Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged furnishings

Sidney Houghton is one of the most interesting and yet-to-be-documented figures in the group surrounding Henry and Clara Ford. Many in the Fords’ entourage are colorful and well-researched, including Harry Bennett, Henry’s security chief, known as the notorious head of the Ford Motor Company “Service” Department; Henry’s business manager, Ernest Liebold, who handled all financial transactions; and even their son, Edsel Ford, whose life and important cultural contributions are thoroughly documented. The great Ford historian Ford R. Bryan tells the story of these figures in his book, Henry’s Lieutenants (1993). Bryan frequently mentions Sidney Houghton, most notably in his book Friends, Family, and Forays (2002).

Perhaps Houghton remains undocumented because he was British, and in the decades before Internet resources became widely available, American researchers like Bryan had limited access to British sources. Today, we are fortunate to not only have the profound resources of the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford at our disposal, but also digital access to repositories around the world. As Curator of Decorative Arts, I have spent considerable time trying to fully grasp the enigmatic Mr. Houghton—his biography, his business, and, most importantly, his relationship with Henry and Clara Ford. This blog is the first in a series that will delve into this mostly hidden story.

Now, you may ask, why should we care about the Fords’ interior designer? Seeing and understanding the interior environments that the Fords created to live and work provides us with great insight into their characters, creating a well-rounded picture of their lives. We can understand their motivations and desires and see how these changed over time. We can peel back the larger-than-life personas of the Fords that come with such public lives and see them as individuals.

What Do We Know About Sidney Houghton’s Early Life?


Researching Houghton was not easy. The first place I looked was Ancestry.com, but Houghton is a very common name in Britain. After a lot of digging and working with colleagues at The Henry Ford, I located Sidney Charles Houghton, who was born in 1872 and died in 1950. He was the son of cabinetmaker Charles Houghton, which likely led to his interest in furniture-making and interior design.

One of the questions still in my mind is: Where was Houghton educated? To date, I have not been able to find out which art school he attended—these records do not appear to be available online. What I do know is that he married in 1895, and had a family consisting of two sons by 1898. By 1910, according to the British census, his business, Houghton Studio, was established in London.

Houghton in World War I


From Ford R. Bryan’s publications and resources in the Benson Ford Research Center, I knew that Houghton was in the British Navy during World War I. I searched the British National Archives and found his fascinating military service record. Houghton, I discovered, was an experienced yachtsman, and was commissioned as a commander. He helped to create patrol boats, called P-boats, that swiftly located enemy submarines. In 1917, he was sent to the United States to work with Reginald Fessenden (1866–1932), a Canadian-American inventor who worked in early radio. Together, they developed an early sonar system to locate enemy ships, submarines, and mines. For his contributions to the war effort, Houghton was awarded the Order of the British Empire, or O.B.E., in 1919.

Through the reminiscences of Ernest Liebold, held in the Benson Ford Research Center, I discovered that Houghton was brought into the Ford Motor Company’s war effort to create what Liebold called the Eagle boats. These were similar to the British P-boats. Unlike the relatively simple P-boats, though, the Eagle boats would be like a “young battleship,” according to Liebold. He went on to state that the boats would “have the eye of an eagle and would flit over the seas.”

Long, narrow boat on elevated trestle with a large group of people on land looking on
Eagle Boat #1 on Launching Trestle at the Ford Rouge Plant, July 11, 1918. / THF270275

Long, narrow boat decorated with flags and bunting on elevated trestle above water, as a crowd looks on
Eagle Boat #60 Lowered to Water, August 1919. / THF270277

Liebold continued:

Houghton came along, and he said, “We ought to have a listening device put on those ships to detect submarines.” That is where [Thomas] Edison came in to develop this listening device, and I think Houghton is the man who contacted him. I remember him coming out with a long rod and stuff, and it was so darned secret that nobody knew a thing about it.

They had a special room provided for it in the Eagle boats. It was to be this listening chamber in which the apparatus was placed. They could detect a submarine by the beat of its propellers. A magnetic signal could determine just exactly in what direction it was, [sic] and approximately, from the intensity of the sound of the beating of the propeller, they could tell just what distance and in what direction it was.

They would radio that information to the nearest battleship in a cordon of battleships, or destroyers or whatever they had. They would be able to attack the submarine, you see. That was the object of it.

As an integral member of the Eagle boat team, it is highly likely that Houghton travelled to Dearborn and met Henry Ford. We know from later correspondence that Henry and Clara developed an abiding personal friendship with Houghton which continued through the 1920s. They commissioned a series of projects, beginning with the Fords’ yacht, the Sialia—but I am getting ahead of myself. At this point, I would like to discuss Houghton’s work in interior design, specifically his role as an interior architect.

Sidney Houghton’s Studio


Page with text and image of sculpture featuring boat and figures in water
Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121214

Page with text
Back Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121230

This brochure or trade catalogue gives us great insight into the Houghton Studio. We date it to the late 1920s, when the projects Houghton worked on for the Fords were complete. From the text, we can see just what the firm’s capabilities were. The back cover reads: “Designs and estimates for decoration and furnishing of every kind / from the simplest to the most exotic / always in good style / always at exceptional values.” What this tells us is that Houghton Studio was a rarity in the interior design world.

Houghton was an interior architect, meaning that he designed both interiors and furnishings—the woodwork, wall treatments, lighting, furniture, textiles, and accessories—to create a unified interior environment. In new construction, an interior architect would collaborate with the architect to create an interior in harmony with the architecture. This contrasts with our present-day conception of an interior designer as a person who simply selects existing furnishings that harmonize to create a unified interior aesthetic. Obviously, Houghton Studio’s clients were wealthy and able to afford the best.

Page with text and three images: Two showing room interiors and one in a round inset showing the exterior of a building
Chateau Laurier National Hotel, Ottawa Canada. / THF121219a

Page with text and drawings of furniture--a wardrobe, dressing table and stool, dresser, nightstand, and two beds with a large headboard and two side tables
Designs for Modern Furniture. / THF121226a

Like most of his contemporaries, Houghton worked in a variety of styles, as demonstrated in the images above—from period revivals as seen in the Chateau Laurier National Hotel, in Ottawa, Canada, to his renderings for “Modern” furniture, done in what we would describe as the Art Deco style, which was synonymous with high-end 1920s taste.

Page with text
List of Commissions in the Houghton Catalogue. / THF121229b

One of the most interesting pages in the catalogue notes several commissions to design interiors for yachts, which was a specialty of the Houghton Studio. The most important of these was a commission for the Sialia, Henry Ford’s yacht. The Fords purchased the yacht just before World War I, and it was requisitioned for use by the U.S. Navy in 1917. The ship was returned to Henry Ford in 1920. At this point, Sidney Houghton was asked to redesign the interiors.

Henry Ford’s Sialia


Long boat docked next to an industrial crane or craneway
Henry Ford’s Yacht, Sialia, Docked at Ford Rouge Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, 1927. /THF140396

According to Ford R. Bryan, the cost of the interiors was approximately $150,000. As seen here, the interiors are comfortable, but relatively simple. During the 1920s, the Fords occasionally used the Sialia, but Henry and Clara Ford preferred other means of travel, usually by large Ford corporate ore carriers, when they traveled to their summer home in Michigan’s upper peninsula. According to the ship’s captain, Perry Stakes, Henry Ford never really liked the Sialia, and he sold it in July of 1927.

Room interior with piano, desk, upholstered chair
Parlor on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92100

Small room containing double bed with a dresser on either side and a round mirror above each dresser
Bedroom on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92098

Following the Sialia commission, the Fords found a kindred spirit in Houghton. The archives contain ample correspondence from the early 1920s, with the Fords asking Houghton to return to Dearborn. Houghton subsequently received a commission to design the interior of the Fords’ Fair Lane railroad car in 1920. Between 1920 and 1926, Houghton was deluged with projects from the Fords, including the redesign of the Fair Lane Estate interiors, design of Henry and Edsel’s offices in the new Ford Engineering Laboratory, interiors for the Dearborn Country Club, as well as interiors for the Henry Ford Hospital addition.

In the next post in this series, we will look closer at several of these projects and present surviving renderings from the Fair Lane remodeling, as well as furniture from the Engineering Laboratory offices.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

home life, decorative arts, technology, archives, research, Ford Motor Company, World War I, by Charles Sable, Henry Ford, design, furnishings

Pottery vase with impressionistic landscape scene in blues and greens

Vase, 1917 / THF176918

This Rookwood Pottery vase from our collection, on view in the Art Pottery of the 20th Century exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, can tell us an unexpected story about women’s work and craft in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the late 19th century, ladies of high social standing in America were encouraged to broaden their interests beyond their homes. One of the most acceptable ways to do this was by taking up decorative china painting. Over time, these privileged women created associations with classes in china painting for women of all economic backgrounds. Probably the most important of these women was socialite Maria Longworth Nichols of Cincinnati, Ohio, who went beyond the accepted norm and established her own pottery that she called Rookwood.

Complex of several intricately timbered buildings
Rookwood Pottery, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1900-1906 / THF297612

Beginning in 1880, Nichols hired talented young women—who would not have opportunities elsewhere—as well as men to create innovative ceramic wares in this novel commercial venture. At Rookwood, pioneering glazes and imagery made the Cincinnati-based company famous from coast to coast. One of the most significant innovations at Rookwood was its introduction of the “vellum” glaze in 1904. This signature glaze, seen on the vase at the top of this post, features a light-colored background where pictorial landscapes and flowers could appear almost like a painting.

Even before the development of the “vellum” glaze, competitors noticed Rookwood’s innovations and lured away some of their best potters and decorators. Also, over time, artists left Rookwood and started their own companies. They adopted Rookwood’s distinctive techniques, spreading the look of what was called “Art Pottery” around the United States. So, by the early decades of the 20th century, the pastime of ladies’ china painting evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry. Although Art Pottery flourished in the early 20th century, the arrival of the Great Depression and World War II all but extinguished Americans’ interest in decorative ceramics for the home.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

art, furnishings, Henry Ford Museum, women's history, making, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, THF Connect app

In 1947, George Nelson opened his eponymous design office on Lexington Avenue in New York City. George Nelson & Co., as the first iteration of the office was named, was located on the second floor of a narrow building; the ground floor was a health food restaurant. In the introduction to Nelson’s collection of 26 essays called Problems of Design, Museum of Modern Art curator Arthur Drexler recalled that the restaurant had a loyal customer base, even though it “smelled funny.” Drexler observed an “unnerving contrast between the solemnity on the ground floor and that haphazard urbanity on the floor above.” George Nelson’s tendency to do many things simultaneously would have created a sometimes chaotic but always exhilarating environment that perhaps occasionally featured a pungent reminder of its downstairs neighbor.

Over the next four decades, the office would change names, move around New York City, employ many of the best and brightest designers, and complete a dizzying number of projects for a variety of clients. Constant through these changes was George Nelson’s emphasis on the importance of the design process. Even late nights at the office, sometimes saturated with drink, could be productive. Concepts imagined the night before might find their way to the drawing board in the bright light of the morning to be refined, altered, and honed further.

Sometimes, Nelson was more involved with the ideation and later refinement of an idea than with its realization—the office’s staff designers tended to that. A one-time employee of the office, architect and designer Michael Graves, reminisced that Nelson “would come in and touch down his magic dust on somebody and then leave.” While Nelson’s “magic dust”—and the powerful brand that his name symbolized—was vital to the office’s success, Nelson’s own hand in the development of a product or design was sometimes exaggerated. It has taken many years for certain designs to be accurately attributed—and surely there are many more that have not been and may never be. This problem is not unique to Nelson’s office, however, and was often the price designers paid to gain experience and contacts in the field. Hilda Longinotti, the office’s long-time receptionist, reflected on this: “As the years went by, George with all of his intelligence, did not do one thing he should have done and that is make the most talented designers partners in the firm. He gave them titles, but he didn’t give them a piece of the business. As the years went by, they left to form their own offices…”

The hundred-plus people employed by George Nelson over the course of his career—some for a short time and others much longer—include Lance Wyman, Ernest Farmer, Tomoko Miho, Irving Harper, Michael Graves, Don Ervin, Lucia DeRespinis, George Tscherny, and many others. The Henry Ford’s collections feature graphics and products designed by Nelson himself as well as some confirmed to be designed by the office’s staff. Below, we will focus on three of these designers: Irving Harper, George Tscherny, and Tomoko Miho.

Irving Harper


For many of the years that George Nelson was Herman Miller’s design director, Irving Harper was the director of design at George Nelson’s office. George Nelson hired Harper in 1947, and Harper did a little bit of everything in his tenure there—industrial design, furniture, and, eventually, graphics. Although he didn’t have much experience in graphic design, Harper quickly excelled. Herman Miller’s sweeping red “M” logo was one of Harper’s first forays into graphic design, and, 75 years later, the logo is still beloved and used by the company. Harper also designed many of the Nelson Office’s notable products, including many of the clocks for Howard Miller and the iconic Marshmallow sofa.

Born in New York City in 1916, Harper trained as an architect at New York’s Cooper Union and Brooklyn College. He soon began designing interiors. At the age of 19, Harper was hired by Gilbert Rohde, Nelson’s predecessor at Herman Miller, to work on projects for the 1939 World’s Fair, including renderings and production drawings. Harper worked for George Nelson from 1947 until 1963, when he left to start his own firm, Harper+George, which primarily designed interiors for commercial clients. Harper began to create incredibly intricate paper sculptures in the early 1960s as a stress relief measure, turning him into a proper sculptor as well as designer. The paper sculptures bridged his active design years into his retirement in 1983, when his sculpting output greatly increased. Harper died in 2015 at his long-time home in Rye, New York.

Page with text, pink-striped background, and large, heavily stylized white letter "M"
This 1947 advertisement features Herman Miller’s sweeping new “M” logo, which was designed by Irving Harper in one of his first forays into graphic design. / THF623975

Blue advertisement with text and large image of chair, with smaller images of other chairs on the large chair's back
Irving Harper designed this 1961 Herman Miller advertisement for the “Eames Chair Collection.” / THF266918

George Tscherny


George Tscherny began working at George Nelson & Co. in 1953. Nelson hired Tscherny specifically to design print advertisements for the office’s largest client, Herman Miller, under the direction of Irving Harper. Nelson reportedly had a hands-off approach. Tscherny recalled, “He had no pressing need to involve himself in my area. That meant I could do almost anything within reason.” Tscherny was able to expand and hone his graphic style, which stresses the inherent nature of objects and is always human-centered—even when a human isn’t visible.

Tscherny, born into a Jewish family in 1924 in Budapest, Hungary, grew up in Berlin, Germany. The rise of the Nazi Party and, specifically, the evening of Kristallnacht (“The Night of the Broken Glass”) on November 10, 1938, led Tscherny to believe “there was no future for us in Germany.” The following month, George and his younger brother Alexander escaped to the Netherlands, where they spent the following years moving between refugee camps and Jewish orphanages. Their parents, Mandel and Bella (Heimann) Tscherny, obtained visas and emigrated to the United States in 1939. It wasn’t until June of 1941 that George and Alexander finally joined their parents in New Jersey, after numerous close calls with the Nazi Party. In 1943, George Tscherny enlisted as a soldier in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II and went back to Europe, using his language skills as an interpreter. After the war, Tscherny used the G.I. Bill to fund his study of graphic design, attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; he would leave just weeks before graduation to work for designer Donald Deskey. In 1953, he was hired by George Nelson.

Although Tscherny only worked for Nelson until 1955, numerous advertisements he designed for Herman Miller during his short tenure became iconic of the era. Tscherny left the office to start his independent design studio, which designed graphics for major corporations. He also taught at the School of the Visual Arts in New York City for over half a century. Tscherny says he attempted to teach his students, as Nelson taught him, “not to have preconceptions, but rather to be receptive to new ideas.” Tscherny, currently 96 years old, lives in New York City with Sonia, his wife of over 70 years.

Page with text and images of three men in suits, one reading a book, one looking at a map, and the third reading a magazine, with luggage nearby
The famous "Traveling Men" advertisement for Herman Miller was designed by George Tscherny in 1954. / THF624755

Red page with image of minimalistic chair with cowboy hat sitting on top; also contains text
George Tscherny’s 1955 “Herman Miller Comes to Dallas” advertisement implies a human presence through the inclusion of a cowboy hat. / THF148287

Tomoko Miho


Tomoko Miho was one of a few women that George Nelson hired to design for his office. Miho is not very well-known today, both due to a societal tendency to ignore contributions of women working in the mid-century period and to her private and reserved nature. Although her name may be unfamiliar, this is not due to a lack of talent—Miho’s skill in graphic design and art direction were extraordinary. Once you identify her clean, minimalist, architectural style, it becomes distinct from the others working in the Nelson office.

Born Tomoko Kawakami in 1931 in Los Angeles, she and her family were held at the Gila River Japanese internment camp in Arizona during World War II. Afterwards, the family moved to Minneapolis, where Tomoko began coursework in art and design. She received a full scholarship to the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where she graduated with a degree in Industrial Design in 1958. She worked as a packaging designer for Harley Earl Associates before moving to New York City and, on the recommendation of George Tscherny, she contacted Irving Harper and was then hired by George Nelson in 1960. As the prominent graphic designer (and later colleague of Miho) John Massey stated, Miho was “a master of the dramatic understatement.” Her work is graceful, clean, and highly structured, while also seeming unrestricted. Her designs are masterfully well-balanced and lend themselves well to their primary purpose—conveying information.

Miho worked for the Nelson office until 1965, when family commitments took her to California, back to New York City, and then to Chicago, where she worked for the Center for Advanced Research and Design (CARD). She designed possibly her best known work while working for CARD—the 1967 "Great Architecture in Chicago" poster. It reflects her sense that Chicago’s architecture is “both solid and ethereal,” as Miho explained. Miho continued to collaborate with designers she met at George Nelson & Co. for years. She also had an incredibly long-lasting relationship with Herman Miller: she began designing for the company during her tenure at George Nelson & Co., continued while she was employed by CARD, and even after starting her own firm, Tomoko Miho Co., Herman Miller remained a client. Miho passed away in 2012 in New York City.

Page with op-art-like black and white stripes, offset to create a stylized letter "M"; also contains text
Tomoko Miho featured the Herman Miller logo in this price list, camouflaging it in bold contrasting stripes. This is one document in a suite, all featuring the same design, but in different colorways. / THF64160

White page containing text and colorful pattern of squares and semi-circles
The “Library Group” trade literature was designed by Tomoko Miho, circa 1970. / THF147737


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

furnishings, immigrants, women's history, by Katherine White, design, Herman Miller, advertising

Page with red hand icon; also contains text
Product Tag for an Original George Nelson Design Executed by Herman Miller, 1955 / THF298217


George Nelson is one of the giants of American Modern design. Often with such individuals, it is usually sufficient to point to their output—the architecture, products, graphics they designed—as a way to simplify and quantify their impact. While George Nelson’s output was undeniably significant, an accounting of his legacy in this way will always fall short. Nelson’s contributions to Modernism and the field of design are akin to his office’s famous Marshmallow Sofa—a study in how parts relate to the whole.

Born in 1908 to an affluent family in Connecticut, George Nelson was encouraged to cultivate his intellect from a young age. He attended Yale University—more so for its proximity to home and prestige in the eyes of his parents than due to his own desire—and quite literally happened upon the study of architecture by chance. He recalled ducking into the architecture building on Yale’s campus to avoid a sudden rainfall. Student renderings of cemetery gateways hung in the halls. Nelson “fell in love instantly with the whole business of creating designs for cemetery gateways” and decided, “without further question,” to become an architect. He graduated with his B.A. in 1928 and a B.F.A. in 1931.

Love seat with minimal metal frame and seat and back each composed of nine blue fabric-covered rounds
Marshmallow Love Seat, 1956-1965 / THF134573

Writing on Design


Nelson graduated with his new degree as the Great Depression tightened its grip on the United States. He was offered a teaching job at Yale, but was soon let go. He later considered this lucky, saying “…if you’re lucky, you are not allowed to stay safe. You’re thrown into jeopardy.” After a period of uncertainty in which he threw himself into applications for architectural fellowships in Europe, he was successful in winning the prestigious Rome Prize. This came with an all expenses paid, two-year architectural fellowship in Rome, which he took from 1932–1934.  Those years in Rome allowed Nelson to travel throughout Europe, study great architecture, and become acquainted with many of the leading figures in the budding Modernism movement.

Architectural criticism and theory writing became a continuous outlet for Nelson throughout his career, beginning in the early 1930s when he first published drawings and articles in Pencil Points and Architecture magazines. Upon his return to the United States, he took a position with The Architectural Forum in New York City and worked his way up to co-managing editor. Nelson’s career path didn’t continue in a linear fashion, but sprouted offshoots. Soon, he simultaneously continued his journalistic pursuits (and expanded to other publications), designed architectural commissions, and created exhibitions. The work was never about the output, but about the process and the solving of problems in whichever way a circumstance demanded.

Image of woman sitting surrounded by random items next to a large, thin cabinet
LIFE magazine for January 22, 1945 / THF623999

The Storage Wall


While writing a book on the house of the future titled Tomorrow’s House with Architectural Forum colleague Henry Wright, Nelson confronted the problem of household storage inadequacies, among other domestic matters. He explained his method in writing the book, “you will not find a chapter on bedrooms … but a great deal about sleeping.” His storage solution was a masterful rethinking of furniture and architecture in one. He recalled his “aha” moment: “My goodness, if you took those walls and pumped more air into them and they got thicker and thicker until maybe they were 12 inches thick, you would have hundreds and hundreds of running feet of storage.” Nelson’s innovative “storage wall” opened new doors for the furniture industry for years to come. His idea was featured in Architectural Forum in 1944 and then in a generous 1945 spread in Life magazine. It also attracted the attention of D.J. De Pree, the founder of the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan.

Page with text; illustration of house at top; and two photos of thin storage cabinets at bottom
LIFE Magazine for January 22, 1945 / THF623998

A Market for Good Design


After the untimely death of Gilbert Rohde, D.J. De Pree began to look for a new director of design. Rohde had successfully set the Herman Miller Furniture Company on the path of Modernism and De Pree was looking to continue that trajectory. Initially, De Pree considered German architect Erich Mendelsohn or industrial designer Russel Wright for the post, but eventually chose George Nelson, sensing a kindred spirit in a perhaps unlikely partnership. De Pree was devoutly religious and a teetotaler; Nelson, always accompanied by the lingering smell of cigarette smoke, questioned everything—especially religion—and loved martinis. Despite these differences, De Pree thought, rightfully, that Nelson was “thinking well ahead of the parade,” and hired him for the job. Like De Pree and Rohde, Nelson was completely invested in continuing Herman Miller’s focus on honesty and quality in Modern design. In the forward to a groundbreaking 1948 catalogue, Nelson outlined the company philosophy:

The attitude that governs Herman Miller’s behavior, as far as I can make out, is compounded of the following set of principles:

                What you make is important….

                Design is an integral part of the business….

                The product must be honest….

                You decide what you will make….

                There is a market for good design.

Page with large "a" and "z," photos of desk and chair, and text
Advertisement for Herman Miller Furniture Company, "George Nelson Designs," October 1947 / THF623977

Herman Miller and George Nelson’s decades-long collaboration was fruitful almost immediately. Nelson rethought some of Gilbert Rohde’s furniture and issued lines of his own furniture design. He had proven himself a prescient thought leader in the design world through his writing, but became adept at finding talented people and bringing them together for the greater good of design. D.J. De Pree admitted surprise when Nelson requested to bring on other designers—even before his own contract was formalized. Instead of hoarding the glory (and potential income) for himself, Nelson saw the far-reaching benefits of collaboration with other visionary designers. It was Nelson who brought together the core design team that still shapes Herman Miller’s design today—most notably, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and Alexander Girard.

A tendency towards collaboration was not isolated to Nelson’s work at Herman Miller. In his personal life, he counted architect Minoru Yamasaki and architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller among his close friends. And those that he employed in his eponymous design office (which had many clients, although Herman Miller was certainly the largest account for many years) were the best of the best too. These staff designers—Irving Harper, Tomoko Miho, Lance Wyman, and Don Ervin, to name just a few—maintained the constant hum of the office. They diligently continued to ideate, design, and make for the office’s clients. Sometimes they executed their own concepts, and other times the staff designers brought their metaphorical and literal pens to paper for some of Nelson’s lofty visions.

Nelson has faced fair criticism of taking more credit than was due for some of the designs that came from his office. He positioned himself as a powerful brand—and many of those who worked under him gained valuable experience, but perhaps never the full realization of their efforts in the public sphere.

Graphic card containing geometric shapes, some in red and black, and text
Trade Card for Herman Miller, “Come and See the New Designs at the Herman Miller Showroom,” circa 1955 /  THF215327

George Nelson actively designed for Herman Miller until the early 1970s and continued designing products, exhibits, interiors, graphics, and more with his own firm until 1984. He lectured and wrote on design theory and practice until his death in 1986, influencing and inspiring generations of designers. George Nelson’s contributions to design are much greater than his output—the products, writings, structures, and graphics he produced. He may have been more concerned with principles and processes than about the tangible result—but his loftier focus is what made his tangible designs so effective. Nelson’s ideas and ideals shaped the Modernist design movement and his influence can still be felt, reverberating through the halls of design offices and school halls alike.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

home life, furnishings, Herman Miller, by Katherine White, design

Plate showing a batter holding a baseball bat and a catcher; also contains text
"American Sports, Base Ball, Striker & Catcher" Plate, circa 1850 / THF135816


"On Saturday afternoon, Sept. 10, at the farm of Louis Bradley, might have been seen a small gathering of people. They came to see the final game between the Lah-da-dahs, of Waterford, and the White Lakes of Webster neighborhood." 

–Pontiac Bill Poster, September 14, 1887


In the 1880s, many Michigan towns supported baseball teams, including Waterford, in Oakland County, but the game's history goes back further. The game of base ball (as it was often spelled into the 1890s) had its origins in a number of children's games, but especially a British game called "Rounders." Rounders rules called for the game to be played on a diamond, with a striker (batter) who faced a feeder (pitcher).

The American game of base ball gained in popularity in the mid-1800s, so much so that English ceramic makers produced dishes such as the "Base Ball" plate above, depicting a "Striker & Catcher," to appeal to American consumers. American interest in base ball in the late 1800s is evident in the production and marketing of such a plate.

Americans purchased these English-made ceramics to celebrate their national game, but base ball did not have all the regulations we know in modern baseball today. Until the 1880s, rules stated that the pitcher had to deliver the ball underhanded with a straight arm. The batter could call for a high or low pitch. A high pitch was considered one between the belt and shoulders, and a low pitch was to be delivered between the belt and knees, a range close to the modern strike zone. Balls and strikes were usually not called until the 1870s.

Some rules called for home plate to be made of marble or stone, but there was no batter's box, only a line that bisected the plate. Consequently, today's historic base ball umpires will frequently signal the start of a game by calling, "Striker to the line!" Early rules discouraged, and often forbade, players being paid.

You can browse artifacts related to both the early and more modern forms of baseball in our Digital Collections. Or, if you want to see vintage base ball firsthand, check out the schedule for the Greenfield Village Lah-De-Dahs, who borrowed the name of the old Waterford team. The Village nine suit up to play teams from Ohio and Michigan throughout the summer as a part of Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village. Though the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was not written until 1908, you might hear the band play it. If you wish, you can sing along and cheer on the base ball strikers for the Lah-De-Dahs.


This post was adapted from the July 2000 entry in our former Pic of the Month series.

furnishings, sports, home life, Historic Base Ball, Greenfield Village, events, decorative arts, baseball

The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against ornate and what it considered “overwrought” decoration. Led by the British designer, philosopher, and social reformer William Morris (1838–1896), the movement sought to redirect public taste toward simpler esthetics. He also sought to reform industry and politics. Members of the movement used the term “arts and crafts” because they worked to reunify the fine arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture) with the crafts (such as metalwork, ceramics, and textiles) that had been demoted to second-class status with the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

Morris created the first interior design firm, Morris and Company, in London in the 1860s. His idea was to reform society through the home. The ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement were widely disseminated, and its influence began to be felt in the United States by the 1880s and 1890s. By the turn of the 20th century, America had its own Arts and Crafts tastemaker, Gustav Stickley, who echoed many of the arguments put forth by William Morris. Stickley produced furniture and published an influential magazine called The Craftsman.

Upholstered yellow chair with multiple types of fabric, decorated with many large tassels
Armchair from "Turkish" Parlor Set, 1885-1895 / THF154405

Armchair with wooden, slatted slides and brown leather upholstered seat and back
Morris Chair, 1912-1916, Made by Gustav Stickley / THF159902

Comparing Stickley’s “Morris” armchair with a “Turkish” style late Victorian armchair clearly shows the distinction between the two. The Stickley chair is very rectilinear, with the solid oak structure exposed, where the “Turkish” style armchair is covered with lavish upholstery and highly decorative tassels and swags. Both are intended to be comfortable seating, but the Stickley chair has a mission—to reform taste. In fact, much American Arts and Crafts furniture is described as “Mission” furniture.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, began to emerge as a furniture-making center long before the Arts and Crafts Movement evolved in America. Beginning in the 1870s, and certainly by the 1880s, Grand Rapids became the center of furniture-making in America. There were an estimated 40 different companies producing furniture in the city by 1900. Two of the most interesting were the Stickley Brothers Company and the Charles Limbert Company.

Wooden furniture on casters with drawers topped by a slanted flat surface (that presumably folds down to form a desk)
Slant-Front Desk, 1910-1920, Made by Stickley Brothers Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan / THF160413

The Stickley Brothers Company, headquartered in Grand Rapids, was one of three Stickley family furniture firms. The others were headed by older brother Gustav, called “Craftsman Furniture,” and located in Eastwood, New York, now part of Syracuse. Gustav was the most famous of the Stickley brothers because of his Craftsman magazine. Two younger brothers formed the L. and J.G. (Leopold and John George) Stickley Furniture Company in Fayetteville, New York. This firm also produced important Arts and Crafts Furniture. Ironically, the Grand Rapids enterprise was the first chronologically, with Gustav, Leopold, and John George departing over time to create their own companies.

Page with text and small image of furniture craftsman at top left
Page with text and image of multistory square building
Page with text and image of building within oval shape
Pages from Limbert Trade Catalogue, about 1910 / THF610595, THF610593, and THF610594

Charles Limbert’s company began in 1889 as a typical Victorian furniture maker. With the rise of the Stickley Brothers firm in the 1890s, Limbert began to hire designers knowledgeable in the most current trends in order to compete. From 1900 to 1910, Limbert became one of the most varied in production of any of the Arts and Crafts furniture makers. Their sales dramatically increased, and in 1910 they added a second factory in Holland, Michigan. The Henry Ford is fortunate to have a broad range of Limbert furniture in our collection, as well as a detailed trade catalogue dating to the height of the firm’s production, around 1910.

Wooden dresser topped with large mirror
Limbert Dresser with Mirror, 1905-1915 / THF159601

This dresser with mirror is typical of the standard types of Limbert’s production, a well-made and well-proportioned chest of drawers. It is typically Arts and Crafts, made of oak and expressing its method of construction via visible structural elements, like the stretchers or struts holding the legs together.

Simple wooden table
Limbert Library Table, 1905-1915 / THF159607

This library table, which could also be used in a parlor or living room, is a quintessential form in Arts and Crafts furniture making. Limbert, however, provides several unique features for how this table may be used.

Wooden table with piece extended to form writing surface
Where other furniture makers would place a drawer along the long side of the table, Limbert’s designers added an ingenious pull-out writing surface, transforming it into a desk. / THF159606

Wooden table with top extended and hinged open to reveal storage space inside
The designers also hinged the writing surface, allowing for storage space in what otherwise would have been a simple drawer. / THF159605

Page with text and shadow of windmill in the background
Page with text and two small images of windmills
Pages from Limbert Trade Catalogue, about 1910 / THF610527, THF610536

One of the interesting things about Limbert’s marketing strategy was their interest in linking themselves with the Dutch origins of many in western Michigan, as seen in these pages from their 1910 catalogue.

Small wooden table or stool with four wide, uniquely shaped legs and octagonal top
Tabouret, 1905-1915 / THF185486

With the benefit of historical perspective, we can see that Limbert’s designers were looking at a variety of sources, some highly original. This small table, or tabouret, is an example of a design unique to the Limbert shop, as it lacks the angular forms typical in most Arts and Crafts furniture.

Page with text and images of chairs, rocking chairs, tables, and a bench
Page from Limbert 1910 Catalogue Showing Tabourets / THF610591

Looking at the catalogue, we can see that the tabouret was sold in a variety of sizes.

Color illustration of dining room very full of furniture and decorative accessories
Dining Room from Limbert 1910 Catalogue / THF610531

This elaborate illustration from the 1910 catalogue shows the ideal dining room with an adjacent breakfast nook. While many of the furnishings are standard Arts and Crafts designs that could have been made by many American makers, the unconvential dining room chairs are unique to Limbert. Specifically, the chair backs show a solid central splat vertical element and feature open squares along the top. This may derive from contemporary English or German sources, which were available to Limbert’s staff through design magazines.

Bedroom very full of furniture and other decorative accessories
Bedroom and Sleeping Porch from Limbert 1910 Catalogue / THF610535

A bedroom with an adjacent sleeping porch was very popular in the era before air conditioning. It was considered healthy to sleep surrounded by fresh air when diseases like tuberculosis were common. The furniture is typical for Arts and Crafts, but the bright blue walls are a departure from the earth tones which were promoted by tastemakers like Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Room with sloped wooden ceiling very full of furniture and other decorative accessories
Attic Bedroom from Limbert 1910 Catalogue / THF610534

The room shown above was probably intended for an older child about ready to head off to college—note the Michigan pennant hanging above the bed. The use of an attic space as a bedroom was unusual. The library table mentioned earlier is pushed up against the back wall.

The Arts and Crafts period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the most inventive in the history of American decorative arts. Within that period, one of the most creative of American firms was the Charles Limbert Company, as these image and objects demonstrate. At The Henry Ford, we are fortunate to hold these collections and pleased to be able to share them.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

design, Michigan, home life, furnishings, decorative arts, by Charles Sable

Two-story white house with black shutters, surrounded by lawn and a few trees

THF1882

With Greenfield Village reopening soon, you’ll find something new at the Noah Webster Home!

Room with patterned floor and walls containing a large, set table with many mismatched chairs
THF186494

We have reinstalled the formerly sparsely furnished Webster dining room to better reflect a more active family life that took place in the Webster household at the time of our interpretation: 1835.

Painting of man with white hair in dark suit and white cravat, sitting in an armchair and holding a piece of paper
THF107986

Noah and Rebecca Webster moved to their New Haven, Connecticut, home in their later years to be near family and friends, as well as the library at nearby Yale College. This painting of Noah dates from about this time.

Painting of seated woman in dark dress with light collar and hat
THF119510

The Websters moved into their comfortable, newly-built home on Temple Street in New Haven in 1823. This portrait shows Rebecca Webster from about this time as well.

Room with table and four chairs, as well as fireplace with doors on either side,
THF147812

New research and evolving historical perspective often lead us to reinterpret Greenfield Village buildings. So, furnishings change to reflect these richer or more accurate stories. This is what the Webster dining room looked like in 1947.

Dining room with elaborate furnishings, including set table and chairs and two sideboards
THF147776

In 1962, the Webster house was refurnished to showcase fine furnishings in period room-like settings—rather than reflecting a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before.

Room with patterned blue wallpaper containing fireplace, bed, chest of drawers, chairs
THF186507

In 1989, after meticulous research on the house and on the Webster family, the home was beautifully transformed, and its furnishings more closely reflected the Webster family’s lives.

Narrow room with one window, chair and desk, two dressers, and other furnishings
THF53248

You could imagine the Websters living there. This is Rebecca Webster’s dressing room.

Mostly empty room with patterned floor and wallpaper, containing a few chairs and side tables
THF147817

Yet the dining room was sparsely furnished. The 1989 reinstallation suggested that the Websters were “in retirement” and “withdrawn from society,” and didn’t need or use this room much.

Pair of boots lying on patterned blue floor next to chair with tub; rags nearby
THF53258

The dining room was presented as a seldom-used space in the Webster home during the mid-1830s. This detail showed boots being cleaned in the otherwise unused room.

Part of carpeted and wallpapered room showing fireplace, sideboard, table and chairs
THF186509

Webster family correspondence and other documents paint a picture of a household that included not only family activities, but more public ones as well, during the 1830s and beyond.

Black-and-white photo of tree-lined road with houses with low fences along both sides
THF236367

Daughter Julia Goodrich and her family lived down the street and were frequent visitors. The Webster house appears at far right in this photo of Temple Street taken in the 1920s.

Oval painting in elaborate gold and dark frame of woman in white dress with dark curly hair standing between two large columns
THF174984

Webster children and grandchildren who lived farther away came for extended visits. Daughter Eliza Jones and her family traveled from their Bridgeport, Connecticut, home for visits.

Canopy bed in a room with patterned carpet and wallpaper
THF186515

At times, some Webster family members even joined the household temporarily. They could stay in a guest room in the Webster home.

Engraving of street scene with trees, buildings, people, and an oxcart in the foreground
THF204255

Webster’s Yale-attending grandsons and their classmates stopped in for visits and came to gatherings. This print shows Yale College—located not far from the Webster home—during this time.

Room containing bookshelves, armchair, and table and side chairs
THF133637

The Webster family home was also Noah’s “office.” He had moved his study upstairs in October 1834, met there with business associates and students.

Room with patterned carpet, green walls, table and chairs in middle of room and additional chairs around the perimeter
THF53243

Guests—including visiting clergymen, publishing associates, Yale faculty, and political leaders—would have called at the house or would have been invited to gatherings in the home. This is the Webster parlor.

Long set table with mismatched chairs in room with patterned carpet and wallpaper
THF186495

To help reflect the active family life that took place in the Webster household in 1835, the new dining room vignette suggests members of the extended Webster family casually gathering for a meal.

Mismatched chairs along side of table; fireplace in background
THF186496

The room’s arrangement is deliberately informal, with mismatched chairs. Hepplewhite chairs that are part of the dining room set are supplemented by others assembled for this family meal.

Corner of set table with mismatched chairs; fireplace behind
THF186497

A high chair is provided for the youngest Webster grandchild.

End of table covered with cloth with dominos and plate of scones on it; additional dominos on patterned floor below
THF186498

The grandchildren’s domino game was quickly set aside as the table was set and three generations of the family began to gather.

Corner of set table with chairs; fireplace with mantel behind and patterned wallpaper on walls
THF186500 

The dining room furnishings, like those in the rest of the home, reflect a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before. The Websters would have owned most of their furniture, tableware, candlesticks, and other items for decades. The Connecticut-made clock on the mantel would have been a bit newer, since it dates from 1825–1835.

Wooden chair with back slats in shield shape and dark blue satin seat
THF186499

But the Hepplewhite style chairs—no longer in fashion—would have been purchased more than 30 years before.

Table containing white dishes with blue pattern; wallpapered wall in background
THF186501

The early 1800s Chinese export dishes would have likely been bought decades before. Quite fine and fashionable when new, the sturdy dishes would have survived to be used at everyday meals and for family gatherings many years later.

Clear glass lamp with etched pattern on tablecloth with dishes and silverware at place settings nearby
THF186503

The Websters would have acquired other furnishings more recently--including newly available whale oil lamps, which provided brighter lighting than candles. In coastal New Haven, whale oil was readily available.

Window with curtains surrounded by wallpapered wall
THF186505

Stylish curtains of New England factory-made roller-printed cotton fabric are gracefully draped over glass curtain tiebacks and decoratively arranged.

Meat roast (partially sliced), jello mold, and round loaf of bread on plates on table, with place settings nearby
THF186506

Do stop by the Noah Webster Home when Greenfield Village opens this spring and see what the Websters are having for dinner as they “gather” with their children and grandchildren! And for even more Village building makeover stories, see also this recent post from Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life Donna Braden.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life and Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

Noah Webster Home, home life, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, furnishings, food, by Jeanine Head Miller, by Charles Sable, #THFCuratorChat, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

In 2017, The Henry Ford acquired a significant collection of materials from the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) when financial challenges forced that organization to close its doors. Founded in 1960, ATHM was located in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city key to the story of the Industrial Revolution and to the American textile industry. For decades, ATHM gathered and interpreted a superb collection of textile machinery and tools, clothing and textiles, and an extensive collection of archival materials. The Henry Ford was among the many museums, libraries, and other organizations to which ATHM's collections were transferred. 

The Henry Ford acquired textile machinery, clothing, and textiles, as well as archival material that includes approximately 3,000 cubic feet of printed materials and fabric samples from various textile manufacturers, dating from the early 1800s into the mid-to-late 1900s. As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, The Henry Ford has digitized many sample books, as well as product literature, from the archival material within the ATHM collection.

So, what is a sample book? Textile manufacturing companies – commonly referred to as mills or print works – kept a record of fabrics produced by the company within a given year or season. These records typically consist of a fabric sample attached to a blank page in a bound book, and are often accompanied by information including pattern name, inventory number, dyestuffs, and in a few cases, the retail company for which the fabric was made.

The pages of these books offer a rich look at the broad range of fabrics produced by an increasingly mechanized textile industry, allowing researchers to see the evolution in textile design, materials, and manufacturing techniques. They also allow a glimpse into the various methods of recordkeeping among the many companies represented in the collection. Finally, the books—and the fabric samples within them—provide us with a broad view into the rich color palate of American textiles of the 1800s and 1900s. This is especially helpful for exploring clothing and textiles in the era before widespread color photography, where our understanding of the period is dulled by black-and-white depictions. The sample books are strikingly beautiful, offering an intriguing glimpse of the evolution of styles and patterns over time.

In addition to the sample books, we had the opportunity to digitize several examples of product literature from the 1900s, including catalogs and brochures. The product literature was used for marketing and sales, rather than as a record of production. These materials offer insight into the fabric and designs available for clothing or domestic use during the 1900s.

Have I piqued your interest? Below are a few favorite items I’ve come across in this collection.

Sample Books

 

Cocheco Manufacturing Company (Dover, New Hampshire & Lawrence, Massachusetts)


GIF cycling through three sheets containing rectangular fabric samples in a variety of colors and patterns in rows; also contains handwritten numbers and text
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, 1876-1877 / THF670738, THF670787,
THF670757


GIF cycling through three sheets containing rectangular fabric samples in a variety of colors and patterns in rows; also contains handwritten numbers and text
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, November to December 1877 / THF670668, THF670707, THF670697

Sheet containing two rows of rectangular fabric samples in a variety of colors and patterns; also contains handwritten numbers and text
Sample Book, January 9, 1880 to April 22, 1880 / THF600226


Hamilton Manufacturing Company (Lowell, Massachusetts)


GIF cycling through three sheets containing one large rectangular fabric sample per page; colors and patterns vary
Sample Book, April 9, 1900 to May 27, 1901 / THF600027, THF600141,
THF600167

Lancaster Mills (Clinton, Massachusetts)


GIF cycling through two sheets each containing four rectangular fabric samples in stripes and plaids; also contains typed or printed numbers
Sample Book, "36 Inch Klinton Fancies," Fall 1927 / THF299907, THF299924

GIF cycling through two sheets each containing four rectangular fabric samples in plaids and geometric patterns; also contains typed or printed numbers
Sample Book, "Glenkirk," Spring 1928 / THF299970, THF299971


Product Literature

 

Hellwig Silk Dyeing Company (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)


¬Rows of fiber or thread samples in a variety of colors accompanied by text
Sample Book, "Indanthrene Colors," 1900-1920 /
THF299990

 

Montgomery Ward & Co. (Chicago, Illinois)


Page with illustration of two men in suits and hats, accompanied by rectangular fabric swatches and text
Suit Catalog, "Made to Measure All Wool Suits," 1932 / THF600534

I.V. Sedler Company, Inc. (Cincinnati, Ohio)


Sheet with illustration of woman in hat and striped dress; text; two square swatches of striped fabric
Catalog, "The Nation's Stylists Present Sedler Frocks," 1934 / THF600502

Carlton Mills, Inc. (New York, New York)


Black-and-white photograph of man’s head and collar in middle of page with an oversized yellow striped necktie extending below; additional tie colors and patterns in shapes that look like the bottom of neckties on either side of middle illustration with numbers under each; text at top and bottom of page
Sales Catalog for Men's Fashion, 1940-1950 / THF670587

Harford Frocks, Inc. (Cincinnati, Ohio)


Illustration of blonde-haired woman in blue and white plaid dress and wide black belt; page also contains smaller black-and-white line drawing of back of woman in the same dress, a fabric swatch in a red plaid, and text
"Frocks by Harford Frocks, Inc.," 1949 / THF600604

Sears, Roebuck and Company (Chicago, Illinois)


Left side of page contains photo of room with green carpet and chair; red-and-green floral sofa and matching wallpaper; other occasional furniture and knick-knacks; right side of page contains images of fabric swatches and text
"Sears Decorating Made Easy," 1964 / THF600561


Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford for sharing her expertise of the textile industry and for reviewing this content.

furnishings, entrepreneurship, by Samantha Johnson, fashion, manufacturing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and for reviewing this content.

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

American homes in the Victorian period were designed to showcase their owners’ good taste. This is the Wright home in Greenfield Village, where brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in the 1880s and 1890s.

Outside view of two-story house with wrap-around porch and bicycle propped against fence
THF123598a

As the “best” room, parlors were meant to show the family’s good taste to honored guests, so decoration was carefully arranged. This photo, probably taken by Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur, documents the room in the 1890s.

Room with chairs, window, desk, elaborate fireplace
THF242827

The Firestone Farmhouse, where Harvey Firestone was raised, is also in Greenfield Village. Here is the parlor as curators interpreted it to the mid-1880s. Notice the conscious profusion of pattern, ornament, and what we would call clutter.

Room crowded with furniture and with busy floral carpeting and wallpaper
THF133628

The family portrait shows just how carefully objects were placed. Even the people seem arranged as if they were objects. In the Victorian mindset, materialism and display were utmost.

Boy, woman, and man sitting in an extensively furnished room
THF301364

In this ostentatious, high-style interior from Brooklyn, New York, we see the heights of materialism and conspicuous consumption.

Room crowded with furnishings and drapery
THF38417

This high-style parlor cabinet, made in New York, was meant to impress. Composed of design elements from many historical periods, it truly is a jumble.

Elaborate wooden cabinet with inlay, gilt, and an oval painting on the front
THF128558

This music or print stand was made for either a parlor or a library and gives us a sense of just how particular Victorians could get with specific types of furniture.

Intricate wooden stand with inlay and carved designs
THF154258

Victorians loved mixing and matching different styles, even within a single object, like this one. The most important thing was decoration, and the more the better.

Chair with mustard yellow velvet seat cushion and intricately carved dark wood back
THF99906

Victorians also loved to mix exotic materials into their rooms. During the 1880s, there was a craze for furniture made from animal horns. This chair is part of a set.

Chair with black leather seat cushion and back, arms, and legs made out of steer horns
THF81955

Dramatic changes in taste came through the work of English reformer, William Morris. Morris sought to change society by creating the first interior design firm, Morris & Company. Probably his most important design was this reclining chair.

Chair with brown leather cushions and wooden slats on either side
THF159903, THF159902, THF159906

Morris despised “overwrought” decoration. He wanted to return to the simple design of the pre-industrial world. He wanted to reunite the arts with the crafts, destroyed by industrialization. This came to be called the "Arts and Crafts" movement. Ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement were adopted by American tastemakers in the 1890s. Gustav Stickley published a popular magazine called The Craftsman, and marketed a line of furniture, including his version of Morris’ chair.

Stickley advocated simpler, less fussy interiors, with multi-purpose rooms, for less formal living. The concept of the living room was born on the pages of Stickley’s The Craftsman magazine.

Woman in blue dress with white apron and cap using a sweeper vacuum on a living room carpet
THF110273

This brochure for wallpaper shows the most up-to-date Arts and Crafts interior available to Americans in 1912. As the title says: "A Well Decorated Home is a Potent Aid to Contentment & Happiness." The hall flows into the living room.

Woman and little girl at open door of house, as man outside raises his hat
THF215321

Stickley also promoted the idea of the bungalow, or Craftsman house, much less formal and, he argued, more comfortable than the Victorian house.

House and front yard
THF145995

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright took these ideas further with his Prairie houses, where rooms flowed into one another, and exteriors took their cues from the surrounding landscape. This is an unexecuted design for Henry Ford’s Fair Lane Home.

Drawing of house and yard on manila paper
THF157872

This library table displays the simple form and visible construction techniques emblematic of Arts and Crafts furniture. It could be used in a living room as a decorative table or as a desk.

Simple wooden table
THF159607

Textiles were an integral part of the Arts and Crafts interior. Designers emphasized the use of stylized botanical motifs, such as roses, which harmonized with furniture, ceramics, and artwork. The ideal was to create a unified interior environment.

Beige textile embroidered with green and red floral pattern
THF174999

This tile was intended to be a part of a larger composition, perhaps lining a fireplace, where the turtles would follow in a line from head to tail. The effect was intended to harmonize with an Arts and Crafts interior environment.

Tile of turtle on yellow background under green leaves
THF176936

Detroit's Pewabic Pottery was founded in 1903 as part of the American Arts and Crafts movement. This vase represents naturalistic oak leaves in high relief from the surface of the vase. The matte glaze is typical of Arts and Crafts pottery.

Green vase with swirling 3D leaf design
THF176898

After World War I, interest in the Arts and Crafts waned, as Americans looked toward other styles like the Colonial Revival and new Art Deco for their homes. However, the concept of the multi-purpose living room persisted.

Man and woman sitting in chairs, reading, while teen girl kneels by a radio
THF266898

Even in high-style interiors, the open concept living room continued.

View of modern living room with text “Catalog Supplement: The Herman Miller Furniture Company, Zeeland, Michigan”
THF145237

In the post-World War II era, most American homes featured a comfortable living room. In this Christmas 1962 snapshot, note the Victorian rocking chair on the right and the recliner, an updated version of the “Morris” Chair, at the left.

Two women and one man seated in a room around a silver aluminum Christmas tree
THF126335

In this La-Z-Boy ad from the 1980s, we can see the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement.

La-Z-Boy Showcase Shoppes, 1980-1988	Living room with woman, man, and child on couch, with text “La-Z-Boy Showcase shoppes” below
THF290352

This has been a whirlwind tour of American interiors through the 19th and 20th centuries. If you’d like to learn more about the Arts and Crafts movement, check out this Expert Set and other artifacts within our Digital Collections.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, home life, furnishings, design, decorative arts, by Charles Sable