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Walt Disney spent years imagining his ground-breaking entertainment venue, Disneyland, before it opened in 1955. Disney found inspiration for this remarkable theme park from many people and places.

Walt Disney (1901–1966) spent his most memorable childhood years in Marceline, Missouri, leaving him with a great fondness for small town America. Disney's early passion for cartoon drawing and humor blossomed in 1928 with his first major success, the Mickey Mouse animated cartoon character. By the 1930s, Disney headed a thriving motion picture studio making animated cartoons and live action movies. He explained his interest in developing a theme park to his biographer, Bob Thomas:

“It all started when my daughters were very young, and I took them to amusement parks on Sunday. I sat on a bench eating peanuts and looking around me. I said to myself, why can't there be a better place to take your children, where you can have fun together? Well, it took me about fifteen years to develop the idea.”

While on business trips and family vacations, Disney visited not only amusement parks, but also fairs, expositions, tourist attractions, and zoos to further his vision of creating an extraordinary family leisure experience. One of these places was Greenfield Village, which Walt Disney visited several times during the 1940s.

Oval black-and-white portrait of man in suit, matted and signed
Walt Disney Posing in the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1940 / THF109756

Walt Disney paid his first visit to Greenfield Village on April 12, 1940. William B. Stout, an industrial designer best known for the Ford Tri-Motor airplane and the aerodynamic Scarab car, served as Disney's escort as he toured Henry Ford's historical village and museum. The Greenfield Village Journal, a daily administrative report, described Disney’s visit that day:

“Walt Disney, creator of the world-famous movie character, Mickey Mouse, visited the Village and Museum today. He showed great interest in everything mechanical, examining engines and old autos closely. He had a good time with Mr. Tremear while posing for a tin-type. In the Museum Theater he spoke for a few moments to the school children. He was accompanied by Mrs. Disney, and by Ben Sharpsteen, his chief animator. Wm B. Stout was his host.”

Man in suit and young girl draw Mickey Mouse's head on a chalkboard
Walt Disney Shows Harriet Bennett How to Draw Mickey Mouse during a Visit to Henry Ford Museum, April 12, 1940 / THF118884

During Disney's tour, he stopped at the Tintype Studio to pose for photographer Charles Tremear, autographing one of his tintypes for display there. Disney also spent a few minutes talking with students from the Greenfield Village Schools, who had gathered in the museum's theater to greet him. (Henry Ford established a school system in his museum and village complex several years before his historical enterprise was formally opened to the public in 1933.) Ford Motor Company photographer George Ebling—who was often asked to take personal photographs for Henry Ford—captured images of Disney's delightful visit with the students.

GIF slowly cycling through three images of man and young girl in a museum
Walt Disney and Family Visiting Henry Ford Museum, August 1943 / THF130871, THF130883, THF119434

On August 20, 1943, Disney again visited Henry Ford Museum. He; his wife, Lillian; and their daughter, Diane, posed for photographs with examples of some of the historical modes of transportation displayed there. Disney’s joyful, childlike expression embodies the experience he hoped to create for families visiting what would come to be Disneyland.

Walt Disney came back to Greenfield Village five years later, on August 23, 1948. Disney and one of his animators, Ward Kimball—who shared Disney's longtime fascination with railroads—had traveled to Chicago to attend the Railroad Fair. They decided to take a side trip to Greenfield Village. During the visit to Greenfield Village, Disney once again made a stop at the Tintype Studio, where he and Kimball were photographed by tintypist Charles Tremear.

Two men, standing one holding a lantern and seated one holding a helmet, pose for a black-and-white photo
Walt Disney and Ward Kimball Posing in the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1948 / THF109757

By the late 1940s, Disney's ideas for a themed entertainment park had progressed substantially. On the train ride back to California, he shared his ideas with Kimball, then summarized them in a memo dated August 31, 1948. An excerpt of this memo seems to echo aspects of Greenfield Village: “The Main Village, which includes the Railroad Station, is built around a village green or informal park … Around the park will be built the town. At one end will be the Railroad Station; at the other end, the Town Hall…”

When Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955, it quickly captured the public’s imagination. In his innovative theme park, Walt Disney drew inspiration from his many interests and experiences to create an entirely new kind of family entertainment. To learn more, check out this blog post!


This post by Cynthia Read Miller, former Curator of Photography and Prints at The Henry Ford, originally ran in September 2005 as part of our Pic of the Month series. It was reformatted for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

photographs, popular culture, by Saige Jedele, by Cynthia Read Miller, Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, Disney

Black-and-white photo of man standing with arms crossed, wearing white long-sleeved shirt, white tights (?), and dark velvet shorts with fringe

Unidentified Member of Alert Hose Company. / THF212048

Sometime during the late 1870s, members of the Alert Hose Company in Big Rapids, Michigan, posed for the local photographer. Arms crossed and standing tall, each of the firefighters wears a uniform—typical of those worn when competing in a local or regional firemen's tournament. The men had won several tournament prizes by the time they posed for these photographs—perhaps the prize money helped pay for the cartes-de-visite that became a remembrance of the company's victory. But these images offer more than just a glimpse at the Alert Hose Company's participation in a sporting event. They document the culmination of the company's years of hard work protecting Big Rapids against the ravages of fire, the pride in their company and their community, and their connection with the greater fraternity of 19th-century firefighters.

Fires in Big Rapids


Big Rapids, located in Mecosta County, Michigan, was incorporated in 1869. Like many 19th-century cities, it was susceptible to fire. The wood used to construct early homes and businesses offered ready fuel to the flames of an unwatched candle or lamp or a stray ember from a stove or fireplace. According to the 1883 Mecosta County history [p. 645], "Big Rapids has been a sufferer from fire at various times… The first fire of any consequence in the place was… in the year 1860." It was not any better in 1869 when another disastrous fire occurred [p. 645]: "No water supply or engines for extinguishing fires were here at that time, and common pails or buckets were the only appliance afforded. Lines of men were formed to supply water with buckets from wells in the vicinity, and even from the river, but without avail. The Mason House... was only saved by tearing down a small building [nearby] belonging to Harwood & Olds, and then hanging carpets and bed-clothes from the roof and windows, and keeping them saturated with water."

Finally, in 1871, men in Big Rapids organized volunteer fire companies, and the citizens and the city government discussed creating a local water supply for fire protection and private use.

GIF cycling through four black-and-white photos of men standing with arms crossed, wearing white long-sleeved shirt, white tights (?), and dark velvet shorts with fringe
Unidentified, Charles Gore, Jack Shaw, and W. E. Drew. / THF212050, THF212054, THF212056, THF212058

Volunteer Fire Companies in Big Rapids


Volunteer firefighters needed to work as a unit when it came time to fight a fire. Nineteenth-century fire companies usually consisted of men from similar class divisions, backgrounds, or ethnic groups and kinships. This sense of fraternity cemented the unit's cohesion. The camaraderie and kinship of fighting fires and their unique status as protectors in the community bound the firefighters together.

The Alert Hose Company was one of several volunteer firefighting companies to organize in Big Rapids in the early 1870s. The volunteers' job was to get to a burning structure as quickly as possible—pulling a hose cart or carriage—and attach hoses to an available water source so they could begin controlling the conflagration. By 1876, the growing city of Big Rapids had at least two other hose companies (Defiance and Protection) and the Pioneer Hook and Ladder company. (Hook and ladder companies employed hooks to tear down parts of buildings to limit a fire's spread and ladders to fight fires and rescue individuals in multi-story buildings.)

Little is known about the men who made up the Alert Hose Company, though names written on the back of some of the photographs provide a start. A quick review of census records from 1870 and 1880 and a city directory from 1884 give a few clues about a small subset. They were young working men mostly in their mid-20s and a couple in their 30s, though one was in his late teens. Several were related in some fashion. Their occupations included laborers, clerks, and a drayman (teamster)—none of the known men owned a business, though a few may have owned farms. Being part of the local fire company provided connections to businesses in the community to help guide their careers. A more thorough search of records (outside the scope of this blog) would provide more information on why this group of men came together to form the Alert Hose Company.

GIF cycling through four black-and-white photos of men standing with arms crossed, wearing white long-sleeved shirt, white tights (?), and dark velvet shorts with fringe
Henry Shaw, Charles Ellis, "Zip" Hammond, and Thomas Shaw. / THF212060, THF212062, THF212064, THF212066

Firemen's Tournaments


By the 1870s, fire companies tested their firefighting skills against other companies at various regional, state, and national firemen's tournaments. Local companies usually competed against one another on holidays or community fair days. State and national associations sponsored large competitions and set tournament rules and dates. Companies invited to participate usually competed in hose cart races, hook and ladder competitions, and pumping contests (to see how far a company could spray water from a hose), among other activities.

Training for and participating in firemen's tournaments tested and sharpened a company's firefighting skills, promoted a sense of pride in competition, and strengthened the sense of teamwork and fraternity. Participation in these tournaments by fire companies also engaged the local community. Government officials, business leaders, and ordinary citizens supported fire companies by cheering them on and providing monetary support through donations and prize money. Finally, friendly competitions between local companies broadened the sense of fraternity by creating a larger brotherhood of firefighters.

GIF cyling through four black-and-white photos of men standing with arms crossed, wearing white long-sleeved shirt, white tights (?), and dark velvet shorts with fringe
Arthur Webster, "Louie" Goulette, Angus McLelland, and  Fred Marble. / THF212068, THF212070, THF212072, THF212074

The Alert Hose Company in Tournaments


The men of the Alert Hose Company in Big Rapids, Michigan, began participating in hose cart races at various tournaments in the mid-1870s.  In a hose cart race, a fire company ran a set distance pulling a cart reeled with hoses. Men in the company unwound the hoses, attached them to a water source, and then sprayed water. The fastest time won the prize. A review of articles from the Detroit Free Press highlights the successes of the fire company and the support of its community.

In 1875, the Alert Hose Company (along with the Pioneer Hook and Ladder company) made an appearance at the State Firemen's Tournament held in Jackson, Michigan. Reports mentioned no prizes, but, according to the papers, when they returned home, the men were met "with an enthusiastic reception and dinner[.]" On July 4, 1876, the Big Rapids' firefighting companies competed against one another for prize money. The "Alerts" won the champion belt and a cash prize of $50 offered by the mayor. The other firefighting companies took home lesser amounts funded by the citizens.  The following year at the Mecosta County Fair, the "Alerts" took home a $100 purse in the hose cart race.

A bigger prize awaited in 1878. In September, the "Alerts" headed off to Chicago to compete in a national competition. Their teamwork paid off; they finished second within a long list of competitors. The prize this time was noteworthy—$300 in cash and a nickel-plated hose cart made by Silsby Company of Seneca Falls, New York.  Citizens of Big Rapids turned out to greet their heroes when they returned home.  Evergreens, flags, and banners decorated the local hall, the women of the town prepared a dinner, and, of course, there were speeches. A final mention from this period came in an 1882 article that reported the men of the Alert Hose Company had won a special prize of $10 at the State Firemen's Tournament for the "best appearing company." 

Conclusion


Throughout the 1870s, local fire companies organized in the newly formed city of Big Rapids, Michigan. These volunteer firemen worked to protect their homes and community against the ever-present danger of fire. Each company needed to work as a cohesive unit when fighting flames and smoke. Similar backgrounds, ethnicities, and economic status—and the desire to protect their community—brought these men together. And local and regional firefighters' tournaments provided a way to hone the skills needed to become an effective team. The small images shown here, taken by a local photographer, point to the unity and pride that the men of the Alert Hose Company had in their avocation and the fraternity they represented.

See all 14 members of the Alert Hose Company (including one member not in uniform) in The Henry Ford's Digital Collections here


Andy Stupperich is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

photographs, Michigan, by Andy Stupperich

Black space with stars, Earth, space capsule, astronaut model; also floating in space are bees, a brick, a die, and a Topo Chico bottle

Dan Winters surveys a shifting landscape—his own backyard. On a mid-August morning, the 59-year-old photographer, author, and filmmaker is in the kitchen of his Austin, Texas, home, detailing the impending relocation of his studio and workshop (headquartered in a converted post office, general store, and Texaco station 25 miles south in unincorporated Driftwood) to just steps from his front porch. Anyone who has worked with Winters—presidents, astronauts, publishers of the country’s most influential publications—could grasp the challenge, given Winters’ lifelong accumulation of equipment, archives, and personal collections, which range from apiaries (beehives) to pieces of Apollo spacecraft.


The shuffling of workspaces feels natural, almost expected, given the rotational history of his surroundings. Winters’ home, which he; his wife, Kathryn; and son, Dylan, moved to from Los Angeles in 2000, was built in downtown Austin in 1938 and later transported to this quiet enclave on the north side of town circa 1975. Their detached garage will soon supplant the Driftwood studio. It was originally Winters’ model-building workshop, but that migrated a decade ago to a pitched-roof room on the second floor. The model shop is a place of refuge cocooned in paint sets, kit parts, and books on the artistry of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Man in fedora sits in a workshop crowded with models (mostly space-related), books, and other items
Dan Winters’ first serious profession was that of a motion picture special effects model builder. He still builds miniatures today, finding the act of creating for the sake of creating rewarding. / Photo by Dan Winters

Winters vividly recalls the first model he ever built (a British SE5a biplane), around age 6, with his father, Larry Winters—a welder from Ohio who moved the family to Ventura, California, in 1959. “I would ask him to draw me something, an airplane or a rocket, and it would be on the breakfast table when I’d get up in the morning for school,” Winters said from his own breakfast table. “He would also make little spaceships out of wine corks and put screws in them or paper clips for skids. He’d leave them as little surprises.”

Seeing Possibility


Model-building has been a constant in Winters’ life. “When you start a model,” he explained, “the only thing that exists is your intent and whatever tools and materials you need. You work through the thing, create it, and then it exists. You will it into being. There’s an unbelievable satisfaction in that. In the ability to see what the model is going to be before it gets to a point of unification.”

Growing up, Winters remembers the yard on the working farm where he was raised as always strewn with spare parts, and he was often tasked with repurposing them. “The engine in our Volkswagen threw a rod, and we had to rebuild the whole thing,” he recalled. He assisted his father on nights and weekends, staving off resentment for missing idle time with his friends. “I remember the weekend we put the motor back in. We had it on a jack, and my dad slid it in, and I had to balance it until it speared the spline of the transaxle. He got in and pushed the clutch and it started up—I mean, right up. We took it for a drive, even though the bumper and deck lid were off. I remember driving down the street and reflecting on what it took to do that. As a kid, it was way out of my wheelhouse. But seeing that it was possible to do that was massive.”

In 1978, Winters’ father drove his 16-year-old son 50 miles to Van Nuys to visit Apogee, a special-effects company operated by John Dykstra, the Oscar-winning effects supervisor on Star Wars. Winters had cold-called Steve Sperling, who ran the office, and sent several photographs of his model spaceships by mail. A tour with Grant McCune, chief model maker on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, was arranged. As Winters wrote in his 2014 book, Road to Seeing, “Once inside, it was surreal to see the same model shop firsthand that I’d studied in dozens of photographs published in movie magazines. I was captivated by the artistry I witnessed at every turn…. I cannot describe the profound inspiration and affirmation this visit gave me.”

Gray book cover with white text and photo of person's head and torso in landscape
Road to Seeing by Dan Winters explores his journey to becoming a photographer and significant moments in his career.

In the months that followed, Winters’ mailbox remained packed with special-order plastics, and his fleet of scratch-built spaceships grew. The photos of his progress eventually led two Apogee veterans to recommend him for employment at Design Setters, an effects house in Burbank. Through a work-experience program during his senior year, Winters attended two classes in the morning, then drove to the San Fernando Valley to build models, including one for the Neil Young film Human Highway. It was a creative utopia disguised as a pass/fail.

Man in suit sits with hands on thighs in room with skewed perspective
This portrait of actor Denzel Washington, seated in a set singlehandedly constructed by Dan Winters and published in the New York Times Magazine in 1992, was an inflection point in Winters’ career, opening the door to decades of world-class editorial and portrait work. / Photo by Dan Winters

After attending college at Moorpark, studying abroad in Munich, and assisting for photographer Chris Callis in New York City, Winters began incorporating his skills as a model builder and production designer into his portraiture, creating fictitious worlds unique to each image. An assignment to photograph Denzel Washington for the New York Times Magazine in 1992 was instrumental. Winters stayed up through the night and singlehandedly built a forced-perspective set that evoked the rural outposts documented by photographer Walker Evans during the Depression. The set also emphasized the body position of a seated Washington, whose hands were resting against his dark suit, causing his fingertips to pop. The secret, in a sense, was the human touch.

Man sits behind machine with magnifying glass in front of one eye, enlarging it, in front of architectural details and lit-up doll's head
Winters’ subjects have included Ryan Gosling (above), the Dalai Lama, Tupac Shakur, Helen Mirren, and Fred Rogers, who, according to Winters, “treated the photo shoot sacredly.” He’s also photographed two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; his portrait of Obama is featured prominently as the back jacket of the president’s memoir, A Promised Land. / Photo by Dan Winters

Another World


This approach carries through Winters’ latest and most immersive project, the film Tone, which he wrote, directed, and photographed. It’s a love story set in a dystopian future where a laborer—the eponymous Tone, whose vocal cords have been stripped by a surveillance state—returns to Earth from Mars and helps heal another broken soul. At nearly 40 minutes, the project far exceeds the scope of Winters’ previous short-subject documentaries and music videos, and visualizing both the earthbound and cosmic elements of the story demanded extensive model and miniature work.

The majority of those Mars miniatures, both piecemeal and whole, still reside in Winters’ Driftwood studio. (Before driving from his home for a studio tour, he cautioned not to crush a box of spare plastics on the car seat, which a hobby shop owner had recently reserved for him. It was an F/A-18C Hornet kit affixed with a handwritten Post-it note that read: WINTERS DAN PARTS GIFT.) Built in 1903 as a post office and general store, the sandstone building in Driftwood expanded in 1942 to accommodate a feed store. A subsequent owner extended that addition, turning a water cistern out back into an interior structure, surrounded by closets, one of which Winters converted to a darkroom. The facade is adorned with a defunct fire-engine-red Texaco gravity pump, occasionally confusing gas-strapped passers-by on the highway.

A Photographer’s Thoughts on a Photograph

 Man bows his head, eyes closed, among three illuminated light bulbs

Portrait of Charles Batchelor, "First Photograph Made with Incandescent Light," 1880 / THF253728

“As a practitioner of the craft of photography, I frequently employ the use of artificial light when making my photographs, the distinction being that the light emanates from a manmade source and not from the sun.

One artifact among The Henry Ford’s vast holdings that I feel a kinship to is an otherworldly black-and-white portrait of Thomas Edison’s longtime collaborator Charles Batchelor. The text on the border of the photograph informs us that it is the first-ever photograph taken using an incandescent bulb.

Though it is widely thought that the incandescent bulb was Edison’s invention, his work stood firmly on the shoulders of over 20 inventors who had success in the development of the light bulb before him; however, none to the degree Edison achieved. The use of incandescent light in photography would eventually prove to be almost as significant a tool as film and camera. As the technology evolved and higher-output lighting was developed, filmmakers and photographers alike would discover the benefits of their ability to control not only where they could make images but also when.”

— Dan Winters


Inside, Winters stands beside a bay of humming computer monitors with a Topo Chico. The cold bottle of sparkling water is perfect for slaking thirst and, as tradition holds, providing the next building block in a backyard pile of empties he’s dubbed Mount Topo. Through hundreds of annual deposits, the glass mountain now hosts a rotating colony of pill bugs, snakes, silverfish, and eleodes (beetles). It’s another world within worlds on the studio grounds, where nature and Winters’ collection of artifacts from nearly two centuries of photographic history meet the realities of an increasingly digitized future.

The encroachment of the elements proved calamitous in 2020, when winds clocking 75 mph tore at the metal roof and rainfall destroyed thousands of negatives in storage lockers below. While taking solace that well over a million negatives were safe, including those amassed from anonymous collections he’d found at junk stores and paper-goods shows, the incident nonetheless prompted the decampment for his Austin backyard, where proximity alleviates the increasing sense of vulnerability.

With another Topo tossed to the beetles out back, Winters begins detailing the international origins of the books on the shelves lining the original exterior wall of the post office. It called to mind the 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library,” in which German theorist Walter Benjamin wrote, “I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient.… How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!”

Winters settles on Photography Album 1, edited by Pierre de Fenoyl, purchased at 23 while biking across Australia. “There’s amazing work in it, work that made me feel like photography was boundless,” Winters said. “I was riding from Sydney to Adelaide, and I had two panniers on my bike for storage. I rode that book for 1,300 miles, in a brown paper bag. I still have the bike; it’s at the house.” A casual flip through the book revealed a preserved leaf tucked inside. “We want to have a memory,” Winters added. “Certain objects will anchor us to a place and time.”

Desk littered with models, framed images, knickknacks, and more, with even more items hanging on wall above desk
Dan Winters considers his desk, an old drafting table, the anchor of his studio. Littered with objects collected over time, he said of this space, “Sitting at the desk provides a connection to my history.” / Photo by Dan Winters

The undisputed anchor of the studio is Winters’ work desk, an old drafting table festooned with his full range of interests. “Sitting at the desk provides a connection to my history,” he said. “I’m inspired by the intrinsic value of these objects. Some have historical significance, certainly, and some are significant to me and my own path in life. Oftentimes they’re just beautiful objects I like to contemplate. One of the drawbacks of the collection is I feel it would be pretty quickly marginalized by whoever was settling my estate. At first glance, it probably looks like junk.”

According to theorist Benjamin, “the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.” Winters senses the necessity of cataloging these objects in the moment and imparting their meaning. There’s the National Supply badge that belonged to his grandfather, whose company made transmissions for Sherman tanks. Or a rivet from the Golden Gate Bridge, flecks of international orange paint still visible. (Ironworkers presented the rivet ceremoniously to Winters after a photo shoot.)

Lost in Space

 Silver cylinder with hexagonal shape on top and writing on body

Photo by Dan Winters

Bag with printed label filled in with handwritten text 

Photo by Dan Winters

Among Dan Winters’ desktop mementos are two pieces of equipment from the Apollo program: a pressure transducer (left above) and an RCS check valve assembly, still bagged (right above. Both were procured from a Los Angeles scrap dealer who capitalized on the closure of a Van Nuys plant operated by Rocketdyne, manufacturer of the Saturn V engines. The keepsakes have remained within reach ever since.

Winters’ childhood love of the space program carried over into his career as a photographer, beginning with a portrait in the late 1990s of Harrison Schmitt, the first geologist on the moon. Other subjects include Roald Sagdeev, former director of the Soviet Space Research Institute; American astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Pete Conrad; Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit for Smithsonian Magazine; and a package of images for National Geographic’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo program, which included a trip to Kazakhstan in 2019 to photograph a Soyuz spaceflight to the International Space Station.

Winters was granted close-range access by NASA to document the final launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, all captured in his 2012 book Last Launch. His contributions to the literature and historical record of space exploration began humbly, with a childhood fixation on Ham, the first chimpanzee in space, which he spotted on the cover of a back issue of Life published the year before his birth.


There’s also a swab attached to a wine cork, which is in fact a vital tool, one that facilitated a series of portraits for National Geographic that quickly became among Winters’ most widely seen images. Published in May 2021 and intended to draw attention to World Bee Day, the subject was actress Angelina Jolie covered in bees. Before the shoot, Winters and friend Konrad Bouffard contacted Ronald Fischer, an entomologist now in his 90s, who was “bearded” in bees for an iconic Richard Avedon portrait in Davis, California, in 1981. They also reached Avedon’s on-set beekeeper, who still had the cork swab he’d used to dot Fischer’s skin with queen-bee pheromone, thus attracting a swarm. As a lifelong beekeeper, Winters was honored to use the very same swab for his shoot and to be told he could keep the cork among his treasures.

It was hard not to draw a line to the cork-and-paper-clip spaceships Winters’ father left for him in the mornings, the ones that inspired him both to build and to collect. Asked if a cork ship was docked on his desk, Winter was convinced, though he couldn’t pinpoint one. “I know I have one in these boxes,” he said, sifting through cardboard stacks. He reminded himself to check later. For now, the day was still young, and the sun was out. In the shadow of Mount Topo, this message in a bottle would remain open, awaiting its cork.


James Hughes is a writer and editor based in Chicago. This post was adapted from an article in the January–May 2022 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

books, movies, space, making, photographs, photography, The Henry Ford Magazine, by James Hughes

While we have a photo studio where we do most of our artifact photography using white backgrounds and strictly controlled lighting, many times we encounter things that are too big for this setting—for example, a car! In those cases, we need to take ourselves and our studio on the move, and our newest collections storage building, the Main Storage Building (MSB), gives us a perfect environment for that. While sometimes space can be an issue (there are only so many places you can store dozens of wagons and plows), we make the most of the room we have and get creative in the meantime.

For example, to photograph “The Busy World” automaton wagon, it first needed to be moved out of a row of wagons and into an open space to give us room to set up our lights and camera.

Yellow wagon with glass windows revealing scenes on side
“The Busy World” automaton wagon in storage in MSB before photography. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo

Yellow wagon with glass windows on side, behind which are small dioramas
The completed photograph of the automaton. / THF187282

Since the Unimate robot was featured in an episode of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, we needed to capture new photographs of it for our Digital Collections before the episode aired. While we had a little more room to work when photographing the Unimate (this was before MSB was as full as it is today), we still benefitted from having the ability to set up all around it because it is extremely heavy and cannot be easily moved. We had to use the space around it to access both sides for our standard photography.

Large, squat robot  with swing arm in the middle of a  large space; photo on tripod and tethered laptop computer on table in the foreground
Photographing the Unimate. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo

Large, squat beige robot with a swing arm and text "UNIMATION, INC." on side
Completed photo of the Unimate robot. / THF172780

It was a similar situation when we photographed the 1977 Ford Mustang II. Though now this area in MSB houses an array of agricultural equipment, such as plows and wagons, in 2018 we were able to use the open area to photograph the Mustang II for the first time so it could be viewed online.

Black car surrounded by other vehicles in warehouse space; lights and camera on tripod pointed at it
Photographing the Mustang II. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo

Black car
Completed photo of the Mustang II. / THF173560

This next example shows a more current look at MSB in 2021. As you might be able to see, there are many more vehicles now occupying the large area where we shot the Unimate and Mustang II. So when we were tasked with the job of photographing a 1925 Yellow Cab, we were unable to circle around it and had to work with our collections management team to move the taxi for us as we documented it.

A yellow car sits in a cramped space among other vehicles in front of a white background, with carts of photo equipment, a camera on a tripod, and lights on stands in the foreground
Photographing the 1925 Yellow Cab taxicab. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo

You can also see that we created our own white background around the cab with tall foamcore boards (a little thing that helps immensely with post-processing in Photoshop). But our “studio” was surrounded by another car to the right and a wagon to the left! All this careful maneuvering and setup was necessary to get the final image.

Yellow and black car with text "Yellow Cab Co." on side
Final photograph of the 1925 Yellow Cab Taxicab. / THF188014

Looking at the completed image, you probably would never know what it looked like when we were photographing it out on the floor in MSB!

My final example, the Ford COVID-19 mobile testing van, was so tall that it almost reached the ceiling in the tallest room in MSB. Since it’s a full-sized van, it isn’t easy to move—especially inside a building. In case that isn’t enough, its current neighbors in storage happen to be a couple of large fire engines. Regardless, we got creative again and we were able to get photos of the van despite these challenges.

Man works at photographic equipment among several vehicles in a large room
Photographing the Ford COVID-19 mobile testing van. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo

Tall red van with text and large waving American flag on side
Completed photo of the COVID-19 mobile testing van. / THF188109

Besides being an invaluable space to store an extensive variety of precious artifacts from our collections, MSB also serves as a functional space for us to use as photographers—so we can digitize artifacts even if they’re larger than we can accommodate in our photo studio.


Jillian Ferraiuolo is Digital Imaging Specialist at The Henry Ford.

Main Storage Building, photography, photographs, digitization, collections care, by Jillian Ferraiuolo, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

These days, most people may not be familiar with the interior of a rail car, let alone set foot inside one that is 100 years old. For those of you who have never been inside a railcar, it is very tight quarters—both for people and also for photography equipment and lights. So, when photographer Rudy Ruzicska and myself were tasked with getting new images of the interior of the 1921 Fair Lane, Henry Ford’s private railroad car (now located in the Railroads exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation), we knew we were going to have to get creative—and close!

Man standing on back platform of railcar in large room, with camera and light in foreground
Photographer Rudy Ruzicska setting up lights for our first exterior shot of the railcar…

Back platform of rail car in large room
…and the final shot. / THF186261

We knew that this was going to be a challenge, but a fun one. The largest rooms were at the front and the back of the car, with narrow hallways and small bedrooms between—and even smaller bathrooms! We captured as many angles as we could within such small spaces.

Interior space with coved ceiling, containing a man bending over a light, with other lights and a camera on a tripod in the space
Rudy again, setting up lights for our first interior shot of the lounge….

Interior space with blue upholstered furniture and wood paneling
…one of the resulting shots…. / THF186262

Interior space with blue upholstered furniture and wood paneling
…and another final shot. / THF186264

Back view of woman at camera on tripod pointing toward a narrow interior hallway
Digital Imaging Specialist Jillian Ferraiuolo (me!) setting up the shot of the hallway…

Narrow wood-paneled hallway with arched ceiling
…and the final image. / THF186265

Woman stands in tight corner of wood-paneled room behind a camera on a tripod
Jillian again, setting up the shot of the office…

Interior of wood-paneled room containing a wooden desk
…and the final image. / THF186266

For most photos, we use a Canon 5D Mark III camera tethered to a MacBook laptop. While we did use that camera for this photo shoot, we knew we would need something with a wider range to capture the small rooms. A fisheye lens is very convex, and because of that shape it allows the camera to capture a larger area. While these lenses are great, their downside is the distortion they create because of the curve of the glass. Since our job in the Photo Studio is, at the core, documentation, we want to show our artifacts exactly as they are, without that distortion, so to capture these small rooms we needed something more.

Our solution was to use another tool already in our toolbox, the Ricoh Theta 360 camera. This small camera is operated via cellphone and app and uses two fisheye lenses to capture a space. The app control allows us to preview the 360-degree image and remotely trigger the camera (so we can make sure we’re out of the shot). The app then stitches together the images to create a full 360-degree interactive image. This is how we were able to capture the interiors of the rooms completely, including the nooks and crannies of these small spaces where our Canon camera simply couldn’t reach.

Small camera on a tripod in a room in front of striped upholstered seating
The Theta camera, mounted on a stand, ready to capture the interior of the lounge. See the 360-degree image (and the others we took) here!

We captured all of the rooms (and bathrooms!) this way, with the Theta, as well as with the Canon camera, to make sure everything was thoroughly documented. Though this certainly led us into a few tight spaces….

Woman wearing mask behind camera on tripod in a stainless steel room containing a toilet
Man stands with hand next to knob in a stainless steel restroom containing a sink
Jillian and Rudy doing their best to capture the very small main bathroom and shower off the Fair Lane’s main hallway…

Small, stainless steel restroom containing a toilet, sink, and mirror
Stainless steel shower area with sink outside
…and the final images of the bathroom. / THF186274, THF186275

As photographers of the wide variety of artifacts at The Henry Ford, our job is certainly never boring, but when faced with unique requests like the Fair Lane, we get to have a little more fun than usual and really test the limits of our creativity and ingenuity.

I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at how we photographed Henry Ford’s private railcar. Be sure to check out some of the new images on the artifact card below, or click through to our Digital Collections to explore all of the images and 360-degree interiors! And read more about the Fair Lane, its travels, and its history in celebration of its 100th birthday this year.

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digitization, digital collections, railroads, Henry Ford Museum, photographs, by Jillian Ferraiuolo, Fair Lane railcar, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, photography

GIF cycling through a number of images of person with camera set up photographing a cabinet full of small packages

Rudy Ruzicska working in The Henry Ford’s photographic studio on August 10, 2021. You can see Rudy's completed photos of this display cabinet, containing "Munyon's Homeopathic Remedies" dating from the late 19th or early 20th century, in our Digital Collections here.

1956 was a momentous year in history. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon were running for re-election. The Montgomery Bus Boycott had just started, inspired by Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat the previous December. The Interstate Highway System was authorized. Elvis Presley had his first chart-topping hit with “Heartbreak Hotel.” There were no satellites in space, and the United States had only 48 states, since Alaska and Hawaii were still three years away from statehood. In the midst of all this, a fresh-faced young lad officially began a career at The Henry Ford. His name? Rudy Ruzicska.

Now, 65 years later, Rudy still works at The Henry Ford, expertly photographing our artifacts as part of our collections digitization process so we can share them with the world through our Digital Collections. If you see a photo of a three-dimensional artifact in our Digital Collections, chances are good that Rudy took it. His long career and deep expertise have been featured both on Detroit television news and on The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation (watch those clips below). He even received a congratulations on his 65th work anniversary from Innovation Nation host Mo Rocca.

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The Henry Ford staff, photography, photographs, digitization, by Tim Johnson, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Looking to add some adrenaline to your next virtual meeting? Try the new backgrounds below, taken from Driven to Win: Racing in America, presented by General Motors. These images feature some of the exhibition’s iconic race cars, including the 1965 Goldenrod and the 1967 Ford Mark IV.

If you want even more background options, you can download any of the images of our artifacts from our Digital Collections. Our racing-related Digital Collections include more than 37,000 racing photographs, 400 three-dimensional artifacts (including race cars!), and nearly 300 programs, sketches, clippings, and other documents. Beyond racing, this collection of backgrounds showcases some views from Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, Greenfield Village, and the Ford Rouge Factory Tour.

These links will give you instructions to set any of these images as your background on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

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race car drivers, African American history, Mark IV, photographs, Driven to Win, Henry Ford Museum, cars, by Bruce Wilson, by Ellice Engdahl, by Matt Anderson, race cars, racing, technology, COVID 19 impact

Winter weather means winter sports and activities: skiing, ice racing, ice boating, sledding, ice hockey, and even snowball fights. Throughout the archival collections in The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center, images, brochures, pamphlets, and books shed light on the various activities people participate in during the cold months of the year. Below are some of the highlights from January’s virtual History Outside the Box, which was featured on The Henry Ford’s Instagram and Facebook Stories.

Street scene looking down sidewalk lined with a row of delicate snow-covered trees on either side; houses in a row down one side
Winter morning at the corner of Canfield Avenue and Second Avenue in Detroit, Michigan, circa 1905 / THF110432

Grayling, Michigan, became a winter sports destination in the 1920s and 1930s, with toboggan runs, a hockey rink, and a ski jump dotting the landscape. A yearly carnival was held, with the crowning of a winter Sports Queen. This image shows the 1939 Winter Sports Queen, holding snowshoes, standing next to a Mercury V-8.

Woman, holding two snowshoes, stands next to a car with a snowy hill (perhaps a ski slope) in the background and a long low wooden building to one side
Grayling Winter Sports Queen with Mercury V-8, January 1939 / THF271673

Skiing, and ski jumping, have been popular in Iron Mountain, Michigan, for over 100 years.

People on steep, snow-covered ski slope, with crowds on either side and more crowds and a car in the foreground
8th Annual Kiwanis Ski Club Tournament, Iron Mountain, Michigan, February 1941 / THF272300

Ice skating has been a popular wintertime activity for over 150 years. And yes, even Henry Ford would get in on the fun.

Man in cardigan with collar turned up, hat, knickers, and ice skates, on ice with trees and buildings in background
Henry Ford ice skating, 1918 / THF97906

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Michigan, History Outside the Box, photographs, archives, sports, winter, by Janice Unger

Tintypes

January 5, 2021 Archive Insight

Nowadays, we take photos what seems like, well—constantly. Let’s head back to an era when photographs were rare, and an affordable form of photography first made Its debut. Tintypes, the popular “instant photographs” of the 19th century, could be produced in a matter of minutes at a price most people could afford.

Man holding child wrapped in plaid shawl or blanket
Silas McConnell, a Cortland County, New York, general storekeeper, with his daughter Louise, about 1875. / THF278362

Beginning in the mid-1850s, tintypes gave more people than ever before the chance to have a real likeness of themselves—capturing unique glimpses of how everyday Americans looked and lived. Tintypes democratized photography.

Group of people sitting and standing, posed for a portrait
Koohns family of Perry County, Indiana, about 1890. / THF289961

There is no tin in a tintype. A tintype is a photograph made on a thin, black-painted sheet of iron. The thin metal of the iron plate probably reminded people of tin, leading to the popular name tintype.

Sitting child in plaid dress
Young boy, 1860 - 1870. / THF126296

A tintype is a reverse image of the person or scene that was taken directly from the camera. (Notice the reversed lettering on the bakery wagon below.) It looks like a positive print because of the dark color of the metal plate it is on.

White mat with oval image of man with horse and wagon
L. Hamberger's Bakery Wagon, about 1880. / THF278482

Having your photograph taken was considered an event. People got dressed up and went to the tintype studio in their city or town to have their portrait made.

Seated woman and standing little girl, both in elaborate dresses, in front of a painted backdrop with logs as props
Mother and daughter in front of a painted backdrop, about 1885. / THF278436

What was a tintype photo studio like? Greenfield Village’s will give you an idea. Built in 1929, it’s designed to look like a small tintype photographic studio from the 1870s and 1880s. A tintype studio had many windows to provide maximum light for the photographer. A studio was equipped with cameras, equipment to develop the photographs, backdrops, and posing chairs.

Small wood building with doors in front and side, one window in the front, and a chimney
Room with photographer at camera pointed at four women posing; woodstove in foreground and images on walls
Tintype studio in Greenfield Village. / THF151617, THF122780

Most tintypes were studio portraits of one or two people. Photographers often posed couples with the husband seated and the wife standing by his side.

Black woman standing by a chair in front of a backdrop, wearing an elaborate dress and holding a parasol
Woman holding a parasol, about 1878. / THF327828

Woman with bangs wearing elaborate ensemble, standing with hand on shoulder of seated man wearing a suit
Husband and wife, about 1885. / THF278380

People didn’t smile in early photographs—their expressions were more serious and formal. Early photography was heavily influenced by pre-photographic portraiture—people hadn’t grinned when having their likenesses drawn or painted, either. Having one’s image made was important occasion—it called for a more timeless expression.

Torso and head of a man with a beard wearing a suit, in an oval frame
Unidentified man, 1870-1880. / THF277876

As direct images, tintypes did not produce photographic negatives from which multiple copies of an image could be made. But tintype cameras could be fitted with multiple lenses, allowing several copies of the same tintype image to be produced at one time on a single sheet of iron. When multiple copies were made on a single sheet of iron, the images could be separated with a pair of tin snips and given to family and friends.

Large wood box camera, with accordion-folds in center
Tintype camera, used in Harry Patmore's Photographic Studio in Wyandotte, Michigan about 1882. / THF161617

Two images of seated boy wearing white shirt and plaid bow at neck
Multiple images of a young boy probably taken in A.G. Metzger's photographic studio in Harleysville, Pennsylvania about 1895. / THF278490

In the early days of photography, the sitter needed to remain motionless. Any movement would result in a blurred area and an unusable image. A headrest cradled the head and kept it still during the exposure (probably about 10 seconds). As photographic equipment and processes improved, less exposure time was needed and headrests became obsolete. Photo studios also had special chairs with head braces to keep the head from moving.

Green and gold metal stand with rounded gold metal piece at top
Photographer’s headrest, used in Harry Patmore's Photographic Studio in Wyandotte, Michigan about 1882. / THF161050

Photographing infants and toddlers could be challenging. Some images show the mother’s hand, covered by a shawl, helping to steady and soothe the infant “off camera”—her arm would be covered by a decorative mat. If a child moved during the exposure, the image would turn out blurry. The tintype for the baby below turned out nicely—nestled into a chair, it was not in danger of tumbling over!

Image of baby in long gown
Photograph of an infant, probably taken in Indiana about 1865. / THF243420

The child in the tintype image below has been dressed in her best, bedecked with a necklace, and had her hair curled. Like this young girl, children were often photographed with toys—their own or perhaps studio props. Unlike today, having your child’s photograph taken was not a frequent event. For kids from families of modest means, just one photograph might be taken during childhood.

Girl in necklace and dress sitting by a table covered with a tablecloth with toys on top
Girl seated at a table with her toys, about 1870. / THF278444

Some tintype customers—like this family—wanted their images enhanced with color. For an additional charge, red might be applied to give cheeks a rosy hue. Gold paint emphasized jewelry, buttons, or buckles.

Two women sitting on either side of a seated man
Portrait of a family, with accessories accented with gold paint, 1860-1870. / THF277866

Tintypes—inexpensive and durable—proved to be of special value in the 1860 presidential campaign, when small tintype images of Abraham Lincoln (Republican candidate) and Stephen Douglas (Democrat candidate) decorated tokens, medals, and campaign pins. The use of photography in political campaigns was still unusual at the time—most campaign buttons did not yet include photographic images of the candidates.

Round gold token with image of man’s shoulders and head in the middle and text “Abraham Lincoln 1860” around edge
Round gold token with image of man’s shoulders and head in the middle and text “Stephen Douglas 1860” around edge
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas presidential campaign tokens, 1860. / THF101182, THF128085

During the Civil War, many soldiers had their photographs taken in uniform—either at a studio before leaving home or in the field by photographers who followed the army. Quickly made, inexpensive and sturdy, tintypes could be left with loved ones or slipped inside a letter and sent through the mail. These images often captured a soldier’s pride in serving his country—and helped preserve his memory if he did not return home from battle.

Man in uniform and cap holding rifle and standing at attention
17-year-old Civil War soldier Frank Stough of Elyria, Ohio, a member of the 128th Ohio Infantry, about 1865. / THF277880

Photograph albums—introduced in the very early 1860s—provided a way to organize, preserve, and conveniently view photographs of friends and relatives. The album below holds “gem” photographs, the smallest tintype at ¾ to 1 inch in size.

Embossed brown leather album cover with brass hasp at right
Page containing four oval head-and-shoulder portraits with decorative borders around each portrait
Photograph album containing gem tintypes, about 1865. / THF278461, THF278566

Outdoor tintypes were quite rare until the 1880s, when a new, more convenient dry-plate process replaced the earlier wet-plate process. Even with the challenges that outdoor photography presented (taking tintype equipment out of the studio and lack of ready access to a dark room to develop the image), photographs of outdoor scenes became more common.

Landscape with wooden buildings, stacks and piles of lumber, horses and wagons, and people
Workers and horse-drawn wagons at a sawmill, 1880-1900. / THF278450

Tintypists sometimes traveled with their equipment from farm to farm, offering their services to rural customers, who assembled their family—dressed in their best clothing—and proudly posed in front of their homes. In the early 1880s tintype below, the Webster family is shown in front of their farmhouse in rural Delaware County, Ohio.

People standing behind fence and at gate in front of wooden house
William and Corilla Webster, their daughters Lucy and Clarabel, and son William in front of their Delaware County, Ohio farmhouse about 1881. / THF97629

Work gave meaning to people’s lives—it was part of one’s personal identity. Many people sat for the photographer in the clothing they wore while working, holding objects that represented their occupation. In the first tintype below, the men worked as plasterers. The three men in the tintype below that also hold the tools of their trades—typesetter, butcher, and blacksmith. The blacksmith had the most challenging “prop” to bring to the tintype studio—a 200-pound anvil on a wood block!

Two men in caps, one holding a long tool, standing next to a pillar
Plasterers, about 1881. / THF306586

Three men in vests and shirtsleeves standing behind an anvil on a wooden block, holding tools
Typesetter, butcher, and blacksmith, about 1880. / THF278446

Most occupational tintypes were of men rather than women—it was a male-dominated workforce during this time. But tintypes did capture images of those who worked for pay outside the home—women like factory workers, milliners, or domestic servants. The young women below worked in a textile mill, tending power looms.

Two women with short hair wearing dresses and aprons holding spindles
Two textile workers holding spindles of thread, about 1870. / THF278406

For his portrait, the drygoods salesman below not only brought along “props”—thread, buttons, and fabric—from his retail establishment, but a “customer” as well.

Man behind table containing products while woman looks at them
Salesman displaying his wares, about 1860. / THF278414

People not only had tintypes taken of themselves at “work,” but also at “play.” This young man, dressed in his baseball uniform and holding a bat, headed to the tintype studio for a portrait. By the 1880s, when this tintype was taken, playing baseball was a popular sport in many American communities.

Man in baseball clothes holding bat, standing next to small table
Baseball player with bat, about 1880. / THF94413

Group portraits were more complicated to capture than photographs of individuals. The photographer had more people to pose artfully—and then had to keep everyone’s attention during the several-second exposure. Images of outdoor leisure activities like the picnic below became more common in the late 1800s.

Women of various ages posed on a lawn, each holding tableware items
Group of women at a picnic, about 1895. / THF278356

Tintypes became less popular as new and better forms of photography replaced them. But traveling tintypists still found work at country fairs, summer resorts, and other vacation spots during the late 19th century—and well into the 1930s.

Man leaning in doorway of small wooden building in wooded location; chairs and portraits outside
Photographer outside his studio, likely at a vacation spot or resort, about 1890. / THF146156

In 1901, Henry Ford’s family—wife Clara, son Edsel, and mother-in-law Martha Bryant—had their tintype taken during a trip to Niagara Falls, though the image itself was made in a nearby tintype studio in front of a painted backdrop.

Two seated women in dresses and hats with small boy standing between them, all in front of a painted backdrop of a waterfall
Clara Ford and family “playing tourist” at Niagara Falls, 1901. / THF96764

Hope you enjoyed this look at tintypes. Don’t forget to strike a properly timeless expression should you meet up with this photographer!

Man in smock and cap standing behind camera on tripod
Studio portrait of a photographer with his camera, about 1870. / THF122762


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

by Jeanine Head Miller, photographs, photography, #THFCuratorChat

Decorated Christmas tree in corner of room with wrapped and unwrapped items underneath

Christmas tree in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)

During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we really enjoy showing how Americans would have celebrated Christmas in the 19th century. In almost all the houses, we use historical primary sources to try to glean out descriptions of what people may have done—but we have almost no concrete visual evidence. However, one huge exception is the Wright Home, the family home of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

We know from various sources that in 1900 there was a big homecoming in Dayton, Ohio. Reuchlin Wright, one of Wilbur and Orville’s older brothers, was returning home from living apart for a very long time, slightly estranged. In celebration, the family decided to put up their first Christmas tree. Wilbur and Orville, who were amateur photographers but probably as good as any professional of the time, documented some of that process.

Within the last decade, we have been able to access a very high-resolution image of the Wright family Christmas tree image from the Library of Congress, and the details just leapt out at us. This photograph, which we know was taken in 1900, documents exactly how the Wright Brothers designed and put up their Christmas tree. We examined all the minutiae in the photo and have attempted to recreate this tree as exactly as possible.

Decorated Christmas tree in corner of room with wrapped and unwrapped items underneath
Wright Home Parlor Decorated for Christmas, Original Site, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF119489

The toys, the various ornaments—it's all in line with what's typical in the time period. So if you look at the tree in the Wright Home, you’ll see it lit with candles—this is not an electrified house yet in 1900. There's a variety of ornaments designed to hold candies and similar things. It has strung popcorn, which would have been homemade, but it also has store-bought German tinsel garland, glass ornaments (either from Poland or Germany), and all kinds of additional decorations that may have been saved from year to year. There's a homemade star on top that has tinsel tails coming off it.

For many years, we just had a low-resolution, fuzzy photograph of the tree, and we reproduced things as faithfully as we could—for example, what appeared to be a paper scrap-art angel. The first glimpse of the high-resolution photograph absolutely flabbergasted us, because front-and-center on the tree is a little scrap-art of a screaming, crying baby. It must have been some sort of inside joke within the family. We were able to reproduce it exactly as it would have looked on the tree.

GIF cycling through two images, one black-and-white and one in color, each showing part of a Christmas tree with a large ornament of a screaming baby
The screaming baby scrap-art on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.

In keeping with tradition, the tree is also covered with gifts for different members of the family. It seems that the adult gifts were hung unwrapped on the tree, whereas many of the children's things were either wrapped or just placed under the tree, based on the photograph. For example, on the tree, we see a pair of what are known as Scotch gloves—you would have found examples of these in Sears catalogues of the early 1900s. There's also a fur scarf, toy trumpets, and even a change purse, all hung on the tree.

GIF cycling through two images, one black-and-white and one in color, showing part of a Christmas tree with plaid gloves hanging on it
Scotch gloves hanging on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.

Beneath the tree, the arrangement of toys and gifts is quite fun. There’s a pair of roller skates, a little toy train, tea sets, furniture sets, and all kinds of different things geared specifically toward all the Wright nieces and nephews who would have come to visit on that Christmas morning.

There's also a wonderful set of photographs associated with the tree after Christmas. For example, there’s one of Bertha Wright, one of Reuchlin’s middle daughters, in the next room over, sitting playing with her toys. She's clearly been interrupted in her play, and you can see that in the expression on her face: “Okay, let's get this over with.”

Girl in white dress sitting cross-legged with somewhat grumpy expression on her face
Bertha Wright, Age Five, Niece of the Wright Brothers, Daughter of Reuchlin Wright, circa 1900 / THF243319

There are also photos outside the house, featuring the sleigh (which is prominent under the tree in the high-res photograph, stacked with books). Behind them in all these photographs is a little fir tree—the tree that was inside the house for Christmas has now been placed out there and propped up in the corner, probably for the winter season.

Two children sit on a sleigh in snow in front of a door; another boy stands nearby in front of a tree
Milton, Leontine, and Ivonette Wright at Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF243321

During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we have a wonderful large high-resolution blow-up of the tree photograph set up in the Wright Home for our guests to compare-and-contrast with the recreated tree in the corner. Be sure to stop by the Wright Home to see it on your next Holiday Nights visit!

Large framed black-and-white photograph showing a Christmas tree on an easel in a room
The original historic photo of the Wright family Christmas tree, displayed in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Brian James Egen)


This post was adapted from the transcript of a video featuring Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

Michigan, Dearborn, Ohio, 20th century, 1900s, Wright Brothers, research, photographs, home life, holidays, Holiday Nights, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, events, Christmas, by Jim Johnson, by Ellice Engdahl