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Posts Tagged popular culture

We all know that 2020 was quite the year—there was a worldwide pandemic, protests across the United States, and a contentious presidential election. It’s understandable that during the year, we all had a lot on our minds.

That said, we shared more than 160 new posts on our blog during 2020. Most of these were eagerly found and devoured by our readers. But a few really great stories from our collections might have gotten lost in the shuffle—and we wanted to make sure you didn’t miss them. Here are ten of those hidden gems to help you start off 2021 right.

Happy New Year!

Explore Art and Design


Bowl in two shades of blue depicting a champagne bottle and ship, among other decorative elements
Jazz Bowl, circa 1931 / THF88364

The Jazz Bowl: Emblem of a City, Icon of an Age. Discover how a 24-year-old ceramic artist, Viktor Schreckengost, designed a bowl that both captured the essence of New York City in the early 20th century and became an icon of America’s “Jazz Age.”

Mid-century modern plywood chair
Molded Plywood Lounge Chair, 1942-1962 / THF16299

Charles and Ray Eames: Masters of Collaboration. Learn how husband-and-wife design duo Charles and Ray Eames collaborated on an early plywood leg splint, the iconic chairs they are known for, and on Mathematica, now in Henry Ford Museum!

Dive into Computers—and Computing


Photo of woman sitting among a variety of office equipment, with text and line drawings of equipment to the right side
Burroughs E8000, circa 1965 / THF298298

“Wherever There’s Business There’s Burroughs.” In this post from the William Davidson Initiative for Entrepreneurship, explore the history of the Burroughs Corporation and their entrepreneurial journey from perfecting mathematical calculating machines, through work on wartime bomb sights, to the early computer market.

Blue console with many buttons and switches
A LINC console built by Jerry Cox at the Central Institute for the Deaf, 1964.

New Acquisition: LINC Computer Console. The LINC computer may not be as familiar to you as the Apple 1, but it is in contention for the much-debated title of “the first personal computer.” Learn more about its history and the people involved in its creation.

Immerse Yourself in Pop Culture


Gold bracelet with six charms of dogs attached
Lady and the Tramp Charm Bracelet, circa 1955 / THF8604

Lady and the Tramp Celebrates 65 Years. Take a new look at an old classic—Disney’s 1955 movie Lady and the Tramp. Learn how it came to be and share in some personal memories from one of our curators.

Comic book featuring Wonder Woman lassoing two other figures, under clear plastic in a mat
Display for Sensation Comics #82

Comic Book Preservation: Tips from Our Conservators. Go behind-the-scenes in our conservation lab to learn how we take care of the comic books in our collections—and how you can take care of your own.

Examine Radio Innovations


Black rectangle with text and several dials and knobs; two batteries next to it
Pocket Radio, circa 1925 / THF156309

A “Pocket-Sized” Possibility for the Future. Our idea of what constitutes “portable” has changed over time. Learn how the “pocket radio” allowed people to take their music with them during the 1920s.

Wooden box with machinery visible inside; two rolls in foreground of picture and strip with images of several faces on left side of image
Crosley Reado Radio Printer, 1938-1940 / THF160315

Experiments with Radio Facsimile at W8XWJ. Learn about the “Press-Radio War” of the 1930s, and a revolutionary, but ultimately short-lived, experiment by Detroit News radio station W8XWJ to deliver print-at-home news.

Uncover the Stories Behind Fashion Fabrics


Page with handwritten text on left side and textile sample swatches on right side
Washington Anderton's Textile Samples Notebook, Cocheco Mfg. Co., 1876-1877 / THF670787

"Sampling" the Past: Fabrics from America's Textile Mills. Learn what textile sample books are, and take a visual tour through example pages from the extensive collection of sample books The Henry Ford received from the American Textile History Museum in 2017.

Purple glass bottle sitting next to box with images and text
Wells, Richardson & Company "Leamon's Genuine Aniline Dyes: Purple," 1873-1880 / THF170208

A More Colorful World. Discover how a chemistry student, seeking to create a synthetic cure for malaria, inadvertently created the first synthetic dye, aniline purple—and then created more, transforming the world’s access to color.


Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

COVID 19 impact, radio, popular culture, fashion, computers, design, by Ellice Engdahl

Glass case with four dress forms, each containing a garment, labels in front and additional artifacts on a low table

Another group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut in “What We Wore” in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Who knew that a company that made toilet tissue and paper towels would start a fashion sensation?

In April 1966, the Scott Paper Company launched a promotion for its new line of colorful paper products. Along with two proofs of purchase and $1.25 for shipping, customers could redeem a coupon for a paper dress, choosing from a red paisley bandana pattern or a black-and-white op art print.

The media took immediate notice. So did the public. Scott’s “Paper Caper” dresses became a surprise hit. Soon fashion enthusiasts were wearing not only Scott’s dresses, but paper apparel created by other manufacturers and designers who quickly joined in the trend.

The 1960s was an era of exploration and pushing boundaries. It was the space age--people envisioned an exciting future where everything was conveniently automated. New materials and disposability were in.

Paper apparel promised convenience--you could simply discard it after one wearing. Altering the hemline was a snap--all it took was a pair of scissors and a steady hand. A tear? You could do a quick repair with sticky tape.

The A-line shape and trendy prints of the paper dress fit perfectly with the youthful “Mod” look and aesthetic sensibilities of the 1960s. You could be up-to-the-minute at little cost--clothing could be quickly and cheaply replaced as trends shifted. There was a paper dress for every budget--from those on the shelves of mass-market retailer J.C. Penney to the chic creations carried by Manhattan boutiques.

People bought over a million paper garments between 1966 and 1968. Some envisioned throwaway clothing as the wave of the future. Yet, by early 1968, the craze was beginning to cool. Paper clothing was not really practical or comfortable for everyday use. And the hippie movement--with its back-to-nature values and strong anti-pollution message--was changing public opinion. What had seemed hip and modern now seemed frivolous and wasteful.

A bit of novelty in an era of experimentation, the paper dress fad was fun while it lasted.

The Dress That Launched a Fashion Craze


Red sleeveless shift dress with yellow paisley pattern
Label with small image of woman in black dress and text
Scott Company’s “Paper Caper” Dress and label, 1966. / THF185279, THF146282

When the Scott Paper Company created the first paper dress in 1966, they intended it as a promotional gimmick to help sell their products. But their “Paper Caper” dresses--a paisley bandana design or an Op art print--swiftly and unexpectedly caught on with the public. The publicity the dresses brought Scott far exceeded the company’s expectations. By the end of the year they received nearly a half million orders for dresses they sold at near cost.

The company made little money from sales of the dresses--but that wasn’t the point. Inadvertent fashion innovators, company executives had no intention of continuing the paper dress venture in 1967, leaving the market to eager entrepreneurs.

Woman in black-and-white geometric-patterned dress in front of what appears to be a papier mâché sculpture of a person in a landscape
Scott’s “Paper Caper” black and white Op art dress (geometric abstract art that uses optical illusion) appeared in Life Magazine in April 1966. / THF610489

“Waste Basket Boutique”


Sleeveless jumpsuit in green, red, and orange floral pattern with ties at the shoulders
Paper Jumpsuit by Waste Basket Boutique by Mars of Asheville, 1966-1968. / THF185294 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Cathy Weller.)

The Scott company’s success started a trend for disposable fashion--so other companies quickly jumped in. Mars of Asheville, a hosiery company, launched a paper fashion line in June 1966 under the label, Waste Basket Boutique. They sold colorful printed-paper dresses and other garments for adults and children in a variety of strap, neckline and sleeve styles, as well as “space age” foil paper clothing. In September, Mars debuted plain white dresses that came with watercolor paint sets for “doing your own thing.” Pop artist Andy Warhol painted one to promote the new line.

Mars of Asheville became the leading manufacturer of disposable fashion, producing over 80,000 garments each week at its height.

Three women pose in floor-length boldly geometrically patterned sleeveless dresses; styles and colors vary; also contains text
Designers embraced the trend, creating unique disposable couture for a wealthier crowd. Tzaims Luksus designed these hand-painted $1000 balls gowns for an October 1966 fundraiser at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Life Magazine, November 1966. / THF610492

Walking Ads/Walking Art


Sleeveless dress with a pattern of red-and-white Campbell’s soup cans
Campbell’s “Souper” Dress, 1967. / THF185289 (Given in Memory of Thelma D. Nykanen)

The advertising potential of these wearable “billboards” was huge. With coupons clipped from magazines, women could buy dresses from a variety of companies, including Green Giant vegetables, Butterfinger candy bars, and Breck hair care products. While some companies offered motifs that reflected their products, others followed fashion with flower power, paisley, or geometric designs.

In Spring 1967, the Campbell Soup Company produced what became the most famous paper garment of the era--this dress with its repeating soup can image. The dress not only advertised Campbell’s products--it also cleverly referenced Pop artist Andy Warhol’s iconic early 1960s depictions of the Campbell’s soup can that elevated this ordinary object to the status of art.

Two images of the same man (in a suit) and woman (in two different dresses); in the first, the woman appears pregnant; in the second, the man holds a baby; also contains text and a cutout coupon at the bottom
In 1968, the Mennen Company, makers of Baby Magic infant care products, offered women stylish paper maternity and party dresses “fashion-approved” by designer Oleg Cassini. / THF146023

Disposable Dresses Go Political


White dress with a large stylistic eagle in blue, red, and white stars, with text “Romney for President” forming part of the body
George Romney presidential primary campaign dress, 1968 / THF185284

Bumper stickers, buttons, and brochures--those were the standard things that political campaigns were made of in the 1960s. Beyond “standards,” campaigns also latch onto things that are hot at the time—and during the 1968 presidential campaign, that meant paper dresses. Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy and Republicans Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and George Romney all had versions.

This George Romney campaign dress may have been “hip,” but it didn’t do the trick for him--Romney’s bid for the nomination was unsuccessful. Nelson Rockefeller’s too.

Blue bumper sticker with white text “ROMNEY”
Two circular blue buttons with wide white band containing blue text “ROMNEY” across center
George Romney bumper sticker and campaign buttons, 1968. / THF146376, THF8545 (Buttons gift of Mr. & Mrs. Charles W. Kurth II)

When You Care Enough to WEAR the Very Best


Hot pink package with drawing of woman with short dark hair, wearing dress with pattern of holly leaves and berries; also contains text
Green package with drawing of woman with pink hair, wearing multicolored floral dress; also contains text
Hallmark Cards, Inc. paper party dresses, “Flower Fantasy” and “Holly,” 1967. / THF185309 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Diane K. Sanborn), THF185307 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Jane Crutchfield)

In the spring of 1967, the Hallmark company embraced the disposable clothing trend, marketing a complete party kit that included a printed A-line shift and matching cups, plates, placemats, napkins, and invitations. While matched sets of disposable tableware had been around for decades, a matching paper dress was a new idea.


In this era of informal entertaining, festive paper tableware (and paper fashion) made hosting parties more convenient and cleanup easier. After guests left, the hostess could simply toss everything into the trash--rather than into the dishwasher and washing machine.

Seated woman wearing floral dress with matching floral tableware, decorative honeycomb paper flower and wrapped gift nearby
With Hallmark products, a hostess could have every element of her party perfectly matched--including her “swinging new paper party dress,” 1967. / THF146021


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

What We Wore, popular culture, home life, Henry Ford Museum, fashion, by Jeanine Head Miller, advertising

Plane with white wings and body painted like a green-scaled fish, hanging upside from ceiling in front of yellow-and-red striped tent

The Curtiss JN-4 always turns heads in “Heroes of the Sky.” / THF39670

Walk into the barnstormers section of our Heroes of the Sky exhibit and odds are the first airplane to catch your eye will be our 1917 Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck” biplane. Whether it’s the airplane’s inverted attitude, its dangling wing-walker, or its fishy-looking fuselage, there’s a lot to draw your attention. And well there should be. The Curtiss Jenny was among the most significant early American airplanes.

Conceived by British designer Benjamin D. Thomas and built by American aviation entrepreneur Glenn Curtiss, the JN airplanes combined the best elements of Thomas’s earlier Model J and Curtiss’s earlier Model N trainer planes. New variants of the JN were increasingly refined. The fourth in the series, introduced in 1915, was logically designated JN-4. Pilots affectionately nicknamed it the “Jenny.” The inspiration is obvious enough, but even more so if you imagine the formal model name (JN-4) written as many flyers first saw it—with an open-top “4” resembling a “Y.”

Man standing at back of airplane with large text "CURTISS" painted on side
This Curtiss JN, circa 1915, left no doubt about its manufacturer’s identity. / THF265971

Despite not being a combat aircraft, the Curtiss Jenny became the iconic American airplane of the First World War. Some 6,000 units were built, and nine of every ten U.S. military pilots learned to fly on a Jenny. The model’s low top speed (about 75 mph) and basic but durable construction were ideal for flight instruction. Dual controls in the front and back seats allowed teacher or student to take charge of the craft at any time.

Our JN-4 is one of approximately 1,200 units built under license by Canadian Aeroplanes, Ltd., of Toronto. In a nod to their Canadian origins, these airplanes were nicknamed “Canucks.” While generally resembling American-built Jennys, the Canadian planes have a different shape to the tailfin and rudder, a refined tail skid, and a control stick rather than the wheel used stateside. (The stick became standard on later American-built Jennys.)

Man with arms upraised standing outside airplane in front of wing in midair
Barnstormer “Jersey” Ringel posed while (sort of) aboard his Jenny about 1921. / THF135786

Following the war, many American pilots were equally desperate to keep flying and to earn a living. “Barnstorming”—performing death-defying aerial stunts for paying crowds—offered a way to do both. Surplus military Jennys could be bought for as little as $300. The same qualities that suited the planes to training—durability and reliability—were just as well-suited to stunt flying. The JN-4 became the quintessential barnstormer’s plane, which explains why our Canuck is featured so prominently in the Heroes of the Sky barnstorming zone. As for the inspiration behind our plane’s paint job… that’s another kettle of fish.

Lure shaped and colored like a fish, with three-pronged hooks hanging from the tail and belly
Fishing lures, similar to this one, inspired the unusual paint scheme on our Curtiss JN-4. / THF150858

Founded in 1902, James Heddon and Sons produced fishing lures and rods at its factory in Dowagiac, Michigan. Heddon’s innovative, influential products helped it grow into one of the world’s largest tackle manufacturers. That inventive streak spilled over into Heddon’s advertising efforts. In the early 1920s, the company acquired two surplus JN-4 Canucks and painted them to resemble Heddon lures. These “flying fish” toured the airshow circuit to promote Heddon and its products. While our Canuck isn’t an original Heddon plane, it’s painted as a tribute to those colorful aircraft. (Incidentally, the Heddon Museum is well worth a visit when you’re in southwest Michigan.)

Every airplane in Heroes of the Sky has a story to tell. Some of them are even fish stories!


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Henry Ford Museum, popular culture, by Matt Anderson, flying, airplanes

Slightly rusted lunchbox with handle and front panel illustration of man in blue and red super hero outfit floating in air and fighting a large yellow robot shooting flames from its eyes; 3D text reading “Superman”

Superman lunchbox, 1954, THF145091

Comic book super heroes can now be found pretty much everywhere: movies, TV shows, handheld games, action figures, and other merchandise. For those of you unfamiliar with the universes and the multiverses, it’s easy to get confused about the plethora of super heroes that are out there today. But if you’re trying to make sense of it all, here’s the single most important thing you need to know. Is it a DC or a Marvel super hero?

To help you understand the differences between these two comic book companies’ approaches, here’s a little personality test. (If the embedded quiz below doesn't work for you, you can also access it here.)


Continue Reading

popular culture, by Donna R. Braden, comic books

Gray wall with images and text in larger building; hanging figure of superhero in right foreground
Entrance to the exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

We curators love to show off our expertise in these blog posts—with knowledge we’ve gained from books and articles and stories we’ve gleaned from our own collections. But one thing we often forget to do is to invite opinions from other staff members. As an avid comic book fan, I have written several blog posts about comic books—about my own favorites, the censorship wars of the 1950s, and how you can tell the difference between DC and Marvel superheroes.

When it came time to reflect upon the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibition currently at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, I suggested we talk to other Marvel fans who work here. They could be like ambassadors, I proposed, both for Marvel devotees and for those who are new to the Marvel Universe. What did these fans on our staff like best? What do they think other people shouldn’t miss? Below are their responses to questions I posed to them. And don’t be surprised if you find a few opinions of my own in here. Sorry. I couldn’t help it!

Mannequin in blue and red unitard hanging upside down in spotlight with silhouettes of people in windows on either side
Spider-Man photo op.

First, meet our panel.

Kate Morland is our Exhibits Manager. Although she loved Archie comics as a kid, it was the movies that first interested her in the Marvel franchise. The Spider-Man movie from 2002 was her first Marvel movie. She loved Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson. As a teenager herself at the time, she found Spider-Man relatable as a peer. Over the years, she’s broadened her interest through the different movies. Recently, she’s grown to love Guardians of the Galaxy, as she’s come to appreciate humor in tense situations. For that reason, Goose, the Flerken/cat, is another favorite!

Oversized, illuminated comic book cover with images and text; framed text and images on walls on either side
X-Men section of the exhibition.

Tim Johnson is our long-time Program Leader in Talent & Culture. He got “hooked” on Marvel through the comic books. His best friend is a massive comic book collector and got him hooked after college. As his friend tired of Tim giving him grief about his own love of “funny books,” he made Tim a bet that he would change his view after reading Watchmen by Alan Moore. He was right. After reading that series, Tim jumped into X-Men. Over time, he has continued to love a wide array of superheroes, especially the antiheroes and “gray hats” (that is, those who are not naturally “white hat” heroes--Wolverine, Punisher, and Gambit would all qualify as Gray Hats). He prefers the antiheroes because being heroic and doing the right thing doesn’t come naturally to them. That’s his “beef” about Superman (the original superhero from that other company, DC)—very little struggle with his conscience! He just naturally always did the right thing.

Melissa Foster is our Senior Manager, Public Relations, Media & Studio Productions Department. Her love for Marvel has been a “slow burn”—in a good way! She’s seen every Marvel movie—including the 2002 Spider-Man and the X-Men movies. Some are better than others, she says, but when Marvel Studios set its focus back on the Avengers, that’s really when her level of interest changed.

What started out as a general interest in the movies flourished, thanks to one of her friends, who is a giant comic enthusiast and gave her more insight into the bigger Marvel Universe and the stories behind the characters. Seeing how innovative Marvel really is when it came to stories of diversity, and making their heroes relatable beyond the big screen, changed her from an occasional enthusiast to a person who owns Marvel TOMS (i.e. casual footwear featuring images of popular Marvel characters and scenes), pays for a subscription to Disney+ so she can watch their content, and is an avid reader of their comics. The movie that really made her say, “Wow!” was Captain Marvel. She loved watching a female superhero who didn’t have a love interest on the screen—and just was a total powerhouse. To Melissa, Captain Marvel is the most powerful Avenger. She’s so happy that this female superhero is represented in the exhibition.

For me (Donna), it has always been about the comic books, which is where I started my interest back in the early 1970s. Like Kate, I found Spider-Man relatable too. Like Tim, once I discovered Marvel, I thought Superman was totally one-dimensional. And I also first learned about Marvel from my best friend.

And now, on to the questions…

Q: What were the most memorable parts of the exhibit to you? Why?

  • Kate: In my role, I look at both the guest perspective as well as how the exhibit comes together during installation. The most memorable part to me is Dr. Strange’s mirror dimension. Not only do we have two highly recognizable costumes from the film, but the immersive set, including disorienting mirrors and projection, is so intricate and transporting. All of the work that went into its construction was really worth it.
  • Tim: Oh, boy, that’s a toughie! I loved the original artwork, since I have no artistic skill whatsoever and wish I did. The photo ops are tremendous, especially hanging on the couch with The Thing. The flow of the exhibit is on point, and I am always into the backstories of the characters and creators.
  • Melissa: I’ve seen the exhibit many times—including once before it came to The Henry Ford—and every time I walk through, something new strikes my interest. One of the most memorable things for me during all of this has been watching the “mini”-superheroes dressed in their Iron Man, Black Panther, Spiderman, and Captain Marvel costumes, coming in and not wanting to leave. I was on a shoot with a film crew one day and we were filming a tiny Iron Man interacting with the “Be Iron Man” experience in the exhibit. His mom looked at me and said, “We’ve been in here for two hours and he won’t leave.” That, to me, was amazing. I love watching people connect with our exhibits, and this one has brought in so many different and interesting connections.
  • Donna: I loved both reconnecting with my “old friends”—Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer—and becoming familiar with superheroes I didn’t know that well. And, like Melissa said, watching the families go through the exhibit is fascinating. It is so rare to see an exhibit where the kids are the experts!

Dark room with illuminated images at various angles
Mirrors in Dr. Strange section of exhibition.

Oversize mannequin with orange reptilian skin sitting on couch with illuminated drawing of city skyline behind him; additional cases and framed drawings on wall to right
Photo op with The Thing.

Q: What is your single favorite object or feature in the exhibit? Why?

  • Kate: My favorite object to talk about in the exhibit is right at the beginning—an original copy of Marvel Comics #1 from 1939. I’m a sap for a good origin story, and the beginning of the franchise is as good as any.
  • Tim: The photo ops, both in the exhibit and the photo booth outside. Who wouldn’t love seeing their picture in a comic book? Best $8 souvenir ever!
  • Melissa: If you go into Dr. Strange’s Mirror Maze, be sure to walk back through the opposite way one time, or at least look back before taking in the X-Men artwork. The kaleidoscope effect of the artwork displayed is absolutely beautiful, and it’s something you can’t get the full effect of if you walk through only once.
  • Donna: The issue of Amazing Fantasy #15, from 1962—the first appearance of Spider-Man. I never get tired of that!


Comic book cover with images and text in case
Marvel Comics #1 from 1939

Three framed drawings with text and images on wall; additional text and images in lighted case below and to right
Original artwork for
The Incredible Hulk comic books.

Q: If you were to describe the exhibit to someone who is new to Marvel, how might you describe it?

  • Kate: I would describe the exhibit as an excellent one-hour overview to the franchise. When I first saw the exhibit at a previous venue, I was astounded by how much was covered. If someone is considering jumping into Marvel comics, movies, or shows, they can certainly find a hook in our exhibit that could lead to continuing interests.
  • Tim: It’s a wonderfully immersive way to both experience the character history of Marvel and to enjoy a tangible way of putting yourself into their world.
  • Melissa: I would describe it as an exhibit for everyone. Seriously, people who love the movies might be interested in seeing their favorite character’s costume up close, but don’t skip the original artwork. There are some very talented artists at Marvel, and I think the work within this exhibit, would be appealing to even those who have zero interest in comics.
  • Donna: It’s great if you have a Marvel fan as your tour guide but the exhibition nicely helps you understand the characters and the Marvel Universe without having to feel embarrassed in front of your friends or family!


Person looking toward intersection of two walls with images and text
“Become Iron Man” interactive.

Q: What should they not miss?

  • Kate: “Become Iron Man” is such a fun interactive because you get to pretend to wear one of his suits and practice shooting targets. It’s my favorite interactive in the exhibit.
  • Tim: Bring a camera! You will want to capture and preserve the memories you create!
  • Melissa: Do NOT miss the Ant Man and Wasp area of the exhibit located just behind Spiderman. You won’t regret it. Its whimsical, and quirky—and I love it. If it wasn’t for the cool kaleidoscope feature of Dr. Strange’s Mirror Dimension, it would be my favorite part of the exhibit.


Three mannequins in costumes in case with text panel to left
Costumes from the Black Panther film.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

  • Kate: Marvel has such a long history that one of the best parts of hosting the exhibit is the intergenerational relationships that it nurtures. I love seeing two or three generations of Marvel fans walk through together, swapping stories of different plot points from stories about the same character over the decades.
  • Tim: Marvel is one of the best exhibits we have hosted in the Gallery. It is colorful, informative, and fun for all ages. I can’t remember another exhibit we have hosted that was as much pure kick-in-the-pants fun. To sum the exhibit up in one word, let me quote Marvel legend Stan Lee—“Excelsior!”
  • Melissa: This year has been such a difficult one for everyone. Sometimes it’s nice to escape the reality for a minute and get distracted by something fun. The Marvel exhibit does just that. Even if you aren’t a fan of Marvel, just walking through and seeing the excitement it brings to so many, might be a little—dare I say it—contagious—in a good way!


So…there you have it! Thanks, Kate, Tim, and Melissa! We hope this little fan exchange has whetted your appetite to see—or return to see—the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibition before it closes at the end of January 2021. And no doubt you have—or will have—stories of your own to tell!


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Check out these links for her previous blogposts related to comic books:Hooked on Comic Books,” “Comic Books Under Attack,” and “Battle of the Superheroes.” All photographs courtesy of Caroline Braden.

#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, popular culture, events, by Donna R. Braden, Henry Ford Museum, comic books

My name is Shannon Rossi, and I’m a Collections Specialist, Cataloger, for archival items. I started at The Henry Ford as a Simmons Intern in 2018, and have been a Collections Specialist since March 2019. Anyone who knows me knows that I love The Wizard of Oz. It is my favorite film. I collect Oz memorabilia and am a member of The International Wizard of Oz Club.

The artifact I’m going to talk about here is related to The Wizard of Oz. But it’s not the artifact you might expect.

Green, red, and beige cover with illustration of lion and text
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first edition, 1900 / THF135495

On my second day as a Simmons intern in 2018, Sarah Andrus, Librarian at The Henry Ford, showed me a beautiful first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The little girl who used to dance around the house singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” rejoiced when I was able to hold that book in my hands. In my own collection of Oz memorabilia, I have a 1939 edition, but this was another experience entirely.

Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the 1939 musical starring Judy Garland. I signed up to do a History Outside the Box presentation to commemorate the anniversary. History Outside the Box allows us to showcase some of our archival items that visitors to The Henry Ford might not otherwise get a chance to see. In addition to the first edition book, I knew we had some fantastic Oz artifacts in our collection. We have copies of the special edition TV Guides that came out in July 2000, each with one of the main characters on the cover. We have sheet music for “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and “Over the Rainbow,” a coloring book from the 1950s, an original 1939 advertisement for the film an issue of Life magazine, and a photograph of Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) when he visited Greenfield Village in the 1960s.

Older man in hat and sweater with three boys
Bert Lahr Signing Autographs during a Visit to Greenfield Village, August 22, 1966 / THF128032

The artifact I want to talk about isn’t as famous or recognizable as anything I listed above. You pretty much have to be a diehard Oz fan (or have worked on acquiring, cataloging, or digitizing this item—which I did not) to even associate much meaning with it.

While browsing our collections for archival items to use in my History Outside the Box presentation, I found a theater program from the 1903 musical production of The Wizard of Oz at the Boston Theatre. (Be honest, how many of you knew that the 1939 film wasn’t the first musical production of Oz?)

Program cover with text, image of lion, floral border
Theater Program, "The Wizard of Oz," Boston Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts, 1903 / THF93092

We’ve established that I am a huge Oz fan. I knew about this production, as well as several of the early film productions (check them out if you get a chance!), but I had never seen a program from the show. This program is not visually spectacular. It is black and white. The vivid colors and magical illustrations from W.W. Denslow that are featured in the Oz first edition are conspicuously absent. In fact, the only illustration that anyone might associate with Oz is on the cover, which features a beautiful illustration of the Cowardly Lion about to fall asleep among a field of poppies that create a border around the page.

The story and lyrics for this musical adaptation was written by L. Frank Baum, but not all of it would seem familiar. We’d see, of course, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Wizard. The Cowardly Lion, however, cannot speak, as he does in the book and almost every later adaption, nor does he ever befriend Dorothy. Dorothy’s house doesn’t land on any Wicked Witch. Nor does she receive any magical slippers (silver, as in the book, or ruby, as in the movie). Even our favorite precocious Cairn Terrier, Toto, is missing from this story. Toto is replaced by a cow named Imogene, who serves as Dorothy’s Kansas companion.

Two pages with "List of Characters, Act I," and ads with images and text
The cast list for Act I in the program includes Dorothy Gale and “Dorothy’s playmate,” the cow Imogene. / THF141760

The action in Oz has to do with political tensions between the Wizard and Pastoria, the King of Oz (who does appear in later Oz books). In fact, even real-life politicians and notable members of society at the time, including Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, were mentioned in the script.

The Boston Theatre production that audiences saw in November 1903 featured songs by composer Paul Tietjens, who had approached L. Frank Baum about creating an Oz musical as early as March 1901. Tietjens wasn’t exactly famous, but the play did feature some well-known actors of the early 20th century.

Most importantly, there are two names in the program that stand out: Fred Stone and David Montgomery. The two actors were paired on stage in many vaudeville shows. The pair played the Scarecrow and Tin Man in this musical adaptation. Later, when Ray Bolger was cast as the Scarecrow in the 1939 musical, he would credit Stone with inspiring his “boneless” style of dance and movement as the character.

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Page seven of the program lists actors Fred A. Stone as the Scarecrow and David C. Montgomery as the Tin Woodman / THF141761

I’m grateful that this artifact was digitized. It’s not something you see or hear about very often, but it has a lot of power for Oz fans like me. That’s the power of digitization—the impact of a digitized artifact doesn’t have to reach huge audiences, if it reaches a smaller but enthusiastic audience. Digitization can allow us to marvel (slight pun about Professor Marvel in the 1939 musical definitely intended…) at an object we know exists somewhere out in the world, but have never seen before.

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actors, acting, popular culture, archives, books, #digitization100K, digital collections, digitization, by Shannon Rossi

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Comic book covers from the collections of The Henry Ford. See them in our Digital Collections here.

Comic books, like all things, change as they age and not necessarily for the better. Whether from the golden, silver or modern age, comic books are all printed on paper that is made from wood pulp. Lignin (a substance found in wood) breaks down and causes the paper to become increasingly acidic, discolored and brittle. Those of you who collect comic books have certainly seen and handled extremely brittle and discolored books. Conservators refer to this the inherent instability of wood pulp paper as “inherent vice.”

If you wish to preserve your comics, you need to take measures to combat this inherent vice by minimizing factors that accelerate deterioration. Steps that you can take to fend off inherent vice include:

  • Limiting exposure to high levels of moisture, either in the form of water or high humidity. Both can damage comics and accelerate degradation.
  • Avoiding exposure to ultraviolet and visible light, which can cause inks to fade and paper to become yellow.
  • Using inappropriate non-archival storage or display materials, such as PVC vinyl plastic bags or boxes, inexpensive wood pulp cardboard boxes, wood pulp mat boards, wooden boxes or wooden frames. Contact with these can cause discoloration.
  • Avoiding frequent handling.

 

In this video, recorded live in the conservation lab at The Henry Ford, Chief Conservator Mary Fahey demonstrates how to store, display, repair, and preserve your comic books.

What can be done to preserve comic books?

Take measures to limit exposure to moisture by placing books in archival bags or sleeves made from polypropylene, polyethylene or polyethyleneterephalate (Mylar).

Never store comic books directly on the floor.

Avoid storing books in attics, basements or other damp areas. If no alternative is available, use watertight polyethylene or polypropylene boxes and add a few silica gel packets conditioned to 45-50% relative humidity. The packets will need to be changed periodically.

Limit exposure to light including visible and invisible ultraviolet light. If you wish to display your comics, consider display methods that limit light exposure by avoiding display near windows and turning off the lights when you are not in the room. If you choose to display your books in a lighted showcase case, LEDs on a timer are the best option since they emit minimal ultraviolet light and minimal heat. At The Henry Ford, we have noticed that Mylar covers appear to block some of the damaging effects of light, providing some protection from fading.

All books should be bagged and boarded or encapsulated (see image below) for storage, display and handling. This protects them from dirt and moisture, minimizes flexing and stress of the fragile paper, and protects from the oil and salt in people’s hands. The use of archival materials and methods for storage and display can have a big impact on the longevity of your collection.

Hand sliding comic book onto a board with plastic over top

The use of acid-free, lignin-buffered mat board, boxes and paper inserts are recommended. These products are made from cotton, and generally contain calcium carbonate, which helps to neutralize the acid that is formed in the comic books as they age. They do cost a bit more, but are well worth it. The Henry Ford uses a variety of display and storage methods for comic books. Some examples include:

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popular culture, conservation, comic books, collections care, by Mary Fahey

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Postcard, “Disneyland,” 1975.
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Welcome to Disneyland!

Disneyland was created from a combination of Walt Disney’s innovative vision, the creative efforts and technical genius of the team he put together, and the deep emotional connection the park elicits with guests when they visit there. Walt Disney himself claimed, “There is nothing like it in the entire world. I know because I’ve looked. That’s why it can be great: because it will be unique.” Here’s the story of how Walt created Disneyland, the first true theme park.

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Souvenir Book, “Disneyland,” 1955. THF 205151

Disneyland is much like Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida, but it’s smaller and more intimate. To me, it seems more “authentic.” It’s like you can almost feel the presence of Walt Disney everywhere because he had a personal hand in things.

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Walt Disney posing the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1940. THF 109756

In creating Disneyland, Walt Disney challenged many rules of traditional amusement parks. We’ll see how. But first…since he insisted that everyone he met call him by his first name, that’s what we’ll do. From now on, I’ll be referring to him as Walt!

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Souvenir Book, “Disneyland,” 1955. THF 205155

DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Do you know where Walt Disney’s inspiration for Main Street, USA, came from?

ANSWER:
Born in 1901, Walt loved the bustling Main Street of his boyhood home in Marceline, Missouri. Marceline later provided the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street, USA.

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Map and guide, “Hollywood Movie Capital of the World,” circa 1942. THF 209523

After trying different animated film techniques in Kansas City, Walt left to seek his fortune in Hollywood.

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Valentine, 1938. THF 335750

There, he made a name for himself with Mickey Mouse (1927) and—10 years later—the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White. Walt innately understood what appealed to the American public and later brought this to Disneyland.

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Handkerchief, circa 1935. THF 128151

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: Here’s how Mickey Mouse looked on a child’s handkerchief in the 1930s.

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“Merry-Go-Round-Waltz,” 1949.
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Walt claimed the idea of Disneyland came to him while watching his two daughters ride the carousel in L.A.’s Griffith Park. There, he began to imagine a clean, safe, friendly place where parents and children could have fun together!

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Herschell-Spillman Carousel.
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DISNEY INSIDER INFO: That carousel in Griffith Park was built in 1926 by the Spillman Engineering Company—a later name for the Herschell-Spillman Company, the company that made the carousel now in our own Greenfield Village in 1913! Here’s what ours looks like.

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Coney Island, New York, circa 1905 –
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DISNEY INSIDER INFO:
For more on the evolution of American amusement parks, see my blog post, “From Dreamland to Disneyland: American Amusement Parks.”

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1958 Edsel Bermuda Station Wagon Advertisement, “Dramatic Edsel Styling is Here to Stay.” THF 124600

The decline of these older amusement parks ironically coincided with the rapid growth of suburbs, freeways, car ownership, and an unprecedented baby boom—a market primed for pleasure travel and family fun!

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Young Girl Seated on a Carousel Horse, circa 1955. THF 105688

Some amusement parks added “kiddie” rides and, in some places, whole new “kiddie parks” appeared. But that’s not what Walt had in mind. Adults still sat back and watched their kids have all the fun.

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Chicago Railroad Fair Official Guidebook, 1948. THF 285987

Walt’s vision for his family park also came from his lifelong love of steam railroads. In 1948, he and animator/fellow train buff Ward Kimball visited the Chicago Railroad Fair and had a ball. Check out the homage to old steam trains in this program.

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Tintype of Walt and Ward. THF 109757

After the Railroad Fair, Walt and Ward visited our own Greenfield Village, where they enjoyed the small-town atmosphere during a special tour. At the Tintype Studio, they had their portrait taken while dressed up as old-time railroad engineers.

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Walt Disney and Artist Herb Ryman with illustration proposals for the Ford Pavilion, 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. THF 114467

DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Walt Disney used the word Imagineers to describe the people who helped him give shape to what would become Disneyland. What two words did he combine to create this new word?

ANSWER: Walt hand-picked a group of studio staff and other artists to help him create his new family park. He later referred to them as Imagineers—combining the words imagination and engineering. This image shows Walt with Herb Ryman—one of his favorite artists.

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: For a deeper dive on an early female Imagineer, see my blog post, “The Exuberant Artistry of Mary Blair.”

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Postcard viewbook of Los Angeles, California. THF 7376

Walt continually looked for new ideas and inspiration for his park, including places around Los Angeles, like Knott’s Berry Farm, the Spanish colonial-style shops on Olvera Street, and the bustling Farmer’s Market—one of Walt’s favorite hangouts.

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Times Square – Looking North – New York City, August 7, 1948. THF 8840

Walt also worried about how people got fatigued in large and crowded environments. So, he studied pathways, traffic flow, and entrances and exits at places like fairs, circuses, carnivals, national parks, museums, and even the streets of New York City.

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Souvenir Book, “Disneyland,” 1955. THF 205154

Studying these led to Walt’s first break from traditional amusement parks: the single entrance. Amusement park operators argued this would create congestion, but Walt wanted visitors to experience a cohesive “story”—like walking through scenes of a movie.

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Souvenir Book, “Disneyland,” 1955. THF 205152

Another new idea in Walt’s design was the central “hub,” that led to the park’s four realms, or lands, like spokes of a wheel. Walt felt that this oriented people and saved steps. Check out the circular hub in front of the castle on this map.

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Disneyland cup & saucer set, 1955-1960. THF 150182

A third rule-challenging idea in Walt’s plan was the attractor, or “weenie” for each land—in other words, an eye-catching central feature that drew people toward a goal. The main attractor was, of course, Sleeping Beauty Castle.

To establish cohesive stories for each land, Walt insisted that the elements in them fit harmoniously together—from buildings to signs to trash cans. This idea—later called “theming”—was Walt’s greatest and most unique contribution.

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Halsam Products, “Walt Disney’s Frontierland Logs,” 1955-1962. THF 173562

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: This Lincoln Logs set reinforced the look and theming of Frontierland in Disneyland.

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Woman’s Home Companion, March 1951. THF 5540

DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Which came first, Disneyland the park, or Disneyland the TV show?

ANSWER: To build his park, Walt lacked one important thing—money! So, he took a risk on the new medium of TV. While most Hollywood moviemakers saw TV as a fad or as the competition, Walt saw it as “my way of going direct to the public.” Disneyland the TV show premiered October 27, 1954—with weekly features relating to one of the four lands and glimpses of Disneyland the park being built.

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Child’s coonskin cap, 1958-1960. THF 8168

The TV show was a hit, but never more than when three Davy Crockett episodes aired in late 1954 and early 1955.

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Souvenir Book, “Disneyland,” 1955. THF 205153

Disneyland, the park, opened July 17, 1955, to special guests and the media. So many things went wrong that day that it came to be called “Black Sunday.” But Walt was determined to fix the glitches and soon turned things around.

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: For more on “Black Sunday” and the creation of Disneyland, see my blog post, “Happy Anniversary, Disneyland.”

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Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom guidebook, 1988. THF 134722

Today, themed environments from theme parks to restaurants to retail stores owe a debt to Walt Disney. Sadly, Walt Disney passed away in 1966. It was his brother Roy who made Walt Disney World in Florida a reality, beginning with Magic Kingdom in 1971.

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Torch Lake steam locomotive pulling passenger cars in Greenfield Village, August 1972. THF 112228

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: In an ironic twist, a steam railroad was added to the perimeter of Greenfield Village for the first time during a late 1960s expansion—an attempt to be more like Disneyland!

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Marty Sklar speaking at symposium for “Behind the Magic” at Henry Ford Museum, November 11, 1995. THF 12415

In 2005, The Henry Ford celebrated Disneyland’s 50th anniversary with a special exhibit, “Behind the Magic: 50 Years of Disneyland.” The amazing and talented Marty Sklar, then head of Walt Disney Imagineering, made that possible.

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: Check out this blog post I wrote to honor Marty’s memory when he passed away in 2017.

During these unprecedented times, Disneyland has begun its phased reopening. When you feel safe and comfortable going there, I suggest adding it to your must-visit (or must-return) list. When you're there, you can look around for Walt Disney's influences, just like I do.

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, popular culture, Disney, by Donna R. Braden

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June 1955 magazine advertisement for the release of Lady and the Tramp. THF145583

Although this animated feature film received mixed reviews when it was first released on June 22, 1955, Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp has since become a classic.  It is beloved for its songs, its story, its gorgeously rendered and meticulously detailed settings, and its universal themes of love and acceptance—not to mention that scene with the spaghetti!  Numerous story artists and animators contributed their talents to creating this film, but it would take years before Walt Disney would finally give it his nod of approval. 

Unlike other Disney animated films of the time, Lady and the Tramp is not based upon a venerable old fairy tale or a previously published book.  Its origins can be traced back to 1937, when Disney story artist Joe Grant showed Walt Disney some sketches and told him of his idea for a story based upon the antics of his own English Springer Spaniel named Lady, who was “shoved aside” when the family’s new baby arrived.  Walt encouraged Grant to develop the story but was unhappy with the outcome—feeling that Lady seemed too sweet and that the story didn’t have enough action.  For the next several years, Grant and other artists worked on a variety of conceptual sketches and many different approaches. 

In 1945, the storyline took a drastic turn, which ultimately led to its final film version.  That year, Walt Disney read a magazine short story called, “Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog.”  Here, in the story of a cynical, devil-may-care dog, Walt found the perfect foil for the prim and proper Lady.  By 1953, the film had evolved to the point that Walt asked Ward Greene, the short story’s author, to write a novelization of it.  It is Greene—not Joe Grant—who received credit in the final film.  Walt couldn’t resist adding a personal tidbit to the story.  According to his telling of the story, the opening scene came from his own experience of giving his wife a puppy as a gift in a hat box to make up for having forgotten a dinner date with her. 

Interestingly, the spaghetti-eating scene was almost cut, as Walt Disney initially thought it was silly and unromantic.  But animator Frank Thomas had such a strong vision for the scene that he completed all the animation for it before showing it to Walt, who was so impressed he agreed to keep in the now-iconic scene.

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1955 charm bracelet of the dogs in Lady and the Tramp, likely a souvenir obtained at Disneyland. THF8604

Since the dogs were the main characters of the film, it seemed only natural to both show and tell the story from the dogs’ point of view.  The animators studied many real dogs to capture their movements, behaviors, and personalities, while the scenes themselves were shot from a low “dog’s-eye-view” perspective.

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A depiction of Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland from the 1955 Picture Souvenir Book to the park. THF205154

The film’s setting—early 20th century small-town America—referenced Walt Disney’s own return to his roots, particularly his growing up in the small town of Marceline, Missouri.  As the setting was coming to life on film, a real live 3D version of it was being constructed at Disneyland, Walt Disney’s new park in Anaheim, California.  Disneyland opened a mere three weeks after the film was released.

Although the setting hearkened back to the past, the filmmaking technique that Walt chose was typically state-of-the-art.  As Walt marked the growing interest in widescreen film technology, he decided this would be the first of his animated films to use CinemaScope.  To fill in the extra-wide space of this format, the animators extended the backgrounds—resulting in settings that are unusually breathtaking, detailed, mood-setting and, when the story called for it, filled with dramatic tension.  Unfortunately, many theatres were not equipped with CinemaScope, so Walt decided that two versions of the film had to be created, forcing layout artists to scramble to restructure key scenes for a standard format as well.  CinemaScope ultimately proved too expensive and did not last past the early 1960s.  But its influence on Lady and the Tramp lives on—a testament to Walt’s commitment to filmmaking innovation.

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Although souvenirs related to Lady and the Tramp are hard to come by these days, I was thrilled to find these salt-and-pepper shakers and collectible pins over several visits to Walt Disney World.

I saw Lady and the Tramp when it was re-released in theatres in 1962.  I was nine years old at the time and I was completely enraptured.  The details and setting—from the frilly ladies’ dresses, dapper men’s suits, and overstuffed furniture inside Lady’s house to the horses’ clip-clopping down the cobblestone streets—seemed like old photographs come to life.  Taking in these details on the big screen as a girl, I was transfixed.  Is this where my interest in history began?

After seeing Lady and the Tramp at the movies, I also became obsessed with wanting a dog.  Not just any dog.  I wanted Lady, or a cocker spaniel as close to Lady as I could get.  I dreamed of her, drew pictures of her, transferred her personality onto the stuffed dogs I inevitably got as presents.  When I was in eighth grade, my parents finally relented.  One day my Mom surprised us and took us kids down to the animal shelter to get a dog.  It wasn’t a cocker spaniel.  But we did find a little golden-haired puppy that was a fine substitute. 

I don’t know that I thought much of Tramp when I was a girl.  He was wayward, a nuisance, too different.  But from my older perspective, I see that Lady meeting, and ultimately falling for, Tramp was really a symbol of what happens in your life.  Forced out of your comfort zone, broadening your horizons, seeing things from new perspectives, taking life’s curves with grace until, rather than resisting it, you accept it—even embrace it. 

Who knew, when I was a girl, that this movie was not just about dogs but about life? 

Note: The complete story of the making of Lady and the Tramp, including Joe Grant’s contributions, can be found in the bonus feature, “Lady’s Pedigree: The Making of Lady and the Tramp,” in the 50th Anniversary DVD of Lady and the Tramp.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. 

by Donna R. Braden, popular culture, movies, Disney

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An early version of Kermit the Frog appeared in Henson’s
Sam and Friends TV puppet show, but Kermit became a breakout star during The Muppet Show. THF304042

It’s hard to believe that May 16, 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Jim Henson’s passing. His influence can still be seen in so many places: on-demand TV shows, movies, and specials; related books, toys, games, and other merchandise; and modern-day puppets, puppet performances, and puppeteers.

In his lifetime, Henson’s titles included puppeteer, writer, director, producer, and entrepreneur. But titles can be misleading because he was so much more than these. A brilliant innovator, he continually questioned the status quo, broke boundaries, and experimented with new ideas. By stretching the known capabilities of both puppetry and the medium of television (and, then, of motion pictures), he created a new art form. And, in the process, he inspired us—the viewers—to use our imaginations, to take ourselves less seriously, and to treat others with greater tolerance.

Jim Henson (born 1936) was drawn to the arts at a young age, including an early fascination with puppetry. When he entered college, he thought about majoring in fine arts. But he found—buried in the course list of the home economics department at his school—a class on puppetry. So, even though most of the students majoring in home economics were females learning domestic skills for future homemaking, he decided that would be his major.

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Henson was inspired by early radio and TV puppets, including Charlie McCarthy, a “cheeky” boyish dummy voiced by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
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As a freshman in college, Henson developed his own TV puppet show called Sam and Friends, which appeared briefly twice each evening. While working on this show, Henson started questioning many long-standing puppetry traditions. Why not, for example, use the entire frame of the TV screen as the actual puppet theater stage rather than bringing a separate puppet stage into the TV studio? Wouldn’t it follow, he then asked, that the puppet operators could work from off-camera rather than appearing to viewers on the screen?

Henson moved from there to questioning the puppets themselves. Why not make them more lifelike, with flexible fabric-covered foam rubber rather than the traditional carved wood? Why not use rods to move their arms—rather than the more traditional strings—to give them greater flexibility? Why not make the puppets’ mouth movements more precise to match their dialog—enhancing their believability and letting their full range of emotions be conveyed through words as well as actions? Finally, why not give the characters distinct personalities? Better yet, imbue their personalities with whimsy, playfulness, and humor. As Henson continued to refine his ideas and his characters, an entirely new kind of puppet was born—part puppet, part marionette, and all Henson. He called his new creations Muppets.

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During his early career, Henson studied the artistry of traditional wood-carved marionettes when he spent time in Europe.
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The publicity that Henson gained with his Sam and Friends show led to his invention of a host of new Muppet characters for a range of TV commercials. By this time, the 1960s, it seemed that people were coming to appreciate humor, irony, and satire more than the serious “hard sell” that had been the norm.

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Adding life-size Muppets like Big Bird to the regular cast of Sesame Street increased the show’s popularity.
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Though he was initially reluctant to collaborate on a TV show aimed specifically at kids, Henson experienced their first major breakthrough with Sesame Street, which premiered in 1969 (for more on Sesame Street, see this post).

But Henson’s greatest claim to fame came with The Muppet Show (1976-81)—produced in England because American TV networks wrongly assumed that Muppets would just appeal to kids. Hosted by his somewhat “bolder” alter-ego, Kermit the Frog (whom he controlled and voiced), this show introduced millions of viewers to Henson’s unique blend of humor and imagination. The Muppet Show would go on to air in more than 100 countries, win several Emmy awards, and lead to several spin-off motion pictures.

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The song “Rainbow Connection,” first written to provide depth and humanity to Kermit the Frog’s character for the 1979 film,
The Muppet Movie, has gone on to become a sort of Muppets anthem. THF182956

Jim Henson went on to contribute his talents and ideas to new fantasy/adventure films, most famously aiding in the creation and articulation of Yoda for the 1980 film, The Empire Strikes Back. He tried his hand with a few of his own fantasy/adventure films, including The Dark Crystal (1981) and Labyrinth (1986)—both of which were destined to become cult classics. He also created two additional popular TV series—Fraggle Rock (1983-87) and the Saturday morning animated show, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies (1984-91). Just before his passing, Henson worked with The Walt Disney Company to develop the themed attraction, Muppet*Vision 3D at Walt Disney World.

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Fraggle Rock characters Wembly and Boober in a pickle-shaped vehicle from a 1988 McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion.
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Inspired by a flashback sequence in the film,
The Muppets Take Manhattan, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies were represented in the McDonald’s 1994 Happy Birthday Happy Meal promotion. THF319291

Today, Jim Henson’s Muppets delight children of all ages. Henson once claimed that, with puppets, you can deal with subjects in a way that isn’t possible with people. The Muppets may not be people, but they certainly reflect who we are as people, providing a mirror to our thoughts, hopes, and dreams.

Jim Henson had plenty of his own dreams. He wanted to make a difference in the world, to change people’s lives in positive ways—through laughter, delight, and imagination. Henson once said that, “I decided that there are many situations in this life that I can’t do much about: acts of terrorism, feelings of nationalistic prejudice, cold war, etc. So what I should do is concentrate on the situations my energy can affect.” Wise and timeless words for the times we live in today!

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Appearing in short segments on
Sesame Street, ultra-serious Bert and fun-loving Ernie demonstrate to kids that good friends can be tolerant of each other’s differences. THF309817, THF309818

During his lifetime, Henson was deeply committed to encouraging, mentoring, and recognizing the talents of a new generation of puppeteers. In 1982, he established the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop puppetry in the United States. Today, the Jim Henson Foundation’s web site is the go-to place to find out what’s happening in contemporary puppet theatre and currently features extensive listings of online puppet shows to “help people collectively navigate the COVID-19 Health Crisis.” Instructions for making your own puppets are included here as well. Through his efforts, and those of his family who carry on his vision, Jim Henson’s legacy has ensured that puppetry is no longer relegated simply to home economics classes but has become a highly respected art form.

Jim Henson and his legacy live on, through Muppet programs and specials; Muppet operators and performers; those who have cherished memories of growing up with Muppet characters and pass these on to younger generations; new audiences who have discovered the old classic characters and shows; and the modern-day puppeteers Henson has inspired.

At a special tribute by the Muppets for Jim Henson back in 1990, Robin the Frog (Kermit’s nephew) remarked that, “Jim Henson may be gone, but maybe he’s still here too, inside us, believing in us.”

I like to believe this is true.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

Additional Note: Just down the road from The Henry Ford, The Detroit Institute of Arts recently brought out on exhibit a 1969 version of Kermit, donated to them by Jim Henson himself in 1971. See more here.

movies, TV, popular culture