Kalamazoo, Michigan, is known for its industry. For a relatively small midwestern city, it became a leader in the production of an impressive number of products, some more readily remembered today than others—including celery, paper, stoves, taxicabs, guitars, craft beer, and pharmaceuticals. At the turn of the 20th century, the Kalamazoo Corset Company gave the city more reasons to be noticed—for its high output of corsets, the advertising used to sell them, and for an historic labor strike, led primarily by women.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company began as the Featherbone Corset Company. The company’s name changed in 1894, a few years after the company was relocated 70+ miles from Three Oaks, Michigan, to the city of Kalamazoo. As the original name suggests, the company prided itself on its innovative use of turkey wing feathers—“featherbone”—which replaced the occasionally malodorous whalebone corsets (while these corsets were referred to as containing “whalebone,” it was actually whale baleen that was used, which is not bone).
While the company featured numerous lines of corsets, by 1908, they were focusing on advertising for their “American Beauty” line. These corsets were named to reflect a version of an idealized American woman—an “American Beauty.” Charles Dana Gibson had created his version of the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness, the “Gibson Girl,” during the 1890s—this “American Beauty” followed in her footsteps. The company’s use of “American Beauty” also likely referenced a deep crimson hybrid rose bred in Europe in 1875, which by the turn of the 20th century was popularized in America as the rather expensive American Beauty Rose. By associating their corset line with both the concept of the quintessential American girl and the coveted American Beauty Rose, they were sending a message to the consumer—"buy our corset and you too will take on these qualities!”
Promotional songs that advertised a product were becoming increasingly popular at the time. Since the end of the Civil War, Americans had been purchasing parlor pianos for their homes in great numbers—as many as 25,000 per year. The parlor piano became the center of most Americans’ musical experience. Music publishers, like those in the famous Tin Pan Alley of New York City, took note and sold sheet music aimed at these amateur musicians. The rise of music publishing led to a new mode of advertising for retailers and manufacturers. How better to promote your product than by creating a tune that consumers could play in their homes? It seems the Kalamazoo Corset Company agreed, hiring Harry H. Zickel and the Zickel Bros. to write three such songs to advertise the “American Beauty” line: the “American Beauty March and Two-Step” (1908), “My American Beauty Rose: Ballad” (1910), and “My American Beauty Girl” (1912).
Around the time these songs were being written, issues at the company began to come to light. The company was a major employer in the area, employing 1026 people, 835 of whom were women, in 1911. This made the company the largest employer of women in Kalamazoo. First in 1911, and then again in 1912, around 800 mostly female workers went on strike. They formed the Kalamazoo Corset Workers’ Union, Local 82 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and protested unequal wages, unsanitary working conditions, and sexual harassment.
The strike gained national attention and the ILGWU headquarters in New York City sent well-known women’s rights advocates Josephine Casey and Pauline Newman to Kalamazoo to assist in the negotiations. The strike looked to New York as an example—the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and subsequent “Uprising of the 20,000” strike of 1909–1910 had sparked more uprisings, some far from New York City, as in Kalamazoo’s example.
The protesters received support from local unions, but the owner of the company, James Hatfield, was a prominent Kalamazoo businessman and was well-liked among his upper-class peers. Local women’s organizations did not come to the aid of the protestors. Even the local group of suffragettes did not openly support the strike, possibly due to class issues (the suffragettes were upper class, while the women protesting were working class) or because their focus was on getting a women’s suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution passed. The women of the Kalamazoo Corset Company faced an uphill battle to obtain even a semblance of equality in the workplace.
The strike ended on June 15, 1912, ultimately unsuccessful. While an agreement was reached which addressed many of Local 82’s demands, no measures were put in place to ensure adherence, and the company quickly lapsed in its promises. Within just a few years, James Hatfield left the company to begin another, and the company was renamed Grace Corset Company. Between the financial woes wrought by the strike and changing fashions, difficult days for the company were ahead.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company’s business was women—manufacturing garments for women, shaping idealized notions of women—but it was still unable to adequately value the many women it employed by creating an equitable and safe workplace. In the end, the inability of the company to recognize the value of the gender by which they made their business helped to ensure its downfall.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that started a year ago—and that we are still living through—is an extraordinarily significant moment in our history. It connects our nation’s past with its present and future—revealing who we were before, who we are today, and who we will become in the future.
As this pandemic began to unfold last year, museums quickly stepped forward to collect—or lay out plans to collect—evidence of it, in many different ways. The majority of these collecting initiatives were local and community-based. Curators at The Henry Ford also developed a plan describing our approach to collecting the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all our collecting plans, it reflects who we are and what we represent as an institution. This begins with our mission statement: The Henry Ford provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation. Our purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future.
Using the filter of the mission statement, The Henry Ford’s approach to collecting the COVID-19 pandemic includes 3D objects, photographs, and archival materials that reflect how we are being innovative, how we are being resourceful, and how entrepreneurs are using their ingenuity to both address people’s needs and remain sustainable. In keeping with the scope of our collections, items must also have national significance. Even if they are local or regional, they should align with broader patterns and national trends.
Currently, we are actively bringing items into the collection that we have saved in our basements over the past year (because of COVID-19 safety protocols), as well as collecting ongoing trends (like vaccine-related items). Here are just a few examples of our collecting to date.
Masking and social distancing quickly became new habits, as seen in these signs from Henry Ford Health System. (Future acquisitions.)
This beaded facemask, created by Diné craftswoman Brighid “Birdie” Pulskamp, features a traditional Navajo Wedding Basket design. / THF186023
Many businesses and services adopted curbside pickup. This sign from the Northville [Michigan] District Library marked where patrons could pick up their online book requests without entering the building. (Future acquisition.)
A parody of the classic Goodnight Moon, Good Morning Zoom was created to help kids make sense of the changes in their world brought on by the pandemic. (Future acquisition.)
This wooden ornament references the shortage of toilet paper that occurred in the pandemic’s earliest days, making it a highly sought-after commodity. (Future acquisition.)
Holiday traditions took on new twists, such as this drive-thru Santa event in Bay City, Michigan. (Future acquisition.)
A facemask can be found for every holiday and occasion. (2020.104.2)
Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci has been one of the most prominent medical voices updating the public on the fight against the virus. As early as April 2020—when the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame released this tribute—he was already viewed as a hero by many. (Future acquisition.)
Ford and subsidiary Troy Design & Manufacturing Company (TDM) converted Ford Transit vans into mobile COVID-19 testing units. Starting in April 2020, they took tests to health care workers and first responders—people who didn’t have to time to travel to a lab. Each van could test up to 100 people a day, and results were returned within 24–36 hours. Within a few months, the mobile testing program was extended to nursing homes, substance abuse centers, and community shelters. (2020.124.1)
Early in the pandemic, hospitals depended on scarce ventilators to treat patients with the most serious infections. Ford Motor Company employees built more than 51,000 ventilators at the Rawsonville Components Plant between April and August 2020. This unit, the last one off the assembly line, was signed by some of the 1,100 people involved in the effort. / THF185919
Health worries added to security concerns at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on January 20, 2021. Ford produced 15,000 single-use face masks and donated them to ceremony attendees. Employees at Hatteras, Inc., who printed inauguration logos on the masks, worked around the clock to get them shipped to Washington and inspected by the Secret Service in time. (2021.19.6)
Ford subsidiary TDM manufactured more than five million face shields. Elastic, to hold the shield securely on the wearer’s head, was in short supply. TDM instead used flexible automobile weather stripping, pinned to the shield with automotive fasteners. / THF185929
Disposable face masks, made at Ford’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant, were distributed free of charge to underprivileged communities, schools, food banks, and military veterans. The automaker set a goal to produce 100 million masks through 2021. / THF185913
Produced through the Amplifier Foundation, these posters acknowledge the heroic efforts of healthcare workers, and offer encouragement in the midst of upheaval. / THF621827, THF621829, THF621843
We continue to work through additional donations offered to us by the public; for more information on how to contribute to this collection, visit The Henry Ford - COVID-19 Collections. You can also see more pandemic-related artifacts in our Digital Collections, and read additional stories related to the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our blog.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Rachel Yerke is Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford.
Claude Harvard faced many racial obstacles over the course of his young life, but when he addressed a crowd of students at Tuskegee University in 1935, he spoke with confidence and optimism:
“Speaking from my own experience, brief as it is, I feel certain that the man or woman who has put his very best into honest effort to gain an education will not find the doors to success barred.”
One of the few, if not the only, Black engineers employed by Henry Ford at the time, Claude had been personally sent to Tuskegee by Ford to showcase an invention of his own creation. Even in the face of societal discrimination, the message of empowerment and perseverance that Claude imparted on that day was one that he carried with him over the course of his own career. For him, there was always a path forward.
Claude Harvard practicing radio communication with other students at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272856
Born in 1911, Claude spent the first ten years of his life in Dublin, Georgia, until his family, like other Black families of the time period, made the decision to move north to Detroit in order to escape the poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow laws of the South. From a young age, Claude was intrigued by science and developed a keen interest in a radical new technology—wireless radio. To further this interest, he sold products door-to-door just so he could acquire his own crystal radio set to play around with. It would be Claude’s passion for radio that led him to grander opportunities.
At school in Detroit, Harvard demonstrated an aptitude for the STEM fields and was eventually referred to the Henry Ford Trade School, a place usually reserved for orphaned teen-aged boys to be trained in a variety of skilled, industrial trade work. His enrollment at Henry Ford Trade School depended on his ability to resist the racial taunting of classmates and stay out of fights. Once there, his hands-on classes consisted of machining, metallurgy, drafting, and engine design, among others. In addition to the manual training received, academic classes were also required, and students could participate in clubs.
Claude Harvard with other Radio Club members and their teacher at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272854
As president of the Radio Club, Claude Harvard became acquainted with Henry Ford, who shared an interest in radio—as early as 1919, radio was playing a pivotal role in Ford Motor Company’s communications. Although he graduated at the top of his class in 1932, Claude was not given a journeyman’s card like the rest of his classmates. A journeyman’s card would have allowed Claude to be actively employed as a tradesperson. Despite this obstacle, Henry Ford recognized Claude’s talent and he was hired at the trade school. By the 1920s, Ford Motor Company had become the largest employer of African American workers in the country. Although Ford employed large numbers of African Americans, there were limits to how far most could advance. Many African American workers spent their time in lower paying, dirty, dangerous, and unhealthy jobs.
The year 1932 also saw Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company once again revolutionize the auto industry with the introduction of a low-priced V-8 engine. By casting the crankcase and cylinder banks as a single unit, Ford cut manufacturing costs and could offer its V-8 in a car starting under $500, a steal at the time. The affordability of the V-8 meant many customers for Ford, and with that came inevitable complaints—like a noisy rattling that emanated from the engine. To remedy this problem, which was caused by irregular-shaped piston pins, Henry Ford turned to Claude Harvard.
To solve the issue, Harvard invented a machine that checked the shape of piston pins and sorted them by size with the use of radio waves. More specifically, the machine checked the depth of the cut on each pin, its length, and its surface smoothness. It then sorted the V-8 pins by size at a rate of three per second. Ford implemented the machine on the factory floor and touted it as an example of the company’s commitment to scientific accuracy and uniform quality. Along with featuring Claude’s invention in print and audio-visual ads, Ford also sent Harvard to the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago and to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to showcase the machine.
Piston Pin Inspection Machine at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. / THF212795
During his time at Tuskegee, Harvard befriended famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who he eventually introduced to Henry Ford. In 1937, when George Washington Carver visited Henry Ford in Dearborn, he insisted that Claude be there. While Carver and Ford would remain friends the rest of their lives, Claude Harvard left Ford Motor Company in 1938 over a disagreement about divorcing his wife and his pay. Despite Ford patenting over 20 of Harvard’s ideas, Claude’s career would be forced in a new direction and over time, the invention of the piston pin sorting machine would simply be attributed to the Henry Ford Trade School.
Despite these many obstacles, Claude’s work lived on in the students that he taught later in his life, the contributions he made to manufacturing, and a 1990 oral history, where he stood by his sentiments that if one put in a honest effort into learning, there would always be a way forward.
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Carding mills became extremely popular in 19th-century America because the machines used in them mechanized the laborious hand process of straightening and combing wool fibers—an important step in preparing yarn and making woolen cloth. Customers were happy to let others handle this incredibly tedious job while using their own skill and creativity to control the final product.
Before carding mills, farm families prepared wool by hand using hand cards like these. / THF183701
Between 1840 and 1880, Michigan farmers raised millions of sheep, whose wool was turned into yarn and woolen goods. The Civil War, especially, caused a demand for wool, as it became the raw material for soldiers’ uniforms. Afterward, while the highest quality woolen broadcloth for men’s clothing was still imported from England, a growing number of wool mills (mostly small and local, but some larger ones, especially in New England) produced lower-end woolen goods like flannel (for work shirts, summer coats, and overcoat linings), men’s and children’s underwear, blankets, and rugs.
Sheep graze outside of Henry Ford’s boyhood home in Greenfield Village / THF1937
Farmers who raised large flocks of sheep might sell their raw wool to local merchants or to dealers who shipped it directly to a small wool mill in the local area or a large wool mill in New England. But most farm families raised a modest flock of sheep and spun their own wool into yarn, which they used at home for knitted goods. They might also take their spun yarn or items they knitted to their local general store for credit to purchase other products they needed in the store.
While sawmills and gristmills were the first types of mills established in newly-formed communities, carding mills rapidly became popular—particularly in rural areas where sheep were raised. While the tradition of wool spinning at home continued well into the 19th century, machine carding took the tedious process of hand carding out of the home. Learn more about the mechanization of carding in this blog post.
Faster and more efficient carding machines replaced traditional carding methods in the 19th century. / THF621302
At the carding mill, raw wool from sheep was transformed into straightened rolls of wool, called rovings—the first step to finished cloth. Faster and more efficient carding machines at these mills replaced the hand cards traditionally used at home (by women and children) for this process. Through the end of the 19th century, carding mills provided this carding service for farm families, meeting the needs of home spinners.
“Picked” wool that has been loosened and cleaned, ready to be fed into a carding machine / THF91532 (photographed by John Sobczak)
Young Henry Ford was a member one of these farm families. Henry fondly remembered accompanying his father on trips to John Gunsolly’s carding mill (now in Greenfield Village) from their farm in Springwells Township (now part of Dearborn, Michigan)—traveling about 20 miles and waiting to have the sheared wool from his father’s sheep run through the carding machine. There it would be combed, straightened, and shaped into loose fluffy rovings, ready for spinning. The Ford family raised a modest number of sheep (according to the 1880 Agricultural Census, the family raised 13 sheep that year), so they likely brought the rovings back to spin at home, probably for knitting.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Few pieces of textile technology had as great an impact for as long a time as the wool carding machine. The wool industry was much slower to mechanize than the cotton textile industry, for several reasons: the longer time it took to perfect wool processing machines; the fact that the machines were not engineered to work together for efficient production; and the conviction by potential entrepreneurs that it was impossible to compete with fine British imports and, as a result, wool processing did not offer the same potential for profit as cotton textiles. The slow mechanization of the wool industry both reinforced and encouraged the already strong tradition of home production of wool through the 19th century.
Before carding machines, farm families prepared wool for spinning using hand cards like these. / THF183701
Despite—and partially because of—the slow mechanization of the wool industry, carding machines thrived. The first machines to be perfected in the wool production process, carding machines accomplished the one step that was most significant—and most tedious—in preparing wool before spinning. Mechanized carding machines not only sped up the time and removed the tedium of hand-carding, but they also produced a better combed roll of wool for spinning—improving both spinning time and the ultimate quality of the spun yarn.
The carding machine, introduced in America during the 1790s, was based upon technology and know-how brought by immigrant British machinists. It was adopted quickly in America. By 1810, there were 1,776 new carding machines in the US, duplicating the action of hand cards.
Manufacturers of carding equipment emerged to supply the growing wool industry in the 19th century. / Detail, THF621405
In the typical carding mill, sheared wool was first sent through a picker to remove dirt and separate hard bunches of wool. The teeth on the rotating cylinder of the mechanical picker replaced the previous similar hand process of opening the wool fibers, cleaning out the dirt, burrs, and other impurities, then fluffing the wool.
When first shorn, sheep’s wool is matted, waxy, and dirty. / THF119199
After picking, wool is fed into the carding machine. / THF91532 (Photographed by John Sobczak)
Like the picker, the carding machine also transferred an earlier hand process into a more efficient rotary operation. Using several toothed leather strips (called card clothing) fixed on a series of revolving cylinders, it opened and blended the wool into a series of uniform sheets of fiber, shaping these sheets of fiber into loose, fluffy rolls called rovings. The cylinders were arranged so the ends of the teeth were nearly in contact, allowing for the continuous shaping of each roving, ready for spinning. Each roving, produced across the width of the carding machine, had a common length of 24 inches—ideal for hand spinning. It was longer, narrower, and ultimately sturdier, than those formed with hand cards.
Carding machines produced loose rolls of wool fiber, called rovings, ready to be spun into yarn on wool wheels like this one. / THF175844
Because carding machines mechanized the laborious hand process of straightening and combing wool fibers—an important step in preparing yarn and making woolen cloth—carding mills (like John Gunsolly’s 1850s mill, now in Greenfield Village), became extremely popular in 19th-century America. To learn more about how families embraced mechanized carding, watch for another upcoming blog post.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
In 2017, The Henry Ford acquired a significant collection of materials from the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) when financial challenges forced that organization to close its doors. Founded in 1960, ATHM was located in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city key to the story of the Industrial Revolution and to the American textile industry. For decades, ATHM gathered and interpreted a superb collection of textile machinery and tools, clothing and textiles, and an extensive collection of archival materials. The Henry Ford was among the many museums, libraries, and other organizations to which ATHM's collections were transferred. The Henry Ford acquired textile machinery, clothing, and textiles, as well as archival material that includes approximately 3,000 cubic feet of printed materials and fabric samples from various textile manufacturers, dating from the early 1800s into the mid-to-late 1900s. As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, The Henry Ford has digitized many sample books, as well as product literature, from the archival material within the ATHM collection.
So, what is a sample book? Textile manufacturing companies – commonly referred to as mills or print works – kept a record of fabrics produced by the company within a given year or season. These records typically consist of a fabric sample attached to a blank page in a bound book, and are often accompanied by information including pattern name, inventory number, dyestuffs, and in a few cases, the retail company for which the fabric was made.
The pages of these books offer a rich look at the broad range of fabrics produced by an increasingly mechanized textile industry, allowing researchers to see the evolution in textile design, materials, and manufacturing techniques. They also allow a glimpse into the various methods of recordkeeping among the many companies represented in the collection. Finally, the books—and the fabric samples within them—provide us with a broad view into the rich color palate of American textiles of the 1800s and 1900s. This is especially helpful for exploring clothing and textiles in the era before widespread color photography, where our understanding of the period is dulled by black-and-white depictions. The sample books are strikingly beautiful, offering an intriguing glimpse of the evolution of styles and patterns over time.
In addition to the sample books, we had the opportunity to digitize several examples of product literature from the 1900s, including catalogs and brochures. The product literature was used for marketing and sales, rather than as a record of production. These materials offer insight into the fabric and designs available for clothing or domestic use during the 1900s.
Have I piqued your interest? Below are a few favorite items I’ve come across in this collection.
Cocheco Manufacturing Company (Dover, New Hampshire & Lawrence, Massachusetts)
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, 1876-1877 / THF670738, THF670787, THF670757
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, November to December 1877 / THF670668, THF670707, THF670697
Sample Book, January 9, 1880 to April 22, 1880 / THF600226
Hamilton Manufacturing Company (Lowell, Massachusetts)
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford for sharing her expertise of the textile industry and for reviewing this content.
What are the icons of the Industrial Revolution—steam engines, printing presses, combine harvesters, textile machinery? Any such list would surely include Ford’s Model T. Like the other machines that would make the grade it too was a complex mechanism, but it was also a beloved consumer product rooted in personal practical everyday use, and it was a design icon—in its day a symbol of absolute modernity.
The T’s success came about through two revolutions within the Industrial Revolution—those of power generation and distribution, and precision production manufacturing. Developments in the electrical industry liberated Henry Ford and his production experts from the constraints of mechanical power distribution. Earlier systems dictated where machinery was placed based on long straight runs of shafts and associated pulleys. Electric motors powering first groups and then individual machines enabled Ford’s engineers to position machine tools where the production process dictated. It was the incredible machines developed specifically for that process that were crucial to the speed and quality of Model T production.
Henry Ford and his assistants developed a system of mass production at Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant that was based on moving components through a refined sequence of manufacturing, machining and assembly steps. Launched in October 1913, Ford’s new system ultimately reduced the time of producing Model Ts from about 12½ man-hours to only 1½ man-hours.
Model Ts contained more than ten thousand parts. Ford’s moving assembly line required that each one of these parts be manufactured to exacting tolerances (the acceptable amount of variation) and be fully interchangeable with any other part of its kind. By organizing the automobile’s construction into a series of distinct small steps and using precision machinery, the assembly line generated enormous gains in productivity.
This is the only survivor of the vast range of custom-designed high-production machine tools used at Ford’s Highland Park plant. THF129616
Machines like this 1912 Ingersoll milling machine were crucial to the high production levels attained at Highland Park. Milling machines are machine tools that rotate cutters to plane or shape surfaces. Teams of Ford specialists collaborated with machine tool designers to develop and continually improve machinery for Highland Park, resulting in milling machines that were capable of undertaking highly accurate, multiple cutting operations on many components at the same time.
One of six similar machines in a careful arrangement of machine tools in Highland Park’s cylinder finishing shop, this planer-type milling machine – both a vertical and a horizontal miller – simultaneously milled the underside and main bearing holders of Model T engine blocks. Cutters on the horizontal spindle shaped the bearing holders, while large cutters on vertical spindles milled the bottom surface of the blocks flat. The machine could mill 15 engine blocks in one batch—loaded and unloaded by semi-skilled labor. The work was physically demanding, and while it did not demand the skills of a trained machinist, it did require dexterity and attention to detail in addition to stamina.
The Henry Ford’s Ingersoll milling machine is represented by one of the six horizontal cross shapes labeled #2 on the left of this diagram, which shows the arrangement of machine tools in the cylinder block machining shop at Highland Park. THF300582
The Ingersoll milling machine first arrived at Ford’s Highland Park plant in December 1912. It was just one of a vast range of new, specialized machines that enabled Ford to mass produce quality, affordable vehicles – and capture 50% of the American market! Today, it is exhibited in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation as the only survivor of the custom-designed high-production machine tools used at Highland Park. Twenty-one feet long and eight feet high, the machine is an imposing presence and a compelling reminder of Ford’s moving assembly line—as important a development as the Model T itself.
Restored architectural gem stands out in its industrial space You don’t usually associate large manufacturing factories with architectural beauty. Sightseers at the Ford Rouge Complex’s glass plant, however, might be inclined to think otherwise.
This plant looks different. No concrete, only rivets and steel. From inside, the high roof and floor-to-ceiling windows create an unusually airy, spacious atmosphere. Natural light can’t help but stream in, creating a softness and easy glow.
Designed by famed American industrial architect Albert Kahn, the Ford Rouge’s glass plant was built in 1923 as an automotive glass-production facility. “It was about achieving volume,” Don Pijor, launch manager at the Dearborn Truck Plant and site expert for the glass plant, said of the building’s original design. “This space was built with steel columns riveted together, which gives it much more usable real estate.”
In the late ‘90s, the 40,000-square-foot building was taken out of the complex’s production equation, its sweeping windows covered with aluminum and its new primary purpose as a warehouse.
When the restoration process began in the mid-2000s, the original intent was to transition the building into office space. Pijor later helped persuade Ford Motor Company leadership to put the plant to better use as a prove-out and employee training building for the Ford F-150, the truck built at the Rouge’s Dearborn Truck Plant.
Careful decisions were made at every corner during the restoration. The building’s window glass, for example, had come from Europe, so the restoration team reached out overseas to the original manufacturer for the glass to replace the windows. Entry doors to a fire station that was part of the building’s layout were also replaced to replicate those of the original specs.
“It’s beautiful,” Cynthia Jones, The Henry Ford’s Ford Rouge Factory Tour manager, said of the glass plant today. “There’s lots of natural light, and even though the fire station doors are in an area the public doesn’t see, restoring them showed respect for the continuing history of the site.”
Today, the glass plant is a house for innovation, used for prototyping by Ford engineers and designers. As a result of its newfound purpose, the building’s glass at the lower levels is frosted so outsiders can’t see the confidential work being done inside.
Said Jones of balancing the building’s historical integrity with its modern uses, “When you’re making choices about restoring buildings, you look at product — what is it we’re making at this place and what does it need? You’re also employee-driven because if they can’t do their job well here, changes have to be made. Third, how does it affect the area around it? I think this site has that balance.”
Though the effectiveness of the plant’s current functions are at the forefront of any decision-making about its form, preserving its history is meaningful for the people who work there as well as for posterity. Added Pijor, “To sit in this space and watch flaming ore cars go by, it’s as if it has been like this for 100 years.”
National Historic Landmark The Ford Rouge Complex was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978.
The rare designation (with just 2,500 historic landmarks nationwide) usually restricts future changes to a site. The Ford Rouge Complex, however, is recognized as remaining in continual operation, which means the designation can be maintained even as the site continues to evolve.
“It’s important for the public to be aware” of the designation, said Jones. The designation is marked at the complex’s entry with a plaque and a statue of Henry Ford.
Summer 2015 marked 100 years since Ford started acquiring the property which the Rouge now inhabits. “We’re carving out space within this giant industrial complex to recognize its history and the history of the hundreds of thousands of people that have been employed here,” said Jones.
Henry Ford established the plantations of Fordlandia and Belterra in Brazil with the hope of mass producing rubber for Ford Motor Company vehicles at a fraction of the cost of American factories. Although deep in the Amazon jungle, Ford was essentially attempting to recreate his successful company town of Dearborn, Michigan for his Brazilian workers. Fordlandia came first in 1930, but was not nearly as prosperous as Ford had hoped. In 1940, Ford opened a second plantation, Belterra. Although both plantations were eventually closed, Belterra found some moderate success before Henry Ford abandoned the project. Belterra set out to solve problems created or brought harshly to light by Fordlandia. In many ways, Belterra more closely aligned with Ford’s vision, epitomizing the ideal small Midwestern town better than Fordlandia ever had.
Glittering, prismatic cut glass chandeliers were the most impressive pieces produced by Irish glass houses. This chandelier was made about 1795. (THF99901)
Imagine being invited to dine at a well-appointed house in Philadelphia, New York City, or Charleston at the end of the 18th century. You are welcomed into the house by a servant and led into the reception room by your hosts. After exchanging pleasant conversation, you are escorted into a dining room arrayed with fine china and brilliantly cut glassware. The room is illuminated by a large candlelit chandelier, as well as candlesticks and candelabras. The overall effect is glittering and prismatic.
Much of this cut glass would have been made in Ireland. Even today, when we think of cut glass, an Irish company—Waterford—is the first name that comes to mind.
Ireland’s Glass Industry
In the 18th century, glassmakers in England and Ireland (which was part of Great Britain) created exquisite glassware known as Anglo-Irish glass. These English and Irish craftsmen had learned techniques for producing fine glass from the Venetian artisans who had dominated European high end glassmaking prior to this time.
Yet, these English and Irish artisans evolved a distinct recipe that differed in its composition from Venetian glass: a mixture containing calcinated flints and pebbles, and employing lead oxide as a flux, or binder. The lead gave their glass a higher degree of refraction, creating glass that, when cut, could exude a brilliance unseen in previous European wares, greatly increasing its reflective qualities. In the shadowy, candlelit rooms of the 18th century, this increased illumination was very welcome. Soon, these English and Irish glassmakers specialized in cut glass—clear glass, not colored, since it better showed the brilliance of the faceting. These English and Irish makers built factories during the first half of the 18th century as the unique refractive quality of their glass gained them worldwide fame.
As part of the British Empire, Ireland was subject to British trade policies. Indeed, from 1745 until 1780, the Irish glass industry was not allowed to compete with English-made glass within the British Empire. Irish entrepreneurs put pressure on the British Parliament and in 1780 all restrictions were lifted. This “Period of Freedom,” as it was known, continued until 1825, when Parliament reinstated the tariffs. During this relatively brief span, the Irish glass houses of Dublin, Belfast, Cork, and Waterford produced incomparable wares, based on contemporary English designs. During this period of free trade, Irish glassmakers exported a large amount of glassware of all kinds—everything from tiny salt cellars and wine glasses to large scale candelabras and chandeliers.
Irish Glass in American Homes
The deeply flanged rim combined with alternating cut prisms on this 1800-1815 fruit bowl captured and reflected the candlelight in an elegant dining room. (THF155628)
This 1807-1808 Epergne combines deeply cut Waterford glass inserts with a silver support. Epergnes were used as centerpieces on dining room tables in the most fashionable homes (THF112273).
This circa 1780 fluted tumbler held wine or water at table. Gilded floral garland decorations like the ones on the surface of this tumbler don’t often survive in such good condition. (THF155630)
Beginning in the 1780s, Americans saw significant Irish imports, although these would have been sold alongside glass from Central Europe (Germany and Bohemia) as well as British goods made in England. Nevertheless, the reputation for finely cut and faceted chandeliers and tableware put Irish glass at a premium. Americans loved the look of Irish glass. The dazzling effect of the reflection in candlelight showed that Americans, now independent of Britain, could attain interiors as fashionable as those in London.
In addition to dining rooms where cut glass serving ware predominated, Irish cut glass might be placed in parlors and other public rooms. If the homeowner was very wealthy, a candlelit chandelier could find its way into a parlor, too.
A preference for glass tableware extended well below the upper crust in late 18th-and early 19th-century America. The estate inventory of Robert Palethorp, Jr., a 27-year-old Philadelphia pewterer who died in 1822, reveals much about the contents of his middle class household. The goods in the parlor of Palethorp’s five-room house included four glass salts, 11 wine glasses, five glass tumblers, pme glass decanter and two quart pitchers (that were also probably made of glass) (THF113594).
American Glassmakers Join In
In the years following American independence, there was an interest in building a local glass industry. In the first half of the 19th century, foreign craftsmen, including Irish emigrants, sought greater opportunities in America. By the 1830s and 1840s, various firms—established by American entrepreneurs as well as immigrant craftsmen—located in coastal cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, and inland places such as Pittsburgh and Wheeling, West Virginia. They gained renown for their fine cut glass tableware, many based on Anglo-Irish designs.
During the late 1820s and 1830s, American entrepreneurs also began experimenting with machine-pressed glass as a less costly alternative to cut glass. One of the leaders in this field was the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, based in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Their early works are known as “Lacy” glass, which have a stippled surface intended to hide wrinkles caused by machine pressing on cold glass. Early pressed glass manufacturers sought to imitate the motifs found in expensive cut glass, specifically those pieces made in English and Irish glass houses. Americans of all economic means soon adopted pressed glass, although for the very wealthy, demand continued for cut glass.
Irish glass as a force in the international marketplace declined precipitously in the years after 1825. The impact of inexpensive pressed glass combined with a reinstatement of tariffs quickly decimated Ireland’s glass industry. The last to close was the Waterford house in 1851. (The firm that we know today was reestablished in 1947.)
The legacy of Irish glass lies in the elegant tableware and chandeliers of deeply cut, prismatic glass that we treasure today.
Nearly all of the Irish glass in The Henry Ford’s collection was acquired in the 1920s and 1930s, when Henry Ford began collecting in earnest for his museum. The objects included elegant chandeliers to light the front corridors of the museum (after being electrified), and cut-glass lighting devices and tableware to display in exhibits. For much of his early collecting activities, Henry Ford employed antiquarians such as Charles Woolsey Lyon, who helped locate and acquire decorative arts objects. In addition to Henry Ford, Lyon also acquired works for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Henry Francis du Pont, who went on to found Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
The large and small diamond patterns on these 1825-1845 pressed glass plates derive from Anglo-Irish patterns (THF304774) and (THF113593).
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.