Automatic Pinion Cutter, Used by the Waltham Watch Company, circa 1892 / THF110250
The roles women play in manufacturing are occasionally highlighted, but are often hidden—opposing states that these two stories from our collections demonstrate.
The Waltham Watch Company in Massachusetts was a world-famous example of a highly mechanized manufacturer of quality consumer goods. Specialized labor, new machines, and interchangeable parts combined to produce the company's low-cost, high-grade watches. Waltham mechanics first invented machines to cut pinions (small gears used in watch movements) in the 1860s; the improved version above, on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, was developed in the 1890s.
This article, “The American Watch Works,” from the July-December 1884 issue of Scientific American, discussed the women workers of the Waltham Watch Company. / THF286663
In the late 19th century, reports on the world-renowned company featured women workers. An 1884 Scientific American article specifically called out women’s work. The article explained that, “For certain kinds of work female operatives are preferred, on account of their greater delicacy and rapidity of manipulation.” Recognizing that gendered experiences—activities that required manual dexterity, such as sewing, or the exacting work of textile production—had prepared women for a range of delicate watchmaking operations, the Waltham company hired them to drill, punch, polish, and finish small watch parts, often using machines like the pinion cutter above. The company publicized equal pay and benefits for all its employees, but women workers were still segregated in many factory facilities and treated differently in the surrounding community.
The same reasoning that guided women’s work at Waltham in the 19th century led 20th-century manufacturers to call on women to produce an early form of computer memory called core memory. Workers skillfully strung tiny rings of magnetic material on a wire grid under the lens of a microscope to create planes of core memory, like the one shown above from the Burroughs Corporation. (You can learn more about core memory weaving here, and more about the Burroughs Corporation here.) These woven planeswould be stacked together in a grid structure to form the main memory of a computer.
However, unlike the women of Waltham, the stories of most core memory weavers—and other women like them in the manufacturing world—are still waiting to be told.
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 Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
A wooden case encloses the working parts of the cotton gin model shown above, which is currently on display in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. When you turn the handle, a group of circular saw blades rotate, removing cotton seed from cotton fiber. To see that process, you’d have to dismantle the box and look inside. Such exploration helps us see how the machine functions. But much more about this cotton gin model remains hidden from view.
This gin helps us learn about one early inventor, Henry Ogden Holmes. He lived in South Carolina and worked as a blacksmith and mechanic on a plantation. In 1787, Holmes applied for a patent caveat—a document that protected his ownership of this invention. The U.S. Patent Office did not exist at that time, but President Washington signed the caveat on March 24, 1789, allowing Holmes’ ownership of his invention for five years.
You may wonder: Didn’t Eli Whitney invent the cotton gin? Whitney received his first cotton gin patent on March 14, 1794, days before Holmes’ caveat expired. Whitney’s gin used wire teeth on rollers to tear the fibers from the cotton seeds, though he adopted saw teeth in later patents. This paved the way for numerous lawsuits about who had the right to claim the cotton gin as an invention.
This 1853 engraving, "The Levee at New Orleans," gives a sense of scale for cotton production in the American South in the mid-19th century. / THF204264
School children learn about Eli Whitney, but not about “Hogden” Holmes. Nor do they always learn about the negative consequences of the invention. Speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton made it possible for growers to plant more cotton to meet demand from an expanding textile industry. To raise more cotton, they needed more land and labor—and this led to removal of Indian nations from, and expansion of enslavement into, the southeastern United States during the 1830s and 1840s.
This stereograph depicts people picking cotton while a man on horseback oversees the work. This juxtaposition reinforced associations between African Americans and enslavement, long after the Civil War. / THF278808
The history of the cotton gin has a long-standing and seemingly straightforward narrative based in problem solving and opportunity. But, just as technologies can have unintended consequences, so can stories conceal or stray.
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 Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
The cast-iron lathe shown above, dating to the 1860s, proved the wood-cutting prowess of inventor Thomas Blanchard’s original 1818 design. While today it is motionless in the Made in America exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, when in-motion, Blanchard’s lathe was a pivotal technological development in standardization and mass production during the Industrial Revolution. Its ability to duplicate or copy irregular wood designs was a big improvement on the time-consuming and skill-demanding task of carving wood products by hand. Originally built for manufacturing rifle stocks at Blanchard’s employer, the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, the lathe found usage in other industries, like creating shoe forms that helped standardize shoe sizes.
The lathe could be used by semi-skilled operators and made copies using a rotating blade whose position was guided by the shape of a prototype—similar to today’s modern key-cutting machine. Much like the movements of a cutting tool against a key blank are constrained by the shape of the original key, Blanchard's lathe consists of a frame into which a master pattern and a blank can be fixed. A carriage, responsible for guiding the cutting tool, then moves the length of the lathe carrying a revolving cutter and what Blanchard termed a friction point. The carriage’s position against the master pattern determines the degree to which the cutter bites into the blank. The major difference between the key-duplicating machine and Blanchard's lathe is that the former cuts a profile in the edge of a key, while Blanchard's lathe was designed to shape a three-dimensional duplicate of the master pattern.
Not only was Blanchard’s lathe an early example of a machine that could be programmed, but its ability to duplicate irregularly shaped, three-dimensional objects ushered in a wave of standardized interchangeable parts that reshaped the trajectory of the Industrial Revolution.
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 Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
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.
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 tomake 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.
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.
In 1913, Ford Motor Company combined the standardization of interchangeable parts with the subdivision of labor and the fluid movement of work to workers to create the world’s most influential assembly line. We are unusually fortunate that two keen observers of industry, Horace Lucien Arnold and Fay Leone Faurote, were there to document it.
Arnold, a correspondent for The Engineering Magazine, grasped the significance in Ford’s work and began a series of articles on the company’s Highland Park factory. After Arnold’s untimely death, Faurote completed and compiled the articles in the 1915 study Ford Methods and the Ford Shops. The book’s detailed descriptions, numerous photographs and careful diagrams give us a vivid window into Highland Park at a seminal moment in manufacturing history.
Looking back now, the most remarkable aspect of Ford Methods and the Ford Shops is the liberal level of access Ford gave to its authors. It is difficult to imagine Google or Apple opening their doors to today’s press and giving unfettered access to employees, workspaces, and sensitive production figures. The company’s cooperation speaks volumes about Henry Ford’s confidence in Highland Park. He knew that his methods were far ahead of his competitors, and there was little fear of them catching up too quickly.
Workers place magnets on Model T flywheels, 1913. Fittingly, successful experiments with a moving magneto assembly line “sparked” Ford’s adoption of assembly line techniques throughout Highland Park. / THF96001
The assembly line came to Ford Motor Company in stages. Around April 1, 1913, flywheel magnetos were placed on moving lines. Instead of one worker completing one flywheel in some 20 minutes, a group of workers stood along a waist-high platform. Each worker assembled some small piece of the flywheel and then slid it along to the next person. One whole flywheel came off the line every 13 minutes. With further tweaking, the assembly line produced a finished flywheel magneto in just five minutes.
Flow charts and maps in the book illustrated the logical, sequential arrangement of machine tools at Highland Park. / THF600582
It was a genuine “eureka” moment. Ford soon adapted the assembly line to engines, and then transmissions, and, in August 1913, to complete chassis. The crude “slide” method was replaced with chain-driven delivery systems that not only reduced handling but also regulated work speed. By early 1914, the various separate production lines had fused into three continuous lines able to churn out a finished Model T every 93 minutes—an extraordinary improvement over 12½ hours per car under the old stationary assembly methods.
Workers lower an engine into a Model T chassis, 1913. Note that the line is not yet chain-driven. Ford constantly improved the assembly line in search of time and cost savings. / THF91696
The incredible time and cost savings realized through the assembly line allowed Henry Ford to lower the Model T’s price, which increased demand for the car, which then prompted Ford to seek even greater manufacturing efficiencies. This feedback loop ultimately produced some 15 million Model Ts selling for as little as $260 each.
The peak annual Model T production of 1.8 million in 1923 was still years away when Arnold and Faurote made their study. They did not capture Ford’s assembly line in a fully realized form. In fact, the line never was finished. It existed in a state of flux, under constant review for any potential improvements. Adjusting the height of a work platform might save a few seconds here, while moving a drill press might shave some more seconds there. Several such small changes could yield large productivity gains.
Ford Methods and the Ford Shops captures a manufacturer that has just discovered the formula for previously unimagined production levels. The assembly line is groundbreaking, and Ford knows it. The company’s openness with its methods, and Arnold’s and Faurote’s efforts to document and publicize them, helped make the Model T assembly line the industrial milestone that we still celebrate more than a century later.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from a 2013 post in our Pic of the Month series.
Henry Ford’s first official Ford Motor Company portrait, 1904. / THF97952
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. But more than any other single individual, he was responsible for transforming the automobile from an invention of unknown utility into an innovation that profoundly shaped the 20th century and continues to affect the 21st.
Innovators change things. They take new ideas—sometimes their own, sometimes other people’s—and develop and promote those ideas until they become an accepted part of daily life. Innovation requires self-confidence, a taste for taking risks, leadership ability, and a vision of what the future should be. Henry Ford had all these characteristics, but it took him many years to develop all of them fully.
Portrait of the Innovator as a Young Man
Ford’s beginnings were perfectly ordinary. He was born on his father’s farm in what is now Dearborn, Michigan, on July 30, 1863. At this time, most Americans were born on farms, and most looked forward to being farmers themselves. Early on, Ford demonstrated some of the characteristics that would make him successful. In his family, he became infamous for taking apart his siblings’ toys as well as his own. He organized other boys to build rudimentary waterwheels and steam engines. He learned about full-size steam engines by becoming acquainted with the engines’ operators and pestering them with questions. He taught himself to fix watches and used the watches themselves as textbooks to learn the basics of machine design. Thus, at an early age, Ford demonstrated curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, the capacity for leadership, and a preference for learning by trial and error. These characteristics would become the foundation of his whole career.
Artist Irving Bacon depicted Henry Ford in his first workshop, along with friends, in this 1938 painting. / THF152920
Ford could simply have followed in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. But young Henry was fascinated by machines and was willing to take risks to pursue that fascination. In 1879, he left the farm to become an apprentice at a machine shop in Detroit. Over the next few years, he held jobs at several places, sometimes moving when he thought he could learn more somewhere else. He returned home in 1882 but did little farming. Instead, he operated and serviced portable steam engines used by farmers, occasionally worked in factories in Detroit, and cut and sold timber from 40 acres of his father’s land.
By now, Ford was demonstrating another characteristic—a preference for working on his own rather than for somebody else. In 1888, Ford married Clara Bryant, and in 1891 they moved to Detroit. Ford had taken a job as night engineer for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company—another risk on his part, because he did not know a great deal about electricity at this point. He took the job in part as an opportunity to learn.
Henry Ford (third from left, in white coat) with other employees at Edison Illuminating Company Plant, November 1895. / THF244633
Early Automotive Experiments: Failure and Then Success
Henry was a skilled student, and by 1896 had risen to chief engineer of the Illuminating Company. But he had other interests. He became one of the scores of other people working in barns and small shops trying to make horseless carriages. Ford read about these other efforts in magazines, copying some of the ideas and adding some of his own, and convinced a small group of friends and colleagues to help him. This resulted in his first primitive automobile, the Quadricycle, completed in 1896. A second, more sophisticated car followed in 1898.
Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle Runabout, the first car he built. / THF90760
Ford now demonstrated one of his most important characteristics—the ability to articulate a vision and convince other people to sign on and help him achieve that vision. He convinced a group of businessmen to back him in the biggest risk of his life—starting a company to make horseless carriages. But Ford knew nothing about running a business, and learning by doing often involves failure. The new company failed, as did a second.
To revive his fortunes, Ford took bigger risks, building and even driving a pair of racing cars. The success of these cars attracted additional financial backers, and on June 16, 1903, just before his 40th birthday, Henry incorporated his third automobile venture, the Ford Motor Company.
The early history of Ford Motor Company illustrates another of Henry Ford’s most valuable traits—his ability to identify and attract outstanding talent. He hired a core of young, highly competent people who would stay with him for years and make Ford Motor Company into one of the world’s great industrial enterprises.
Print of Norman Rockwell's painting, "Henry Ford in First Model A on Detroit Street." / THF288551
The new company’s first car was called the Model A, and a variety of improved models followed. In 1906, Ford’s 4-cylinder, $600 Model N became the best-selling car in the country. But by this time, Ford had a vision of an even better, cheaper “motorcar for the great multitude.” Working with a small group of employees, he came up with the Model T, introduced on October 1, 1908.
The Automobile: A Solution in Search of a Problem
As hard as it is for us to believe, in 1908 there was still much debate about exactly what automobiles were good for. We may see them as a necessary part of daily life, but the situation in 1908 was very different. Americans had arranged their world to accommodate the limits of the transportation devices available to them. People in cities got where they wanted to go by using electric street cars, horse-drawn cabs, bicycles, and shoe leather because all the places they wanted to go were located within reach of those transportation modes.
This Boston street scene, circa 1908, shows pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages on the road—but no cars. / THF203438
Most of the commercial traffic in cities still moved in horse-drawn vehicles. Rural Americans simply accepted the limited travel radius of horse- or mule-drawn vehicles. For long distances, Americans used our extensive, well-developed railroad network. People did not need automobiles to conduct their daily activities. Rather, the people who bought cars used them as a new means of recreation. They drove them on joyrides into the countryside. The recreational aspect of these early cars was so important that people of the time divided motor vehicles into two large categories: commercial vehicles, like trucks and taxicabs, and pleasure vehicles, like private automobiles. The term “passenger cars” was still years away. The automobile was an amazing invention, but it was essentially an expensive toy, a plaything for the rich. It was not yet a true innovation.
Henry Ford had a wider vision for the automobile. He summed it up in a statement that appeared in 1913 in the company magazine, Ford Times:
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
This 1924 Ford ad, part of a series, echoes the vision expressed 11 years earlier by Henry Ford: “Back of all of the activities of the Ford Motor Company is this Universal idea—a wholehearted belief that riding on the people’s highway should be in easy reach of all the people.” / THF95501
It was this vision that moved Henry Ford from inventor and businessman to innovator. To achieve his vision, Ford drew on all the qualities he had been developing since childhood: curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, leadership, a preference for learning by trial and error, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to identify and attract talented people.
One Innovation Leads to Another
Ford himself guided a design team that created a car that pushed technical boundaries. The Model T’s one-piece engine block and removable cylinder head were unusual in 1908 but would eventually become standard on all cars. The Ford’s flexible suspension system was specifically designed to handle the dreadful roads that were then typical in the United States. The designers utilized vanadium alloy steel that was stronger for its weight than standard carbon steel. The Model T was lighter than its competitors, allowing its 20-horsepower engine to give it performance equal to that of more expensive cars.
1908 advertisement for the 1909 Ford Model T. In advertisements, Ford Motor Company emphasized key technological features and the low prices of their Model Ts. Ford's usage of vanadium steel enabled the company to make a lighter, sturdier, and more reliable vehicle than other early competitors. / THF122987
The new Ford car proved to be so popular that Henry could easily sell all he could make, but he wanted to be able to make all he could sell. So Ford and his engineers began a relentless drive both to raise the rate at which Model Ts could be produced and to lower the cost of production.
In 1910, the company moved into a huge new factory in Highland Park, a city just north of Detroit. Borrowing ideas from watchmakers, clockmakers, gunmakers, sewing machine makers, and meat processors, Ford Motor Company had, by 1913, developed a moving assembly line for automobiles. But Ford did not limit himself to technical improvements.
When his workforce objected to the relentless, repetitive work that the line entailed, Ford responded with perhaps his boldest idea ever—he doubled wages to $5 per day. With that one move, he stabilized his workforce and gave it the ability to buy the very cars it made. He hired a brilliant accountant named Norval Hawkins as his sales manager. Hawkins created a sales organization and advertising campaign that fueled potential customers’ appetites for Fords. Model T sales rose steadily while the selling price dropped. By 1921, half the cars in America were Model Ts, and a new one could be had for as little as $415.
Norval Hawkins headed the sales department at Ford Motor Company for 12 years, introducing innovative advertising techniques and increasing Ford’s annual sales from 14,877 vehicles in 1907 to 946,155 in 1919. / THF145969
Through these efforts, Ford turned the automobile from an invention bought by the rich into a true innovation available to a wide audience. By the 1920s, largely as a result of the Model T’s success, the term “pleasure car” was fading away, replaced by “passenger car.”
The assembly line techniques pioneered at Highland Park spread throughout the auto industry and into other manufacturing industries as well. The high-wage, low-skill jobs pioneered at Highland Park also spread throughout the manufacturing sector. Advertising themes pioneered by Ford Motor Company are still being used today. Ford’s curiosity, leadership, mechanical ability, willingness to take risks, ability to attract talented people, and vision produced innovations in transportation, manufacturing, labor relations, and advertising.
What We Have Here Is a Failure to Innovate
Henry Ford was slow to admit that customers no longer wanted the Model T. However, in 1927, he finally acknowledged that shift, and Henry Ford and his son, Edsel Ford, drove this last Model T—number 15,000,000—off the assembly line at Highland Park. / THF135450
Henry Ford’s great success did not necessarily bring with it great wisdom. In fact, his very success may have blinded him as he looked to the future. The Model T was so successful that he saw no need to significantly change or improve it. He did authorize many detail changes that resulted in lower cost or improved reliability, but there was never any fundamental change to the design he had laid down in 1907.
He was slow to adopt innovations that came from other carmakers, like electric starters, hydraulic brakes, windshield wipers, and more luxurious interiors. He seemed not to realize that the consumer appetites he had encouraged and fulfilled would continue to grow. He seemed not to want to acknowledge that once he started his company down the road of innovation, it would have to keep innovating or else fall behind companies that did innovate. He ignored the growing popularity of slightly more expensive but more stylish and comfortable cars, like the Chevrolet, and would not listen to Ford executives who believed it was time for a new model.
But Model T sales were beginning to slip by 1923, and by the late 1920s, even Henry Ford could no longer ignore the declining sales figures. In 1927, he reluctantly shut down the Model T assembly lines and began the design of an all-new car. It appeared in December 1927 and was such a departure from the old Ford that the company went back to the beginning of the alphabet for a name—it was called the Model A.
Edsel and Henry Ford introduce the new Model A at the Ford Industrial Exposition in New York in January 1928. Edsel had worked to convince his father to replace the outmoded Model T with something new. / THF91597
One area where Ford did keep innovating was in actual car production. In 1917, he began construction of a vast new plant on the banks of the Rouge River southwest of Detroit. This plant would give Ford Motor Company complete control over nearly all aspects of the production process. Raw materials from Ford mines would arrive on Ford boats, and would be converted into iron and steel, which were transformed into engines, transmissions, frames, and bodies. Glass and tires would be made onsite as well, and all of this would be assembled into completed cars. Assembly of the new Model A was transferred to the Rouge. Eventually the plant would employ 100,000 people and generate many innovations in auto manufacturing.
But improvements in manufacturing were not enough to make up for the fact that Henry Ford was no longer a leader in automotive design. The Model A was competitive for only four years before needing to be replaced by a newer model. In 1932, at age 69, Ford introduced his last great automotive innovation, the lightweight, inexpensive V-8 engine. It represented a real technological and marketing breakthrough, but in other areas Fords continued to lag behind their competitors.
The V-8 engine was Henry Ford’s last great automotive innovation. This is the first V-8 engine produced, which is on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF101039
By 1936, the company that once sold half of the cars made in America had fallen to third place behind both General Motors and the upstart Chrysler Corporation. By the time Henry Ford died in 1947, his great company was in serious trouble, and a new generation of innovators, led by his grandson Henry Ford II, would work long and hard to restore it to its former glory. Henry’s story is a textbook example of the power of innovation—and the power of its absence.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Henry Ford and Innovation: From the Curators.”
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.