Edsel Ford, Charlie Chaplin, and Henry Ford Touring the Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, October 1923 / THF134659
Every month, staff from our library and archives select some interesting items from our collections to showcase on The Henry Ford’s Instagram account. In our every-first-Friday History Outside the Box offering, our collections experts share photographs, documents, and other artifacts around a given theme. Last summer, Reference Archivist Kathy Makas showcased some celebrity sightings from our archives—actors, actresses, and other luminaries visiting Ford Motor Company’s factories, World’s Fairs, and The Henry Ford’s own campus; showcasing their cars; and more. If you missed the Insta story, you can check out the presentation below.
McGuffey’s birthplace in Greenfield Village today. / THF1969
William Holmes McGuffey’s easy-to-understand Eclectic Readers were influenced by his experiences growing up on the Pennsylvania and Ohio frontiers, as well as his family background and upbringing. His birthplace, a log home from western Pennsylvania now in Greenfield Village, is a physical representation of these experiences.
McGuffey’s Birthplace in Western Pennsylvania
Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey, 1855. / THF286352
William Holmes McGuffey’s family was Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish)—a group of strict Presbyterians who had migrated from the Scottish Lowlands to Ulster, in northern Ireland, over several centuries into the early 1700s. During the 1700s, many Scots-Irish emigrated to Pennsylvania, a colony that offered available land for settlement and the assurance of religious freedom. By the end of America’s colonial period, more than 30% of the population in Pennsylvania was Scots-Irish.
As early as 1760, land was almost unobtainable in the American East and many Scots-Irish headed inland to the western frontier, quickly inhabiting areas in western Pennsylvania during the 1780s and 1790s. This rapid settlement was only possible because the American government had, through treaties and sometimes military action, forced Native American tribes to move successively further west until they were pushed out of western Pennsylvania entirely. The major tribes that had inhabited the area, having migrated or been forced there from other areas during the 1700s, included the Lenni-Lenape or Delaware, the Shawnee, and the Seneca (referred to by European settlers as “Mingo”). Other tribes who might have traversed and/or built temporary villages in the area included the Huron/Wyandot, Chippewa, Mississauga, Ottawa, Mohawk, Cherokee, and Mohican.
William Holmes McGuffey’s family followed the typical migration pattern of other Scots-Irish immigrants. His paternal grandparents, William (“Scotch Billy”) and Ann McGuffey, had arrived during the last great wave of Scots-Irish immigration, sailing with their three young children from Wigtownshire, Scotland, to Philadelphia in 1774. They soon joined a community of Scots-Irish immigrants in York County, where they purchased land for a small farm. In 1789, they moved to Washington County in western Pennsylvania, where cheap land on the expanding western frontier had opened to settlers.
Here, they would once again be living among like-minded people, a community of Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Scots-Irish families, like other immigrants, did not leave all of their Old-World ideas and ways of doing things behind. They shared a similar heritage of music, language, foodways, and material culture. They also tried to establish familiar institutions in the move west—first churches, but also schools, stores, and courts of law.
McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village, photographed in 2007 by Michelle Andonian. / THF53239
McGuffey’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Jane Holmes, moved to Washington County about the same time as the McGuffey family. The log home that became William Holmes McGuffey’s birthplace was constructed about 1790 on the Holmes acreage. It was likely Henry and Jane Holmes’s first-stage log home (meaning they planned to build and move to a nicer home as soon as possible). Their daughter, Anna, married Alexander McGuffey at the Holmes farmstead just before Christmas 1797, and they lived in this log structure as their first home. While living there, they had their first three children: Jane (born in 1799), William Holmes (born in 1800), and Henry (born in 1802).
In 1802—only five years after they married and moved into the log house where William Holmes McGuffey was born—Alexander and Anna McGuffey moved their young family further west, to the largely unsettled Connecticut Western Reserve area of northeastern Ohio. William Holmes McGuffey, then two years old, would complete his growing-up years on this new frontier (see “William Holmes McGuffey and his Popular Readers” for more on this).
During the 1840 Presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, the log home became a romantic symbol of the frontier and the pioneer spirit, as shown in this 1840 music sheet cover. / THF256421
The log house would become an American icon, but its origins are European. Finnish and Swedish settlers are thought to have been the first people to construct horizontal log dwellings in America, in the colony of New Sweden (now Delaware) in the early 1600s. Welsh settlers carried the tradition of log construction into Pennsylvania.
Later waves of immigrants, including Swiss and Germans, brought their own variations of log dwellings. The Scots-Irish, who did not possess a log building tradition of their own, supposedly adapted a form of the stone houses from their native country to log construction, and greatly contributed to its spread across the frontier.
One of the principal advantages of log construction was the economy of tools required to complete a structure. A log structure could be raised and largely completed with as few as two to four different tools. Trees could be chopped down and logs cut to the right length with a felling axe. The sides of the logs were hewn flat with a broad axe. Notching was done with an axe, hatchet, or saw.
A closeup of the McGuffey birthplace on its original location, showing both notching and the chinking. / THF252509
The horizontal spaces or joints between logs were usually filled with a combination of materials, known as “chinking” and “daubing.” These materials were used for shutting out the driving wind, rain, and snow as well as keeping out vermin. Many different materials were used for chinking and daubing, including whatever was most conveniently at hand. Chinking usually consisted of wood slabs or stones, along with a soft packing filler such as moss, clay, or dried animal dung. Daubing, applied last, often consisted of clay, lime, and other locally available materials.
McGuffey’s Birthplace in Greenfield Village
McGuffey’s birthplace on its original site in 1932. / THF133827
Henry Ford was among the last generation of children to be educated by William Holmes McGuffey’s readers. Beginning in the 1910s, Ford purchased every copy of the readersthat he could find—amassing, by the 1930s, a collection of 468 copies of 145 different editions. By the early 1930s, Ford decided to commemorate McGuffey’s impact on his education and upbringing in an even bigger way—by moving McGuffey’s humble log home birthplace to Greenfield Village.
Unfortunately, by the time Henry Ford saw McGuffey’s birthplace in western Pennsylvania in October 1932, it no longer served as a home, but had been used for many years as a “loom house” or “spinning room” and a sheep barn. The structure had largely collapsed; no walls were completely standing. But Henry Ford purchased it anyway, from a McGuffey descendant who still owned the property. Edward Cutler, Henry Ford’s architect, measured the remaining chimney foundation for later recreation, and had trees suitable to replace the missing or deteriorated logs cut down and prepared for shipment. All these parts were shipped to Dearborn in November 1932.
From January to August 1934, the home was reconstructed in the Village with some modifications. Originally a rectangular home, when completed in Greenfield Village it was approximately 16½ feet square and was ten logs high rather than nine. A shed (smokehouse) was found on the Pennsylvania site and recorded, but was not moved with the McGuffey house. The smokehouse in Greenfield Village was a replica completed at the same time as the house. By 1942, a pen with sheep had been added.
Constructing the McGuffey School in Greenfield Village, 1934. / THF28571
The William Holmes McGuffey School was a newly constructed building in Greenfield Village, built in 1934 out of logs from the Holmes family’s original barn. Among its early furnishings was a schoolmaster’s desk made from a walnut kitchen table used by the McGuffey family.
Dedication ceremonies for the McGuffey buildings took place on September 23, 1934 (the 134th anniversary of McGuffey’s birth), in Greenfield Village. Attended by McGuffey relatives and other dignitaries, the dedication ceremonies were broadcast by NBC. A memorial program was also held at the McGuffey birthplace site in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and a marker was placed there.
Interior of William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, 1954. / THF138606
For many years, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, furnished with household goods of the period, was open for visitors touring Greenfield Village. Over time, the structure was repaired many times, but some of the choices made during these renovations—like copper sheathing, wire mesh, and Portland cement—increased the rate of the structure’s deterioration. In 1998, the building was determined to be a safety hazard and closed to visitors. Happily, as part of the Village upgrade of 2002–2003, the log structure was renovated and restored. This involved replacing logs and roof shingles and applying a new style of chinking with a non-Portland cement mortar mix.
Presenter cooking over the fireplace in the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, 2018. / Photo courtesy of Caroline Braden
The William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace is today furnished as it might have looked in 1800–1802, the period when the McGuffey family resided there during William Holmes McGuffey’s infancy and toddlerhood. Though we have no specific information on furnishings owned by the McGuffeys during the time they lived in this home, we have excellent information on household furnishings from the same time period and geographic location, based upon probate inventories of families from Washington County, Pennsylvania. These include such furnishings as a worktable, a few mismatched chairs, iron pots for fireplace cooking, a butter churn, and kegs and barrels for storing food.
Interior of William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, showing current placement of furnishings. / Photo courtesy of Deborah Berk
The furnishings reflect the needs and personalities of its inhabitants—William Holmes’s father, Alexander; his mother, Anna; and William and his siblings. For example, in order to emphasize the influence of the religious and literate Anna, we have included a Bible and some books. Alexander is represented by men’s clothing and the shaving set on the shelf. The children’s presence is indicated by the cradle, the small stool, the diapers on the drying rack, and the toys in the cupboard.
The placement of the furnishings in the McGuffey birthplace also shows the family’s Scots-Irish background. It was the custom of this group to make the hearth the focal point of the home, with a clear path from the door to the fireplace. Rather than being put in the center of the room, the table would have been de-emphasized and placed against the wall.
Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey reading a book, circa 1860. / THF110186
William Holmes McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were both successful and influential. Between 1836 (when the readerswere first introduced) and 1850, seven million copies of them were sold. During the second half of the 1800s, they became the most widely circulated textbooks in the United States, influencing the outlooks and perspectives of such luminaries as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and the Wright brothers. How did the readers come to be, and why did they have such tremendous appeal?
A letter from President Taft to Henry Ford testifying about the importance of McGuffey Readers in his life, 1924. / THF96603
Many factors contributed to the creation and content of McGuffey’s readers, including his heritage, family background, and experiences growing up.
William Holmes McGuffey’s family was part of a group of immigrants to America who were often referred to as Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish). These people were Presbyterians from the Scottish Lowlands who had migrated to Ulster, in northern Ireland, over several centuries into the early 1700s. Religious restrictions and economic conditions had motivated members of this group to emigrate to America during the 1700s, and many of them settled in Pennsylvania—a colony that offered affordable land for settlement and the assurance of religious freedom. As land became increasingly unobtainable in the East, many Scots-Irish immigrants headed west and south to the edges of European settlement. In these scattered frontier communities, the Presbyterian Church remained a stabilizing force, and its tenets would become a major influence on the later McGuffey Readers.
The McGuffey family followed a similar pattern of migration to other Scots-Irish. William Holmes McGuffey’s paternal grandparents, William (“Scotch Billy”) and Ann McGuffey, landed in Philadelphia in 1774, then moved farther west to York County, where they purchased land for a small farm. In 1789, they moved again, to Washington County in western Pennsylvania—then considered the edge of the settlement or the western frontier. There, cheap land had recently become available to white settlers (see “William Holmes McGuffey’s Birthplace” for more on this). William’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Jane Holmes, had also moved to Washington County about this same time. Their farmstead, named Rural Grove, was close to the McGuffey place. This was undoubtedly how William’s parents, Alexander McGuffey and Anna Holmes, met.
The McGuffey birthplace as it stands today in Greenfield Village. / THF1969
Alexander and Anna were married just before Christmas 1797. Their first home was the log house now in Greenfield Village. This house, situated on the Holmes farmstead, had likely been Henry and Jane Holmes’s initial home before they constructed a larger frame house. Alexander and Anna’s first three children were born here: Jane (1799), William Holmes (1800), and Henry (1802).
William’s parents played a particularly significant role in young William’s life. His restless father, Alexander, embodied the values of individualism, adventure, risk-taking, and making one’s own way in the world. His mother, Anna—who was serious, pious, intelligent, and literate—enjoyed the stability of the Scots-Irish community in which they lived.
This 1870 Currier & Ives print of a settler’s family and their log home gives an impression—albeit a romanticized one—of what living on the sparsely settled frontier might have been like. / THF200600
In 1802—only two years after William Holmes was born—Alexander’s restlessness spurred the young family to move west into the Ohio Territory, to a sparsely settled area known at the time as the Connecticut Western Reserve. Here, the family settled on 160 wooded acres and established a small farm. Five more children were born there: Anna (1804), Catherine (1807), Elizabeth (1809), Asenath (1811), and Alexander Hamilton (1816). William spent his youth on this fairly isolated farmstead on the Ohio frontier.
At the time, the Ohio frontier was considered the edge of settlement—for white settlers, anyway. Although travelers and white settlers at the time described this area as a “howling wilderness” or the “solitary wilds,” in fact Native Americans had inhabited the region for thousands of years. By the time Europeans (primarily French and British fur traders) arrived in the 1700s, several Native American tribes had recently moved into the area. These included the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and Seneca-Cayuga—who had all migrated or been forced to settle there during that time from other places in the north, east, south, and west.
A hand-cut silhouette of George Washington, created around the time of his presidency. / THF142004
The influx of American settlers into Ohio with the passage of the Land Ordinance Act (1785) and the Northwest Ordinance (1787) spurred the American government—which had never truly recognized Native rights of land ownership—to evict the Native Americans from these lands. In the 1780s, a series of treaties was attempted. When these proved essentially unsuccessful, a frustrated President Washington decided to use brute force instead. He commanded a successive series of military generals to drive the Native tribes out of Ohio. Eventually, General Anthony Wayne declared victory in 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. (William’s father, Alexander, had been involved in this and previous battles in what became known as the Ohio Indian Wars of the 1790s.) The resulting Treaty of Greenville in 1795 pushed Ohio’s Native tribes into a demarcated section of northwest Ohio, until they were forced out of Ohio completely in the early 1800s.
In 1795 (the same year as the Treaty of Greenville), Connecticut, which had been deeded the strip of land in northeast Ohio Territory known as the Western Reserve back in 1662, sold this land to a group of speculators. They surveyed the land, neatly dividing it into townships and then assigning land agents who sold individually marked lots to incoming white settlers. Within about ten years, Ohio essentially shifted from “Indian Country” to a territory rapidly filling up with white settlers. In 1803, Ohio became the 17th state admitted to the United States, though the Western Reserve area in northeastern Ohio remained fairly sparsely settled until after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. Though only some of William Holmes McGuffey’s neighbors were—like him—Scots-Irish Presbyterians from western Pennsylvania, many shared the similar experience of adapting to the Ohio frontier from more settled communities farther east.
McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic First Reader, 1848. / THF289925
As part of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, schooling and education had been encouraged, but the ordinance charter did not create a system for establishing or funding schools. The children of more well-to-do families paid tuition to attend private schools, called academies, where both boys and girls received rudimentary training in classics, reading, writing, and arithmetic.
While education was considered a high priority by New Englanders and Scots-Irish Presbyterians settling in Ohio, many farm families—especially those migrating to the area from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky—often lacked the money and inclination to ensure that their children received a formal education. In 1818, a traveler remarked that the schools in Ohio were very few in number and “wretched” in conditions.
William Holmes McGuffey received a better education than most children raised on the Ohio frontier. In his early years, his mother taught him basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, but she was always attempting to find ways for William to receive more education. She eventually succeeded in finding a school for him to attend in Youngstown, six miles away, run by Presbyterian minister Rev. William Wick, and William quickly developed a passion for learning. At the completion of his studies, Rev. Wick informed William that he had now received enough education to teach others and encouraged him to open a school. As a result, in September 1814, 14-year-old William McGuffey held his first “subscription school” at Calcutta, Ohio, for 48 students. His students, whose parents paid a fee for their instruction, brought their own books, with the Bible being the most common.
Two years later, and for the next four years, McGuffey attended the Old Stone Academy in Darlington, in western Pennsylvania. He then enrolled in Washington College, a Scots-Irish Presbyterian school located in Washington, Pennsylvania—ironically only a few miles from where he had been born. For the next six years, William alternated between working on his family’s farm in Ohio, teaching school, and attending classes at Washington. As he tried to educate others in the scattered and isolated settlements of the western frontier, he got a true sense of how desperately children needed an easy, standardized way of learning to read and write.
McGuffey’s Eclectic Second Reader, 1836. / THF289931
William completed his formal schooling at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a Presbyterian school, then taught there for the next 10 years (1826–36). By the 1830s, Ohio’s population had grown tremendously, and many public schools were opening. McGuffey saw a great need for a system of standardized education, especially for children of immigrants and those living in the scattered settlements of the West (now the Midwest) and South. In the mid-1830s, Truman & Smith, a Cincinnati publishing company, invited him to prepare a new series of textbooks to be marketed in the Midwest.
McGuffey worked to make his Eclectic Readers interesting and accessible to children, based on his observations while he was a teacher. An important difference from the few earlier textbooks that existed in America was that these were purposefully developed as a series, with each reader intended to be progressively more difficult and challenging than the one preceding it. He completed his first and second readers in 1836 and the primer, third, and fourth readers in 1837. William’s younger brother, Alexander, compiled the fifth reader in 1844 and the sixth in 1857.
Cover page of McGuffey’s Newly Revised Rhetorical Guide; or Fifth Reader, 1853, owned by Bishop Milton Wright, father of Orville and Wilbur Wright. / THF250428
McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were called “eclectic” because they included stories, poems, essays, and speeches drawn from a variety of sources. The primer and the first two readers consisted mainly of brief, simple tales and lessons. The more advanced readers included excerpts from orations, scripture, and English literature.
When students completed a reader, they moved on to the next level. With time off for harvest and farm chores, rural pupils might get no further than the second reader before completing their education in their mid-teens, which would provide reading skills equal to about a third- or fourth-grade level today.
Inside pages and outside cover of McGuffey’s New Second Eclectic Reader, 1865. / THF59806
The McGuffey Readershad a huge impact on American society, especially in the Midwest and South. The books not only taught youngsters to read; they were also often their primary source of information about history, philosophy, and science. For many schoolchildren, the excerpts in the readers from the works of authors like Shakespeare and Wordsworth were the closest they would get in their lifetimes to the Western world’s great literature. The stories in the readers also helped establish common understandings, heroes, values, and even expressions among a wide group of Americans. For example, when President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that he did not wish to be a “Meddlesome Matty,” everyone knew what he meant. He was referring to a character in McGuffey’sfourth readerwho snooped and meddled in other people’s affairs.
The kind of practical morality that McGuffey advocated in these books was based on his own upbringing and Scots-Irish Presbyterian background. The ideal character traits that were emphasized in the readers—industry, thrift, temperance, kindness, virtue—all reflected Presbyterian values. As the series was updated in 1841, 1844, 1857, 1866, and 1879, the publishers gradually muted its overt religious messages. But they never lost McGuffey’s original emphasis on moral instruction.
Over time, critics have attacked McGuffey’s readers for such flaws as not addressing the injustices of slavery, referring to Native Americans as “savages,” having anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic overtones, and reinforcing the traditional role of women as homemakers. McGuffey himself revised some of his text over successive editions. Still, the readers are of their place, their time, and the background and life experiences of their author.
Henry Ford and McGuffey’s Readers
Henry Ford perusing a McGuffey reader inside the McGuffey Birthplace, Greenfield Village, 1940. / THF126110
Henry Ford was among the last generation of children to be educated by the McGuffey Readers. Ford considered McGuffey one of his great heroes because of his ability to spark young imaginations. He believed that the books were successful because they used a narrative approach that spoke to the time and place of readers like himself.
Henry Ford had this reader, originally published in 1885, reprinted in 1930 for use in his Edison Institute Schools. / THF288332
McGuffey Readers had a deep and lasting influence on Henry Ford. They were among the earliest objects reflecting the American experience that Henry Ford collected, beginning in the 1910s. Ford bought every copy that he could find—amassing, by the 1930s, a collection of 468 copies of 145 different editions. A strong believer in McGuffey’s educational principles, Ford perpetuated these beliefs by founding the Edison Institute Schools. He even had the readers reprinted so that the children in the schools could use them.
Edison Institute schoolchildren exiting McGuffey School, 1937–40. / THF286354
Ford commemorated McGuffey’s role in educational reform by rebuilding his birthplace in Greenfield Village and constructing a school out of barn logs from the original farmstead where McGuffey was born. William Holmes McGuffey School served as the second-grade classroom for the students attending Edison Institute Schools from 1934 until the school system was closed in 1969.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Visit the Liberty Craftworks district in Greenfield Village, and a red structure stands out at the far end of the pond. That’s the Tripp Sawmill, which once operated in Tipton, Michigan, in the mid-1800s, under the ownership of Rev. Henry Tripp and his family.
“It’s an interesting example of a logical, sequential, flowing process,” Marc Greuther, vice president of historical resources and chief curator at The Henry Ford, said of the sawmill. “It’s not a stretch to think of the building as a kind of machine, if you will, a single-purpose machine that is quite refined.”
A Man Working in the Tripp Sawmill in Greenfield Village, June 15, 1936. / THF277109
The sawmill was built and run solely by the Tripp family, tailored to the needs of the surrounding community. Tipton, an early American startup of sorts, was not necessarily looking for a large-scale logging operation in its midst. Instead, it needed a self-contained, functioning sawmill that could cut and process lumber from the area’s felled trees. It most likely operated only during the winter months, when residents could easily move felled trees from their properties across the frozen ground. “The Tripps were quite adept at figuring out how to start a business and find a niche,” said Greuther. “They were venturesome, entrepreneurial, and had that can-do attitude.”
The Tripp Sawmill on its original site in Tipton, Michigan. / THF243590
While many such sawmills in the United States at the time were water-powered, especially those started in newly founded communities, the Tripp Sawmill was powered by steam from the outset—finely tuned and aligned to the resources within its vicinity. A well, for example, was on-site. The mill collected and used rainwater. Its boiler was fueled with waste wood and sawdust from the mill’s operation. “The mill exemplifies a judicious use of resources and technology and human personnel and output all working together,” said Greuther.
Scotch Settlement School in Greenfield Village. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller
Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village offers an engaging look into the ways Americans celebrated Christmas in the past. At Scotch Settlement School, the holiday vignette reflects the Christmas programs that took place in the thousands of one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the landscape of rural America.
Students and teacher pose outside their rural one-room school in Summerville, South Carolina, about 1903. / THF115900
The schoolhouse—often the only public building in the neighborhood—was a center of community life in rural areas. It was not only a place where children learned to read, write, and do arithmetic, but might also serve as a place to attend church services, go to Grange meetings, vote in elections, or listen to a debate.
Students dressed in patriotic costumes for a school program, pageant, or parade, about 1905. / THF700057
People in rural communities particularly looked forward to the programs put on by the students who attended these schools—local boys and girls who ranged in age from about seven to the mid-teens. School programs were often presented throughout the year for occasions such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, Arbor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and eighth-grade graduation. People came from miles around to country schools to attend these events.
Handwritten Christmas program from Blair School, Webster County, Iowa, December 23, 1914. / THF700097, THF700098
Among the most anticipated events that took place at the schoolhouse was the Christmas program—it was a highlight of the rural winter social season. Preparations usually started right after Thanksgiving as students began learning poems and other recitations, rehearsing a play, or practicing songs. Every child was included. Students might have their first experience in public speaking or singing before an audience at these school programs.
Interior of Scotch Settlement School during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller.
The schoolroom was often decorated for the occasion, sometimes with a Christmas tree. During the late 1800s, when the presence of Christmas trees was not yet a widespread tradition, many children saw their first Christmas tree at the school Christmas program. Presents like candy, nuts, fruit, or mittens—provided by parents or other members of the community—were often part of the event. Growing up in 1870s frontier Iowa, writer Hamlin Garland recalled the local minister bringing a Christmas tree to the schoolhouse one Christmas—a tree with few candles or shiny decorations, but one loaded with presents. Forty years later, Garland vividly remembered the bag of popcorn he received that day.
Teachers were often required to organize at least two programs a year. Teachers who put on unsuccessful programs might soon find themselves out of a teaching position. Teachers in rural schools usually came from a similar background to their students—often from the same farming community—so an observant teacher would have understood the kind of school program that would please students, parents, and the community.
Children at times performed in buildings so crowded that audience members had to stand along the edges of the classroom. Sometimes there wasn’t room for everyone to squeeze in. To see their parents and so many other members of the community in the audience helped make these children aware that the adults in their lives valued their schoolwork. This encouraged many of the students to appreciate their opportunity for education—even if they didn’t fully realize it until years later. Some children might even have been aware of how these programs contributed to a sense of community.
Postcard with the handwritten message, “Our school have [sic] a tree & exercises at the Church across from the schoolhouse & we all have a part in it,” from 11-year-old Ivan Colman of Tuscola County, Michigan, December 1913. / THF146214
These simple Christmas programs—filled with recitations, songs, and modest gifts—created cherished lifelong memories for countless children.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life 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.
Those who decorated for Christian holidays made the gathering of evergreens a ritual. Families and friends ventured into the woods and cut conifers and other wintergreens to festoon churches, ballrooms, and private homes. This post focuses on the process of acquiring the iconic Christmas tree, a conifer or cone-bearing tree, evergreen because it retained its foliage throughout the winter season and prized for its shape, color, aroma, and association with gift-giving.
The native ranges of conifers affected personal preferences for Christmas trees.
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), the perch for a female and male cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), drawn by John Jay Audubon (1785–1851) in Cincinnati, Ohio, April 1811, reproduced by the New York Historical Society in 1966. / THF251903
Across the southern and eastern United States, the eastern red cedar (really, a juniper) proved a popular tree choice for those who could cut their own. The tree grew rapidly along the edges of woods, encroaching into fields and pastures. Thus, removing a few trees to deck the halls at Christmas time also served the purpose of containing the juniper and retaining arable land and pasture.
The balsam fir (Abies balsamea) appealed to landowners for many of the same reasons. A report in the Detroit Free Press (December 10, 1901) explained that in Maine, the “young firs, which are almost exclusively used for Christmas trees, are good for nothing else—in many sections being considered a nuisance, as they grow like burdocks and crowd out better trees.” Harvesting the trees for urban markets became a festive occasion as the reporter explained, with “whole families going into the woods and taking their dinners along.”
Print made from a watercolor sketch of “Alpine Fir” by Mary Vaux Walcott (1860–1940), printed by William Edmund Rudge, Inc., 1925. / THF125075
The subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), also known as the Alpine fir, grew in the high-elevation forests of the Canadian Rockies and western United States. It was much less easily accessible for families harvesting their Christmas tree, but its tall profile and stout branches appealed to Christmas tree shoppers none the less.
Bringing evergreens into private and public spaces during the darkest days of the year (the winter solstice) offered hope for the next growing season. Germanic people receive credit for adding light to the conifer. An 1836 illustration, “Christmas Eve,” showed a Christmas tree with candles aglow. The editor explained this as a well-known German tradition “that almost every family has its Christmas tree covered with a hundred lights and many beautiful gifts, and surrounded generally by a little group of happy beings” (The Stranger’s Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, edited by Hermann Bokum and published in Boston by Light & Horton in 1836, page 9).
The hand-tinted lithograph below, of a boy carrying a tree and a girl carrying a bundle of greens, printed in Hamburg, reinforced a tradition that increasing numbers of German immigrants brought with them to America during the mid-19th century.
Color Lithograph, "The Christmas Tree," printed by Gustav W. Seitz, Hamburg, 1856–1866. / THF108194
By 1867, “the pleasant Germanic custom of gathering the family round a Christmas tree ... has become thoroughly domesticated in this country.” So declared Harper’s Weekly (December 18, 1867) in a brief explanation of the reasons why families no longer hung stockings ‘neath the chimney with care, but instead hung presents from Christmas trees. A full-page illustration of “The Christmas Tree” further emphasized the point.
Christmas tree decorated with candles, popcorn strings, and toys, circa 1900./ THF290114
The bucolic imagery of bringing a Christmas tree home through snowy fields to a rural farmhouse contrasted with the risky business of tree markets.
Hallmark "Memories of Christmas" Christmas ornament, 1998./ THF186978
Families invested their labor in tree harvests. “A man cuts the trees close to the roots and a boy or a strong girl clips away with a sharp hatchet the few dead branches near the base. Women and boys tie the trees into bundles of a dozen each, binding them with strong cords, and then the harvest is piled into hayricks and taken to the nearest railroad station.” Often middlemen stepped in. As the New York World reported (reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901), “the evergreen harvests are generally bought by men who make a business in winter of supplying the holiday green markets of large cities.”
Families cutting conifers for urban markets, middlemen trying to sell them, and customers trying to buy them all relied on railroads to move the perishable cargo. This seasonal business was no holiday (to borrow colleague Matt Anderson’s turn of phrase in his blog post, “Winter Railroading was No Holiday”).
Christmas Tree Market, New York City, Detroit Publishing Company, circa 1903. Another view of this market at Barclay Street Station shows smaller trees in bundles to the left of the taller trees. These fit more closely the trees bound up by Maine families and shipped by train to the city, as described in the New York World article mentioned elsewhere in this post. / THF144363
Urban customers had little time to waste because trees arrived close to Christmas day. The Detroit Free Press reported that “Christmas trees, that is to say evergreens, are up in the market” (December 21, 1879). This arrival a few days before the holy day/holiday remained fairly consistent during the 19th century. A decade later (December 20, 1889), the Free Press reported, “Christmas trees have appeared on the market.”
What did these conifers cost? During December 1901, prices depended on tree height: “For trees five to six feet tall the buyers in Maine pay five cents, and for trees six to ten feet tall ten to fifteen cents. In the city these trees bring twenty-five cents to $1” (New York World reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901). Note that these prices are likely per foot, not per tree.
Customers looking for Christmas evergreen goods in Detroit a week later (December 18, 1901) could expect to pay eight cents per foot for an “Xmas tree” as reported by the Free Press. The market price for a 20-yard roll of “evergreen” was 85 cents to $1 and for a holly and evergreen wreath, $1 per dozen. In 2021 prices, that’s an average of $1.63 to $2.60 per foot for a six-foot tree, and $27.66 to $32.54 for a 20-yard roll of evergreen.
Whether families cut their own or paid market price for their conifer, photographs of home interiors indicate the ways they decorated.
First electrically lighted Christmas tree, home of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison Electric Light Company, December 1882. / THF69137
A magnifying glass and close inspection of the original print could confirm the tree type that Edward Hibberd Johnson, wife Margaret, and their three children (Edward H. Jr., Edna, and Lillian) enjoyed as of December 22, 1882. Subscribers to the Detroit Post and Tribune could read about this first tree lit with electric lights—80 red, white, and blue bulbs, hand wired—as reported by journalist William Augustus Croffut. The Johnson family (or their staff) also strung electric lights in the garland running from window treatments to the ceiling light fixture. Readers of Croffut’s article might even have anticipated the possibilities in Detroit, because the Western Edison Light Company had just offered an Edison incandescent light plant for use at Detroit’s Central Market. Detroit’s Committee on Gas was considering the proposal (Detroit Free Press, December 6, 1882).
Artificial illumination of the Christmas tree became standard practice quickly.
Christmas greens at Holiday Nights, December 5, 2021. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
Santa Claus employs the latest in transportation technology to share his greetings in this Christmas postcard, 1910. / THF93052
During the first two decades of the 20th century, people were likely to find colorful Christmas postcards when they reached into their mailboxes as the holiday neared. Americans were experiencing a postcard craze!
A New Idea: Sending Holiday Greetings
A pre-postcard era Christmas card by Louis Prang & Company of Boston, 1880. During the mid-1870s, Prang began publishing Christmas and other greeting cards, creating a highly successful Christmas card industry. / THF16646
It’s not that people didn’t send Christmas cards before that time. They did, especially during the 1870s and 1880s as Christmas became more widely celebrated in homes and in the community. Sending a Christmas greeting card was a way to keep in touch with distant family and friends. In the decades following the Civil War, as Congress increasingly standardized delivery, mail traveled more rapidly, dependably, and cheaply than it had before, transporting Christmas cards and other mail throughout the nation.
Post office in the small town of Hoxie, Kansas, about 1913. / THF700079
Yet interest in giving or sending printed holiday greetings through the mail had waned somewhat by the 1890s. That is, until circumstances—lower postal rates and improved delivery service to all areas of the country—helped create a postcard boom for urban and rural residents alike and encouraged a Christmas card revival.
The Postman Brings Postcard Cheer
n 1898, the United States Post Office reduced the cost of mailing privately printed postcards to one cent. As postcards caught the public’s fancy in the first decade of the 20th century, these cards blossomed with colorful images, humorous messages, or holiday greetings. Postcards quickly became an attractive and ready means of inexpensive communication, with room for a personal message on the reverse.
During the “Golden Age” of postcards, from about 1900 to 1914, people bought and mailed billions. In 1904, the New York City post office alone handled about 30,000 cards per day. Many of these billions of postcards were holiday-themed—Christmas postcards were the most popular.
United States Post Office delivery trucks, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, 1908. / THF700044
By 1902, rural mail routes had become a permanent part of the postal service. Instead of having to make a trip into town to the post office to retrieve their mail, rural residents now had the same advantage as city dwellers—mail was delivered directly to their homes.
Rural Free Delivery in a horse-drawn mail delivery wagon, 1895–1920. / THF143935
Christmas Postcard Greetings—Inexpensive and Colorful
Postcard advertising the Souvenir Post Card Company’s line of Christmas postcards, about 1910. / THF700082 and THF700083
These colorful seasonal greetings were not only affordable, they were attractive and appealing.
The time was right. Between 1900 and 1910, entrepreneurs established most of the American greeting card companies, including Hallmark Cards, American Greetings, Rust Craft, and the Gibson Art Company. Many of the colorful postcards companies sold to their American customers were printed in Germany—American printing technology lagged behind that of the Germans.
German-made postcard of Santa and reindeer and sleeping child, 1907-1910. / THF136483
The postcards displayed a range of what we now think of as symbols of Christmas, including Santa Claus, children with toys, Christmas trees, houses and churches in the snow, ice skating, bells, holly, and angels.
This postcard combines holly with a snowy landscape. / THF6869
Postcards sporting images of Santa with reindeer, 1907–1910, and a child with toys, 1905–1910. / THF136481 and THF4503
Christmas postcards—with a snow-covered church, holly, and bells, and with an angel holding a Christmas tree, 1910 and 1915. / THF700046 and THF700048
Up-to-date technology made its appearance in these Christmas postcards as well.
A child uses the telephone, rather than a letter, to communicate her wish list to Santa, 1907. / THF135741
Images of automobiles often appeared on Christmas cards of the era, 1907–1910 and 1910. / THF135815 and THF143923
Santa tries out motorcycle delivery of presents rather than reindeer-powered transportation, 1910–1920. / THF4508
The postcard craze peaked between 1907 and 1910—it was particularly popular among rural and small-town women in the northern United States.Some 700 million postcards were mailed during the year ending June 30, 1908, alone.
Yet the postcard craze would soon ebb. In 1909, a tariff was placed on imported postcards, making the German-printed imports more expensive. The quality of available postcards began to fall. Public interest waned and artistic tastes changed. In 1914, World War I further disrupted the postcard industry, as German-produced cards and high-quality dyes used for ink became unavailable. As the war continued, many companies shifted to greeting card—rather than postcard—production. The telephone probably contributed as well, as more households had phones to reach family and friends more quickly. The “Golden Age” of postcards was drawing to a close.
Step into Christmas Postcards Past
Phoenixville Post Office in Greenfield Village during Holiday Nights. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller
Today, strolling past the Phoenixville Post Office during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village offers a glimpse into this slice of Christmas postal history.
Photos courtesy of Jeanine Miller and Glenn Miller.
Visitors can experience the early 20th century postcard craze for themselves by posing behind enlarged versions of Christmas postcards placed near the Phoenixville Post Office—and then act as digital “postal carriers” by sending these images to family and friends by text or email.
Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller.
From a curator’s point of view, it’s a wonderful to see these postcards of Christmas Past become part of Christmas Present! You can take a “peek” into Christmas mailboxes of the past by clicking here to see additional early-20th-century postcards in our collection.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life 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.
A Bickford & Huffman grain drill, circa 1890, used at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village. / THF110028
"In the Farmers' Favorite Plain Drill we offer the best machine for the purpose that has ever been produced, and believe we can prove it to be better made, of better material, better finished, better balance, and capable of sowing a greater range of work easier and better under all circumstances than any other." –Bickford & Huffman Co. Catalogue, 1896
Lyman Bickford and Henry Huffman founded what became the Bickford & Huffman Co. in 1842. By the 1870s, their small company in Macedon, New York, sold one of nation's most effective mechanical planters. The mechanization that took place on American farms with machinery such as horse-drawn grain drills, reapers, and threshing machines allowed American farmers to increase their field size and efficiently harvest small grain crops such as wheat, oats, and barley. If properly planted, these crops grow densely, and farmers did not need to remove weeds. But if the seeds were dropped inconsistently, then weeds would take up space in the field and reduce the harvest. Truly how well you sowed your crop determined the quantity you would reap. To comply with their customers’ beliefs, and to confirm their machines’ superiority, the Bickford & Huffman Co. emblazoned their grain drills with the phrase "As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap," along with the name "The Farmers' Favorite."
"As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap” printed on our Bickford & Huffman grain drill. / THF189173
From the 1840s into the 1880s, the Midwest served as America's breadbasket. Ohio farmers ranked top in the nation in wheat production in 1840 with 16.5 million bushels—almost one billion pounds of wheat. Farmers such as Benjamin Firestone in Columbia County, Ohio, planted winter wheat in the fall as a cash crop, and oats in the spring to use as horse feed. In 1880, Firestone planted eight acres of wheat and ten acres of oats. Like all farmers, his expectations were heightened as he planted his crops and hoped for a bountiful harvest. Like many farmers, he probably abided by the rule "As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap." By the late 1800s, wheat production shifted to Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.
You can see a Bickford & Huffman grain drill in use during the spring in Greenfield Village as the hands at Firestone Farm prepare and plant the fields. The drill drops seeds just a few inches apart, and the wheat or oats will sprout and spread, forming a lush field of grain. By the middle of June to early July, the grain will be ready to harvest, after which it will be stored until we thresh it in the fall. This drill, though more than 100 years old, continues to sow the hopes of our farmers and demonstrate innovation in American agriculture.
Firestone barn cat Ellen keeps an eye on our Bickford & Huffman grain drill when not in use. / Photo by Jillian Ferraiuolo
Today, farmers still plant using grain drills. Tractor-drawn machines pull grain drills that are as wide as 30 feet. Farmers still rely on a good stand of grain to help control weeds, but also spray herbicide to kill unwanted plants in the field. Some people worry that the use of these chemicals threatens our environment. Others argue that when used in moderation these chemicals are safe. Though we are reaping bountiful harvests, our farming practices may result in unintended problems—we may not know all that we are harvesting.
Leo E. Landis is former Curator of Agriculture & Rural Life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from the April 2001 entry in our former Pic of the Month series.
Greenfield Village’s Herschell-Spillman Carousel. / Photo by KMS Photography
Say the word “carousel” and most people conjure up images of ornate horses on poles, happy children upon them screaming with glee as they go up and down, round and round.
Visit the Herschell-Spillman Carousel in Greenfield Village and the scene is similar. It’s a centerpoint of fascination, fun and play for thousands of guests each year. A place to decompress from the more serious points of history shared in the village and just let go.
“The carousel gets to the multifaceted nature of the Greenfield Village experience,” said Marc Greuther, Vice President, Historical Resources and Chief Curator at The Henry Ford. “That it’s not always about innovation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. Sometimes it’s simply about having fun. If you think about it, there’s some ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation in that.”
In Greenfield Village’s Liberty Craftworks district, skilled artisans practice authentic period crafts and trades with techniques that are, in some cases, centuries old. Here, we ask two of our talented Liberty Craftworks staff, both of whom have worked at The Henry Ford for more than a decade, why they like to make things with their hands.
Joshua Wojick: Crafts and Trades Program Manager, The Henry Ford
Mediums: Glassblowing, Mixed-Media Sculpture Years at The Henry Ford: 16
A student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit in the 1990s, Joshua was interested in industrial design, thinking about going into the automotive industry. Then he decided to take a glassblowing class. “I was hooked instantly,” he said. “It spawned my love of craft, of materiality and the honesty of material, of making.”
He changed majors and has never looked back.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Wojick.
At The Henry Ford, he appreciates the boutique expression of production afforded by the Liberty Craftworks community. “It’s a tough world getting into strict production craftmaking. It takes specific focus to make the same things over and over again. When you get to see it in a smaller setting—where artists are working, controlling, understanding the material moment by moment—it draws you in. That is what’s unique to The Henry Ford.”
He is also grateful for the guests he can interact with in Greenfield Village during daily demonstrations. “I have always looked at this interaction as the driving force of the Craftworks community. As artists, we have the opportunity to meet unique people and hear their life journeys, which can help you think differently throughout the day.”
Photo courtesy of Joshua Wojick.
Joshua never stops making things, creating award-winning art inside as well as outside of The Henry Ford. See more of his work at joshuawojick.com.
Melinda Mercer: Pottery Shop Lead, The Henry Ford
Mediums: Wood-Fired Porcelain, Salt-Glazed Stoneware, Patchwork Quilting Years at The Henry Ford: 17
Melinda has loved pottery for decades, first enthralled by its artistry as she watched her high school art teacher throw clay on his potter’s wheel and next while earning her fine arts degree. Then, as an intern at The Henry Ford a few years later, she had the privilege of tutelage under Bryan VanBenschoten, a lead potter in the Pottery Shop for nearly 40 years.
Photo courtesy of Melinda Mercer.
One of her favorite things in the world is wood-firing in the shop’s wood kiln. She calls it a labor of love, a rewarding team effort that the potters do only once or twice a year. “It takes us months to prepare,” she said. “And once we start putting wood in the kiln, we have to stay with the kiln for 30 hours, loading more wood every couple minutes. There’s no electricity, no technology. Just us, the wood, and the fire.”
Melinda loves the individuality the wood-firing process affords her. “We really get to stretch artistically,” she said. More importantly, she can share the experience with guests at The Henry Ford. “The wood-firing is a magical event—when visitors see the flames shooting from the top of the kiln, their reactions are quite remarkable.” Continue Reading