Past Forward

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I began my internship with Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts, in September of 2011. My assignment: to educate myself on the history of American lighting, research the lighting collection at The Henry Ford, and help to prepare for a visit of four antique lighting clubs that was scheduled for October of 2012.

I was excited for this opportunity; I enjoy research and was curious to see what was in the collection. As I began to learn the history of lighting and understand fuel sources and mechanics, I quickly found the breadth of the project was far greater than I had initially imagined! My preliminary research took about four months; I then began combing through some 7,000 lighting-related objects in the collection to select appropriate examples to present to the lighting collectors. This was done by searching the Henry Ford Museum’s collections management system.

To better understand the lighting collection at The Henry Ford, it's important to know its history, which can be traced back nearly 100 years, when Henry Ford first began collecting in the 1920s. During Ford’s creation of a museum that would “reproduce American life as lived,” (Simands, William A. & Stokes, Frederick A. Henry Ford and Greenfield Village. New York, p. 117) his agents scanned the country for objects that represented the development of the American experience. He was passionate about technological innovations of all kinds, with an interest in the evolution of lighting and the development of electricity, influenced by his close friendship with and admiration for Thomas Edison. This led him to acquire a substantial collection of lighting objects. Though some examples were peculiar and unique, many were rather conventional. These objects represent the technologies of their time period, as Americans searched for the most efficient lighting options.

Betty Lamp made by Peter Derr, 1848 (Object ID 67.6.2).

Kerosene Lamp, 1880-1900 (Object ID 00.4.588).

The origin of much of the collection is difficult to pinpoint. Many objects were acquired before 1940 and were not documented the way objects are today. Luckily, Henry Ford kept the receipts for many of his purchases. These records provide clues that indicate Ford initially began collecting chronologically. He started with the oldest forms of lighting, such as candlesticks and rushlights, and by the 1930s was collecting gasoline-fueled lighting. The initiative to collect lighting ebbed after Ford’s death in 1947, but picked back up again in the 1960s and 1970s under the curatorship of Carleton Brown.

Though the collection was acquired in many stages, its significance is clear: it represents the evolution of lighting, and the search for a fuel that would burn brightly, was safe to use, easily accessible, and affordable.

Whale Oil Wall Sconce, 1840-1860 (Object ID 62.70.511); India Rubber Safety Lamp, 1855 (Object ID 00.919.3); Grand-Val's Perfect Time Indicator Lamp, 1880 (Object ID 66.7.24)

Working chronologically, as Henry Ford did when assembling the collection, I sorted the objects into categories. The process of selecting those that would be shown to the visiting collectors then began. Working with two representatives from the groups, Charles and I spent several days going through the collection determining which objects would make the cut. The collectors were interested in unique examples, patent models, and rare pieces. After careful consideration, 25 objects were selected, and we ended up with some very interesting and unique picks!

Alonzo Platt Fish Oil Chandelier, 1836 (Object ID 65.26.1); Cigar Lighter & Cutter, "Smoke George W. Childs Cigars," circa 1877 (Object ID 34.717.1).

During the weekend of Oct. 12, 2012, the four organizations (the Rushlight Club, The Historical Lighting Society of Canada, The Night Light Club, and the Fairy Lamp Club) visited The Henry Ford. They toured Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village to see the lighting on display, and were able to examine the 25 objects we selected. It was certainly a rewarding experience for everyone involved!

Though much of the lighting collection is not currently on display, visitors to the museum can see lighting examples in the "Made in America" and "Fully Furnished" exhibits, as well as inside many of the homes in Greenfield Village. All the objects chosen to show the collectors have been digitized for public viewing; for the remaining objects not shown here, take a look at our online collections site. You can see the artifacts listed here and more!

By Melanie Parker

interns, lighting, lights

Posing next to the life-size statue of Henry Ford (object ID 2003.117.1) outside of the Michigan Café.

On a Friday morning in March during my spring break my phone rang. I woke up and groggily answered the phone. The call was from The Henry Ford. It was one of my future mentors calling to ask me to interview for their Simmons Graduate Internship in the Curatorial Department. A few short hours, several cups of coffee, and a quick review of my resume later, I had completed my phone interview. I felt pretty good about how it had gone, but the waiting came next, and two weeks later I had a voicemail offering me the internship. I was ecstatic. I could hardly believe The Henry Ford wanted me for the summer, and that my project was research, something I never had the time to do. It couldn’t get much better.

As a Masters Candidate in the Eastern Illinois University Historical Administration program, I am required to complete six months of full-time internship work. The first three months I am spending at The Henry Ford. As a member of this year’s intern group of three, I work closely with the Curatorial Department. The other two interns and I are working on a project that involves the Adams House (also called the Adams Family Home—not to be confused with that Addams family!) in Greenfield Village, and it has been my job to do the research portion of this project. As I am halfway through this experience, I am reflecting on what I have learned thus far.

The core of my research focuses on the town of Saline, Mich., and the First Baptist Church, which in 1846 built the parsonage that now is in Greenfield Village. Through my research efforts I have developed new skills and honed ones I already possessed. For starters, I have mastered Ancestry.com, a tool that makes researching people a lot of fun; in fact, sometimes I get a little carried away. I also have access to the resources of the Benson Ford Research Center. Did you know if you put all the shelves together in the stacks of the research center it would be about five miles of shelving?

At work examining collection pieces.

Another skill I am learning is communication, as I send out research questions and requests and correspond with people across the country and even across the Atlantic Ocean, where I’ve been in contact with Oxford and the Bristol Baptist College. My daily tasks vary from week to week, and my “To-Do” list seems to be growing by the second. The weight of the job, and the expectations that come from it, are very real, as I have to meet deadlines, go to meetings, discuss the project, and present my work.

A few of my tasks have included researching different stories that might be told in the Adams House and developing those stories so they are applicable to the message The Henry Ford wishes to emphasize. My favorite part of researching is discovering the stories of the people – and I have come across some good stories. For example, the Reverend Charles Evans served as a missionary in Sumatra from 1819-1826 during a time of political unrest and tiger and elephant stampedes. Later on he is the minister in Saline, living in our parsonage with six children. These people are so real to me I feel I could sit down and have a conversation with them.

I have also had the opportunity to go collection hunting, which is possibly more difficult than buying jeans. Sometimes objects end up in the wrong place, without a number, or buried behind a giant papier-mâché foot—for example. But even with the odds stacked against us hidden treasures can be uncovered.

Some of the treasures we've discovered in storage:

Meridienne, circa 1830-1850 (Object ID 29.1664.1); Chinese tea box, 19th century (Object ID 23.44.93).

These “finds” are a thing of joy, especially when they create opportunities to enhance a storyline. This process so far has allowed me to utilize the information I learned in my schooling and apply it to my work at The Henry Ford. It has also given me access to brilliant minds and visions and has expanded my own ability to perform. This experience has proven difficult, fun, crazy, but most importantly, it is the reason I like to get up in the morning and come to work. I never know what I will find when I’m digging into the past!

Clarissa Thompson is one of the 2013 Simmons Graduate Interns at The Henry Ford.

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education, interns