Curt Braden, as the “ghost” of Abraham Lincoln, posing with the carved jack-o’-lanterns at the doorway of the Logan County Courthouse that marked treat stops. (Photo courtesy Susan McCabe)
The 40th anniversary of “Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village” seems like a perfect opportunity to reflect upon the first Halloween program in Greenfield Village. I was there with my husband, Curt, in the Logan County Courthouse. With his face covered in white theatrical makeup, he played the “ghost” of Abraham Lincoln for the evening, while I played his wife, Mary Todd. Other “ghosts” were stationed at various other Village buildings, awaiting the young trick-or-treaters who would show up at their doorstep. We all wondered whether it would work, this crazy idea of using the Village as the canvas for a historically-themed Halloween program.
As kids filed through the Courthouse that night, my “ghostly” husband handed them each a Lincoln Head penny while he told them, “Here’s a token in remembrance of me.” Some kids gawked at him. Others smiled and circled back again for another penny. Still others scowled and said, “Only a penny?” I honestly remember almost nothing from that night. It was all a blur except for a few snapshots I have, proving we were there.
Now, 40 years later, I feel compelled to find out exactly what transpired that night. So, I asked Brian Wilson, our Senior Manager of the Archives and Library, to see if he could dig out the original program description of it (which he did). I also got in touch with a few old friends who had helped plan it and participate in it. What I found was that, while our memories are sketchy and sometimes inconsistent, we all felt that night that we were on a mission, a mission to provide guests with a combination of fun and learning using the rich historical stories that pervade Greenfield Village. The magical quality of being in the Village at night (decades before there were streetlamps) didn’t hurt either.
Description of the Family Halloween Jamboree in the 1981 class catalog / THF610727
In 1981, the program was called the Family Halloween Jamboree and it was one of the many listings in the catalog of Adult Education, Teen, and Children’s Classes organized by the Education Department at the time. After the Greenfield Village schools had closed in 1969, the museum had become a strong advocate of offering educational classes for the general public. By the early 1980s, the class catalog was extensive, including page after page of lectures, tours, and an incredible array of craft classes, like glassblowing, blacksmithing, and tinsmithing. Children’s classes also involved a wide array of different take-home crafts and hands-on opportunities.
Colonial Cooking was a popular Adult Education class held in Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern) during the late 1970s. / THF112256
Harold Skramstad’s arrival as President in 1981 provided the catalyst to reimagine a wide variety of new educational programs. Summer Discovery Camps began that year, along with new Member programs. All of these new programs were characterized by a close alignment with our historical figures and stories. The Family Halloween Jamboree was no exception. Jim VanBochove, a graduate student intern that previous summer and a participant in the first Halloween program (and now Director of Organizational Culture at The Henry Ford) explained that, “That was one of the great things in those days—that you could really try some new things. There was support, even if it didn’t turn out.”
This program was the brainchild of museum professional Candace Matelic, hired earlier that year as Manager of Adult Education and Children’s Programs. She was helped by her able assistant, Susan Gangwere (now Susan McCabe), a graduate student summer intern like VanBochove who had just recently joined the Education staff. Inspired by Skramstad’s encouragement to be creative, break down old barriers, and try new things, Matelic and Gangwere put their heads together to create each of the elements for this, one of three holiday-related family programs that year.
A colorful and enticing flyer for the 1981 Family Halloween Jamboree. (Image courtesy Donna Braden)
From the beginning, the 1981 Family Halloween Jamboree was planned with children in mind—including “hair-raising stories of ghosts and witches,” making Halloween treats, and enjoying a variety of traditional games. In keeping with the focus on the historic nature of Greenfield Village, children were encouraged to come dressed as their favorite historic character, which they would show off in a “parade down a pumpkin-lighted path,” followed by a judged costume contest with prizes. Parents were encouraged to dress up for the night as well. The evening cost $7.00 per child, while accompanying adults were free.
This cover of the 1982 class catalog shows a portion of the 150 jack-o’-lanterns that volunteers had carved for the 1981 Family Halloween Jamboree. / THF610728
Hay wagons took guests on rides from Town Hall through the Covered Bridge, around the loop and back to the Village Green. On the way, they encountered spooky characters, like the Grim Reaper and the Headless Horseman. Back at Town Hall, they could partake of cider and donuts, and bob for apples. A highlight of the evening was that guests could walk to several trick-or-treat stops in and around the Green. White-faced “ghosts” of historical figures connected with Greenfield Village buildings passed out treats that were specifically themed to each building or character. At the Courthouse, it was Lincoln Head pennies; at Stephen Foster Memorial (now the Sounds of America Gallery), VanBochove, as the “ghost” of Stephen Foster, handed out kazoos while singing excerpts of more “ethereal” Stephen Foster songs like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” Carved jack-o-lanterns, placed at the doorways, marked each treat stop.
Curt and I pause for a snapshot before heading to the Village for the big evening, 1981. Before the days of a department that researched and created historical clothing for Greenfield Village staff, I did my best to dig out some (rather historically inaccurate) vintage clothing from my own closet to wear for the evening. (Photo courtesy Donna Braden)
This one-night Jamboree attracted some 300 people. As VanBochove recalled, “We all thought that was HUGE. And there were many moving parts so lots of learnings.” Susan McCabe concurred that it was a great way to learn about the logistics of Village experiences, like how to move people through, how many supplies to have on hand, and how to get all those pumpkins carved!
Curt having his white theatrical makeup applied before the big night, 1981. (Photo courtesy Donna Braden)
Building upon the success of this first program, the next year’s program was expanded. Now costing $5.00 per person, it was held on two successive nights. The modest pumpkin-lit path for the children’s costume-judging parade now extended through many of the streets of the Village, with an accompanying map “to tell you the whereabouts of the ghost and spirits we expect to join us.” Candace Matelic remembers that two educational assistants “did nothing all night but keep the pumpkins lit, and there were hundreds of them.”
Description of the 1982 Family Halloween Jamboree, explaining the new navigation through the Village by pumpkin-lit paths and a map / THF610735
One goal of these early programs was to attract new audiences, people who did not ordinarily come to Greenfield Village. As Matelic recalls, “We reached people from all backgrounds…many of whom were coming to Greenfield Village for the first time.” It was also a way to attract new Members by offering them first pass at signing up.
The popularity of the 1982 Family Halloween Jamboree was greatly aided by the Tylenol scare of that year, in which cyanide-laced acetaminophen was found placed on drugstore shelves and sold. This high-profile crime eventually led to the introduction of child-proof containers and tough Federal laws aimed at punishing those who tampered with drugs. No evidence of contaminated Halloween candy was ever found that year and, since that time, stories like these have become the stuff of urban legend. But, in 1982, the scare was real, parents were worried about letting their kids go trick-or-treating through neighborhoods, and that year’s Family Halloween Jamboree in Greenfield Village received a big boost in attendance.
Beyond this, Matelic thinks that these early programs were exceptionally unique because, “We clearly touched a chord in providing a safe and memorable family experience in those early years, in response to a community need. I like to think of it as a gift to the community. It was fun, interactive, and welcoming. We had fun and that let visitors have fun. We made a connection to a beloved American tradition and started a new relationship to the community.”
By 2018, the year of this photograph, “Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village” had become a mega-event that lasted 11 nights and attracted 70,000 guests.
These two early programs laid the groundwork for today’s extravaganza that thousands anticipate every year. Why does it remain as popular as ever? Having spent time at many treat stations over the years, VanBochove remarks that, “it has always amazed me that even with the thousands of guests who come on any evening, almost everyone has a sense that the program is just for them, that they are there with family, and that this is a special memory that only we can help create.” Matelic, who has worked at several museums since those early days and mentored hundreds of students pursuing museum careers, reflects that, “While the focus and contents (and size and length) have broadened over the years, the program is still touching hearts and minds, offering an opportunity for generations to continue making cherished family memories.”
Do you have a cherished memory of the 1981 Family Halloween Jamboree in Greenfield Village?
Donna R. Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, would like to thank Candace Tangorra Matelic, Ph.D., Susan Gangwere McCabe, Jim VanBochove, and Curt Braden for their willingness to share their memories of this groundbreaking program.
A Half Century in the Making, the Journey from Yuletides to Holiday Nights
What we know and love today as Holiday Nights did not spontaneously appear in 2000 when we first opened Greenfield Village on December evenings for an immersive holiday experience. Holiday Nights has evolved and grown based on many experiences and inspirations from decades of village “Christmases past.” and the work of many talented people.
The ability to transport our guests to a different time and place is most powerful after dark as the modern world that constantly pushes closer to our borders can be temporarily pushed away. When all is said and done, Greenfield Village provides the most perfect “set” in which to bring the past alive. With over 300 years of history represented, the possibilities are endless; a world where Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life can seamlessly collide. A place where a small town from the distant past comes to life for several hours on December evenings, bringing forth the magic of the holiday season.
Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village is a classic example of “if you build it, they will come.” What began with conservative hopes for several hundred people in attendance has continually grown year after year.
Information Booklet, "Christmas at Greenfield Village 1964." THF112439
The holiday experience in Greenfield Village has a long history. As early as the mid-1960s, Village buildings were decorated both inside and out for the holiday season. Historic Christmas recipes were prepared in the village kitchens in fireplaces and wood burning stoves. Early on, all the guest experiences were limited to daytime and varied from guided tours, to full access, to tour on your own. Decorations were very elaborate, and included many collection items, but were not always based on sound historical research. Every building got a bit of Christmas, whether it would have been celebrated or not. During this period, attendance was vigorous, especially on December weekends.
Guests at Clinton Inn (Eagle Tavern) During "Yuletide Evening in the Village," 1975. THF144738
By the mid-1970s, new evening holiday experiences, called Yuletide Evenings, were introduced. Guests had the choice of a formal dinner in either the newly constructed Heritage Hall (now the Michigan Café) or the Clinton Inn (now the Eagle Tavern).The experience included horse drawn wagon, or if conditions allowed, sleigh rides into the Village, and depending on which package was purchased, a tour of 4 different decorated historic buildings, either before or after dinner. By the early 1980s, the Clinton Inn became Eagle Tavern, and the evening program changed to become an immersive 1850 dining experience much like the program offered today. Eventually, the Village tour portion of the evening was discontinued, offering a dinner only experience.
In the early 1990s, a concerted effort had been made for some years to reinvigorate the daytime program. By paying attention to historical accuracy, but at the same time, broadening the scope and allowing for a wider interpretation of how Americans began to celebrate Christmas in the 19th century, more engaging programs were offered. Hundreds of artifacts were chosen to fit out the dining rooms, parlors, and where appropriate, Christmas trees. Additional research was also done to lift-up the historic cooking programs and infuse a “living history” approach to the historic structures with the addition of period clothing. All this further supported the stories of the diversity of the American Christmas celebration. This work laid the foundation for the core content of Holiday Nights that we rely on today.
By the late 1990s, for a variety of reasons, the daytime visitation to the Greenfield Village Holiday Program had begun to decline while the evening program attendance remained strong. Based on the inspiration and fond memories of the wonderful candle and lantern lit buildings decorated for the holidays, a new program was proposed to re-create that opportunity through the Educational Programs class offerings. Though on a very small scale that served less than 100 people, this program reminded us of what could be possible and got the creative process rolling.
Brochure, "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF144736
The Twelve Nights of Christmas, what would later be called Holiday Nights, debuted for the Christmas season of 2000. The daytime “Holiday” program remained in place, and the evening program was basically an evening version. This early version was very quiet, and very dark, as none of the village restoration had taken place yet. Most of the activities were based inside the buildings. Despite the slow start, the potential was fully realized, and creative and physical growth began. With the village closed for the holiday season of 2002 for the renovation, there was time to regroup, brainstorm, and make plans. The new and improved version for the “new” village in 2003 saw expanded outdoor activities, more music, and an ice rink that featured an artificial ice surface. Even with enhanced programming elements, the program was still not really filling the space as it could.
Musicians Performing at "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF133593
During these early years, it was apparent to the village programs team that to achieve the level of experience we were aspiring to, the event would need to be broken down into production areas, and each would need its own level of care and attention to detail. Decorating the village, designing and deploying the lighting, planning the historic food demonstrations, food sales and retail, staffing and training, musical and dramatic program casting and rehearsing, dressing an army of staff, firewood, lanterns, and communicating the entire thing, all was captured and pulled together with the Holiday Nights manual. This work became the go-to document for what needed to be done when and where, once preparation for the evening program began. This tool also became invaluable in planning and producing subsequent years of the program. So, as ideas came forth as to how to expand and improve the Holiday Nights guest experience, the program manual format made it possible to incorporate the new elements and move the experience forward.
A very memorable off site staff mini-retreat to a local book store cafe in 2004 laid the foundation for the program we know today. Building on the sound historical content of our village holiday celebration, our success with Holiday Nights thus far, along with a commitment from the institution, we created and refined the combination of guest experiences that today, makes Holiday Nights truly one of the nation’s greatest holiday experiences. The fireworks finale, the end of the evening procession and sing-a-long, a visit from Santa, a real ice skating rink, immersive food and drink stalls in the center of the Village, a greens market, storytellers, over 100 staff in period dress as well as a wide variety of additional dining experiences and top quality live music, has put Holiday Nights on the map over 20 seasons.
The program continues to grow and evolve. For my part, it’s been a privilege and source of pride to see how far we have come and how we have come together to achieve such greatness. I look forward to the road ahead and what the next 20 years may bring.
Inspired by the evolution of Holiday Nights? See it for yourself - limited tickets for 2019 remain.
Jim Johnson is Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford and Director of Greenfield Village.
The costumes featured in Hallowe’en at Greenfield Village are made for all types of weather conditions. Just like trick-or-treaters walking through their own neighborhoods on October 31, our presenters and staff members must be ready for any weather scenario.
Try these tips from our costuming experts in our Period Clothing Studio.
Our Hallowe’en costumes are made of a water resistant, breathable, nylon athletic material called Supplex, so that they can be worn in the rain. When that material isn’t used, our lightweight cottons are sprayed with Scotchguard or have a wool outer layer that naturally protects the wearer. If you purchase a costume made of thin polyester, make sure you can layer a windbreaker or waterproof athletic shirt underneath for rainy weather. Most of the characters during Hallowe’en also have umbrellas that match their outfits in case rain is in the forecast.
When the temperatures are warmer than normal, our costumes are built to be worn over lightweight cotton layers, like T-shirts and shorts or leggings to wick away sweat. Conversely, thermal underlayers can be added for cold weather to add protection without added bulk.
Need a Greenfield Village example? The Lion costume is worn over cotton layers with an ice pack vest to keep the presenter cool in the heat. The vest is not worn during cold weather.
Some of our costumes have additional overlayers for very cold weather, but they are built into the design. For example, the Mermaid has a separate bodice lined in wool to be worn over the sequin-and-net bodice of the dress, and has earmuffs decorated with hair wefts to look as though they are a part of her wig.
Don’t forget - wear comfortable, waterproof, slip-resistant shoes, just like us. You can always cover sneakers with spats or ice skate covers to match your costume.
Visibility is key when it comes to creating a costume. Many of our costumes feature waterproof lighting which can be an added safety feature for costumes worn in the dark. We use decorative fairy lights, like those used for special outdoor events, which have waterproof battery packs. The lighting is sewn into channels under a sheer decorative layer or tacked into the costume with the battery packs easily accessible at the waistband.
If you are wearing a mask, practice wearing it in low lighting before wearing it outside. You can cut away the eye holes in plastic masks or extend your peripheral vision by swapping out sheer jersey eye holes in soft masks with tulle or net and use makeup around your eyes to disguise the transition.
Halloween costumes and accessories don’t have to be brand new. Try repurposing and upcycling old clothing by dyeing it and then adding trim to give texture. This year our female pirate costumes are repurposed 18th century dresses from stock that were dyed, altered, and trimmed to fit the theme. A past mermaid costume net cape was repurposed as trim in the yellow ochre pirate’s dress by dyeing it and stitching it to the peplum to create texture.
Is your costume’s color not quite right or the fabric can’t be dyed? Try using fabric paint and a sponge to gently tone down the color. The Bad Fairy wings were originally a bright green metallic lace, but we sponge painted over the material with emerald green, spruce green, and navy fabric paints to create a darker ombre effect to match the rest of the costume. But watch that paint - some must be heat set, while others can take 24-48 hours to fully dry.
Still looking for costume inspiration? Try taking a stroll down our pumpkin-lit path this month during Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village. You never know which character may ignite the Halloween maker in you.
Anne Suchyta Devlin is Senior Manager of the Studio at The Henry Ford.
Nostalgia for those who experienced it—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others.
The Visits with Santa experience in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation this year is a throwback to the 1960s. Kids can tell Santa their wishes as they sit next to him under a colorful kiosk made by Ray and Charles Eames for the IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Nearby is a cozy 1960s living room vignette—complete with a La-Z-Boy chair, television set, and an aluminum Christmas tree from the era.
This mid-century modern theme coincides with the opening of our newest permanent exhibit in the museum, Mathematica, alsodesigned by Ray and Charles. Several components of Mathematica were featured inside that IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, so we were excited to bring those two experiences together for this year’s holiday programming.
The scene provides a bit of nostalgia for those who experienced the 1960s—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others. Let’s look at some blasts from the 1960s Christmas past.
Aluminum trees brought a modern look to a mid-1960s Christmas. THF170112
The early 1960s brought a fresh, new look to Christmas tree aesthetics. A completely modern look--the aluminum Christmas tree. It made a shiny, metallic splash in living rooms all over America. More than a million trees were sold during the decade. A tree choice that eschewed the traditional pine- or fir-scented Christmas experience when it landed on the Christmas scene in the 1960s, now conjures up images of a retro Christmas past.
Color wheel sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company, 1960-1965. THF8379
A color wheel lit up the aluminum tree, with the tree changing from blue to red to green to gold as the wheel revolved. The color wheel was there for a practical reason—you couldn’t put strings of lights on aluminum trees because of fire safety concerns. But to those viewing the transformation, the color wheel seemed a no-brainer way to light these trees—so modern and so magical. It was mesmerizing to watch—whether from a front row seat in your living room or the view through your neighbor’s window.
The Smith family of Redford, Michigan purchased these ornaments in 1964 to hang on their aluminum Christmas tree. THF309083
Aluminum trees called for minimalist look. The trees were often sparingly decked with ornaments all of one color.
The Wojewidka siblings pose for a Christmas photo in front of their live tree in 1960. THF125145
Yet, “real” trees remained popular as well—fresh-cut trees chosen from one of the many temporary Christmas tree lots that popped up in cities and towns. (The cut-your-own trend was not yet widespread.) Scotch pines were favored by many—though there were diehard balsam fans as well. These trees were bedecked with a varied array of ornaments—glass ones by the Shiny Brite company were popular. And shiny “icicles”—made of lead before it was prohibited—hung from the branches to add to the sparkle.
Holiday Greetings in the Mail
By the early 1960s, Christmas cards offered a greater variety of seasonal images beyond those traditionally found. This image shows a woman clothed in a pine tree decorated with 1960s trendy-colored ornaments. THF287028
By mid-December, mailboxes were filling with Christmas cards, sent by family and friends to let the recipient know that they were being specially thought of during the holiday season. It was exciting to pull out handfuls of cards from the mailbox—it may have been the only time during the year when a kid had much interest in what the postman delivered. And not necessarily because of the cards themselves—the cards were a tangible sign that Christmas was indeed on its way and that Santa would soon be making his deliveries!
Christmas card display clothesline and pins, about 1964. THF155082
Where did people display all these Christmas cards? On a mantle, a table, or the top of the television. Or taped to a wall or a large mirror in the living room. Hanging them from a Christmas-themed clothesline was a more novel way to display them.
This 1962 stamp carried traditional Christmas images of lighted candles and a wreath. THF287036
In 1962, the United States Postal Service issued the first Christmas-themed postage stamps in America. (A few other countries had already beaten us to the punch on issuing Christmas-themed postage stamps.) But once begun, Christmas stamps graced more and more Christmas card envelopes to complete the annual presentation of holiday-themed greetings sent through the mail.
Making a List
Christmas catalogs like this 1964 Sears, Roebuck & Company got a workout in December. THF135874
Kids were busy deciding what to ask Santa for. Instead of perusing the web, kids looked forward to the arrival of Christmas season catalogs sent by stores like Sears, Roebuck and Company, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward. Kids (and adults) eagerly leafed through the pages of the toys, clothing, and other gifts offered within, making their wish list for Santa’s perusal before passing the catalog along to another family member.
Television offered additional gift ideas, playing out the merits of products before viewers’ eyes in commercials that one couldn’t speed past with a DVR.
Toys for Girls and Boys Many 1960s toys that appeared on the Christmas lists of millions of kids during the 1960s—some in updated versions—are still classics.
Silly Putty modeling compound, about 1962. THF135811
Silly Putty was invented during World War II as General Electric researchers worked to develop a synthetic substitute for rubber. While no practical purpose could be found for the stuff, it did turn out to be a great toy. Silly Putty bounced higher and stretched farther than rubber. It even lifted images off the pages of color comics. (My sister took Silly Putty to bed with her, leaving a perfect egg-shaped stain on the sheets that never came out.)
Eight-year-old Rachel Marone of New York received this Etch A Sketch as s Christmas gift in 1961. THF93827
The 1960s saw an innovative new arts and crafts toy—the Etch A Sketch. Turning the knobs at the bottom of the screen (one to create horizontal lines, one for vertical) let the user “draw” on the screen with a mixture of aluminum powder and plastic beads. To erase, you just turned the screen over and shook it. Incidentally, it was the first toy that Ohio Art, its manufacturer, ever advertised on television. (Accomplished users could make great drawings on the Etch A Sketch—and some of us were just happy to produce decent-looking curved lines.)
This 1962 Play-Doh Fun Factory was a childhood toy of Mary Sherman of Minnesota. THF170363
Play-Doh introduced their Fun Factory in 1960. Now kids could go beyond free-form modeling with their red, yellow, blue and white Play-Doh. The Play-Doh Fun Factory provided instructions on how to create things like trains, planes, and boats—and an extruder with dies to easily make the components.
Watching Christmas Specials on TV
Album from A Charlie Brown Christmas television special, about 1965. THF162745
Kids eagerly listened for announcements on television or leafed excitedly through TV Guide magazine to find out when the holiday specials would air. You didn’t want to miss them—it was your only shot at watching! There were no DVRs or DVDs back then. Two animated classics from the mid-1960s--A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas--are among the earliest and most enduring of the Christmas specials developed for television.
Within their engaging storylines, these two shows carried a message about the growing commercialization of the holiday. As kids watched the barrage of toy ads that appeared with regularity on their television screens and leafed through catalogs to make their Christmas lists, seeing these cartoons reminded them that Christmas was also about higher ideals—not just about getting presents. These television shows—and the increasing number and variety of Christmas specials that have since joined them—remain a yearly reminder to temper one’s holiday-related commercialism and to think of the needs of others.
Not only have Charlie Brown and the Grinch become perennial favorites enjoyed by children and adults alike, but the soundtracks of these shows have joined the pantheon of musical Christmas classics.
The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, with its freshly melodic “Ring-a-ling-a-ling Ding-dong ding” background vocals on this 1963 Phil Spector-produced album, has become an iconic Christmas classic. THF135943
What would a 1960s Christmastime be without Christmas-themed music heard on the stereo at home and over speakers in stores? The 1960s saw a flood of Christmas albums and singles. Various singers—like Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Beach Boys—recorded their versions of old favorites and new tunes.
The Annual Christmas Photo
In 1963, the Truby brothers of Royal Oak, Michigan, posed in Santa pajamas given to them by their grandmother. THF287005
After the presents were opened and everyone was dressed in their Christmas finery, it was time to round up the kids for photos. Siblings (and, sometimes, their parents) might be posed together in front of a seasonal backdrop like the Christmas tree or a fireplace. Some families filmed home movies of their celebrations. These home movies often captured only strategic snippets of the Christmas celebration—movie film was expensive. And these home movies were without sound—which was probably sometimes a good thing!
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford’s digitization and digital content teams get together for a 10-minute stand-up meeting every morning, and those meetings consistently spawn intriguing conversations about the amazing, rare, awesome, and significant items in our collections. Sometimes our discussions turn to objects that make sense within the context of their time and place, but which might seem strange or unsettling today.
In honor of the Halloween season, we’ve put together an Expert Set of some of our favorite such artifacts, selected by our staff. For example, Curator of Communication & Information Technology Kristen Gallerneaux selected this poster, shown above, featuring magician Howard Thurston and a bevy of supernatural figures.
Visit the Expert Set in our Digital Collections to see more—if you dare... Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
It was eye-catching, lightweight, and easy to care for. There was none of the fuss and muss of a real tree because the needles were attached. You could store it compactly in a box and reuse it year after year. It was completely safe unless you foolishly strung it with electric lights—potentially causing a fire hazard.
No, to make your aluminum Christmas tree shine with a dazzling brilliance, you didn’t use strings of electric lights. You turned a four-color, revolving color wheel onto it. And maybe added a few shiny blue or red balls to heighten the silvery aluminum effect. Any way you looked at it, the aluminum Christmas tree was a perfect symbol of the modern Jet-Age lifestyle people were dreaming about in the early 1960s.
Dressing Goodfellows dolls has been a Christmas tradition in Detroit since 1924, and the Ford Motor Company Girls’ Club was a major participant in dressing Goodfellows dolls for underprivileged children in Detroit for many years. Starting in 1946 by dressing 65 dolls, the club’s peak donation was 3,000 dresses in 1967, 1969, and 1970, and they averaged between 1,500 to 3,000 dolls most years.
The Ford Girls’ Club was started in 1946 under the Recreation Section of Ford Motor Company. Every female employee – salaried, or hourly – was automatically a member (though active membership did cost $1.00 per year). Any immediate female family member of a club member could join, as could the wives of Ford male employees. The club was primarily social, meeting once a month in addition to dinners, picnics, dances, lectures, and workshops. Members were also service oriented - they held dances for returning veterans, gave gifts and visited veterans in hospitals, and each Christmas they participated in clothing dolls for the Goodfellows to distribute, making thousands and thousands of handmade dresses over the years.
Dolls were usually handed out at the annual November service meeting. The club’s first foray into dress making was in 1946, when women of the club made 65 handmade dresses for dolls. The next year they jumped up to 290, with the dresses being displayed in the Administration Building cafeteria before being sent to the Goodfellows. As more women joined the club, interest grew in this Christmas service project and the club dressed more and more dolls each year, with their finished projects being displayed in various Ford Motor Company buildings’ lobbies, and offices, as well as the Dearborn Virginia Dare storefront window in 1949. The number of dresses made continued to climb each year reaching to almost one thousand in 1954, and the dolls were displayed for the first time at the Rotunda Christmas Fantasy. The next few years were dress-making bonanzas, and in 1957 2,500 dolls were dressed and displayed at the Rotunda for visitors to view before they were distributed to girls in the Detroit area on Christmas Eve. The Girl’s Club maintained a high production rate in the years to come - between 1,750 and 2,000 dresses were made annually and displayed at the Rotunda or Ford Motor Company buildings. In 1966 production saw another jump when the club made almost 3,000, a number they reached the next year and continued to reach or come close to for the next four years.
The handmade dresses were made of all kinds of fabric, from cotton to organdy, satin and lace. Women also knit and crocheted dresses, from wool to angora. Dolls dressed as nurses, astronauts, drum majorettes, hula dancers, Girl Scouts, flying nuns, ballerinas, and ice skaters complete with skates, graced the displays, as did brides, baby dolls, and all kinds of different ethnic dresses. Women could make any type of dress they wanted, but prizes were given by the Goodfellows, and later Ford, in specific categories:
Knit and crocheted
Goodfellows prizes ranged from $1 for a dress placing in a particular division to a grand prize of $10. Ford soon began judging the Girls’ Club’s work and awarding prizes as well, with the dresses usually judged by the wives of the Goodfellows’ president and executive officers. Early on prizes were cash, but when the displays headed to the Rotunda the stakes were raised. Grand prize in the 1950s and early 1960s was a sewing machine and console, second prize being a portable sewing machine, and third prize was a sewing cabinet.
The prizes, of course, were always of secondary importance in the Girls’ Club work with the Goodfellows' goal of “no child without a Christmas.” Over a 27-year period, 1946-1972, the Ford Girls’ Club donated over 45,000 hand-made dresses to the Detroit Goodfellows' organization to distribute to area children. The Ford employee newsletter The Rouge News and later Ford World carried stories and photos of the club’s donations every year, urging members of the club and others in the Ford organization to participate. We lose track of the Ford Girls’ Club here in the archive at about 1973, when Ford World ceased publishing stories on the yearly donation of dolls. However, judging from the 1972 output of 2,000 dolls, it seems likely the club continued the annual service drive for some years after.
The Goodfellows still distribute dolls and people in the metro Detroit area continue to provide dresses each year.
Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.
It would not be a proper Christmas season without at least one viewing of the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Every year, we can enjoy the antics of Lucy, Schroeder, and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang as they get ready (or not) for the Christmas play; sympathize with Charlie Brown as he passes up all those bright shiny aluminum trees and picks the sorriest tree on the Christmas tree lot; and cheer when the gang transforms Charlie Brown’s sad little tree into one of beauty and elegance at the end. Today, we can watch the special any time we want. But, back when it first aired on TV in 1965, we could only watch it once—Thursday, December 9, at 7:30 p.m., on CBS. And it was a revelation!
Back in the late 1990s when The Henry Ford offered the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Story of Ichabod Crane program in Greenfield Village, there was a need to flesh out some areas with unique, yet iconic “set dressing” that would augment the rural and spooky flavor of the story we were trying to tell. Scarecrows were ubiquitous fixtures of kitchen gardens and some field crops over the years to deter birds and other such creatures from unintentional feasting. “Scarecrows” are still used today although a variety of designs, materials and articulations are very few of which take on a human form or shape - a far cry from the days of old.
It didn't take long until our team was challenged with the premise that we needed something large enough to make a visual impact and yet manageable and nimble enough to be used as temporary structure. Inspiration began to pour in from various imagery, films and shows, and descriptive language from literature, along with my own imagination, I created a 16-foot tall scarecrow affectionately named Mr. Irving after author George Washington Irving. Since those autumn nights more than 15 years ago and still today, Mr. Irving has been a part of the Greenfield Village’s fall and Hallowe’en programming. He has been photographed by thousands of guests and his inspiration lives on with many Mr. Irving lookalikes popping up in yards all over southeastern Michigan.
New to Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village this year is the Top Hat Side Show. Led by Andrew D'Ascenzo, a professional circus and fire performer, the vaudeville-style show features unique acts in several fields including circus, fire, sideshow, magic, and comedy. Vaudeville performances aren’t new to The Henry Ford; every summer in Greenfield Village our dramatic programs in Town Hall combine music, comedy, and dance revues that pay homage to the great music and zany humor found in vaudeville.