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.
The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that started a year ago—and that we are still living through—is an extraordinarily significant moment in our history. It connects our nation’s past with its present and future—revealing who we were before, who we are today, and who we will become in the future.
As this pandemic began to unfold last year, museums quickly stepped forward to collect—or lay out plans to collect—evidence of it, in many different ways. The majority of these collecting initiatives were local and community-based. Curators at The Henry Ford also developed a plan describing our approach to collecting the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all our collecting plans, it reflects who we are and what we represent as an institution. This begins with our mission statement: The Henry Ford provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation. Our purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future.
Using the filter of the mission statement, The Henry Ford’s approach to collecting the COVID-19 pandemic includes 3D objects, photographs, and archival materials that reflect how we are being innovative, how we are being resourceful, and how entrepreneurs are using their ingenuity to both address people’s needs and remain sustainable. In keeping with the scope of our collections, items must also have national significance. Even if they are local or regional, they should align with broader patterns and national trends.
Currently, we are actively bringing items into the collection that we have saved in our basements over the past year (because of COVID-19 safety protocols), as well as collecting ongoing trends (like vaccine-related items). Here are just a few examples of our collecting to date.
Masking and social distancing quickly became new habits, as seen in these signs from Henry Ford Health System. (Future acquisitions.)
This beaded facemask, created by Diné craftswoman Brighid “Birdie” Pulskamp, features a traditional Navajo Wedding Basket design. / THF186023
Many businesses and services adopted curbside pickup. This sign from the Northville [Michigan] District Library marked where patrons could pick up their online book requests without entering the building. (Future acquisition.)
A parody of the classic Goodnight Moon, Good Morning Zoom was created to help kids make sense of the changes in their world brought on by the pandemic. (Future acquisition.)
This wooden ornament references the shortage of toilet paper that occurred in the pandemic’s earliest days, making it a highly sought-after commodity. (Future acquisition.)
Holiday traditions took on new twists, such as this drive-thru Santa event in Bay City, Michigan. (Future acquisition.)
A facemask can be found for every holiday and occasion. (2020.104.2)
Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci has been one of the most prominent medical voices updating the public on the fight against the virus. As early as April 2020—when the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame released this tribute—he was already viewed as a hero by many. (Future acquisition.)
Ford and subsidiary Troy Design & Manufacturing Company (TDM) converted Ford Transit vans into mobile COVID-19 testing units. Starting in April 2020, they took tests to health care workers and first responders—people who didn’t have to time to travel to a lab. Each van could test up to 100 people a day, and results were returned within 24–36 hours. Within a few months, the mobile testing program was extended to nursing homes, substance abuse centers, and community shelters. (2020.124.1)
Early in the pandemic, hospitals depended on scarce ventilators to treat patients with the most serious infections. Ford Motor Company employees built more than 51,000 ventilators at the Rawsonville Components Plant between April and August 2020. This unit, the last one off the assembly line, was signed by some of the 1,100 people involved in the effort. / THF185919
Health worries added to security concerns at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on January 20, 2021. Ford produced 15,000 single-use face masks and donated them to ceremony attendees. Employees at Hatteras, Inc., who printed inauguration logos on the masks, worked around the clock to get them shipped to Washington and inspected by the Secret Service in time. (2021.19.6)
Ford subsidiary TDM manufactured more than five million face shields. Elastic, to hold the shield securely on the wearer’s head, was in short supply. TDM instead used flexible automobile weather stripping, pinned to the shield with automotive fasteners. / THF185929
Disposable face masks, made at Ford’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant, were distributed free of charge to underprivileged communities, schools, food banks, and military veterans. The automaker set a goal to produce 100 million masks through 2021. / THF185913
Produced through the Amplifier Foundation, these posters acknowledge the heroic efforts of healthcare workers, and offer encouragement in the midst of upheaval. / THF621827, THF621829, THF621843
We continue to work through additional donations offered to us by the public; for more information on how to contribute to this collection, visit The Henry Ford - COVID-19 Collections. You can also see more pandemic-related artifacts in our Digital Collections, and read additional stories related to the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our blog.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Rachel Yerke is Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, 2018 / THF185488
People might think that curators look at objects in the same way. In fact, every curator at The Henry Ford has a different background and range of expertise, and we interpret things through a varied set of lenses.
Take, for example, an artifact in The Henry Ford’s collection that is related to a top-of-mind subject right now—vaccines. We were asked to offer two interpretations of the Stone Cold Systems Ice-less Vaccine Refrigerator, a 2018 IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) winner (you can find out more about The Henry Ford’s relationship with IDSA here). Here are our thoughts.
Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content:
At its best, design solves problems. Good designers are problem solvers, creatively working through a problem’s constraints towards a competent solution. When I first became familiar with this artifact, the Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, I was taken with its functionality and potential for social impact, all wrapped in a sleek case. This vaccine refrigerator, built within a siren-red carrying cage, aims to improve vaccine distribution to hard-to-reach locations.
The invention of vaccines has had an incredibly positive impact on global health. The World Health Organization estimates that 2–3 million deaths globally are avoided due to immunizations each year. But, perhaps surprisingly, vaccines can be fragile. They often need to be kept at a stable temperature (usually cold) without exposure to light or significant environmental fluctuation. The efficacy of the vaccine could be compromised should these factors not be met. The journey from the scientist’s laboratory to the arm of someone in New York City is a long one—and an even longer journey should that someone live in a rural area or developing country.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator Quick Start Guide / THF621440
This vaccine refrigerator aims to increase access to immunizations, regardless of where one calls home. It utilizes a more reliable iceless thermoelectric cooling technology and is rechargeable by multiple methods, including solar energy, so can be used anywhere. Although developed prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, its future in fighting the pandemic is clear.
The late design critic Ralph Caplan is noted as saying that “design is a process of making things right.” Creation of a product which facilitates access to effective immunizations for all people—even far from a modern hospital building—is certainly one way to make things right.
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life:
This vaccine refrigerator immediately brought to mind the recent research I’ve been doing on Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard, a 19th-century country doctor whose office is now located in Greenfield Village. At the time Dr. Howard was practicing medicine (1855–83), people didn’t understand the nature of germs and contagion, or that diseases were transmitted this way. As a result, infectious diseases—like cholera, tetanus, yellow fever (or malaria), measles, dysentery, scrofula, and typhoid—were the leading causes of death at the time. These often reached epidemic proportions and people constantly feared that they, or members of their families, might contract them. But, without knowledge of what caused and spread disease, or modern pharmaceuticals (including vaccines), safe drinking water, and improved sanitation facilities, 19th-century country doctors constantly fought an uphill battle.
How relevant this is, I thought, to our lives today—to the COVID-19 pandemic; to people fearing they or members of their family might contract the virus; to our current knowledge of germs and our understanding that washing our hands, cleaning surfaces, and wearing masks reduces their spread; and to our hopes for combatting this disease through the application of successful vaccines.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, alternate view / THF185489
What about those deadly infectious diseases of the 19th century that Dr. Howard was attempting to treat, like cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid? One might assume they have disappeared—but they haven’t. Many of them still exist, especially in developing countries that have limited-to-no access to modern medical treatments, sanitation facilities, and vaccines. This refrigerator was, in fact, designed to hold vaccines where there is no electricity—in these very countries.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Postcard of Percy Jones General Hospital, 1944. / THF184122
When most people think of Battle Creek, Michigan, breakfast cereal comes to mind--the industry created there by “cereal” entrepreneurs W.K. Kellogg and C.W. Post at the turn of the 20th century.
Yet, Battle Creek was also home to an important World War II military medical facility, the Percy Jones General Hospital. By the end of the war, Percy Jones would become the largest medical installation operated by the United States Army. The hospital and its story are, perhaps, hidden in plain sight in a building now known as the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center—unless one notices the historical marker located there.
Before a Hospital, a Sanitarium
Even before its genesis as Percy Jones, the site and its buildings had rich layers of use and history. In 1866, the Seventh Day Adventists established the Western Health Reform Institute in a cottage on the site to promote their principles of preventative medicine and healthful nutrition. In 1876, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (older brother of cereal entrepreneur W.K. Kellogg) became its director, renaming the facility the Battle Creek Sanitarium and expanding it to include a central building, a hospital, and other cottages. In 1902, a fire destroyed the sanitarium. An elegant, six-story Italian Renaissance style building soon rose in its place, completed in 1903. In 1928, the sanitarium was enlarged with a fifteen-story tower addition containing more than 265 hotel-like guest rooms and suites, most of which had private bathrooms. This expansive health and wellness complex on 30 acres could accommodate almost 1,300 guests. After the economy crashed in 1929, business declined. By 1933, the sanitarium went into receivership, and the Great Depression that followed forced the institution to sell assets to help pay its debt.
The sanitarium with its 1928 fifteen-story tower addition. / THF620119
Percy Jones Hospital Springs to Life
With the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, the United States military began to build up its armed forces and medical treatment capabilities. In late 1940—in order to mobilize for what would become a growing need if the United States entered the war—the Medical Department began to develop a plan for providing a comprehensive system of progressive medical care from battlefield to stateside. A year later, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States did enter the war. The military not only constructed new hospital facilities, but also acquired civilian buildings, making alterations and expanding as needed.
In August 1942, the United States Army purchased the near-vacant main Battle Creek Sanitarium building and converted it into a 1,500-bed military hospital, with crews working around the clock for six months to complete it. Dedicated on February 22, 1943, the hospital was named after Col. Percy L. Jones, a pioneering army surgeon who had developed modern battlefield ambulance evacuation during World War I. By the time the hospital opened—a little over a year after the United States entered the war—American troops had fought in the North Atlantic, North Africa, Italy, and the Pacific. Two and one-half more years of fierce fighting in Europe and the Pacific lay ahead. World War II—a global war which would directly involve 100 million people in more than 30 countries—would become the most costly and far-reaching conflict in history.
Percy Jones Hospital was one of the army’s 65 stateside General Hospitals, providing more complex medical or surgical care—those more difficult and specialized procedures requiring special training and equipment. Percy Jones Hospital specialized in neurosurgery, amputations and the fitting of artificial limbs, plastic surgery, physical rehabilitation, and artificial eyes. The Army’s rehabilitation program included physical conditioning and the constructive use of leisure time in educational pursuits to achieve the best possible physical and mental health for each convalescing soldier.
Percy Jones would become one of the army’s nine Hospital Centers, medical facilities that included both a General and Convalescent Hospital. Nearby (three miles from Battle Creek) Fort Custer, a military training base and activation point for Army inductees from Michigan and the Midwest, also served as the site of Percy Jones Convalescent Hospital for patients further along in the recovery process. In 1944, W.K. Kellogg’s summer mansion on nearby Gull Lake became a rehabilitation center for Percy Jones General Hospital and the Convalescent Center.
As the number of casualties increased, the facility grew—its authorized capacity would reach 3,414 beds. In one month alone, over 700 operations were performed. At the end of the war in August 1945, the number of patients at the hospital’s three area sites peaked at 11,427.
The massive Battle Creek hospital complex was self-contained and fully integrated. It had its own water supply and power generation, as well as a bank, post office, public library, and radio station. An indoor swimming pool and a bowling alley helped wounded vets regain their health. Rails and ramps were constructed throughout the facility. The Percy Jones Institute, an accredited high school, offered educational and training programs for patients, ranging from photography to agriculture to business.
Convalescing soldiers at Percy Jones Hospital in April 1944. The soldiers are wearing the Army-issued convalescent suits and bathrobes provided to patients at stateside hospitals. / THF270685
In August 1944, private Dean Stauffacher—training at nearby Fort Custer—sent the postcard at the top of this post (THF184122) of Percy Jones General Hospital to his wife, noting that “This is now an Army Hospital & is full of war casualties, etc.” This postcard was first published during the sanitarium era—the caption on the back dates from that period. Only the title on the front was updated to reflect the building’s use as a military hospital. / THF184123_redacted
Supporting the Troops at Percy Jones
People on the home front found ways to support the troops at Percy Jones. Hundreds of people visited soldiers daily. Celebrities Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Ed Sullivan, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers visited as well. Organizations provided snack food, reading material, and other gifts for the soldiers. Other groups organized social and recreational activities for convalescing soldiers.
A Ford Motor Company employee purchased two wheelchairs for Percy Jones Hospital with his muster out pay from the military, March 1944. / THF270681
In April 1944, Ford Motor Company employees gathered gifts of food (including candy and potato chips) and reading material for Percy Jones’ convalescing soldiers. / Four images above: THF270683, THF270699,THF270705, THF620569
Musical performances also provided entertainment for the convalescing soldiers. / THF620567
Detroit’s AFL/USO Committee organized a series of weekend social activities for servicemen from Percy Jones Hospital. Volunteer hostesses provided companionship for these soldiers during dinner, dancing, or a visit to local points of interest, as seen in the four images above: Program of social activities, April 1945; soldiers and hostesses gather for the day’s activities; visiting the Willow Run Bomber Plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan; enjoying dinner at the Federal Building in Detroit. / THF290072, THF211406, THF211408, THF289759
After a short deactivation period after World War II, the hospital reopened soon after the Korean War broke out in June 1950. Once again, wounded soldiers found medical treatment and emotional support at Percy Jones Hospital until the war’s end three years later.
A Lasting Legacy
With the end of the Korean War, the hospital closed permanently in 1953. But its legacy lived on in the lives of the nearly 95,000 military patients who received care at Percy Jones during World War II and the Korean War. And in the fact that Battle Creek became the first American city to install wheelchair ramps in its sidewalks, created to accommodate Percy Jones patients who visited downtown.
The hospital’s story would begin its fade from recent memory in 1954, as federal agencies moved into the building (now renamed the Battle Creek Federal Center)—only to reemerge (albeit subtly) in 2003. That year, the complex was renamed to honor three United States senators who had been patients at Percy Jones Hospital during World War II: Philip Hart of Michigan, Robert Dole of Kansas, and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. The building’s new name honored the public service careers of these men—and also quietly reflected what Percy Jones Hospital and its staff had offered not only these World War II veterans, but tens of thousands of their fellow soldiers.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr. in his early 40s, 1865–66 / THF109611
Since 1963, Greenfield Village has been home to the office of a country doctor named Alonson Bingley Howard, Jr. This modest, red-painted building was originally located near the village of Tekonsha, about 15 miles south of Marshall in south central Michigan. Back in 1855, Dr. Howard set up his medical practice inside this building, which had begun life as a one-room schoolhouse. After Dr. Howard’s death in 1883, his wife, Cynthia, padlocked the building with all its contents inside.
Interior of Dr. Howard’s office on its original site before its move to Greenfield Village, ca. 1956 / THF109609
There it remained, undisturbed, until the 1930s, when Dr. Howard’s great-grandson, Howard Washburn, began to take a deep interest in the building’s history. He not only sifted through his great-grandfather’s papers and medical books, but also collected reminiscences from those who still remembered him. Washburn was ultimately instrumental in the move of the building to Greenfield Village, which occurred between 1959 and 1961.
Dr. Howard’s office in its location in Greenfield Village since 2003. / THF1696
During a major renovation of Greenfield Village in 2003, Dr. Howard’s office was moved to its current location on the Village Green. The building’s history received new scrutiny and the interior was refurbished to the era of his medical practice in the early 1860s.
To prepare for a September 2020 filming of an episode of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, I had the opportunity to revisit and expand upon our knowledge of Dr. Howard’s background, medical practice, and the community within which he lived and worked. By looking at new sources and asking new questions, a more nuanced picture than ever before emerges.
Meet Dr. Howard
During the 1830s and 1840s, white settlement grew by leaps and bounds in southern Michigan. Those particularly prone to “emigration fever” at the time came from New England and upstate New York (following the path of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825). The emigration of the Howard family to Michigan followed a typical pattern of white settlement to the area.
Dr. Howard’s father, Alonson Howard Sr., ca. 1860 / THF237220
Alonson Howard Jr. was 20 years old when his family (parents and six siblings) emigrated from Sweden, New York (about 19 miles west of Rochester) to Michigan in 1843. The Howard family settled in Tekonsha Township, Calhoun County, Michigan. Alonson Sr., 45 years old at the time of his family’s emigration to Michigan, purchased farmland for all seven of his children. This farmland was located on a flat, heavily wooded plain of the St. Joseph River called the Windfall section (so named because of the “chaos” of fallen timber that had not been cleared). The family farm was appropriately named Windfall Farm.
The office can be seen at left, along the road in front of Windfall Farm, 1956 / THF237140
In 1844, Alonson Jr. married Letitia Cone (1823–57), whose family had emigrated to Michigan from upstate New York during the 1830s. They had three children: Ella (1846–48), Herbert (1849–63), and Truman (1852–1923). In the 1850 census, Alonson Jr. referred to himself as a farmer.
Dr. Howard’s wife, Cynthia, holding daughter Letitia (named after his first wife), 1865-66 / THF237222
Sadly, Alonson Jr.’s wife, Letitia, passed away in 1857. In August 1858, he married Cynthia Coryell Edmunds (1832 or 1833–99). Her family, originally from New England, had emigrated to Calhoun County in the 1830s by way of New York, Canada, and Ohio. According to family reminiscences, Cynthia was greatly loved by both family members and neighbors. She was “an easy housekeeper,” an excellent cook, a gentle, loving person, and an indulgent stepmother to Truman and Herbert. Family lore recounts she feared the Howard relatives might think she had been neglectful of Herbert when he tragically died of measles (a deadly infectious disease at the time) in 1863.
Alonson Jr. and Cynthia’s four children, ca. 1870. Front, left to right: Mattie, Camer, and Letitia; rear: Manchie / THF109605
Four children were born to Alonson Jr. and Cynthia: Manchie (1861–1921), Letitia (1864–1936), Mattie (1865–1940), and Camer (1868–1936). According to family history, both Manchie and Camer were named for Native American friends of their father.
As the decades passed, Alonson Jr. seems to have increasingly chosen medical practice as a full-time occupation over farming. In the 1860 census, he was still listed as a farmer, but by 1870, he was listed as a physician and, in 1880, a physician and surgeon. He passed away on October 12, 1883, of arteriosclerosis (then called softening of the brain, now known as hardening of the arteries). There were no effective remedies for this at the time.
According to reminiscences, Dr. Howard was remembered fondly by many as an intelligent, dedicated, forceful, and vigorous man who could be blunt and abrupt with adults when he detected affectation or pretense. He had a keen sense of humor and a lifelong love of learning.
Dr. Howard’s Medical Practice
Physician’s folding stethoscope, ca. 1880 / THF152868
The unhealthiness of daily life in the mid-19th century may well be the most striking division between people’s lives in the past and how we live today. People did not yet realize the connection between unsanitary conditions and sickness. Nor did they understand the nature of germs and contagion and that diseases were transmitted this way.
As a result, infectious diseases were the leading causes of death at the time. These often reached epidemic proportions. Newborns might get infections of the lungs or the intestinal tract. Children were vulnerable to diphtheria, whooping cough, and scarlet fever, while the ordinary viral diseases of childhood—measles, mumps, and chicken pox—might turn deadly when followed by secondary bacterial infections. Adults might contract the life-threatening infectious diseases of cholera, typhoid fever, yellow fever, bacterial dysentery, pneumonia, malaria (or “intermittent fever”), and “the ague” (pulmonary tuberculosis, also called “consumption”). Women faced serious risks with repeated childbirths. Accidents were frequent killers; tetanus was a deadly threat.
Patent medicines, like these ca. 1880 Anti-Bilious Purgative Pills, were easily available, but they could contain dangerous, toxic, or habit-forming ingredients. / THF155683
American medicine was changing tremendously during the period in which Dr. Howard practiced, and approaches varied widely. Three types of medical practice vied for popularity: conventional (based upon the ancient Greek philosophy that the body’s system was made up of four circulating fluids or “humors”—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile); homeopathic (a rather controversial approach which asserted that whatever created a disease would also cure it); and botanic (which utilized natural materials such as herbs, plants, bark, roots, and seeds to cure the patient). Those who could not find or afford a local doctor might try an off-the-shelf patent medicine, a family remedy, or a recipe found in a book or periodical.
Invoice from 1881 to Dr. Howard, showing the variety of equipment and ingredients that he purchased from this Detroit company. / THF620460
Dr. Howard did not stick to one type of medical practice. Instead, he chose from all three prevailing approaches based upon what seemed to work best for each illness and patient. This type of approach, referred to as “eclectic,” was quite popular at the time. Like other country doctors, Dr. Howard not only treated patients with the usual illnesses, cuts, burns, and animal bites, but he also performed surgery, obstetrics, and dentistry. In addition, he made his own pills and remedies—decades before the pharmaceutical industry produced commercial drugs and the Food and Drug Administration was established to approve them.
A physician’s saddle bags, 1850-1870, used while visiting patients on horseback / THF166959
Although there were several physicians listed in local records, Dr. Howard’s account books list scores of patients who lived in Tekonsha Township and the surrounding countryside; larger towns like Marshall, Battle Creek, and Coldwater; and smaller communities like Jonesville, Burlington, and Union City. According to reminiscences, he was "out docktering" as much as he was in the office, “riding the circuit” from place to place around the region. He apparently visited patients during the week, sometimes staying overnight to tend the ill. He traveled by horse, and after 1870, by railroad. His office was open on weekends and story has it that, on those days, horses and buggies were lined up and down the road as patients awaited his services.
Native American Connections
No stories are more beloved in family lore than those that recount the friendship between Dr. Howard and the Native Americans who lived in the local area. According to reminiscences collected by Howard Washburn, Dr. Howard “cultivated a wide friendship with Indians at the Athens Reservation and learned how to use herbs and roots in treating illness.” Reference has already been made to the naming of two of his children after Native American acquaintances.
A page from Dr. Howard’s handwritten recipe book, 1864–68, reveals that his remedies included natural materials gathered from the local area. / THF620470
Washburn’s collection of reminiscences includes the following:
[Dr. Howard] used many roots and herbs, these were gathered for him from the woods on his farm and from around Nottaway Lake. He was friendly with the Pottawatomie [sic] Indians who had land there and over near Athens. He liked to have Indians gather herbs for him as they were more skilled and careful. Some of his recipes were Indian recipes and he had many friends in the tribe.
Charlie Hyatt of Tekonsha, who claimed to be part Indian, was living in 1950 and once called on us purposely to tell us that the Doctor had taught him the skill of herb gathering and had given him a book on herbs. He said that his mother was a Pottawatomie [sic] and that she and many others in the Tekonsha area supplemented their incomes by gathering herbs for Dr. Howard.
The photograph of these casks, taken in 1956 when the building was still in its original location, reveals the names of several extracts that Dr. Howard concocted for various remedies—many from plants and roots gathered in the local area. / THF109607
I became curious about these reminiscences because of the generally accepted—though, admittedly, white settler-based—perspective that the Potawatomi had virtually disappeared from the area by that time as a result of President Andrew Jackson’s notorious Indian Removal Act of 1830. These questions drove further research, ultimately leading to a richer, more substantive view of Potawatomi history in the area, Potawatomi-white settler connections, and conjecture about the friendship between Dr. Howard and local Potawatomi.
To make way for the ceaseless push of white settlement during the 1820s and 1830s, the U.S. government attempted to forcibly expel the Potawatomi from the area by means of a relentless series of treaties—totaling some 30 to 40 in all! A particularly significant one was the 1833 Second Treaty of Chicago, in which the U.S. government promised the Potawatomi new lands and annuity supplies in exchange for their removal over the next several years from southern Michigan (and portions of adjacent states) to reserved lands farther west (these lands and supplies were, for the most part, later reduced, delayed, or completely eliminated). At the time, the Potawatomi were told they could remain on their land until it was needed by white settlers, though much of the land had already been sold by then, as farmers and developers were eager to acquire land. Continued and renewed pressure for forcible removal of the Potawatomi persisted through the decade.
Not surprisingly, many Potawatomi were unwilling to relocate to unfamiliar territory farther west. Some fled to Canada, while others avoided relocation by taking refuge in remote places and becoming skilled at evading capture. Still others escaped north to join their “cousins”—the Odawa and Ojibway—in northern Michigan and Wisconsin.
When U.S. government agents finally left during the 1840s—assured that they had accomplished their task of successfully removing the Native Americans from the area—many Potawatomi quietly returned, unannounced and uncounted, to their old homes. The so-called Athens Reservation that is referred to in the Dr. Howard reminiscences is one such place. In 1845, with treaty annuity money, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi purchased 80 (some sources say 120) acres on Pine Creek, near Athens, in Calhoun County. Influential chief John Moguago (1790–1863) led this effort. The band used the term “reservation” to denote land they had reserved for themselves, not land reserved for them by the U.S. government.
For the 2003 installation in Greenfield Village, many of the contents of Dr. Howard’s original jars and bottles were recreated from ingredients listed in his recipe book—including dried plants, herbs, roots, bark, and seeds that would have been collected in the local area. / THF11280
Potawatomi who stayed on or returned began settling in—working out means of remaining permanently in the area, finding places to live, and searching for ways to earn a livelihood. They found support among local white citizens, who were by this time secure in their ownership of the ceded Potawatomi lands. The Potawatomi worked aggressively to demonstrate their ability to live among Anglo-Americans—seeking alliances with white merchants and actively pursuing white settlers’ help in purchasing land with their annuity monies. Meanwhile, contact with white settlers did not fundamentally alter their subsistence economy of horticulture (corn, beans, and squash), hunting, fishing, and collecting wild plants for food and healing. This was likely the scenario around the time that Dr. Howard was practicing medicine and might explain his friendship with them.
The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi is still going strong today. On December 9, 1995, after a long, emotional road, the band was finally recognized by the U.S. government as an independent nation with its own self-government. This recognition opened many avenues for them to take care of their people and continue to work toward a prosperous government. Today, their homeland headquarters are at the Pine Creek Indian Reservation (previously referred to as the Athens Reservation), but the band also maintains 300 additional acres of land adjacent to the Reservation, and satellite offices in Grand Rapids, where members live, as well as in Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Ottawa, Kent, and Allegan Counties.
These are just a few of the stories we have uncovered about this building in Greenfield Village and the country doctor who practiced medicine here back when the building was located in southwestern Michigan. We continue to engage in new research and uncover new stories about Dr. Howard, his practice, and his community.
In 2013, several descendants of Dr. Alonson B. Howard Jr. made a pilgrimage to Greenfield Village to visit this building--read the story of their visit here.
The web site of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi can be found here.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Before modern pharmaceuticals and medical practice came to be widely accepted, people had essentially three choices to try to cure what ailed them, none of which was perfect. The first choice was to be treated by a doctor, if one was available, affordable, and trustworthy. The second option was to try a home remedy, found in cookbooks or periodicals or passed down through a family member. The third choice was patent medicines. Readily available and relatively inexpensive—though often suspect and sometimes downright dangerous—patent medicines were a popular option for treatment throughout the 1800s.
The popularity of patent medicines encouraged entrepreneurs to manufacture their own remedies and enter the flourishing patent medicine industry. Some of these entrepreneurs were licensed doctors who decided to become businessmen instead of practitioners. Others were businessmen with a flair for marketing who saw an opportunity to use their skills to peddle an acquired formula or small medicine business they purchased. Unfortunately, some entrepreneurial manufacturers were complete con artists concocting their own remedies that either did absolutely nothing or were quite dangerous to whomever consumed them. Through this blog post, we'll explore the stories behind various entrepreneurial patent medicine manufacturers.
Trade Card for Brown’s Iron Bitters, Brown Chemical Co., 1890-1900. Patent medicines were often advertised as “cure-alls” with packaging and advertisements listing illnesses and complaints that the product was intended to “cure.” This trade card for Brown’s Iron Bitters claims that it cured “indigestion, dyspepsia, intermittent fevers, want of appetite, loss of strength, lack of energy, malaria and malaria fevers,” and other things. / THF277429
The term “patent medicine” is misleading as the medicine advertised was very rarely patented. It originally referred to medicine in which the ingredients were “granted protection for exclusivity,” meaning that the same composition could not be sold by another manufacturer. While it was relatively simple to obtain a patent for medicine, most manufacturers didn’t apply for one because it meant that they would have to divulge the remedy’s ingredients. More often than not, these medicines contained dangerous substances like morphine, cocaine, and high levels of alcohol.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn & Co., circa 1885. A study conducted by the American Medical Association in 1917 found that Burdock Blood Bitters, a popular patent medicine, contained 25.2% alcohol by volume. This medicine, and others like it, would most likely dull any pain (thanks to the alcohol) but its contents also increased the likelihood of developing dependency or addiction in adults, and could be fatal to children. / THF215182
Having originated in England in the 17th century, patent medicines made their way to America in the 18th century and were a major industry by the 1850s. The last half of the 1800s is considered the “golden age” of American patent medicine, with hundreds of products flooding the market. A number of factors led to this boom in the industry. For one, advances in industrial and manufacturing technology made the process of producing bottles, containers, labels, and the medicine itself more efficient. As the century progressed, advanced transportation methods opened new markets across the continent. Additionally, the introduction of color printing created an advertising frenzy with thousands of newspaper, magazine, trade card, and poster advertisements. And finally, there were essentially no regulations imposed on the drug trade at this time, meaning that individuals could put whatever they wanted into a remedy and advertise it however they pleased. All of this culminated to ensure that the patent medicine trade was highly lucrative, encouraging enterprising individuals to launch their own brand of medicines regardless of medical knowledge or background.
Trade Card for Dr. Harter’s Iron Tonic, 1875-1890. Trade cards were the most popular method for advertising patent medicines. This puzzle card for Dr. Harter’s Iron Tonic featured hidden figures within a drawing for customers to find. / THF214474
While there were hundreds of patent medicines created during this time, the most successful were the ones that were heavily advertised. Consumers encountered many advertisements and brand recognition became extremely important with so many patent medicines on the market. Trade cards of the era inform us who the major players were in the patent medicine industry. They also allow us to examine the advertising tactics used by patent medicine manufacturers to entice potential customers.
Foster, Milburn & Co.
Trade Card for Burdock Blood Bitters, Foster, Milburn, & Co., circa 1885. / THF215179
Orrin Foster and Thomas Milburn were patent medicine manufacturers and distributors. They organized their first business in the 1870s in Toronto before opening a distribution office in Buffalo, New York. The company’s best-known product was Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil, which the pair had purchased from Dr. Samuel N. Thomas in 1876 and marketed heavily to the general public. The back of this trade card for Burdock Blood Bitters—another well-known product by the company—features a popular strategy for advertising patent medicines: testimonials. Testimonials provided prospective buyers with “first-hand experiences” of those who had tried the product. With praises sung by doctors, reverends, and members of the general public, testimonials instilled confidence in the products, persuading consumers to buy. Whether the testimonials were truthful or fabricated is up for debate.
Humphreys’ Homeopathic Medicine Company is an example of a patent medicine company that actually had a proprietor in the medical field. The company was founded by Frederick K. Humphreys in 1853. He graduated in 1850 from the Pennsylvania Homeopathic Medical College with a Doctor of Homeopathic Medicine degree and established a successful medical practice. Homeopathy is an alternative medical practice based in the belief that the same substances that cause disease in healthy people can be used to treat those who are sick with similar symptoms. According to the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors, Humphreys helped “form the New York State Homeopathic Medical Society and became an important member of the American Homeopathic Institute.” In 1854, Humphreys began manufacturing and selling homeopathic remedies. Witch Hazel Oil—for curing itching, pain from cuts and burns, chapped hands and feet, bug bites, sunburns, etc.—became one of Humphreys' most popular products over time.
Lydia E. Pinkham’s Medicine Company
Trade Card for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, 1880-1890. / THF298977
Lydia E. Pinkham was one of the most prominent names in the sector of the patent medicine industry that catered to “female complaints.” Before entering the business, Pinkham was a teacher and mother. It is said that she was known among her neighbors for mixing her own herbal remedies, keeping a personal notebook she called “Medical Directions for Ailments.” Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound is believed to have been a secret formula given to Lydia’s husband as payment for money owed to him. The couple began producing the compound in 1875, thus entering the patent medicine business. Their sons, Will and Dan, were tasked with marketing the product. In 1879, Dan came up with the idea of using Lydia’s portrait in advertisements—the first woman’s likeness to be used in advertising. Attaching her likeness and signature to advertising was a huge hit, providing women with a friendly and “knowing” face, which instilled confidence in the product.
Carter Medicine Company
Trade Card for Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Carter Medicine Company, 1880-1890. Trade cards were generally printed as small rectangles but unique shapes, like the painter’s palette shape of this card, were also created and were a beneficial advertising tool. / THF297541
The Carter Medicine Company provides another example of a patent medicine manufacturer with a background in the medical field. Pharmacist Dr. John Samuel Carter began selling “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” out of his pharmacy in Pennsylvania for those with “digestive distress.” The product gained popularity throughout the 1850s and in 1880, Carter formed a partnership with New York businessman Brent Good to establish Carter Medicine Company. By World War I, "Carter's Little Liver Pills" had become such a staple in American households that the company remained in business despite a global economic downturn.
C.I. Hood & Co.
Trade Card for C.I. Hood & Co. with Hood’s Photos of the World, “Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris,” 1890-1910. Trade Cards from Hood’s Photos of the World series gave customers views of faraway places, providing a window to the broader world. / THF297455
C.I. Hood & Co. was one of the most recognized names in the patent medicine industry. In 1875, Charles Ira Hood opened his drug store, C.I Hood & Company, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Within a few years, Hood’s was one of the largest patent medicine producers in the United States. The thing that set Hood’s company apart was its state-of-the-art factory, which included its own advertising department. Hood’s factory produced all sorts of ephemera, including calendars, trade cards, and even cookbooks, which helped make it one of the most successful patent medicine manufacturers.
Seth Arnold worked in a series of industries before entering the patent medicine business in the late 1840s. Following a venture in hotel management, Arnold took several years off due to his health, beginning in 1835. He was said to have used this time to create a remedy for his illness, a medicine that came to be called “Dr. Arnold’s Balsam.” In the New England Union Directory of 1849, Arnold was cited as an “eclectic physician and patent medicine manufacturer” in Smithfield, Rhode Island, where he was also a physician for cholera. In addition to his balsam, two additional products were created—“Cough Killer” and “Bilious Pills”—to be sold by his company, known as Dr. Seth Arnold’s Medical Corporation. Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer was believed to be his most popular product, but the others were successful as well. If the testimonial on the back of the trade card above is to be believed, customers as far away as Nebraska used Dr. Seth Arnold’s Bilious Pills.
Sterling Remedy Company
Trade Card for “No-To-Bac” Tobacco Habit Cure, Sterling Products Co., circa 1894. / THF298541
Sterling Remedy Company provides an example of a businessman entering the patent medicine industry without any medical knowledge or background. H.L. Kramer was a self-made businessman who established a publishing and advertising company in Lafayette, Indiana, and held interest or managerial positions in the Humane Remedy Company and the Universal Remedy Company (both manufacturers of patent medicines). One of Kramer’s advertising clients was John W. Heath, a local Indiana banker who owned Sterling Remedy Company. Heath also consulted with Kramer on a project to develop a local health spring into a medicinal spa. Following Heath’s death in 1890, Kramer bought out his widow’s interest in the Sterling Remedy Company and the medical springs. By the mid-1890s, Kramer had launched the springs as a “fashionable Midwestern health resort” known as “Mudlavia” because of its specialty mud bath cures. Under Kramer’s leadership (and with thousands of dollars spent on advertising yearly), Sterling Remedy Company gained popularity. Universal Remedy Company’s “No-To-Bac,” a popular tobacco habit cure, was merged with Sterling Remedy Company’s product line. A common side effect of No-To-Bac was constipation, so the company produced Cascarets to help with this inconvenience. Cascarets became the company's most popular product. Despite success, Kramer sold the company in 1909.
Dr. J.C. Ayer & Co.
Trade Card for Ayer’s Hair Vigor, circa 1885. Ayer’s Hair Vigor became a popular hair restorative following its introduction in the 1860s. Examples of packaging for this patent medicine are on display at the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village. / THF297658
James C. Ayer was one of the most recognized names in the patent medicine industry. This is largely due to the fact that Ayer was an advertising genius, producing thousands of advertisements in the form of trade cards, almanacs, posters, and newspaper and magazine ads. Young Ayer apprenticed for several years at Jacob Robbins’ Apothecary Shop in Ledyard, Connecticut, and studied under Dr. Samuel Dana. Within a few years, Ayer purchased the apothecary shop and began manufacturing his own medicines, including Cherry Pectoral. His medicine was so popular that he was forced to find a larger manufacturing facility, moving operations to Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1855, Ayer entered into a partnership with his brother to form J.C. Ayer & Company, manufacturing patent medicines. Additional remedies created by Ayer since introducing Cherry Pectoral included Cathartic Pills in 1853, Sarsaparilla and Ague Cure in 1858, and restorative Hair Vigor in 1867. In 1860, the Philadelphia Medical University awarded Ayer with an honorary medical degree, leading to the addition of “Dr.” to the company’s name.
While trade cards were certainly one of the most effective advertising methods for patent medicines, major manufacturers printed their own almanacs as well. Dozens of almanacs littered the counters of local general stores and urban pharmacies. In an average year, J.C. Ayer & Co. produced roughly 16 million almanacs. In 1889, Ayer’s distributed 25 million almanacs in 21 languages.
While the masses were content to self-prescribe patent medicines for themselves, there were some who questioned the effectiveness of the products and the legitimacy of their proprietors. As previously mentioned, relatively few restrictions were placed on the drug trade at this time and manufacturers were not inclined to provide a list of ingredients for their products. Some reputable doctors took it upon themselves to conduct studies to see what some of the most popular patent medicines were made of, and the results were often startling.
Many medicines were found to contain dangerous levels of alcohol. For instance, one study found that Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound contained roughly 20% alcohol. Other remedies were found to contain morphine (like Dr. Seth Arnold's Cough Killer) and cocaine. With reports such as these making the general public aware of dangerous substances in some of their favorite medicines, and growing concern against the manufactured food industry regarding sanitation practices and food additives, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, placing federal regulations on these trades. For patent medicines, the passage of the act called for manufacturers to list any harmful ingredients on their containers and prohibited any false or misleading advertising.
Page from “Ayer’s American Almanac, 1907” noting that its products do not contain alcohol. / THF285178
Following the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, there was a significant decrease in the number of patent medicines on the market, but there were some companies that were able to remain in business. One of the most successful was Carter Medicine Company. It sustained its legitimacy even with the passage of the Act, and throughout the 20th century, the company diversified its products, leading to research in anti-perspirants and deodorant. The company is still in business today as Carter-Wallace, with well-known products such as Arrid, an antiperspirant and deodorant, and Nair, a hair remover for women.
Two other manufacturers previously mentioned—the Lydia Pinkham Company and Humphreys' Homeopathic Medicine Company (now Humphreys' Pharmacal, Inc.)—also remain in business today with their products available for purchase online.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Donna Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and resources on the patent medicine industry and for reviewing this content.
The Henry Ford is committed to collecting artifacts that document the ways businesses demonstrated resourcefulness and ingenuity—both to address people’s needs and to remain sustainable—in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. These bottles of hand sanitizer produced by West Michigan distilleries may be unassuming, but they have big stories to tell about local and national responses to the crisis.
Alcohol-based hand and surface sanitizer is an important tool for fighting the spread of viruses, in addition to hand washing and social distancing. As COVID-19 reached communities across America, hospitals and other healthcare organizations, charities, law enforcement agencies, and the general public began using far more hand sanitizer than ever before. Demand quickly exceeded the available supply.
Distilleries that produced beverage alcohol already had what they needed to make ethyl alcohol, a main ingredient in hand and surface sanitizer. In March 2020, the Food and Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced policies that temporarily allowed beverage alcohol producers – with some restrictions – to begin making and distributing sanitizer immediately, tax free. Distilleries nationwide referenced World Health Organization guidelines, surveyed their equipment and supplies, and decided to retool to produce hand sanitizer.
In West Michigan, a hotbed of craft distilling, many distilleries shifted full-time to producing sanitizer or added it to their regular operations. COVID-19 had disrupted business as usual. Food and beverage sales had fallen as Michiganders, following state guidelines, stopped drinking and dining out. Selling hand sanitizer could help a distillery stay afloat—and even generate good press. But making it required additional resources and could limit beverage alcohol production, threatening a distillery’s bottom line. By and large, the choice to produce sanitizer was not about profit. Instead, the decision was about meeting a community need. When distillers heard about sanitizer shortages, they wanted to help. And when local groups and individuals learned that distillers might produce it, they reached out with hopeful requests. These stories from a selection of West Michigan distilleries showcase the resourcefulness, ingenuity, generosity, and care that has defined so many American businesses’ responses to the pandemic.
After the owners of Eastern Kille Distillery (Grand Rapids) closed their tasting room and cocktail bar, they decided to divert extra employee resources and excess production capacity to making hand sanitizer. According to co-founder Steve Vander Pol, the shift wasn’t easy – the distillery had to source unfamiliar ingredients (glycerol and hydrogen peroxide), locate suitable containers, and train staff in safe chemical handling and new production methods. Eastern Kille produced hand sanitizer for sale and partnered with a logistics company to donate thousands of bottles to essential workers. When its supply of raw materials dwindled after about a month of sanitizer production, the distillery returned to making beverage alcohol. Vander Pol expressed pride in the craft distilling industry for continuing “to help fill the gap in hand sanitizer supply.” Looking back on the experience, he remarked, “In a time when everything in the world felt crazy it was very nice to be able to use our business to help, even if it was just a small part of keeping people safe.”
Sanitizer produced by the gallon at Wise Men Distillery (photo courtesy of Wise Men Distiller)
The staff at Wise Men Distillery (Kentwood) overcame similar challenges in retooling operations to produce sanitizer – just as many large companies began seeking new sources for it. Wise Men ramped up production to fill huge orders from national companies, including Amazon, but also to meet a growing need for sanitizer across the state. The distillery donated hundreds of gallons to first responders and frontline workers in surrounding Kent County, and, almost immediately after general manager Tom Borisch learned about devastating floods in Midland County, more than 100 miles away, sent 600 more to support relief efforts there. Speaking with a local TV station, Borisch explained the distillery’s approach: “We’re going gangbusters trying to make as much as possible and trying to honestly sell it at a price where we can just stay open and keep doing it." He also expressed pride in his team and in broader efforts to endure the pandemic, saying, “it’s amazing to see what the world is doing... Everyone’s coming around each other. It’s good stuff.”
The day authorities eased restrictions on sanitizer production, Coppercraft Distillery (Holland) announced plans to donate thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer to organizations in need. The first delivery went to Holland Hospital, where healthcare workers were using four times as much hand sanitizer as usual. Within a few weeks, the distillery had expanded production, both to continue its donation program and for public sale. Coppercraft CEO Brian Mucci saw in the hand sanitizer shortage “an opportunity to step into a need, assist our community, and express our gratitude...” Production manager Shaun McLarty summed up the distillery’s decision for a local TV station, saying, “You can think of a million reasons not to do it – if it’s cost, or time, or labor – but the reason to do it outweighs that significantly."
Hand sanitizer production at Long Road Distillers (photo courtesy of Long Road Distillers)
At Long Road Distillers (Grand Rapids), with a shuttered restaurant and cocktail bar, hand sanitizer offered an alternative way to remain in business – and an opportunity for resourceful collaboration. Beginning with neighboring Mitten Brewing Co., and eventually working with several Michigan breweries, Long Road Distillers turned unused grain – destined to become beer before the pandemic – into hand sanitizer. Among those using its product, Long Road Distillers listed hospitals, nursing homes, grocers, logistics companies, and social service agencies. A video documenting the distillery’s collaborative efforts highlighted donations to the Grand Rapids Police Department and Metro Health Hospital. Reflecting on the partnership, Mitten Brewing Co. cofounder Chris Andrus remarked, “I hope that what we remember from this crisis is not the virus and the pandemic, but the extraordinary efforts that came about because of it.”
The kitchen at Bier Distillery (Comstock Park) had only been open a few weeks when owner John Bierling had to shut its doors to dine-in customers. To help drive food sales during the closure, he shifted from beverage alcohol to hand sanitizer production and began offering a free bottle with every takeout purchase. Soon, large-scale sanitizer orders rolled in from local organizations, and Bier Distillery pushed to meet the unforeseen demand. In a video explaining sanitizer production at the distillery, Bierling reflected on what had begun as a marketing opportunity: “Never in a million years would I have thought I would be making hand sanitizer. But, I like making alcohol – I like the process, I like the science behind it all.” The undertaking allowed him to redirect that passion to help the community.“I can apply all that knowledge and my technique and expertise,” Bierling said, “to making hand sanitizer – and hopefully keeping people safe.”
Like so many American businesses, large and small, these distillers acted nimbly and demonstrated resourcefulness to meet the challenge brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. They refocused skills, equipment, and operations to not only remain in business, but supply their communities with a crucial product.
Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford, looks forward to sampling these distillers’ other products someday soon. She thanks Eric Hermann for his enthusiastic and invaluable support of this project.
Red Cross Volunteer Nurse's Aides, May 1942. THF289753
In uncertain times, it can be useful to stop and reflect on the ways in which others have overcome or responded to challenges. The passage of time can be a cushion, allowing us to use the lens of history to reach back and remember that remarkable creativity, kindness and courage have often pushed through fear in times of uncertainty.
Let’s absolutely “look for the helpers,” as Mister Rogers said, but let’s also look for the makers, the inventors, the doers, the innovators—past and present—and be inspired to become more like them too.
Encouragement from sidewalk chalk and painted rocks in a Michigan neighborhood.
The Henry Ford's Blog: Uncovering Medical Innovations in the Collection New surgical techniques and motorized medical care are just a few of the ingenious responses to medical demands featured in this blog post.
The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation: UpSee Walking Device When Debby Elnatan’s son was unable to walk due to cerebral palsy, she invented a walking device to help him and other children with the disorder. In this clip from The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, she explains, “I believe there is no such thing as special needs, that we all have the same needs. What’s special are the solutions.”
The Henry Ford's Blog: A Technological Assist Today, assistive devices and technology are increasingly common, but this wasn’t always the case. Empathetic design and inventiveness were required to create devices which allowed people like Shari, introduced in this blog post, to wake up on time, watch television, or chat with a friend.
Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.
The concept of resourceful living is nothing new. Many people have been reducing, reusing and recycling for years. But now that we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, it seems that “conspicuous consumption” is out and “conscious conservation” is in.
As we all learn to make do in our new world of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, here’s a look at how Americans have practiced resourceful living in the past. Whether it’s fixing the family car yourself, being proactive in your family’s health and well-being, or simply taking advantage of your extra at-home time to finally get organized, you’ll find much to inspire you in the collections of The Henry Ford.
Susan Bartholomew, Collections Specialist here at The Henry Ford, is busy cataloging objects from The Henry Ford's Collections Storage Building (CSB). A three-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Museums for America Collections Stewardship project, supports conserving, rehousing, and digitizing thousands of objects currently housed in several bays of the CSB.
As the grant narrative explains, the IMLS funding supports a “critical element in a major institutional project: the consolidation of The Henry Ford's off site collections into a new location on campus.” The work “will improve the physical condition of the project artifacts through conservation treatment, rehousing, and removal to improved environments.” Finally, IMLS funding “will facilitate collections access through the creation of catalog records and digital images, available to all via The Henry Ford's digital collections.”
Occasionally Susan comes upon an artifact that needs additional explanation to accurately catalog it, such as this one. Here's what we knew upon examination:
It's 16" long, 7" wide
Has a smooth wooden handle
Is bent and welded iron
There's a ringed brass flange positioned to reduce wear where the metal is imbedded into the organic material.
The questions we then ask: What is this instrument? What purpose does it serve?
We turned to our horse experts with the Ford Barn team in Greenfield Village to help us understand its use.
A steady diet of oats, grass, and hay wears a horse’s teeth down as they age. Persistent grinding of food can leave sharp burrs or edges on the outside of their molars. Untreated, this causes pain when the horse chews, and they lose weight.
Farmers and veterinarians used this instrument (called a “gag” or speculum) to hold a horse’s mouth open as they floated the horse’s teeth to balance their bite. Floating helps a horse maintain a healthy bite in their senior years.
A person (farmer or veterinarian) would insert the “gag” into the horse’s mouth, holding it by the handle. Then, the farmer/veterinarian would pull downward on the handle which “encouraged” the horse’s mouth to open. The oval area provided a window through which to place the float (a rasp used to file down the sharp edges).
The device proved useful when treating younger horses with other dental issues, too. Today caring for aging horses still requires floating and balancing their teeth. Caregivers still use a speculum to hold the horse’s mouth open, and to keep their head steady during floating and balancing, but the instruments today have padding to reduce stress on the horse’s jaw during the procedure.
Thanks to the IMLS for providing the invaluable funding to help make this exploration of animal care possible.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Jim Slining is Curator of Museum Collections at Tillers International.