Detroit native Frederick Birkhill can recount numerous memories of his time at The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village as a child. He can remember riding his bike through the village, taking in all that its history and grounds offered. Truly enamored with Liberty Craftworks, he spent most of his time there, observing the artisans perfecting their crafts.
During one school field trip, his class observed employee Neils Carlson giving a glassblowing demonstration. From five feet away, the students watched Carlson pull and shape a hot, glowing blob into a graceful swan. This was the exact moment that Birkhill fell in love with glassmaking and knew he wanted to learn everything about it. After the demonstration, he bought one of the glass swans for his mother and studied it whenever he could.
Frederick as a child with a camera, circa 1959. / Photo by Dr. F. Ross Birkhill, courtesy Frederick Birkhill
Few people can pinpoint the place where they found their passion. Frederick Birkhill can. Anyone who comes to The Henry Ford can find something that excites them and sparks their future passions. That single experience in the Glass Shop stuck with Birkhill and led him on a path to a very successful career as an artist. Because of Neils Carlson, Birkhill's thirst for knowledge took off, leading him to study in England, elsewhere in Europe, and at what is now the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In the early years of his career, Birkhill was an employee of Greenfield Village and worked in the Tintype Studio. During his tenure, he was able to study and learn about glassblowing, stained glass, photography, daguerreotypes, and tintypes from various artisans around Liberty Craftworks and metro Detroit. At the time, The Henry Ford was one of the only places in the United States where one could learn about tintype photography and other specialized crafts. Birkhill created some of his first daguerreotype photos of scenes at The Henry Ford. One of those early daguerreotypes of Greenfield Village's Farris Windmill was later acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
"The Windmill at Greenfield Village, 1972,” daguerreotype created by Frederick Birkhill, in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History / Photo courtesy Frederick Birkhill
In addition to learning about different media during his time working in the village, Birkhill was able to use his skills and artistry to teach an array of subjects at The Henry Ford, including classes he developed on the history of glass and stained glass.
Birkhill also collaborated with David Grant Maul, another former employee. Birkhill acquired a special tool from Maul that allowed him to hold hot glass so he could effectively complete flame-worked glass objects. This tool was the catalyst for a successful career in flame-worked glass and furnace glass. Our Glass Shop includes a furnace that allowed Birkhill to learn both specialties.
Frederick Birkhill flameworking in his studio. / Photo by Henry Leutwyler, courtesy Frederick Birkhill
Now, after several decades as a glass artist, an artist's monograph, Glassworks: The Art of Frederick Birkhill, has been published by The Artist Book Foundation. An extensive colorplate section includes the lavish photography of Henry Leutwyler, showcasing Birkhill's work in complex detail as well as his artistic mastery of glass. A copy now resides in The Henry Ford's Benson Ford Research Center. We are honored to have Frederick and his wife, Jeannie, as friends of The Henry Ford.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tintype camera, used in Harry Patmore's Photographic Studio in Wyandotte, Michigan about 1882. / THF161617
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Studio portrait of a photographer with his camera, about 1870. / THF122762
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Throughout the month of November 2020, we’ve been celebrating reaching the milestone of 100,000 digitized artifacts by sharing out blog posts and fun facts, hosting Twitter chats with our digitization staff, and counting down the 20 most-viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections. In case you missed any of these great resources, we wanted to share them all here for easy reference.
If you follow us on social media, you might have seen the “top 20” countdown of our most-viewed digitized artifacts of all time, but if you’d like to get a broader look, you can check out the top 100 in this Expert Set. Fans of The Henry Ford will recognize many of the artifacts, but there may be some on the list that surprise you.
The Henry Ford's all-time top 20 most-viewed digitized artifacts. Do any of them surprise you?
Here, also, are all of the fun facts about our digitization program and our Digital Collections that we shared out on social media.
Twenty fun facts about digitization and our Digital Collections.
During the first week of November, we provided a general introduction to our Digital Collections, our digitization program, and our workflows.
First was our announcement that we had just digitized our 100,000th artifact, and were kicking off the month-long celebration. You can also read our press release here.
If you’re interested in becoming an expert in using our Digital Collections, or just not sure where to start, this blog post will give you a run-down of the ways you can search, view, and use our digitized artifacts.
Associate Curator, Digital Content Andy Stupperich shared how we add context to artifacts in our Digital Collections in this post.
Like many other people around the world, a lot of our staff have spent time this year working from home. Find out how we continued to digitize artifacts despite the closure of our campus this spring in this post.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to work with our curator of domestic life, Jeanine Head Miller, on a new Expert Set featuring alphabet blocks and spelling toys from our collections. We chose one example based on a nearly 20-year-old photograph from our collections database. It was dated between 1860 and 1880 and appeared to be a set of wooden alphabet blocks with images printed on the reverse that could be assembled to complete two puzzles. Notes in the database and an image on the box lid alluded to more, so we decided to re-photograph the blocks before adding them to our Digital Collections.
Image taken in 2000; touched up in 2017 by Jim Orr, image services specialist / THF133429
While conducting research for the Expert Set, I visited our photographic studio to see the blocks in person. They were in good condition, and I was able to carefully – with gloves and on a clean surface – assemble each of eight possible solutions, revealing not only the alphabet and two 12-block puzzles visible in our existing photograph (“The Farm” and “Anna’s Delight”), but two other pastoral scenes of the same size (“Grandfather’s Visit” and “My Country Residence”), two full-size, 24-block historical images (“William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians” and “Mount Vernon – Washington’s Residence”), and a map of the United States. The borders and place names on the map gave us hope that we might be able to narrow the date range for these blocks, but some text on the Mount Vernon puzzle gave us an even better clue – the lithographer’s name!
Reference image showing lithographer information [REG2017_1103]
A quick Internet search (an invaluable tool for modern museum research) revealed that Thomas S. Wagner worked as the sole proprietor of his Philadelphia lithography firm for a short time, between a dissolved partnership with fellow lithographer James McGuigan in 1858 and Wagner’s death in 1863. (Interestingly, according to the Library Company of Philadelphia, Wagner was “one of the few publishers of wooden lithographic puzzles” at that time.) Not only were we able to considerably narrow our date range from 1860–1880 to 1858–1863, we could now add creator information to our records!
We decided to have our photographer, Rudy Ruzicska, and digital imaging specialist, Jillian Ferraiuolo, create just a few official images of the picture puzzle – enough to document the box and individual blocks and to give online viewers a sense of the possible solutions. But I also captured reference photographs of each of the 8 completed puzzles for our collections database. These wouldn’t typically be available to the public, but to celebrate our recent digital collections milestone – 100,000 artifacts! – I’ve shared a few of them below.
My name is Jillian Ferraiuolo and I’m a Digital Imaging Specialist at The Henry Ford. In that role, I work with our institutional photographer in our Photo Studio, taking photographs of artifacts and preparing those for use in our Digital Collections.
This graphic shows where photography fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.
Every once in a while, our job requires us to step out of the studio, equipment and all, and photograph artifacts on location. Whether it’s taking photos of cars in one of our storage buildings or taking photos in (or of!) one of the buildings in Greenfield Village, if it can’t fit inside the studio, then we pack up and go to it. For example, the geodesic truss pictured below is in storage, but we needed to photograph it. You can see from the photo below how large it is, so instead of trying to find some way to get it to the Photo Studio in the museum, we went to it.
Photography staff and volunteers shooting the geodesic truss on location at a storage building.
The finished product: Geodesic Dome Test Module, Designed by R. Buckminster Fuller, 1953. / THF166740
One of the biggest challenges for us when we shoot outside the studio is making the most of our time. Given how large our campus is, we try to be as efficient as possible while still creating the same shooting environment on location as we would in the studio, especially when it comes to lighting and image quality. Another challenge of location shoots is that they allow less freedom than being in the studio—some objects are in a specific spot and can’t be moved or adjusted. When we’re in the studio we can change angles, move lights, and make adjustments easily, but if we’re out photographing a train car, and need to capture a different view, we have to move around it—there’s no way it’s moving!
While shooting out on location can be a challenge, it is also a nice change of pace and a nice change of scenery. It forces us to think outside the box and get creative with taking photos—especially when the shoot involves something outside the norm. Take, for example, quilts—since they’re so large, we have to get up much higher than they are so we can get an accurate photo of the entire quilt. (You can read more about our quilt photography process here.)
Getting ready to photograph quilts from the Highland Park Engine catwalk in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
But whether we’re in the studio or not, we’re passionate about what we do, and we are ready to take on any challenge!
Exterior View, Ford Highland Park Plant, 30 March 1932; Object P.833.56894.1 / THF237509
When Ford Motor Company engineers developed the assembly line at the Highland Park Plant back in 1913, they were seeking to increase production volume in order to provide more automobiles to the general public at a reasonable cost, and in a reasonable time.
Move ahead more than 100 years to 2020, where the staff of The Henry Ford and the Benson Ford Research Center (BFRC) are operating a modern assembly line to digitize images and documents from our collections and make them available online.
By some estimates, The Henry Ford holds roughly 26 million 2D and 3D objects, with the majority of that total – some 25 million items – contained within the archival collections at the BFRC. Clearly, there’s a lot to move down our “assembly line”!
As is the case with auto assembly, there are a number of stations along our line, beginning with material selection, then material retrieval, cataloging, imaging, storage, import, export, and finally ending with online display. Improvements made to the speed and efficiency at each of these stations can lead to gains in the production rate of the entire line.
This graphic shows where Rapid Capture imaging fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.
To bring that speed and efficiency to archival imaging, the BFRC uses a process we refer to as Rapid Capture digitization. Developed by several institutions as an approach to increasing the scale of digitization, Rapid Capture is part technology, part process, and part philosophy.
Technically, Rapid Capture is rather simple. The equipment consists of a copy stand, lighting, a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, and a computer equipped with photo editing software.
Rapid Capture station.
The important feature of the camera is its full-frame sensor, which can create a 400-pixel-per-inch image of an item as large as 9 × 14 inches, allowing us to provide users with high-quality images for the majority of our archival materials, which can be easily viewed, downloaded, and used for presentations or reports.
At the click of the shutter button, the camera can record an entire image – perhaps an 8 × 10 photographic print – without the cycle time of a more traditional flatbed scanner. If you’ve used a digital camera or a camera phone to take personal photographs, then you know how quickly you can take tens or even hundreds of snapshots. The same holds true for Rapid Capture, with the limit on imaging rate being the safe and proper handling of the archival material, not the time spent waiting for the scanner to make a pass.
On certain projects, we are able to capture both sides of a photographic print in less than 60 seconds, translating to nearly 500 prints imaged in a single day. Our flatbed scanner can produce 10-12 images per hour, or both sides of just 48 prints per day. Starting with a single Rapid Capture workstation in February 2011 and now utilizing two workstations, we have produced nearly 100,000 production images since the launching the process.
Process, or efficiency in process, is also an important part of Rapid Capture. For example, since material handling is one of the keys to the speed of Rapid Capture, we work to select and schedule material in groups having similar sizes or formats and that are located together physically, such as the box of 8 × 10 photographic prints shown below.
8 x 10 photographs from our collection foldered within an archival box.
Another example occurs in the post-processing of images, which can also be done in a batch manner, including exposure correction, cropping, and derivative image creation. By using automated scripts, much of this work can be done unattended, and in the case of large batches, performed in the overnight hours.
Finally, Rapid Capture is in some ways a philosophy. Rapid Capture puts a premium on user access to large numbers of images, and in doing so forces trade-offs in areas such as perceived image quality and image resolution. An example of this trade-off can be seen in some of our Rapid Capture images, which appear slightly tilted, such as this image from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection.
Railway Station at Haines Corners, Catskill Mountains, New York, circa 1902; Object P.DPC.014510 / THF204908
Rather than spend additional time on each image to create a perfect alignment, we’ve chosen to spend that additional time producing more images, with the assumption that you, our users, would want to see more “stuff,” and can accept some imperfection.
A second compromise involves image resolution. While the camera can produce images sufficient for online viewing and use in presentations, the images may not be adequate for advertising or commercial publication. We’ve accepted that a certain number of items may need to be reimaged at some point for publication use, but that the potential rescanning effort is outweighed by the ability to both produce and store more lower-resolution images.
Our implementation of Rapid Capture has proven to be very successful. In nearly 10 years of operation, we’ve created a large number of images that meet our goals for quality, usefulness, production time, and cost. And, as we celebrate our #digitization100K milestone of 100,000 digitized objects on our Digital Collections, we can also point to the more than 38,500 objects that are illustrated using Rapid Capture images as another measure of that success.
My name is Jillian Ferraiuolo and I’m a Digital Imaging Specialist at The Henry Ford. In that role, I work with our institutional photographer in our Photo Studio, taking photographs of artifacts and preparing those for use in our Digital Collections. Today I’m going to share a bit about the challenges of photographing glass artifacts.
This graphic shows where photography fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out our extensive studio and art glass collection (whether in person in the Museum or Village glass galleries, or online), I recommend you do so! We have pieces that range from teapots and cups to whimsical studio glass sculptures. Photographing these beautiful pieces of glass provides unique challenges.
The first task is to figure out the angles to shoot. Many of these are works of art, so figuring out the “front” and the “back” is difficult. Take the piece below, "Bubble Boy" by Richard Marquis, for example. It’s hard to tell what the best angle would be, so we take our best guess, and take more than one photo if we need to! Most of the time, we’ll look for a defining feature: say, a handle, or an area of the design that is most appealing, and start there.
Often, the curator notes that one of these pieces is either historically significant or is important because of the artist that created it. In these cases, we take another step to capture more and create a rotating 360-degree image. We do this by (carefully!) placing the glass on a platform, rotating it by 20 degrees at a time, and taking 18 total photographs. This way we get a full picture of the piece from every possible angle! Take a look at an example below, or check out all the glass 360-degree views in our Digital Collections.
Another tricky part of photographing glass is dealing with its reflective qualities. As glass is usually shiny, creating an environment in the studio where we can control reflections can be tricky and time-consuming. Usually we create a fully white space around the object—if we don’t, every light and tripod and piece of furniture will be reflected on the object’s surface. We accomplish this very creatively with large boards or cloth, or if the object is small enough, we can put it into a tent that will allow us to fully control the space and light around it.
Examples of the Photo Studio set up to photograph a glass spittoon.
Then once we have everything set up, we take the photos, clean up the backgrounds with the magic of Photoshop, and enter the images and their metadata into our collections database—then voila, you get to see the finished photos in our Digital Collections!
This graphic shows where photography fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.
My name is Jillian Ferraiuolo and I’m a Digital Imaging Specialist at The Henry Ford. In that role, I work with our institutional photographer in our Photo Studio, taking photographs of artifacts and preparing those for use in our Digital Collections. As you might imagine, I get to work with many fascinating artifacts, and I’m going to share a couple of my favorites with you here.
Conservator Fran Faile holds up a detail on the Cognitive Dress as I photograph it.
I think the most interesting artifact I’ve photographed is the “Cognitive Dress,” Designed by IBM and Marchesa, 2016. Besides being a beautiful gown, it is strung with lights throughout the skirt that change color based off technology developed by IBM using their Watson AI. Because of the innovative nature of this dress, and our partnership with IBM, it was important that we thoroughly document it.
The dress in the studio getting ready for its close-up with curator Kristen Gallerneaux and conservators Fran Faile and Cuong Nguyen assisting.
Normally we capture five standard angles when we photograph clothing, but this one was a special case because we had to account for the lights on the dress, and the changing colors. In total, we took 27 images of the dress, showing different angles, the shifting colored lights on the dress, and details of the skirt and lighting technology.
I enjoyed photographing this dress not only because it was a beautiful gown, but also because it was a challenge. To get the right exposure with the lights while keeping the dress lit up was tough, but that’s also where the handiness of Photoshop comes in. I was able to adjust after the fact and create a very nice finished product!
Here’s a quick look at some of the shots we got!
Another fun project we had was imaging the Jens Jensen landscape drawings that show the plans for the grounds of Henry and Clara Ford’s estate, Fair Lane. These drawings were so interesting to look through—they lay out the gardens and surrounding areas of the estate in such detail, they’re works of art. Who would’ve thought that an estate would have so many blueprints? There are 29 in total, varying from gardens to orchards and even to plans for a bird pool.
Landscape Architecture Drawing for Fair Lane, "A Planting Plan for section around service buildings," June 1920 / THF155896
Jens Jensen Landscape Architecture Drawing, "A General Plan of the Estate of Mr. Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan," 1915 / THF155910
One of the reasons why we had to photograph these prints in the Studio is because they are large, folded up into individual leather portfolios. Usually anything two-dimensional goes through our scanning or flat photography process in our Archives, but the nature of these prints did not allow for that. To get a good image of them they had to be unfolded, then carefully flattened with a large piece of glass while being imaged. The trickiest part is to make sure the print lays as flat as possible while ensuring there isn’t any glare off the glass from the lights in the studio.
At a glance, I’m sure you’d never guess that that’s how they were photographed!
Here is a look at all the prints and the box they’re stored in.
What interesting artifact will we be photographing next? Peek through the Photo Studio’s glass doors at the back of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation on your next visit and find out!
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542
Several million guests have seen a reproduction Sibley seed box, based on an original box in our collections, in the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village since 1994, when the box became part of the reinterpreted interior. Commercial seed sales of pre-packaged vegetable and flower seeds began in earnest during the 1860s, and by the mid-1880s, Hiram Sibley & Company advertised itself as the world’s largest seed company. That might be true. Sibley, who made his fortune as executive of the Western Union Telegraph Company, invested in farms and packing houses in several states and engaged in seed trade in several foreign countries. His entrepreneurial bent warranted more exploration, as did the details of the seed packets, all stowed carefully in the box in the General Store.
The reference photograph in our collections database for the original seed box showed a box with seed packets. The accession number, 29.1987.18.1, indicated that this was an early addition to The Henry Ford’s collections—the first number, 29, means that it was acquired in 1929. The second number indicates that it was in the 1,987th lot acquired that year, and the third number indicates that the box was the 18th item in the 29.1987 grouping. In fact, as research ultimately disclosed, our collections included the box, plus 108 original seed packets and a Sibley & Co. Seed catalog.
My need to know more started a chain reaction. First, this object had been in the collection for 90 years. It has known provenance: Accession records indicate that it was purchased with other items from a store in the tiny, rural, upstate New York community of Rock Stream. The Barnes family—Charles W. and then his son, Alonzo S.—operated the store. Alonzo died in 1929, which may have precipitated the sale. Our registrars researched and catalogued all parts of the set. We also acquired archival documents—a map of the town from the time the Barnes family operated the store and two postcards of the town—for our collections to add context around the seed box.
Main Street, Rock Stream, New York, 1908-1910 / THF146163
Filling in details about seed packets required further reconnaissance. This required removing the seed box from exhibit at the end of the 2019 Greenfield Village season. Our Exhibits team moved the reproduction box and the authentic seed packets it contained to our conservation labs. Conservation staff removed the packets, checked for damage, then cleaned and prepared the packets for digitization. In the meantime, Collections Management staff located the original box in collections storage and moved it to the conservation labs for cleaning.
Once the packets were cleaned, they were moved to our archives, where the packets were imaged. After the box was cleaned, Collections Management staff moved it to the photography studio. The individual seed packets, once imaged, also were moved to the photo studio. There, the packets rejoined the box, fitting into compartments spaced to accommodate “papers” as well as multiple-ounce “packets” of seeds. The final photograph above shows the rejoined box and original seeds – cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, eggplant, onion, pea, rutabaga, tomato, turnip, and other vegetables.
Some of the individual seed packets that were digitized. See them all in our Digital Collections.
After the photo session, the seeds returned to the reproduction box, the box was sealed with its Plexiglas top to protect them, and Exhibits staff returned the box with its contents to the General Store in Greenfield Village.
It is important to note that the investigation, relocation, cleaning, digitizing, photography, and cataloging all occurred between January and March 2020, before COVID-19 closed the museum and delayed the opening of Greenfield Village. During that closure, between March 15 and July 9, the digitized records became part of numerous blogs written to meet the needs of patrons seeking information about food sources, vegetable gardening, food security—and about tomatoes!
It may seem difficult to justify the amount of time required from so many people to digitize one box and its many seed packets during the process. Each staff member involved in the process had to juggle numerous competing projects to make time to attend to the box and its packets. However, their work created invaluable digital resources that have already enhanced several of our blog posts. We may never know how many people were inspired to plant their own vegetable garden during a year of uncertainty partially, or wholly, because of “How Does Your Vegetable Garden Grow?,” or who just had to have a BLT after reading “Multiple Takes on Tomatoes.”
This is what digitization can do, and this is the effort that it takes. We all do it in the spirit of life-long learning.
Collection management staff play a crucial role in The Henry Ford's digitization process. We not only find and pull objects from their storage locations and move them to the photo studio, we also unpack or assemble objects if needed, assist the photographer with setup, repack the objects, and return them to storage after being photographed. We also track the locations of objects in the collections database as they are moved from place to place.
This graphic of our digitization process shows where collection management fits in.
Most movements are pretty straightforward and involve only minimal handling, but some objects give us a greater challenge. Sometimes it is the sheer quantity of objects that creates a challenge in coordinating and streamlining the digitization process.
One example of this type of work is our recently acquired Hallmark ornament collection. Over 6,600 ornaments were acquired, and we initially set out to digitize them all, with photography completed by the end of 2020. (Note that this goal has since been disrupted, like so many things, by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.) With this many ornaments, it became clear that a plan was needed to maximize efficiency and that it was way too much work for the present staff to accomplish due to other job duties, so contract employees were hired to work solely on the project.
We streamlined the process as much as possible, but there were still quite a few steps.
Pallets of incoming unprocessed ornaments in our storage building.
After the ornaments are catalogued by our registrars, collection management staff move the ornaments from the processing area to the Photo Studio, making sure all items are securely packed so no damage occurs during the journey. Because our campus is so large, this involves moving the objects from one building to another.
Catalogued ornaments awaiting delivery to the Photo Studio.
Upon arrival in the studio, the ornament product packages are removed from the storage cartons and then the ornaments are unpacked from their product packages. Care is taken in opening the packages, and the items are carefully removed as to not tear the boxes, damage the ornament, or lose any small pieces. The ornaments are then sorted to keep similarly sized ones together, so the photo setup doesn’t need to be changed between each photograph. Glass or shiny ornaments usually require different lighting, so these are kept in their own batch as well.
The ornaments are readied ahead of the photo shoot to easily move through the process, allowing a large number per day to be shot. We don’t want to get slowed down by taking time in between each shot to unpack the next item.
Ornaments getting prepared to be photographed.
Ornaments with their packages and accession number tags ready for photography.
Ornaments lined up on a cart, ready to be photographed.
Photographing the ornaments.
Assisting with the photography setup is also part of the job: placing the ornaments on the table, removing them after they’re photographed, making sure all parts are included in the shot, and assisting the photographer as needed.
After the photographer is done, we wrap the ornament in clean new tissue paper and carefully place it back into its product package. The product packages are then placed in new, clean archival storage boxes, sorted by year. For permanent storage, the bubble wrap that was included in the original packaging is removed, as it does not contain a stable plastic and may break down and harm the objects.
Photographed ornaments being sorted before being boxed up for storage.
Since this a very large collection, it would take up a large amount of shelf space in storage. To save space, we stack the completed cartons on a pallet. When the pallet is full, it is then shrink wrapped to keep all the cartons in place during movement to their storage location.
Palletized Boxes shrink wrapped to keep everything in place.
Diagram of location of boxes to easily locate boxes (and the individual ornaments they contain) within the pallet in the future.
Barcoded boxes ready to be palletized.
At each step of the process, from cataloging to the final storage location, the location of each ornament is tracked in our collection management database [Axiell’s EMu]. We update the location field each time we move an artifact. With 6,600 ornaments in the collection, that’s a lot to keep track of—so we streamline this step as well.
A holder location is created in EMu and a barcode is generated for each storage box and pallet used. Each time we move a box to a pallet, we scan its barcode and the one on the pallet, and all ornaments in that box get their location updated automatically in our database. Then when we move the pallet, we scan its barcode and the barcode of its storage location, and all ornaments in all the boxes on the pallet get their locations updated. This saves a lot of time and is much more efficient then updating each object individually each time.
Due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, our digitization priorities have shifted—but we were still able to digitize more than 2,000 of the Hallmark ornaments before we had to stop. You can check out some curator highlights from the collection in our Expert Set, or browse them all in our Digital Collections.
The Henry Ford is facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the impact of our 16-week closure and reduced operations. We need your help in securing our future. Love the Henry Ford? Please support all that we treasure—including our digitization program. Longtime supporters of The Henry Ford will match your donation dollar for dollar, so your contribution will have double the impact.