Photograph of Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr., 1860s. / THF237208
How do we uncover the stories of the people who lived and worked in the buildings that come to Greenfield Village? Usually, there are no books written about them, unless they were famous—like Abraham Lincoln or the Wright Brothers. To piece together the stories of these people, we have to look at archival documents, images, and artifacts—which offer a firsthand account or a direct reference to the people and their stories. These primary sources—like census records, business records, and personal reminiscences—each provide clues. But they can be hard to interpret and difficult to piece together. Moreover, they are sometimes inaccurate and can even contradict each other. We must constantly assess the value and accuracy of each source and compare it with others.
First page from great-grandson Howard Washburn’s write-up on Dr. Howard, May 25, 1962. / THF627447
The first place we look when we explore the stories of Greenfield Village buildings and the people related to them is our own Edison Institute (or EI) archives. Beginning at the time that each building is first acquired and brought to Greenfield Village, the majority of the records collected by the museum for that building are kept in the archival accession EI.186—or what we familiarly call the “Building Boxes.” We were lucky that in the case of Dr. Howard’s Office, we found in this accession two folders entitled “Family History.”
These folders contain numerous typed reports, the result of years of tedious research undertaken by Dr. Howard’s great-grandson, Howard Washburn. Washburn’s study of Dr. Howard began in 1935, from which time he developed a steadily expanding notebook on the subject. In January 1946, he and his mother purchased and came to live on the family farm, “Windfall,” where the office was located. Washburn’s interest in his great-grandfather’s life and medical practice deepened in the 1950s and 1960s, involving both sifting through the materials that were still in the office and collecting numerous reminiscences about Dr. Howard from his by-then elderly family members, friends, and neighbors.
Dedication of Dr. Howard’s Office in Greenfield Village, with Howard family descendants, October 1963. / THF20847
Washburn found some wonderful primary sources of his own in his search, like the extensive entry about Dr. Howard’s life that was handwritten in the Howard family Bible by his son, Camer. But most of Washburn’s material came from those previously mentioned personal reminiscences. We know that people’s long-term memories can be sketchy, especially when decades have gone by (Dr. Howard passed away in 1883). So, we planned to compare these reminiscences with other types of sources (see section below on genealogical records).
Photograph of office interior, taken at the building’s original site near Tekonsha, Michigan, before removal to Greenfield Village, March 1956. / THF237188
The Building Boxes in our archives also house numerous photographs that document each Greenfield Village building, especially photographs relating to each building on its original site just before its removal to Greenfield Village. Howard Washburn’s reports informed us that when Dr. Howard passed away in 1883, his wife Cynthia padlocked his office with most of its contents intact. Sure enough, photographs of the building’s interior that were taken when Henry Ford’s assistants came to look at the building in the 1950s reveal a huge array of original furniture, bottles, casks, business records, and medical books. These came with the building to Greenfield Village. They not only helped us later recreate the building’s interior as close as possible to the original, but also furthered our knowledge about many aspects of Dr. Howard’s medical practice.
A homeopathic medical publication from July 1868, found amongst the contents of Dr. Howard’s Office when it was brought to Greenfield Village. / THF627467
Dr. Howard’s business records and medical books (all paper items that were later removed from the building because of their fragility) were put together with other family documents to make up another accession in our archives—the Howard Family Papers. These materials particularly reveal Dr. Howard’s increasing interest in adapting a range of different approaches to treating patients.
Letter from Isaac Haines to Dr. Howard, April 18, 1877, inquiring about how to get to the doctor’s office from Fort Wayne, Indiana. / THF627457
Some particularly interesting letters from patients in the Howard Family Papers contain descriptions of ailments that people asked Dr. Howard to diagnose for them. Another of these letters, from 1877, even came from a man in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who requested directions to his office (about 75 miles away!) so he could make a personal visit.
Two pages from Dr. Howard’s 1849–1853 account book. / THF627454
The Howard Family Papers also contain Dr. Howard’s account books, dating all the way from 1849 to 1881. These primarily record his visits to or from patients and the amount that he charged them. Unfortunately, most of the patients’ names are difficult to read. However, the 1878 account book does contain several neatly handwritten pages of patients, listed in alphabetical order, at the front—many of which are indeed legible. Some of these even mention the patients’ hometowns, including Tekonsha, Michigan (where his office was located), as well as nearby Burlington (about five miles away) and Union City (about nine miles away). We hope to delve more deeply into the backgrounds of some of these patients through genealogical records, to get an idea of their ages, occupations, and backgrounds.
Invoice from Farrand, Williams & Co., from February 15, 1881, for Dr. Howard’s purchase of medical equipment, supplies, and ingredients. / THF620458
The Howard Family Papers also contain several invoices sent to Dr. Howard from a chemical supply company in Detroit, Michigan, dated 1881. These provide valuable clues to the types of medicinal ingredients that Dr. Howard purchased to create his pills and concoctions—and help to break down the stereotype that everything he used was botanical (i.e., natural materials like plants and herbs) and homegrown or locally obtained. The invoices contain not only dried herbs and plants but also such non-botanical ingredients as quinine and alum that relate to more conventional Western medical practice.
Dr. Howard’s “recipe” for cough syrup, from his 1864 handwritten receipt book. / THF620470
One of the most valuable items in this collection—originally donated with the building—is Dr. Howard’s own handwritten book of receipts (or recipes) for remedies from 1864. Like the account books, the pages are difficult to decipher without some concentrated effort. But it is possible to get an idea of the types of illnesses he was trying to treat and the combination of purchased and locally available ingredients he combined in creating his remedies.
The four children of Dr. Howard and his second wife, Cynthia, about 1870. Front, left to right: Mattie, Camer, and Letitia; rear: Manchie. / THF109605
As mentioned before, it is important to verify the stories gleaned from personal reminiscences. So, for Dr. Howard’s background and family history, we also consulted census and other genealogical records (many, thankfully, online on websites like ancestry.com). Here we could verify the dates of the Howard family’s move to Michigan, as well as the names, birth and death dates, and places of origin of his parents, siblings, and two wives (Letitia, his first wife, passed away in 1857; he married his second wife, Cynthia, a year later), and children with each wife), as well as other interesting information, like the fact that his father, Alonson B. Howard, Sr., served in the War of 1812.
Photograph of Dr. Howard’s father, Alonson B. Howard, Sr., about 1860. / THF237220
We also learned through census records that Dr. Howard listed his occupation in three different ways over the years—as a farmer in 1850 and 1860, as a physician in 1870, and as both a physician and surgeon in 1880.
Local History Records
Dr. Howard’s office on its original site near Tekonsha, Michigan, situated along the road at the front of “Windfall,” the family farm, March 1956. / THF237150
It is important for us to remember that, although a building and its story might reside in Greenfield Village today, it originally came from another place. This larger context is crucially important to creating an accurate picture in our interpretation of that building and the people related to it. Dr. Howard’s office was originally located just outside the village of Tekonsha, Calhoun County, in south central Michigan. The Howard family settled there in the 1840s, when Alonson, Jr. was 17 years old, during a period of great migration into Michigan by white settlers. A majority of settlers, including the Howard family, came from upstate New York.
Road sign near original site of Dr. Howard’s office, August 1959. / THF237152
To find out more about Tekonsha in the 1840s, we consulted the voluminous History of Calhoun County from 1877. We know that the numerous county histories that were published across the country around the time of America’s centennial in 1876 are among the best sources for recounting minute details of the early settlement of various communities. Indeed, the Calhoun County history provided several valuable bits of information. But, of course, in the end, it is essentially the story of white settlers. About Native Americans, who had recently occupied the area and some of whom still lived there during Dr. Howard’s time, this county history ranged from sketchy to dismissive to outright racist.
We found in our research that self-emancipated orator Sojourner Truth was perhaps Calhoun County’s best-known African American resident at the time. She lived in Harmonia (Bedford Charter Township, now part of Battle Creek) from 1857 until her death in 1883. Residents in Tekonsha, located about 25 miles down the road, would have undoubtedly heard of or read about her. / THF121160
African Americans were similarly dismissed from the historical record in this county history, except as “runaways” on the Underground Railroad who were “saved” by white “conductors.” To create a more accurate picture of these marginalized groups, we pursued additional research in scholarly books and trustworthy websites. Potawatomi tribal history was particularly important for us to understand because according to Howard Washburn, Dr. Howard had a friendly relationship with members of this group and even named two of his children after “Indian” friends of his (see “Dr. Howard: A Country Doctor in Southwest Michigan” for more detail on this history).
Five descendants of Dr. Howard standing in front of his office in Greenfield Village in June 2013. From left to right: Corey Washburn (North Dakota); Sue Gillies (Australia); Dawn Gunther (California); Fiona Lynton (Australia); and Angela Karaca (Australia). / Photograph by Donna Braden.
Oral histories involve the systematic collecting and recording of personal reminiscences through live interviews. They can convey a level of detail not available in other sources, and can be informative, vivid, and colorful—often with a touch of humor and a wellspring of emotion.
In 2013, we were treated to a visit from five descendants of Dr. Howard, on a pilgrimage from their homes in North Dakota, California, and even Australia, to visit the sites related to their ancestor. During a lively oral history session with us, they filled in gaps in our knowledge about the family tree of Dr. Howard’s descendants, as well as regaling us with stories they had researched and collected themselves (see “A Visit from Dr. Howard’s Descendants”).
The Building and Its Contents
Dr. Howard’s office as it looks in Greenfield Village today. / THF1696
Since we know that Dr. Howard was the first and only individual to use this space as a doctor’s office, the actual building additionally becomes a unique primary source of its own for providing clues. The building spaces reveal that he divided what had originally been a schoolhouse into several partitioned rooms: a public waiting room, a private office, a working laboratory (where he mixed his own concoctions), and a pill-rolling room (where he hand-rolled his own pills).
Dr. Howard’s desk, in one of several photographs taken of the building’s interior on its original site before removal to Greenfield Village. The desk is on display in the refurbished building in Greenfield Village today. / THF237200
The original furnishings that were donated with the building—e.g., the cast-iron stove, a wooden storage trunk, Dr. Howard’s desk, chairs, and a daybed—provide further concrete evidence of his use of the building and its specific spaces. Finally, the wooden casks for holding extracts and the approximately 250 bottles and jars that came with the building—most with their original labels and some with their contents intact—greatly helped to supplement our knowledge about the ingredients that Dr. Howard used and the concoctions he created to treat patients (see “Dr. Howard’s ‘Medicine Cabinet’” for more on this).
We have described some of the sources we look at when researching the people related to our Greenfield Village buildings, and, specifically, some of our most helpful finds in piecing together the story of country doctor Alonson B. Howard, Jr. There are always more clues to be unearthed. The research on each Village building is never-ending, and we look forward to deepening and enriching the stories of Dr. Howard and other people who once inhabited buildings now in Greenfield Village.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She would like to thank Associate Curator Ryan Jelso for his assistance in doing the genealogical research on the Howard family.
Shelves of original bottles and jars that Dr. Howard used in his medical practice, still lining the shelves of the office when this photograph was taken, just before the removal of the building to Greenfield Village in March 1956. / THF237192
During the mid-19th century, people did not know what caused disease. They didn’t understand the nature of germs and contagion, nor did they realize the connection between unsanitary conditions and sickness. The pharmaceutical industry had not yet become established and standards for ensuring safe medicinal ingredients didn’t exist at that time.
Dr. Filkins’s Vegetable Sugar-Coated Liver Pills, a patent medicine from about 1870. / THF154650
To cure what ailed them, many people at the time chose to use “patent” medicines (whose ingredients often ranged from questionable to outright dangerous) or home remedies. (For more on patent medicines, see “Patent Medicine Entrepreneurs: Friend or ‘Faux’?”) Still, most small towns had at least one person who called himself a doctor.
Photograph of Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr., 1865–1866. / THF109611
Dr. Howard’s Medical Practice
Dr. Howard’s Office, as it looks today in Greenfield Village. / THF1696
Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr., whose modest office is located today in Greenfield Village, was one such doctor. From 1852 until his death in 1883, he treated patients in and around Tekonsha, Calhoun County, Michigan—practicing medicine in his office as well as traveling around to visit patients in their homes. (For more on Dr. Howard’s background and medical practice, see “Dr. Alonson B. Howard, A Country Doctor in Southwest Michigan”).
Photograph of Dr. Howard’s office on its original site near Tekonsha, Michigan, taken from Windfall Cemetery across the street, August 1959. / THF297164
Dr. Howard wasn’t the only doctor around. Several other physicians practiced medicine in and around the Tekonsha area during Dr. Howard’s career. Furthermore, visiting doctors from the East Coast made the circuit, staying overnight to administer to those who needed their specialty medicine or treatment.
This “eclectic” medical journal from 1882 was found among the contents of Dr. Howard’s office when it was moved to Greenfield Village. / THF627461
Facing competition, Dr. Howard likely made some conscious choices about his practice. He would have been considered an “eclectic” doctor at the time, choosingfrom three different approaches to best treat each illness: “conventional” (also known variously as orthodox, allopathic, or heroic), homeopathic, and botanic medical practice.
Surgical kit from the era of Dr. Howard’s practice. / THF188363
In the true sense of a country doctor, Dr. Howard combined the attributes of chemist, apothecary, dentist, physician, and surgeon. According to reminiscences and his obituary, Dr. Howard was well known for his treatment of chronic illnesses. His 1864 receipt book of remedies includes his handwritten “recipes” for the treatment of such illnesses as venereal disease, tuberculosis, spinal meningitis, scrofula, cancer, Bright’s Disease, dysentery, kidney problems, enlarged liver, worms, and menstrual problems, while reminiscences also include reference to his delivering children.
Dr. Howard’s “recipe” for treating kidney problems, from his handwritten receipt book, 1864. / THF620465
Concoctions, Elixirs, and Cures
The interior of the “laboratory” in Dr. Howard’s Office today, based upon photographs of the original arrangement. The original casks are still displayed. / THF11271
Like other country doctors of the time, Dr. Howard prepared his own medicines and remedies. His niece, Etta, remembered as a little girl watching him mix powders and medicines and marveling at his speed and dexterity in folding packets.
In concocting his remedies, Dr. Howard often first ground up the raw ingredients, then carefully mixed them together using precise recipes that were his own or that he had collected from elsewhere (usually a medical treatise). Many of the medicines required careful boiling, evaporation, or distillation. Pills were hand-rolled. Smaller concoctions went into bottles and jars, while more sizable preparations of liquid extracts and syrups were stored in casks, or small barrels, and stacked on shelves in his laboratory.
Contents of Dr. Howard’s Office today, based upon the arrangement of jars and bottles when the building was on its original site. / THF11280
The bottles and jars lining the shelves in Dr. Howard’s private office would have housed both raw ingredients for his remedies and small amounts of his homemade concoctions. Nearly all the bottles and jars that are in the building today belonged to Dr. Howard back in the 19th century. When the building came to Greenfield Village in the 1960s, many of these containers still had their original labels and contents. These provided the basis for the 2003 refurbishment of the building (after it was moved to the Village Green). At this time, many of the by-then faded labels were replaced with identical reproductions and oft-ancient contents were replaced with newer or simulated versions.
Dr. Howard’s Office being relocated to the Village Green (from its original location near where the Village Playground is today) during the 2002–2003 Greenfield Village restoration. / THF19075
Perusing these labels, in combination with the ingredients listed in Dr. Howard’s 1864 receipt book of remedies, offers us great insight into exactly what ingredients and concoctions he used to administer to the sick and ailing. Just what was in Dr. Howard’s “medicine cabinet”? Let’s take a look!
These are some of the raw ingredients that Dr. Howard used in his remedies and housed in jars and bottles on the shelves in his office:
Dried plants (leaves, berries, petals, and roots), like lobelia, red rose petals, raspberry leaf, blue vervain, burdock root, valerian root, and dandelion root
Dried herbs, like fennel seeds, thyme, rosemary, parsley, peppermint, dill weed, basil, sage, and lemon balm
Tree roots, leaves, and bark, like wild cherry bark, white oak bark, white willow bark, slippery elm bark, birch bark, and black walnut leaves
Spices (whole or pulverized), like ginger, mace, turmeric, cumin, and cloves
Chemicals and minerals, like alum, calomel, carbonate of iron, laudanum, chloroform, carbonate ammonia, and bromide potassium
These are the types of concoctions that he would have mixed or prepared and stored in jars and bottles in his office:
Infusions (for drinking, prepared by simmering leaves, roots, bark, or berries of plants, tree bark, or herbs in hot liquid), including infusions of chamomile, horseradish, foxglove, flaxseed, hops, wild cherry bark, sarsaparilla, slippery elm bark, and valerian
Poultices or liniments (for applying to skin to relieve pain), including dyspepsia paste, liniment for rheumatism, liniment of camphor, soap liniment, and hemorrhoid ointment
Pills (would have been hand-rolled by Dr. Howard), including “female pills,” ague pills, toothache pills, anti-spasmodic pills, typhoid pills, cathartic pills, and tonic pills
Waters (water flavored with different substances), like orange water, camphor water, anise water, cinnamon water, peppermint water, rose water, spearmint water, saline water, dill water, caraway water, mineral water, and lavender water
Tinctures (concentrated substances dissolved in alcohol, which would have been added to a drink by droplet; these were stronger and more concentrated than infusions), like tinctures of belladonna, capsicum, and iodine, and chlorine tooth wash
Syrups, like ginger syrup, pectoral syrup, wild cherry syrup, “Dr. Howard’s Own Cough Syrup,” syrup of birch bark, syrup of juniper, and syrup of ipecac
Oils (for rubbing on skin, inhaling, or consuming in small quantities), including oil of roses, dandelion oil, oil of lemon, oil of lavender, oil of nutmeg, castor oil, cod liver oil, oil of dill, oil of flax seed, oil of garlic, oil of peppermint, and oil of juniper berry
Photograph of casks for syrups and extracts on the building’s original site, taken in 1956. / THF109607
The room next to Dr. Howard’s private office, which he called his laboratory, is where he would have mixed his medicines, hung large cuttings of plants and herbs to dry, kept equipment for creating his concoctions, and stored his casks of extracts and syrups. The extracts would have been made by steeping plants, tree bark, or herbs in water, alcohol, vinegar, or other solvent to draw out their characteristic essence. These included:
Extract of “lyon’s heart” (promoted digestion)
“W.C.S.” (as written on the cask), probably wild cherry syrup (useful for numerous ailments: cold, coughs, breathing, digestive pain)
Extract of butternut bark (to treat dysentery, constipation)
Extract of “bonesett” (for fever)
Extract of ragweed (reduced inflammation)
Extract of blue vervain (to treat severe headache)
Extract of skunk cabbage (helped treat asthma and rheumatism)
Extract of wahoo (despite safety concerns, people took wahoo root bark for indigestion, constipation, and water retention)
Extract of brook liverwort (for chronic cough, liver conditions)
Extract of snake root (to treat typhoid and other intermittent fevers)
Photograph of small-town doctor John C. McCullough, from Wheatland, Indiana, 1875, posing with some of his “tools of the trade” for mixing concoctions: apothecary and medicine bottles, a funnel, a beaker, and a scale to weigh ingredients. / THF226496
Like other country doctors, Dr. Howard administered to the sick and ailing in the best ways he knew. He used existing knowledge, trial and error, and his own intuition in diagnosing and treating illnesses and diseases. He made his own decisions about what ingredients to obtain and mixed his own concoctions.
The pharmaceutical industry was just becoming established when Dr. Howard passed away in 1883. This kit contains pharmaceutical samples created by Merck about 1884. Merck traces its origins to the German Merck family, who founded the business back in the 1600s. Its American affiliate was created in 1891. Lehn & Fink were New York City importers, exporters, and wholesale druggists during the 1880s. / THF167218
This was a time before prescription medicines and safe, off-the-shelf drugs were available, and before there were government safety standards on ingredients (which began with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906). Some of the ingredients that Dr. Howard used may seem odd or unfamiliar to us today. Others appear more familiar, though these are more likely to be used today to treat such health concerns as headaches, anxiety, or insomnia than the deadly infectious diseases of Dr. Howard’s time. In all, the contents of Dr. Howard’s office—the original jars, bottles, and casks, as well as his receipt book of remedies—give us an extraordinary opportunity to look, deeply and viscerally, at the contents of one country doctor’s “medicine cabinet.”
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She would like to acknowledge the meticulous work of Nancy Bryk, former curator at The Henry Ford, in refurbishing the office interior when it was moved to the Village Green during the 2002–2003 Greenfield Village restoration.
In my last three blog posts, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and became part of the Fords’ inner circle. We know this through correspondence, designs, and records held in the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford. The single document that details the relationship best is a brochure—more a portfolio of projects—published by Houghton in the early 1930s to promote his design firm.
From Houghton’s reference images in the brochure, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. This post centers on Houghton’s later work for the Fords, and my evaluation of why the relationship ended.
According to Ford historian Ford Bryan in his book, Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, the Dearborn Country Club was created for executives at the Ford Motor Company. By the middle of the 1920s, Ford’s operations were centered in Dearborn, with nearly all the company’s upper echelon working from the Ford Engineering Laboratory or the nearby Ford Rouge Plant. According to Ford Bryan, the idea came from Henry and Clara Ford to provide Dearborn with the same amenities as elite suburbs such as the Grosse Pointes or the northern suburbs. They also wanted their associates and friends to have the best that money could buy. The project was an incentive for Ford executives to remain in Dearborn, but proved to be unprofitable for the company. Further, when Henry Ford tried to impose his wishes against smoking and drinking, the membership essentially ignored him. Because of this, the Fords rarely visited the Club.
Architect Albert Kahn, who famously designed the Rouge Plant, was hired to design the clubhouse, seen above. The building was finished in the fall of 1925 and was designed in the “Old English” or Tudor style, popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Formal Dance at the Dearborn Country Club, 1931. / THF99871
Dearborn Country Club Chef at Banquet Table, 1931. / THF99875
Light's Golden Jubilee Ushers at the Dearborn Country Club, October 21, 1929. / THF294674
We know through documents that Sidney Houghton worked on the interiors. What we have in the way of documentation is a furnishings plan, but little else. Period photos, such as those above, show the elaborate beamed ceiling in the ballroom designed by Albert Kahn, and the elegant lighting and window treatments, likely provided by Houghton.
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1931. / THF127760
Nurses in front of Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1926. / THF117484
One of Henry Ford’s great humanitarian efforts was in founding Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. It was created in 1915 and in 1917 was turned over to the federal government during World War I for military use. By the middle of the 1920s, the hospital was considered the major medical center in Detroit. In 1925, Clara Ford organized the Henry Ford Hospital School of Nursing, and she funded the building housing it, the Clara Ford Nurses Home, on the hospital campus.
Living Room inside Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1925. / THF127777
Only one photograph of the original interior survives, showing the living room on the first floor. This is absolutely the work of Sidney Houghton, done in what he would call the Elizabethan or Tudor style. The walls are covered with heavy, inlaid panels and the furniture is heavily proportioned, with carved turnings. The wood of choice during this period was oak, which Houghton described as the “Age of Oak.” The upholstered furniture is likewise heavy and large in scale.
Houghton Brochure, Furniture from the "Age of Oak." / THF121217a
The End of the Relationship
By 1925, Houghton’s commissions were at or nearing completion. After this date, there is an abrupt end to the correspondence between Houghton and the Fords. The only subsequent communications are a telegram from 1938, congratulating the Fords on their 50th wedding anniversary, and a letter dating to 1941, thanking Henry Ford II for his work on supplying aid for Britain during the second World War. While we have no documentation on how the relationship ended, we do have documentation of one artifact that may shed light on this period. In 1925, Houghton gave the Fords a sterling silver model galleon or ship. Perhaps this is a reference to Houghton’s love of sailing. It appears on the cover of the Houghton brochure at the top of this post.
Was this a peace offering from Houghton to the Fords? Or was it a token of generosity from Houghton, a great navigator, to the Fords? We will never know, but it is interesting to contemplate the implications of this extraordinary gift.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my journey through an unknown aspect of the Fords’ life. Researching and writing about Sidney Houghton has been a pleasure.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Lavender Suarez has made music as an experimental improviser for over a dozen years as C. Lavender and studied the philosophy of “deep listening” with composer Pauline Oliveros, which helped her understand the greater impact of sound in our daily lives. But it was seeing fellow artists and friends experience burnout from touring and stress that inspired her to launch her own sound healing practice in 2014.
“Many artists are uninsured, and I wanted to help them recognize the importance of acknowledging and tending to their health,” she said. “It felt like a natural progression to go into sound healing after many years of being a musician and studying psychology and art therapy in college.”
The Mathematica exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / Photo by KMS Photography
When Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation reopened in July 2020 after months of shutdown because of COVID-19 restrictions, museumgoers were excited to be back on the floor. Many of them were super excited to get back to one of their favorite exhibitions, Mathematica—a favorite because it’s so hands-on.
And therein lay the problem, said Jake Hildebrandt, historic operating machinery specialist at The Henry Ford. As COVID-19 spread, the hands-on interactivity of Mathematica caused it to remain closed. Mixing a little bit of ingenuity, technology, and lots of problem-solving skills, Hildebrandt, along with master craftsman Brian McLean, ensured the exhibition could remain interactive yet hands-free and open to the public.
Mathematica’s Moebius Band was modified by staff from The Henry Ford to start via a hand wave. / Photo by Jillian Ferraiuolo
The push-start buttons on the Moebius Band and Celestial Mechanics installations, for example, are now initiated with a wave of the hand—no touch necessary. And the 27-button panel of the Multiplication Machine has been covered with Plexiglas for safety and new software installed so random math problems run on the cube throughout the day for visitor education and enjoyment.
A newly-added note under the Plexiglas installed on the Multiplication Machine in Mathematica reads “This machine has been temporarily modified for a touch-free experience / It now multiplies random numbers on its own.” The styling of the note is intended to match the original design of Charles and Ray Eames. / Photo by Jillian Ferraiuolo
“Projects like these, DIY challenges that have high criteria, limited time and budget, are my favorite kinds of projects,” said Hildebrandt. All the alterations to Mathematica are easily reversible, he added, and when you head to the museum to see them, you’ll notice the respectful attention given to the exhibition’s classic Eames styling.
Catch a glimpse of Brian Yazzie’s left arm, and you’ll see cranberries, sumac, and sunflowers near his wrist, blue Hopi corn on his forearm and Navajo squash holding court at his elbow. An illustrated sleeve of more produce and wild game are up next for the right.
Chef Brian Yazzie. / Photo courtesy Brian Yazzie
The inspiration behind the ever-growing tattooed bounty of Native American produce started at age 7 for Yazzie, when the aromatics of Navajo blue corn mush or the sound of a knife tapping on a cutting board drew him into the kitchen to help cook for his large family. Raised by a single mother in Dennehotso, Arizona, located on the northeast part of the Navajo Nation, Yazzie remembers eating traditional and freshly foraged foods like wild spinach and pine nuts but also commodity foods like government cheese, canned chicken, and powdered milk.
“That was what we grew up on,” said Yazzie. “But for me, as long as we had food, we were OK.”
He discovered his passion for cooking but at the time was equally lured into gang life, spending his teenage years in and out of detention centers and county jails and skipping classes, sometimes to just hide out in the home economics classroom.
“I was blessed never to end up in prison or passing on,” said Yazzie, whose sisters would call to tell him to come home because they missed his food. “That was their way of checking up on me. Cooking always kept me out of trouble; it’s what saved my life.”
It’s also what prompted Yazzie and his wife, Danielle Polk, to settle in the Twin Cities in 2013. They wanted opportunity but also to stay connected to Native communities. “The Twin Cities has one of the top five Native urban populations in the U.S.,” said Yazzie, who works closely with the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes there while continuing to help the Dennehotso reservation and other tribal communities around the United States.
In 2014, Yazzie enrolled at Saint Paul College, where his first assignment as a culinary student was to perfect any dish from around the world. “I wanted to make something beyond frybread, but I realized at least 50% of ingredients inside Navajo tacos are native to the Americas,” said Yazzie.
Toppings like summer squash, peppers, and eggplant reminded him of French ratatouille, and he found his dish. More importantly, he discovered the larger influence of Indigenous foods and his passion for reviving, celebrating, and recognizing their ancestral origins.
Chef Yazzie found inspiration in eggplant, summer squash, and peppers, like the one on this circa 1951 seed packet from our collection, during his first assignment as a culinary student. / THF294269
He and Polk started a Native American Club on campus and connected with local chef/author/educator Sean Sherman, CEO of The Sioux Chef, to cater one of their events. “Seventy-five percent of the appetizers he served were foreign to me,” said Yazzie, who went on to work for Sherman before he and Polk started their own catering company, Intertribal Foodways. “We wanted to bring awareness to what’s been overlooked for so long.”
Along with showcasing Native ingredients and techniques, that’s also meant addressing health issues like diabetes that have long affected Indigenous communities. “We try to implement food as medicine,” said Yazzie, now executive chef of the Gatherings Cafe inside the Minneapolis American Indian Center. “Especially during this pandemic, we have to keep our elders strong and safe; a lot of them hold lost languages and teachings.”
After COVID-19 hit, Yazzie and his team started making 200 healthy meals a day for elders in the Twin Cities, established a Dennehotso COVID-19 relief fund, and regularly sent healthy food and supplies to the Apache County community. He works with local farmers and foragers to bring Native ingredients into his food whenever he can, even if it means taking baby steps with dishes like unhealthy frybread (created by Yazzie’s Navajo ancestors while they were in internment camps at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in the 1860s). “It’s still on the table across North America as a survival staple for tribal communities, especially during the pandemic, so I had to take a step back and listen to my elders, but we’re getting there,” said Yazzie, who lightens up the wheat-heavy bread with amaranth flour or wild rice flour.
When you think of museums—particularly history museums—it seems to make sense that they are inevitably all about the past. From an artifact collecting standpoint, there is an element of truth to this—most anything a museum can collect already exists and is already sliding into the past. But, putting aside ideas about the swift passage of time, it is important to understand that many museums—including The Henry Ford—do engage in what is known as “contemporary collecting.”
Contemporary collecting seeks to document history as it is happening, and relates to significant current events, trends, or cultural moments. When this collecting is done in the heat of the moment, especially when the conditions being documented are ever-changing or incredibly brief, it is known as “rapid response” collecting. Rapid response collecting relies on a well-tuned sense of what events will have greater historical significance—even after they are over—and requires a particularly proactive approach to gathering information and objects.
One example of contemporary collecting occurs every four years, when The Henry Ford collects material related to the presidential election cycle. This postcard, created by Sea Dog Press, is from our 2020 collecting initiative. More examples from that initiative can be found here. / THF622210
In early 2020, the world was overtaken by the COVID-19 virus. It soon became clear—as industries ground to a halt, scores of workers were sent home, and international travel all but ceased—that the pandemic would become a major moment in history. Upon this realization, the curatorial staff of The Henry Ford went to work, developing a rapid response plan to document the still-unfolding pandemic. When developing this plan, the curatorial staff was keen to ensure that these collecting efforts not only captured a vivid perspective on the pandemic but also built upon the uniqueness of our collections. They determined to focus on three broad themes: innovation on a nationally significant level, grassroots resourcefulness on the part of individuals, and ingenuity demonstrated by businesses and entrepreneurs. Within each of these categories, curators identified topics that had already begun to emerge, and noted potential objects or types of objects that could be acquired.
With the plan complete, it was presented to The Henry Ford’s Collections Committee—the chartered committee responsible for reviewing and approving all proposed additions to the collections of The Henry Ford. The majority of the committee’s business consists of taking a final vote as to whether or not an item should be accessioned—the term for officially adding an item to the collection. However, some acquisitions are discussed with the group before curators begin making final preparations to acquire them; this gives the committee an opportunity to weigh in on proposed acquisitions that may be more complex, or that would require a greater outlay of the institution’s time or resources. The committee also approves all collecting initiatives, as they typically involve special effort, or result in a larger number of acquisitions; having the committee’s endorsement ensures that the collecting can be adventurous and creative but within clear parameters. Once approved by the committee, the COVID-19 Collecting Initiative was put into place, and curators began gathering information and materials.
Our COVID-19 collecting initiative included outreach to people with items of interest, such as Brighid "Birdie" Pulskamp, a Diné craftswoman who created a beaded facemask featuring a traditional Navajo wedding basket design, as well as fabric masks that she sent to the Navajo Nation to help combat the spread of the virus on reservations. / THF186023, THF186021
While many acquisitions for the collection are actively sought out by our staff, others end up finding us. On September 9, 2020, Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson returned to Collections Committee with word that Ford Motor Company—with whom we have a long and fruitful relationship, particularly in regard to collecting—had reached out to him regarding a prototype COVID-19 testing van that they had developed. Ford Motor Company’s COVID-19 response—particularly their shift from manufacturing automobiles to producing equipment and supplies to aid in the fight against COVID-19—had already been a point of interest on our radar, and had been specifically identified in the collecting initiative.
After hearing the details of the acquisition, the Collections Committee gave Matt a “consensus to proceed” with the acquisition. Consensuses to proceed are given after an initial discussion of a potential acquisition, but before said acquisition is presented for final accessioning; they allow curators to proceed with making any necessary arrangements—like shipping—without overcommitting the institution, should the circumstances of an acquisition change.
Ford Transit Van, Modified for Use as a COVID-19 Mobile Testing Facility, 2020. / THF188109
In working with Ford Motor Company to arrange the donation of the COVID-19 testing van, Matt had the opportunity to discuss other COVID-19–related material that Ford had produced. Of particular interest were the ventilators produced at Ford’s Rawsonville plant. Ford indicated that they would be willing to offer us not one but three of those ventilators: a standard one, one signed by the Rawsonville workers, and one signed by President Donald Trump during his visit to the plant. Would The Henry Ford be interested in all three?
In considering objects, The Henry Ford also considers the stories they represent, and these three ventilators were no different. While one alone would have served to document Ford’s manufacturing response, collecting all three would allow us to tell a more multi-layered story. The blank ventilator is just like all the others that rolled off Ford’s assembly line; the one signed by the Rawsonville employees documents and celebrates the people who made Ford’s manufacturing feat possible; and the one bearing President Trump’s signature captures his historic visit to the plant. While we are always cautious of over-duplication in our collection, in this instance, while the objects themselves were similar, the elements of the story were distinct, and all were important to document via our collection.
In addition to the COVID testing van and ventilators, Ford Motor Company also offered numerous pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) they had prototyped or produced: ventilator connectors, masks, face shields, a gown, and a door pull. Matt accepted all of these items and began preparing them for presentation to Collections Committee, crafting a justification for their addition for the collection and writing a brief summary of their historical significance. On November 11, 2020, the Collections Committee gave their final seal of approval, voting to approve the addition of the van, ventilators, and assorted PPE to The Henry Ford’s collection. With that, the process of rapid collecting—at least in the case of the Ford COVID-19 response acquisitions—had come full circle.
As it turned out, though, just as the pandemic continued on, so too did our collecting opportunities. Ford Motor Company reached out again in the new year with more PPE—this time, though, created for a very unique event: the 2021 inauguration of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. Ford had produced 15,000 single-use masks—in two designs, printed by Hatteras, Inc., in Plymouth, Michigan—to provide to those attending the ceremony. Matt Anderson gratefully accepted the 10 masks Ford offered us, noting their significance, as their production not only furthered Ford’s efforts to combat the spread of the virus, but also demonstrated Ford’s commitment to, in the words of the company’s president and CEO, Jim Farley, “a tradition so fundamental to our democracy.” Just like the testing van and other COVID-19 materials donated by Ford, these masks were presented to the Collections Committee for final approval, which was readily granted, and they became an official part of the collections of The Henry Ford.
This face mask, produced for the 2021 inauguration, represents a unique overlap of two contemporary collecting initiatives undertaken by The Henry Ford: documenting the 2020–2021 presidential election cycle and documenting the COVID-19 pandemic. / THF186524
Thanks to the quick thinking and eager work of the curatorial department and the efficient processes of the Collections Committee, The Henry Ford was able to start documenting the COVID-19 pandemic as it was happening, and—with the help of a well-established relationship with Ford Motor Company—quickly tick an important item (and then some) off our collecting wish list. The thoughtful work of our staff and the relationships they build with outside organizations prove time and again to be key elements of building our collections, whether that be through collecting the past or the present.
Our new limited-engagement exhibit, Collecting Mobility: New Objects, New Stories, opening to the public October 23, 2021, takes you behind the scenes at The Henry Ford to show you how we continue to grow our vast collection of more than 26 million artifacts. One key question the exhibit asks is why we collect the items we collect. To get more insight on the artifacts on exhibit and future trends that may impact our collecting, we reached out to several of our partners. In this post from that series, our friends at Ford Motor Company, donors of the COVID-19 mobile testing van in the exhibit, tackle questions about their efforts to serve the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Similar to the World War II “Arsenal of Democracy” effort, Ford Motor Company joined “Arsenal of Health” efforts through its Project Apollo to fight COVID-19 and serve the community. What Ford practices (or values) helped the company shift gears quickly to ramp up Project Apollo?
For 118 years and counting, Ford has had a culture of innovation and service, which enabled the team to respond quickly and nimbly to the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This Ford Transit van, on display in Collecting Mobility in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation until January 2, 2022, is one of four converted into mobile test units in spring 2020, early in America's COVID-19 pandemic, by Ford Motor Company and Troy Design & Manufacturing. The vehicles collected genetic samples in the field and transported them to labs for testing. Free tests were given to first responders, nursing home residents, and people at substance abuse centers and community shelters in Michigan. / THF188109
How fast did Project Apollo ramp up? How many products did you make?
The earliest seeds of Project Apollo began in mid-March 2020, when concerns around the safety of healthcare workers faced with a shortage of PPE were first raised. Project Apollo has produced face shields, multiple types of masks, gowns, powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs), ventilators, air filtration kits, and mobile testing/vaccination units.
What were some of the unexpected improvisations that happened turning car parts into useful medical products?
Working with 3M, the team was able to use off-the-shelf parts like vehicle ventilator fans and power tool batteries for a PAPR, or airbag material for washable gowns.
Level 1 isolation gowns protect wearers from contaminants in minimal-risk situations. This gown is made from the same fabric used in automobile airbags. Ford set a goal to produce 1.3 million gowns during the COVID-19 pandemic—each one washable up to 50 times. / THF186847
What is a new way of working that came out of Project Apollo that you think will influence manufacturing innovation in the next 10 years?
The team being very clear on a compelling purpose and mission—there was a common mission that was crystal-clear, very ambitious: to build 50,000 ventilators, 20 million face shields, 32,000 PAPRs, 100 million face masks… and more. On a normal day, this would feel like a Herculean task for each individual item—but to do all of it at the same time was a stretch goal. Ford had a mindset of aim high, fail fast, learn, pivot, adjust—but stay focused on that goal, that mission.
Early in America's COVID-19 pandemic, Ford Motor Company converted a portion of its Rawsonville Components Plant to produce more than 51,000 medical ventilators. These critical machines helped patients with the most serious COVID-19 infections to breathe. This unit, the last one off the Rawsonville assembly line, was signed by some of the 1,100 Ford employees involved in the effort. / THF185919
Teams were empowered. In many cases, the teams set their own goals—it often wasn’t a matter of Ford leadership asking, employees stepped up across the company with ideas on how Ford could help. And everyone played a role in eliminating constraints that were getting in the way of the team mission to serve the greater good.
Cynthia Jones is General Manager of Innovation Experiences at The Henry Ford. Ted Ryan is Ford Motor Company Archives and Heritage Brand Manager and Jim Baumbick is Vice President, Enterprise Product Line Management, Strategy, and Planning, at Ford Motor Company. Ford Motor Company is a global company based in Dearborn, Michigan, that is committed to helping build a better world, where every person is free to move and pursue their dreams. See Collecting Mobility for yourself in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation from October 23, 2021, through January 2, 2022.
Identification badge worn by Gerry Gomes while on assignment at Ground Zero in September 2001. / THF185942
This year marks the 20th anniversary of events that have changed the course of American history: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, commonly known as “9/11.” In their online FAQs, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum explains briefly what happened that day:
“9/11” is shorthand for four coordinated terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group, that occurred on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Nineteen terrorists from al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airplanes, deliberately crashing two of the planes into the upper floors of the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center complex and a third plane into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The Twin Towers ultimately collapsed because of the damage sustained from the impacts and the resulting fires. After learning about the other attacks, passengers on the fourth hijacked plane, Flight 93, fought back, and the plane was crashed into an empty field in western Pennsylvania about 20 minutes by air from Washington, D.C.
The attacks killed 2,977 people from 93 nations: 2,753 people were killed in New York; 184 people were killed at the Pentagon; and 40 people were killed on Flight 93.
The attacks shocked, saddened, scared, and angered Americans. In their aftermath, the United States instituted new air safety regulations; embarked on the longest-running war in our history, in Afghanistan (from which we just exited last month); and created a new federal department, the Department of Homeland Security. It’s safe to say that most Americans who were adults in 2001 remember where they were and what they were doing when they first learned of the attacks, and most Americans have felt their effects in some way.
The front page of the September 12, 2001, issue of the Detroit Free Press referred to the terrorist attacks of the previous day as “America’s Darkest Day.” / THF625308
One person this is particularly true of is Gerald “Gerry” Gomes, one of The Henry Ford’s dedicated volunteers. Gerry donated a number of the artifacts seen in this post, related to his work responding to 9/11.
Around 1990, Gerry became involved with the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), which, NDMS explains, is “a federally coordinated health care system and partnership of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense, and Veterans Affairs.” Its mission is “to supplement our nation’s public health and medical resources…. NDMS mobilizes resources through specialized teams that provide human and veterinary healthcare, mortuary assistance, patient movement coordination, and definitive care during times of need.” Those affiliated with NDMS have regular jobs and lives, but must be packed and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice when they are called up to duty. In more than 20 years of NDMS service, Gerry assisted with many disasters (such as devastating Florida hurricanes) and key events (such as presidential inaugurations and Olympics games) at both the state and federal levels.
Within NDMS, Gerry worked on a Disaster Medical Assistance Team, or DMAT. The DMATs are made up of doctors, nurses, EMTs, firemen, paramedics, and other staff who support them. Their role is to provide medical care during public health emergencies and “National Security Special Events,” which might include presidential inaugurations, visits by significant international dignitaries, or international conferences and important gatherings. When deployed, Gerry’s team could process up to 200 casualties per hour. His role on the team was in communications—keeping the team in contact with command. He was given the role as they needed someone who had field experience and could interact effectively with people at the scene of an emergency.
"National Disaster Medical System" patch worn by Gerry Gomes while on assignment at Ground Zero in September 2001. / THF185941
Gerry’s day-to-day job was in communications at Ford Motor Company. On September 11, 2001, his boss called and told him that planes had hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and that he thought Gerry would be activated by the NDMS. And indeed he was. It wasn’t long before Gerry was boarding an airplane at Detroit Metro airport, with military planes and helicopters flying overhead. Despite an order issued by the Federal Aviation Administration less than an hour after the first plane hit the World Trade Center that required all civilian flights then in the air to land and barred any further departures, Gerry’s flight departed under the auspices of the federal government, escorted by multiple other planes all the way to New York’s LaGuardia airport.
In the first of three missions there, Gerry’s DMAT team was deployed to the World Trade Center site, known as Ground Zero—or, to the responders who worked there after the towers collapsed, “The Pile.” Their initial mission objective was to serve as a casualty response team, triaging survivors, so they set up three field hospitals near the remains of the World Trade Center Marriott Hotel, between the Twin Towers. However, it quickly became clear that there were few survivors. The team then pivoted to providing medical care for the other responders “working The Pile.” Gerry said many of those they treated would have their shoes burned off, as the smoldering remains of the towers were still so hot.
After the September 11 attacks, many individuals, organizations, and corporations were eager to provide assistance in whatever way they could to responders at Ground Zero. Because many of the New York-New Jersey Port Authority’s vehicles were destroyed during 9/11, Ford Motor Company loaned them 15 pre-production prototypes—including this one—of the Ranger FX4, a heavy-duty, 4-wheel drive truck with special off-road equipment. / THF1368
The team’s first mission lasted two weeks. After that, they had a four-week mission recovering the remains of victims. Their third and final mission was to close down the site and make sure all the equipment was retrieved.
The work was mentally taxing. Every day, everyone who was working at The Pile had to undergo a psychological evaluation. Gerry’s team was also scheduled to work overnights—from midnight to noon—which added an additional strain. Gerry told the story of bonding with a firefighter as fellow “coffeehounds,” sharing a mutual love of coffee. Gerry later found out that firefighter had previously been stationed near Ground Zero, and that many of those he had been stationed with had been killed in the attack. The firefighter had not talked since that time—but he would talk to Gerry. He later told Gerry he had begun to realize it was not his fault he was not killed along with his colleagues that day.
When asked how he dealt with the constant emotional toll, Gerry responded, “You learn to close out the ambient. You’re there functioning in your job the best you can.” The team is not just one person, Gerry emphasized, but instead everyone working together. “That’s how we achieve more,” he added. His DMAT was made up of “A-type personalities, people at the top of their field with nothing to prove,” who worked together to get the job done despite the challenges. In fact, the team’s motto was “Semper Gumby,” indicating they were always flexible and would do what it takes.
As Gerry and so many others worked at Ground Zero, communities across the United States found ways to mourn and come together. These photographs are from the “Peace and Unity Candlelight Vigil” held in front of Henry Ford Museum on September 19, 2001. / Digital Collections
There was also worry from the families of the responders at The Pile—Gerry and his team felt very safe there, but Gerry noted that “families don’t know that.” Gerry’s son, in the U.S. Navy, would call, along with his commanding officer, to try to get information on what was going on—but Gerry was not allowed to speak about his work at the time. He could not even tell anyone where he was staying—but now can say that the team stayed at the Waldorf Astoria New York.
Though Gerry worked on a series of challenging and complicated projects for the NDMS over decades, he noted that the World Trade Center was “the most terrible time.” He also added that such work is “a thankless job and sometimes the people in the group thank you”—as Gerry’s team was honored by the Michigan Senate when they returned.
Gerry’s team at Ground Zero, pictured with the remains of the Marriott behind them. Gerry is wearing the yellow rain jacket—the “yellow canary,” as he put it. / THF625013
Gerry also received thanks from an unexpected source during his Ground Zero deployment. On a coffeebreak in the “Green Tarp Inn,” the tent where meals were provided for the responders at the site, he met a young woman who was volunteering to feed staff. She asked if she could sit with the group, told them she was Canadian, and asked them questions about their assignment. Each day, she would join them for coffee. Gerry added: “The only problem was I did not know that she was a singer/songwriter. The last day of my assignment, Alanis gave us a hug and thanked us for just sitting there and talking with her. She asked if she could sign our hats. When I got home, one of my daughters saw the signature of Alanis Morrisette on the hard hat and asked, ‘Did you meet her?’ I said, ‘Yes, we had coffee together every morning.’ Well, my daughter began to educate me on her.”
Two views of the hard hat that Gerry Gomes wore during his deployment at Ground Zero. Beyond Alanis Morrisette’s signature, you can see decals on the hat. “Semper Gumby” was the team’s motto, indicating their flexibility to do what it takes to get the job done. The American flag includes the phrase “United We Stand,” the motto of workers at Ground Zero. The “I Love New York” decal was “our way to support the people not at Ground Zero,” while police and firefighter stickers were a “thank you” from officers stationed at Ground Zero that Gerry’s team supported. / THF188516, THF188517
Gerry is now retired both from Ford Motor Company and from the NDMS, but we are lucky to have had him as a volunteer at The Henry Ford since 2018, helping out first at Edison Illuminating Company’s Station A in Greenfield Village and the model trains in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, and later with our major car shows, Motor Muster and Old Car Festival. We are grateful for his volunteer work for us—as well as for his work at Ground Zero, on behalf of all Americans, 20 years ago.
On what would have been Larry Kramer's 86th birthday, we look at the history of the iconic Silence = Death poster and the pioneering ACT UP organization—the political action group that Kramer catalyzed. Four decades into the AIDS crisis, and during this year's Pride Month celebrations, The Henry Ford recognizes the tireless advocates who have fought and continue to fight, refusing to stay silent, for equitable treatment for those in the LGBTQ+ community.
On July 3, 1981, the New York Times published an article that would send shockwaves through the LGBTQ+ community across the country. Headlined “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” the article, which appeared not on the first page, but on page A20, reported the death of eight individuals, and that the cause of the outbreak was unknown. For LGBTQ+ individuals living in the affected areas, the article was more a confirmation of their fears than new information. And for many heterosexual people, it sparked trepidation and deepened discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Other smaller publications had published articles in the months preceding July 1981, and Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), documented early cases of the epidemic in June. In the gay community, friends and loved ones were getting sick and many were dying. The alarm bell had been rung.
The Silence = Death Collective designed this poster prior to the formation of the ACT UP organization, but transferred ownership to ACT UP in 1987. / THF179775
Silence = Death
The Silence = Death poster has come to symbolize the early fight against the AIDS epidemic. It was borne of deep grief and an unrelenting desire for action. One evening in late 1985, after the loss of his partner from AIDS in November 1984, Avram Finkelstein met with Jorge Socarras and Oliver Johnston in a New York City diner to catch up. Although the AIDS epidemic was a constant, tumultuous undercurrent in the gay community in the mid-1980s, the topic was often coded or avoided. That night, Finkelstein recalls, AIDS was all the men discussed, which he found “exhilarating after so many years of secrecy.” They decided to form a collective, each agreeing to bring one additional person to their next meeting. Chris Lione, Charles Kreloff, and Brian Howard joined. These six men met regularly to discuss the epidemic’s impact on their lives—and to process, rage, mourn, and, eventually, strategize. Finkelstein illustrates these meetings in his book After Silence: A History of AIDS through Its Images: “There were animated conversations, always, and there was often hilarity. We were almost never mean, but we frequently fought. There was shouting, there was fist pounding, and occasionally tears…. Fear may have been the canvas for our conversations. But anger was definitely the paint.”
These conversations turned to action. Each of the men had an artistic background—the group was comprised of art directors, graphic designers, and a musician. They decided to create a political poster, hoping to inspire action from the community’s fear. According to Finkelstein, “the poster needed to simultaneously address two distinctly different audiences, with a bifurcated goal: to stimulate political organizing in the lesbian and gay community, and to simultaneously imply to anyone outside the community that we were already fully mobilized.” The group spent six months designing the poster—debating everything from the background color to the text before deploying the poster all over Manhattan by March of 1987.
The poster’s central graphic element is a pink triangle. It references and reclaims the pink triangle patches on concentration camp uniforms that homosexual men were forced to wear by the Nazi regime during World War II (lesbian women were given a black triangle). The pink triangles subjected the men to added brutality. The poster’s triangle is inverted, however, from the one used during the Holocaust. This was initially a mistake. Chris Lione had recently been to the Dachau concentration camp and recalled that the pink triangle he saw on exhibit pointed upward. However, the collective embraced the accident once it was discovered, reasoning that the inverted triangle was “superimposing an activist stance by borrowing the ‘power’ intonations of the upwards triangle in New Age spirituality.” The expansive black background created a meditative negative space that further emphasized the bright pink triangle and the white text below.
The tagline for the poster—“SILENCE = DEATH”—was quickly developed. It also soon became the name of the men’s group: the Silence = Death Collective. The equation references the deafening silence of the public and government-at-large—the New York Times didn’t give the AIDS crisis front-page coverage until 1983; President Ronald Reagan’s administration made light of the epidemic in its early years (the administration’s press secretary jokingly referred to the epidemic as the “gay plague” in 1982); and President Reagan didn’t address the AIDS epidemic publicly until September of 1985. The tagline also targeted the LGBTQ+ community, whose uncomfortable silence came at ultimate risk. Without discussion, education, and action about the AIDS crisis, many more people would die. By the end of 1987, over 47,000 people had already died of AIDS. Silence—quite literally—equaled death.
Artist and activist Keith Haring designed this poster, titled “IGNORANCE = FEAR, SILENCE = DEATH Fight AIDS ACT UP,” in 1989 for the ACT UP organization. It utilizes the “Silence = Death” tagline and the inverted pink triangle symbol initially created by the Silence=Death Collective. / THF179776
The Formation of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)
At almost the same time that the Silence = Death Collective’s poster began appearing around Manhattan, playwright and activist Larry Kramer gave a legendary lecture at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on March 10, 1987. Kramer famously began this speech by telling the crowd that half of them would be dead within the year (due to the AIDS epidemic). He repeatedly asked the crowd “What are you going to do about it!?!” Kramer’s rage and urgency pushed the crowd towards actionable steps to combat the AIDS crisis. Within days, a group met that would become the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—or ACT UP. Around 300 people attended that first meeting, including some of the members of the Silence = Death Collective.
ACT UP quickly mobilized and became the political action group that many in the LGBTQ+ community—including the Silence = Death Collective—had envisioned. ACT UP was (and still is) “committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” On March 24, 1987, just two weeks after Larry Kramer’s lecture, the group held its first “action” when it protested pharmaceutical price-gouging of AIDS medication on Wall Street. Kramer had published an op-ed in the New York Times the day before, titled “The FDA’s Callous Response to AIDS,” which helped contextualize ACT UP’s protest in the media. ACT UP and its many chapters, subcommittees, and affinity groups kept pressure on the government for its inaction in the AIDS epidemic by frequently staging creative acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest.
Over the last four decades, AIDS has taken the lives of men, women, and children, without regard to sexual orientation or race. However, the LGBTQ+ community has suffered the bulk of misinformation and discrimination related to the disease and done the difficult work to push direct action to end the AIDS crisis. The work of activists like the Silence = Death Collective, the members of ACT UP, and many others made treatment available to more people and curbed the spread of the disease. ACT UP broadened its mission to the eradication of AIDS at the global level and remains an active organization.