Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged home life

A variety of ceramic plates, bowls, and platters, all featuring white and blue painted patterns

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.”

White rectangular platter with rounded corners with slightly visible dark mesh pattern underneath
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.

Four wooden cutting boards of different sizes, leaning against a dark gray wooden wall
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.


Melanie Falick is an independent writer, editor, and creative director. This post was adapted from “Keeping in Touch,” an article in the June–December 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

ceramics, The Henry Ford Magazine, making, home life, furnishings, by Melanie Falick

“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!

Painting of four women in flowing white gowns; one holds a cornucopia and one two plant fronds
Women in classical dress, 1790-1810 / THF152522

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.

Page with text and images of woman working with some kind of tools and fabric weaving in progress
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.

Ribbon with text and a number of images
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.

Woman in striped dress sits on low stool, milking a cow eating hay, next to a wooden fence and building
Woman milking a cow, circa 1890 / THF228504

Women acted as farmers, nonetheless. They performed many tasks routinely, including milking cows and tending chickens.

Seven women wearing kerchiefs and long skirts work in a field
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.

Open field with a large group of people sitting/standing/working in the distance, some with boxes
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.

Duplicate arched photographs in a frame with text, depicting people working at trees in a wooded area, one rolling a barrel into a wagon
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.

Women operated some machinery, too. Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (1882) features women and children raking hay. One illustration (page 96) shows a woman operating a Wheeler & Melick Co. rake, but this and others like it might have been pure advertising ploys, emphasizing ease of operation and celebrating the notion that “many hands make light work.” The description for the Coates Lock-Lever Hay and Grain Rake in Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (page 231) explains that “twenty acres is a fair day’s work, and as any boy or girl who can guide a horse can work it, it will readily be seen how great a labor-saver it is.”


Page with text and several line drawings that show agricultural work and tools
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.

Double arched duplicate photographs in a frame with text, showing a group of African American people standing on a large hay pile
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.

Garden with raised wooden beds containing nasturtiums and other plants, with wooden building and windmill in the distance
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.

Print of aerial view of farm property, with house, outbuildings, fields, trees, cows and horses, and people
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.

Two women shuck and remove kernels from corn cobs at a kitchen table containing other dishes and food
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.

Black-and-white photo of wooden house with large iron kettle over ring of stones in dirt yard
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.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford and Kathleen Johnson is a student at Henry Ford Academy.

Daggett Farmhouse, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, home life, food, women's history, farms and farming, agriculture, by Kathleen Johnson, by Debra A. Reid, #THFCuratorChat

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.

Open, tri-fold invitation with pink text on cream paper and embossed image of girl in a tiered gown
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.

Woman with long dark hair and glasses wearing pink gown with tiers and white lace holds an elaborate flower arrangement
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

Diamond or rhinestone tiara with swirling design
Quinceañera tiara, 2011. / THF150077

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.

Two pages with pink text
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.

Profile of woman in pink dress holding a bouquet of roses in a formal building (church?)
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.

Blue magazine cover with three photos of people in formal dress with decorated cars; also contains text
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.

Michigan, Detroit, home life, childhood, women's history, Hispanic and Latino history, by Jeanine Head Miller

Large glass display case containing a wooden trunk and a number of garments and other pieces of apparel
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.

Page of hand-written (cursive) letter
Page of hand-written (cursive) letter
Letter from Louise Hungerford to Henry Ford, September 9, 1935. / THF624791 and THF624793

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 with irregularly shaped area outlined in red
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.

Town with two-story wooden houses by a body of water; also contains text
People wave from long, wooden dock over a body of water with houses visible along shoreline behind them; also contains text
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.

Large, two-story wooden house with wrap-around porch; also contains printed and hand-written text
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.

Brick building with sloping lawn and steps down to sidewalk in front; also contains text
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.

Looking Inside


Wooden trunk with open arched lid
Trunk, 1860-1880. / THF188046

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.

Pink fabric slippers with small ruffle on top of body
Women’s Slippers, about 1830. / THF156005

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.

Pale pink dress with empire waist; slight puff at top of long sleeves; tiers at bottom of body
Child’s Dress, 1810-1825. / THF28528

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.

Simple brown booties with seam up center and laces on inseam
Woman’s Gaiters, 1830-1860. / THF31093

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.

Long-sleeved, floor-length dress gathered at waist and neck, made of brown floral material
Dress, 1780-1795. / THF29521

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. 

Two pear-shaped patchwork pockets connected by a cord or string
Pockets, 1790-1810. / THF30851

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).

Dark gray suit with simple pants and a jacket with several rows of large black buttons converging at the waist in a W shape
Boy’s Eton Suit, 1820-1830. / THF28536

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.

White sacks filled with something and gathered with ribbon at necks
Sleeve Puffs, about 1830. / THF188039

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.

Beige corset with wide shoulder straps
Corset, 1830-1840. / THF30853

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.

Simple light blue quilted skirt
Quilted Petticoat, 1760-1780. / THF30943

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.

Brown pants with a houndstooth or checked pattern
Man’s Trousers, 1820-1850. / THF30007

These trousers appear to have been worn on an everyday basis for work. Both knees, having seen a lot of wear, have careful repairs.

Brown shoes with leather at bottom and quilted fabric above, tied with laces
Woman’s House Slippers, 1840-1855. / THF156001

The quilted fabric on these house slippers made them warmer—quite welcome during cold New York winters in a house heated only by fireplaces or cast-iron stoves.

Off-white bonnet with rows of boning and shirred fabric between them; ruffle at neck
Calash Bonnet, 1830-1839. / THF188043

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.

women's history, home life, by Jeanine Head Miller, fashion, What We Wore, Henry Ford Museum

Black wooden chair, with woven seat, painted with gold decoration
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.

Portrait of woman with elaborate hairstyle wearing a dark dress with lace collar and holding a book
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.

Painting of bowl of fruit with other produce surrounding it
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.

Henry Ford Museum, entrepreneurship, home life, manufacturing, furnishings, by Donna R. Braden

It’s American Archives Month and what better way to celebrate than to knit a pattern from our archival collection?

We thought it would be fun to have a knit-along to make some of the patterns from the Priscilla War Work Book: Comforts for Soldiers and Sailors. During World War I, women, men, and children knit garments from this book for soldiers and refugees. Women formed knitting groups, hosted knitting teas and bees, and children knit in school. By the war’s end the Red Cross had received 6.5 million refugee and 24 million military garments made and donated by American knitters.

Knitting cover-page-001
Knitting cover 2-page-001
We’ve included some of the front matter and a few patterns you can choose from to knit. As you can see, the official colors were olive drab, dark blue, and dark gray, however since we’re not knitting for the army or navy, feel free to choose any colors you like.  

knitting p.3-page-001
knitting p.4-page-001
knitting p.5-page-001
knitting p.6-page-001

We’ve selected a couple patterns for you to choose from or you can knit both!

This Knitted Scarf and Chest Protector (photo is below the pattern, not the one to the left) is a great project for beginners, the gauge and yarn used don’t really matter as you can size this as you like. The scarf was actually made for the Boy Scouts so it is a child’s size, but you can just add more stitches and rows to make it wider and longer if you’d like to make an adult version.

knitting p. 30-page-001
The second pattern is for Thumbless Mittens. These are great because there are two patterns, one to knit flat and one to knit in the round.

knitting p.15-page-001

A word to those who have not knit vintage patterns: the yarn sizes and needle sizes varied (as you can see in the chart above) and they are not always equivalent to modern sizes so you may need to play with the yarn size and needle size to get the right gauge. Also, to complicate matters, the patterns in this booklet do have a gauge to work off. The thumbless gloves are most likely 6-7 stitches per inch (6 stitches per inch for larger men’s size and closer to 7 stitches per inch for smaller women’s size) knit in sport weight on size 3-5 needles or whatever yarn and needle size needed to get this gauge. 

We hope you join us in this Archives Month Knitalong. We’ll have progress posts on Instagram and Twitter where we can all share our project updates and any tips to others working on these. 

(All patterns are from Priscilla War Work Book, 2006.0.4.40) 

Kathy Makas is a Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center.

World War I, women's history, home life, making, archives, by Kathy Makas

Four components: two boxes (each containing text), a beige piece with a plug and grille, and a teardrop-shaped piece with a plug and grille
Zenith Radio Nurse, 1937 / THF37210


In March of 1938, Zenith Radio Corporation introduced a remarkable product—an elegant listening device, priced at $19.95, designed to allow parents to monitor their children after bedtime. The equipment and its setup could not have been simpler: The transmitter, called a “Guardian Ear,” could be placed close to the child’s crib or bed; the receiver, called the “Radio Nurse,” would be set close to wherever the parents happened to be spending their time. Both components would be plugged into electrical outlets, with the house wiring acting as the carrier for the transmitted sound.

The idea for the Radio Nurse originated with Zenith’s charismatic president, Eugene F. McDonald, Jr. Like all parents, McDonald was concerned about his baby daughter’s safety—especially in the wake of the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s young son. As a result, McDonald experimented with an ad hoc system of microphones and receivers that allowed him to keep an ear out for his daughter’s well-being. Satisfied with the system’s workability, he handed it off to his engineers to create something more reliable and marketable. The finished product, however, was much more than a marriage of concerned fatherhood, ingenuity, and engineering; the presence of another creative mind—that of Isamu Noguchi—resulted in an industrial design classic. (Discover more Noguchi-related artifacts in our Digital Collections here.)

Page with photos, illustrations, and text
Instructions for Zenith’s Radio Nurse baby monitor depicted how the transmitter and receiver might be used in the home. / THF128154

Noguchi was responsible for the styling of the system’s most visible, and audible, component—the Radio Nurse receiver. Minimally, he had to create a vessel to house and protect a loudspeaker and its associated vacuum tubes, but actually his task was much more challenging: He had to find a way to soften a potentially intrusive high tech component’s presence in a variety of domestic settings.

His solution, remarkably, was both literal and paradoxical: He created a faceless bust, molded in Bakelite, fronted by a grille, and backed by the suggestion of a cap—an impassive abstract form that managed to capture the essence of a benign yet no-nonsense nurse. Shimmering in a gray area where the abstract and figurative appear to meet, it strikes a vaguely surrealist note—it wouldn’t be out of place in an image by Giorgio de Chirico or Man Ray. A touch of whimsy is incorporated: Adjusting the concealed volume control wheel amounts to a kind of tickle under the unit’s chin, subtly undermining the effect of the stern Kendo mask–like visage. Still, with its human-yet-mechanical features, the Radio Nurse remains slightly sinister and finally inscrutable.

Brown teardrop shaped device with plug and grille on front
Zenith’s 1938 Radio Nurse was made from molded phenol-formaldehyde resin, more commonly known as Bakelite, the first totally synthetic plastic. / THF188679

But was it neutral enough to sit close at hand without, in silence, striking its own discordant note? Its poor sales might suggest otherwise, although apparently it was a technical problem, broadcasts transmitting beyond the confines of a house’s own wiring, that gave customers cause for complaint. Alarming as the Radio Nurse might be when finally provoked into uttering one of Junior’s broadcasts, the possibility that some unknown voice might start to speak through that blank grille would surely have made the unit’s presence somewhat suspenseful.


Marc Greuther is Vice President of Historical Resources and Chief Curator at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series and was published in the September-December 2007 issue of The Henry Ford Living History Magazine.

home life, design, childhood, by Marc Greuther, technology, radio, art

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.

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

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