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Sidney Houghton is one of the most interesting and yet-to-be-documented figures in the group surrounding Henry and Clara Ford. Many in the Fords’ entourage are colorful and well-researched, including Harry Bennett, Henry’s security chief, known as the notorious head of the Ford Motor Company “Service” Department; Henry’s business manager, Ernest Liebold, who handled all financial transactions; and even their son, Edsel Ford, whose life and important cultural contributions are thoroughly documented. The great Ford historian Ford R. Bryan tells the story of these figures in his book, Henry’s Lieutenants (1993). Bryan frequently mentions Sidney Houghton, most notably in his book Friends, Family, and Forays (2002).

Perhaps Houghton remains undocumented because he was British, and in the decades before Internet resources became widely available, American researchers like Bryan had limited access to British sources. Today, we are fortunate to not only have the profound resources of the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford at our disposal, but also digital access to repositories around the world. As Curator of Decorative Arts, I have spent considerable time trying to fully grasp the enigmatic Mr. Houghton—his biography, his business, and, most importantly, his relationship with Henry and Clara Ford. This blog is the first in a series that will delve into this mostly hidden story.

Now, you may ask, why should we care about the Fords’ interior designer? Seeing and understanding the interior environments that the Fords created to live and work provides us with great insight into their characters, creating a well-rounded picture of their lives. We can understand their motivations and desires and see how these changed over time. We can peel back the larger-than-life personas of the Fords that come with such public lives and see them as individuals.

What Do We Know About Sidney Houghton’s Early Life?


Researching Houghton was not easy. The first place I looked was Ancestry.com, but Houghton is a very common name in Britain. After a lot of digging and working with colleagues at The Henry Ford, I located Sidney Charles Houghton, who was born in 1872 and died in 1950. He was the son of cabinetmaker Charles Houghton, which likely led to his interest in furniture-making and interior design.

One of the questions still in my mind is: Where was Houghton educated? To date, I have not been able to find out which art school he attended—these records do not appear to be available online. What I do know is that he married in 1895, and had a family consisting of two sons by 1898. By 1910, according to the British census, his business, Houghton Studio, was established in London.

Houghton in World War I


From Ford R. Bryan’s publications and resources in the Benson Ford Research Center, I knew that Houghton was in the British Navy during World War I. I searched the British National Archives and found his fascinating military service record. Houghton, I discovered, was an experienced yachtsman, and was commissioned as a commander. He helped to create patrol boats, called P-boats, that swiftly located enemy submarines. In 1917, he was sent to the United States to work with Reginald Fessenden (1866–1932), a Canadian-American inventor who worked in early radio. Together, they developed an early sonar system to locate enemy ships, submarines, and mines. For his contributions to the war effort, Houghton was awarded the Order of the British Empire, or O.B.E., in 1919.

Through the reminiscences of Ernest Liebold, held in the Benson Ford Research Center, I discovered that Houghton was brought into the Ford Motor Company’s war effort to create what Liebold called the Eagle boats. These were similar to the British P-boats. Unlike the relatively simple P-boats, though, the Eagle boats would be like a “young battleship,” according to Liebold. He went on to state that the boats would “have the eye of an eagle and would flit over the seas.”

Long, narrow boat on elevated trestle with a large group of people on land looking on
Eagle Boat #1 on Launching Trestle at the Ford Rouge Plant, July 11, 1918. / THF270275

Long, narrow boat decorated with flags and bunting on elevated trestle above water, as a crowd looks on
Eagle Boat #60 Lowered to Water, August 1919. / THF270277

Liebold continued:

Houghton came along, and he said, “We ought to have a listening device put on those ships to detect submarines.” That is where [Thomas] Edison came in to develop this listening device, and I think Houghton is the man who contacted him. I remember him coming out with a long rod and stuff, and it was so darned secret that nobody knew a thing about it.

They had a special room provided for it in the Eagle boats. It was to be this listening chamber in which the apparatus was placed. They could detect a submarine by the beat of its propellers. A magnetic signal could determine just exactly in what direction it was, [sic] and approximately, from the intensity of the sound of the beating of the propeller, they could tell just what distance and in what direction it was.

They would radio that information to the nearest battleship in a cordon of battleships, or destroyers or whatever they had. They would be able to attack the submarine, you see. That was the object of it.

As an integral member of the Eagle boat team, it is highly likely that Houghton travelled to Dearborn and met Henry Ford. We know from later correspondence that Henry and Clara developed an abiding personal friendship with Houghton which continued through the 1920s. They commissioned a series of projects, beginning with the Fords’ yacht, the Sialia—but I am getting ahead of myself. At this point, I would like to discuss Houghton’s work in interior design, specifically his role as an interior architect.

Sidney Houghton’s Studio


Page with text and image of sculpture featuring boat and figures in water
Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121214

Page with text
Back Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121230

This brochure or trade catalogue gives us great insight into the Houghton Studio. We date it to the late 1920s, when the projects Houghton worked on for the Fords were complete. From the text, we can see just what the firm’s capabilities were. The back cover reads: “Designs and estimates for decoration and furnishing of every kind / from the simplest to the most exotic / always in good style / always at exceptional values.” What this tells us is that Houghton Studio was a rarity in the interior design world.

Houghton was an interior architect, meaning that he designed both interiors and furnishings—the woodwork, wall treatments, lighting, furniture, textiles, and accessories—to create a unified interior environment. In new construction, an interior architect would collaborate with the architect to create an interior in harmony with the architecture. This contrasts with our present-day conception of an interior designer as a person who simply selects existing furnishings that harmonize to create a unified interior aesthetic. Obviously, Houghton Studio’s clients were wealthy and able to afford the best.

Page with text and three images: Two showing room interiors and one in a round inset showing the exterior of a building
Chateau Laurier National Hotel, Ottawa Canada. / THF121219a

Page with text and drawings of furniture--a wardrobe, dressing table and stool, dresser, nightstand, and two beds with a large headboard and two side tables
Designs for Modern Furniture. / THF121226a

Like most of his contemporaries, Houghton worked in a variety of styles, as demonstrated in the images above—from period revivals as seen in the Chateau Laurier National Hotel, in Ottawa, Canada, to his renderings for “Modern” furniture, done in what we would describe as the Art Deco style, which was synonymous with high-end 1920s taste.

Page with text
List of Commissions in the Houghton Catalogue. / THF121229b

One of the most interesting pages in the catalogue notes several commissions to design interiors for yachts, which was a specialty of the Houghton Studio. The most important of these was a commission for the Sialia, Henry Ford’s yacht. The Fords purchased the yacht just before World War I, and it was requisitioned for use by the U.S. Navy in 1917. The ship was returned to Henry Ford in 1920. At this point, Sidney Houghton was asked to redesign the interiors.

Henry Ford’s Sialia


Long boat docked next to an industrial crane or craneway
Henry Ford’s Yacht, Sialia, Docked at Ford Rouge Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, 1927. /THF140396

According to Ford R. Bryan, the cost of the interiors was approximately $150,000. As seen here, the interiors are comfortable, but relatively simple. During the 1920s, the Fords occasionally used the Sialia, but Henry and Clara Ford preferred other means of travel, usually by large Ford corporate ore carriers, when they traveled to their summer home in Michigan’s upper peninsula. According to the ship’s captain, Perry Stakes, Henry Ford never really liked the Sialia, and he sold it in July of 1927.

Room interior with piano, desk, upholstered chair
Parlor on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92100

Small room containing double bed with a dresser on either side and a round mirror above each dresser
Bedroom on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92098

Following the Sialia commission, the Fords found a kindred spirit in Houghton. The archives contain ample correspondence from the early 1920s, with the Fords asking Houghton to return to Dearborn. Houghton subsequently received a commission to design the interior of the Fords’ Fair Lane railroad car in 1920. Between 1920 and 1926, Houghton was deluged with projects from the Fords, including the redesign of the Fair Lane Estate interiors, design of Henry and Edsel’s offices in the new Ford Engineering Laboratory, interiors for the Dearborn Country Club, as well as interiors for the Henry Ford Hospital addition.

In the next post in this series, we will look closer at several of these projects and present surviving renderings from the Fair Lane remodeling, as well as furniture from the Engineering Laboratory offices.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

home life, decorative arts, technology, archives, research, Ford Motor Company, World War I, by Charles Sable, Henry Ford, design, furnishings

Sewing machine built into wooden table with intricate, decorative metal base
This 1881 Singer sewing machine is on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Isaac Singer developed the first practical sewing machine for home use in the 1850s. / THF173635


Innovation has intended, and often unintended, effects. Take the sewing machine, for example. Its invention in the mid-1840s would make clothing more available and affordable. Yet, ironically, the sewing machine also resulted in a decline of sewing skills—not immediately, but over time. Nowadays, few of us know how to make clothing.

Once, things were very different. For centuries, sewing a family’s clothing by hand was a time-consuming and constant task for women. A woman often made hundreds of garments in her lifetime; all young girls were taught to sew.

Young girl sews the back of a young boy's jacket in an area with trees; also contains text
A trade card for Clark's O.N.T. Spool Cotton from the late nineteenth century depicts a young girl using her sewing skills to repair a rip in her brother’s jacket so that “It will be as good as new and Ma won’t know!” / THF298697

When the sewing machine came on the scene during the mid-1800s, this handy invention made a big difference. For example, it now took about an hour to sew a man’s shirt by machine—rather than 14 hours by hand. In the 1850s, clothing manufacturers quickly acquired sewing machines for their factories, and, as they became less expensive, people bought them for home use.

While machines made it easier to make clothing at home, buying clothing ready-made was even less work. By the early 1900s, the ready-to-wear industry offered a broad range of attractive clothing for men, women, and children. Increasingly, people bought their clothing in stores rather than making it themselves.

Woman in pink sleeveless dress with full skirt, wearing white gloves, poses in front of a couch
Patricia Jean Davis wears a prom dress she made herself in 1960. / THF123841

Sewing skills may have declined, but what have we gained? A lot. Mass-produced clothing has raised our standard of living: stylish, affordable clothing can be had off the rack. For many, sewing remains a creative outlet, rather than a required task. For them, making clothing is no longer something you have to do, but something you want to do.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

Henry Ford Museum, women's history, THF Connect app, manufacturing, making, home life, fashion, by Jeanine Head Miller

Image of red house behind large green lawn with man on riding lawnmower
With the rise of the suburban neighborhood at the end of the 19th century and its explosive growth in the years that followed World War II, maintaining a "perfect" lawn became the new standard. Manufacturers promoted a whole set of specialty equipment to support this American obsession. / THF620523


A quintessential icon of modern American suburbia, the “lawn” has roots as deep as America itself. In the early days of the nation, the importation of European taste highly influenced the architecture and interior decoration style of the wealthy—which included the adoption of the green spaces that began appearing in French and English landscape design during the 18th century.

During his time representing the young United States in Europe, Thomas Jefferson witnessed the “tapis vert,” or “green carpet,” at the Palace of Versailles, as well as the large green swaths of closely mown grass that were common to English country estates. Both impressed upon Jefferson a grandeur that he tried to emulate at Monticello, his plantation. This European influence also extended to George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, where Washington hired English landscape gardeners to help create his own versions of English lawns and gardens.

These plantation sites were heavily enmeshed in the American psyche as Washington and Jefferson became mythologized over time. During the 19th century, inexpensive and easily acquired prints made both of these plantation homes, including their grounds, some of the most famous buildings in America, and gave wealthy Americans images of what they could aspire to.

Wooden box with some blocks in it and other blocks scattered around; top of box contains image of house and grounds
A toy picture puzzle, dating to 1858–1863, featuring a picture of George Washington’s Mount Vernon on the right. The dissemination of Mount Vernon images in the 19th century showed Americans an idyllic version of the grounds. / THF168885

In the mid-19th century, citizens of increasingly industrialized cities with growing populations sought respite from the urbanization of their landscape. A solution to their problems came in the form of advocacy by prominent landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing for the creation of suburbs outside cities, as well as public parks. When Downing died unexpectedly in 1852, Frederick Law Olmsted stepped up to deliver on Downing’s visions—and bring to life some of his own.

Often considered the father of American landscape architecture, Olmsted started his career in the 1850s when he co-designed New York City’s Central Park with architect Calvert Vaux. He’d go on to design parks in Boston, Chicago, Montreal, and many other places. Olmsted not only popularized the use of green spaces in public parks, but also co-designed suburbs with Vaux—like Riverside, Illinois, in which each residential home had its own lawn or “green space.”

Page with handwritten text and painting of park with grass, trees, paths, and a building, with people on foot, on horses, and in carriages
An early watercolor drawing of New York City’s Central Park, featuring the design work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. / THF221839

Riverside, Illinois, marked the beginning of the migration that lawns took from city parks and wealthy estates to individual yards. By the 1890s, they were becoming a fixture of the suburban landscape as improvements in transit allowed city suburbs to grow.

With this new hobby came new technology. Enhancements to mass-production procedures over the course of the 19th century meant new machinery, like mechanical mowers, could be manufactured at a relatively low cost to help homeowners keep their lawns trimmed (no more sheep or servants needed!). While sprinklers would require cities to invest in and build municipal water systems, the ability to own a home with a lawn was slowly becoming possible for more and more Americans as infrastructure advanced in the early 20th century. Over the next 50 years, what was once uncommon would become synonymous with suburban living.

Girl in blue dress with red sash pushes reel mower across a lawn in front of a large house
Trade Card for the Clipper Mower, Made by Chadborn & Coldwell Mfg. Co., 1880-1890 / THF297561

The mid-20th century saw the maturation of modern American lawn culture—a culture that remains relatively unchanged today. The unprecedented economic growth of post–World War II America brought a need for inexpensive housing to accommodate returning GIs and their young families. An early solution to this problem was Levittown, New York, one of the first “cookie-cutter” affordable-housing suburbs, built between 1948 and 1952 by Abraham Levitt on Long Island. The easy-to-manufacture homes of Levittown came with a lawn—along with rules on how it should look—and represented the suburbanization that was taking place across American cities at the time.

Black-and-white photo of 50s car parked in front of a lawn and house
A photo of a 1955 Ford Fairlane Town Sedan, possibly used in advertising, captures the idealized 1950s “American dream”—a house, a car, and a nice lawn. / THF116716

Today’s lawn standards arise from the scientific and technological developments of the post-war period, when rotary mowers were introduced along with a number of pesticides and fertilizers now needed to keep a lawn “healthy.” Since then, the lawn has become ubiquitous in suburban living and a symbol of the middle-class American dream, as well as a big business. While the pursuit of a perfect lawn remains a pillar of identity in America, shifting cultural perceptions around how environmentally sustainable lawn culture is continue to shift the conversation on this icon of American communities.


Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

design, home life, by Ryan Jelso, lawn care

On August 12, 1981, as members of the press gathered in the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom in New York City, one of the largest technology companies in the world was about to make an announcement. At the time, the name “IBM” was mostly associated with the room-sized installations of mainframe computers that the company had become famous for in the 1950s. They cost millions of dollars to purchase, needed their own air-conditioned rooms, and required specially trained staff. They were found in large corporations, universities, and research facilities—but not in a typical home. That was about to change with the introduction of the IBM Model 5150, also known as the IBM PC.

Horizontal computer processor with two disk drives, monitor, and keyboard
An IBM 5150 PC, circa 1984. / THF156040

The idea of internally producing a small, affordable computer was at odds with IBM’s corporate culture. One naysayer remarked that “IBM bringing out a personal computer would be like teaching an elephant to tap dance." Nonetheless, a development team was formed, and the lofty goal of completing the project in one short year was established. “Project Chess” began its race toward the finish line. The team of twelve was fronted by Don Estridge and Mark Dean, who designed the ISA bus (an interface allowing easy expansion of memory and peripherals) and color graphics system.

Part of the success story of designing the 5150 in such a short span of time is an exception to a long-standing IBM company rule: the engineers were allowed to include technology made by outside companies, rather than building every aspect of the PC, from the ground up, themselves. This is why the IBM PC uses an Intel 8088 microprocessor, can run on Microsoft DOS, and is compatible with software made by other companies. It was also released under an open architecture model—a philosophy that would soon lead to a flood of PC-inspired “clones.”

Computer (which looks like a large typewriter) and cassette tape player
An Atari 800 computer: an early attempt by a video game company to harness the home computing market. / THF155976

In truth, the IBM PC was not the first small home computer, and by entering this market, the company would face competition from Commodore, Atari, Tandy, and Apple—all of whom had produced successful microcomputers beginning in the mid-1970s. To match the wide reach of these rivals, IBM sold their machines at convenient retailers like Sears and ComputerLand. Importantly, it was affordable by 1981 standards at an introductory price of $1,565. And… it fit on your desktop.

A positive effect of IBM creating a PC is that it helped to legitimize the notion of home computers beyond specialists and the home hobbyist crowd. IBM was essentially a well-recognized “heritage brand” by 1981, so the type of consumers reluctant to invest in a computer produced by a scrappy start-up were suddenly scrambling to put deposits down for a 5150. Whereas as “young” computing companies (many of which started out as video game companies) were under threat of being swallowed up in a competitive market, IBM projected an aura of measured reliability and was trusted to stick around.

White button with silhouette image of Charlie Chaplin sitting in a chair that appears to be falling backwards at a table that holds a computer and vase of flowers; also contains text
A button advertising the IBM PC. / THF323543

Ironically, while IBM’s plan was to break out of the office and into the home, PCs were purchased in bulk by businesses to populate desks and cubicles. A visual unity was established in office environment—fields of putty gray and beige personal computers.

The IBM 5150 arrived at an important “boom” moment in computing history. It is evidence of an established company challenging its established design modes by harnessing emerging technologies. And IBM’s decision to pivot proved to be a timely decision too, since affordable microprocessors began to render behemoth, expensive mainframes largely obsolete. But most importantly, the IBM PC—and the wave of computers like it that followed—were designed with the non-specialist in mind, helping to make the personal computer an everyday device in people’s homes.


Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

home life, technology, computers, by Kristen Gallerneaux

Lawn care takes commitment. Implements designed to reduce the time required to improve a lawn's appearance hit the commercial market during the mid-1800s. Push-powered lawn mowers in a variety of configurations from that era gave way to motorized models, with riding mowers gaining popularity in the 1950s. (For more on the evolution of lawn mowers, check out this expert set.) The American Marketing and Sales Company (AMSC) went one step further in the 1970s. AMSC’s autonomous Mowtron mower, the company proclaimed, “Mows While You Doze.”

Low lawnmower with red plastic body on white platform with four black wheel
Mowtron Mower, 1974. / THF186471

AMSC released the futuristic mower, invented in 1969 by a man named Tyrous Ward, in Georgia in 1971. Its designers retained the familiar form of a riding mower, even incorporating a fiberglass “seat”—though no rider was needed. But Mowtron’s sleek, modern lines and atomic motif symbolized a new day in lawn care.

If the look of the mower promised a future with manicured lawns that required minimal human intervention, Mowtron’s underground guidance system delivered on that promise. Buried copper wire, laid in a predetermined pattern, operated as a closed electrical circuit when linked to an isolation transformer. This transistorized system directed the self-propelled, gasoline-powered mower, which, once started, could mow independently and then return to the garage.

GIF that rotates through three images of equipment
Components of Mowtron’s transistorized guidance system. / THF186481, THF186480, and THF186478

AMSC understood that despite offering the ultimate in convenience, Mowtron would be a tough sell. To help convince skeptical consumers to adopt an unfamiliar technology, the company outfitted Mowtron with safety features, such as sensitized bumpers that stopped the mower when it touched an obstacle, and armed its sales force with explanatory material.

Mowtron’s market expanded from Georgia throughout the early 1970s. The Mowtron equipment and related materials in The Henry Ford’s collection belonged to Hubert Wenzel, who worked as a licensed Mowtron dealer as a side job. Wenzel had two Mowtron systems: he displayed one at lawn and garden shows and installed another as the family mower at his homes in New Jersey and Indiana. Wenzel’s daughter recalled cars stopping on the side of the road to watch whenever it was out mowing the lawn.

Lawmower on trailer behind truck, with sign containing text
Display used by Mowtron dealer Hubert Wenzel. / THF623554, detail

Mowtron sales were never brisk—in fact, Hubert Wenzel never sold a mower—but company records show that the customers willing to try the new technology appreciated Mowtron’s styling, convenience, and potential cost savings. One owner compared her mower to a sleek Italian sports car. Another expressed pleasure at the ease of starting the mower before work and returning home to a fresh-cut yard. And one customer figured his savings in lawn care costs would pay for the machine in two years (Mowtron retailed at around $1,000 in 1974, including installation).

Despite its limited commercial success, the idea behind Mowtron had staying power. Today, manufacturers offer autonomous mowers in new configurations that offer the same promise: lawn care at the push of a button. (Discover one modern-day entrepreneur’s story on our YouTube channel.)


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

autonomous technology, technology, lawn care, home life, by Saige Jedele, by Debra A. Reid

“Whenever Henry Ford visited England, he always liked to spend a few days in the Cotswold Country, of which he was very fond … during these sojourns I had many happy times driving Mr. Ford around the lovely scenes which abound in this part of Britain.”

—Herbert Morton, Strange Commissions for Henry Ford

Curving dirt road with low stone buildings on either side and a wall on one side
A winding road through a Cotswold village, October 1930. / THF148434, detail

The Cotswolds Catch Henry Ford’s Eye


Henry Ford loved the Cotswolds, a rural region in southwest England—nearly 800 square miles of rolling hills, pastures, and small villages.

During the Middle Ages, a vibrant wool trade brought the Cotswolds great prosperity—at its heart was a breed of sheep known as Cotswold Lions. For centuries, the Cotswold region was well-known throughout Europe for the quality of its wool. Raising sheep, trading in wool, and woolen cloth fueled England’s economic growth from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Cotswold’s prosperity and its rich belt of limestone that provided ready building material resulted in a distinctive style of architecture: limestone homes, churches, shops, and farm buildings of simplicity and grace.

During Henry Ford’s trips to the Cotswolds in the 1920s, he became intrigued with the area’s natural beauty and charming architecture—all those lovely stone buildings that “blossomed” among the verdant green countryside and clustered together in Cotswold’s picturesque villages. By early 1929, Ford had decided he wanted to acquire and move a Cotswold home to Greenfield Village.

A letter dated February 4, 1929, from Ford secretary Frank Campsall described that Ford was looking for “an old style that has not had too many changes made to it that could be restored to its true type.” Herbert Morton, Ford’s English agent, was assigned the task of locating and purchasing a modest building “possessing as many pretty local features as might be found.” Morton began to roam the countryside looking for just such a house. It wasn’t easy. Cotswold villages were far apart, so his search covered an extensive area. Owners of desirable properties were often unwilling to sell. Those buildings that were for sale might have only one nice feature—for example, a lovely doorway, but no attractive window elements.

Low stone houses and fences among rolling meadows
Cotswold Cottage (buildings shown at left) nestled among the rolling hills in Chedworth, 1929–1930. / THF236012

Herbert Morton was driving through the tiny village of Lower Chedworth when he saw it. Constructed of native limestone, the cottage had “a nice doorway, mullions to the windows, and age mellowed drip-stones.” Morton knew he had found the house he had been looking for. It was late in the day, and not wanting to knock on the door and ask if the home was for sale, Morton returned to the town of Cheltenham, where he was staying.

The next morning Morton strolled along a street in Cheltenham, pondering how to approach the home’s owner. He stopped to look into a real estate agent’s window—and saw a photograph of the house, which was being offered for sale! Later that day, Morton arrived in Chedworth, and was greeted by the owner, Margaret Cannon Smith, and her father. The cottage, constructed out of native limestone in the early 1600s, had begun life as a single cottage, with the second cottage added a bit later.

Bare interior of room with low ceiling, large fireplace, and door open to reveal spiral staircase leading upwards
Interior of Cotswold Cottage, 1929-1930. / THF236052

The home was just as quaint inside—large open fireplaces with the mantels supported on oak beams. Heavy oak beams graced the ceilings and the roof. Spiral stone staircases led to the second floor. Morton bought the house and the two acres on which it stood under his own name from Margaret Smith in April 1929 for approximately $5000. Ford’s name was kept quiet. Had the seller been aware that the actual purchaser was Henry Ford, the asking price might have been higher.

Stone building with peaked rooves
Cotswold Cottage (probably built about 1619) as it looked when Herbert Morton spotted it, 1929–1930. / THF236020

“Perfecting” the Cotswold Look


Over the next several months, Herbert Morton and Frank Campsall, Ford’s personal secretary, traded correspondence concerning repairs and (with the best of intentions on Ford’s part) some “improvements” Ford wanted done to the building: the addition of architectural features that best exemplified the Cotswold style. Morton sent sketches, provided by builder and contractor W. Cox-Howman from nearby Stow-on-the-Wold, showing typical Cotswold architectural features not already represented in the cottage from which to choose. Ford selected the sketch which offered the largest number of typical Cotswold features.

Ford’s added features on the left cottage included a porch (a copy of one in the Cotswold village of Rissington), a dormer window, a bay window, and a beehive oven.

Stone house with porch
Cotswold Cottage, 1929–1930, showing modifications requested by Henry Ford: the beehive oven, porch, and dormer window. / THF235980

Interior view of bay window with four paned windows set in stone wall
Bay window added to the left cottage by Henry Ford (shown 1929–1930). Iron casement windows were added throughout. / THF236054

The cottage on the right got a doorway “makeover” and some dove-holes. These holes are commonly found in the walls of barns, but not in houses. It would have been rather unappealing to have bird droppings so near the house!

Door and window set in stone wall
Stone house with garden
Ford’s modifications to the right cottage—a new doorway (top) and dove-holes (bottom) on the upper wall. /
THF236004, THF235988

Stone house
Cotswold Cottage, now sporting Henry Ford’s desired alterations. / THF235984

Ford wanted the modifications completed before the building was disassembled—perhaps so that he could establish the final “look” of the cottage, as well as be certain that there were sufficient building materials. The appearance of the house now reflected both the early 1600s and the 1920s—each of these time periods became part of the cottage’s history. Ford’s additions, though not original to the house, added visual appeal.

The modifications were completed by early October 1929. The land the cottage stood on was transferred to the Ford Motor Company and later sold.

Cotswold Cottage Comes to America


Partially disassembled stone building, with scaffolding around it and architectural elements laid out on the grass surrounding it
Cotswold Cottage being disassembled. / THF148471

By January 1930, the dismantling of the modified cottage was in process. To carry out the disassembly, Morton again hired local contractor W. Cox-Howman.

People around a group of crates and large stone building blocks in front of a stone house
Building components being crated for shipment to the United States. / THF148475

Doors, windows, staircases, and other architectural features were removed and packed in 211 crates.

Construction site with piles of loose stones and many pallets; stone building in background
Cotswold building stones ready for shipment in burlap sacks. / THF148477

The building stones were placed in 506 burlap sacks.

Stone building with several wooden doors
Cotswold barn and stable on original site, 1929–1930. / THF235974

The adjacent barn and stable, as well as the fence, were also dismantled and shipped along with the cottage.

Train with many open cars packed with pallets
Hauled by a Great Western Railway tank engine, 67 train cars transported the materials from the Cotswolds to London to be shipped overseas. / THF132778

The disassembled cottage, fence, and stable—nearly 500 tons worth—were ready for shipment in late March 1930. The materials were loaded into 67 Great Western Railway cars and transported to Brentford, west London, where they were carefully transferred to the London docks. From there, the Cotswold stones crossed the Atlantic on the SS London Citizen.

As one might suspect, it wasn’t a simple or inexpensive move. The sacks used to pack many of the stones were in rough condition when they arrived in New Jersey—at 600 to 1200 pounds per package, the stones were too heavy for the sacks. So, the stones were placed into smaller sacks that were better able to withstand the last leg of their journey by train from New Jersey to Dearborn. Not all of the crates were numbered; some that were had since lost their markings. One package went missing and was never accounted for—a situation complicated, perhaps, by the stones having been repackaged into smaller sacks.

Despite the problems, all the stones arrived in Dearborn in decent shape—Ford’s project manager/architect, Edward Cutler, commented that there was no breakage. Too, Herbert Morton had anticipated that some roof tiles and timbers might need to be replaced, so he had sent some extra materials along—materials taken from old cottages in the Cotswolds that were being torn down.

Cotswold “Reborn”


In April 1930, the disassembled Cotswold Cottage and its associated structures arrived at Greenfield Village. English contractor Cox-Howman sent two men, mason C.T. Troughton and carpenter William H. Ratcliffe, to Dearborn to help re-erect the house. Workers from Ford Motor Company’s Rouge Plant also came to assist. Reassembling the Cotswold buildings began in early July, with most of the work completed by late September. Henry Ford was frequently on site as Cotswold Cottage took its place stone-by-stone in Greenfield Village.

Before the English craftsmen returned home, Clara Ford arranged a special lunch at the cottage, with food prepared in the cottage’s beehive oven. The men also enjoyed a sight-seeing trip to Niagara Falls before they left for England in late November.

Workers on a partially constructed building
By the end of July 1930, the cottage walls were nearly completed. / THF148485

Man stands next to rows of stacked shingles in foreground; two partially constructed buildings in background
On August 20, 1930, the buildings were ready for their shingles to be put in place. The stone shingles were put up with copper nails, a more modern method than the wooden pegs originally used. / THF148497

Stone wall with stone building and stone tower visible behind it
Cotswold barn, stable, and dovecote, photographed by Michele Andonian. / THF53508

Free-standing dovecotes, designed to house pigeons or doves which provided a source of fertilizer, eggs, and meat, were not associated with buildings such as Cotswold Cottage. They were found at the homes of the elite. Still, for good measure, Ford added a dovecote to the grouping about 1935. Cutler made several plans and Ford chose a design modeled on a dovecote in Chesham, England.

Henry and Clara Ford Return to the Cotswolds


Ivy-covered stone building; road in front
The Lygon Arms in Broadway, where the Fords stayed when visiting the Cotswolds. / THF148435, detail

As reconstruction of Cotswold Cottage in Greenfield Village was wrapping up in the fall of 1930, Henry and Clara Ford set off for a trip to England. While visiting the Cotswolds, the Fords stayed at their usual hotel, the Lygon Arms in Broadway, one of the most frequently visited of all Cotswold villages.

Group of people pose for photo in front of bushes
Henry (center) and Clara Ford (second from left) visit the original site of Cotswold Cottage, October 1930. / THF148446, detail

While in the Cotswolds, Henry Ford unsurprisingly asked Morton to take him and Clara to the site where the cottage had been.

Street with buildings
Cotswold village of Stow-on-the-Wold, 1930. / THF148440, detail

At Stow-on-the-Wold, the Fords called on the families of the English mason and carpenter sent to Dearborn to help reassemble the Cotswold buildings.

Road running between stone buildings with stone walls
Village of Snowshill in the Cotswolds. / THF148437, detail

During this visit to the Cotswolds, the Fords also stopped by the village of Snowshill, not far from Broadway, where the Fords were staying. Here, Henry Ford examined a 1600s forge and its contents—a place where generations of blacksmiths had produced wrought iron farm equipment and household objects, as well as iron repair work, for people in the community.

Run-down looking stone and wood building
The forge on its original site at Snowshill, 1930. / THF146942

A few weeks later, Ford purchased the dilapidated building. He would have it dismantled, and then shipped to Dearborn in February 1931. The reconstructed Cotswold Forge would take its place near the Cotswold Cottage in Greenfield Village.

To see more photos taken during Henry and Clara Ford’s 1930 tour of the Cotswolds, check out this photograph album in our Digital Collections.

Cotswold Cottage Complete in Greenfield Village—Including Wooly “Residents”


Dog and sheep in snowy field in front of stone house, with another stone building to right side
Completed the previous fall, Cotswold Cottage is dusted with snow in this January 1931 photograph. Cotswold sheep gather in the barnyard, watched over by Rover, Cotswold’s faithful sheepdog. (Learn Rover's story here.) / THF623050

Cat reclining on a sheep's back, with stone fences or walls behind and to their side
A Cotswold sheep (and feline friend) in the barnyard, 1932. / THF134679

Beyond the building itself, Henry Ford brought over Cotswold sheep to inhabit the Cotswold barnyard. Sheep of this breed are known as Cotswold Lions because of their long, shaggy coats and faintly golden hue.

Photo taken from inside a window of people dismounting from an omnibus outside a garden with a gate
Cotswold Cottage stood ready to welcome—and charm—visitors when Greenfield Village opened to the public in June 1933. / THF129639

By the Way: Who Once Lived in Cotswold Cottage?


Page containing image of stone house and text
Cotswold Cottage, as it looked in the early 1900s. From Old Cottages Farm-Houses, and Other Stone Buildings in the Cotswold District, 1905, by W. Galsworthy Davie and E. Guy Dawber. / THF284946

Before Henry Ford acquired Cotswold Cottage for Greenfield Village, the house had been lived in for over 300 years, from the early 1600s into the late 1920s. Many of the rapid changes created by the Industrial Revolution bypassed the Cotswold region and in the 1920s, many area residents still lived in similar stone cottages. In previous centuries, many of the region’s inhabitants had farmed, raised sheep, worked in the wool or clothing trades, cut limestone in the local quarries, or worked as masons constructing the region’s distinctive stone buildings. Later, silk- and glove-making industries came to the Cotswolds, though agriculture remained important. By the early 1900s, tourism became a growing part of the region’s economy.

A complete history of those who once occupied Greenfield Village’s Cotswold Cottage is not known, but we’ve identified some of the owners since the mid-1700s. The first residents who can be documented are Robert Sley and his wife Mary Robbins Sley in 1748. Sley was a yeoman, a farmer who owned the land he worked. From 1790 at least until 1872, Cotswold was owned by several generations of Robbins descendants named Smith, who were masons or limeburners (people who burned limestone in a kiln to obtain lime for mixing with sand to make mortar).

As the Cotswold region gradually evolved over time, so too did the nature of some of its residents. From 1920 to 1923, Austin Lane Poole and his young family owned the Cotswold Cottage. Medieval historian, fellow, and tutor at St. John’s College at Oxford University (about 35 miles away), Poole was a scholar who also enjoyed hands-on work improving the succession of Cotswold houses that he owned. Austin Poole had gathered documents relating to the Sley/Robbins/Smith families spanning 1748 through 1872. It was these deeds and wills that revealed the names of some of Cotswold Cottage’s former owners. In 1937, after learning that the cottage had been moved to Greenfield Village, Poole gave these documents to Henry Ford.

In 1926, Margaret Cannon Smith purchased the house, selling it in 1929 to Herbert Morton, on Henry Ford’s behalf.

“Olde English” Captures the American Imagination


At the time that Henry Ford brought Cotswold Cottage to Greenfield Village, many Americans were drawn to historic English architectural design—what became known as Tudor Revival. The style is based on a variety of late Middle Ages and early Renaissance English architecture. Tudor Revival, with its range of details reminiscent of thatched-roof cottages, Cotswold-style homes, and grand half-timbered manor houses, became the inspiration for many middle-class and upper-class homes of the 1920s and 1930.

These picturesque houses filled suburban neighborhoods and graced the estates of the wealthy. Houses with half-timbering and elaborate detail were often the most obvious examples of these English revival houses, but unassuming cottage-style homes also took their place in American towns and cities. Mansion or cottage, imposing or whimsical, the Tudor Revival house was often made of brick or stone veneer, was usually asymmetrical, and had a steep, multi-gabled roof. Other characteristics included entries in front-facing gables, arched doorways, large stone or brick chimneys (often at the front of the house), and small-paned casement windows.

Large building, seen across lawn containing trees
Edsel Ford’s home at Gaukler Pointe, about 1930. / THF112530

Henry Ford’s son Edsel and his wife Eleanor built their impressive but unpretentious home, Gaukler Pointe, in the Cotswold Revival style in the late 1920s.

Building seen across lawn and garden
Postcard, Postum Cereal Company office building in Battle Creek, Michigan, about 1915. / THF148469

Tudor Revival design found its way into non-residential buildings as well. The Postum Cereal Company (now Post Cereals) of Battle Creek, Michigan, chose to build an office building in this centuries-old English style.

Page with image of house, floor plan, and text
Plan for “An Attractive English Cottage” from the American Face Brick Association plan book, 1921. / THF148542

Page with image of house, floor plan, and text
Page with image of house, floor plan, and text
Page with image of house, floor plan, and text
Plans for English-inspired homes offered by Curtis Companies Inc., 1933. /
THF148549, THF148550, THF148553

Tudor Revival homes for the middle-class, generally more common and often smaller in size, appeared in house pattern books of the 1920s and 1930s.

Wooden sideboard with carved legs and carving and inlay on body
Sideboard, part of a dining room suite made in the English Revival style, 1925–1930. / THF99617

The Tudor Revival called for period-style furnishings as well. “Old English” was one of the most common designs found in fashionable dining rooms during the 1920s and 1930s.

Card with images of carolers in front of buildings; also contains text
Christmas card, 1929. / THF4485

Even English-themed Christmas cards were popular.

Cotswold Cottage—A Perennial Favorite


Stone house with ivy growing on it, behind stone wall and garden
Cotswold Cottage in Greenfield Village, photographed by Michelle Andonian. / THF53489

Henry Ford was not alone in his attraction to the distinctive architecture of the Cotswold region and the English cottage he transported to America. Cotswold Cottage remains a favorite with many visitors to Greenfield Village, providing a unique and memorable experience.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

home life, design, farm animals, travel, Henry Ford, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village, by Jeanine Head Miller

Card with ripped corners depicting a hand holding a bouquet of flowers; also contains text
Trade Card for Choice Flower Seeds, D.M. Ferry & Co., 1880-1900 / THF214403


Sustenance is not usually associated with flowers or the horticultural industry, but cut flowers and ornamental plants have been nourishing humans for centuries. Flowers aid people through hard times by providing joy, mental health benefits, and ephemeral beauty unmatched in many eyes. Additionally, cut flower cultivation is a critical source of revenue and ecosystem service for agricultural entrepreneurs.

Duplicated image of a pink flower with green leaves on a black background
Stereograph of a blooming tree peony, circa 1865 / THF66255

The horticulture industry grew rapidly during the 19th century. New businesses, such as Mount Hope Nursery and Gardens out of Rochester, New York, used an expanding transportation infrastructure to market ornamental plants to Midwesterners starting during the 1840s. Yet, while consumers’ interest in ornamentation grew, so did their displeasure with distant producers distributing plants of unverifiable quality. Soon enough, local seed companies and seedling and transplant growers met Detroiters’ needs, establishing greater levels of trust between producer and consumer (Lyon-Jenness, 2004). D.M. Ferry & Co., established in Detroit in 1867, sold vegetable and flower seeds, as well as fruit tree grafts, direct to consumers and farmers.

At the heart of horticulture lies a tension between respect for local, native species and the appeal of newly engineered, “perfect” cultivars. Entrepreneurs such as Hiram Sibley invested in the new and novel, building fruit, vegetable, and flower farms, as well as distribution centers, in multiple states.

Open wooden box with graphics, images, and text on underside of lid; contains seed packets, with other seed packets arranged outside the box
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542

Plant breeders such as Luther Burbank sought a climate to support year-round experimentation. As a result, he relocated from Massachusetts to California, where he cultivated roses, crimson poppies, daisies, and more than 800 other plants over the decades. Companies in other parts of the country—Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. in Louisiana, Missouri, and the W. Atlee Burpee Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—partnered with Burbank or established their own California operations to maintain a competitive edge. These larger farms had to send their flowers by rail across the country and as such, engineered for consistency and mass production.

Field filled with pink flowers; also contains text
Field of Burbank's Rosy Crimson Escholtzia, April 13, 1908, Santa Rosa, California. / THF277209

Advertising fueled growth. Companies marketed seeds directly to homeowners, farmers, and market gardeners through a combination of colorful packets, seed boxes, catalogs, specimen books, trade cards, and purchasing schemes. Merchants could reference colorful trade literature issued by D.M. Ferry & Company as they planned flower seed purchases for the next year. The 1879 catalog even oriented merchants to its seed farms and trial grounds near Detroit. A D.M. Ferry trade card (seen below) advertised more than the early flowering sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) in 1889, featuring twelve “choice kinds” available in Ferry seed boxes or through orders submitted by merchants directly to the company (Little and Kantor, Journal of Heredity, 1941). Customers who returned ten empty seed packets earned a copy of Ferry’s Floral Album.

Card with images of white, pink, and dark purple flowers; also contains text
Trade Card for Sweet Pea Seeds, D.M. Ferry & Company, 1889. / THF214415

Additionally, magazines such as Vick’s Illustrated Family Magazine, published by Rochester, New York, seedsman James Vick, served as a clearinghouse of information for consumers and growers alike.

GIF cycling through a number of images of flowers
Floral lithographs by James Vick / Digital Collections

Flowers were not always grown in isolation. Cultivating and selling vegetables side-by-side with flowers was common practice, as it provided farmers diversity in income with the ebb and flow of seasons. The addition of flowers proved mutually beneficial to both profits and productivity for farms, as they attract pollinators and receive a high mark-up in the market. Furthermore, flowers could be placed alongside vegetables on farm stands as a means to decorate and draw the attention of market goers.

Market gardeners who also grew flowers saw the potential in Detroit, and this helped develop the floriculture industry. John Ford, a Scottish immigrant, gained visibility through his entries at the Annual Fair of Michigan State Agricultural Society, winning awards for cut flowers, dahlias, and German asters, as well as culinary vegetables, strawberries, and nutmeg melons, throughout the 1850s and 1860s (The Michigan Farmer, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1861/62, 1863/64). Ford served on the Detroit City Common Council. After that body approved construction, in 1860, of a new Vegetable Shed for Detroit’s City Hall Market (also known as Central Market), Ford or members of his family operated a stand in the market until at least 1882.

Illustration of a large white lily with yellow stripes in the center of the petals and orangish-brown dots
Nurseryman's Specimen Book, 1871-1888, page 76 / THF620239

Another market gardener, John Breitmeyer, an immigrant from Bavaria, settled in Detroit in 1852 and grew a booming floral business. He anticipated the growth of the floral industry, building hot houses for roses in 1886 and establishing the first florist shop in Detroit in 1890 off Bates Street (The American Florist, April 28, 1900, pg. 1213). He worked with his two sons, who had studied floriculture in Philadelphia, to raise plants and flowers, but “the latter seemed the most profitable” (Detroit Journal, reprinted in Fort Worth Daily Gazette, August 12, 1889, pg. 4). There were 200 floral shops in Detroit by 1930, when the Breitmeyer family operation grew to specialize in “chrysanthymums [sic], carnations, and sweet peas” in addition to roses (Detroit Free Press, April 6, 1930).

Page with text and image of building
Detroit City Business Directory, Volume II, 1889-1890, page 125 / THF277531

Florists sold cut flowers to satisfy consumers willing to part with hard-earned money on such temporary satisfaction. Many factors influenced their decisions: weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage; brightening a home interior; thanking a host; or treating a sweetheart. Whatever the reason, Breitmeyer and Ford and others responded to the zeal for floral ornamentation.

Black-and-white image of pillow-shaped arrangement of flowers and greenery
Memorial Floral Arrangement, circa 1878 / THF210195

The Michigan Farmer encouraged readers to “bring a few daisies and butter-cups from your last field walk, and keep them alive in a little water; aye, preserve but a branch of clover, or a handful of flower grass—one of the most elegant, as well as cheapest of nature’s productions and you have something on your table that reminds you of the beauties of God’s creation, and gives you a link with the poets and sages that have done it most honor. Put but a rose, or a lily, or a violet, on your table, and you and Lord Bacon have a custom in common.” (July 1863, pg. 32). Though the preferences varied, flowers inside the home were simultaneously a luxury and something that everyday people could afford, and connected them to poets and lords.

Publications encouraged the trade through how-to columns on decorating with flowers. This clipping from the Michigan Farmer explained how to construct a centerpiece featuring cut flowers.

Page with text
Description of simple DIY floral ornaments in the household. Excerpt from Michigan Farmer, August, 1863/64, pg. 84. / Image via HathiTrust

What types of flowers might growers raise to fill their baskets and ornament their tables? The Michigan Farmer indicated that “no garden” should be without dahlias “as a part of its autumn glory” (April 1857, pg. 115) and that growers should “never be without” a Moutan peony (February 1858, pg. 48).

Urban markets featured many more plants and cut flowers to satisfy consumer demand. The Detroit News reported in May 1891 that “tulips of every hue and the modest daisy or bachelor’s button still linger on the stalls, but they are the first floral offerings of the spring, and their day is now about over.” The florists rapidly restocked, filling their southern row of stalls in the vegetable market with “floral radiance and beauty…. The hydrangeas with their pink or snow-white balls; fuchsias, with their bell-like cups and purple hearts; geraniums, in all the colors of the rainbow; the heliotrope, with its light-pink blossom; the begonia, with its wax green leaves; verbenas in pink, purple and white; the marguerite, with its white and yellow star; the kelseloria [Calceolaria] in blushing red or golden yellow; the modest mignonette, with its neutral tints but exquisite perfume; and the blue and fragrant forget-me-not” (“Seen on the Streets,” May 24, 1891).

Florists stood at the ready to satisfy customers’ needs, especially for a beau seeking a bouquet to woo his lover (Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1870). On one occasion, a woman reluctantly bought sunflower seeds and catnip instead of climbers that would make her house look “almost like Paradise,” fearing that this ornamentation would cause the landlord to raise her rent (Detroit Free Press, April 27, 1879). In other instances, men “commissioned” by their wives stopped by the flower stands in Central Market, perusing “roses, pansies, and hyacinth bulbs” (Detroit Free Press, January 10, 1890). 

Men and women crowd around tables displaying potted lilies and cut flowers in an open-air market
Shoppers at Central Market crowd around potted lilies and cut flowers wrapped in paper, undated (BHC glass neg. no. 1911). / Image from Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library (EB02e398)

By the late 19th century, customers had many options to satisfy their appetite for flowers. Many Detroiters purchased their flowers and ornamental plants at the Vegetable Building in Central Market. One huckster turned florist, Mary Judge, engaged customers at her Central Market floral stand with a pretty rose bush for a quarter (not 20 cents, or she’d make no profit), geraniums for 10 cents, or a “beyutiful little flower” for 5 cents (Detroit News, May 24, 1891).

They could also frequent florist shops like John Breitmeyer’s by 1890, or purchase seed from merchants to raise their own. Many reasons motivated them, from satisfying a sweetheart to keeping up with their neighbors’ ornamental plantings. No doubt, beautiful trade cards helped stir up allure and demand for popular garden flowers such as pansies.

Image of large yellow, white, purple, and maroon pansy flowers; also contains text
Trade Card for Pansies Seeds, D. M. Ferry & Co., 1889 / THF298777

The entrepreneurs and florists of the 19th century sowed the seeds for an industry that remains vigorous but is far more globalized. There are botanic stories still to uncover and after centuries of cultivation, these beautiful ornaments still sustain something deeper within us.

Secondary Sources:

Stewart, Amy. Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. Algonquin Books, 2008.

Lyon-Jenness, C. (2004). Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America. Business History Review, 78(3), 381-421. doi:10.2307/25096907


Ayana Curran-Howes is 2021 Simmons Intern at The Henry Ford. Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

entrepreneurship, home life, shopping, farming, agriculture, by Debra A. Reid, by Ayana Curran Howes, Michigan, Detroit, Detroit Central Market, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

 “The fact that Webster dwelt and worked on his dictionary there gives this structure singular historic interest…. That all this must disappear shortly before the crowbars of the wreckers is a matter of genuine regret…”

—J. Frederick Kelly, New Haven resident and architect, quoted in New Haven Register, July 20, 1936


Scrapbook page with newspaper article pasted in middle; contains text
Article from the New Haven Register, New Haven, Connecticut, July 20, 1936. / THF624813

In the mid-1930s, Yale University, owner of the Noah Webster Home on Temple Street in New Haven, Connecticut, decided this former home of one of its notable alumni needed to be torn down. It was the Depression, and Yale’s financial situation required some retrenchment. Tearing down the Webster house, along with eleven other Yale-owned homes, would cut the university’s tax bill and save the expense of maintenance, while providing space for new construction better suited to the university’s needs.

The house came very near to being demolished.

In this comfortable home, completed in 1823 at Temple and Grove streets, Noah Webster had enjoyed an active family life, written many of his publications, and completed his ultimate life’s work—America’s first dictionary. Noah and Rebecca Webster had moved to New Haven in their later years to be near family and friends, as well as the library at nearby Yale College. While living in this house, Webster published his famous American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.

Silhouettes of seated man and woman facing each other
Silhouette of Noah and Rebecca Webster by Samuel Metford, 1842. / THF119764

What happened to the house after the deaths of Noah in 1843 and Rebecca in 1847? For the next seven decades, the Temple Street house was filled with new generations of Webster descendants and their relations.

The Trowbridge Era


After Noah Webster’s death in 1843, the house became part of Webster’s estate. In his will, his wife Rebecca received the lifetime use of the Temple Street house. In March 1849, executors of the Webster estate, William Ellsworth (a son-in-law) and Henry White, deeded the property to Henry Trowbridge, Jr., a merchant who sold goods imported from the Far East and a director of the New Haven Bank. (Trowbridge took out a mortgage on the house in 1850, probably to compensate the estate for the value of the house.) Trowbridge had married Webster granddaughter Mary Southgate in 1838. Mary had been raised by Noah and Rebecca Webster and had grown up in the Temple Street house. Henry and Mary Trowbridge had six children: five daughters as well as a son who died young. Mary Southgate Trowbridge passed away in May 1860 of tuberculosis at the age of 41.

In 1861, Henry Trowbridge married again, to Sarah Coles Hull. Their son Courtlandt, born in 1870, was the only surviving child of the marriage.

About 1870, prosperous Henry Trowbridge decided to remodel the house, adding a wealth of “updates” in the then-fashionable Victorian style. These included five bay windows, as well as marble fireplace mantles, plaster ceiling medallions, exterior and interior doors, and elaborately carved walnut woodwork on the first floor. Trowbridge also lengthened the first-floor windows and built a brick addition on the back.

Large house on street with trees around it
Large house with two cars parked on street by it
Noah Webster Home showing Victorian-era changes, including the bay windows and addition at the rear of the home. Top photo taken about 1927; bottom photo, in 1936. /
THF236369, THF236375

Over the years, the house was filled with the rhythms of everyday life and the comings and goings of family. Nine Trowbridge children grew up there—six of them were born in the house and three of them died there. Daughters married and moved out. One Trowbridge daughter made two long-distance visits home during the years she and her merchant husband lived in Hong Kong. Another returned home for a time as a widow with a young child. In the 1910s, during the final years of Trowbridge ownership, the widowed Sarah lived in the house with her son Courtlandt, his wife Cornelia, and their three children.

Large house, slightly overgrown/run down, with picket fence in front
Webster Home—perhaps a bit overgrown—about 1912. / THF236373

In 1918, the year following his mother’s death, 68-year-old Courtlandt Trowbridge sold the Temple Street house in which he had lived since birth “for the consideration of one dollar,” deeding the property to the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, located a block from the Webster house on Grove Street. Courtlandt, a Sheffield graduate, then moved to Washington, a rural village in northwest Connecticut, along with his wife, Sarah, and youngest son, Robert.

From Family Home to College Dorm


Postcard showing red brick building with cars passing it on street; also contains text
Postcard, Sheffield Scientific School, Yale College, 1915-1920. / THF624831

Sheffield Scientific School offered courses in science and engineering. Following World War I, its curriculum gradually became completely integrated with Yale University’s—undergraduate courses were taught at Sheffield from 1919 to 1945, coexisting with Yale’s science programs. (Sheffield would cease to function as a separate entity in 1956.) The Sheffield Scientific School used the Webster house as a men’s dormitory for freshmen for almost 20 years.

Row of buildings along street
Postcard, Vanderbilt-Sheffield dormitories on Chapel Street in New Haven, about 1909. / THF624833

The Webster house wasn’t Sheffield’s only dormitory, though. The impressive Vanderbilt-Sheffield dorms, dating from the early 1900s, served most of Sheffield’s students. The Noah Webster Home provided some additional space for freshmen to live.

Tree-lined street with large houses on either side
A view of Temple street about 1927, during the time Yale University used the Webster house (shown at far right) as a dormitory. / THF236367

In 1936, Yale decided that retaining the “non-revenue-bearing” house was not financially viable for the university. It was no longer needed as a dorm because of the construction of Yale’s Dwight College, opened in September 1935. Removing the Webster home would also provide space for growth for the university. (The site would become part of Yale’s Silliman College.)

A Timely Rescue


In early July 1936, Yale University was granted permission to demolish the house. (The louvered, elliptical window was to go to the Yale Art School.) The house was sold to Charles Merberg and Sons, a wrecking company. But there were attempts to save the home. Soon after Yale University was granted a permit on July 3 to tear down the house, the local newspaper, the New Haven Register, began a campaign to save it. New Haven resident Arnold Dana, a retired journalist, offered to contribute to a fund to preserve the house, but no additional offers of funds came. For several weeks, articles appeared in newspapers in New York and other large cities on the subject.

Initial interest in preserving the building by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA, now Historic New England) waned because of the Victorian-era changes. William Sumner Appleton, the society’s founder and a chief force behind the preservation of many historic buildings in New England, thought the building might make an interesting museum if a private individual would take on the project. Appleton said that SPNEA had no funds to do so.

J. Frederick Kelly, a New Haven resident, architect, and author of books on early Connecticut architecture, noted the building’s historical significance and commented on its architecture: “…the fine proportion and delicate scale of the Temple Street façade mark it as one of unusual distinction. The design of the gable … contains a very handsome elliptical louvre … an outstanding feature that has no counterpart in the East so far as I am aware.”

Page with typewritten text in all-capital letters
Telegram to Edsel Ford concerning the imminent demolition of the Noah Webster Home in New Haven, Connecticut. / THF624805

On July 29, R.T. Haines Halsey sent a telegram to Edsel Ford. Halsey let Edsel know that the Webster house was “in the hands of wreckers” and that it would fit in well with “your father’s scheme” for Greenfield Village. Immediate action was needed to save the house.

Page with text and image of room interior
1924 postcard, American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, built to display American decorative arts from the 1600s to the early 1800s. / THF148348

Halsey, a retired New York City stockbroker, was a collector of decorative arts who was instrumental in the opening of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City in 1924. In the 1930s, Halsey had become a research assistant in the Stirling Library at Yale University. Halsey may have chosen to contact Henry through Edsel because of Edsel’s interest in art and involvement with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

On July 27, Ralph J. Sennott, manager of the Wayside Inn in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, a historic inn restored by Henry Ford, sent Ford a letter. (Perhaps it reached Ford about the time that Halsey’s telegram did.) Sennott also made Ford aware that the Webster home was in the hands of the wrecking company and that the building needed to be removed by September 1. The wrecker was willing to sell the house, but demolition work was to begin August 3. Henry Ford paid a $100 deposit on the house on August 2 to prevent demolition going forward. Ford was given until September 15 to make his final decision on acquiring the building.

Henry Ford arrived in New Haven on September 10 to see the Webster home in person. According to Lewis Merberg of the wrecking company, Ford appreciated the building for its historical significance more than for its “antiquity.” Noah Webster likely would have appealed to Ford as the author of the popular “Blue-Backed Speller,” used by many early American schools. Ford completed the purchase, paying about $1000 for the home.

Typewritten letter containing text
Letter from Harold Davis of the Historic American Buildings Survey to Henry Ford, September 14, 1936. / THF624811

Noting Ford’s interest in the building, Harold Davis, the Connecticut district officer of the Historic America Building Survey, made Ford aware that the organization—whose purpose it was to measure and record historic buildings—had documented the Webster house in 1934. Ford acquired copies of these drawings, which were available at the Library of Congress.

The Noah Webster Home Moves to Dearborn


When Edward Cutler, the man responsible for moving and reassembling buildings in Greenfield Village for Henry Ford, arrived in New Haven in mid-September, wreckers had already removed windows and other parts of the house. The interior was not in the best state of repair—likely a little worse for wear after almost 20 years serving as home to college freshmen. Additional documentation of the house was needed before a wrecking crew disassembled the building under Edward Cutler’s direction. Cutler took more measurements. More photos of the home’s exterior and interior would assist with its reassembly in Greenfield Village.

Hand-drawn architectural sketches containing text
Edward J. Cutler made detailed drawings of the house before it was dismantled. / THF132776

Back of home with lawn behind and trees on either side
Image of the back of the Webster home taken in 1936 by a local New Haven photographer, perhaps at the request of Henry Ford or one of his representatives. / THF236377

Interior of room looking toward a foyer with windows or door
Interior of house, view from the dining room looking towards the bay window in the sitting room. / THF236381

Man in suit stands in front of partially disassembled house
Edsel’s son Henry Ford II, then a Yale freshman, posed in front of the Noah Webster Home during its dismantling in October 1936. / THF624803

With this move, the Noah Webster Home would shed some of its Victorian-era “modernizing.” Cutler removed the four second-floor bay windows added during the Trowbridge renovation. He did retain some Trowbridge updates—exterior and interior doors, interior architectural details, and the first-floor bay window.

In October 1936, the Webster house was dismantled and packed up in about two weeks, according to Ed Cutler. Then it was shipped to Dearborn.

Two-story wooden house on large lawn with trees on either side
Webster Home reassembled in Greenfield Village, September 1938. / THF132717

Reassembly in Greenfield Village took about a year. In June 1937, workmen broke ground for the foundation of the home. By the end of December, most of the exterior work had been completed. Progress on the interior continued through the winter months. By July 1938, finishing touches were being added to the house.

Two young women in a kitchen, one looking at a package from a cabinet and the other at a stove
Edison Institute High School girls prepare a meal in the Webster kitchen, 1942. THF118924

Until 1946, high school girls from the Edison Institute Schools used the Noah Webster Home as a live-in home economics laboratory—a modern kitchen was provided in the brick addition built on the back of the home. Henry Ford had opened the school on the campus of his museum and village in 1929.

Room containing large wooden dining room table with table settings, two sideboards, and more furnishings
Webster dining room in 1963. / THF147776

The Noah Webster Home finally opened to the public for the first time in 1962, telling the story of Webster and America’s first dictionary. Yet the Webster house was furnished to showcase fine furnishings in period room-like settings, rather than reflecting a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before.

Noah Webster Home Today


Two-story white wooden house on large grassy lawn with many trees around it
Noah Webster Home in Greenfield Village. / THF1882

In 1989, after much research on the house and the Webster family, museum staff made the decision to return the entire home to its original appearance during the Websters’ lifetime. The remaining Victorian additions were removed, including the first-floor bay window, interior woodwork, and interior doorways added during the Trowbridge era.

Room with large fireplace, table and chairs, and other furniture
Noah Webster Home sitting room after 1989 reinstallation. / THF186509

Webster family correspondence and other documents painted a picture of a household that included not only family activities, but more public ones as well. Based on this research, curators created a new furnishings plan for the reinstallation. Now visitors could imagine the Websters living there.

Pay the Websters a Visit


Whew—close call. In 1936, the Noah Webster Home was saved in the nick of time.

Now that you know “the rest of the story,” stop by the Webster Home in Greenfield Village. Enjoy this immersive look into the past and its power to inspire us today. Hear the story of the Websters’ lives in this home during the 1830s, learn about Noah’s work on America’s first dictionary and other publications, and experience the furnished rooms that give the impression that the Websters still live there today.

For more on the Noah Webster Home, see “The Webster Dining Room Reimagined: An Informal Family Dinner.”


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

Noah Webster Home, Henry Ford, home life, by Jeanine Head Miller, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

Three people in historical garments stand outside a two-story wooden building with sign containing text
“Calvin Wood, Caterer” sign outside Eagle Tavern. /
THF237357

Outside Greenfield Village’s Eagle Tavern, an early 1830s building originally from Clinton, Michigan, is a sign that reads: “Calvin Wood, Caterer.” Yes, Calvin Wood was a real guy—and the tavernkeeper at Eagle Tavern in 1850. The Eagle Tavern building was just a few years old when Calvin Wood and his young family arrived in nearby Tecumseh Township about 1834. Little could Calvin guess that life’s twists and turns would mean that one day he would be the tavernkeeper there!

Black-and-white image of people seated at tables and standing at a bar, eating and drinking
William H. Ladd’s Eating House, Boston, about 1840. Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Why caterer? In the 19th century, a “caterer” meant someone who not only provided food and drink, but who also catered in any way to the requirements of others. Some tavernkeepers, like Calvin Wood, referred to themselves as “caterers.” As Eagle Tavern’s tavernkeeper a few years hence, Calvin Wood would offer a bed for the night to travelers, a place to get a meal or a drink, a place to socialize and learn the latest news, and a ballroom upstairs to hold dances and other community events.

Moving to Michigan


Map labelled TECUMSEH with two yellow circles, one around a plot labeled "C. Wood" and the other around an area labeled "Clinton"
1857 map of portion of Tecumseh Township, inset from “Map of Lenawee County, Michigan” (Philadelphia: Bechler & Wenig & Co., 1857), highlighted to show Calvin Wood’s farm located southeast of the village of Clinton. Map image from Library of Congress.

In the mid-1830s, Calvin and his wife Jerusha sold their land in Onondaga, New York, and settled on a farm with their children in Lenawee County, Michigan—a few miles south of the village of Clinton and a few miles north of the village of Tecumseh. (Calvin and Jerusha’s children probably numbered four—all but one would die in infancy or childhood.) The Wood family had plenty of company in this journey. From 1830 to 1837, Michigan was the most popular destination for westward-moving settlers caught up in the highly contagious “Michigan Fever.” During this time, the Michigan Territory’s population grew five-fold!

The move to Michigan offered promise, but the years ahead also held misfortune. In the early 1840s Calvin lost Jerusha, and some of their children likely passed away during this time as well. By 1843, Calvin had married for a second time, this time to Clinton resident Harriet Frost Barnum.

Harriet had left New York State with her parents and siblings and settled in Monroe County by 1830. The following year, 19-year-old Harriet married John Wesley Barnum. The Barnums moved to Clinton, where they were operating a “log hotel” along the Chicago Road in the fall of 1835. In October 1836, Wesley Barnum died, leaving Harriet a young widow with two daughters: Irene, age two, and Frances, age four. After their marriage, Calvin and Harriet’s blended household included not only Harriet’s two daughters, but also Calvin’s son. (There may also have been other Wood children in the home as well, though they might have passed away before this time.)

Calvin Wood, Tavernkeeper


In the early and mid-19th century, tavernkeeping was a small and competitive business. It didn’t require much experience or capital, and as a result, most taverns changed hands often. In 1849, farmer Calvin Wood decided to try his hand at tavernkeeping, an occupation he would engage in for five years. Many other tavernkeepers were farmers as well—like other farmer-tavernkeepers, Calvin Wood probably supplied much of the food for tavern customers from his farm. Calvin Wood didn’t run the tavern alone—a tavernkeeper’s family was often deeply involved in business operations as well. And, of course, Calvin’s wife Harriet was the one with previous experience running a tavern! Harriet would have supervised food preparation and the housekeeping. Frances and Irene likely helped their mother and stepfather in the tavern at times. Calvin’s son, Charles, was married and operating his own Tecumseh Township farm by this time.

Print of two large houses next to each other, with a street running in front with a horse and carriage on it and two men talking
Residence of F.S. Snow, & D. Keyes, Clinton, Michigan,” detail from Combination Atlas Map of Lenawee County, Michigan, 1874. / THF108376

By the time that Calvin and Harriet Wood were operating the Eagle Tavern, from 1849 to 1854, the first stage of frontier life had passed in southern Michigan. Frame and brick buildings had replaced many of the log structures often constructed by the early settlers twenty-some years before. The countryside had been mostly cleared and was now populated by established farms.

Two-story building with horses, carriages, and people in front of it and other buildings nearby
Mail coaches changing horses at a New England tavern, 1855. / THF120729

Page with text
Detail from Michigan Southern & E. & K. RR notice, April 1850. / THF108378, not from the collections of The Henry Ford

Yet Clinton, whose early growth had been fueled by its advantageous position on the main stagecoach route between Detroit and Chicago, found itself bypassed by railroad lines to the north and south. The Chicago Road ran right in front of the Eagle Tavern, but it was no longer the well-traveled route it had once been. Yet stagecoaches still came through the village, transporting mail and providing transportation links to cities on the Michigan Central and Michigan Southern railroad lines.

Map with text noting businesses
Map of Clinton, Michigan, inset from “Map of Lenawee County, Michigan” (Philadelphia: Bechler & Wenig & Co., 1857). Map image from Library of Congress.

Though Clinton remained a small village, it was an important economic and social link—its businesses and stores still served the basic needs of the local community. During the years that Calvin operated the Eagle Tavern, Clinton businesses included a flour mill, a tannery, a plow factory, a wagon maker, wheelwrights, millwrights, coopers who made barrels, cabinetmakers who made furniture, chair manufacturers, and a boot and shoe maker. Clinton had a blacksmith shop and a livery stable. The village also had carpenters, painters, and masons. Tailors and seamstresses made clothing. A milliner crafted ladies’ hats. Merchants offered the locals the opportunity to purchase goods produced in other parts of the country, and even the world: groceries (like salt, sugar, coffee, and tea), cloth, notions, medicines, hardware, tools, crockery, and boots and shoes. A barber provided haircuts and shaves. Three doctors provided medical care. In 1850, like Calvin and Harriet Wood, most of Clinton’s inhabitants had Yankee roots—they had been born in New York or New England. But there were also a number of foreign-born people from Ireland, Scotland, England, or Germany. At least two African American families also made Clinton their home.

Many of Calvin’s customers were probably people who lived in the village. Others lived on farms in the surrounding countryside. Calvin’s customers would have included some travelers—in 1850, people still passed through Clinton on the stagecoach, in their own wagons or buggies, or on horseback.

Advertisement containing text
Advertisements for Eagle Hotel, Clinton, and The Old Clinton Eagle, Tecumseh Herald, 1850. / THF147859, detail

Though Clinton was a small village, Calvin Wood faced competition for customers—the Eagle Tavern was not the only tavern in Clinton. Along on the Chicago Road also stood the Eagle Hotel, operated by 27-year-old Hiram Nimocks and his wife Melinda. It appears that the Eagle Hotel accommodated boarders as well—seven men are listed as living there, including two of the town’s merchants. These men probably rented bedrooms (likely shared with others) and ate at a common table.

Moving On


In 1854, Calvin Wood decided that it was time for his five-year tavernkeeping “career” to draw to a close. He and Harriet no longer operated the Eagle Tavern, selling it to the next tavernkeeper. Initially, the Woods didn’t go far. In 1860, Calvin is listed in the United States census as living in Clinton as a retired farmer. Yet Calvin and Harriet Wood soon moved to Hastings, Minnesota, where Harriet’s daughters, now married, resided. There Calvin and Harriet would end their lives, Calvin dying in 1863 and Harriet the following year.

Gray tombstone containing text
The Wood family tombstone in Brookside Cemetery. / THF148371

You can still pay Calvin a “visit” at Brookside Cemetery in Tecumseh, where he shares a tombstone with his first wife, children, his father, and his brother’s family. For Harriet? You’ll have to make a trip to Hastings, Minnesota.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources, and Lisa Korzetz, Registrar, for assistance with this post.

home life, beverages, food, hotels, by Jeanine Head Miller, Michigan, restaurants, Eagle Tavern, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

Page with red hand icon; also contains text
Product Tag for an Original George Nelson Design Executed by Herman Miller, 1955 / THF298217


George Nelson is one of the giants of American Modern design. Often with such individuals, it is usually sufficient to point to their output—the architecture, products, graphics they designed—as a way to simplify and quantify their impact. While George Nelson’s output was undeniably significant, an accounting of his legacy in this way will always fall short. Nelson’s contributions to Modernism and the field of design are akin to his office’s famous Marshmallow Sofa—a study in how parts relate to the whole.

Born in 1908 to an affluent family in Connecticut, George Nelson was encouraged to cultivate his intellect from a young age. He attended Yale University—more so for its proximity to home and prestige in the eyes of his parents than due to his own desire—and quite literally happened upon the study of architecture by chance. He recalled ducking into the architecture building on Yale’s campus to avoid a sudden rainfall. Student renderings of cemetery gateways hung in the halls. Nelson “fell in love instantly with the whole business of creating designs for cemetery gateways” and decided, “without further question,” to become an architect. He graduated with his B.A. in 1928 and a B.F.A. in 1931.

Love seat with minimal metal frame and seat and back each composed of nine blue fabric-covered rounds
Marshmallow Love Seat, 1956-1965 / THF134573

Writing on Design


Nelson graduated with his new degree as the Great Depression tightened its grip on the United States. He was offered a teaching job at Yale, but was soon let go. He later considered this lucky, saying “…if you’re lucky, you are not allowed to stay safe. You’re thrown into jeopardy.” After a period of uncertainty in which he threw himself into applications for architectural fellowships in Europe, he was successful in winning the prestigious Rome Prize. This came with an all expenses paid, two-year architectural fellowship in Rome, which he took from 1932–1934.  Those years in Rome allowed Nelson to travel throughout Europe, study great architecture, and become acquainted with many of the leading figures in the budding Modernism movement.

Architectural criticism and theory writing became a continuous outlet for Nelson throughout his career, beginning in the early 1930s when he first published drawings and articles in Pencil Points and Architecture magazines. Upon his return to the United States, he took a position with The Architectural Forum in New York City and worked his way up to co-managing editor. Nelson’s career path didn’t continue in a linear fashion, but sprouted offshoots. Soon, he simultaneously continued his journalistic pursuits (and expanded to other publications), designed architectural commissions, and created exhibitions. The work was never about the output, but about the process and the solving of problems in whichever way a circumstance demanded.

Image of woman sitting surrounded by random items next to a large, thin cabinet
LIFE magazine for January 22, 1945 / THF623999

The Storage Wall


While writing a book on the house of the future titled Tomorrow’s House with Architectural Forum colleague Henry Wright, Nelson confronted the problem of household storage inadequacies, among other domestic matters. He explained his method in writing the book, “you will not find a chapter on bedrooms … but a great deal about sleeping.” His storage solution was a masterful rethinking of furniture and architecture in one. He recalled his “aha” moment: “My goodness, if you took those walls and pumped more air into them and they got thicker and thicker until maybe they were 12 inches thick, you would have hundreds and hundreds of running feet of storage.” Nelson’s innovative “storage wall” opened new doors for the furniture industry for years to come. His idea was featured in Architectural Forum in 1944 and then in a generous 1945 spread in Life magazine. It also attracted the attention of D.J. De Pree, the founder of the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan.

Page with text; illustration of house at top; and two photos of thin storage cabinets at bottom
LIFE Magazine for January 22, 1945 / THF623998

A Market for Good Design


After the untimely death of Gilbert Rohde, D.J. De Pree began to look for a new director of design. Rohde had successfully set the Herman Miller Furniture Company on the path of Modernism and De Pree was looking to continue that trajectory. Initially, De Pree considered German architect Erich Mendelsohn or industrial designer Russel Wright for the post, but eventually chose George Nelson, sensing a kindred spirit in a perhaps unlikely partnership. De Pree was devoutly religious and a teetotaler; Nelson, always accompanied by the lingering smell of cigarette smoke, questioned everything—especially religion—and loved martinis. Despite these differences, De Pree thought, rightfully, that Nelson was “thinking well ahead of the parade,” and hired him for the job. Like De Pree and Rohde, Nelson was completely invested in continuing Herman Miller’s focus on honesty and quality in Modern design. In the forward to a groundbreaking 1948 catalogue, Nelson outlined the company philosophy:

The attitude that governs Herman Miller’s behavior, as far as I can make out, is compounded of the following set of principles:

                What you make is important….

                Design is an integral part of the business….

                The product must be honest….

                You decide what you will make….

                There is a market for good design.

Page with large "a" and "z," photos of desk and chair, and text
Advertisement for Herman Miller Furniture Company, "George Nelson Designs," October 1947 / THF623977

Herman Miller and George Nelson’s decades-long collaboration was fruitful almost immediately. Nelson rethought some of Gilbert Rohde’s furniture and issued lines of his own furniture design. He had proven himself a prescient thought leader in the design world through his writing, but became adept at finding talented people and bringing them together for the greater good of design. D.J. De Pree admitted surprise when Nelson requested to bring on other designers—even before his own contract was formalized. Instead of hoarding the glory (and potential income) for himself, Nelson saw the far-reaching benefits of collaboration with other visionary designers. It was Nelson who brought together the core design team that still shapes Herman Miller’s design today—most notably, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and Alexander Girard.

A tendency towards collaboration was not isolated to Nelson’s work at Herman Miller. In his personal life, he counted architect Minoru Yamasaki and architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller among his close friends. And those that he employed in his eponymous design office (which had many clients, although Herman Miller was certainly the largest account for many years) were the best of the best too. These staff designers—Irving Harper, Tomoko Miho, Lance Wyman, and Don Ervin, to name just a few—maintained the constant hum of the office. They diligently continued to ideate, design, and make for the office’s clients. Sometimes they executed their own concepts, and other times the staff designers brought their metaphorical and literal pens to paper for some of Nelson’s lofty visions.

Nelson has faced fair criticism of taking more credit than was due for some of the designs that came from his office. He positioned himself as a powerful brand—and many of those who worked under him gained valuable experience, but perhaps never the full realization of their efforts in the public sphere.

Graphic card containing geometric shapes, some in red and black, and text
Trade Card for Herman Miller, “Come and See the New Designs at the Herman Miller Showroom,” circa 1955 /  THF215327

George Nelson actively designed for Herman Miller until the early 1970s and continued designing products, exhibits, interiors, graphics, and more with his own firm until 1984. He lectured and wrote on design theory and practice until his death in 1986, influencing and inspiring generations of designers. George Nelson’s contributions to design are much greater than his output—the products, writings, structures, and graphics he produced. He may have been more concerned with principles and processes than about the tangible result—but his loftier focus is what made his tangible designs so effective. Nelson’s ideas and ideals shaped the Modernist design movement and his influence can still be felt, reverberating through the halls of design offices and school halls alike.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

home life, furnishings, Herman Miller, by Katherine White, design