In 1975, two Alpex Computer Corporation employees named Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel approached Fairchild Semiconductor to sell an idea—a prototype for a video game console code-named Project “RAVEN.” Fairchild saw promise in RAVEN’s groundbreaking concept for interchangeable software, but the system was too delicate for everyday consumers.
Jerry Lawson, head of engineering and hardware at Fairchild, was assigned to bring the system up to market standards. Just one year prior, Lawson had irked Fairchild after learning that he had built a coin-op arcade version of the Demolition Derby game in his garage. His managers worried about conflict of interest and potential competition. Rather than reprimand him, they asked Lawson to research applying Fairchild technology to the budding home video game market. The timing of Kirschner and Haskel’s arrival couldn’t have been more fortuitous.
A portrait of George Washington Carver in the Greenfield Village Soybean Laboratory. Carver’s inquisitiveness and scientific interests served as childhood inspiration for Lawson. / THF214109
Jerry Lawson was born in 1940 and grew up in a Queens, New York, federal housing project. In an interview with Vintage Computing magazine, he described how his first-grade teacher put a photo of George Washington Carver next to his desk, telling Lawson “This could be you!” He was interested in electronics from a young age, earning his ham radio operator’s license, repairing neighborhood televisions, and building walkie talkies to sell.
When Lawson took classes at Queens and City College in New York, it became apparent that his self-taught knowledge was much more advanced than what he was being taught. He entered the field without completing a degree, working for several electronics companies before moving to Fairchild in 1970. In the mid-1970s, Lawson joined the Homebrew Computer Club, which allowed him to establish important Silicon Valley contacts. He was the only Black man present at those meetings and was one of the first Black engineers to work in Silicon Valley and in the video game industry.
Refining an Idea
Packaging for the Fairchild Channel F Video Entertainment System. / THF185320
With Kirschner and Haskel’s input, the team at Fairchild—which grew to include Lawson, Ron Smith, and Nick Talesfore—transformed RAVEN’s basic premise into what was eventually released as the Fairchild “Channel F” Video Entertainment System. For his contributions, Lawson has earned credit for the co-invention of the programmable and interchangeable video game cartridge, which continues to be adapted into modern gaming systems. Industrial designer Nick Talesfore designed the look of cartridges, taking inspiration from 8-track tapes. A spring-loaded door kept the software safe.
Until the invention of the video game cartridge, home video games were built directly onto the ROM storage and soldered permanently onto the main circuit board. This meant, for example, if you purchased one of the first versions of Pong for the home, Pong was the only game playable on that system. In 1974, the Magnavox Odyssey used jumper cards that rewired the machine’s function and asked players to tape acetate overlays onto their television screen to change the game field. These were creative workarounds, but they weren’t as user-friendly as the Channel F’s “switchable software” cart system.
Jerry Lawson also sketched the unique stick controller, which was then rendered for production by Talesfore, along with the main console, which was inspired by faux woodgrain alarm clocks. The bold graphics on the labels and boxes were illustrated by Tom Kamifuji, who created rainbow-infused graphics for a 7Up campaign in the early 1970s. Kamifuji’s graphic design, interestingly, is also credited with inspiring the rainbow version of the Apple Computers logo.
The Fairchild Video Entertainment System with unique stick controllers designed by Lawson. / THF185322
The Video Game Industry vs. Itself
The Channel F was released in 1976, but one short year later, it was in an unfortunate position. The home video game market was becoming saturated, and Fairchild found itself in competition with one of the most successful video game systems of all time—the Atari 2600. Compared to the types of action-packed games that might be found in a coin-operated arcade or the Atari 2600, many found the Channel F’s gaming content to be tame, with titles like Math Quiz and Magic Numbers. To be fair, the Channel F also included Space War, Torpedo Alley, and Drag Race, but Atari’s graphics quality outpaced Fairchild’s. Approximately 300,000 units of Channel Fun were sold by 1977, compared to several million units of the Atari 2600.
Around 1980, Lawson left Fairchild to form Videosoft (ironically, a company dedicated to producing games and software for Atari) but only one cartridge found official release: a technical tool for television repair called “Color Bar Generator.” Realizing they would never be able to compete with Atari, Fairchild stopped producing the Channel F in 1983, just in time for the “Great Video Game Crash.” While the Channel F may not be as well-known as many other gaming systems of the 1970s and 80s, what is undeniable is that Fairchild was at the forefront of a new technology—and that Jerry Lawson’s contributions are still with us today.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Carding mills became extremely popular in 19th-century America because the machines used in them mechanized the laborious hand process of straightening and combing wool fibers—an important step in preparing yarn and making woolen cloth. Customers were happy to let others handle this incredibly tedious job while using their own skill and creativity to control the final product.
Before carding mills, farm families prepared wool by hand using hand cards like these. / THF183701
Between 1840 and 1880, Michigan farmers raised millions of sheep, whose wool was turned into yarn and woolen goods. The Civil War, especially, caused a demand for wool, as it became the raw material for soldiers’ uniforms. Afterward, while the highest quality woolen broadcloth for men’s clothing was still imported from England, a growing number of wool mills (mostly small and local, but some larger ones, especially in New England) produced lower-end woolen goods like flannel (for work shirts, summer coats, and overcoat linings), men’s and children’s underwear, blankets, and rugs.
Sheep graze outside of Henry Ford’s boyhood home in Greenfield Village / THF1937
Farmers who raised large flocks of sheep might sell their raw wool to local merchants or to dealers who shipped it directly to a small wool mill in the local area or a large wool mill in New England. But most farm families raised a modest flock of sheep and spun their own wool into yarn, which they used at home for knitted goods. They might also take their spun yarn or items they knitted to their local general store for credit to purchase other products they needed in the store.
While sawmills and gristmills were the first types of mills established in newly-formed communities, carding mills rapidly became popular—particularly in rural areas where sheep were raised. While the tradition of wool spinning at home continued well into the 19th century, machine carding took the tedious process of hand carding out of the home. Learn more about the mechanization of carding in this blog post.
Faster and more efficient carding machines replaced traditional carding methods in the 19th century. / THF621302
At the carding mill, raw wool from sheep was transformed into straightened rolls of wool, called rovings—the first step to finished cloth. Faster and more efficient carding machines at these mills replaced the hand cards traditionally used at home (by women and children) for this process. Through the end of the 19th century, carding mills provided this carding service for farm families, meeting the needs of home spinners.
“Picked” wool that has been loosened and cleaned, ready to be fed into a carding machine / THF91532 (photographed by John Sobczak)
Young Henry Ford was a member one of these farm families. Henry fondly remembered accompanying his father on trips to John Gunsolly’s carding mill (now in Greenfield Village) from their farm in Springwells Township (now part of Dearborn, Michigan)—traveling about 20 miles and waiting to have the sheared wool from his father’s sheep run through the carding machine. There it would be combed, straightened, and shaped into loose fluffy rovings, ready for spinning. The Ford family raised a modest number of sheep (according to the 1880 Agricultural Census, the family raised 13 sheep that year), so they likely brought the rovings back to spin at home, probably for knitting.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Another group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut in “What We Wore” in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Who knew that a company that made toilet tissue and paper towels would start a fashion sensation?
In April 1966, the Scott Paper Company launched a promotion for its new line of colorful paper products. Along with two proofs of purchase and $1.25 for shipping, customers could redeem a coupon for a paper dress, choosing from a red paisley bandana pattern or a black-and-white op art print.
The media took immediate notice. So did the public. Scott’s “Paper Caper” dresses became a surprise hit. Soon fashion enthusiasts were wearing not only Scott’s dresses, but paper apparel created by other manufacturers and designers who quickly joined in the trend.
The 1960s was an era of exploration and pushing boundaries. It was the space age--people envisioned an exciting future where everything was conveniently automated. New materials and disposability were in.
Paper apparel promised convenience--you could simply discard it after one wearing. Altering the hemline was a snap--all it took was a pair of scissors and a steady hand. A tear? You could do a quick repair with sticky tape.
The A-line shape and trendy prints of the paper dress fit perfectly with the youthful “Mod” look and aesthetic sensibilities of the 1960s. You could be up-to-the-minute at little cost--clothing could be quickly and cheaply replaced as trends shifted. There was a paper dress for every budget--from those on the shelves of mass-market retailer J.C. Penney to the chic creations carried by Manhattan boutiques.
People bought over a million paper garments between 1966 and 1968. Some envisioned throwaway clothing as the wave of the future. Yet, by early 1968, the craze was beginning to cool. Paper clothing was not really practical or comfortable for everyday use. And the hippie movement--with its back-to-nature values and strong anti-pollution message--was changing public opinion. What had seemed hip and modern now seemed frivolous and wasteful.
A bit of novelty in an era of experimentation, the paper dress fad was fun while it lasted.
When the Scott Paper Company created the first paper dress in 1966, they intended it as a promotional gimmick to help sell their products. But their “Paper Caper” dresses--a paisley bandana design or an Op art print--swiftly and unexpectedly caught on with the public. The publicity the dresses brought Scott far exceeded the company’s expectations. By the end of the year they received nearly a half million orders for dresses they sold at near cost.
The company made little money from sales of the dresses--but that wasn’t the point. Inadvertent fashion innovators, company executives had no intention of continuing the paper dress venture in 1967, leaving the market to eager entrepreneurs.
Scott’s “Paper Caper” black and white Op art dress (geometric abstract art that uses optical illusion) appeared in Life Magazine in April 1966. / THF610489
“Waste Basket Boutique”
Paper Jumpsuit by Waste Basket Boutique by Mars of Asheville, 1966-1968. / THF185294(Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Cathy Weller.)
The Scott company’s success started a trend for disposable fashion--so other companies quickly jumped in. Mars of Asheville, a hosiery company, launched a paper fashion line in June 1966 under the label, Waste Basket Boutique. They sold colorful printed-paper dresses and other garments for adults and children in a variety of strap, neckline and sleeve styles, as well as “space age” foil paper clothing. In September, Mars debuted plain white dresses that came with watercolor paint sets for “doing your own thing.” Pop artist Andy Warhol painted one to promote the new line.
Mars of Asheville became the leading manufacturer of disposable fashion, producing over 80,000 garments each week at its height.
Designers embraced the trend, creating unique disposable couture for a wealthier crowd. Tzaims Luksus designed these hand-painted $1000 balls gowns for an October 1966 fundraiser at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Life Magazine, November 1966. / THF610492
Walking Ads/Walking Art
Campbell’s “Souper” Dress, 1967. / THF185289 (Given in Memory of Thelma D. Nykanen)
The advertising potential of these wearable “billboards” was huge. With coupons clipped from magazines, women could buy dresses from a variety of companies, including Green Giant vegetables, Butterfinger candy bars, and Breck hair care products. While some companies offered motifs that reflected their products, others followed fashion with flower power, paisley, or geometric designs.
In Spring 1967, the Campbell Soup Company produced what became the most famous paper garment of the era--this dress with its repeating soup can image. The dress not only advertised Campbell’s products--it also cleverly referenced Pop artist Andy Warhol’s iconic early 1960s depictions of the Campbell’s soup can that elevated this ordinary object to the status of art.
In 1968, the Mennen Company, makers of Baby Magic infant care products, offered women stylish paper maternity and party dresses “fashion-approved” by designer Oleg Cassini. / THF146023
Disposable Dresses Go Political
George Romney presidential primary campaign dress, 1968 / THF185284
Bumper stickers, buttons, and brochures--those were the standard things that political campaigns were made of in the 1960s. Beyond “standards,” campaigns also latch onto things that are hot at the time—and during the 1968 presidential campaign, that meant paper dresses. Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy and Republicans Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and George Romney all had versions.
This George Romney campaign dress may have been “hip,” but it didn’t do the trick for him--Romney’s bid for the nomination was unsuccessful. Nelson Rockefeller’s too.
George Romney bumper sticker and campaign buttons, 1968. / THF146376, THF8545 (Buttons gift of Mr. & Mrs. Charles W. Kurth II)
When You Care Enough to WEAR the Very Best
Hallmark Cards, Inc. paper party dresses, “Flower Fantasy” and “Holly,” 1967. / THF185309 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Diane K. Sanborn), THF185307 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Jane Crutchfield)
In the spring of 1967, the Hallmark company embraced the disposable clothing trend, marketing a complete party kit that included a printed A-line shift and matching cups, plates, placemats, napkins, and invitations. While matched sets of disposable tableware had been around for decades, a matching paper dress was a new idea.
In this era of informal entertaining, festive paper tableware (and paper fashion) made hosting parties more convenient and cleanup easier. After guests left, the hostess could simply toss everything into the trash--rather than into the dishwasher and washing machine.
With Hallmark products, a hostess could have every element of her party perfectly matched--including her “swinging new paper party dress,” 1967. / THF146021
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Christmas tree in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we really enjoy showing how Americans would have celebrated Christmas in the 19th century. In almost all the houses, we use historical primary sources to try to glean out descriptions of what people may have done—but we have almost no concrete visual evidence. However, one huge exception is the Wright Home, the family home of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
We know from various sources that in 1900 there was a big homecoming in Dayton, Ohio. Reuchlin Wright, one of Wilbur and Orville’s older brothers, was returning home from living apart for a very long time, slightly estranged. In celebration, the family decided to put up their first Christmas tree. Wilbur and Orville, who were amateur photographers but probably as good as any professional of the time, documented some of that process.
Within the last decade, we have been able to access a very high-resolution image of the Wright family Christmas tree image from the Library of Congress, and the details just leapt out at us. This photograph, which we know was taken in 1900, documents exactly how the Wright Brothers designed and put up their Christmas tree. We examined all the minutiae in the photo and have attempted to recreate this tree as exactly as possible.
Wright Home Parlor Decorated for Christmas, Original Site, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF119489
The toys, the various ornaments—it's all in line with what's typical in the time period. So if you look at the tree in the Wright Home, you’ll see it lit with candles—this is not an electrified house yet in 1900. There's a variety of ornaments designed to hold candies and similar things. It has strung popcorn, which would have been homemade, but it also has store-bought German tinsel garland, glass ornaments (either from Poland or Germany), and all kinds of additional decorations that may have been saved from year to year. There's a homemade star on top that has tinsel tails coming off it.
For many years, we just had a low-resolution, fuzzy photograph of the tree, and we reproduced things as faithfully as we could—for example, what appeared to be a paper scrap-art angel. The first glimpse of the high-resolution photograph absolutely flabbergasted us, because front-and-center on the tree is a little scrap-art of a screaming, crying baby. It must have been some sort of inside joke within the family. We were able to reproduce it exactly as it would have looked on the tree.
The screaming baby scrap-art on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
In keeping with tradition, the tree is also covered with gifts for different members of the family. It seems that the adult gifts were hung unwrapped on the tree, whereas many of the children's things were either wrapped or just placed under the tree, based on the photograph. For example, on the tree, we see a pair of what are known as Scotch gloves—you would have found examples of these in Sears catalogues of the early 1900s. There's also a fur scarf, toy trumpets, and even a change purse, all hung on the tree.
Scotch gloves hanging on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.
Beneath the tree, the arrangement of toys and gifts is quite fun. There’s a pair of roller skates, a little toy train, tea sets, furniture sets, and all kinds of different things geared specifically toward all the Wright nieces and nephews who would have come to visit on that Christmas morning.
There's also a wonderful set of photographs associated with the tree after Christmas. For example, there’s one of Bertha Wright, one of Reuchlin’s middle daughters, in the next room over, sitting playing with her toys. She's clearly been interrupted in her play, and you can see that in the expression on her face: “Okay, let's get this over with.”
Bertha Wright, Age Five, Niece of the Wright Brothers, Daughter of Reuchlin Wright, circa 1900 / THF243319
There are also photos outside the house, featuring the sleigh (which is prominent under the tree in the high-res photograph, stacked with books). Behind them in all these photographs is a little fir tree—the tree that was inside the house for Christmas has now been placed out there and propped up in the corner, probably for the winter season.
Milton, Leontine, and Ivonette Wright at Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF243321
During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we have a wonderful large high-resolution blow-up of the tree photograph set up in the Wright Home for our guests to compare-and-contrast with the recreated tree in the corner. Be sure to stop by the Wright Home to see it on your next Holiday Nights visit!
The original historic photo of the Wright family Christmas tree, displayed in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Brian James Egen)
This post was adapted from the transcript of a video featuring Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Hanukkah case in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Legends and stories surround the origin of Hanukkah, whose name means “dedication” in Hebrew. Hanukkah celebrates the 165 B.C.E. victory over the Jews’ Syrian-Greek oppressors, who had seized the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. According to Rabbinic tradition, the Jewish victors—a rebel army known as the Maccabees—set out to purify and rededicate the defiled temple but could only find one day’s worth of ritual oil. Miraculously, the small amount of purifying oil burned in the temple’s lamp stand, or menorah, for eight days.
For centuries, Hanukkah was a modest occasion, a minor holiday. Jewish law and custom only required the lighting of candles for eight nights, with one candle to be used as the shamash (“guard” or “servant” in Hebrew) to light the others. The lighted candles were to be kept by a window where they could be seen by passers-by. In Eastern Europe, the celebration included eating latkes (potato pancakes), distributing small amounts of Hanukkah gelt (coins) to children, playing games with a dreidel (a spinning top), and playing cards.
In America, Hanukkah continued to be celebrated in this modest way, if at all. After the Civil War—as the American Christmas began to transform itself into a holiday of decorations, parties, shopping, and gift-giving—American Jews were drawn to the bright lights and excitement of that holiday.
Leading rabbis worried that, compared to the increasingly popular celebration of Christmas, Hanukkah lacked “romance” and allure. The campaign to revive and enhance Hanukkah began in the 1880s. Families were encouraged to create a festive atmosphere at home, to have Hanukkah parties, and to exchange gifts. By the 1920s, Hanukkah had begun to assert itself as a major Jewish domestic holiday.
Hanukkah reached its full flowering in the child-centered culture of post-World War II America. Beginning in the 1950s, not only did more families celebrate the holiday, the celebrations themselves became more elaborate. Jewish organizations encouraged this with books and manuals to help families make the holiday more appealing (and discourage the celebration of Christmas). Families might exchange gifts for eight nights, light several menorahs, give parties, prepare special foods, and decorate their houses.
Today, the eight-night Hanukkah holiday still usually involves menorah-lighting, latke-eating, and dreidel-spinning, but Jewish celebrants can choose from a wide variety of items and ways to celebrate the traditions and rituals.
Items selected for this year’s Hanukkah display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation:
One couple used both of these menorahs to celebrate Hanukkah. The brass menorah was an heirloom, passed down through three generations. Its design incorporates traditional Jewish cultural symbols. The contemporary design of the other menorah, featuring popular cartoon characters, delighted the couple’s grandchildren. Traditional Hanukkah Menorah, 1900-1920 and Modern Hanukkah Menorah, 1998 / 2005.121.62 and 2005.121.61
Just after dark each night of Hanukkah, one additional candle is lit in the menorah until all eight candleholders are filled with light. A ninth shammas (also spelled shammash)—or “attendant”—candle is used to light these candles. Detail from 1953 book, We Celebrate the Jewish Holidays. / THF111666
The alternate and more traditional spelling of the holiday starts with the two letters “Ch,” which is an English transliteration of the eighth letter in the Hebrew alphabet.The words “Chanuka candles” are written in both English and Hebrew on this box. Hanukkah Candles, 1946-1980 / 2010.2.178
Forty-four candles light the Hanukkah menorah—a shammas (also spelled shammash), or “attendant,” candle plus an additional candle (beginning with one) for each of the eight nights. The candles are inserted from right to left (the direction in which Hebrew is read) but kindled from left to right. Spinning the dreidel (pronounced “dray’-duhl”), a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side, is a traditional children’s game played during Hanukkah. A blue dreidel is depicted in the lower left corner of this box of menorah candles. Hanukkah Candles, 1990-2010 / 2010.2.176
This recipe booklet suggests traditional dishes for the Hanukkah celebration, including mandelbrot (a crunchy almond bread also known as mandel bread) and latkes (potato pancakes fried in oil). Famous Recipes for Jewish Housewives, 1940 / 2005.29.79
Ideas for this Hanukkah table arrangement from the 1955 book Jewish Home Beautiful include traditional dishes as well as gelt—chocolate coins often given to children during the festival—and small boxed gifts. Detail from 1955 book, Jewish Home Beautiful / THF111655
Also on exhibit, but not pictured here:
Fried potato pancakes, or latkes, are a Hanukkah staple. This packaged mix offered a convenient alternative to the traditional preparation—grating numerous potatoes by hand. Product Package for Kosher Potato Pancake Mix, 2000-2010 / 2010.2.100
In 2020, families celebrating Hanukkah can use everything from traditional spinning dreidels for playing the dreidel game to electric blinking menorahs to face masks for family get-togethers during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are part of a larger acquisition of contemporary items relating to the Chanukah celebration from the online store, www.TraditionsJewishGifts.com. This is an online extension of the Traditions Judaica Gifts retail store, located in South Florida’s Pompano Beach—a family-run business that is one of the largest purveyors of Judaica gifts in the world. Items were selected to represent the wide spectrum of ways in which people express their style, personality, and values in celebrating the holiday. Traditional wooden dreidels, ca. 2020 (2020.140.4-.7); “GO” Menorah (electric or battery-powered), 2018 (2020.104.1); Face Masks, “Happy Chanukah” and “Eight Crazy Nights” (referencing Adam Sandler’s 2002 animated musical), 2020 (2020.104.2, .3).
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She enjoys explaining the Hanukkah traditions that she grew up with to others. Thanks to authors Saige Jedele and Judith Endelman for their previous blog posts about the history and traditions of Hanukkah, from which this blog post heavily draws, and to Saige for writing the initial exhibit labels for many of these objects.
Trade Card for the Larkin Soap Company, 1900 / THF224516
As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we had the opportunity to delve into the history of the Larkin Company. What began as a small soap manufacturing business in 1875 became one of the nation’s leading mail-order businesses by 1900. This post highlights the Larkin Company’s rise to popularity under the multi-faceted, ingenious marketing strategy known as “The Larkin Idea."
While the Larkin Company sold its products throughout the country, the company had special appeal for rural customers, offering a broader range of product choices than stores in nearby villages and towns. The company would eventually develop a distribution system, contracting with local deliverymen to deliver Larkin products right to customers’ doorsteps – rather than customers having to pick them up in town. In the early 21st century, people today welcome this same opportunity for conveniently delivered goods!
In 1875, having worked in the soap business for more than a decade, John D. Larkin created his own soap company in Buffalo, New York, called J.D. Larkin, Manufacturer of Plain and Fancy Soaps. This would later become known as the Larkin Company. The first product, made for laundry use, was a yellow bar known as Sweet Home Soap. Boraxine, a flaked laundry soap, quickly followed, and continued to be a signature item in product lists throughout the company’s history.
The first salesman for the company was Larkin’s brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard was a skilled promoter and successful salesman, devising advertising strategies and boosting sales. In 1878, Hubbard was made a partner in the business, resulting in the company’s name change to J.D. Larkin & Company. With this partnership, Larkin oversaw the manufacturing of the products and Hubbard was placed in charge of advertising and promotion. One of the first strategies Hubbard adopted was offering a chromolithograph (color print) as a premium, or free giveaway, in each box of Boraxine. By 1883 – after additional products were added to Larkin’s line – Hubbard began offering finer premiums, such as a Japanese silk handkerchief in each box of “Elite” Toilet Soap.
Back of a Trade Card for J.D. Larkin & Co.’s “Elite” Toilet Soap, 1882 / THF296327
After years of “slinging soap,” Hubbard noted that direct sales to housewives were more profitable than selling to local merchants. The company was doing quite well – having distributors in every state east of the Rocky Mountains in its first decade – but Larkin and Hubbard believed that the company had even greater potential. In order to maximize profits, the company decided to eliminate all middlemen (including the sales force), thus entering the mail-order industry. The mail-order business was not new – Montgomery Ward & Company had made this popular a decade earlier. But in 1885, Hubbard developed a plan, called “The Larkin Idea,” that offered giveaways with the purchase of particular items from the company’s mail-order catalogs.
Page advertising Rugs as Larkin Premiums, in Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan: Factory-to-Family,” Fall and Winter 1917-1918 / THF298153
“The Larkin Idea” was simple: In cutting out all middlemen and selling Larkin products directly to housewives, the money that would have gone to the payroll of the middlemen would instead be used to create desirable premiums that would be given to customers with the purchase of Larkin products. This idea was encapsulated by the slogan, “Factory-to-Family,” and the tagline of “The Larkin Idea” became, “Save All Cost Which Adds No Value.”
Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Factory-To-Family Plan,” Spring and Summer, 1915 / THF297907
The first iteration of “The Larkin Idea” came in 1886 with the introduction of a Combination Box. By this time, the company was offering nine different soap products. At first, the Combination Box sold for $6, but a few years later, a $10 option emerged, offering enough products to last a family the entire year. The $10 Combination Boxes quickly gained popularity as customers could receive 142 products – 100 of those being Sweet Home Soap – and a free premium worth $10. Larkin also introduced a 30-day policy in which customers had 30 days to try a product before paying for it. This gave peace of mind to customers who wanted to try a product, risk-free, and also developed trust between the company and consumer. The public embraced “The Larkin Idea” with enthusiasm, ordering nearly 91,000 Combination Boxes a year!
Advertisement for Larkin Premiums, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298080
By 1892, the company changed its name once more, to Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company. As the popularity of the Combination Boxes grew, Larkin sought to expand its product and premium offerings. In 1897, Larkin offered 16 products – including 14 different soaps, a cold cream, and tooth powder – and that number increased every year. This led to the company eventually dropping “soap” from its name to become the Larkin Company in 1904.
Did You Know?
After leaving the Larkin Company, Elbert Hubbard would go on to found the Roycroft community of East Aurora, New York, in the mid-1890s. At the Roycroft community, hundreds of artisans came to live and work as part of an Arts and Crafts utopian community. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged quality craftsmanship of handcrafted works of simple form as a reaction to poorly made factory produced goods. With his marketing prowess and passion, Hubbard led the Roycrofters to become one of the most successful communities of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Explore more on the Arts and Crafts movement on our blog and in this Expert Set.
With the success of the Combination Box and the increasing number of customers nationwide, the company introduced another facet of “The Larkin Idea,” which would prove to be invaluable: Larkin Clubs. Women across the country were encouraged to become Larkin Secretaries, and as such they would gather friends and family to purchase products together. A Club-of-Ten was encouraged to have all members buy $1 worth of products each month, and a different member of the club would receive a premium of their choice every month.
Advertisement for a Larkin Club-of-Ten in the Trade Catalog, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298079
This Larkin Company infant swing/bed, was given to a woman by her sister, who sold Larkin products. (Gift of Ellen J. Adams) / THF174549
Women found a sense of pride in their participation in the clubs and enjoyed the social aspect of monthly meetings. At its peak, there were 90,000 Larkin Secretaries around the country. The Larkin Clubs were such a tremendous promotional force that the company stopped selling Combination Boxes in order to focus on its ever-increasing product and premium offerings. By 1905, the company began offering teas, spices, and additional foodstuffs among its products. Five years later, the company had added paints and varnishes, as well as rugs, clothing, and other textiles to its product line – along with 1,700 premiums to choose from, ranging from children’s toys to clothing to furniture. In 1915, the catalog featured 700 Larkin products spread over 33 pages, and offered 131 pages of premiums. One of the company’s advertising campaigns involved the idea that customers could furnish their entire house with Larkin products. This catalog for Larkin Wallpaper is an example of this idea in action.
Page showing a variety of Larkin products from the Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Home-Helper,” circa 1910 / THF297831
Larkin Premiums advertised in the publication, “My Larkin Clubs Earned These for Me,” circa 1912 / THF298076
Page from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The World’s Greatest Premium Values,” Fall and Winter 1930. The catalog from 1930 included one of the more unusual premiums Larkin offered - Hartz Mountain Canaries (guaranteed to sing) or a pair of mated Love Birds. Clickhereto view the 1930 catalog! / THF298067
As “The Larkin Idea” continued to gain popularity, the Larkin Company sought to bring those companies that produced the premiums under the Larkin umbrella. At its height, Larkin had over 30 subsidiary companies, and had furnished seed money to establish such businesses as the Barcolo Manufacturing Company, to produce furniture, and Buffalo Pottery to produce pottery and kitchenware. Since 1896, the company had begun expanding its manufacturing complex. This process continued through 1912, with 21 new structures built to accommodate the rapidly growing product and premiums list.
Deldare Candlestick, produced by Buffalo Pottery, 1911 / THF176916
Page from Larkin Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908. The Larkin Administration Building, completed in 1906 in Buffalo, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. / THF297783
Beginning in 1905, the company established branches and warehouses – first in Cleveland, and then in Boston, Chicago, New York City, Peoria and Philadelphia. With this expansion, Larkin was able to better serve its customers across the country. Despite experiencing significant growth, by 1918 the company found it had a surplus of food products far exceeding demand. Unable to move the product fast enough through mail order or the Secretary system, Larkin created retail establishments called “Larkin Economy Stores” as a way to sell these products. By 1922, there were 103 stores in Buffalo and northwestern New York, as well as others near the additional branches.
Back cover from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908 / THF297811
“The Larkin Idea” had taken the company to significant heights. By the mid-1920s, however, the company was beginning to falter for a number of reasons. National chains like A&P grocery stores and Woolworth’s presented stiff competition. Automobiles made going shopping easier, causing mail-order businesses to become less popular. Perhaps the greatest influence in Larkin’s demise was World War I, which had brought many Larkin Secretaries out of their homes and into the workforce, weakening the Larkin sales structure. The crippling economy during the Great Depression also impacted the company.
Between 1924 and 1926, all of the company’s top leadership either retired or passed away, including Larkin himself. Having failed to pass along knowledge and nurture younger leadership, the company was left with little expertise, leading to the company’s gradual closing.
Cover for Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan, Factory-To-Family,” Fall & Winter, 1917-1918 / THF298101
In 1939, the decision was made to stop manufacturing soap products, and two years later the manufacture of all products and premiums ceased as well. With an abundance of remaining inventory of both products and premiums, the Larkin Company was still able to fill orders until 1962.
What had started as a small soap manufacturing company became prominent enough to hold its own despite the tremendous popularity of mass-marketers, like Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward & Company. Through innovative marketing strategies and an entrepreneurial spirit, the Larkin Company experienced significant growth in a short period of time, finding its way into households across America.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and for reviewing this content.
American homes in the Victorian period were designed to showcase their owners’ good taste. This is the Wright home in Greenfield Village, where brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in the 1880s and 1890s.
As the “best” room, parlors were meant to show the family’s good taste to honored guests, so decoration was carefully arranged. This photo, probably taken by Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur, documents the room in the 1890s.
The Firestone Farmhouse, where Harvey Firestone was raised, is also in Greenfield Village. Here is the parlor as curators interpreted it to the mid-1880s. Notice the conscious profusion of pattern, ornament, and what we would call clutter.
Dramatic changes in taste came through the work of English reformer, William Morris. Morris sought to change society by creating the first interior design firm, Morris & Company. Probably his most important design was this reclining chair.
Morris despised “overwrought” decoration. He wanted to return to the simple design of the pre-industrial world. He wanted to reunite the arts with the crafts, destroyed by industrialization. This came to be called the "Arts and Crafts" movement. Ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement were adopted by American tastemakers in the 1890s. Gustav Stickley published a popular magazine called The Craftsman, and marketed a line of furniture, including his version of Morris’ chair.
Stickley advocated simpler, less fussy interiors, with multi-purpose rooms, for less formal living. The concept of the living room was born on the pages of Stickley’s The Craftsman magazine.
This brochure for wallpaper shows the most up-to-date Arts and Crafts interior available to Americans in 1912. As the title says: "A Well Decorated Home is a Potent Aid to Contentment & Happiness." The hall flows into the living room.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright took these ideas further with his Prairie houses, where rooms flowed into one another, and exteriors took their cues from the surrounding landscape. This is an unexecuted design for Henry Ford’s Fair Lane Home.
Textiles were an integral part of the Arts and Crafts interior. Designers emphasized the use of stylized botanical motifs, such as roses, which harmonized with furniture, ceramics, and artwork. The ideal was to create a unified interior environment.
This tile was intended to be a part of a larger composition, perhaps lining a fireplace, where the turtles would follow in a line from head to tail. The effect was intended to harmonize with an Arts and Crafts interior environment.
Detroit's Pewabic Pottery was founded in 1903 as part of the American Arts and Crafts movement. This vase represents naturalistic oak leaves in high relief from the surface of the vase. The matte glaze is typical of Arts and Crafts pottery.
After World War I, interest in the Arts and Crafts waned, as Americans looked toward other styles like the Colonial Revival and new Art Deco for their homes. However, the concept of the multi-purpose living room persisted.
In the post-World War II era, most American homes featured a comfortable living room. In this Christmas 1962 snapshot, note the Victorian rocking chair on the right and the recliner, an updated version of the “Morris” Chair, at the left.
This has been a whirlwind tour of American interiors through the 19th and 20th centuries. If you’d like to learn more about the Arts and Crafts movement, check out this Expert Set and other artifacts within our Digital Collections.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
Melville and Anna Bissell, husband and wife entrepreneurs, solved their own “sweeping” issues--then “swept” the market with their mechanical carpet sweeper.
Needed: A Better Way to Clean Housework has always been physically demanding and time-consuming--including keeping floors free of dust and dirt. For centuries, people used brooms to tidy their homes. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first mechanical breakthrough in sweeping would appear.
This trade card illustrates a more elaborately furnished--and more challenging to clean--home of the late 19th century. While brooms worked well enough on bare floors, they were much less effective at removing tracked-in dirt or coal dust from heating stoves that settled in carpets. THF208366
As house size grew and furnishings increased, people needed more effective methods of cleaning. Carpeting became very popular in middle- and upper middle-class homes during the last half of the 19th century--and it was more challenging to clean than bare floors. Going after dust and dirt with a broom on a carpeted floor wasn't terribly effective--it tended to just spread dust around. “Deep cleaning” one’s carpets was an elaborate process. Carpets had to be taken up once or twice a year, carried outside, and beaten with a carpet beater. The carpet then had to be reinstalled in the room.
Mechanical carpet sweepers made their debut in America during the mid-19th century. Carpet sweepers had a rotary brush connected to a pair of driving wheels. As the sweeper was pushed, the brush revolved, sweeping up and depositing dirt into a container that could be emptied easily. The United States Patent Office granted the first flurry of carpet sweeper patents in the late 1850s--five in 1858 and nine in 1859. Other patents would follow in the coming decades.
The fashionably dressed middle-class housewife in this circa 1880 Goshen Sweeper Company trade card “demonstrates” the company’s product. (She reminds me of June Cleaver from the 1950s television show, “Leave it to Beaver”-- who vacuumed while wearing high heels and pearls!) THF184126
Sweeping the Market Grand Rapids businessman and inventor Melville Bissell would design his own carpet sweeper in 1876.
Melville Bissell was a serial entrepreneur. In 1862, at the age of 19, Melville opened a grocery store with his father Alpheus in Kalamazoo, Michigan. By 1870, the Bissell family had moved to Grand Rapids where father and son operated a successful crockery and glassware store. Melville Bissell had married 19-year-old Anna Sutherland in 1865. Anna would prove to be an astute business partner.
The Bissells’ crockery and glassware stock arrived at their Grand Rapids store packed in sawdust or straw. Unpacking this merchandise before placing it on store shelves created a hard-to-clean-up mess-- sawdust and straw escaped the wooden crates and collected in carpet fibers. While the Bissells owned a mechanical carpet sweeper, they found it just wasn’t up to the task. Melville solved the annoying problem by developing a much better mechanical carpet sweeper and patenting it in 1876.
Anna Bissell quickly recognized this improved sweeper’s marketability--American housewives could keep their homes clean even more effectively, reducing the drudgery of housekeeping! She became the driving force of sales and marketing. The Bissells decided to distribute their product through houseware retailers, rather than door-to-door salesmen. Anna made many sales calls to stores in the Grand Rapids vicinity, succeeding in getting shopkeepers to purchase and display their carpet sweeper. Soon, hired workmen were turning out 30 sweepers a day on the second floor of the Bissell’s crockery shop to meet demand.
The left side of this circa 1880 Bissell trade card shows a vexed couple using a broom to clean their carpets. The right side depicts the couple--much happier now--using a Bissell carpet sweeper. (When holding the two-sided card up to the light, the entire message and images appear.)THF184124; T184125
An image of the Bissell company factory and a list of Bissell carpet sweeper products appear on this 1888 invoice. THF184432
In 1883, Melville Bissell organized a stock company with a paid-up capital of $150,000 and built a five-story factory for manufacturing their carpet sweepers. When the factory burned the following year, the Bissells mortgaged the family home and other property to finance its reconstruction. Soon, the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company was on its way to dominating the field as carpet sweepers grew increasingly popular in the 1880s.
It was essential to not only have a good product--but be adept at marketing it effectively to potential customers. This Bissell trade card lists the many advantages of Bissell carpet sweeper--making it unquestionably better than sweeping with a broom! THF213981
This "Christmas Bissellisms" advertising brochure suggests that a Bissell carpet sweeper would be a welcome Christmas gift for any woman. THF277410
Tragedy struck when Melville died of pneumonia in 1889 at the age of 45. Anna--now a widow with four children age 21, 7, 4 and 1--stepped in to lead the company. From the company’s beginning, Anna had been intimately involved in business affairs. Anna Bissell served as president of the Bissell company from 1889-1919--the first female CEO in the United States--and then as chair of the board from 1919-1934. She successfully managed the business, defending the company’s patents and marketing the sweepers throughout North America and Europe.
This circa 1891 Bissell carpet sweeper was sold by J.C. Black & Son at their store, The Fair, in San Jose, California.THF17277
By the 1890s, the company had an international presence and was producing 1000 sweepers per day. In addition to the company’s branch office in New York, the Bissell company established factories in London, Paris, and Toronto, with agencies in 22 foreign countries. A progressive employer, Anna Bissell was among the first business leaders of the time to provide her employees with pension plans and workers compensation.
Melville and Anna Bissell took a risk and thought big. They might have chosen to remain focused on their crockery business. But their collective vision for success went beyond. Bissell carpet sweepers would dominate the mechanical sweeper market, as people “bisselled” their way to cleaner carpets and rugs.
Bissell, Inc. is still a privately-owned, family-led company today, selling a wide range of home care products.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
The familiar silver packaging for the “Black Vader” Atari 2600 was created by Evelyn Seto, who led the Atari design team with John Hayashi. THF160364
Cardboard boxes printed in bold colors: shimmering silver, blazing orange, primary blue, circus purple—hot pink. Overlaid with white and yellow Bauhaus typography announcing the contents: Centipede, Breakout, Space Invaders. Inside the box, a black plastic cartridge that holds the promise of video game entertainment, all from the comfort of home. Games played while sitting cross-legged on the floor. Later, aching hands from hours of play on a square, non-ergonomic, one-button joystick. No quarters necessary. By the fall of 1977, there was no denying the fact that the arcade was successfully finding its way into the living room.
The Atari Video Computer System (later sold as the Atari 2600) changed the gaming industry. Earlier systems like the Magnavox Odyssey, Home PONG, and the Fairchild System F were available in the early 1970s, but the remarkable success of the Atari 2600 defined a “second generation” of home consoles, selling over 30 million units between 1977 and 1992.
The number of games available for the 2600—taking into account Atari and Sears releases as well as those by third-parties like Activision and Imagic—finds us looking at approximately 550 unique titles. Several games within this vast library include important contributions made by women.
Female employees were not uncommon at the company. Carol Kantor became the first market researcher at a video game company, ever. Wanda Hill drew the circuit diagrams for Asteroids. Judy Richter worked as a packaging designer and production manager for a decade, through multiple leadership transitions. The people working on the assembly lines populating the circuit boards for arcade games were almost all women. Evelyn Seto supervised the design team, inking the original three-pronged “Mt. Fuji” logo and creating the shelf-appealing silver packaging for the Atari 2600.
Dona Bailey and Ed Logg’s 1980 arcade version of Centipede was translated as a “port” for the Atari 2600 in 1982. In 2013, this cartridge was excavated from the “Atari Tomb” located in an Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill. THF159973
The scales were not exactly balanced in terms of gender equality within Atari’s engineering staff, but take for instance the work of Dona Bailey, programmer of the arcade version of Centipede (1980). Not only was she the first female programmer to design an arcade game, but her collaboration with Ed Logg led to the creation of one of the most iconic video games of all time.
When Carol Shaw created 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, she became the first professional female video game developer. THF171081
Carol Shaw & Susan Jaekel
Dona Bailey’s time in the “coin-op” division at Atari overlapped with Carol Shaw’s work for the “cart” division. In 1977, Shaw graduated from the University of California, Berkeley’s Computer Science program, and was hired as the first female programmer at Atari in August 1978. When she completed her first cartridge game that year—3D Tic-Tac-Toe—she effectively became one of the women to work in the professional video game industry. 3D Tic-Tac-Toe is an abstract strategy video game based on a game called Qubic, which wasoriginally played on room-sized computers in the mid-1950s.
In the 1970s and 80s, the exterior graphics of a coin-op console or the illustration on a game’s cardboard box were often a player’s first exposure to a game. Typically, the vibrant and dynamic graphics promoting a game were light years beyond the pixelated game that showed up on the screen. Nonetheless, Evelyn Seto from Atari’s graphics team once said: “The romance of the game was told in the box artwork.”
And what could be more intriguing than a woman in space with her spacesuit-clad dog competing against a robot with laser-powers? The illustrations on 3D Tic-Tac-Toe’s box were painted by Susan Jaekel, who became known for her illustrated textbooks and cookbooks, as well as the packaging for Atari’s Adventure, Circus, Basic Math, and others. On 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Jaekel collaborated with Rick Guidice to create the four grids in the design; Guidice is well-known for his 1970s illustrations of space colonies for NASA’s Ames Research Center.
In 1978, Shaw also programmed Video Checkers and Super Breakout (with Nick Turner). In 1982, Shaw left Atari to work for Activision, where she created her most celebrated game: River Raid.
River Raid by Carol Shaw. Activision was the first third-party video game developer, making compatible cartridges for the Atari 2600. THF171080
River Raid is a top-down-view scrolling shooter video game. Players move a fighter jet left to right to avoid other vehicles, shoot military vehicles, and must refuel their plane to avoid crashing. The game was pioneering for its variation in background landscape. Whereas most games repeated the same background, Shaw found a way to create a self-generating algorithm to randomize the scenery.
In an interview, Carol Shaw spoke of how “Ray Kassar, President of Atari, was touring the labs and he said, ‘Oh, at last! We have a female game designer. She can do cosmetics color matching and interior decorating cartridges!’ Which are two subjects I had absolutely no interest in…”
Detail of River Raid instruction manual, introduced by Carol Shaw.
In Atari’s early years, Carla Meninsky was one of only two female employees in Atari’s cartridge design division, along with Carol Shaw. When Meninsky was a teenager, her programmer mother taught her the basics of Fortran. Carla’s academic studies at Stanford began in the mathematics department, but she switched to a major in psychology with a focus in neuroscience. In school, she became interested in building an AI-powered computer animation system and spent her free time playing the text-based Adventure game. Soon after graduation, she pitched her computerized animation idea to Atari, and was hired. Almost immediately, she found herself shuttled into the unintended role of game programmer, working through a list of proposed titles with no actual description.
Carla Meninsky and Ed Riddle’s Indy 500 was one of the first of nine titles released with the Atari 2600 launch. THF171078
Meninsky co-designed Indy 500 with Ed Riddle. When the Atari 2600 launched, this was one of the first nine titles advertised. The game was a bird’s eye view racing game that was a “port” made in the spirit of full-size coin-op arcade games like Indy 800, Grand Trak 10, and Sprint 4. This game could be used with the standard controller, or a special driving controller with a rotating dial that allowed players to have greater control over their vehicles.
Dodge ‘Em is another driving maze game designed by Carla Meninsky, and was one of the first games she created for Atari. THF171079
Star Raiders, also by Meninsky, is a first-person shooter game with a space combat theme. The game was groundbreaking for its advanced gameplay and quality graphics that simulated a three-dimensional field of play. The original version of the game was written by Doug Neubauer for the Atari 8-bit home computer and was inspired by his love for Star Trek. This “port” to the home console market for the Atari 2600 was programmed by Carla Meninsky.
Star Raiders came with a special Video Touch Pad controller. The Henry Ford’s collections house the version sold with the 1982 game, as well as a crushed and dirtied version that was excavated from the “Atari Tomb” in 2013. THF171077 and THF159969
The 2600 version of the game could be used with a regular joystick, or a deluxe version was sold with a special Video Touch Pad controller. This twelve-button touchpad was designed to be overlaid with interchangeable graphic cards, printed with commands for different Atari games. Star Raiders was the only game to make use of this controller—perhaps if it weren’t for the looming “Video Game Crash” of 1983, other developers would have made use of this controller.
Atari was one of the first companies with the types of workplace perks that are now ubiquitous at Silicon Valley companies today. It had a reputation for attracting the young, the rebellious, and the singularly talented. While certain aspects of Atari’s workplace culture might raise eyebrows today (and rightly so), it also doesn’t take much digging to find stories of women who were empowered to make vital contributions to the company. These recent artifact acquisitions—games designed and programmed by female gaming pioneers working at Atari—embody an ambition to represent and celebrate diverse cultures through our technological collections.
Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Detroit Reacts to the Great Migration: Before the first World War, a majority of Detroit's African American population lived on the East Side and shared the area, known as Black Bottom, with white immigrant populations. At this time, relatively few African Americans, just 1.2% of the total population, called Detroit home. By 1930, the city’s African American population had grown by over 1,991%. The white immigrant population began to vacate the Black Bottom area and were quickly replaced with the growing population of African Americans attracted to the north by the promise of employment in Detroit’s booming auto industry and an escape from the rampant oppression of the south. As the African American population in Detroit increased, racial residential boundaries began to form, due in part to the stress on housing stock, as well as to outright discrimination in institutions such as employment and real estate.
Photographic print - "Newspaper Article, "Gold Rush is Started by Ford's $5 Offer," January 7, 1914" - Ford Motor Company
The automobile industry and Henry Ford’s highly-publicized $5-a-day helped to draw people in great numbers to the Detroit area. However, for African American workers, reality often differed from their hopes and expectations in the north. While many of the automotive manufacturers did hire African Americans, it was almost always for the lowest paying jobs, such as in the janitorial department or the foundry. Ford Motor Company led the automotive industry in its hiring of African American workers by 1919. The company paid African American workers the same rate as their white counterparts and hired for a variety of positions, including skilled labor. Across the board, however, African American workers made less money than their white counterparts, and consequently, had less income for quality housing.
Photographic print - "Pickling Metal Crankcases and Other Parts to Remove Surface Impurities, Ford Rouge Plant, 1936" - Ford Motor Company Photographic Department
Discriminatory real estate practices played a significant role in the housing issues which plagued Detroit. Racially restrictive covenants, which legally ensured the sale of property to only white buyers, became increasingly common in Detroit. Even if a restrictive covenant was not in place, the Detroit Real Estate Board warned area realtors “not to sell to Negroes in a 100 percent white area,” thereby enforcing and perpetuating Detroit’s racial geography. Further, the practice of “redlining,” or the racial categorization of areas by their perceived financial risk in home insurance and mortgage lending, effectively shut out black homebuyers from the market. The practice extended to the lending of new mortgages, but also to home loans, leading to the inability to complete home repairs and, eventually, an abundance of blighted homes in black neighborhoods. In addition, real estate agents erroneously reported to white homeowners that the presence of black families in their neighborhoods would lower their property values. White homeowners, even those without ingrained prejudices against African Americans, certainly did not want their property values to lower, so rallied against any attempt by an African American homebuyer purchasing in their neighborhoods. The infamous story of African American Physician Dr. Ossian Sweet exemplifies the discrimination and mob violence experienced by those who attempted to move into white neighborhoods.
Discrimination in the workplace meant that African Americans, as a whole, made significantly less money than their white counterparts. Redlining practices forced them into racially-segregated neighborhoods and cemented their inability to access loans for mortgages or home repairs. Yet, the promise of the north continued to draw African Americans to Detroit. Without access to capital, increasingly-crowded neighborhoods became increasingly-deteriorated. At each turn, discriminatory systems excluded an entire population from quality housing. From these conditions, Charles H. Lawrence and his family departed Detroit in search of quality housing and a better life. He became the first African American to settle in Inkster, Michigan, and hundreds soon followed.
African Americans Settle in Inkster The City of Inkster, also located in Wayne County, is approximately fourteen miles from downtown Detroit. Detroit Urban League President John Dancy fielded many housing inquiries from frustrated African American migrants to Detroit in the post-World War I period and beyond. Unable to locate sufficient housing in the City of Detroit, Dancy broadened his search outside the City with hopes that more rural areas would not have the same restrictive covenants and that lesser demand would persuade landowners to sell to African American buyers. In 1920, Dancy succeeded when he found amenable property owners in possession of 140 acres in rural Inkster. Although Inkster’s first African American residents’ settlement in Inkster preceded Dancy’s discovery, the 140 acres of available land enabled and impelled hundreds more African American families to move from Detroit to Inkster, despite the lack of a local government or basic public amenities like streetlights or sewer lines.
A Community Becomes a Project Henry Ford was vocal about his disdain for institutionalized philanthropy. He wrote an entire chapter, entitled “Why Charity?” in an autobiography, and explained, “philanthropy, no matter how noble its motive, does not make for self-reliance…A philanthropy that spends its time and money in helping the world to do more for itself is far better than the sort which merely gives and thus encourages idleness.” Henry Ford’s brand of philanthropy was characterized by helping people help themselves. During the Great Depression, Henry Ford was called upon by the City of Detroit to provide aid because the City’s welfare offices were overwhelmed. Their argument, aside from civic responsibility, was that the City was not receiving taxes from Ford Motor Company (FMC’s factories were located outside Detroit) yet as many as “36 percent of the families receiving care from the City of Detroit were former Ford employees” in 1931. The public goodwill that Ford’s $5 a day policy brought was quickly dissipating. In 1931, Ford agreed to two philanthropic ventures; he provided a low-interest, short-term $5 million loan to the City of Detroit and essentially took the then-Village of Inkster under the Ford Motor Company’s auspices.
Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company
Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company
Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company
Report - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company
By 1931, a few years into the Great Depression’s hardships, the residents of Inkster were struggling. Unemployment and debt were high, public services had been cut, and many residences remained partially-completed, as the Great Depression halted progress in the young village. Controversially, Henry Ford placed FMC’s Sociological Department in charge of what became known as the Inkster Project. The Sociological Department was created in 1914 in order to manage the diverse workforce and ensure employee adherence to the company’s strict standards, which were paternalistic in nature and often crossed the home life-work life boundary. In Inkster, the Sociological Department immediately began implementing programs to comprehensively rehabilitate the village. A commissary, which sold high-quality, low-cost food and essential home goods, was established. Coal was distributed to those who needed it to heat their homes. Debtors were paid off, and a medical clinic and school were constructed. Homes deemed insufficient were rehabilitated. The inability to pay for these services was irrelevant; a type of “I.O.U,” repayable through Ford-provided work and wages, was enough to access all life’s necessities.
Photographic print - "Checking on Ford Employees Home Conditions, Views from "Factory Facts From Ford," 1917"
The Legacy of the Inkster Project Although the Inkster Project was generally highly-regarded at the time, the FMC Sociological Department’s role was often overreaching. When agreeing to Ford’s aid, an Inkster resident was also agreeing to running their household as preferred by Henry Ford. Although his funds undoubtedly helped Inkster during the Great Depression, Ford’s motives were not entirely altruistic. Besides the much-needed public relations boost he received from the Inkster Project, he also was able to assert his influence and ideals on a community that largely had no choice but to accept his aid -- with all strings attached.
The Inkster Project’s legacy is complicated; many historians criticize Henry Ford’s paternalistic nature and the perhaps forceful imposition of his will onto the desperate, but others, including former residents of Inkster, praise Henry Ford for his aid. In her reminiscences, Georgia Ruth McKay explains that Inkster became a “jungle village changed into a city” during this period and that, “without his [Henry Ford’s] help, many would not have survived.” The Inkster Project was slowly phased out, but continued to operate in Inkster until 1941 when all programs were withdrawn.
Progress report - "Village of Inkster Welfare Report, 1931-1941" - Ford Motor Company
Report - "Village of Inkster Welfare Provision Report, circa 1936" - Ford Motor Company
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. In writing this piece, she appreciated the research and writings of Beth Tompkins Bates’ “The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford”, Thomas J. Sugrue’s “The Origins of the Urban Crisis; Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,”, and Howard O’Dell Lindsey’s dissertation, “Fields to Fords, Feds to Franchise: African American Empowerment in Inkster, Michigan.”