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Posts Tagged michigan

White Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box featuring a green and red rooster, c. 1995
This 1995 Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box (96.34.3.13) features Cornelius Rooster, a popular character logo since the late 1950s. THF302682

Perhaps it could only happen in western Michigan: the combination of religious fervor, fertile soil to grow grains that could be transformed into easily digestible breakfast cereals, and the spirit that one could accomplish anything with hard work and determination. Out of this world came John Harvey (J.H.) and William Keith (W.K.) Kellogg—two brothers who would transform the way that Americans ate breakfast. They were, unfortunately, often at odds. And they didn’t work alone. But, through their persistence and combined efforts, the dry cereal flakes they perfected would start a breakfast revolution.

Into the early 20th century, the American breakfast was often heavy, starchy, salty, and fatty—laden with leftovers from last night’s dinner, like cured meats, day-old biscuits, and lard-fried potatoes. No wonder that one of the most common complaints of the time was “dyspepsia”—a term that applied to a medley of stomach ailments, including constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, and indigestion. For the sick and the elderly, lengthy cooking of porridges or gruels was the only morning-meal alternative.


Postcard showing Seventh-day Adventist Tabernacle, 1914, a red brick building with a steeple and many arched windows.
Seventh-day Adventist Tabernacle, Battle Creek, Michigan, 1914 (99.146.39). THF316219

The Kellogg brothers—John Harvey (1852-1943) and his younger brother Will Keith (1860-1951)—grew up in the close-knit community of Battle Creek, Michigan, a center for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Members of this homegrown Christian religious sect not only believed in the connection between spiritual and physical health, but also that healthy living depended upon maintaining a nutritious vegetable- and grain-based diet.

Seventh-day Adventist leaders Ellen and James White hand-picked J.H. Kellogg to run their medical and health programs in Battle Creek, and ultimately sent him to the prestigious Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City. It was during his morning rush to classes at Bellevue that he began thinking about creating a nutritious, ready-to-eat cereal.

Drab green cover of Dr. J.H. Kellogg textbook, First Book in Physiology and Hygiene embossed with black circular design at top
In 1888, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg authored this book (29.1119.14), aimed at explaining to young people, “in clear and simple language,” the structure and functions of the human body as well as his personal philosophy for healthful living. THF183317

Upon returning to Battle Creek in 1876, Dr. J.H. Kellogg assumed leadership of the Whites’ Western Health Reform Institute. But his vision was much larger than theirs, ultimately leading to his breaking ties with his Seventh-day Adventist backers. With the able (but underappreciated) assistance of his brother, Will, to run the business end of things, Dr. Kellogg turned the Whites’ once-modest institution into the grand Battle Creek Sanitarium. Nicknamed the San, this “university of health” would become a world-famous health resort, catering to the rich and famous (including Henry Ford) as well as the truly ill. At the San, Dr. Kellogg would profess and put into practice his long-held philosophy of “biologic living”—that is, the belief that correct eating and drinking, plenty of exercise, hydrotherapy, and the abstinence of tobacco would lead to a healthy mind, body, and spirit.

Postcard of Kellogg’s corn flakes packing room, c. 1935, with women in white dresses and hair coverings packing corn flakes boxes into large cartons
Corn Flakes loom large in this postcard (94.82.4) showing the packing room at the Kellogg’s plant, about 1935. THF320131

The true origin of corn flakes is difficult to trace, as competing versions of it have been offered by Dr. Kellogg’s wife Ella (whose dedicated assistance was integral to the San’s food operations), his brother Will, other family members, and San employees. All agree, however, that it started with Dr. Kellogg’s correct hypothesis that a grain-based cereal would be easier to digest if the grain’s starch was broken down through a pre-cooking process. (Ironically, nutritionists now agree that easy digestibility is less healthful than the slower-to-digest high-fiber cereals that are so popular today.) Hours of experimentation and a little accidental fermentation finally led to the creation of an easily digestible flaked cereal made of wheat. Patients at the San loved it and mail-order demand (usually by former patients) soon exceeded supply. Dr. Kellogg felt that he had accomplished what he had set out to do.

Recipe booklet cover for “Tested Battle Creek Health Recipes,” 1928, showing a woman and two children cooking in a kitchen
Recipes for health foods that Dr. J.H. Kellogg served his patients at the San were featured in this 1928 booklet (95.174.22) aimed at the general public. THF17004

But his younger brother Will was far from done. Will saw a raft of competitors scrambling to introduce their own—often very similar—flaked breakfast cereals and making money off of their original idea. Whereas his brother, the doctor, was satisfied with continuing to produce healthy, nutritious foods for his niche group of patients, Will saw an opportunity to market a light, healthy breakfast cereal to a much larger public. After helping his brother rebuild the San following a devastating fire in 1902, he bought the rights to the flaked cereal and struck out on his own.

Will immediately made some changes to the initial cereal his brother was serving at the San. He replaced the wheat with cheap, plentiful, better-tasting corn, and added (to his brother’s horror) malt, sugar, and salt to make the cereal more palatable to the general public. In 1906, Will Kellogg founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company and the cereal we know today as Corn Flakes was born.

Postcard of Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flake Company factory, 1914, showing several red brick buildings, a water tower, and an American flag in the foreground
A postcard (99.146.41) of the Kellogg’s factory in 1914. THF316221

Will’s business acumen kicked in, as he embraced ever more sophisticated forms of advertising and packaging, as well as the most up-to-date machinery, factory practices, modes of communication, and distribution networks. By adding his signature to the front of each cereal box, he guaranteed the quality of his products to the public while also—once and for all—staking his claim to them. By 1909, the company was producing and shipping 120,000 cases of Corn Flakes every day!

Kelvinator ad, 1925, showing a woman in an apron at a refrigerator and text explaining “kelvination”
The popularity of dried cereal flakes for breakfast was in part due to improvements in both safe-to-drink milk and electric refrigerators (as shown in this 1925 ad, 2019.0.3.1) to keep the milk cold. THF290841

During Will’s active years of running the company—from 1906 to 1939—Kellogg’s became a national and ultimately global brand. These years also coincided with the growth of self-service grocery stores—in which name brand products and eye-catching packages were key to customer purchasing decisions. The success of Kellogg’s cereals was also aided by improvements in safe, pasteurized milk and the increasing popularity of electric refrigerators to keep the milk fresh.

Several mailing envelopes and folded fabric showing elf head and torso with “Snap!” printed on chef’s hat
In 1949, consumers who sent in a Kellogg’s Rice Krispies box top and 15 cents could receive this Snap! cloth doll kit (72.177.618.1). THF300027

Through Will’s leadership, the company continued to embrace new methods of advertising—cereal box coupons and giveaways, catchy jingles and character logos, colorful print ads, recipe booklets, and radio advertising. By 1939, Kellogg’s controlled over 40% of the ready-to-eat cereal business in the United States and over 50% of the business outside the U.S.

Gray plastic toy submarine, 1954, along with brown cardboard box with mailing label showing Kellogg’s as sender
The owner of this 1950s U.S.S. Nautilus submarine toy (2015.35.47) remembered sending in 25 cents and a box top from either Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks or Sugar Corn Pops to receive it through the mail. THF183318

After Will stepped down, the company continued the aggressive marketing for which it had long been known. TV commercials and sponsorships replaced those previously on radio. Facing stiff competition from other cereal companies after World War II, Kellogg’s veered from its traditional reputation for healthful cereals and introduced a succession of sugar-loaded cereals for the new Baby Boomer market. Iconic new character logos helped promote them, like Tony the Tiger (introduced with Sugar Frosted Flakes in 1952) and Toucan Sam (introduced with Froot Loops in 1963).

Brown and yellow cover of recipe booklet, Bran for All Occasions, “featuring Kellogg’s bran cereals,” ca. 1982, showing a barn and field
The interest in “natural foods” in the 1970s and 1980s included healthful grains that, ironically, Kellogg’s had initially promoted—like those in the bran cereals featured as ingredients in this circa 1982 recipe booklet (92.256.9). THF296229

For Kellogg’s and other cereal companies, pre-sweetened and classic cereals would dominate the market during the 1950s and 1960s. But, in 1972, following a trend toward more “natural” foods, a little-known company named Pet, Inc., achieved breakout success with its Heartland Natural Cereal. Mainstream cereal companies scrambled to introduce their own versions of “natural” cereals, including Kellogg’s contribution, Country Morning Natural Cereal (1975–80). The trend toward more healthful and nutritious cereals brought Kellogg’s full circle back to its roots and continues to be popular today.

Blue Kellogg's Frosted Flakes Breakfast Cereal box, 1994-1996, with orange-and-white “Tony the Tiger” and picture of racer Bill Elliott
The front of this 1990s Frosted Flakes box (96.34.3.15) both features popular character logo Tony the Tiger and alludes to Kellogg’s sponsorship of NASCAR. In keeping with the times, this pre-sweetened cereal also claims to be fat-free, cholesterol-free, and include nine essential vitamins and minerals. THF302680

Too few people today recall the names of the two Kellogg brothers who started the breakfast revolution with their toasted flake cereal some 120 years ago. But it is impossible to ignore the legacy of their contribution. Through their lifetimes, Dr. J.H. Kellogg promoted healthful living, while his brother, W.K., convinced consumers that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Meanwhile, the familiar character logos and advertising jingles for which Kellogg’s has long been famous remain in our heads and hearts.

For more reading, see: The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, by Howard Markel (2017) and The Great American Cereal Book: How Breakfast Got Its Crunch, by Marty Gitlin and Topher Ellis (2011).


Donna R. Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, fondly remembers watching all those Corn Flakes commercials when Kellogg’s sponsored her favorite pre-teen TV show, The Monkees.

Michigan, food, by Donna R. Braden

A historic base ball player slides onto a base while other players and a modern crowd looks on

Jump on the Weiser Railroad and take a tour of Greenfield Village and eventually, you’ll see a lush patch of grass behind Cotswold Cottage. It may just seem like an open field until you listen to your fellow passengers, as I did this past week.


“That’s where we watched the baseball game,” said one mother to her kids.

“Remember when we saw the Lah-De-Dahs play here? That was so cool!” said another family to each other. Then they are told that the season has been canceled, and a wave of disappointment hits.

Do we understand that it had to be done to ensure the safety of visitors, volunteers and staff? Sure. Does that make it any easier to accept? Not at all.

An historic base ball player in a white and red uniform throws a ball on a grassy field

During the second weekend of August, the attention of everyone is usually focused on this seemingly unassuming patch of grass behind Cotswold Cottage. Groups of people from all over the Midwest put on uniforms reminiscent of 1867, bring a bat they made themselves, leave their gloves at home and prepare for two days to relive the glory of their times. Visitors bring their chairs, find a spot on the hill with plenty of shade, pick up a free program, and keep track of the day’s results. The kids who come don’t see computer programmers, lawyers, government employees, or professionals. They see ball players that they want to emulate. The players sign an autograph and pause for a picture to help commemorate the occasion. Sure, we would love to raise a trophy, but the best reward is the sight of our spectators coming back day after day, year after year.

The historic base ball program here at The Henry Ford brings together families by giving them something familiar—with a twist. A children’s game played by men in knickers might gain a laugh or two until you see how hard they can hit the ball or catch it without the aid of a glove. The World Tournament of Historic Base Ball is the culmination of a season’s worth of work by our home clubs, the Lah-De-Dahs and Nationals, while at the same time welcoming in multiple other teams from around the Midwest. It’s a vital part of The Henry Ford’s summer lineup of events, because it demonstrates our strength in the living history field, tells the American story through ball and bat and shows our visitors how innovations turned a kid’s game into America’s pastime. 

Long, thin, wooden baseball bat with a small gold plaque on one end
Baseball Bat Presented to John L. McCord for First Prize at the World's Tournament of Base Ball, 1867 / THF8654

The original World Tournament was held in Detroit during the summer of 1867 (why the Lah-De-Dahs and Nationals play by the rules of that year). The hosts, the Detroit Base Ball Club, had an exciting 1866 and were hoping to make Detroit into a new Midwest hub of base ball (written as two words at the time) and to answer the question, “Who is the best team in the world?” At the conclusion, the Unknown Base Ball Club of Jackson, Michigan, won the first-class championship and earned $300 as well as a beautiful rosewood bat. Unfortunately for the Detroit club, 1867 didn’t pan out the way they would have liked, and the World Tournament would go into a 136-year hibernation.

An historic base ball player holds a bat ready to swing as another stands nearby and a crowd looks on

In 2003, the World Tournament was reborn here at Greenfield Village. The Clodbuster Base Ball Club of Ohio would win three of the first four events (2004 was rained out with no definitive winner other than “Mother Nature”). The Lah-De-Dahs would win their first crown in 2007 and then add three more titles in 2008, 2016, and 2018. The Saginaw Old Golds have won the most World Tournaments, with six total.

It is, however, a much larger event than just watching the games (though for many visitors, that is enough to keep them entertained). The Dodworth Saxhorn Band plays songs of the 19th century with instruments of the period. Kids can test their skills on the Village Green along with a hands-on display of the game of cricket, one of baseball’s forefathers. In recent years, there was a pop-up exhibit featuring artifacts, including the original rosewood bat won by the Unknowns in 1867, as well as modern trophies created by the Liberty Craftworks pottery team for presentation to that year’s winning teams.

A variety of wooden bats is piled intricately in the foreground, with bat boys and historic base ball players in costume nearby, and a crowd watching the game sits behind them

We may not be back this season but rest assured: To those disappointed fans who pass Walnut Grove on the train, we will be back! We hope you will be, too!

HUZZAH!


Jeff “Cougar” Koslowski is a volunteer with The Henry Ford’s Historic Base Ball Program.

Michigan, sports, Historic Base Ball, Greenfield Village, COVID-19 impact, by Jeff Koslowski, baseball

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Keystone Stereograph #149 “Harvesting Celery Blanched by Boards, in Michigan’s Famous Celery Fields, Kalamazoo, Mich. THF 145691

What comes to mind when you think of celery (Apium graveolens L. var. dulce)? The essential ingredient in chicken soup, an attractive tomato drink garnish, a low-calorie and healthy snack (with peanut butter added!), or all of the above? The low-calorie nutritious vegetable (in the same family – Apiaceae -- as the herb, parsley) can also lead you on a journey through local history, consumer demand, patent medicine promotion, and commodity chains that spanned the globe.

The ancient Greeks and Romans harvested seeds from wild celery, also called smallage (Apium graveolens L. var. secalinum). It grew best in temperate climates and in moist soils. The plant stalk and leaves had curative properties and seeds had a strong flavor and scent when dried and when processed into essential oil. Europeans included celery seed into tincture recipes in pharmacopeia and cultivated the crop in gardens by the mid-1600s. Over centuries plant-breeders created celery varieties with taller tastier stalks. Thus, celery shifted from a landrace (a plant evolving in a location over time) to a market garden crop by the mid-19th century. Celery growers in the Grand Rapids area helped make it an international commodity.

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Kalamazoo Celery Company, How to Grow Celery, 1886

The Celery Fields near Grand Rapids, Michigan
Agricultural stories start with land access (or lack thereof).

The introduction and expansion of celery cultivation in west central Michigan began in the decades following removal and confinement of indigenous people. Maps indicate the rapid changes that occurred as lands once tended by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi became the property of Euro-Americans.

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John Farmer published this map in 1831 and marketed it as “The Emigrant’s Guide; or, Pocket Gazetteer of the Surveyed Part of Michigan.” It included “An improved map of the surveyed part of the Territory of Michigan.” THF136462

The wetlands that once sustained indigenous agriculture became a commodity that other entrepreneurs used to build a celery empire. The map that J. H. Young produced in 1835, “The Tourist’s Pocket Map of Michigan,” implies a leisurely pursuit, but instead, developing land into productive farms consumed time and money, and it required brute force. Yet, settlement equated to “progress” and economic growth in the expanding nation and in the territory of Michigan.

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J. H. Young, “The Tourist’s Pocket Map of Michigan,” 1835. THF136466

Celery Entrepreneurs
Different individuals, all migrants to the area, receive credit for launching the celery enterprise. George Taylor, a Scottish market gardener, reputedly introduced commercial celery growing in the United States when he settled in Kalamazoo in 1855.

Other individuals, all well-heeled citizens of the area received credit as celery pioneers. Joseph Dunkley, an immigrant from Somersetshire, England, established celery fields by 1866 north of Kalamazoo and began shipping his crop via rail in 1880 to eastern and southern markets. Glenn Douglass Stuart received most acclaim -- “Were the lovers of this esculent herb to have a voice he would be crowned what he is already, ‘The Celery King’.” Stuart arrived from Gowanda, New York, via Oberlin, Ohio, in 1883, and by 1892 his biography in the 1892 Portrait and Biographical Record claimed that his firm (based in celery) employed one-quarter of the Kalamazoo population.

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Joseph Dunkley’s nursery business, Kalamazoo, Michigan,Portrait and Biographical Record of Kalamazoo, Allegan andOttawa Counties” (1892), pg. 935.

Lands further west developed as celery fields later. Celery pioneer George Hudson introduced the crop to Grand Haven around 1878, according to the 1892 history of Ottawa, County, Michigan. Hudson immigrated from Devonshire, England, worked as a market gardener in New York, and a lumberman in Spring Lake before settling down to celery in the Grand Rapids area.

Advertisement of George Hudson, “Historical and Business Compendium of Ottawa County, Michigan” (1892), pg. 30; with information on Mr. Hudson (pgs. 192-193).

Immense fields of celery thrived by 1880, and dominated in celery production to the 1940s, earning two cities on both ends of the celery zone the names “Celery City” (Kalamazoo) and “Celery Center” (Hudsonville).

Laborers in the Fields
While some immigrants received accolades for establishing the industry, other individuals received little recognition for the labor they performed. Families who migrated from The Netherlands did the bulk of the work turning wet soils into fertile celery fields between Kalamazoo and Hudsonville. Stereographs and postcards depict the intense physical labor that farm owners and laborers performed.

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Keystone Stereograph #149 “Harvesting Celery Blanched by Boards, in Michigan’s Famous Celery Fields, Kalamazoo, Mich. THF145692

Growing Celery
Before celery growing became concentrated in the area near Grand Rapids, market gardeners raised the spring vegetable and sold it directly to customers in public markets. The May 15, 1849 issue of The Michigan Farmer included growing directions from an English gardener. He advised planting the seeds in January in a greenhouse (and following with additional plantings in February and March to stagger harvests and meet market demand). Then growers should transplant the seedlings to the garden and protect the plant with a “hand glass.” Growers then earthed up the celery, setting the plants in trenches and hilling the soil around them to shield stalks and leaves from the sun. This reduced the acidic taste and stringiness of the stalks.

Such intensive cultivation practices yielded a crop that met the demand of wealthier customers seeking a spring tonic. A speaker explained the advantages of celery to members of the Kalamazoo Agricultural Society in 1850 -- celery was “peculiarly acceptable because it comes when our horticulture has no other fresh supplies to offer us.” The only other vegetables available at the time included potatoes, turnips, and cabbage. Such intensive

After Harvest
Wealthier families displayed the fresh leafy celery stalks in glass vases like this one. The vase held chilled water that helped keep celery stalks fresh during formal dinners. Diners consumed the carefully cultivated stalks raw.

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Celery Vase, 1820-1840. THF 168522

The cost of celery declined as mass production and marketing reduced the cost per bunch. This shifted celery from a delicacy to an essential vegetable for a growing non-gardening population.

Celery after harvest, took other forms.

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Product Label for Celebrated Celery Sauce by Heinz & Noble, "Put Up Expressly for Family Use," 1871. THF117109

Product marketing often featured larger-than-life products derived from celery.

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Heinz wagon with Celery Sauce advertising, circa 1879. THF 117121

Celery, the vegetable grown around Grand Rapids, attracted the attention of health food entrepreneurs like Dr. Vincent C. Price (1832-1914). He purchased Tryabita Celery Food Company in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1902 and operated it as Price Cereal Food Company. He also produced and marketed Dr. Price’s Wheat Flake Celery Food as essential for the health of vegetarians and the infirm.

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Advertising Poster, "Dr. Price's Food, Nature's Food for Man, the Only Wheat Flake Celery Food," circa 1910. THF 96676

Celery growers in the Grand Rapids area helped establish the crop in Sanford, Florida, in 1895. Growers planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. By 1898 they started shipping their crop via refrigerated railcars to northern markets including Philadelphia and New York City. California growers also established celery fields from Kalamazoo stock by the late 1890s, but their harvest reached market during the fall, thus theoretically avoiding direct competition with other growing areas.

Celery did not appear on lists of common garden vegetables because creating a tasty crop required more work than most hobby gardeners wanted to commit to the crop. Thus, celery did not usually appear in photographs or graphic arts that depicted garden baskets laden with potatoes, beets, cabbage, turnips, and other vegetables. This poster from World War I proves an exception, featuring a schoolboy with a healthy bunch of celery in his basket (on the left side, between the onions and the beets).

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World War I Poster, "Raised 'Em Myself in my U.S. School Garden," circa 1918. THF112810

As salads became a more common element of American dinners, fresh celery gained more visibility. This advertisement for Heinz vinegar (an essential salad-dressing ingredient) included a bunch of celery, along with another relatively new addition to American dinners, iceberg lettuce (behind the celery and the vinegar bottle).

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Advertising Layout Drawing for Heinz Vinegar, 1924. THF292743

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Celery reached consumers in packing crates. Storekeepers usually displayed the crop in the crate, as this image of J. F. Ryder’s Market in Maine, shows.

Grower cooperatives helped expand markets during the early 20th century. The Celery Growers of Michigan existed at least by 1935, the year that growers specified six standard packages for celery. This container was a "square" at the ends (8 inches by 8 inches) and it held celery bunches laid flat that were 10 inches to 18 inches in length.

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This “square” packing crate likely came full of celery from the farm operated by Ralph Schut, a descendant of Dutch immigrants in Georgetown Township/Hudsonville, aka “Celery Center.”
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Historically, celery was much more than a garnish in your favorite tomato-juice drink.

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Heinz Tomato Juice Advertisement, “Talk About Your Aristocracy!,” circa 1935. THF252238

Why are there more tulips in Holland and the Grand Rapids area today than celery? Growers responded to disease affecting their crops and increased competition reducing their market dominant by concentrating their resources on horticulture. Many celery growers already had green houses and operated nurseries, so they diversified their production by adding bedding plants and flowers to their market crops.

The region’s celery history remains visible through the Celery Flats Interpretive Center in Portage and in celery fields managed by grower-members of the Michigan Celery Cooperative, founded in 1951.

Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

by Debra A. Reid, Michigan, food, agriculture

Melville and Anna Bissell, husband and wife entrepreneurs, solved their own “sweeping” issues--then “swept” the market with their mechanical carpet sweeper.

Needed: A Better Way to Clean
Housework has always been physically demanding and time-consuming--including keeping floors free of dust and dirt. For centuries, people used brooms to tidy their homes. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first mechanical breakthrough in sweeping would appear.

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This trade card illustrates a more elaborately furnished--and more challenging to clean--home of the late 19th century. While brooms worked well enough on bare floors, they were much less effective at removing tracked-in dirt or coal dust from heating stoves that settled in carpets. THF208366

As house size grew and furnishings increased, people needed more effective methods of cleaning. Carpeting became very popular in middle- and upper middle-class homes during the last half of the 19th century--and it was more challenging to clean than bare floors. Going after dust and dirt with a broom on a carpeted floor wasn't terribly effective--it tended to just spread dust around. “Deep cleaning” one’s carpets was an elaborate process. Carpets had to be taken up once or twice a year, carried outside, and beaten with a carpet beater. The carpet then had to be reinstalled in the room.

Mechanical carpet sweepers made their debut in America during the mid-19th century. Carpet sweepers had a rotary brush connected to a pair of driving wheels. As the sweeper was pushed, the brush revolved, sweeping up and depositing dirt into a container that could be emptied easily. The United States Patent Office granted the first flurry of carpet sweeper patents in the late 1850s--five in 1858 and nine in 1859. Other patents would follow in the coming decades.

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The fashionably dressed middle-class housewife in this circa 1880 Goshen Sweeper Company trade card “demonstrates” the company’s product. (She reminds me of June Cleaver from the 1950s television show, “Leave it to Beaver”-- who vacuumed while wearing high heels and pearls!) THF184126

Sweeping the Market
Grand Rapids businessman and inventor Melville Bissell would design his own carpet sweeper in 1876.

Melville Bissell was a serial entrepreneur. In 1862, at the age of 19, Melville opened a grocery store with his father Alpheus in Kalamazoo, Michigan. By 1870, the Bissell family had moved to Grand Rapids where father and son operated a successful crockery and glassware store. Melville Bissell had married 19-year-old Anna Sutherland in 1865. Anna would prove to be an astute business partner.

The Bissells’ crockery and glassware stock arrived at their Grand Rapids store packed in sawdust or straw. Unpacking this merchandise before placing it on store shelves created a hard-to-clean-up mess-- sawdust and straw escaped the wooden crates and collected in carpet fibers. While the Bissells owned a mechanical carpet sweeper, they found it just wasn’t up to the task. Melville solved the annoying problem by developing a much better mechanical carpet sweeper and patenting it in 1876.

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Bissell Crown Jewell No. 3 carpet sweeper, 1889-1900
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Anna Bissell quickly recognized this improved sweeper’s marketability--American housewives could keep their homes clean even more effectively, reducing the drudgery of housekeeping!  She became the driving force of sales and marketing. The Bissells decided to distribute their product through houseware retailers, rather than door-to-door salesmen. Anna made many sales calls to stores in the Grand Rapids vicinity, succeeding in getting shopkeepers to purchase and display their carpet sweeper.  Soon, hired workmen were turning out 30 sweepers a day on the second floor of the Bissell’s crockery shop to meet demand.

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The left side of this circa 1880 Bissell trade card shows a vexed couple using a broom to clean their carpets. The right side depicts the couple--much happier now--using a Bissell carpet sweeper. (When holding the two-sided card up to the light, the entire message and images appear.) THF184124; T184125

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An image of the Bissell company factory and a list of Bissell carpet sweeper products appear on this 1888 invoice. THF184432

In 1883, Melville Bissell organized a stock company with a paid-up capital of $150,000 and built a five-story factory for manufacturing their carpet sweepers. When the factory burned the following year, the Bissells mortgaged the family home and other property to finance its reconstruction. Soon, the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company was on its way to dominating the field as carpet sweepers grew increasingly popular in the 1880s.

It was essential to not only have a good product--but be adept at marketing it effectively to potential customers. This Bissell trade card lists the many advantages of Bissell carpet sweeper--making it unquestionably better than sweeping with a broom! THF213981

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This "Christmas Bissellisms" advertising brochure suggests that a Bissell carpet sweeper would be a welcome Christmas gift for any woman. THF277410

Tragedy struck when Melville died of pneumonia in 1889 at the age of 45. Anna--now a widow with four children age 21, 7, 4 and 1--stepped in to lead the company. From the company’s beginning, Anna had been intimately involved in business affairs. Anna Bissell served as president of the Bissell company from 1889-1919--the first female CEO in the United States--and then as chair of the board from 1919-1934. She successfully managed the business, defending the company’s patents and marketing the sweepers throughout North America and Europe.

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This circa 1891 Bissell carpet sweeper was sold by J.C. Black & Son at their store, The Fair, in San Jose, California. THF17277

By the 1890s, the company had an international presence and was producing 1000 sweepers per day. In addition to the company’s branch office in New York, the Bissell company established factories in London, Paris, and Toronto, with agencies in 22 foreign countries. A progressive employer, Anna Bissell was among the first business leaders of the time to provide her employees with pension plans and workers compensation.

Melville and Anna Bissell took a risk and thought big. They might have chosen to remain focused on their crockery business. But their collective vision for success went beyond. Bissell carpet sweepers would dominate the mechanical sweeper market, as people “bisselled” their way to cleaner carpets and rugs.

Bissell, Inc. is still a privately-owned, family-led company today, selling a wide range of home care products.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

home life, entrepreneurship, by Jeanine Head Miller, Michigan

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Brochure for Chicago Merchandise Mart Exhibit, "Herman Miller Modern for Your Home," 1935-1940 (THF229429)


West Michigan is known for its furniture. Furniture factories-turned-apartment or office buildings can be seen throughout Grand Rapids and its surroundings—some with company names like Baker Furniture, John Widdicomb Co., and Sligh Furniture still visible, painted on the brick exterior. While fewer in numbers today than in 1910, West Michigan still boasts numerous major furniture manufacturers. One of these, the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, is known around the world for its long history of producing high quality modern furniture—but the Herman Miller name was not always synonymous with “modern.”

A young man named Dirk Jan (D.J.) De Pree began working as a clerk at the Zeeland-based Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1909, after graduating from high school. It was a small company and De Pree excelled, partly due to his appetite for reading books about business, accounting, and efficiency. Just a decade after starting with the company, he was promoted to president. In 1923, De Pree convinced his father-in-law, Herman Miller, to go in with him to purchase the majority of the company’s shares. The furniture company was renamed the Herman Miller Furniture Company in honor of De Pree’s father-in-law’s contribution, although Miller was never involved in its operation. Renamed, rebranded, and under new ownership, D.J. De Pree pushed a new culture of quality and good design that, he hoped, would help the company stand out amongst a competitive and crowded West Michigan furniture industry.

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Dressing Table, ca. 1933 (Object ID: 89.177.112), Image copyright: Herman Miller, Inc.

At the time, many West Michigan furniture companies were producing stylistically similar pieces that were essentially reproductions of historic forms, especially Colonial and European Revivals. Most of the manufacturers “designed” furniture by copying from books or authentic vintage furniture found in museums. The best designers were known to be the most faithful copyists. The Herman Miller Furniture Company manufactured primarily reproduction furniture until the early 1930s. Their furniture lines were typically very ornate and sold in large suites—and following in the footsteps of other West Michigan companies, Herman Miller released new lines with each quarterly furniture market, despite the undue pressure this placed upon them.  

As the Great Depression crippled industry across America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Herman Miller Furniture Company struggled to survive. With bankruptcy on the horizon, D.J. De Pree reflected on the shortcomings of the furniture industry and issues within the company. A devoutly religious man, he also prayed. Whether by divine intervention or regular old coincidence, Gilbert Rohde—a young designer that would leave an indelible mark on the Herman Miller Furniture Company—walked into the company’s Grand Rapids showroom in July of 1930, bringing with him the message of Modernism.

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The Herman Miller Furniture Company, Makers of Fine Furniture, Zeeland, Michigan, 1933 (Left: THF64292, Right: THF64290). Herman Miller continued to produce historic revival furniture, like the above Chippendale bedroom suite, even while embracing the more modern Gilbert Rohde lines, like the above No. 3321 Dining Room Group.

Born in New York City to German immigrants in 1894, Gilbert Rohde (born Gustav Rohde) showed aptitude for drawing at a young age—he claimed to have drawn an identifiable horse by the age of two-years-old! He was admitted to Stuyvesant High School in 1909, which was reserved for gifted young men. There, he designed covers for the school’s literary magazine, won drawing contents, and began to experiment with furniture design. While he had aspirations (and demonstrated aptitude) to become an architect, he began working as an illustrator and later, a commercial artist. He was successful in this venture for years and learned invaluable lessons about advertising and marketing which would help him—and his future clients—tremendously in the years to come. With determination to become a furniture designer, in 1927 Rohde departed on a months-long European tour of sites associated with the modern design movement. Among his stops, he visited the Bauhaus design school in Germany and the Parisian design studios that featured the modernist ideas exhibited in the breakthrough Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. Returning to the United States months later, he began designing furniture with a clear European modern influence and soon began to focus on designing mass-produced furniture for industry, namely for the Heywood-Wakefield Company of Massachusetts.

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Dresser, 1933-1937 (THF156178). An early example of Rohde-designed furniture manufactured by Herman Miller, this dresser was designed for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair’s “Design for Living Home.” The house and its furniture garnered broad public acclaim, benefitting the budding Rohde and Herman Miller partnership.

By 1930, Rohde was looking for more clients. He visited the Herman Miller showroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan—at the end of a long day of denials by other manufacturers—and met D.J. De Pree. Rohde argued that modern furniture was the future and told him, “I know how people live and I know how they are going to live.” This confidence, despite few years of actual furniture design, convinced De Pree to give Rohde a chance at designing a line for Herman Miller. Further, Rohde was willing to work on a royalty arrangement with a small consultation fee instead of all cash up front. In combination with Herman Miller’s already-precarious financial situation, these factors helped to offset some of the risk in producing this forward-thinking furniture. Herman Miller began selling Rohde’s first design, an unadorned, modern bedroom suite in 1932, but still played it safe by continuing to sell historic revival lines alongside Rohde’s modern furniture. As design historian Ralph Caplan notes, in those early years, Herman Miller was “like a company unsure of what it wanted to be when it grew up.”  But Rohde’s furniture sold. By the early 1940s, Rohde’s modern lines made up the vast majority of Herman Miller’s output.

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Left: Coffee Table, 1940-1942 (THF35998), Right: Rohde Sideboard, 1941-1942 (THF83268)
Gilbert Rohde admired the Surrealist Art Movement. In his early 1940s Paldao Group, the forms and materials pay homage to the work of the Surrealists—and were the first biomorphic forms used in furniture manufactured in the United States.

Tragically, Rohde’s tenure at Herman Miller was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1944, but his impact is lasting. Rohde’s emphasis on simplicity and functionality of design meant the materials and the manufacturing had to be of the highest quality—this honesty of design and emphasis on quality appealed to De Pree’s Christian values. It remains a hallmark of Herman Miller’s furniture to this day and undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of Rohde’s furniture sales. Sales of Rohde’s furniture did not slow the season after it was introduced, like many of the historic reproductions. The Laurel Line, Rohde’s first coordinated living, dining, and sleeping group, remained in production almost his entire tenure with Herman Miller. D.J. De Pree recounted that his lines often sold for 5-10 years instead of the 1-3 that was typical of the historic reproduction styles. Rohde’s design work for Herman Miller extended far beyond furniture and into advertising, catalogues, and showrooms, and he advised on the manufacture of his furniture too. This expansion of the designer’s role and the creative freedom allowed by D.J. De Pree came to define Herman Miller’s relationship with designers and then the company itself.

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Rohde Modular Desk, 1934-1941 (THF159907). This Laurel Group desk was part of one of Rohde’s early—and most successful—lines for Herman Miller. It was part of a coordinated modular line, which meant that new pieces would be added regularly over years. This was in opposition to the new lines for each quarterly furniture market approach that D.J. De Pree counted as an “evil” of the furniture industry.

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Cover and interior page from Catalog for Herman Miller Furniture, "20th Century Modern Furniture Designed by Gilbert Rohde," 1934 (left: THF229409, right: THF229411).
 Gilbert Rohde expanded the role of the designer during his tenure at Herman Miller. In this 1934 catalogue, he was educator as well as designer, explaining to the consumer that “Every age has had its modern furniture…When Queen Elizabeth furnished her castles, she did not order her craftsmen to imitate an Egyptian temple…”

Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree transformed the Herman Miller Furniture Company—from one manufacturing reproductions at the brink of bankruptcy, to one revolutionizing the world of modern furniture. George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard and countless others were able to make incredible leaps in the name of modernism, largely due to the culture and partnership developed by Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree. In George Nelson’s words, “we really stood on Rohde’s shoulders.”

Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.

Herman Miller, by Katherine White, Michigan, furnishings, design

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The Detroit, Toledo & Milwaukee Roundhouse in Greenfield
Village. (THF2001)

Symbolic Structure
Apart from the ubiquitous small-town depot, there may be no building more symbolic of railroading than the roundhouse. At one time, thousands of these peculiar structures were spread across the country. Inside them, highly-skilled workers used specialized tools, equipment, and techniques to care for the steam locomotives that powered American railroads for more than a century.

Today, only a handful of American roundhouses are still in regular use maintaining steam locomotives. Visitors to The Henry Ford have the rare opportunity to see one of these buildings in action. The Detroit, Toledo & Milwaukee Roundhouse is the heart of our Weiser Railroad, the steam-powered excursion line that transports guests around Greenfield Village. Our dedicated railroad operations team maintains our operating locomotives using many of the same methods and tools as their predecessors of earlier generations.

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Workers pose outside the Detroit, Toledo & Milwaukee Roundhouse on its original site in Marshall, Michigan, circa 1890-1900. (THF129728)

Roundhouses were built wherever railroads needed them, whether in the heart of a large city or out on the open plains. In 1884, the Detroit, Toledo & Milwaukee Railroad constructed its roundhouse in Marshall, Michigan – the approximate midpoint on DT&M’s 94-mile line between the Michigan cities of Dundee and Allegan. Larger railroads operated multiple roundhouses, generally located at 100-mile intervals – roughly the distance one train crew could travel in a single shift. The roundhouses on these large railroads served as relay points where a new locomotive (and crew) took over the train while the previous locomotive went in for maintenance.

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Roundhouses gave crews space to work, but also kept locomotives and equipment within easy reach, as seen in this 1924 view inside a Detroit, Toledo &
Ironton Railroad roundhouse. (THF116641)

Circular Reasoning
Railroads embraced the circular roundhouse design for a variety of reasons. It allowed for a compact layout, keeping the locomotives and equipment inside closely spaced and within accessible reach. The building pattern was flexible, permitting a railroad to add stalls to an existing roundhouse (or remove them) as conditions warranted. The turntable – used to access each roundhouse stall – simplified trackwork and didn’t require multiple switches to move locomotives from place to place.

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Not all “roundhouses” were round. See this
example from Massachusetts, photographed in 1881. But round structures offered decided advantages over rectangular buildings. (THF201503)

Likewise, the single-space stalls and turntable allowed for convenient access to any one locomotive. Long, rectangular service buildings required moving several locomotives to extract one located at the end of a track. (If you’ve ever had to ask people to move their cars from a driveway so that you could get yours out, then you’ll recognize this problem.) The turntable had the added benefit of being able to reverse the direction of a locomotive without the need for a space-consuming “wye” track.

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People made the roundhouse work, like this man at the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton’s Flat Rock, Michigan, roundhouse photographed in 1943.
(THF116647)

A Variety of Trades
Of course, roundhouses were more than locomotives, turntables, and tracks. Their most important feature was the variety of skilled tradespeople and unskilled workers who made them function. Boilermakers, blacksmiths, machinists, pipefitters, and more all labored within a roundhouse’s stalls. Large roundhouses might employee hundreds of people. The environment was noisy and smoky, and much of the work was dangerous and dirty – emptying ash pans, cleaning scale from boilers, greasing rods and fittings – but it had its advantages. Unlike train crews who worked all hours and spent long periods away from home, roundhouse workers enjoyed more regular schedules and returned to their own beds at the end of the day.

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Roundhouses faded after the transition from steam to diesel, illustrated by this 1950 photo taken at Ford’s Rouge plant. (THF285460)

Roundhouses Retired
With the widespread adoption of diesel-electric locomotives following World War II, the roundhouse gradually disappeared from the American railroad. Diesels needed far less maintenance than steam engines, and required fewer specialized skills from the crews that serviced them. Following dieselization, a few roundhouses were modified to maintain the new locomotives, while others were put to other railroad uses. Some were preserved as museums, and a few were even converted into shopping centers or restaurants. But most were simply torn down or abandoned.

The Detroit, Toledo & Milwaukee Roundhouse followed a similar pattern of slipping into disuse – though in its case, it was more a victim of the DT&M Railroad’s failing fortunes than the transition to steam. After a series of acquisitions and mergers, the little DT&M became a part of the Michigan Central. The much larger MC had no need for DT&M’s Marshall roundhouse, and the new owner repurposed the structure into a storage building. In 1932, the roundhouse was abandoned altogether. It was in a dilapidated condition by the late 1980s, when The Henry Ford began the process of salvaging what components we could. After many years of planning and fundraising, the reconstructed DT&M Roundhouse opened to Greenfield Village guests in 2000. Clearly, the building itself is rare enough, but it’s the work that goes on inside that makes it truly special. Today, the DT&M Roundhouse is one of the few places in the world where visitors can still observe the crafts and skills that kept America’s steam railroads rolling so many years ago.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Greenfield Village buildings, by Matt Anderson, railroads, Michigan, Greenfield Village

HandSanitizer-Group

The Henry Ford is committed to collecting artifacts that document the ways businesses demonstrated resourcefulness and ingenuity—both to address people’s needs and to remain sustainable—in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. These bottles of hand sanitizer produced by West Michigan distilleries may be unassuming, but they have big stories to tell about local and national responses to the crisis.

Alcohol-based hand and surface sanitizer is an important tool for fighting the spread of viruses, in addition to hand washing and social distancing. As COVID-19 reached communities across America, hospitals and other healthcare organizations, charities, law enforcement agencies, and the general public began using far more hand sanitizer than ever before. Demand quickly exceeded the available supply.

Distilleries that produced beverage alcohol already had what they needed to make ethyl alcohol, a main ingredient in hand and surface sanitizer. In March 2020, the Food and Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced policies that temporarily allowed beverage alcohol producers – with some restrictions – to begin making and distributing sanitizer immediately, tax free. Distilleries nationwide referenced World Health Organization guidelines, surveyed their equipment and supplies, and decided to retool to produce hand sanitizer.

In West Michigan, a hotbed of craft distilling, many distilleries shifted full-time to producing sanitizer or added it to their regular operations. COVID-19 had disrupted business as usual. Food and beverage sales had fallen as Michiganders, following state guidelines, stopped drinking and dining out. Selling hand sanitizer could help a distillery stay afloat—and even generate good press. But making it required additional resources and could limit beverage alcohol production, threatening a distillery’s bottom line. By and large, the choice to produce sanitizer was not about profit. Instead, the decision was about meeting a community need. When distillers heard about sanitizer shortages, they wanted to help. And when local groups and individuals learned that distillers might produce it, they reached out with hopeful requests. These stories from a selection of West Michigan distilleries showcase the resourcefulness, ingenuity, generosity, and care that has defined so many American businesses’ responses to the pandemic.

After the owners of Eastern Kille Distillery (Grand Rapids) closed their tasting room and cocktail bar, they decided to divert extra employee resources and excess production capacity to making hand sanitizer. According to co-founder Steve Vander Pol, the shift wasn’t easy – the distillery had to source unfamiliar ingredients (glycerol and hydrogen peroxide), locate suitable containers, and train staff in safe chemical handling and new production methods. Eastern Kille produced hand sanitizer for sale and partnered with a logistics company to donate thousands of bottles to essential workers. When its supply of raw materials dwindled after about a month of sanitizer production, the distillery returned to making beverage alcohol. Vander Pol expressed pride in the craft distilling industry for continuing “to help fill the gap in hand sanitizer supply.” Looking back on the experience, he remarked, “In a time when everything in the world felt crazy it was very nice to be able to use our business to help, even if it was just a small part of keeping people safe.”

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Sanitizer produced by the gallon at Wise Men Distillery (photo courtesy of Wise Men Distiller)

The staff at Wise Men Distillery (Kentwood) overcame similar challenges in retooling operations to produce sanitizer – just as many large companies began seeking new sources for it. Wise Men ramped up production to fill huge orders from national companies, including Amazon, but also to meet a growing need for sanitizer across the state. The distillery donated hundreds of gallons to first responders and frontline workers in surrounding Kent County, and, almost immediately after general manager Tom Borisch learned about devastating floods in Midland County, more than 100 miles away, sent 600 more to support relief efforts there. Speaking with a local TV station, Borisch explained the distillery’s approach: “We’re going gangbusters trying to make as much as possible and trying to honestly sell it at a price where we can just stay open and keep doing it." He also expressed pride in his team and in broader efforts to endure the pandemic, saying, “it’s amazing to see what the world is doing... Everyone’s coming around each other. It’s good stuff.”

The day authorities eased restrictions on sanitizer production, Coppercraft Distillery (Holland) announced plans to donate thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer to organizations in need. The first delivery went to Holland Hospital, where healthcare workers were using four times as much hand sanitizer as usual. Within a few weeks, the distillery had expanded production, both to continue its donation program and for public sale. Coppercraft CEO Brian Mucci saw in the hand sanitizer shortage “an opportunity to step into a need, assist our community, and express our gratitude...” Production manager Shaun McLarty summed up the distillery’s decision for a local TV station, saying, “You can think of a million reasons not to do it – if it’s cost, or time, or labor – but the reason to do it outweighs that significantly."

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Hand sanitizer production at Long Road Distillers (photo courtesy of Long Road Distillers)

At Long Road Distillers (Grand Rapids), with a shuttered restaurant and cocktail bar, hand sanitizer offered an alternative way to remain in business – and an opportunity for resourceful collaboration. Beginning with neighboring Mitten Brewing Co., and eventually working with several Michigan breweries, Long Road Distillers turned unused grain – destined to become beer before the pandemic – into hand sanitizer. Among those using its product, Long Road Distillers listed hospitals, nursing homes, grocers, logistics companies, and social service agencies. A video documenting the distillery’s collaborative efforts highlighted donations to the Grand Rapids Police Department and Metro Health Hospital. Reflecting on the partnership, Mitten Brewing Co. cofounder Chris Andrus remarked, “I hope that what we remember from this crisis is not the virus and the pandemic, but the extraordinary efforts that came about because of it.”

The kitchen at Bier Distillery (Comstock Park) had only been open a few weeks when owner John Bierling had to shut its doors to dine-in customers. To help drive food sales during the closure, he shifted from beverage alcohol to hand sanitizer production and began offering a free bottle with every takeout purchase. Soon, large-scale sanitizer orders rolled in from local organizations, and Bier Distillery pushed to meet the unforeseen demand. In a video explaining sanitizer production at the distillery, Bierling reflected on what had begun as a marketing opportunity: “Never in a million years would I have thought I would be making hand sanitizer. But, I like making alcohol – I like the process, I like the science behind it all.” The undertaking allowed him to redirect that passion to help the community. “I can apply all that knowledge and my technique and expertise,” Bierling said, “to making hand sanitizer – and hopefully keeping people safe.”

Like so many American businesses, large and small, these distillers acted nimbly and demonstrated resourcefulness to meet the challenge brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. They refocused skills, equipment, and operations to not only remain in business, but supply their communities with a crucial product.

Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford, looks forward to sampling these distillers’ other products someday soon. She thanks Eric Hermann for his enthusiastic and invaluable support of this project.

beverages, COVID-19 impact, by Saige Jedele, Michigan

As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we have had the opportunity to explore a number of fascinating stories of entrepreneurs represented in our collections. Recently, we’ve examined the life and work of aspiring entrepreneur and automobile designer McKinley Thompson, Jr.

While working for Ford Motor Company, Thompson conceived of an idea for an all-terrain vehicle that would do for Third World countries what the Model T did for America. This post highlights Thompson’s life and career as the first African-American automobile designer and sheds light on his little-known project for a vehicle ahead of its time, dubbed the Warrior.

Finding His Passion
On an October afternoon in 1934, 12-year-old McKinley Thompson, Jr., was stopped in his tracks while walking home from school. The reason? He had spotted a brand-new silver DeSoto Airflow, the first silver-colored and streamlined vehicle he had ever seen. In an interview from 2001, Thompson recalled that “the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through… It lit that car up like a searchlight.” Awestruck by the unique design of the car, it was right then and there that Thompson knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: an automobile designer.

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McKinley Thompson, Jr., undated (Photograph Courtesy of McKinley Thompson, Jr.)

In his youth, Thompson showed promise in drawing and was particularly interested in futuristic themes. He participated in commercial art courses throughout high school and, upon graduation in 1940, completed drafting courses where he learned to plan projects and present his ideas through drawings and concept illustrations. With these skills, Thompson acquired his first job as a draftsman with the National Youth Administration. He then worked as an engineering design layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps until he was drafted to serve in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Following the war, he continued working for the Signal Corps until 1953, when he found an opportunity to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an automobile designer. 

Seizing the Opportunity

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“Do you want to be an Automotive Designer” contest article from Motor Trend magazine, March 1953 THF299257

In March of 1953, Motor Trend magazine sponsored an Automotive and Industrial Design contest with the goal of discovering talented young adults. The prize? One of five, four-year tuition-free scholarships to the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles – one of the most respected schools for industrial design. Contest entry required several drawings and sketches, photographs, or models of cars and other products, along with an essay responding to the prompt, “What I think the trend in automotive design will be in the next ten years.” For McKinley Thompson, this was the chance of a lifetime – and he won.

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Motor Trend magazine’s winning contest entries, September 1953 THF299267

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McKinley Thompson’s winning entry in the article, “From Dream to Drawing Board to…?” in Motor Trend magazine, September 1953. In his essay, Thompson wrote that cars of the future would sacrifice aerodynamics to accommodate “more functional roominess and reduced size.” THF299268

Thompson’s gas turbine car, which incorporated reinforced plastic (an unusual choice of material at the time), won him the top prize. Thompson became the first African American to attend the Art Center, where he excelled throughout his course of study. After graduation, Thompson was offered a job with Ford Motor Company in the Advanced Styling Studio, finally realizing his childhood dream and breaking a barrier by becoming the first African-American automobile designer.

In the Advanced Styling Studio, designers were given a great deal of creative freedom. This suited Thompson’s interest in futuristic themes, allowing him to contribute sketches for fantastical ideas, such as a flying car and a nuclear-powered multi-trailered truck. He also worked on the Allegro and Gyron concept cars and collaborated on design ideas for the production Mustang and Bronco.

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1961 Ford Gyron  THF299432

The Warrior
While Thompson’s career at Ford gave him the opportunity to work on a variety of vehicles and concepts that could change the automotive industry, his most innovative idea had the potential to change the world. Thompson envisioned an all-terrain vehicle for Third World countries that would be easy to build and maintain, with low production costs. But his vision extended beyond the vehicle, which he dubbed the Warrior. He anticipated auto plants – located in the developing nations that would use the car – bringing jobs, better roads, and eventual economic independence to the host countries. Much like how the Model T brought America into the modern age and stimulated the economy through accessible and affordable mobility, Thompson believed the Warrior could do the same for Third World nations.

His program was called “Project Vanguard.” The plan was to use Uniroyal plastic components – known as Royalex – because they were lightweight, durable, and relatively cost-efficient. The first phase of the plan involved building a facility where Royalex could be fabricated for use on the Warrior and other assets. The second phase would involve the building of the vehicle division (to encompass the Warrior and other future vehicles), followed by a marine division for constructing boats, and a container division where “habitat modules” would be fabricated for housing. Though Ford Motor Company was supportive when Thompson first brought his idea to the company in 1965, Ford ultimately passed on the project in 1967, believing that the vehicle would not sell in large enough quantities to warrant the investment. 

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1974 Warrior Concept Car  THF92162

Despite this setback, Thompson still believed that his vehicle could succeed. He thought that if he produced a prototype car and could demonstrate the possibilities of this unique application of Royalex, he could garner interest for investment in the program. He gathered several friends to help in financing the Warrior prototype, including Wally Triplett – the first African American to play in the National Football League (for the Detroit Lions). By day, McKinley Thompson drafted concept drawings for Ford, but by night he worked tirelessly to bring his Warrior to life in a rented garage on Detroit’s west side.

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McKinley Thompson and Crew Testing the Warrior Concept Car, 1969. Click here to check out other images of the Warrior from a scrapbook compiled by Wally Triplett!  THF113754

Once his prototype was complete, Thompson and his partners attempted to market it to other investors and groups. They reached out to the Small Business Administration, which turned them down because the endeavor would take place outside the United States. They tried to gain assistance from the Agency for International Development but received little interest. A group of people at Chrysler, who assisted small businesses in getting started, suggested to Thompson that he first establish a market for Royalex in the United States. Plastic-bodied vehicles were still an unusual concept, and American automakers at the time were only experimenting with the idea on a limited scale. Thompson realized he was caught in a classic catch-22: He needed a Royalex facility to establish a market for plastic-bodied vehicles, but he couldn’t get the facility built without an existing market for plastic-bodied vehicles.

Instability on the African continent derailed opportunities to conduct business with the nations themselves. Thompson even tried to secure a bank loan to build Warrior cars in Detroit, but he was ultimately denied in this attempt as well. (Triplett later recounted that he felt that race played a role.) While every potential investor he approached told him it was a good idea, Thompson simply was unable to secure the funding needed to pursue his idea, eventually causing him to shut down the project in 1979.

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Image from a 1965 Royalex sales brochure, showing the possibilities of an amphibious vehicle using Royalex materials. Interestingly, the Warrior was designed to be an all-terrain vehicle – including use for crossing rivers and small inland lakes! Click here to check out the rest of this brochure in which Uniroyal has suggested other uses for Royalex. THF290896

An Inspiring Career
Around the same time that the doors were closing on the Warrior, Thompson developed another way to influence and change people’s lives. He coordinated a traveling exhibit, featuring the work of other African-American automobile designers, to motivate and encourage young people toward careers in design. Thompson traveled across the country, staging his exhibit in schools and shopping centers.

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Photograph from the Ford Motor Company publication, “Rouge News,” March 19, 1962 THF299429

McKinley Thompson had an impressive 28-year career with Ford. In 1962 he was awarded Ford’s highest honor for community service, the Citizen of the Year Award. He contributed to a variety of projects (including experimental concept cars), worked in the Thunderbird and Falcon design studios, and eventually oversaw 50 craftspeople and modelers before retiring in 1984.

Despite his career success, Thompson continued to regret that his Warrior vehicle and overall program never materialized – though he was proud of his accomplishment in building the Warrior and proving it’s basic feasibility. The Warrior project was ahead of its time in design and philosophy. The extensive use of plastic, so common today, was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Thompson’s larger economic prophecy was partially fulfilled in 1995 when Ewert Smith’s URI, an all-terrain vehicle designed for African topography, was manufactured in the small town of Witvlei, Namibia. The URI plant became Witvlei’s largest employer, providing economic stability to the area.

Even though the Warrior never made it to market, Thompson kept the car as a leisure vehicle, taking it on family vacations and occasionally using it to run errands – usually attracting a fair amount of attention. Thompson donated his prototype to The Henry Ford in 2001.

McKinley Thompson, Jr., passed away at the age of 83, after battling Parkinson’s disease, in 2006.

Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. This post expands upon Bart Bealmear’s “The Warrior,” blog post from February 2014. Special thanks to Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation, for his help in reviewing the content.

design, by Samantha Johnson, Michigan, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, entrepreneurship, Detroit, cars, African American history

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Robert O. Derrick, about 1930. THF 124645


As part of our 90th anniversary celebration the intriguing story of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation’s design bears repeating. It was last discussed in depth in the 50th anniversary publication “A Home for our Heritage” (1979).

Our tale begins on the luxury ocean liner R.M.S. Majestic, then the largest in the world, on its way to Europe in the spring of 1928. On board were Henry and Clara Ford, their son Edsel and Edsel’s wife Eleanor. Serendipitously, Detroit-based architect Robert O. Derrick and his wife, Clara Hodges Derrick, were also on board. The Derricks were approximately the same age as the Edsel Fords and the two couples were well-acquainted. According to Derrick’s reminiscence, housed in the Benson Ford Research Center, he was invited by Henry Ford to a meeting in the senior Fords’ cabin, which was undoubtedly arranged by Edsel Ford. During the meeting Derrick recalled that Mr. Ford asked how he would hypothetically design his museum of Americana. Derrick responded, “well, I’ll tell you, Mr. Ford, the first thing I could think of would be if you could get permission for me to make a copy of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It is a wonderful building and beautiful architecture and it certainly would be appropriate for a collection of Americana.” Ford enthusiastically approved the concept and once back in Detroit, secured measured drawings of Independence Hall and its adjacent 18th century buildings which comprise the façade of the proposed museum. Both Derrick and Ford agreed to flip the façade of Independence Hall to make the clock tower, located at the back side of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a focal point of the front of the new museum in Dearborn.

Robert Ovens Derrick (1890-1961) was an unlikely candidate for the commission. He was a young architect, trained at Yale and Columbia Universities, with only three public buildings to his credit, all in the Detroit area. He was interested in 18th century Georgian architecture and the related Colonial Revival styles, which were at the peak of their popularity in the 1920s.

In his reminiscence, he states that he was overwhelmed with the commission, but was also confident in his abilities: “I did visit a great many industrial and historical museums and went to Chicago. I remember that I studied the one abroad in Germany, [The Deutsches Museum in Munich] which is supposed to be one of the best. I studied them all very carefully and I did make some very beautiful plans, I thought. Of course, I was going according to museum customs. We had a full basement and a balcony going around so the thing wouldn’t spread out so far. We had a lot of exhibits go in the balcony. I had learned that, in museum practice, you should have a lot more storage space, maintenance space and repair shops than you should have for exhibition. That is why I had the big basement. I didn’t even get enough there because I had the floor over it plus the balconies all around.”

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Original museum proposal, aerial view. THF 170442

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Original museum proposal, facade design. THF 170443

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Original museum proposal, side view. THF 170444

In the aerial view [THF0442], the two-story structure is a warren of courtyards and two-story buildings, with exhibition space on the first floor and presumably balconies above, although no interior views of this version survive. A domed area on the upper right was to be a roundhouse, intended for the display of trains. THF0443 shows a view of the front of the museum from the southeast corner. This view is close to the form of the completed museum, at least from the front. An examination of the side of the building [THF0444] shows a two-storied wing.

Derrick recalled Mr. Ford’s initial response to his proposals, “What’s this up here? and I said, that is a balcony for exhibits. He said, I wouldn’t have that; there would be people up there, I could come in and they wouldn’t be working. I wouldn’t have it. I have to see everybody. Then he said: What’s this? I said, that is the basement down there, which is necessary to maintain these exhibits and to keep things which you want to rotate, etc. He said, I wouldn’t have that; I couldn’t see the men down there when I came in. You have to do the whole thing over again and put it all on one floor with no balconies and no basements. I said, okay, and I went back and we started all over again. What you see [today] is what we did the second time.”

thf294368Henry Ford Museum proposed Exhibit Hall. THF294368

A second group of presentation drawings show the museum as it was built in 1929. THF294368 is the interior of the large “Machine Hall,” the all-on-one-floor exhibit space that Mr. Ford requested.  The unique roof and skylight system echo that of Albert Kahn’s Ford Engineering Laboratory, completed in 1923 and located just behind the museum. Radiant heating is located in the support columns through what appear to be large flanges or fins. The image also shows how Mr. Ford wanted his collection displayed – in long rows, by types of objects – as seen here with the wagons on the left and steam engines on the right.

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Proposal for museum corridor. THF 294390

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Proposal for museum corridor. THF 294388

These corridors, known today as the Prechter Promenade, run the width of the museum. Floored with marble and decorated with elaborate plasterwork, the promenade is the first part of the interior seen by guests. Mr. Ford wanted all visitors to enter through his reproduction of the Independence Hall Clock Tower. The location of Light’s Golden Jubilee, a dinner and celebration of the 50th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s development of incandescent electric lamp, held on October 21, 1929 is visible at the back of THF294388. This event also served as the official dedication of the Edison Institute of Technology, honoring Ford’s friend and mentor, Thomas Edison. Today the entire institution is known as The Henry Ford, which includes the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village.

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Museum Auditorium. THF 294370

Just off the Prechter Promenade is the auditorium, now known as the Anderson Theater.  Intended to present historical plays and events, this theater accommodates approximately 600 guests. During Mr. Ford’s time it was also used by the Greenfield Village schools for recitals, plays, and graduations. Today, it is used by the Henry Ford Academy, a Wayne County charter high school, and the museum for major public programs.

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Virginia Courtyard inside Henry Ford Museum. THF294374  

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Pennsylvania Courtyard inside Henry Ford Museum. THF294392

Derrick created two often-overlooked exterior courtyards between the Prechter Promenade and the museum exhibit hall. Each contains unique garden structures, decorative trees and plantings, and both are accessible to the public from neighboring galleries.

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Greenfield Village Gatehouse front view, about 1931. THF 294382

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Greenfield Village Gatehouse rear view, about 1931. THF 294386

The Greenfield Village Gatehouse was completed in 1932 by Robert Derrick, in a Colonial Revival style to complement the Museum. From its opening in 1932 until the Greenfield Village renovation of 2003, the gatehouse served as the public entrance to the Village. Today, visitors enter the Village through the Josephine Ford Plaza behind the Gatehouse.  Although the exterior was left unchanged in the renovation, the Gatehouse now accommodates guests with an updated facility, including new, accessible restrooms and a concierge lounge with a will-call desk for tickets.

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Lovett Hall in 1941. THF 98409

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Edison Institute students dancing in Lovett Ballroom, 1938. THF 121724

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Edison Institute students in dancing class with Benjamin Lovett, instructor, 1944. THF 116450

In 1936 Robert Derrick designed the Education Building for Mr. Ford.  Now known as Lovett Hall, the building served many purposes, mainly for the Greenfield Village School system. It housed a swimming pool, gymnasium, classrooms, and an elaborately-decorated ballroom, where young ladies and gentlemen were taught proper “deportment.” Like all the buildings at The Henry Ford, it was executed in the Colonial Revival style. Today the well-preserved ballroom serves as a venue for weddings and other special occasions.

Obviously, Mr. Derrick was a favorite architect of Mr. Ford, along with the renowned Albert Kahn, who designed the Ford Rouge Factory. The museum was undoubtedly Derrick’s greatest achievement, although he went on to design Detroit’s Theodore J. Levin Federal Courthouse in 1934. Unlike the Henry Ford commissions, the courthouse was designed in the popular Art Deco, or Art Moderne style. Derrick is also noted for many revival style homes in suburban Grosse Pointe, which he continued to design until his retirement in 1956. He is remembered as one of the most competent, and one of the many creative architects to practice in 20th century Detroit.

Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

Michigan, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, design, THF90, Henry Ford Museum, drawings

Today, The Henry Ford mourns the passing of Damon J. Keith, a civil rights icon and courageous champion for social justice. Judge Keith was the driving force in high impact cases which shaped our local community, our country and our collective national conscience. He was a leader, scholar, beloved mentor and dear friend of many, including The Henry Ford. During his visits to our campus, he took particular delight that among the automotive, aviation, power generation and agricultural exhibits presented on the floor of the museum, a visitor could also experience our “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibition which presents the story of America’s historical and ongoing struggle to live up to the ideal articulated in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

GM PM Judge Keith (2)

We were also honored to host Judge Keith as our honored guest in 2011 when The Henry Ford had the rare privilege of putting the original Emancipation Proclamation on public display. We wanted to preserve some of the special moments and memories the event generated in over 21,000 visitors who viewed the document during its 36-hour public presentation via a limited printing, non-commercial commemorative keepsake book, and we were honored to include Judge Keith’s reflections on the document’s significance as the book’s close.

Judge Keith’s passing is a true loss for Detroit, Michigan and our nation, but his inspirational and unwavering commitment to justice and civil rights will be his living legacy. 

Civil Rights, Michigan, Detroit, African American history