In the face of a challenge, a walk is one of the best ways to jump-start imagination and pave a creative path forward. Take that walk in nature, or, better yet, spend a few days in nature without technology, and research shows our problem-solving abilities soar by as much as 50%.
Inventors and problem solvers need a constant supply of potent inspiration. Books and journal articles, as well as brainstorms with mentors, colleagues, and friends, help. However, in many instances our greatest teacher lives right outside our doors. There, we can find knowledge, wisdom, experience, and a solid track record of success. Nature has the answers we need to solve every problem—if only we know where to look and how to ask the right questions.
Illustration by James Round
What Is Biomimicry?
Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. Whether we’re working on a challenge related to product development, process generation, policy creation, or organizational design, one of the smartest questions we can ask is: “What would nature do?” Asking this question, and then studying nature to find the answers, is a way to discover new sustainable solutions that solve our design challenges without negatively impacting the planet.
Undoubtedly, biomimicry is best learned by doing. It’s a field that requires us to open our eyes, ears, and hearts as we roll up our sleeves to dig deep (sometimes literally into the dirt) to understand, interpret, and then utilize nature’s design principles to solve the challenges we face in our lives.
“Biomimicry applies strategies from the natural world to solve human design challenges,” said Alexandra Ralevski, Ph.D., director of AskNature at the Biomimicry Institute based in Missoula, Montana. “This is a field that has the power to radically transform any industry.”
Being a Bridge: Janine Benyus and the Biomimicry Institute
With varied fields of expertise, including scientific knowledge, business planning, design thinking, and operations, to name just a few, practitioners of biomimicry serve as the bridge between professional groups like scientists, business managers, policymakers, engineers, and designers, who are often siloed from one another.
If all the world is an orchestra of voices, those who study biomimicry are the conductors making room for each of them, ensuring that they rise, shine, and harmonize together for the benefit of all.
It’s impossible to utter a single word about the theory and practice of biomimicry without paying homage to Janine Benyus, a biologist, author, innovation consultant, and self-proclaimed “nature nerd.” Benyus’ groundbreaking book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, has made its way onto bookshelves and into the hearts, hands, and minds of problem solvers.
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus. / Photo courtesy of Biomimicry Institute
“We’re awake now,” she said. “And the question is, how do we stay awake to the living world? How do we make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing?”
To explore this question and bring passionate and multitalented collaborators into community with one another, Benyus co-founded the nonprofit that would become the Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana.
Over a decade later, the organization continues to provide education, support, and innovation inspiration for anyone and everyone who wants to bring the study and application of nature’s design genius into their work and into their lives.
One of the best ways to illustrate biomimicry’s power is to look at some examples.
Whales and Wind
A trio composed of a marine biologist, a mechanical engineer, and an entrepreneur created the most efficient fans and turbines in the world through inspiration found in humpback whales. On the surface, this may seem like an odd connection. How could humpback whales possibly teach a highly skilled group to build a turbine? It turns out that these whales were experts at the exact function these humans wanted to achieve.
The bumps on a humpback whale’s flipper are nature’s answer to what makes a wind turbine extra efficient. / Illustration by James Round
Humpback whales are among the world’s most agile animals. Though they can reach 16 meters (52 feet) in length and 40 tons in weight, they can lift a large portion of their bodies up out of the ocean and into the air in an acrobatic feat that leaves whale watchers breathless. A single jump or leap (called a breach) requires humpback whales to expend only 0.075% of their daily energy intake. Not only is the breach a stunning display of athleticism, it’s also a remarkably efficient action.
Marine biologist Frank Fish suspected the bumps (called tubercles) on the leading edges of the whale’s flippers held the secret to bending the ocean waters to their will. Working with Fish to study this mystery was engineer Phillip Watts. “I had been working in biomechanics and understood the importance of biomimicry, drawing engineering ideas from evolution,” shared Watts.
Together, Fish and Watts found that humpback whales achieved a rare point of design greatness: The tubercles on their flippers could increase lift while simultaneously reducing drag—a genius combination that gives these magnificent creatures such remarkable agility.
Along with a third collaborator, entrepreneur Stephen Dewar, Fish and Watts decided to model their turbine design on the humpback’s flippers. Not surprisingly, their newly fabricated turbines not only produced supreme performance like the whale’s but were highly efficient. Soon after, the trio’s newly formed corporation, WhalePower, became a leading manufacturer of energy-efficient rotating devices for various applications.
“Because nature had done so much work on this [for us],” said Dewar, “we were able to understand what was possible.”
For the Birds
Transportation aficionados know that Japan’s Shinkansen, known as the bullet train, is one of the world’s finest examples of efficient and elegant design. What many people don’t know is that the Shinkansen has a bird to thank for its performance. Known for its silent diving abilities, the kingfisher can break the water while barely making a sound or a splash to claim its favorite meal—minnows and stickleback fish.
The sleek shape of a certain bird’s beak is nature’s answer to conquering a bullet train’s unwelcome sonic boom. / Illustration by James Round
Shinkansen engineers faced a serious structural challenge while designing the bullet train: It created a sonic boom as it emerged from tunnels at high speeds. One of the team’s engineers, who had observed the kingfisher’s precise diving technique, suggested they mimic the bird’s beak shape in the train’s design. Voila! The sonic boom disappeared.
The bullet train’s unique design also had other unforeseen benefits. Its new nose safely increased travel speeds, lowered fuel consumption, and reduced operating costs.
Nature-Inspired Agriculture Infrastructure
A beehive’s structure, a spider web’s power of attraction, and an ice plant’s water storage system are nature’s answers to creating more sustainable food systems. / Illustration by James Round
To promote local agriculture, NexLoop focuses on creating renewable water infrastructure for sustainable food systems. Its main product, AquaWeb, captures, stores and distributes just the right amount of water at just the right time for local food production.
How does it strike this balance? AquaWeb takes its cues from the efficiency of nature, incorporating learnings from multiple organisms: beehives to create structural strength, spider webs to capture water, ice plants to store water and mycelium to distribute water.
Restoring Nature Using Nature’s Models
Biomimicry also guided the strategy of Nucleário, winner of the Ray of Hope Prize, an initiative of the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Company founders wanted to repopulate the forests of their home country, Brazil, where young tree seedlings face overwhelmingly adverse survival odds. Their roots are choked by grasses while their leaves are devoured by leaf-cutter ants.
Of the small handful of trees that reach their first birthday, 95% don’t live to see their second. It’s these long-shot odds that Nucleário sought to combat.
Like NexLoop, Nucleário combined the designs of several natural models to create its tree seedling pods—from the protective abilities of leaf litter and water accumulation talents of bromeliads (think of a pineapple) to the graceful air dispersal skills of anemocoric seeds.
“Our connection to nature and deep-rooted gratitude for all life inspires and sustains us,” said Bruno Rutman Pagnoncelli, CEO and founder of Nucleário. “We look to nature to guide our decisions, from design to raw material selection and everything in between.”
Combining the natural models that inspired them, Nucleário’s founders have built a planting system that provides protection as well as nutrient and moisture maintenance with less human intervention and tending. Their design is both lightweight and strong, with water chambers that collect and distribute water the same way nature does.
Hooked by Nature
Burdock burrs inspired the creation of Velcro during the mid-20th century.
In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral was hunting and noticed his pants were covered with burdock burrs. He wondered how the seedpods could hold on and took to his microscope, examining the burrs’ “hooks” and the way they clung to fabric. After years of research, de Mestral was granted a U.S. patent in 1955 for what became Velcro, his famous hook-and-loop fastener.
What’s Next in Biomimicry?
“Using nature as a model for sustainability means that we always have a benchmark for our designs,” said AskNature’s Ralevski. “This benchmarking is critical to determine success and improve our iterations.”
A hallmark of nature, and by extension biomimicry, is that there is a progression of continuous improvement over time within the context of a specific situation—which could include the geography, environmental circumstances, and economic situation in which a design solution must exist and operate.
Biomimicry successes in energy management, transportation, and architectural design are spurring design experiments in fields as varied as medicine, materials science, textiles, and urban planning. We’re also beginning to see social science applications of biomimicry in community organizations, economic development, and communication systems.
“Biomimicry’s greatest legacy will be more than a stronger fiber or a new drug,” said Janine Benyus. “It will be gratitude and an ardent desire to protect the genius that surrounds us."
To explore some examples of biomimicry in artifacts from the collections of The Henry Ford, check out this expert set.
As early as 1920, Chesapeake Bay’s seemingly limitless oyster population had been diminished by up to one-third, both by overharvesting and by habitat destruction caused by siltation and dredging. By 2001, the harmful effects of pollution and disease had taken their toll, and the bay’s native Virginica oysters dwindled to less than 1% of their historic numbers. The bay had all but collapsed.
It was under these conditions that cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton decided to revitalize their family’s historic oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Co. Founded in 1899 by their great-grandfather, James Croxton, on Virginia’s Rappahannock River, the company wasn’t much more than mud by the time the cousins took over the leases in 2001. But in that rich tideland, the cousins saw an opportunity to salvage a family legacy and renew their community.
Cousins Travis (left) and Ryan Croxton have transformed their great-grandfather’s oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Co., into a model of sustainability that is practicing food production methods that are healthier for the consumer, the Chesapeake Bay they call home and the native oyster they are 100% committed to preserving. / Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Because they were starting from the mud up, the cousins were able to develop sustainable new methods that not only produce the highest-quality shellfish but also contribute to the health of the bay and repopulation of its aquatic life.
“Aquacultured oysters are a win-win for everybody—the farmer, the waters, the consumer that gets a better product,” said Travis Croxton, whose off-bottom method of growing oysters in wire cages not only protects the oysters but also allows them to reproduce naturally—a vital factor in restoring native oyster populations. And because oysters feed on excess nutrients in the water, their presence also helps keep the bay clean, as well as helping native grasses and other sea creatures to proliferate.
The number of oysters harvested in the Chesapeake Bay has grown wildly in the last two decades.
Perhaps the most satisfying thing for the cousins has been the ability to provide an opportunity to work, grow, and live in what has been a depressed rural economy. “Too often, rural communities such as ours lose promising talent as people look elsewhere due to lack of opportunity,” said Croxton. “We’re proud that our employees have a reason to stay.”
Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
By 2004, Rappahannock had developed a thriving wholesale business. Now with their tasting room, Merroir, four stand-alone oyster bars from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, California, and a restaurant, Rappahannock, in Richmond, Virginia, the cousins are able to share their oysters and their dedication to “good people doing great things.”
When we checked in during spring 2020, owner Travis Croxton didn’t deny that it had been tough for Rappahannock Oyster since the COVID-19 pandemic had hit. He and cousin Ryan Croxton had to furlough hundreds of employees at their oyster company and restaurants. But, as Travis Croxton said, “You have to perform a hard pivot and await what the future may hold.” Rappahannock quickly set up an employee relief fund for those in need and shifted their restaurants to solely curbside pickup/takeout. On the oyster company side, they had to make additional hard pivots, focusing mostly on internet sales (which Travis Croxton said have greatly increased) and designing completely new business models, which included working with vineyards and breweries to sell 25-count bags of their oysters on consignment on weekends.
In 1899, James Croxton, great-grandfather of Travis and Ryan Croxton, laid claim to two acres of Rappahannock River bottom for the purpose of growing oysters. / Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Despite these challenges, by trying to sustain nature, not tame it, the Croxtons have carried on their great-grandfather’s legacy, this time on a foundation of sustainability.
Trained scientist Rachel Carson and wildlife artist Bob Hines conduct research off the Atlantic coast in the early 1950s. The two formed an extraordinary partnership, which brought awareness of nature and conservation to the forefront. / Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / public domain
We live in an era where environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and renewable resources are keywords for how to live our lives and operate our businesses.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the early 1960s, writer and biologist Rachel Carson was one of the lone voices sounding the alarm that the rapid, destructive changes we were making to our own environment were having disastrous consequences.
With her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring, which exposed the damage caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides manufactured by powerful chemical companies, Carson showed that she was a scientist motivated by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community. Carson’s eloquence reminded us that we are all part of a delicately balanced ecosystem, and by destroying any piece of it, we risk destroying the whole system. It would become unsustainable.
Rachel Carson holding a copy of Silent Spring in June 1963. / THF147928, detail
Thanks to Carson’s passion and perseverance, a movement of ecological awareness was born. Her work is credited with giving birth to the modern-day environmental movement. Other direct results were the banning of the pesticide DDT and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In an era of “living better through chemicals,” Rachel Carson was a changemaker who brought our awareness to the effects we had on our environment. But she also knew that we could be part of the solution. One way people carry on her legacy today is by acting as citizen scientists.
While Rachel Carson was a trained scientist and biologist working toward the greater good, a citizen scientist is a nonscientist who works with the scientific community to affect positive change. By paying attention to our environment and taking an interest in the science behind sustainability, we all can make a difference. Here are some ways you can become involved yourself.
It was a friend of Rachel Carson who raised an alarm about bird die-offs in her backyard and prompted Carson to write Silent Spring—proof that big change can start small. Here are a couple of ideas worth considering in your sustainability quest at home.
Join the annual Great Backyard Bird Count at birdcount.org. The count is a great way to get kids involved with nature.
Use your smartphone to help scientists gather data on animal populations. You can count Costa Rican wildcats at Instant Wild (instantwild.zsl.org) or share observations on your local wildlife at iNaturalist.org.
In Your Community
Look for opportunities for neighborhood involvement—you’ll stay socially connected and help your community at the same time.
Use resources like greenamerica.org to find and support businesses and brands that are striving toward sustainability.
Start a community garden. It’s a great way to shift away from packaged, processed foods and to get to know your neighbors. National Garden Clubs (gardenclub.org) helps coordinate the interests and activities of state and local garden clubs in the U.S. and abroad.
Participate in crowdsourced data gathering like noisetube.net, which measures noise pollution, or createlab.org, which trains artificial intelligence to identify smoke emissions.
In Your Workplace
If you are motivated to make a difference, become an advocate for sustainability and social change within your company. Going green is a differentiator that gives businesses a leg up on recruiting and marketing.
Recycle office waste, implement inventory controls (which prevent unnecessary purchases and wasteful spending), or research tax credits for becoming energy efficient at energy.gov, the website of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Let your company’s unused computing power contribute to scientific research projects at scienceunited.org.
Those who decorated for Christian holidays made the gathering of evergreens a ritual. Families and friends ventured into the woods and cut conifers and other wintergreens to festoon churches, ballrooms, and private homes. This post focuses on the process of acquiring the iconic Christmas tree, a conifer or cone-bearing tree, evergreen because it retained its foliage throughout the winter season and prized for its shape, color, aroma, and association with gift-giving.
The native ranges of conifers affected personal preferences for Christmas trees.
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), the perch for a female and male cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), drawn by John Jay Audubon (1785–1851) in Cincinnati, Ohio, April 1811, reproduced by the New York Historical Society in 1966. / THF251903
Across the southern and eastern United States, the eastern red cedar (really, a juniper) proved a popular tree choice for those who could cut their own. The tree grew rapidly along the edges of woods, encroaching into fields and pastures. Thus, removing a few trees to deck the halls at Christmas time also served the purpose of containing the juniper and retaining arable land and pasture.
The balsam fir (Abies balsamea) appealed to landowners for many of the same reasons. A report in the Detroit Free Press (December 10, 1901) explained that in Maine, the “young firs, which are almost exclusively used for Christmas trees, are good for nothing else—in many sections being considered a nuisance, as they grow like burdocks and crowd out better trees.” Harvesting the trees for urban markets became a festive occasion as the reporter explained, with “whole families going into the woods and taking their dinners along.”
Print made from a watercolor sketch of “Alpine Fir” by Mary Vaux Walcott (1860–1940), printed by William Edmund Rudge, Inc., 1925. / THF125075
The subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), also known as the Alpine fir, grew in the high-elevation forests of the Canadian Rockies and western United States. It was much less easily accessible for families harvesting their Christmas tree, but its tall profile and stout branches appealed to Christmas tree shoppers none the less.
Bringing evergreens into private and public spaces during the darkest days of the year (the winter solstice) offered hope for the next growing season. Germanic people receive credit for adding light to the conifer. An 1836 illustration, “Christmas Eve,” showed a Christmas tree with candles aglow. The editor explained this as a well-known German tradition “that almost every family has its Christmas tree covered with a hundred lights and many beautiful gifts, and surrounded generally by a little group of happy beings” (The Stranger’s Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, edited by Hermann Bokum and published in Boston by Light & Horton in 1836, page 9).
The hand-tinted lithograph below, of a boy carrying a tree and a girl carrying a bundle of greens, printed in Hamburg, reinforced a tradition that increasing numbers of German immigrants brought with them to America during the mid-19th century.
Color Lithograph, "The Christmas Tree," printed by Gustav W. Seitz, Hamburg, 1856–1866. / THF108194
By 1867, “the pleasant Germanic custom of gathering the family round a Christmas tree ... has become thoroughly domesticated in this country.” So declared Harper’s Weekly (December 18, 1867) in a brief explanation of the reasons why families no longer hung stockings ‘neath the chimney with care, but instead hung presents from Christmas trees. A full-page illustration of “The Christmas Tree” further emphasized the point.
Christmas tree decorated with candles, popcorn strings, and toys, circa 1900./ THF290114
The bucolic imagery of bringing a Christmas tree home through snowy fields to a rural farmhouse contrasted with the risky business of tree markets.
Hallmark "Memories of Christmas" Christmas ornament, 1998./ THF186978
Families invested their labor in tree harvests. “A man cuts the trees close to the roots and a boy or a strong girl clips away with a sharp hatchet the few dead branches near the base. Women and boys tie the trees into bundles of a dozen each, binding them with strong cords, and then the harvest is piled into hayricks and taken to the nearest railroad station.” Often middlemen stepped in. As the New York World reported (reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901), “the evergreen harvests are generally bought by men who make a business in winter of supplying the holiday green markets of large cities.”
Families cutting conifers for urban markets, middlemen trying to sell them, and customers trying to buy them all relied on railroads to move the perishable cargo. This seasonal business was no holiday (to borrow colleague Matt Anderson’s turn of phrase in his blog post, “Winter Railroading was No Holiday”).
Christmas Tree Market, New York City, Detroit Publishing Company, circa 1903. Another view of this market at Barclay Street Station shows smaller trees in bundles to the left of the taller trees. These fit more closely the trees bound up by Maine families and shipped by train to the city, as described in the New York World article mentioned elsewhere in this post. / THF144363
Urban customers had little time to waste because trees arrived close to Christmas day. The Detroit Free Press reported that “Christmas trees, that is to say evergreens, are up in the market” (December 21, 1879). This arrival a few days before the holy day/holiday remained fairly consistent during the 19th century. A decade later (December 20, 1889), the Free Press reported, “Christmas trees have appeared on the market.”
What did these conifers cost? During December 1901, prices depended on tree height: “For trees five to six feet tall the buyers in Maine pay five cents, and for trees six to ten feet tall ten to fifteen cents. In the city these trees bring twenty-five cents to $1” (New York World reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901). Note that these prices are likely per foot, not per tree.
Customers looking for Christmas evergreen goods in Detroit a week later (December 18, 1901) could expect to pay eight cents per foot for an “Xmas tree” as reported by the Free Press. The market price for a 20-yard roll of “evergreen” was 85 cents to $1 and for a holly and evergreen wreath, $1 per dozen. In 2021 prices, that’s an average of $1.63 to $2.60 per foot for a six-foot tree, and $27.66 to $32.54 for a 20-yard roll of evergreen.
Whether families cut their own or paid market price for their conifer, photographs of home interiors indicate the ways they decorated.
First electrically lighted Christmas tree, home of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison Electric Light Company, December 1882. / THF69137
A magnifying glass and close inspection of the original print could confirm the tree type that Edward Hibberd Johnson, wife Margaret, and their three children (Edward H. Jr., Edna, and Lillian) enjoyed as of December 22, 1882. Subscribers to the Detroit Post and Tribune could read about this first tree lit with electric lights—80 red, white, and blue bulbs, hand wired—as reported by journalist William Augustus Croffut. The Johnson family (or their staff) also strung electric lights in the garland running from window treatments to the ceiling light fixture. Readers of Croffut’s article might even have anticipated the possibilities in Detroit, because the Western Edison Light Company had just offered an Edison incandescent light plant for use at Detroit’s Central Market. Detroit’s Committee on Gas was considering the proposal (Detroit Free Press, December 6, 1882).
Artificial illumination of the Christmas tree became standard practice quickly.
Christmas greens at Holiday Nights, December 5, 2021. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
Pennsylvania folk artist Lewis Miller documented an 1864 scene in New York’s Central Park, with pedestrians, people on horseback, and horse-drawn vehicles. / THF221834
City people have always craved escape from crowds, noise, and their own busy lives, even if only for an afternoon. This is how early picnic grounds and later trolley parks and amusement parks evolved. In the mid-19th century, the recognition of this need for escape in the city led to the development of city parks.
Parks were the perfect place for a refreshing, rejuvenating, and often invigorating outing. City parks like New York’s Central Park, created in 1858, were designed to encourage the urban public to socialize and at the same time to refresh and calm their “hurrying, workaday lives” with beautiful and “reposeful” sights and sounds. Central Park had designated places where people could walk, drive horse-drawn vehicles, ride, row, skate, and engage in various other sports and recreational activities. During its first decade, a substantial majority of Central Park’s regular visitors arrived by carriage or horse to take advantage of the nine miles or so of carriage and bridle paths.
Inspired by this and other great urban parks, the public demand for formal outdoor recreation areas gained momentum during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Other early parks with special pathways, as well as new parkways around cities, were designed for people to take out and show off their vehicles.
In this colorized image from 1900, a horse-drawn vehicle travels down River Drive in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. / THF104695
In the winter, a sleigh ride could provide some of the same exhilaration and fresh air. Sleighing was not just for the upper class. Grocers and butchers would affix runners to their wagon boxes and employ their draft horses to take their families for rides.
Horse-Drawn Outing Vehicle Highlights from The Henry Ford’s Collection
This carriage was used for outings in Central Park by Byram L. Winters, a lawyer, politician, and newspaper publisher; it was made by Brewster & Company of New York City and originally made to exhibit at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. When driven in Central Park, this brougham was likely one of several thousand stylish carriages circling the park during an afternoon’s horse-drawn “promenade.”
This wagonette, made by Eagle Carriage Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, and other similar vehicles were designed to be drawn by ponies, so they were well-suited for use by governesses in taking children for drives. This particular pony wagonette, which could accommodate several children, was equipped with brakes, which transferred most of the effort of stopping away from the light animal. The fitting at the back is a holder for an umbrella top.
This pleasing design was developed by James Goold of Albany, New York, over a period of years between about 1813 and 1836. Its design was widely copied by other builders and retained its popularity to the end of the horse-drawn era.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
Civilian Conservation Corps Company No. 1614, 1934. / THF293207
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began during an economic crisis unmatched in U.S. history. One out of four Americans was out of work in March 1933 as consumer demand reached an all-time low. Congress authorized the CCC to put some of these unemployed men to work. The U.S. War Department oversaw the program, building camps and undertaking projects in all 48 United States, plus Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Enlistment peaked during September 1935 when 505,782 enrollees worked in 2,652 camps. Overall, between 1933 and 1942, approximately 5% of the U.S. male population, around 3 million men, participated in the CCC.
Stanley J. Zaleski at 1614th Co., Civilian Conservation Corps, Camp McComb, Munising, Michigan, April–September 1934. / THF274652
Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized the quantity and quality of CCC work in his re-election campaign booklet, “This Generation Has a Rendezvous with Destiny” (1936). Between its launch in March 1933 and 1936, the CCC had erected 4,200 miles of new telephone lines, cut nearly 47,000 miles of new fire breaks, and cleared 64,000 miles of new truck trails. In cooperation with the Tennessee Valley Authority, its members had constructed over 200,000 stone and stone-and-log dams in that area. Members also engaged in extensive educational activity with 71% of enlistees taking part, including 90,000 attending elementary classes and 212,000 enrolling in special courses (pg. 12).
This detail from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign booklet, “This Generation Has a Rendezvous with Destiny,” 1936, featured Black and white enlistees at work. / THF132716
The legislation that created the Civilian Conservation Corps prohibited discrimination based on “race, color, or creed.” Promotional material such as the photograph (shown above) of CCC work in Roosevelt’s 1936 campaign booklet illustrated integration. Yet, implementation often appeased anti-integrationists and perpetuated the separate-but-unequal doctrine of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v Ferguson (1896).
We must also acknowledge that CCC work occurred on lands formerly occupied by indigenous people. Each CCC camp site and CCC project represents an opportunity to remember those who previously occupied the place.
A separate Indian Emergency Conservation Work program began in 1933 in response to requests from Bureau of Indian Affairs administrators and sovereign Indian nations. It was renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps—Indian Division (CCC-ID) in 1937. It undertook work on federally recognized reservations and emphasized land preservation, soil conservation, forest restoration, and sustainable ranching practices, among other projects. Within six months, the CCC-ID had camps on 33 reservations in 28 states. As many as 85,000 men worked on CCC-ID projects. Its success laid the groundwork for a larger “Indian New Deal,” authorized in 1934 with the Indian Reorganization Act.
Indian Relief Project, McCurtain, Oklahoma, June 18, 1934. / THF290170
The CCC-ID’s worker policies differed in significant ways from the CCC’s policies toward Black and white men. This reflected its autonomy as a division of the Bureau of Land Management and not of the U.S. War Department, and the independence of separate indigenous nations negotiating their own CCC structures that supported families in different ways. For example, married men could enlist in the CCC-ID and live at home, receiving as much as $42 per month for work (including a stipend otherwise spent by camps on housing and feeding enlistees). In contrast, Black and white CCC enlistees, all single, earned $30 per month. They retained only $5 while the remaining $25 went home to their parents or extended families.
All CCC enlistees, regardless of race, color, or creed, worked hard and in all kinds of weather.
Man standing outside a Civilian Conservation Corps barracks in winter, circa 1935. / THF620731
Their rest came on cots in barracks with tar-paper walls.
Interior of Civilian Conservation Corps barracks, 1934. / THF620729
Work schedules allowed some time for recreation, but even then, the company dog warranted attention.
Stanley Zaleski and a dog outside Civilian Conservation Corps Barracks, 1934. / THF620737
The CCC followed strict protocols, including formal enlistment and discharge procedures and paperwork.
Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1614 completion certificate, September 30, 1934. Stanley “Toots” Zaleski’s Discharge Certificate confirmed the reason for his discharge as “expiration of term of enrollment for convenience of the U.S.” / THF293211
Communication took the form of monthly newsletters produced by enlistees in camps and in CCC regions. CCC camps held as many as 200 Black or white enlistees while CCC-ID projects incorporated 30–40 enlistees at a time. The newsletters represented a proactive effort to create a community identity. Sporting events and other organized leisure activities also helped generate collegiality.
The Northlander: A Mimeographed Publication of the Fort Brady CCC District, March 1939. / THF624987
Pennants helped convey the identity and camp purpose, much as pennants symbolized allegiance to schools. Some pennants conveyed standard CCC imagery. The lone pine tree symbol appeared on pennants of companies doing work in national forests and others working in state parks. Colors varied as well, even as the logo remained the same. Other pennants emphasized camp features, including barracks. Some carried additional artistic expressions.
Civilian Conservation Corps “1614th Co.” pennant, 1934. This company started in June 1933 near McComb and Munising, Michigan, and worked in the national forest. / THF293213
Pennant, Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1712. This company started in October 1934 and worked near Kaiser and Bagnall, Missouri, likely on Lake of the Ozarks State Park projects. /THF238732
Pennant, Civilian Conservation Corps Company 3745. This company worked near Columbia, Missouri, starting in September 1940, on Soil Conservation Service projects. / THF238734
Pennant, Civilian Conservation Corps, with no company number designated, but featuring illustrations of a typical CCC camp, 1933–1942. / THF238736
Civilian Conservation Corps "Co. 713, Camp Jeanette" pennant, 1936–1941. Camp 713 undertook Soil Conservation Service work near Lake Jeanette in Superior National Forest, near Lake City, Minnesota, starting January 16, 1936. / THF188542
Other souvenirs included sweetheart pillows, designed to remind loved ones back home of their son, brother, betrothed, or friend at work in a CCC camp.
Civilian Conservation Corps sweetheart pillow cover, 1938–1940. Camp 4603 worked on revitalizing grazing land near Harper, Oregon, starting in July 1938. / THF188543
The Civilian Conservation Corps never officially ceased to exist. Bipartisan support sustained the work through 1940 and 1941, even as potential enlistees pursued different opportunities and obligations. The U.S. Congress authorized the Selective Training and Service Act in September 1940, the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. Veterans of the CCC often chose enlistment in their preferred branch of the military over conscription into military service. After the United States entered World War II, Congress closed remaining CCC camps, discharged personnel, and disposed of camp assets (including non-issued clothing) to the U.S. Army.
Today, private-public partnerships sustain CCC work in various ways. Organizations such as Conservation Legacy provide service opportunities to youth, young adults, and veterans, in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forestry Service, and AmeriCorps. The Veterans Fire Corps helps veterans transition to civilian life while earning Firefighter Type 2 training. Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps engages Indigenous youth and young adults in conservation work that links ecological work with cultural heritage.
The legacy of the CCC remains all around us, but is not always obvious. We travel on roadways that CCC workers helped survey and build. We stop at roadside overlooks and stay in guest lodges that CCC workers built in state and national parks across the country. They also built dams and fire look-out towers, planted trees, improved grazing lands, and restocked lakes—among many other projects. Their signatures remain on the landscape in all these ways, preserving their history while inspiring current conservation work.
“Midway Point near Monterey, California,” 1902, Detroit Publishing Company Collection. / THF118817
The United Nations (UN) first discussed a “world oceans day” during the June 1992 Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The UN General Assembly designated June 8 as the day to recognize the role of oceans in a global perspective, as well as the influence of law and society on those oceans, starting in 2009. The theme “The Oceans: Life and Livelihoods” provides a focus for World Oceans Day 2021.
The Henry Ford’s collections support reflection on ocean life, livelihoods, and health in several ways. Visual depictions range from a 16th-century map to 20th-century photographs featuring ocean liners and oceanside retreats.
Map, “Die Neuwen Inseln / So hinder Hispanien gegen Orient ven dem land indie ligen,” drawn by German cartographer Sebastian Münster (1488–1552) in 1550 to illustrate the “new island” lying between Spain, the Orient, and the country of India. / THF284540
“Docking a Big Liner,” RMS Oceanic, 1903. Briefly, between 1899 and 1901, the Oceanic was the largest ship in the world. / THF204952
Cliff House, San Francisco, California, circa 1905. / THF200584
Ocean health anchors World Oceans Day. Marine biologist Rachel Carson featured ocean health in her earliest mass-media publications. Three publications drew the public’s attention to these issues. They included Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955).
Rachel Carson using a microscope, April 1963. You can see a drawing of an octopus on the wall above her head, and a pencil holder with a map of the world’s oceans. / THF147922
What might we do to be more engaged with World Oceans Day?
The raindrop in our personal space starts a journey we can all follow. The droplets accumulate and flow into freshwater creeks, streams, rivers, the Great Lakes, and ultimately into the world’s oceans. Maintaining water quality starts with the runoff, redirecting it to retention ponds where sediment can settle out before it enters rivers, lakes, and oceans. The Ford Rouge Factory Tour offers guests the opportunity to learn more about this process, and so can walks through Greenfield Village, paying particular attention to the ponds and their connections to the Rouge.
Exhausted from your world-wind tour of THF ocean-related resources? There is still more to see, and much more to do, on our collective journey to ocean health. Contemplate your next steps as you explore art inspired by oceans, on view in the Davidson-Gerson Modern Glass Gallery in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
“Ocean Floor” Ladder by Therman Statom, 2007 (Gift of Bruce and Ann Bachmann). / THF164729
Compiled by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford, following the lead of Zachary Ciborowski, Administrative Assistant and Project Coordinator; with inspiration from The Henry Ford’s Green Team members, including Cynthia Jones, General Manager, Innovation Experience; and with the assistance of Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content.
This is the first of a series of blog posts presented in conjunction with the traveling exhibition, Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection. The exhibit, consisting of approximately 60 artifacts, is on view at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation from March 6, 2021, through April 25, 2021. All of the objects shown here are from the collections of The Henry Ford and provide background on themes in the exhibition.
In the 1890s, artists and designers in Europe and the United States attempted to create a modern aesthetic for the emerging 20th century. This aesthetic was consciously modern. The decorative style that emerged, Art Nouveau, featured bold color contrasts and organic lines, sometimes flowing gracefully and sometimes sharply undulating, like a whiplash. Artists and designers associated with this trend looked to nature as their guide. As they often said, there is nothing historical about nature, it is universal.
Bookplate Designed by Rene Lalique for Emilie Grigsby, 1890-1905 / THF291251
This bookplate, created by French designer Rene Lalique, is derived almost purely from nature, although the floral forms are abstracted into sinuous and linear elements that we associated with French Art Nouveau of the 1890s and early 1900s. Even the letters of the name, “Emilie,” are rendered into organic shapes.
Japanese Travelers in a Snow Storm, 1900-1929/THF292633
Increased communication and trade with Asia in the second half of the 19th century brought new design inspiration to Europe. Japanese woodblock prints particularly appealed to Art Nouveau poster and decorative designers, who incorporated asymmetry and contrasting colors in their own work. Notice the unmodulated areas of light colors against dark colors, which create pictorial depth.
A major element of the Art Nouveau style, the sensual female figure was popularized by French poster artists like Jules Cheret and Alphonse Mucha. The illustrator of this Art Nouveau bookplate placed a woman at the center, used diagonal lines to create an illusion of depth (a technique derived from Japanese prints), and added stylized botanical motifs to frame the image.
Harper's Bazar Thanksgiving, Number 1895 / THF292639
Art Nouveau in America came first as imported graphic art printed in Europe for an international audience. American illustrators, like the young Will Bradley, adapted these design elements for their illustrations in magazines and advertising posters. This poster promotes the Thanksgiving issue of the magazine Harper’s Bazar (which would later become Harper’s Bazaar) and appeared on newsstands in American cities from coast to coast. This poster is full of harvest and Thanksgiving symbols: the sheaf of wheat and the subtle turkey, suggesting the bounty of the season. The Art Nouveau elements include the organic whiplash floral forms and the female figure predominating the scene.
In the 1890s, American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany developed a process to imitate the iridescent shimmer of ancient, weathered glass. His "Favrile" line of art glass included organic forms characteristic of the Art Nouveau style, sometimes featuring abstract ornamentation, such as the design on this toothpick holder.
Tiffany’s small vase expresses the Art Nouveau trademark element of the peacock feather, which, like many Art Nouveau elements, has its roots in European design. Tiffany was renowned in America and Europe for developing the Art Nouveau into elegant, yet simple, products, as well as grand, large-scale objects like stained glass windows and elaborate electric lighting.
Louis Comfort Tiffany gained international acclaim, exhibiting his work in metal, glass, and jewelry alongside European Art Nouveau designers in Paris as early as 1895. The sinuous, plant-like design of this high-end glass and metal Tiffany candelabrum exemplifies the Art Nouveau style.
Tiffany Studios made a great variety of candleholders for upper middle-class clients. This model is described in the 1906 catalogue as simply, "6 lights, in a row, extinguisher on stem." The customer could choose from 11 designs of "candlestick tops," or standard interchangeable sockets, that were listed and priced separately. These included "long" or "short" metal or glass and metal tops in a variety of forms.
Around 1900, Tiffany started making large scale floor lamps—this is one of his first efforts. The fishscale-like shade is composed of his signature Favrile glass, which glows when illuminated. The bronze base features undulating spirals which rise up through the lamp’s shaft. The kerosene reservoir is covered with organic S- or wave-like patterns, all of which derive from Tiffany’s Art Nouveau vocabulary.
Louis Comfort Tiffany became known for applying Art Nouveau aesthetics to lighting products. This nature-themed "Daffodil" lamp is the first design attributed to Clara Driscoll, who led the Women’s Glass Cutting Department at Tiffany Studios. Driscoll designed many now-iconic leaded-glass lamps for Tiffany.
“Aurene” was the name that Frederick Carder used for his iridescent art glass at the Steuben Glass Works in Corning, New York. When Aurene was first produced, around 1902, Louis Comfort Tiffany sued Carder for copyright infringement. The courts found in favor of Frederick Carder and Steuben’s Aurene competed with Tiffany’s Favrile glassware. This elegant, floral-shaped vase combines a cased white outer shell with a dark blue iridescent interior and comes directly from the Art Nouveau vocabulary found in Tiffany’s production.
Like Steuben, the Gorham Silver Company of Providence, Rhode Island, produced its own line of Art Nouveau–inspired wares. Called Martele, meaning hand-hammered, this was one of Gorham’s high-end lines. This pitcher shows an organic swirl of motion, presumably sea water, with an octopus placed asymmetrically across the surface.
By the turn of the century, well-heeled consumers could choose from an array of luxury goods in the Art Nouveau style. This handbag features classic Art Nouveau motifs: botanical elements, curved lines, and a peacock, whose fanned tail feathers dominate the center of the design.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the Art Nouveau style began to filter through many levels of American society. This Wilton rug is a good example, as it features characteristic elements of Art Nouveau design: striking color combinations, undulating "whiplash" lines, and stylized botanical motifs.
"Electrical Apparatus and Supplies for Isolated Plants," June 2, 1902 /THF267443
The explosion of the electrical industry in the 1890s generated new design needs. Electrical corporations hired artists working in the style of the day—Art Nouveau—to design their buildings, products, and communications. These partnerships marked the beginnings of industrial design.
Art Nouveau reached its peak of popularity in 1900, but American manufacturers incorporated echoes of the style in products and product packaging into the 1910s. The Art Nouveau styling of the label for this everyday product—a bar of soap—would have appealed to many consumers.
By 1914, the Art Nouveau style was considered old-fashioned. Most European and American designers had moved on with their work. Tiffany was the rare exception. Tiffany Studios continued producing Art Nouveau–inspired lamps, vases, desk sets, and windows through the 1920s. Tiffany retired from day-to-day management in the early 1920s. It took until the Great Depression struck in 1929, and Tiffany’s death in 1933, for the firm to cease production.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
Bees—one short name for about 20,000 species of flying insects classified into seven families. All live within social communities that depend on strict work routines; all seek the same food sources (pollen and nectar); and all process their harvest and preserve it in hives built in the ground, in hollow trees, or in human-designed apiaries.
Bees help plants reproduce by facilitating pollination as they search for pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their young. This relationship has long served plants well—DNA research confirms that bees coexisted with flowering plants from their beginning 130 million years ago.
Bees and humans have a much shorter, but more emotional, relationship. As pollinators, bees provide a critical link between humans and their food source: plants. Over millennia, humans domesticated one species of bee, native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, to satisfy their needs—Apis mellifera, the Western or European honeybee. As Europeans colonized North America, they imported honeybees and the crops that honeybees pollinated from the bees’ native ecosystems.
Illustrations of Apis mellifera, the Western or European honeybee / THF621311
Humans clustered hives of honeybees around orchards, grape arbors, and other areas of intense flowering-plant cultivation to ensure pollination. From the hives, they harvested honey—a natural sweetener that required little processing. The hives also produced honey, pollen, and bee venom, which had medicinal value. Beeswax was used to seal containers, produce candles, and create art. And queens from the hives propagated even more honeybees.
Group of beehives (apiary) designed for pollinating a grape arbor / THF621283
The Honeybee Hunt
Historically, honey-seeking humans learned to identify the location of an existing hive, usually in a hollow tree trunk. Some “baited” bees by setting out a little honey to attract a bee and following it back to its hive. This involved “lining” a bee—watching until it flew out of sight, moving closer to that location, waiting to see another bee in flight, and repeating the process. In short increments, this led honey-seekers to hives.
To secure their “own” honey supply and facilitate pollination of crops, humans sometimes moved existing hives closer to their gardens, orchards, and clover fields. They also hunted bee swarms. When a colony becomes too large, a queen will “hive off,” leaving with a portion of the hive’s population. (In the meantime, the remaining bees create a new queen to lead the original hive.) The departing bees swarm together near their former home, lingering only temporarily as scout bees search for a new nesting site. The reward for aspiring beekeepers who successfully encourage a swarm to take up residence in a hive of their own choosing is sweet.
Aspiring beekeepers lured swarms or moved existing hives closer to their crops and kitchens. / THF621285
Beekeepers first mimicked nature, luring swarms of bees into hollow logs much like the tree trunks they’d abandoned. Before long, humans devised prefabricated housing to keep pollinators close to gardens, orchards, and clover fields, and to keep honey close to the kitchen table. These hives, often grouped together in apiaries, took many forms, from simple boxes to highly decorated contrivances.
Manmade beehives ranged from hollow logs to simple boxes to complex, highly decorated inventions. / THF177143, THF172336, and THF172095
Some beekeepers made bee “skeps,” hives made of coiled rye straw held in place with a wooden splint, to house bees and protect honey stores. Skeps held real meaning for those who relied on them to house bees and protect honey stores. But bee skeps also took on symbolic meaning rooted in religious associations with worker bees and the biblical beekeeper, Deborah. Over time, skeps came to represent the industry of a productive household and the dependability of workers. Utah, known as “The Beehive State,” even adopted the coiled beehive as its official state symbol.
Some farm families made inexpensive skeps to house bees and protect honey stores. / THF177141
Medals awarded at the 1882 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition featured a bee skep (at bottom), symbolizing industry. / THF154061
During the mid-19th century, the U.S. Patent Office issued numerous patents for improved beehives. Arguably the most important went to Philadelphia pastor Lorenzo L. Langstroth in 1852 for his “Improved Mode of Constructing Beehives.” Langstroth's enduring contribution to beekeeping came through careful observation. He determined that bees naturally left a space of 3/8” between honeycombs (constructed within the hive to house larvae, honey, and pollen). Langstroth designed a beehive with 3/8” spacing (later coined the “bee space”) between the frames, sides, and bottom. This improved access, allowing beekeepers to remove and replace frames of honeycomb without harming bees, and more easily inspect for bee moth infestation, which could seriously damage a hive. The hive Langstroth devised, along with the guide he first published in 1853, revolutionized beekeeping, and Langstroth-style beehives remain standard today.
Lorenzo L. Langstroth’s careful observation of honeybees led to a revolutionary beehive design. / detail, THF621310
Careful spacing within Langstroth-style hives improved access for beekeepers and helped protect the bees. / THF172338
In Defense of Native Bees
Because they did not evolve in tandem with native plants, honeybees are not the best pollinators for all crops grown in North America. They seek nectar more than pollen to produce honey, and many plant blossoms do not produce enough nectar to mobilize honeybees. Native bees and other flying insects find blossoms of native plants—including tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, avocadoes, and cranberries—more appealing than do honeybees, and they do a better job of moving pollen from blossom to blossom, ensuring fertilization. As a consequence, many market-garden and truck-farm crops (cabbage, carrots, squash, and melons), berries (strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries), and orchard crops (apples, pears, peaches, and plums) depend on native bees and other pollinators, even as honeybees play their role. All also pollinate crops that livestock eat (buckwheat and clover) and crops that produce fibers we use to make cloth (cotton and flax).
Native bees pollinate many food crops, including orchard fruits like pears. / THF293065
Vegetables, fruits, and other agricultural products result from the intimate relationships, millions of years in the making, between bees and the plants they pollinate. When colonists imported honeybees to North America, they introduced direct competition to different genera and species like squash bees, bumblebees, and solitary bees. Even today, humans’ special treatment of honeybees puts native bees at a disadvantage. As the disrupters of natural relationships, humans bear responsibility for creating a balance between honeybees and native species that are too often neglected in popular conversations. While we depend on honeybees for our honey supply, we depend on all pollinators to sustain our food system. To learn more, explore the U.S. Geological Survey’s documentation of native bees at the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, check out this excerpt from Dave Goulson’s “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees,” or browse beekeeping-related artifacts in The Henry Ford’s Digital Collections.
This post was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from several write-ups on bees and beekeeping by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Rachel Carson devoted her early career to studying and writing about the ocean. During the 1950s, her poetic books about the sea brought her recognition and fame as an author.
Carson’s books helped build a new awareness about the environment. Her most important book, Silent Spring, released in 1962, asked Americans to examine the negative effects of widespread chemical pesticide use.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, linked human action to environmental destruction and ignited a national conversation. THF110029
During World War II, a chemical called DDT protected troops by killing disease-spreading insects. After the war, numerous products containing DDT became commercially available to American consumers for pest control.
In Silent Spring, Carson urged the public to live in harmony with nature and cautioned against the overuse of DDT, which destroyed insect populations and threatened other wildlife species. America reacted. The government banned DDT in 1972. The environmental movement—sparked in part by Carson’s book—continues today.
An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Rachel Carson, Luther Burbank, and George Washington Carver.
Learn more about Carson’s life and work in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit explores
The post-WWII “chemical craze” that prompted Carson to act
The long-term environmental effects of pesticide misuse
Books and magazines from the beginning of the environmental movement
Carson’s influence on the evolution of environmental activism