McGuffey’s birthplace in Greenfield Village today. / THF1969
William Holmes McGuffey’s easy-to-understand Eclectic Readers were influenced by his experiences growing up on the Pennsylvania and Ohio frontiers, as well as his family background and upbringing. His birthplace, a log home from western Pennsylvania now in Greenfield Village, is a physical representation of these experiences.
McGuffey’s Birthplace in Western Pennsylvania
Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey, 1855. / THF286352
William Holmes McGuffey’s family was Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish)—a group of strict Presbyterians who had migrated from the Scottish Lowlands to Ulster, in northern Ireland, over several centuries into the early 1700s. During the 1700s, many Scots-Irish emigrated to Pennsylvania, a colony that offered available land for settlement and the assurance of religious freedom. By the end of America’s colonial period, more than 30% of the population in Pennsylvania was Scots-Irish.
As early as 1760, land was almost unobtainable in the American East and many Scots-Irish headed inland to the western frontier, quickly inhabiting areas in western Pennsylvania during the 1780s and 1790s. This rapid settlement was only possible because the American government had, through treaties and sometimes military action, forced Native American tribes to move successively further west until they were pushed out of western Pennsylvania entirely. The major tribes that had inhabited the area, having migrated or been forced there from other areas during the 1700s, included the Lenni-Lenape or Delaware, the Shawnee, and the Seneca (referred to by European settlers as “Mingo”). Other tribes who might have traversed and/or built temporary villages in the area included the Huron/Wyandot, Chippewa, Mississauga, Ottawa, Mohawk, Cherokee, and Mohican.
William Holmes McGuffey’s family followed the typical migration pattern of other Scots-Irish immigrants. His paternal grandparents, William (“Scotch Billy”) and Ann McGuffey, had arrived during the last great wave of Scots-Irish immigration, sailing with their three young children from Wigtownshire, Scotland, to Philadelphia in 1774. They soon joined a community of Scots-Irish immigrants in York County, where they purchased land for a small farm. In 1789, they moved to Washington County in western Pennsylvania, where cheap land on the expanding western frontier had opened to settlers.
Here, they would once again be living among like-minded people, a community of Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Scots-Irish families, like other immigrants, did not leave all of their Old-World ideas and ways of doing things behind. They shared a similar heritage of music, language, foodways, and material culture. They also tried to establish familiar institutions in the move west—first churches, but also schools, stores, and courts of law.
McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village, photographed in 2007 by Michelle Andonian. / THF53239
McGuffey’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Jane Holmes, moved to Washington County about the same time as the McGuffey family. The log home that became William Holmes McGuffey’s birthplace was constructed about 1790 on the Holmes acreage. It was likely Henry and Jane Holmes’s first-stage log home (meaning they planned to build and move to a nicer home as soon as possible). Their daughter, Anna, married Alexander McGuffey at the Holmes farmstead just before Christmas 1797, and they lived in this log structure as their first home. While living there, they had their first three children: Jane (born in 1799), William Holmes (born in 1800), and Henry (born in 1802).
In 1802—only five years after they married and moved into the log house where William Holmes McGuffey was born—Alexander and Anna McGuffey moved their young family further west, to the largely unsettled Connecticut Western Reserve area of northeastern Ohio. William Holmes McGuffey, then two years old, would complete his growing-up years on this new frontier (see “William Holmes McGuffey and his Popular Readers” for more on this).
During the 1840 Presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, the log home became a romantic symbol of the frontier and the pioneer spirit, as shown in this 1840 music sheet cover. / THF256421
The log house would become an American icon, but its origins are European. Finnish and Swedish settlers are thought to have been the first people to construct horizontal log dwellings in America, in the colony of New Sweden (now Delaware) in the early 1600s. Welsh settlers carried the tradition of log construction into Pennsylvania.
Later waves of immigrants, including Swiss and Germans, brought their own variations of log dwellings. The Scots-Irish, who did not possess a log building tradition of their own, supposedly adapted a form of the stone houses from their native country to log construction, and greatly contributed to its spread across the frontier.
One of the principal advantages of log construction was the economy of tools required to complete a structure. A log structure could be raised and largely completed with as few as two to four different tools. Trees could be chopped down and logs cut to the right length with a felling axe. The sides of the logs were hewn flat with a broad axe. Notching was done with an axe, hatchet, or saw.
A closeup of the McGuffey birthplace on its original location, showing both notching and the chinking. / THF252509
The horizontal spaces or joints between logs were usually filled with a combination of materials, known as “chinking” and “daubing.” These materials were used for shutting out the driving wind, rain, and snow as well as keeping out vermin. Many different materials were used for chinking and daubing, including whatever was most conveniently at hand. Chinking usually consisted of wood slabs or stones, along with a soft packing filler such as moss, clay, or dried animal dung. Daubing, applied last, often consisted of clay, lime, and other locally available materials.
McGuffey’s Birthplace in Greenfield Village
McGuffey’s birthplace on its original site in 1932. / THF133827
Henry Ford was among the last generation of children to be educated by William Holmes McGuffey’s readers. Beginning in the 1910s, Ford purchased every copy of the readersthat he could find—amassing, by the 1930s, a collection of 468 copies of 145 different editions. By the early 1930s, Ford decided to commemorate McGuffey’s impact on his education and upbringing in an even bigger way—by moving McGuffey’s humble log home birthplace to Greenfield Village.
Unfortunately, by the time Henry Ford saw McGuffey’s birthplace in western Pennsylvania in October 1932, it no longer served as a home, but had been used for many years as a “loom house” or “spinning room” and a sheep barn. The structure had largely collapsed; no walls were completely standing. But Henry Ford purchased it anyway, from a McGuffey descendant who still owned the property. Edward Cutler, Henry Ford’s architect, measured the remaining chimney foundation for later recreation, and had trees suitable to replace the missing or deteriorated logs cut down and prepared for shipment. All these parts were shipped to Dearborn in November 1932.
From January to August 1934, the home was reconstructed in the Village with some modifications. Originally a rectangular home, when completed in Greenfield Village it was approximately 16½ feet square and was ten logs high rather than nine. A shed (smokehouse) was found on the Pennsylvania site and recorded, but was not moved with the McGuffey house. The smokehouse in Greenfield Village was a replica completed at the same time as the house. By 1942, a pen with sheep had been added.
Constructing the McGuffey School in Greenfield Village, 1934. / THF28571
The William Holmes McGuffey School was a newly constructed building in Greenfield Village, built in 1934 out of logs from the Holmes family’s original barn. Among its early furnishings was a schoolmaster’s desk made from a walnut kitchen table used by the McGuffey family.
Dedication ceremonies for the McGuffey buildings took place on September 23, 1934 (the 134th anniversary of McGuffey’s birth), in Greenfield Village. Attended by McGuffey relatives and other dignitaries, the dedication ceremonies were broadcast by NBC. A memorial program was also held at the McGuffey birthplace site in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and a marker was placed there.
Interior of William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, 1954. / THF138606
For many years, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, furnished with household goods of the period, was open for visitors touring Greenfield Village. Over time, the structure was repaired many times, but some of the choices made during these renovations—like copper sheathing, wire mesh, and Portland cement—increased the rate of the structure’s deterioration. In 1998, the building was determined to be a safety hazard and closed to visitors. Happily, as part of the Village upgrade of 2002–2003, the log structure was renovated and restored. This involved replacing logs and roof shingles and applying a new style of chinking with a non-Portland cement mortar mix.
Presenter cooking over the fireplace in the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, 2018. / Photo courtesy of Caroline Braden
The William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace is today furnished as it might have looked in 1800–1802, the period when the McGuffey family resided there during William Holmes McGuffey’s infancy and toddlerhood. Though we have no specific information on furnishings owned by the McGuffeys during the time they lived in this home, we have excellent information on household furnishings from the same time period and geographic location, based upon probate inventories of families from Washington County, Pennsylvania. These include such furnishings as a worktable, a few mismatched chairs, iron pots for fireplace cooking, a butter churn, and kegs and barrels for storing food.
Interior of William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, showing current placement of furnishings. / Photo courtesy of Deborah Berk
The furnishings reflect the needs and personalities of its inhabitants—William Holmes’s father, Alexander; his mother, Anna; and William and his siblings. For example, in order to emphasize the influence of the religious and literate Anna, we have included a Bible and some books. Alexander is represented by men’s clothing and the shaving set on the shelf. The children’s presence is indicated by the cradle, the small stool, the diapers on the drying rack, and the toys in the cupboard.
The placement of the furnishings in the McGuffey birthplace also shows the family’s Scots-Irish background. It was the custom of this group to make the hearth the focal point of the home, with a clear path from the door to the fireplace. Rather than being put in the center of the room, the table would have been de-emphasized and placed against the wall.
Trained scientist Rachel Carson and wildlife artist Bob Hines conduct research off the Atlantic coast in the early 1950s. The two formed an extraordinary partnership, which brought awareness of nature and conservation to the forefront. / Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / public domain
We live in an era where environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and renewable resources are keywords for how to live our lives and operate our businesses.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the early 1960s, writer and biologist Rachel Carson was one of the lone voices sounding the alarm that the rapid, destructive changes we were making to our own environment were having disastrous consequences.
With her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring, which exposed the damage caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides manufactured by powerful chemical companies, Carson showed that she was a scientist motivated by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community. Carson’s eloquence reminded us that we are all part of a delicately balanced ecosystem, and by destroying any piece of it, we risk destroying the whole system. It would become unsustainable.
Rachel Carson holding a copy of Silent Spring in June 1963. / THF147928, detail
Thanks to Carson’s passion and perseverance, a movement of ecological awareness was born. Her work is credited with giving birth to the modern-day environmental movement. Other direct results were the banning of the pesticide DDT and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In an era of “living better through chemicals,” Rachel Carson was a changemaker who brought our awareness to the effects we had on our environment. But she also knew that we could be part of the solution. One way people carry on her legacy today is by acting as citizen scientists.
While Rachel Carson was a trained scientist and biologist working toward the greater good, a citizen scientist is a nonscientist who works with the scientific community to affect positive change. By paying attention to our environment and taking an interest in the science behind sustainability, we all can make a difference. Here are some ways you can become involved yourself.
It was a friend of Rachel Carson who raised an alarm about bird die-offs in her backyard and prompted Carson to write Silent Spring—proof that big change can start small. Here are a couple of ideas worth considering in your sustainability quest at home.
Join the annual Great Backyard Bird Count at birdcount.org. The count is a great way to get kids involved with nature.
Use your smartphone to help scientists gather data on animal populations. You can count Costa Rican wildcats at Instant Wild (instantwild.zsl.org) or share observations on your local wildlife at iNaturalist.org.
In Your Community
Look for opportunities for neighborhood involvement—you’ll stay socially connected and help your community at the same time.
Use resources like greenamerica.org to find and support businesses and brands that are striving toward sustainability.
Start a community garden. It’s a great way to shift away from packaged, processed foods and to get to know your neighbors. National Garden Clubs (gardenclub.org) helps coordinate the interests and activities of state and local garden clubs in the U.S. and abroad.
Participate in crowdsourced data gathering like noisetube.net, which measures noise pollution, or createlab.org, which trains artificial intelligence to identify smoke emissions.
In Your Workplace
If you are motivated to make a difference, become an advocate for sustainability and social change within your company. Going green is a differentiator that gives businesses a leg up on recruiting and marketing.
Recycle office waste, implement inventory controls (which prevent unnecessary purchases and wasteful spending), or research tax credits for becoming energy efficient at energy.gov, the website of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Let your company’s unused computing power contribute to scientific research projects at scienceunited.org.
In preparing for our temporary exhibit Light and Joy in the Holiday Season, The Henry Ford’s curators solicited artifacts, photographs, and stories from The Henry Ford’s staff, among others. Below is one of the stories that was shared for the New Year display case.
My personal, vegetarian version of hoppin’ john, a traditional Southern New Year’s Day meal, in 2013. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
Though I’ve now lived in metro Detroit for more than two decades, I spent my formative years in the South, growing up in Jacksonville, Florida—the largest city (in terms of square footage) in the contiguous United States, an area split by one of the few rivers in the country that flows north (the St. John’s), and the hometown of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Neither of my parents were born in Jacksonville. My dad grew up in Pennsylvania, and my mom on Lookout Mountain in the small town of Fort Payne, Alabama. During the Vietnam War, my dad was drafted into the military and sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, to utilize his newly minted bachelor’s degree in architecture to work on base buildings. At that time, my mom was living in Anniston with her sister and her sister’s husband, who was also involved in architecture on the base. My parents met, secretly eloped, moved briefly to Pennsylvania after my dad was discharged, then moved to Jacksonville for a job opportunity for my dad just after I was born.
Being as close to Georgia as you can be and still be in Florida, Jacksonville is definitely the South—the “Bold New City of the South,” as police cars and road signs proclaimed. And Southern foodways predominated, even as economies and cultural traditions slowly became more global. My mother was a fantastic cook who combined her Alabama farm roots with Jacksonville’s traditions—I grew up eating fried okra, grits, redeye gravy, barbecue, boiled peanuts, greens, banana pudding, scuppernongs and muscadines, sweet tea, and pecan pie, and didn’t realize these things weren’t universally beloved, valued, or available until I moved to Michigan.
Greens are a common food in the South. Here, collard greens are de-spined and washed for use in hoppin’ john, 2011. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
One thing I don’t remember ever not having on New Year’s Day was hoppin’ john. The traditional version of the dish is black-eyed peas cooked in broth with onions and a bit of ham or pork, served over rice, often with greens and cornbread on the side. (We Southerners like our carbs.) I don’t know when or where my mother picked up the idea of serving hoppin’ john on New Year’s Day—one of my cousins did not know what hoppin’ john was when I asked her this year, so I am guessing it did not originate in Alabama. She may have learned about it from friends in Jacksonville who followed the tradition.
The reason this humble staple is eaten on New Year’s Day is for good luck—the greens are the color of money, the peas represent coins, and some people even say the color of the cornbread relates to gold. Some long-time family friends from Jacksonville still refer to their annual plate of hoppin’ john as their “luck and money.” But beyond that, it’s a cheap, filling, and delicious meal.
As near as I can recollect, my mom made it fairly traditionally. She might have thrown a hambone into the peas for extra flavor—at least, before I became vegetarian. After I became vegetarian, she would cook a tray of bacon separate from the peas, so that the meat-eaters in the family (e.g., everyone but me) could crumble some over to get their pork fix, while I could eat meat-free, or crumble on some vegetarian bacon.
Soaking black-eyed peas to use in hoppin’ john, 2011. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
When I moved to Michigan, I wanted to continue the tradition with a meat-free version, but also wanted to simplify preparation—cooking peas, rice, and greens all separately, along with cornbread, is a lot of work for one person, especially given that it is most delicious when it all gets mashed together on the plate in the end anyway.
My family tended to like our hoppin’ john peas on the soupy side—something in keeping with the Southern tradition of “pot likker,” where you eat the flavorful broth that forms when you cook vegetables in seasoned water. I also took inspiration from another simple dish my mother made often—“bean soup.” This was just dried beans (pretty much any kind) cooked with onions in broth until they were tender and beginning to fall apart. It might sound dull, but cooked slowly for a couple of hours, and finished with a substantial amount of butter…. Yum. Once it was clear a soup was the simplest way to go, it was a pretty easy logical next step to add the greens right into the soup, removing the hassle of cooking them separately.
Cooking a big batch (for eating and for freezing for later) of my version of hoppin’ john, 2015. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
Below is the recipe (insomuch as I have one) I came up with.
Pick through the dried black-eyed peas carefully, discarding any brown ones and any stray pebbles. (In my experience, every bag of dried peas contains at least one rock. Though picking through them is tedious, it’s far better to find the pebble(s) with your fingers than your teeth.) Rinse the peas in a strainer, then add them to a large bowl and cover them with a lot of water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or foil and let the peas soak overnight. They will grow in size substantially, maybe double.
When you’re ready to make the soup the next day, drain the peas, discarding the soaking water, and rinse them again.
Chop the onions and sauté them in a stockpot in some of the butter until partially softened, then add veggie stock and the soaked peas. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the peas are nearly soft, stirring from time to time, usually one to two hours.
While the peas are cooking, de-spine, wash, and chop the collard greens into bite-sized pieces. When the peas are about half to three-quarters cooked, add the greens to the stockpot, and continue cooking until they are tender. Add additional butter to the soup to taste. (You could also add salt/pepper if desired, but usually the vegetable broth adds plenty of both.)
Cook the veggie bacon according to package directions. Serve up the soup, and crumble a strip or two of veggie bacon on each serving. Enjoy!
The finished product, vegetarian hoppin’ john soup, in 2011. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
Cornbread on the side is pretty much required. My mom made her own dry mix, which she combined with milk, eggs, and (if vegetarians weren’t present) bacon grease to bake, but since I don’t have her recipe, I just (somewhat shamefully) use the one off the back of the Quaker cornmeal package—though I use less sugar, replace the cow’s milk with plant-based milk, and replace the oil with melted butter—so I guess I’ve modified that as well.
I always make a double batch of hoppin’ john and cornbread and stash the remainder in the freezer to get me through the rest of the cold Michigan winter. It just gets better as you reheat it and the flavors continue to meld.
Snowy Michigan on New Year’s Day, 2014. Hoppin’ john freezes really well so it’s wise to make enough to get you through a Michigan winter. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl
Vegetarian hoppin’ john (soup) might not be the most common tradition, especially in Detroit—but it’s a sign of the times that you can find a vegan version today at Detroit Vegan Soul. But the most satisfying version is the one you make yourself—and make your own.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections and Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
“In its entirety, the Michael Graves Design product archive tells a 39-year history of art, culture, and commerce, along with countless stories about the power of design,” said Patricia Mooradian, president and CEO of The Henry Ford. “We are honored that the team chose The Henry Ford as the location to house this collection that shows that everyday products can be designed with both purpose and playfulness.”
This coach's whistle teakettle was designed by Michael Graves for Target in 1999./ THF179699
Graves’ first designs for Target debuted in 1999. The collaboration eventually brought over 2,000 products to market across 20 categories, including kitchen electrics, gadgets, cleaning supplies, home décor, and storage and organization. This groundbreaking 15-year partnership with Target transformed mass-merchandising strategies, elevated consumers’ expectations for design, and made Target a design destination.
In addition to high-end client relationships, Michael Graves Design’s revolutionary approach to common home products, known as “Art of the Everyday Object,” solidified it as a pioneer in the contemporary design industry.
Toilet brush designed by Michael Graves. / THF179683
“Michael Graves and his designers performed a kind of design alchemy, transforming often humble things—thousands of them—into objects of delight, humor, and elegance,” said Marc Greuther, vice president, historical resources and chief curator at The Henry Ford. “He showed that seeming near-opposites, such as practicality, whimsy, affordability, decoration, and modernity, could actually coexist—and move swiftly off the shelves of everyday retailers.”
(For clarity’s sake, it is important to note that the Fair Lane estate is a historic house museum, independent of The Henry Ford. The house is currently undergoing a major restoration. You can learn more about the Fair Lane estate here.)
The single document that best details the relationship between Sidney Houghton and the Fords is a brochure, more a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm. From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. Unfortunately for us, images of Fair Lane were not included in the 1930s Houghton brochure, likely because of the private nature of the commission.
However, The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center holds exterior and interior photographs of the house, taken at a variety of dates. Additionally, our archives holds a select group of Houghton’s designs for Fair Lane’s furniture. These are the only surviving drawings of Houghton’s Ford-related furniture. One of my greatest joys in researching this blog was locating the completed pieces of furniture in historic photographs.
The Story of Fair Lane
The story of Fair Lane began in 1909, when Henry Ford bought large tracts of land in Dearborn Township, the place of his birth. At that time, Henry, his wife, Clara, and their son, Edsel, were living comfortably in the fashionable Boston-Edison neighborhood of Detroit, not far from the Highland Park plant where the famous Model T automobiles were manufactured. Henry was considering options for building a larger home, where he and his family could have more space and greater privacy. They were also considering building in Grosse Pointe, a community where many of Detroit’s leaders of industry were constructing homes. They even bought a parcel of land there that eventually became the site of Edsel and his wife Eleanor’s home in the 1920s.
In the summer of 1909, Ford visited the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park, Illinois, studio. The result was a commission for a large estate along the Rouge River in Dearborn. Scholars believe that Henry Ford heard about Wright from one of his chief engineers and neighbor, C. Harold Wills, who previously contracted Wright to build a home for his family in Detroit. By November of 1909, Wright had closed his studio and turned his practice over to the Chicago architectural firm of Von Holst and Fyfe, with his best draftsperson, Marion Mahony, overseeing all of Wright’s remaining projects. Wright felt that his architectural practice was at a “critical impasse” and went to Europe to work on a summary portfolio of his career, published in 1910. He was accompanied by Mrs. Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. This scandalous situation seems not to have affected the Fords, as Marion Mahony continued work on Fair Lane.
Presentation Drawing of Fair Lane, 1914 / THF157872
The project continued slowly through the next few years, until circumstances in the Fords’ lives made securing a new home a priority. In January 1914, Henry Ford announced his famous “five dollar day” wage for factory workers. His home on Edison Avenue near the plant was besieged by job seekers and the Fords lost any semblance of privacy. They soon realized that that the new Dearborn house was a priority. In February 1914, Clara Ford, who had taken the leadership role on the new house, called a meeting of Von Holst, Mahony and related designers. A number of elegant presentations of the home were shown to Clara Ford, including the design above. Many of these are now in public collections and give us a sense of the proposed estate. Two can be accessed here and here.
Instead of continuing to work with Marion Mahoney, Clara Ford chose Pittsburgh architect William Van Tine to complete the house. Van Tine was known in New York and the East, and it is generally thought that Clara Ford was seeking to emulate the tastes of women of her social status. Another key factor was the direction of American taste: the Prairie style promoted by Frank Lloyd Wright and Marion Mahony was rapidly losing currency and Americans increasingly favored revival styles, including Colonial and Medieval Revivals.
When I look at images of Van Tine’s house, completed in early 1916, I am struck by the odd composition, such as the sloping horizontal rooflines, especially to the left of the front entrance. These seem derived from Marion Mahony’s designs. There are vertical, castle-like forms, such as the one just to the right of the entrance, which are not at peace with the rest of the house. The result is a hodge-podge of disharmonious elements that barely coexist with each other.
Planting Plan for Fair Lane Grounds Number 5, November 1915 / THF155894
The planting plan above gives us a sense of Van Tine’s arrangement of the house. To the far left is Henry Ford’s power house, which is connected to the house through a tunnel under the rose garden. The tunnel ends near the indoor swimming pool intended for son Edsel’s use.
Entry Hall from the Living Room around 1925 / THF126547
The main rooms of the house are indicated in an area labeled as “residence” on the plan. The first-floor entrance consists of a grand hall and wide staircase. To the right of the hall is a small library. The hall leads into what the Fords described as their living room, the heart of the house. At the rear of the photograph above, please note the player organ installed in late 1915.
The entrance to the music room is to the right of the player organ in the living room. It is by far the largest and grandest room in the house. The photograph above shows it in its final incarnation, shortly after Clara Ford’s death.
The dining room leads off the living room and is another grand room, although it lacks the scale of the music room. As you can see, all the large public rooms at Fair Lane are rather dark and heavily decorated.
Sun Porch, Identified as the Loggia on the Ground Plan, about 1925 / THF137033
The sun porch is unlike any other public room in Fair Lane. It was filled with light and was said to have been one of the Fords’ favorite rooms. Also, unlike the rest of the house, it was filled with wicker furniture.
As you can see, Fair Lane was a very dark and heavily decorated home. We know that the Fords—Clara in particular—were unhappy with the interior. For example, sometime in the 1920s or the 1930s, Clara Ford went so far as to paint the walnut paneling in the music room. This north facing room must have appeared very dark, especially on a cloudy winter day.
Sidney Houghton’s Work at Fair Lane
Records in the Benson Ford Research Center indicate that Sidney Houghton began consulting on furnishings for Fair Lane in 1919. The records and correspondence continue through 1925, with proposals and payments through the entire period. The only “before” and “after” photographs that we have are of the living room.
By 1940, the furnishings of 1919 have been completely removed. The clutter of the 1919 furnishings have been replaced with groups of furniture oriented around the fireplace. The whole arrangement appears coherent and logical. The furniture styles of the 1940 living room are a mixture of historic English and American. Is this the work of Sidney Houghton? While we know that Houghton was working extensively at Fair Lane, we have no surviving renderings for furniture in this room.
Like the living room, the master bedroom contains a mixture of furnishings in historic English and American styles. For example, the mantelpiece is described as a “Wedgewood,” as the colored decoration derives from Wedgewood’s English Jasperware, first made in the 18th century. There are also pieces that are American in origin, such as the William and Mary–style table in front of the fireplace, and the Federal-style slant front desk in the corner, to the right of the window.
This room also contains two twin beds, likely designed by Sidney Houghton. They are made of veneered walnut with inlaid medallions done in a Chinoiserie style, a western interpretation of oriental design.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bed, 1921-1923 / THF626014
The headboard and footboard, as well as the crest rail and legs, of this bed are identical to those on the twin beds in the 1951 photograph. Houghton may have presented this design to Clara Ford, and she chose to have twin beds without a canopy produced instead.
The opposite wall in the master bedroom shows us again a combination of English and American historic furniture. They include an American Queen Anne oval table in the left corner. To the right of it is a Queen Anne style dressing table, partly obscured by an upholstered armchair. What is of interest is the dressing table and mirror at the center of the back wall. These are Houghton’s designs.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bedroom Dressing Table and Looking Glass, 1921-1923 / THF626012
We can see that the dressing table matches the bed—the inlaid medallions are also done in a Chinoiserie style—so this appears be part of a bedroom suite. Indeed, there is another design that does not appear in the room.
Design by Sidney Houghton Design for Fair Lane, Bedroom Cabinet or Chest, 1921-1923 / THF626016
This piece likely was presented to Clara Ford and rejected, or, if produced, removed before the photograph was taken in 1951.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Chest of Drawers and Case, possibly for Bedroom, 1921-1923 / THF626010
This chest of drawers appears to relate to the bedroom suite, as it is similar in scale, although it lacks the inlaid medallions.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Ladies Writing Table, 1921-1923 / THF626008
This elegant ladies desk may have been intended for the Fords’ bedroom. Like the chest, it may have been rejected or removed later.
The Benson Ford Research Center holds more of Houghton’s furniture designs for Fair Lane, although none appear in the historic photographs.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Center Table or Partners Desk, 1921-1923 / THF626002
This heavy, masculine-looking piece was likely not part of the bedroom suite. If fabricated, it would have been a large, clunky piece of furniture.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table, 1921-1923 / THF625998
This piece, done in the Louis XV or 18th-century Rococo style is a departure from anything visible at Fair Lane. Clara Ford likely rejected it.
There are also Houghton sketches and working drawings in the archive.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Slant Front Desk and Chair, 1921-1923 / THF625994
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table or Stool, 1921-1923 / THF626000
These designs were likely drawn on-site and presented as ideas for Clara’s approval.
As these drawings suggest, Sidney Houghton was extremely talented. He could work in a variety of styles and produced high-quality furniture. He transformed Fair Lane during the early 1920s from an eclectic mix to a more simplified combination of 18th-century English and American styles. This post represents the beginning of inquiry into the role of Houghton at Fair Lane, which should be continued over time. My next blog post will examine Sidney Houghton’s later work for the Fords and the end of their relationship.
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.
Michele Michael, who discovered ceramics in 2010, likes to create utilitarian objects for the tabletop, loving the feel and meditative properties of the clay in her hands. She is always experimenting with new techniques and processes to make her housewares, like painting freehand with indigo and cobalt underglazes. / Photo by Michele Michael
Michele Michael and Patrick Moore understand the importance of ordinary days and have a renewed appreciation for the concept of time.
Today, Michael creates ceramics that reflect the natural beauty, quiet, and peacefulness that surround her in midcoast Maine. Mostly she creates utilitarian objects for the tabletop. She builds, fires, and glazes her wares—typically porcelain, sometimes stoneware—on the first floor of, or in season outside on the porch of, a light-drenched, barn-style studio that she shares with her husband, Moore, a woodworker.
Michael came to ceramics serendipitously back in 2010. At the time, she and Moore were leading a higher-octane lifestyle in New York City, where they owned a successful prop house together. Michael curated a large collection of tabletop items that she would rent out for photo shoots for magazines, cookbooks, and advertising. Moore built surfaces and other props for their business and also sets for film and music videos, often out of wood he salvaged from dumpsters at construction sites around the city.
On one fateful spring day, Michael ventured into a ceramics studio in their Brooklyn neighborhood (to see if they had any plates or bowls she might want to buy for her inventory), then on a whim signed up for a class that started that very week. It was kismet. Michael loved everything about her experience: the feel of the clay in her hands, the meditative process of forming it into her desired shapes, the warm and supportive community of fellow makers.
“In my career as a magazine editor, then photo stylist and business owner, I was constantly multitasking,” Michael said. “Right away, it felt so good to do something where I was fully in the moment, plus it was just nice to be using my hands to make something again.”
Here, Michele Michael created texture by rolling out the clay between two pieces of handwoven linen. / Photo by Michele Michael
Within just three years, Michael and Moore had sold their apartment and moved full-time to what had until then been a summer home in the small town of Dresden, Maine. By consigning their prop collection to another company similar to theirs, they could keep some of that income stream flowing while changing their way of life dramatically. They would build a studio where Michael could devote herself to her ceramics practice and Moore could do his woodworking.
Today, they are able to live a life they fantasized about away from the city: in sync with not only the natural world that nourishes them but also the creative curiosity that drives them. Michael creates her wares—mostly platters and vases—and then photographs and posts them to their retail website, called Elephant Ceramics, in batches several times a year. Moore’s one-of-a-kind cutting boards, which he makes out of birch, maple, black walnut, cherry, oak, and hickory he sources from a nearby mill, are also for sale on the site. Inventory sells out fast but isn’t replenished until months later, when they feel ready to create a new body of work.
Patrick Moore seeks out wood with unusual grain with which to make his cutting boards. As he cuts, planes, sands, and finishes each piece, his aim is to showcase and maximize the wood’s natural beauty. / Photo by Michele Michael
“We are constantly in a process of learning and trying new things,” said Michael. “I can’t imagine a life without making things. I think it’s in my DNA.”
In between these bursts of making, the two are able to slow down and enjoy ordinary pleasures: walks, birdwatching, gardening, cooking nourishing meals, kayaking on the river that borders their property—and following those ever-important whims. Moore might transform random lobster rope that washes up on the beaches into boat fenders and other nautical knots, weave sticks and saplings collected while pruning in the yard into vessels to be used as planters or compost bins, or teach himself to knit, inspired by a collection of old needles he picked up at a yard sale. Michael sometimes sets off on trips to faraway places and takes workshops—block printing in India, ceramics and cooking in Japan, and weaving in Mexico so far—or she might stay home and hook a chair cushion using yarn from her stash and strips of wool cut from old clothing.
As Michael shared, “Often my inspiration comes from an idea of something I’d like to have but cannot find. I think making things yourself helps you see the value in items that are handmade. You realize how much goes into something that is carefully thought-out and crafted. It also teaches you patience."
With our hands, we take agency over our lives. We connect with others, past and present, near and far, with a similar passion. We feel a sense of belonging, not only to one another but to the planet.
“The Farmer Is the Man That Feeds Us All.” The words of that folk tune became indelibly imprinted on U.S. popular culture when Alan Lomax included it as the 66th out of the 317 songs in Folk Songs of North America (in the English Language) (1960). In fact, linking “the farmer” to “the man” tells only half the story!
Plenty of popular images of women in agriculture exist. The painting above, rendered by a girl in Massachusetts in the early years of the new nation, shows a woman holding a cornucopia. This likely represented either Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, or Copia, the Roman goddess of abundance. The goddess to the far right, holding a branch, might represent Pax, the Roman goddess of peace.
Mode of Spinning and Weaving by the Pueblo Indians, 1857 / THF621691
Abundance and peace marked a stable and secure agricultural society. Yet, farms throughout the expanding United States flourished on lands that matrilineal indigenous societies had managed for centuries before colonization. The Henry Ford acknowledges these matrilineal indigenous societies as stewards of the lands that sustained them for centuries.
Hillsboro County Agricultural and Mechanical Fair Badge, 1852 / THF154922
The popular depictions of goddesses of agriculture, grains, harvest, and fertility continued in U.S. popular culture for decades. The agricultural fair badge above depicts either the Greek goddess, Demeter; the Roman goddess, Ceres; or America’s Lady Liberty—all matrons of agriculture.
In contrast, illustrations in The Farmers and Dairymans Almanac, published the same year (1852), featured only men engaged in the practice of growing crops and rearing livestock. The work fit the seasons—flailing grain, building fence, spreading manure, and bringing in the sheaves—but emphasized that men did agricultural work and ran the business of farming as well.
Male authority over business ventures, including farming, stemmed from legal traditions based in English common law. These included the precedent of feme covert—that married women had no legal civil identity separate from their husbands. Married women were civilly dead. Thus, only single adult women or widows could negotiate the legally binding contracts required to operate farms. Married women could not—their husbands alone had the legal authority to do so. State laws began chipping away at feme covert during the 1820s by granting married women authority over their wages, recourse if abandoned by a husband, or the privilege of parental authority. It took decades, however, before most states afforded married women authority over their property and finances.
Women acted as farmers, nonetheless. They performed many tasks routinely, including milking cows and tending chickens.
Farm scene showing Norwegian women at work in fields off Merrick Road, 1890-1915/ THF38397
Women worked in the fields, too, especially when crops needed planting, cultivating, or harvesting. Sometimes they did this work as a member of a gang of laborers. The companionship might have eased some of the tedium of hoeing around seedlings to reduce competition from weeds, but it did not ease the physical demands of the labor. The women shown above, described as Norwegian by the photographer, work in farm fields near Brooklyn, New York.
Workers in an Onion Field, H. J. Heinz Company, circa 1910 /THF291590
Perishable commodities required everyone to pitch in. The above photograph shows girls and boys, as well as women and men, busy in an onion field under contract to the H. J. Heinz Company.
In a Great Pine Forest, Collecting Turpentine, North Carolina / THF278800
During harvest seasons, farming needs often took precedence over domestic routines and women worked alongside men to get work done as quickly as possible. This included harvesting turpentine from long-leaf pine forests—yes, forestry work is a branch of agricultural work.
Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (1882), pg. 240 / THF277183
The need to get hay in dry provided opportunities for girls and women to contribute their labor. The 1882 illustration above shows a girl and a boy on horses that generate the power to raise the loaded hay fork and run it along the track to dump hay in the barn. The same illustration shows a woman at work in the dirtiest job, distributing the dumped hay in the mow.
A Rice Raft with Plantation Hands, Near Georgetown, South Carolina, 1901-1909 / THF278804
The work completed by women and children often contributed to the economic solvency of the family farm. They “gleaned” by walking through harvested fields and picking up grain and straw missed by the work crews. The photograph above shows laborers after a day at work in rice fields in South Carolina. The raft transported them and their grain and straw back home, where they hulled the grain for family use or to sell and used the straw as forage or bedding for their livestock.
Other important farm work occurred in domestic spaces. This “women’s work” should not be discounted among farm work. Women and girls ensured food security and kept farms running by raising, processing, and preserving food crops and processing animal products (eggs, dairy, meat). Several farm homes in Greenfield Village tell these critical stories.
Daggett Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian /THF53544
The Daggett family, of Daggett Farmhouse, had a very set routine of farm and household management tasks. Samuel Daggett ran the business side of the farm. He had to ensure harvests of enough hay to keep the cattle herd healthy, and enough small grains to satisfy family consumption needs and market income. Anna Bushnell Daggett, on the other hand, oversaw the kitchen garden, to ensure harvests adequate to feed the family. The Daggett family raised food they needed for the entire year on their farmland. They had to plan the quantity and quality of plants and vegetables they needed to grow and harvest to ensure family survival. They then had to preserve the crops by pickling, storing (in a root cellar), fermenting, or drying them to ensure a supply throughout the winter months and into the next season.
Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Wayne, Michigan, 1876, page 34, detail /THF126026
The Ford farmhouse functioned well under the oversight of Henry Ford’s mother, Mary Litogot Ford. She maintained the busy farmstead while ensuring that her young and growing family was well fed and healthy. She, with the help of neighboring farmgirls, milked the cattle and tended chickens. She may also have helped with pressing seasonal farm work like bringing in the hay crop, but her young family probably consumed most of her attention on the farm. Mary unfortunately passed away on March 29, 1876, and it’s hard to imagine the historical farmstead operating without her at the center (distinctive in her dress in the illustration above, published in 1876) standing with children and chickens.
Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007, Photographed by Michelle Andonian / THF52966
Firestone Farmhouse provides insight into the question, “What does it take to put a meal on the table?” This work drove a farm woman’s working day as she prepared three meals each day, 365 days every year. Morning activities focused on the repetitive and time-consuming tasks of preparing, consuming, and cleaning up after breakfast, while also preparing farm-grown produce, eggs, and meat for the noon meal. Other chores, including work in the kitchen garden, processing of dairy products, and tending to the chicken flock, in addition to household chores and childcare, consumed afternoons and evenings. Evenings involved additional preparation for the same tasks repeated the next day, and so on. Disruptions to these routines included celebrations like weddings, somber events such as funerals, and the haste of harvest which increased the farm workload for all.
Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991 /THF45318
The center of many farm women’s lives revolved around the backyards of farm homes. Grace Mattox, her ancestors and her children, spent countless hours over decades keeping the backyard of the Mattox Family Home swept. This area, with its nearby brush arbor, provided additional space to get work done, and to visit with relatives and neighbors while they did it. The Mattox children remembered their hardscrabble existence, consisting of constant work to keep the garden cultivated, ripe vegetables processed, and food on the table.
The Henry Ford’s collections and these historic farmsteads in Greenfield Village provide a glimpse into the routines of farm women’s work. Their labor, from sun-up to sun-down, was essential to ensure the health and wellbeing of their families, as well as the smooth operation of their farms. These routines changed by the mid-twentieth century, as processed foods reduced the work required to maintain the family food supply and new farm implements replaced laborers. Often, women pursued off-farm work, but they remained essential to farm operations as their earnings helped family farms make ends meet.
A 15th birthday is very special for many young women in Hispanic culture. Quinceañera, Spanish for “15 years,” marks her passage from girlhood to womanhood. Both a religious and a social event, quinceañera emphasizes the importance of family and community in the life of a young woman.
Invitation to Detroiter Maritza Garza’s quinceañera mass and reception, April 4, 1992. / THF91662
Historically, the quinceañera signified that a girl—having been taught skills like cooking, weaving, and childcare—was ready for marriage. The modern celebration is more likely to signal the beginning of formal dating. Today, the custom of quinceañera remains strongest in Mexico, where it likely originated. It is also celebrated not only in the United States, but also in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas.
Maritza Garza in her formal quinceañera gown. She selected a dress in a traditional pastel color, pink, purchasing it at a local bridal shop in Detroit. / THF91665
An occasion shared with family and friends, the celebration is as elaborate as the family’s wishes and budget allow. The honoree wears a formal gown, along with a tiara or other hair ornament. The oldest tradition was a white dress, with other conventional choices being light pink, blue, or yellow. Now, quinceañera dresses come in many shades—from pastels to darker hues.
Maritza Garza’s quinceañera court of honor. / THF207367
A “court” of family and friends help her celebrate her special day—the young women wear dresses that match and the young men don tuxedos.
Maritza Garza during her quinceañera mass at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in April 1992. Holy Redeemer is located in the heart of Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood. Here, masses have been offered in Spanish since 1960 for the Mexican American congregation. / THF91666
A quinceañera begins with a religious service at a Catholic church. Then comes a party with food and dancing. Dancing at the “quince” traditionally includes a choreographed waltz-type dance—one of the highlights of the evening. Toasts are often offered. Sometimes, the cutting of a fancy cake takes place. Symbolic ceremonies at this celebration may include swapping out the honoree’s flat shoes for high heels, slipped onto her feet by her father or parental figure.
Quinceañera celebrations may also include a ride in a lowrider. Arising from Mexican American culture, lowriders are customized family-size cars with street-scraping suspensions and ornamental paint. / THF104135
Some girls choose to celebrate their 15th birthday in a less traditional way, perhaps with a trip abroad. Like other celebrations and rites of passage, quinceañera traditions continue to evolve.
Traditional or non-traditional, a quinceañera celebration makes a young woman feel special as she continues her journey to adulthood.
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.
Our current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features clothing from generations of one family. / THF188474
In 1935, 59-year-old Louise Hungerford sent a trunk full of clothing to Henry Ford—clothing that had belonged to her mother’s family, the Mitchells, who had lived in the village of Port Washington, New York, for six generations.
Ford had opened his museum to the public only two years before. Louise Hungerford was one of the hundreds of people who sent letters to Henry Ford at this time offering to give or sell him objects for his museum. The clothing she sent remains among the oldest in The Henry Ford’s collection.
Map of Port Washington in 1873—the Mitchell home is highlighted in red. / (Not from the collections of The Henry Ford.)
The Mitchell Family and Port Washington
Since the 1690s, the Mitchells had been respected members of the Long Island community of Port Washington as it evolved from farming to shellfishing and construction sand and gravel. In the early 1800s, Port Washington (then called Cow Neck) provided garden produce for New York City residents and hay for their horses—all shipped to the city by packet ships. By the mid-1800s, oystering was profitable in the area. After the Civil War, the sand and gravel industry took hold, providing construction materials for the growing city of New York.
By the early 1900s, the village had become a summer resort and home for the wealthy. The Long Island Railroad reached Port Washington in 1898, providing convenient transportation to the area from New York City. The city’s Knickerbocker Yacht Club moved to Port Washington in 1907. By the mid-1930s—when Louise Hungerford sent Henry Ford the letter and trunk full of family clothing--Port Washington’s quaint homes and wooded hills had been giving way to prestigious residences and sailboats for over 30 years.
Postcard views of Port Washington sent by tourists to family or friends about 1910. / THF624985 and THF624981
Mitchell family occupations evolved through the years along with Port Washington’s local economy: farmer, ship’s captain, stagecoach operator, land developer, highway commissioner, librarian.
Preserving the Past
The Mitchell family had changed with the times—yet hung onto vestiges of its past. Family clothing had been stored for over a century, first in Manhasset Hall, the house that had been home to the Mitchells since the late 1760s. Generations of the extended Mitchell family were born there, grew up there, married there, raised families there, and died there.
By the early 1900s, the Mitchell family home—added onto over the years before being sold out of the family—offered accommodations to tourists. The house was later torn down to make way for a housing development. / THF624821
When the Mitchell home was sold in 1887, the trunk full of clothing remained in the family. By the early 1900s, it was probably kept by Louise Hungerford’s aunt, Wilhelmina, and then by Louise’s mother, Mary. Wilhelmina had remained in Port Washington, helping establish the town’s first library and serving as its first librarian.
Port Washington Public Library, where Wilhelmina Mitchell served as the first librarian. / THF624979
Wilhelmina’s sister, Mary Hungerford, lived most of her adult life in Watertown, New York, after her marriage to produce dealer Egbert Hungerford. But, sometime before 1930, Mary—now a widow—returned to her hometown of Port Washington, along with her daughter, Louise. Wilhelmina Mitchell passed away in 1927; Mary Mitchell Hungerford died in 1933. Fewer Mitchell family members remained in Port Washington to cherish these tucked-away pieces of the family’s past. So Louise Hungerford wrote her letter, offering the trunk and its contents to Henry Ford for his museum.
What clothing was in the Mitchell family trunk? Once-fashionable apparel. Garments outgrown. Clothing saved for sentimental reasons—perhaps worn on a special occasion or kept in someone’s memory. Everything was handsewn; much was probably homemade.
Louise Hungerford—if she knew—didn’t provide the names of the family members who had once worn these items, and Henry Ford’s assistants didn’t think to ask. For a few garments, though, we made some guesses based on recent research. For many, the mystery remains.
Flat-soled slippers were the most common shoe type worn by women during the first part of the 1800s. The delicate pair above might have been donned for a special occasion. Footwear did not yet come in rights and lefts—the soles were straight.
The high-waisted style and pastel silk fabric of the child’s dress depicted above mirror women’s fashions of the 1810s. This dress was probably worn with pantalettes (long underwear with a lace-trimmed hem) by a little girl—though a boy could have worn it as well. Infants and toddlers of both genders wore dresses at this time. The tucks could be let down as the child grew.
Gaiters—low boots with fabric uppers and leather toes and heels—were very popular as boots became the footwear of choice for walking. To give the appearance of daintiness, shoes were made on narrow lasts, a foot-shaped form. By the late 1850s, boots made entirely of leather were the most popular.
By the late 1700s, women’s fashions were less full and less formal than earlier. The side seams of this dress are split—allowing entry into a pair of separate pockets that would be tied around the waist. The dress, lined with a different fabric, appears to be reversible. The dress above was possibly worn by Rebecca Hewlett Mitchell, who died in 1790—or by her sister Jane Hewlett, who became the second wife of Rebecca’s husband, John Mitchell, Jr.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, women’s gowns didn’t have pockets stitched in. Instead, women wore separate pockets that tied around their waist. A woman put her hand through a slit in her skirt to pull out what she needed. This pocket has the initials JhM cross-stitched on the back. They were possibly owned by John Mitchell, Jr.’s second wife, Jane Hewlett Mitchell (born 1749), or by his unmarried daughter, Jane H. Mitchell (born 1785).
During the early 1800s, boys wore Eton suits—short jackets with long, straight trousers—for school or special occasions. The trousers buttoned to a shirt or suspenders under the short jacket. This one, made of silk, was a more expensive version, possibly worn by Charles W. Mitchell, who was born in 1816.
The enormous, exaggerated sleeves of 1830s women’s fashion needed something to hold them up. Sleeve plumpers did the trick, often in the form of down-filled pads like these that would tie on at the shoulder under the dress.
A corset was a supportive garment worn under a woman’s clothing. A busk—a flat piece of wood, metal, or animal bone—slid into the fabric pocket in front to keep the corset straight, while also ensuring an upright posture and a flatter stomach.
In the mid-to-late 1700s, women’s gowns had an open front or were looped up to reveal the petticoat underneath. Fashionable quilted petticoats usually had decorative stitching along the hemline. Women might quilt their own petticoats or buy one made in England—American merchants imported thousands during this time.
Collapsible calash bonnets were named after the folding tops of horse-drawn carriages. These bonnets had been popular during the late 1700s with a balloon-shaped hood that protected the elaborate hairstyles then in fashion. Calash bonnets returned in the 1820s and 1830s, this time following current fashion—a small crown at the back of the head and an open brim. The ruffle at the back shaded the neck.
When Henry Ford was collecting during the mid-1900s, many of the objects were gathered from New England or the Midwest—often from people of similar backgrounds to his. We are looking to make our clothing collection and the stories it tells more inclusive and diverse. Do you have clothing you would like us to consider for The Henry Ford’s collection? Please contact us.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Joan DeMeo Lager of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society, Phyllis Sternemann, church historian at Christ Church Manhasset, and Gil Gallagher, curatorial volunteer at The Henry Ford, for meticulous research that revealed the story of generations of Port Washington Mitchells. Thanks also to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Side Chair, Created by Lambert Hitchcock, 1825-1835. / THF81928
Many people believe that mass production started with Henry Ford and the Model T. But the ideas that led to this breakthrough were already being put into practice back in the early 1800s, in mills and manufactories dotting the countryside across New England. It was here that Lambert Hitchcock applied early mass production techniques to turn out chairs by the thousands—uniform, durable, attractive, affordable, and, for a time, wildly popular.
Julia Barton Hunting of Pine Plains, New York, sat on a Hitchcock chair while posing for this portrait by Ammi Phillips, about 1830. / THF95303
Invention was in the air in New England during the early 1800s. Burgeoning industries like firearms, clocks, and textiles were experimenting both with new machinery—to increase production and make up for labor shortages—and with new factory arrangements that integrated materials and activities under one roof.
Furniture making had a long tradition of handcraftsmanship, and manufacturers varied in their adoption of machine production over generations-old hand processes. Hand-crafted pieces were made to order, resulting in low production and fairly high costs. With water- or steam-powered machines to rough out the pieces, furniture makers could turn out more products at lower costs to sell to a wider market. Neither of these processes was right or wrong—the choice was essentially a business decision.
Lambert Hitchcock chose machine- over hand-production, inspired by the bustling firearms and clock industries in his home state of Connecticut. He had started out learning the craft of fine furniture-making. But Hitchcock dreamed of manufacturing affordable furniture, using uniform parts that were quickly and cheaply made by machine, and easy to assemble.
In 1818, Hitchcock chose a site in northwestern Connecticut, where two fast-moving rivers came together. Here, using the rivers’ power to operate his machinery, Hitchcock produced a line of chairs that was so affordable he basically created a brand-new market. Before long, Hitchcock’s chair factory—in the newly named village of Hitchcocks-ville—was turning out some 15,000 chairs per year.
The price, ranging from 45 cents to $1.75 (about $10.15 to $39.40 today), certainly appealed to people. Also appealing was the idea that machines could be harnessed to produce sturdy, functional chairs that everyone could enjoy. But Hitchcock did not ignore aesthetics. His characteristic stenciling across the back chair rails served as an attractive substitute for the hand-carving on more expensive custom-made chairs.
In 1825, Hitchcock went one step further. He erected a three-story factory, arranged into sections, in which specific tools and materials were associated with logical steps in the assembly process. The ground floor held areas for rough-cutting work, like sawing, turning, and planing. On the second floor, the chair parts were bonded together with glue, then dried in a kiln until their joints were firm. On the third floor, the chairs were painted and decorated, using pre-cut stencils and pre-arranged patterns. Each of these stencils, designed to create a different part of the overall composition, was positioned on the chair back, then carefully rubbed with bronze powders to achieve the special tone and shading.
Professional male stencilers probably cut the stencils and lent their expertise, but women did much of the actual stenciling at Hitchcock’s factory. Many had learned this skill as young women at female academies popular in New England at the time. There they practiced the art of theorem painting—that is, creating stylized pictures of fruits and flowers that similarly used pre-cut stencils, metallic powders, and prearranged patterns.
An example of a theorem painting, created in 1835 by Caroline Bennett, a young woman who would have attended a female academy. / THF119757
Women also worked as seat rushers and caners, while children often did the painting and striping. At its peak of production, in the late 1820s and early 1830s, Hitchcock employed over 100 workers.
Lambert Hitchcock was innovative in his manufacturing techniques: integrated work processes, division of labor, and application of fast and inexpensive, yet still attractive, decorative techniques. Hitchcock was also an assertive salesman, opening retail stores in Hitchcocks-ville and Hartford (the state capital), selling chairs wholesale to dealers and store owners, and distributing his chairs far and wide through the network of itinerant Yankee peddlers.
Unfortunately, Lambert Hitchcock also made some costly mistakes. He located his factory in a very isolated area, with deplorable roads to Hartford and other markets. In 1844, Hitchcock moved his factory to a town called Unionville, banking on the construction of a new canal. But, alas, the canal construction was halted, and a new railroad bypassed the town. For all his tremendous contributions, Hitchcock died at the age of 57 with few assets to his name.
But Hitchcock’s name and his chairs lived on. The chairs were so popular during their heyday that many competitors tried to imitate both their aesthetics and production techniques. To this day, chairs of this general style are referred to as Hitchcock (or Hitchcock-type) chairs. Hitchcock chairs were also painstakingly reproduced by succeeding generations of artisans, a tribute to the genius and foresight of Lambert Hitchcock, a true American innovator.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran in March 2008 as part of our Pic of the Month series.