Angeles that same year, and was the first African American enrolled in their prestigious Transportation Design department. After graduating in 1956, he interviewed for an automotive design position with just one automaker: Ford Motor Company. He got the job.
Mr. Thompson didn’t just land the position he had dreamed of since the day that shining car caught his eye; he made history by becoming the first African American automobile designer.
He started at Ford’s Advanced Studio, where designers worked free from creative restrictions. On his first day, he was told by the Vice President of Ford Design, George Walker, “You can go as far as your talent will take you.” Mr. Thompson’s early design work included the Light Cab Forward truck, and he contributed sketches for the Mustang and the futuristic Gyron concept car. He also envisioned a forward-thinking project that had the potential to change the world.
In 1965, Mr. Thompson took his innovative idea to Ford: an all-terrain vehicle for the Third World that would have economic and social consequences. He understood that rising countries needed good transportation, and that a vehicle had to satisfy the needs of the population. He knew that like the Model T, his car should be relatively easy to build and maintain, and that production costs must be kept to a bare minimum. But Mr. Thompson’s vision extended beyond this vehicle. He anticipated his auto plants—located in the developing nations that would use car—bringing jobs, better roads and eventual economic independence to host countries. He believed automobile manufacturing would “help develop the economy as it did in the United States.”
The name he chose for the automobile that would make this grand plan possible was “the Warrior.” The car was actually intended to be the first in a series of vehicles, including a half-ton pickup truck, a six-passenger bus (an early version of the minivan), as well as boats and containers (buoys, pontoons, etc.). They would be constructed using a strong space age plastic material produced by Uniroyal called Royalex.
Though Ford was very supportive, the company ultimately passed on the project in 1967. Mr. Thompson still believed the car could succeed, and he recruited friends to invest in or assist with developing the vehicle for the African market. One of those friends and investors was Wally Triplett, who had broken a barrier of his own in 1949 as the first African American to play in the National Football League (for the Detroit Lions).
Mr. Thompson rented a garage on Detroit’s west side and went about building the Warrior. Still working at Ford during the day, he spent at least six hours a night—plus weekends—on the vehicle. “My family was very good about that. My wife knew how badly I wanted to do this,” he recalled. Mr. Triplett assisted, and was the only other individual involved in its construction.
The prototype was modeled on the Renault R-10, a small four-door sedan. Indeed, the Warrior’s chassis came directly from a disassembled R-10. Base mechanical components, including the engine, were also incorporated. Renault already had a distribution system overseas, providing a ready-made parts supplier for Mr. Thompson’s customers. Mr. Thompson and Mr. Triplett designed and built the tools to form the sections of the body, which were then sent off to Uniroyal, who molded the Royalex plastic.
While major work on the Warrior was complete by 1969, it’s likely that modifications were made to the vehicle through the mid-1970s while continued attempts were made to turn the vision into reality.
The partners talked of building the car in Detroit themselves, but were denied a bank loan; Mr. Triplett believes race played a role. African nations were courted, but instability on the continent derailed those opportunities. As for Ford Motor Company, the automaker—like others—didn’t believe the car would sell in large enough numbers to warrant the investment. Mr. Thompson eventually stopped looking for funding, closing up shop on the Warrior in 1979. Still, he kept in touch with his project’s supporters, in the event something came up, but alas, “nothing ever came of it.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Thompson never lost faith in the Warrior, and kept the car as a leisure vehicle. He took it off-road in Northern Michigan’s sand dunes, and drove the car on family vacations. He even used it for running errands, usually attracting a fair amount of attention. Though the Warrior was never mass-produced, Mr. Thompson’s many years of driving the prototype proved it was a sound vehicle. The car got a respectable 35-40 miles per gallon on the highway and 25-27 in the city. Maximum speed was 75-80 mph. The Warrior is now a part of The Henry Ford collection.
The Warrior project was ahead of its time in design and philosophy. The use of plastic, so common today, was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Thompson’s larger economic prophecy was partially fulfilled in 1995 when the 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.
After retiring, Mr. Thompson put together a traveling exhibit of the history of the African American designers at Ford. He wanted to show African American kids that his dream job was a career option for them, too. He traveled with the exhibit, standing next to it at malls and museums, happily fielding questions from curious visitors.
Sadly, Mr. Thompson suffered from Parkinson’s disease later in life. McKinley Thompson Jr. passed away in 2006 at the age of 83.
McKinley Thompson, undated. (Photograph courtesy of Terry Keefe.)
“I regret I wasn’t able to get it going,” he lamented to The Henry Ford regarding the Warrior, a project in which he had invested so much work and faith. But he was quick to add that “God has blessed a certain number of people in the world with talent and ability and I’ve always felt that those people that have that blessing—creativity and imagination—owe it to the rest of the population to make life as good as it can be. It was rewarding to me to know that I was trying to make that kind of an effort. I felt good about that.”
Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.
Learn more about the Warrior automobile, McKinley Thompson, and Wally Triplett with these sources:
Archives materials available in the BFRC Reading Room:
Oral History Interview with McKinley W. Thompson Regarding the 1974 Warrior Concept Car (2001.162.2)
Wally Triplett Collection (2004.40.0). Includes the photograph album, “White Paper to Wheels” and an oral history with Mr. Triplett (2004.40.1)
“Design Pioneers: Vanguards of Progress, Part II,” Isdesignet, September 1996. Archives Vertical File, African-American Workers – Inventions
On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford and his vice president James Couzens stunned the world when they revealed that Ford Motor Company would double its workers’ wages to five dollars a day. The announcement generated glowing newspaper headlines and editorials around the world. The notion of a wealthy industrialist sharing profits with workers on such a scale was unprecedented.
In the century since, many theories have been posited for Ford’s bold move. Some suggested the increase was to justify assembly line speed-ups. Others speculated it was to counteract high labor turnover due to increasingly monotonous assembly line work. Ford admirers believed it was pure philanthropy. Cynics asserted that it was little more than an elaborate publicity stunt. As usual, the truth lay somewhere in the middle.
More Monotony, But More Money
To a large degree, Ford’s implementation of the Five-Dollar Day cannot be appreciated without first understanding his advances with the moving assembly line. Experiments through 1913 and into 1914 reduced the time required to build a Model T automobile from 12½ hours to a mere 93 minutes. Increased efficiencies lowered production costs, which lowered customer prices, which increased demand. The public was eager to buy all of the cars Ford could build.
Explosive production gains came at the cost of worker satisfaction. The very goal of the moving assembly line was to take what had been relatively skilled craftwork and reduce it to simple, rote tasks. Workers who had taken pride in their labor were quickly bored by the more mundane assembly process. Some took to lateness and absenteeism. Many simply quit, and Ford found itself with a crippling labor turnover rate of 370 percent. The assembly line depended on a steady crew of employees to staff it, and training replacements was expensive. Ford reasoned that a bigger paycheck might make the factory’s tedium more tolerable.
If the need to retain workers was a partial motivation for the Five-Dollar Day, then the solution may have worked too well. Within days of the announcement, thousands of applicants came to Detroit from all over the Midwest and entrenched themselves at the Ford’s gate. The company was overwhelmed, riots broke out, and the crowds were turned away with fire hoses in the icy January weather. Ford announced that it would only hire workers who had lived in Detroit for at least six months, and the situation slowly came under control.
Those who did have jobs at Ford soon discovered that there were even more conditions. Lost in the headlines was the fact that the pay increase was not a raise per se, it was a profit sharing plan. If you made $2.30 a day under the old pay schedule, for example, you still made that wage under the Five-Dollar plan. But if you met all of the company’s requirements, Ford gave you a bonus of $2.70.
Part of Henry Ford’s reasoning behind the Five-Dollar Day was that workers who were troubled by money problems at home would be distracted on the job. If higher pay was intended to eliminate these problems, then Ford would make sure that his employees were using his largesse “properly.” The company established a Sociological Department to monitor its employees’ habits beyond the workplace.
To qualify for the pay increase, workers had to abstain from alcohol, not physically abuse their families, not take in boarders, keep their homes clean, and contribute regularly to a savings account. Moral righteousness and prudent saving were all well and good, but they were not generally an employer’s business—at least not outside of working hours. In contrast, Ford Motor Company inspectors came to workers’ homes, asked probing questions, and observed general living conditions. If “violations” were discovered, the inspectors offered advice and pointed the families to resources offered through the company. Not until these problems were corrected did the employee receive his full bonus.
Modifying manufacturing methods was one thing. Modifying the people who carried out those methods was quite another. Henry Ford and his supporters may well have seen the Sociological Department as a benevolent tool to benefit his employees, but the workers came to resent the intrusion into their personal lives. Ford himself eventually realized that the Sociological Department was unsustainable. By 1921, it was largely dissolved.
Wages Up, Sales Up
As for charges that Ford raised pay in pursuit of publicity, there’s no question that the Five-Dollar Day brought a spotlight on Ford Motor Company. But publicity is fleeting, and the Five-Dollar Day’s impact was far greater than newspaper headlines. Other automakers soon boosted their own wages to keep pace with Ford. Automobile parts suppliers followed suit. In time, workers in any number of fields were earning genuine “living wages” that afforded them comfort and security above basic food, shelter and clothing needs.
It’s no small detail that, as Henry Ford slyly observed, in the course of improving his employees’ standard of living, Ford also created a new pool of customers for his Model T. The Five-Dollar Day helped to bring members of America’s working class into its middle class. Better wages, combined with the affordable goods produced by the assembly line, are cornerstones of the prosperity that has characterized American life for so many of the past 100 years.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation of The Henry Ford.