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A man holds beakers of liquid up to an apparatusSoybean Processing for Fiber and Oil, Ford Exposition, New York World's Fair, 1939 / THF216213

 

A New Partnership


Today, on National Agriculture Day, The Henry Ford is pleased to announce a new partnership with the Michigan Soybean Committee to deepen our understanding of this important crop, from field to factory.

The Michigan Soybean Committee works on behalf of Michigan’s 12,000 soybean farmers to drive demand, fund research advancements, share the story of agriculture, and identify ways to help farmers grow soybeans sustainably for generations to come. Michigan Soybean Committee has a renewed focus on consumer outreach and working with partners to provide information to the public about soybeans and agriculture in the state of Michigan. The collections of The Henry Ford help tell the long history of soy, and especially the launch of the legume in Michigan, a project with a long history dating back to Henry Ford himself. Michigan Soybean Committee is excited to work with The Henry Ford to provide the public with the chance to learn more about agriculture and the innovations that have helped farmers feed the world.

Large field with short bushy plants in neat rows
Soybeans Planted in 30-inch Rows / Photo courtesy Michigan Soybean Committee

Why Soybeans?


The soybean (soya bean, Glycine max) moved from relatively obscure forage crop in 1920 to center stage on global markets in 2020. Today soybean farmers in 19 states, including Michigan, raise 96% of the more than 4 billion bushels of beans produced in the United States. Each of those soybeans contains oil, protein, and biomass, attributes that processors use to transform the soybean into valuable products.

Woman holds stick or gauge over large metal vat containing liquid
Mrs. Hardy Checking Soybean Milk in Ford Lab, March 1944 / THF272478

Today we encounter soybeans in almost every aspect of our daily lives, but we may not recognize the legume, even when we use or consume it. Drink soymilk? Use a non-dairy creamer or whipped topping? Eat chocolate? Use soy oil for cooking? Is your candle made of soy? How about the bioplastic coating your take-out food container or disposable coffee cup? Have you ever filled your vehicle with biodiesel? These products, and many more, likely include ingredients derived from soybeans. The Michigan Soybean Committee recommends the United Soybean Board website https://soynewuses.org/ as a good resource to learn even more about all of the products made with soy.

Building, parking lot, and something formed to look like three giantic cans of "Presto Whip" canned whipped cream
Presto Whip Building, Dearborn, Michigan, 1976 / THF115752

Why Soybean Stories from The Henry Ford?


Our founder, Henry Ford, was intrigued by and invested in research on the humble soybean, both as a food source and for use in industrial products. Our collections contain much information on these topics. You can read more about “Soybeans: Henry Ford’s Miracle Crop,” or explore related artifacts in this Expert Set that illustrates Henry Ford’s soybean research, some of which took place at the Soybean Laboratory (now the Soybean Lab Agricultural Gallery) in Greenfield Village. A clip from the first season of The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation features host Mo Rocca and Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, in the Soybean Lab discussing “Different Uses of Soybeans.” Content related to that episode includes a soyfoods Expert Set and one of our most popular research inquiries from guests, information about Henry Ford’s soybean plastic car.

Two men in suits, one wearing a hat, look at something in a field
Robert Boyer and Henry Ford in a Soybean Field, 1936 / THF98619

Black chemists contributed to this soybean research. Paul Foster focused on food research. “Paul Foster and Food Research in Henry Ford’s Laboratories, 1930-1942” introduces readers to Foster and explores some of the soy recipes that resulted from research he conducted. George Washington Carver and his assistant, Austin Curtis, Jr., chemists working at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, shared Henry Ford’s enthusiasm for chemurgy (industrial uses for raw materials). Both Carver and Curtis participated in the third Dearborn Conference on Industry in 1937, featuring lectures by chemists working with farm-grown crops and industrial products, and Curtis even worked one summer in Ford’s Greenfield Village Soybean Lab. Ford expanded soy food research in 1942 with dedication of the Carver Nutrition Laboratory on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, near Greenfield Village.

Ford Motor Company shared its soybean research at World’s Fairs during the 1930s. The Ford Exposition exhibited the William Ford Barn (now in Greenfield Village) transformed into “the industrial farm of the future” at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago. Giveaways included a souvenir box containing items from the Earth (including soybeans) used in Ford manufacturing. At the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, Ford Motor Company handed out salt-and-pepper shakers converted from gear shift knobs made from soy products. Ford staff demonstrated chemical experiments used to extract oil and transform it into fiber during the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair.

Man pours beans into an apparatus in front of an agricultural mural
Soybean Processing for Fiber and Oil, Ford Exposition, New York World's Fair, 1939 / THF216215

Coming Soon


What do we have in store for this partnership?

We’ll kick things off on March 23 on The Henry Ford’s Facebook page, with an interview with Laurie Isley, Michigan farmer and president of Michigan Soybean Committee. You can get a sneak peek of Isley’s work at the websites for U.S. Soy and the Michigan Agriculture Council.

Green and yellow tractor pulls wide attachment across a dirt field
John Deere Tractor and Planter Planting Soybeans / Photo courtesy United Soybean Board

Our plans for 2022 focus on exploring untold stories, adding to existing stories, and engaging the public in the process. We will explore changes in biological and mechanical technologies between 1920 and 2020, and document agricultural research at Ford farms focused on producing soybeans richer in oil content and better suited to industrial uses. We will deepen existing content on the daily operations of soybean research undertaken at the chemical laboratory constructed by Henry Ford in Greenfield Village in 1928 (still standing today), and in the George Washington Carver Nutrition Laboratory launched by Ford in 1942.

Over the growing season, we’ll explore the year-round work it takes to produce soybeans in Michigan, from planting to growing to harvesting, with the farmers who do this work. This will also involve a collaborative contemporary collecting effort to document Michigan soybean farmers today and add those stories to the permanent collections of The Henry Ford.

Wheeled red machine trailing dust cloud in a half-harvested field
Case IH Combine Harvesting Soybeans / Photo courtesy Michigan Soybean Committee

The Michigan Soybean Committee will share its popular teacher resources with The Henry Ford’s learning and engagement staff. This will benefit rising fifth graders in The Henry Ford’s 2022 Growers summer camp, presented by the Michigan Soybean Committee, as they explore soya from bean to bioplastic. From June to August, students in the Growers summer camp will interact directly with Michigan Soybean Committee resources and soybeans growing in Greenfield Village for the first time since the 1940s.

Two young men or boys work in tiered garden plots divided by boulders with buildings in the background
Cultivating and Planting Activity at Soybean Laboratory, Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, 1937–1950 / THF236443

Both The Henry Ford and Michigan Soybean Committee are eager for this 2022 soybean-knowledge growing season, and we look forward to having you along for the journey.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to the Michigan Soybean Committee for their collaboration on this post.

Ford Motor Company, world's fairs, African American history, Henry Ford, Greenfield Village, Greenfield Village buildings, food, research, soybeans, philanthropy, agriculture, by Debra A. Reid

Man kneels in front of cabinet full of loaves of bread to pull a loaf outPaul Foster storing bread in the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236481


The Soybean Laboratory (now the Soybean Lab Agricultural Gallery) in Greenfield Village buzzed with activity during the 1930s and 1940s. Paul Hunter Foster worked as a waiter in that laboratory in its earliest days, but over time, his responsibilities expanded to include valet to Henry Ford and cook on Henry Ford’s private railroad car, Fair Lane. As these photographs indicate, he tested soy foods and may have fed the laboratory staff in the process.

Paul Hunter Foster was born on June 5, 1900, to a well-connected mixed-race family living in Meridian, Mississippi. His father, William Thomas Foster, sampled cotton and rated bales based on cotton quality. His mother, Alvina (“Vinie”/“Viny”) Lewis Hunter, bore seven and raised five children. Most of them pursued higher education and community service and flourished professionally. Three studied at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. One graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and another from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Two of Paul’s brothers became dentists, and another worked in race relations throughout his career.

Piecing together the details of Paul Foster’s life remains a work in progress, but primary sources confirm that he lived in Washington, D.C., after his father died in 1917. One of his brothers lived there at the time, attending Howard University. Paul worked as a messenger for the U.S. War Department during World War I (per his draft registration card). He was back in Meridian in January 1920 (per the U.S. Census). Then, on July 7, 1920, while still a student, he married Lilybel E. Scott in Detroit, and settled into life at 6081 Whitewood Avenue in Detroit.

Two women and one man pose for a photo on the porch or front steps of a house
Lilybel Scott Foster (left) with Paul Hunter Foster (right) and Georgia Singleton Ralls (center) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the dedication of the Stephen Foster Home (now the Sounds of America Gallery/Foster Memorial) in Greenfield Village, July 4, 1935. / THF272761

It remains unclear when Paul Foster joined Henry Ford’s staff, but his work in Greenfield Village and in proximity to Henry Ford’s office at Ford Motor Company’s Oakwood Boulevard headquarters translated into “other duties as assigned.” In 1935, this included escorting a special guest invited to the Stephen Foster Home dedication. A reporter from the Pittsburgh Courier explained on September 21, 1935, that Georgia Singleton Ralls had, as a child, lived in the house in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. She provided valuable information about the home interior to Henry Ford via Charles T. Newton. Ford invited her, but the Foster family ensured her personal comfort. She stayed with Paul and Lilybel and their four children during her visit. Ralls described Paul Foster as Henry Ford’s valet.

Detroit newspapers confirm that Paul and Lilybel Foster encouraged education, a love of music and theater, and civic engagement. Lilybel and the four children, Paul H. Foster, Jr., [William] Estus, Jane, and Harris, each received their share of coverage in the Michigan Chronicle social pages. This helped them forge networks with other middle-class Black Detroiters.

In addition, Paul Foster, Sr., developed relationships with other Black Detroiters working in industry. His eldest child, Paul, Jr., listed Bohn Aluminum as his employer on his World War II draft registration card,  and his second son, William Estus, listed Ford Motor Company. The elder Foster also listed Ford Motor Company, Oakwood Boulevard, as his employer. The sons listed their mother as the person most likely to know their permanent addresses, but Paul, Sr., listed Frank Davis, a field agent for Detroit Light Company (Detroit Edison Company), instead of his wife. This likely reflected a commitment to class and racial bonds among well-connected Black Detroiters employed in managerial positions by white business owner-operators. Frank Dewitt Davis became the first Black employee in an office position at Detroit Edison according to his obituary (published in the Detroit Free Press, September 19, 1974).

Work in the Soybean Lab


The following provides a snapshot of the chemical laboratory that Henry Ford constructed in Greenfield Village during 1929, and the workspace that Paul Hunter Foster, Sr., occupied.

Henry Ford invested in the chemical laboratory to discover industrial uses of agricultural products. Soybeans, a crop with a long history, became the research focus by 1931. The crop offered much potential. Extracted oil could be refined for multiple uses and the bean residue could be pressed into numerous molded forms. The protein- and oil-rich soybean also addressed the need of many seeking healthier foodstuffs.

Large wooden building with greenhouse and other buildings nearby
Chemical Laboratory in Greenfield Village, 1930 (today known as the Soybean Lab Agricultural Gallery). / THF222341

Foster worked in the lab that undertook food experiments during this early period of exploration and innovation. His workspace consisted of the low-roofed kitchen shown below, divided by a railing. The preparation area included ingredients, storage containers, scales and other data collection instruments, and scientific apparatuses to facilitate testing.

Wood-paneled room with walls lined with tables and equipment
Preparation and testing area of the kitchen laboratory at the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236497

Staff worked together in this testing kitchen. The photograph below shows Foster at work in the foreground, and another lab technician busy in the background.

Room with work surfaces along walls filled with equipment; two men work in the space
Paul Foster making soybean bread inside the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236493

The cooking area in the kitchen laboratory included a range, a sink, and counter space, as well as measuring cups, pots, pans, and other kitchen implements. It was at a slightly lower level than the preparation area.

Man in an apron works at a stove at the far end of a room filled with workspaces and equipment
Making soybean bread in the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236485

Food testing occurred in this lab. The results appeared in the booklet “Recipes for Soybean Foods.” It described the work of the laboratory, summarized the benefits of soy-based foods, and consolidated recipes proven in this laboratory.

Tan booklet cover with text
“Recipes for Soybean Foods,” circa 1931. / THF119280a

Cooks had to be aware that preparing soybeans required some extra effort. For example, “the soy bean generally requires a longer time for cooking than does the common bean…. With a pressure cooker, the beans can be cooked in 20 minutes at 20 pounds pressure” (page 2). Paul Foster used a pressure cooker to prepare soybeans in the kitchen workspace.

Man in white apron works at a pressure cooker
Lab technician (likely Paul Foster) with a pressure cooker in the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, circa 1935. / THF236489

Soybeans had a higher protein content than navy beans or lima beans, according to “Recipes for Soybean Foods.” Thus, cooks substituted soybeans to facilitate healthy eating.

Page with recipe text
An omelette, two baked beans recipes, and two salad recipes in “Recipes for Soybean Foods,” circa 1931, page 9. / THF119283b

Soy flour also offered a higher-protein alternative to wheat flour, and a flour more supportive of diabetic diets and other diets for those intolerant to certain foods. Furthermore, soy flour properties helped bread remain fresher for longer. As “Recipes for Soybean Foods” explains, breads that incorporated 5% soy flour and 95% wheat flour produced a loaf of bread that kept longer than bread made without soy flour. Combining flours at a ratio of 20% soy and 80% wheat resulted in a bread loaf with 40% more protein than wheat flour alone (page 2). Such persuasive arguments converted some to soy.

The photographic print below shows Paul Foster preparing dough for soybean bread in the kitchen workspace.

Man in white apron works with rolling pin while another man in background works with a mortar and pestle
Making soybean bread inside the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236491

After baking, storing the bread in a wire-enclosed wood-frame container was the next step in the longer process of documenting drying rates for different types of bread loaves.

Man in white apron kneels with loaf of bread in his hand before small cabinet filled with loaves of bread
Storing bread in the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1935. / THF236483

A closer look at Foster and his bread loaves, in the photo at the very top of this post, shows him in the process of loading the loaves into the food safe (a term used for similar wire-sided storage cabinets). The experiments in the test kitchen continued with rotation of loaves and measuring rates of dryness.

Interested in trying the recipe for the soybean bread baked in the laboratory in Greenfield Village? Check out page 4 of Recipes for Soybean Foods, or explore these and other recipes in the Ford Motor Company bulletin, published around 1939 (and two pages longer). Be mindful of inconsistencies. In both, on page 2, the directions indicate that the pressure cooker should be set at 20 pounds pressure, but page 16 in the earlier booklet, and page 18 in the 1939 version, states that soybeans should be cooked for 20 minutes at 25 pounds.

Booklet cover page with text
“Recipes for Soy Bean Foods,” Ford Motor Company, circa 1939. / THF223249

Foster remained visible in Soybean Laboratory research through the visit of George Washington Carver in July 1942. During this visit, Henry Ford dedicated a nutrition laboratory on Michigan Avenue, adjacent to Greenfield Village, named for Carver. It included an experimental kitchen described as “the dominion of Mr. Paul Foster” (Herald, August 14, 1942, page 12).

Group of people stands around a large table in a room with shelves filled with many small bottles and jars
George Washington Carver (seated) at the dedication of Carver Nutrition Laboratory, Dearborn, Michigan, July 21, 1942. Paul Foster is standing in the foreground to the right. / THF214097

Foster apparently had full authority over the kitchen in the Carver Nutrition Laboratory: “Here this master of the culinary art will hold forth, concocting delicious morsels” (Herald, page 12). Carver credited Foster with the “weed sandwiches” sampled during the Nutrition Lab dedication (Herald, page 14). Carver appreciated such ingenuity, given his recent bulletin Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace (March 1942). Foster’s sandwich spread of “nature’s vegetables” consisted of ground dandelion, purslane, curly dock, plantain, chickweed, lamb’s quarters, bergamot, oxalis, and radish seed pods with salt, lemon juice, and mayonnaise added. Served on soybean bread, such a mixture could have a wonderful flavor and “contain the equivalent in vitamins and minerals to the average person’s monthly diet of vegetables.” So explained Edison Institute student Robert Cavanaugh, who reported on “The Development of a New Laboratory” (Herald, page 12). A photograph of Foster, preparing vegetable sandwiches, illustrated the story.

Documenting Paul Foster’s role in research in either laboratory after 1942 remains a work in progress. Consider this a first installment as we continue to learn more about the scientists who worked at the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village, and at the nearby Carver Nutrition Laboratory on Michigan Avenue.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. She thanks Saige Jedele and Sophia Kloc for feedback that improved this blog.

recipes, by Debra A. Reid, Michigan, Detroit, Dearborn, Henry Ford, African American history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, research, food, soybeans

In 1993, inspired by a handful of century-old newspaper references, nine employees volunteered to form The Henry Ford’s first historic base ball club. What started small has become a grand and beloved Greenfield Village tradition, guided—as it was from the beginning—by a passion for authenticity.

Nine people in old-fashioned baseball uniforms stand and kneel in front of a maroon wooden building with sign "J.R. Jones"
The Greenfield Village Lah-De-Dahs and the general store that spurred the club’s formation, 1994. / THF136301

Beginnings


It all began with Greenfield Village’s general store. New research in the 1990s initiated a more accurate historical interpretation of the J.R. Jones General Store as it existed in Waterford, Michigan, during the 1880s. It also turned up references to a local amateur base ball club—the Lah-De-Dahs—in period newspapers. Employees eagerly set about reviving the Lah-De-Dahs as a historic base ball club. A clue about the original uniform came from a colorful report on the Lah-De-Dahs’ poor showing in a summer 1887 game:

As the contest went on, slowly but surely dawned upon the minds of all the truth that a fine uniform does not constitute a fine pitcher, nor La-de-dahs in their mammas’ red stockings make swift, unerring fielders.  —Pontiac Bill Poster, September 14, 1887

The revived Lah-De-Dahs of Greenfield Village wore white base ball shirts with a red script “L” and, at first, nondescript white painter’s pants. (The Henry Ford’s period clothing studio soon produced matching, knickers-style bottoms.) That first season, the Lah-De-Dahs played a handful of matches with rules pieced together from various historical interpretations. At Firestone Farm, the club challenged farmhands in the harvested wheat field before whatever crowd gathered along the lane. The Lah-De-Dahs also hosted a few outside historic base ball clubs at their future home field, Walnut Grove.

Structure


Historic base ball in Greenfield Village quickly assumed a more structured form that incorporated thoughtful details rooted in history—beginning with the name of the sport itself. Virtually all of the earliest references to this style of bat-and-ball game in England and the United States used the hyphenated name, “base-ball.” By the late 1830s and into the 1840s, likely due to simple changes in typesetting practices, the two-word spelling, "base ball," had begun to replace "base-ball." Conventions continued to shift, with the hyphenated version reemerging in the mid-late 19th century and receiving formal backing from the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1896. But years earlier, in 1884, the New York Times had explicitly changed its style guide away from "base-ball" to "baseball"—an early move toward the one-word convention that would stick. To highlight overlapping customs in the sport’s formative decades, The Henry Ford emphasizes the two-word spelling in its historic base ball program.

Blue book cover with text and image of three men in old-fashioned baseball uniforms with caps
Henry Chadwick’s 1867 Base Ball Player's Book of Reference, the first reference book designed to teach the game of base ball, from which the current rules of play in Greenfield Village were drawn. / THF214794

For demonstration in Greenfield Village outside of Lah-De-Dahs matches, a set of rules, known as “Town Ball” or “Massachusetts Rules,” was selected from the 1860 Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player. Written by Henry Chadwick, a sports journalist and leading promoter of base ball, this book included early rules of the game we know today, as well as the alternative “Massachusetts Rules” version of the game. This early version of baseball requires minimal equipment, calls for a soft ball, and features chaotic rules, making it a perfect choice for guests of Greenfield Village to try.

Elements added for the comfort and enjoyment of spectators on Walnut Grove appropriately reflect the 1860s setting. On select dates, the Dodworth Saxhorn Band provides musical accompaniment representing that of a period brass band. (Much of the music commonly associated with the professional game of baseball in America—including its unofficial anthem, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”—was published two generations later.) Refreshments are served from contextual, temporary structures fitting the rural environments where 1860s base ball was played. And a uniquely designed sound system—disguised by several strategically placed waste receptacles—allows the umpire and scorekeeper to present a real-time account of the game via concealed cordless microphones. The live music and play-by-play, combined with the unpredictability of the game, make for an entertaining afternoon.

A group of people with musical instruments sit and stand in a circle next to a baseball field and spectators
The Dodworth Saxhorn Band during the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball, 2007, photographed by Michelle Andonian. / THF52297

Expansion


The Lah-De-Dahs’ roster grew to 25 players over the club’s second and third seasons. They wore handmade uniforms for matches, which were held whenever visiting clubs could make the trip to Greenfield Village. By 2002, the season consisted of a dozen games played on select Saturdays throughout the summer. After nearly a decade of play, the Lah-De-Dahs had attracted a dedicated fan base, and spectators increasingly requested a regular schedule with more games.

The reopening of Greenfield Village in 2003 after a massive restoration project heightened expectations for the historic base ball program. With financial support from Edsel and Cynthia Ford, The Henry Ford delivered an entire summer of base ball with expanded offerings: daily period base ball demonstrations, formal games on Saturdays and Sundays—now played by the “New York rules” specified in Henry Chadwick’s 1867 Base Ball Player's Book of Reference (which were more familiar to spectators than the Massachusetts Rules game)—and the development of the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball.

The Henry Ford’s World Tournament of Historic Base Ball pays homage to the original “World's Tournament of Base Ball” hosted in August 1867 by the Detroit Base Ball Club. Though organizers ultimately failed to attract the world-famous clubs of the day, they managed to stage a remarkable, one-of-a-kind event. The trophy bat awarded to the Unknown Base Ball Club of Jackson, Michigan—winners of the first-class division of the 1867 tournament—is now in The Henry Ford’s collections. It is displayed each year in Greenfield Village during the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball.

Wooden baseball bat with narrow silver band around it
Trophy bat awarded at the 1867 World's Tournament of Base Ball. / THF8654

For 2004, the Lah-De-Dahs’ season expanded from 12 to 30 games, and its roster swelled to 42 players. To make sure they always had an opponent, The Henry Ford created a second club. The National Base Ball Club takes its name from a competitor in the 1867 World's Tournament of Base Ball. New uniforms purchased for both clubs added to the already vibrant atmosphere during matches, with the Lah-De-Dahs in their now-familiar red and white and the Nationals in striking dark blue and gold. At first, many considered the Lah-De-Dahs to be Greenfield Village’s “home” club, but displays of sportsmanship and close games going to either side have endeared fans to both.

Baseball player runs toward a plate as a ball is thrown toward the baseman and spectators look on
One of the close plays that have helped endear fans to both Greenfield Village clubs.

Over time, baseball became “America’s pastime,” an enduring cultural touchstone—and a multibillion-dollar business. Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village (and also played in many other venues around the country) showcases an early form of the sport, from a time when amateurs played for recreation and innocent amusement—for the love of the game!


Brian James Egen is Executive Producer and Head of Studio Productions at The Henry Ford and Marcus W. Dickson is Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Wayne State University. This post was prepared for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

research, Historic Base Ball, by Saige Jedele, by Marcus Dickson, by Brian James Egen, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, Greenfield Village, events, sports, baseball

For centuries in America, Black history has been relegated to the margins, with stories of Black lives only recorded by those who had the means or the motivation—or perhaps the hope that future generations would value them. The second-class treatment of Black history, the result of entrenched sociocultural discrimination, is painfully obvious to historical professionals looking to the written record for answers about the past lives of Black Americans.

While a major discrepancy still exists between the quality and quantity of Black historical records when compared to white counterparts, scholarship and re-examination, aided by new technologies, have helped in making new and old information alike more accessible. With barriers to information accessibility lessened to some degree, assembling these pieces of information into individual stories remains the biggest and most puzzling challenge. A prime example of this challenge can be found in the analysis of a document from The Henry Ford’s Digital Collections—an 18th-century apprenticeship contract.

Printed document with hand-written cursive notes and signatures
This apprenticeship document was gifted to Henry Ford in 1928 by William Van Rensselaer Abdill of Titusville, New Jersey. Abdill was a well-known collector whom Ford and others called upon to locate certain objects from history. This item was most likely part of a larger document collection that Abdill had amassed. / THF129623

On the surface, this apprenticeship document shows no indications of being related to Black history, but a careful examination proves otherwise. To start, there’s a name, “John Thompson” (or “John Thomson,” as signed at the bottom); there’s an age, “fourteen years, eight months, twenty-seven days”; and there’s a date, September 11, 1794. Other information from the document tells us that John Thomson was from Salem, Massachusetts, and was apprenticing to be a “mariner.” A careful sifting of this information through genealogical resources reveals that in May of 1809, this same John Thomson applied for a Seamen’s Protection Certificate. The application confirmed Thomson’s birth in 1780 in Salem, Massachusetts, and described him as a “negro, born-free.”

Reproduction of printed document with handwritten, cursive text
John Thomson’s application for a Seamen’s Protection Certificate included identifying information. The document states he was about five feet, three inches, in height and had several scars above his left eyebrow, as well as a scar from a smallpox inoculation on his left elbow and marks from a dog bite on his left arm. / Citation: The National Archives and Records Administration; Washington, D.C.; Proofs of Citizenship Used to Apply for Seamen's Certificates for the Port of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1792-1871

Further historical context helps illuminate John Thomson’s life and experiences. During the “Age of Sail,” when global commerce was facilitated by sailing ships, the city of Salem, Massachusetts, was a bustling international port. In the centuries before Thomson’s apprenticeship, slavery played a major role in Salem’s maritime economy, not only in the city’s involvement in the slave trade, but in the lives of those who worked its ships and docks. Even after Massachusetts became the first state to abolish slavery in 1783, slavery’s discriminatory legacy continued. As one of the few occupations open to them, free Blacks found life on the sea as a sailor to be a more integrated and less racially tense working environment. In port cities like Salem, these kinds of employment opportunities helped lay the foundation for Black communities in the early years of America.

John Thomson’s 1794 contract also reveals clues about how the then-14-year-old spent the next six years of his work life apprenticed to Captain Robert Emery on the ship Diana. Information on the ship and its captain (in contrast to Thomson) is plentiful. We know that the Diana was built in 1790 up the coast in Amesbury, Massachusetts, and was used to carry trade with Europe. Sometime in 1793, a change of ship masters occurred in New York City and the Diana was transferred to Emery, who was merely 20 years of age at the time.

Portion of document with printed and handwritten, cursive text
Information from the first part of the document tells us that Robert Emery was the master of the ship Diana (whose owners were based in Boston), and that John Thomson’s apprenticeship would last just over six years. / THF129623, detail

In 1794, Emery was hiring a crew for an upcoming trip to Bristol, England, and needed an apprentice. Apprenticeships were standard in a variety of trades during this period of American history. Usually, a boy of about 13 or 14 would be indentured to a master until he reached the age of 20 or 21. In return, the master would provide food, clothing, shelter, and, most importantly, training. For Black adolescents like John Thomson, whose opportunities were limited, a stable source of food, clothing, and training could be life changing. Racially integrated crews were common for ships sailing out of Northern port cities. In 1805, five years after Thomson’s apprenticeship ended, Emery hired another racially integrated crew to sail out of Salem for India aboard the vessel Golden Age. Among the group were two local Black men: a “first mate” (next rank under captain) and a “boy” (another name for an apprentice).

Portion of document with printed and handwritten, cursive text
As part of the agreement, John Thomson would be provided “meat, drink, apparel, washing and lodging” during his apprenticeship. / THF129623, detail

Threats abounded for Black sailors when John Thomson agreed to his apprenticeship contract in 1794. A year earlier, the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act was passed, giving slaveholders the right to recover an escaped slave. Abuse of the law began immediately, as it offered no procedural protections for free Blacks to avoid being seized as slaves—no right to a lawyer or a trial by jury, or even to speak on their own behalf. Furthermore, the British were struggling to staff a massive navy and actively forced thousands of unwilling American sailors into service. In an effort to stop illegal impressment by the British, Congress began issuing Seamen’s Protection Certificates in 1796, which worked as identification papers and proof of a sailor’s American citizenship. These kinds of papers would have been doubly important to Black sailors who were also under constant threat of being enslaved.

Portion of printed document showing handwritten, cursive text in margin along side
“J.W. Keese” of the “City of New York” notarized the agreement at some point in time. / THF129623, detail

In the years preceding Seaman’s Protection Certificates, around the mid-1780s sailors began carrying papers that helped prove their identity. These could have been copies of parish or town records or a notarized statement by a reputable person who could attest to the bearer’s American citizenship. Notarizing this apprenticeship document, most likely Thomson’s only proof of identification, would have been vitally important. The writings along the side of the document speak to this, as they show that this document was notarized by John Keese of New York City—a notary public, attorney, and founding member of the New York Manumission Society. As New York was a major port city, it’s likely Thomson would have been there at some point, and while the Manumission Society played a paternalistic guardian role in lives of New York’s slaves and free Blacks, it would have been one of the only groups advocating for Black rights in general. For free Blacks like John Thomson, having Keese’s name on the document carried weight if anyone questioned his identity.

Page with handwritten, cursive text at top and some text bleeding through from reverse side below
The reverse side of the agreement confirms Thomson finished his apprenticeship in Salem on October 8, 1800. / THF129624

We know little about Thomson’s time on the Diana, except for the fact that at some point in the late 1790s, Emery armed the ship for protection against the French. According to the reverse of the contract, Thomson’s apprenticeship ended in Salem in 1800. Details about the remainder of Thomson’s life and career remain lost (or at least very well hidden) to history—whether or not he had a family (some sources suggest he married Violet Wilkins in 1817), if he joined fellow Black sailors in defending the nation during the War of 1812, or even when he died. What has endured though, are the pieces of information that provide enough clues to tell a meaningful part of Thomson’s story—and offer an important lens into the lives of early Black Americans.


Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. He would like to point out that numerous digital resources were used in the researching of this blog—from genealogical resources like Ancestry.com and academic resources like JSTOR, to the digitized collections of many other institutions.

research, by Ryan Jelso, African American history

Portrait of man with shoulder-length hair and beard wearing suit, in ornate frame
Photograph of Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr., 1860s. / THF237208


How do we uncover the stories of the people who lived and worked in the buildings that come to Greenfield Village? Usually, there are no books written about them, unless they were famous—like Abraham Lincoln or the Wright Brothers. To piece together the stories of these people, we have to look at archival documents, images, and artifacts—which offer a firsthand account or a direct reference to the people and their stories. These primary sources—like census records, business records, and personal reminiscences—each provide clues. But they can be hard to interpret and difficult to piece together. Moreover, they are sometimes inaccurate and can even contradict each other. We must constantly assess the value and accuracy of each source and compare it with others.

We delved into many of these types of sources to prepare for an episode of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation featuring Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr.—whose mid-19th-century office now resides in Greenfield Village. Many of our findings are summarized in the blog post, “Dr. Howard, A Country Doctor in Southwest Michigan.” Where did we go in our search to uncover clues to Dr. Howard’s background and medical practice? Here are some of the sources that helped us out.

First, Our Own Archival Records


Typewritten page of text
First page from great-grandson Howard Washburn’s write-up on Dr. Howard, May 25, 1962. / THF627447

The first place we look when we explore the stories of Greenfield Village buildings and the people related to them is our own Edison Institute (or EI) archives. Beginning at the time that each building is first acquired and brought to Greenfield Village, the majority of the records collected by the museum for that building are kept in the archival accession EI.186—or what we familiarly call the “Building Boxes.” We were lucky that in the case of Dr. Howard’s Office, we found in this accession two folders entitled “Family History.”

These folders contain numerous typed reports, the result of years of tedious research undertaken by Dr. Howard’s great-grandson, Howard Washburn. Washburn’s study of Dr. Howard began in 1935, from which time he developed a steadily expanding notebook on the subject. In January 1946, he and his mother purchased and came to live on the family farm, “Windfall,” where the office was located. Washburn’s interest in his great-grandfather’s life and medical practice deepened in the 1950s and 1960s, involving both sifting through the materials that were still in the office and collecting numerous reminiscences about Dr. Howard from his by-then elderly family members, friends, and neighbors.

Group of people mingle outside a small, red, wooden building
Dedication of Dr. Howard’s Office in Greenfield Village, with Howard family descendants, October 1963. / THF20847

Washburn found some wonderful primary sources of his own in his search, like the extensive entry about Dr. Howard’s life that was handwritten in the Howard family Bible by his son, Camer. But most of Washburn’s material came from those previously mentioned personal reminiscences. We know that people’s long-term memories can be sketchy, especially when decades have gone by (Dr. Howard passed away in 1883). So, we planned to compare these reminiscences with other types of sources (see section below on genealogical records).

Black-and-white photo of room interior with wooden walls lined with wooden shelves containing books, bottles, and jars
Photograph of office interior, taken at the building’s original site near Tekonsha, Michigan, before removal to Greenfield Village, March 1956. / THF237188

The Building Boxes in our archives also house numerous photographs that document each Greenfield Village building, especially photographs relating to each building on its original site just before its removal to Greenfield Village. Howard Washburn’s reports informed us that when Dr. Howard passed away in 1883, his wife Cynthia padlocked his office with most of its contents intact. Sure enough, photographs of the building’s interior that were taken when Henry Ford’s assistants came to look at the building in the 1950s reveal a huge array of original furniture, bottles, casks, business records, and medical books. These came with the building to Greenfield Village. They not only helped us later recreate the building’s interior as close as possible to the original, but also furthered our knowledge about many aspects of Dr. Howard’s medical practice.

Journal cover containing text
A homeopathic medical publication from July 1868, found amongst the contents of Dr. Howard’s Office when it was brought to Greenfield Village. / THF627467

Dr. Howard’s business records and medical books (all paper items that were later removed from the building because of their fragility) were put together with other family documents to make up another accession in our archives—the Howard Family Papers. These materials particularly reveal Dr. Howard’s increasing interest in adapting a range of different approaches to treating patients.

Letter handwritten in cursive
Letter from Isaac Haines to Dr. Howard, April 18, 1877, inquiring about how to get to the doctor’s office from Fort Wayne, Indiana. / THF627457

Some particularly interesting letters from patients in the Howard Family Papers contain descriptions of ailments that people asked Dr. Howard to diagnose for them. Another of these letters, from 1877, even came from a man in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who requested directions to his office (about 75 miles away!) so he could make a personal visit.

Narrow notebook containing handwritten cursive text, some X-ed out
Two pages from Dr. Howard’s 1849–1853 account book. / THF627454

The Howard Family Papers also contain Dr. Howard’s account books, dating all the way from 1849 to 1881. These primarily record his visits to or from patients and the amount that he charged them. Unfortunately, most of the patients’ names are difficult to read. However, the 1878 account book does contain several neatly handwritten pages of patients, listed in alphabetical order, at the front—many of which are indeed legible. Some of these even mention the patients’ hometowns, including Tekonsha, Michigan (where his office was located), as well as nearby Burlington (about five miles away) and Union City (about nine miles away). We hope to delve more deeply into the backgrounds of some of these patients through genealogical records, to get an idea of their ages, occupations, and backgrounds.

Handwritten receipt with image of building on letterhead at top and cursive list of items below
Invoice from Farrand, Williams & Co., from February 15, 1881, for Dr. Howard’s purchase of medical equipment, supplies, and ingredients. / THF620458

The Howard Family Papers also contain several invoices sent to Dr. Howard from a chemical supply company in Detroit, Michigan, dated 1881. These provide valuable clues to the types of medicinal ingredients that Dr. Howard purchased to create his pills and concoctions—and help to break down the stereotype that everything he used was botanical (i.e., natural materials like plants and herbs) and homegrown or locally obtained. The invoices contain not only dried herbs and plants but also such non-botanical ingredients as quinine and alum that relate to more conventional Western medical practice.

Page with faint handwritten cursive text
Dr. Howard’s “recipe” for cough syrup, from his 1864 handwritten receipt book. / THF620470

One of the most valuable items in this collection—originally donated with the building—is Dr. Howard’s own handwritten book of receipts (or recipes) for remedies from 1864. Like the account books, the pages are difficult to decipher without some concentrated effort. But it is possible to get an idea of the types of illnesses he was trying to treat and the combination of purchased and locally available ingredients he combined in creating his remedies.

Genealogical Records


Black-and-white image of four children in old-fashioned clothing posing for camera
The four children of Dr. Howard and his second wife, Cynthia, about 1870. Front, left to right: Mattie, Camer, and Letitia; rear: Manchie. / THF109605

As mentioned before, it is important to verify the stories gleaned from personal reminiscences. So, for Dr. Howard’s background and family history, we also consulted census and other genealogical records (many, thankfully, online on websites like ancestry.com). Here we could verify the dates of the Howard family’s move to Michigan, as well as the names, birth and death dates, and places of origin of his parents, siblings, and two wives (Letitia, his first wife, passed away in 1857; he married his second wife, Cynthia, a year later), and children with each wife), as well as other interesting information, like the fact that his father, Alonson B. Howard, Sr., served in the War of 1812.

Black-and-white portrait of man with beard wearing a suit, in an elaborate frame; contains text at the bottom
Photograph of Dr. Howard’s father, Alonson B. Howard, Sr., about 1860. / THF237220

We also learned through census records that Dr. Howard listed his occupation in three different ways over the years—as a farmer in 1850 and 1860, as a physician in 1870, and as both a physician and surgeon in 1880.

Local History Records


Black-and-white photo of several wooden buildings by side of two-lane road among trees
Dr. Howard’s office on its original site near Tekonsha, Michigan, situated along the road at the front of “Windfall,” the family farm, March 1956. / THF237150

It is important for us to remember that, although a building and its story might reside in Greenfield Village today, it originally came from another place. This larger context is crucially important to creating an accurate picture in our interpretation of that building and the people related to it. Dr. Howard’s office was originally located just outside the village of Tekonsha, Calhoun County, in south central Michigan. The Howard family settled there in the 1840s, when Alonson, Jr. was 17 years old, during a period of great migration into Michigan by white settlers. A majority of settlers, including the Howard family, came from upstate New York.

Road sign next to dirt road running by fields and buildings
Road sign near original site of Dr. Howard’s office, August 1959. / THF237152

To find out more about Tekonsha in the 1840s, we consulted the voluminous History of Calhoun County from 1877. We know that the numerous county histories that were published across the country around the time of America’s centennial in 1876 are among the best sources for recounting minute details of the early settlement of various communities. Indeed, the Calhoun County history provided several valuable bits of information. But, of course, in the end, it is essentially the story of white settlers. About Native Americans, who had recently occupied the area and some of whom still lived there during Dr. Howard’s time, this county history ranged from sketchy to dismissive to outright racist.

Black-and-white image of dark-skinned woman in shawl and cap knitting and looking at camera; also contains text
We found in our research that self-emancipated orator Sojourner Truth was perhaps Calhoun County’s best-known African American resident at the time. She lived in Harmonia (Bedford Charter Township, now part of Battle Creek) from 1857 until her death in 1883. Residents in Tekonsha, located about 25 miles down the road, would have undoubtedly heard of or read about her. / THF121160

African Americans were similarly dismissed from the historical record in this county history, except as “runaways” on the Underground Railroad who were “saved” by white “conductors.” To create a more accurate picture of these marginalized groups, we pursued additional research in scholarly books and trustworthy websites. Potawatomi tribal history was particularly important for us to understand because according to Howard Washburn, Dr. Howard had a friendly relationship with members of this group and even named two of his children after “Indian” friends of his (see “Dr. Howard: A Country Doctor in Southwest Michigan” for more detail on this history).

Oral Histories


Five people with arms around each other pose for camera in front of a red wooden building
Five descendants of Dr. Howard standing in front of his office in Greenfield Village in June 2013. From left to right: Corey Washburn (North Dakota); Sue Gillies (Australia); Dawn Gunther (California); Fiona Lynton (Australia); and Angela Karaca (Australia). / Photograph by Donna Braden.

Oral histories involve the systematic collecting and recording of personal reminiscences through live interviews. They can convey a level of detail not available in other sources, and can be informative, vivid, and colorful—often with a touch of humor and a wellspring of emotion.

In 2013, we were treated to a visit from five descendants of Dr. Howard, on a pilgrimage from their homes in North Dakota, California, and even Australia, to visit the sites related to their ancestor. During a lively oral history session with us, they filled in gaps in our knowledge about the family tree of Dr. Howard’s descendants, as well as regaling us with stories they had researched and collected themselves (see “A Visit from Dr. Howard’s Descendants”).

The Building and Its Contents


Small red wooden building among green lawns, trees, walkways, and streetlamps
Dr. Howard’s office as it looks in Greenfield Village today. / THF1696

Since we know that Dr. Howard was the first and only individual to use this space as a doctor’s office, the actual building additionally becomes a unique primary source of its own for providing clues. The building spaces reveal that he divided what had originally been a schoolhouse into several partitioned rooms: a public waiting room, a private office, a working laboratory (where he mixed his own concoctions), and a pill-rolling room (where he hand-rolled his own pills).

Black-and-white photo of dresser and hutch among other furniture
Dr. Howard’s desk, in one of several photographs taken of the building’s interior on its original site before removal to Greenfield Village. The desk is on display in the refurbished building in Greenfield Village today. / THF237200

The original furnishings that were donated with the building—e.g., the cast-iron stove, a wooden storage trunk, Dr. Howard’s desk, chairs, and a daybed—provide further concrete evidence of his use of the building and its specific spaces. Finally, the wooden casks for holding extracts and the approximately 250 bottles and jars that came with the building—most with their original labels and some with their contents intact—greatly helped to supplement our knowledge about the ingredients that Dr. Howard used and the concoctions he created to treat patients (see “Dr. Howard’s ‘Medicine Cabinet’” for more on this).

Conclusion


We have described some of the sources we look at when researching the people related to our Greenfield Village buildings, and, specifically, some of our most helpful finds in piecing together the story of country doctor Alonson B. Howard, Jr. There are always more clues to be unearthed. The research on each Village building is never-ending, and we look forward to deepening and enriching the stories of Dr. Howard and other people who once inhabited buildings now in Greenfield Village.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She would like to thank Associate Curator Ryan Jelso for his assistance in doing the genealogical research on the Howard family.

healthcare, Michigan, The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Dr. Howard's Office, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, by Donna R. Braden, research, archives

Mustard yellow wagon with three glass doors on side; miniature scenes visible inside doors“The Busy World” automaton, 1830–1850. / THF187282


I was about nine years old when I first saw it. My family and I were visiting Henry Ford Museum when I spotted “The Busy World”—an intriguingly detailed and well-populated automaton displayed along the museum’s Street of Shops displays. I was entranced. “The Busy World” would remain among my most vivid memories of this visit. Little did I know that many years later I would be involved in further research on this fascinating, whimsical object.

An automaton is a non-electric moving machine that performs a predetermined set of operations. With approximately 300 moving figures, “The Busy World” automaton is a kind of mechanized diorama with six individual platforms powered by gears, belts, and pulleys. When the automaton is cranked, the figures go into motion.

Map with different areas shaded in yellow, green, and pink
1869 Beers Atlas map of Delaware County, New York. / Image courtesy of the Delaware County Historical Association

Delaware County in upstate New York—where “The Busy World” was likely built and spent much of its working life—was a place of farms and small villages during the 19th century. The wagon's lively, hand-cranked animations would have had tremendous popular appeal for adults and children alike at country fairs and small exhibitions.

“The Busy World” features six different animated scenes. Click on the links under the scenes below to see those images in our Digital Collections, where you can zoom in on the details.

Wooden platform with two carved scenes with human figures, one above the other
Left section of “The Busy World.” / THF187276, detail

At the upper left, figures perform activities of everyday life, including rocking a baby, getting warm by the stove, chopping food, spinning thread, churning butter, and sharpening a tool.

In the scene at lower left, people attend a ballroom dance while musicians play. At the left of the dance scene are caricatured figures of African Americans. This “Busy World” scene reflects not only the activities of the time period but also the racism of the era.

Wooden platform with two carved scenes with human figures, one above the other
Center section of “The Busy World.” / THF187277, detail

The scene at upper center shows men making rakes and grain cradles in a factory. Delaware County had at least one rake factory. During the early 19th century, New York was the grain belt of the United States. Wooden rakes were essential tools on farms.

Black-and-white photo of scene with human figures wearing robes on a stage with carved details around them
Biblical scene from “The Busy World.” / THF125152

At lower center, a small revolving “stage” features eight Biblical stories.

Wooden platform with two carved scenes with human figures, one above the other
Right section of “The Busy World.” / THF187278, detail

At upper right, soldiers in uniform promenade with ladies.

The scene at lower right features a regiment of soldiers parading in formation to the “sounds” of a military band.

“The Busy World” Comes to The Henry Ford


“The Busy World” came to The Henry Ford in 1963. The museum purchased the automaton from Janos and Mary Williams of Stone Henge Antiques in Sidney, New York. Where was it before that? Well, we know part of the story.

The Williamses had acquired “The Busy World” from a man named David Smith. About 1944, David Smith (1923–2002) saw an ad in a Walton, New York, newspaper offering “The Busy World” for sale: “Will sell cheap, if sold this week, ONE busy world.” Twenty-one-year-old Smith, who lived in nearby Delhi, New York, couldn’t resist. He drove the 17 miles to Walton to take a look. Amazed and delighted with what he saw, Smith purchased the automaton with his own savings, over the objections of his family. For the first seven years that he owned it, Smith stored “The Busy World” in his family’s barn in Delhi. David Smith got it to run, at least sporadically.

It wasn’t until September 1951 that “The Busy World” once again had a public showing. David Smith’s mother had offered the family barn to the Delaware County Horticultural Society as a place to hold their annual Harvest Show. “The Busy World” delighted local people who came to see the choice vegetables, flower arrangements, and potted plants on display there. Some of those attending recalled 30 or so years before when the automaton had appeared at county fairs in the area.

Next stop for “The Busy World”? David Smith opened an antique store in his hometown of Delhi, where he displayed the automaton. The name of the shop? Busy World Antiques.

David Hoy Takes “The Busy World” on the Road


Exhibit with small wooden scenes on a platform underneath a banner
“The Busy World” platforms exhibited in an unidentified location, probably in the early 20h century. An advertising banner hangs above—one that may date from the late 1860s or 1870s. / THF125153

David Smith had purchased “The Busy World” from Elizabeth Hoy Thomas (1874–1949). She was the daughter of David Hoy (1848–1934), the man who exhibited “The Busy World” at local fairs and carnivals at the turn of the 20th century. According to David Smith, Elizabeth Hoy Thomas told him that “The Busy World” took 17 years to build and was constructed by two men—one carved the figures and the other assembled the machinery.

David Hoy’s 1934 obituary recalled Hoy’s yearly exhibitions of the “World at Work” or “Busy World” automaton at local fairs. Hoy is said to have charged five or ten cents to see “The Busy World” in motion. David Hoy exhibited “The Busy World” regularly until the mid-1910s, and then for one last time at the Walton Armory in late 1933. After his death the following year, the automaton remained in a shed at Hoy’s daughter’s home in Walton. She placed the newspaper ad offering it for sale about ten years later—the ad seen by young David Smith.

Beige tickets with words "THE ANDROIDES ADMIT ONE" in decorative font
These tickets were found in the wagon. They appear to date between 1890 and 1910 and may have been used as “The Busy World” made the rounds of country fairs and carnivals in the latter portion of its career. In Latin, androides means “resembling a man,” and was used during the 19th century to describe an automaton resembling a human being in form and movement. / THF187284

Looking for Answers


We had many unanswered questions about “The Busy World.”

Curatorial research volunteer Gil Gallagher worked many months to dig up some answers, trolling census records and countless newspapers online. Ray LaFever, archivist at the Delaware County Historical Association, lent his research skills and familiarity with Delaware County history to the quest. Here’s what their research turned up.

When they sold it, antique dealers Janos and Mary Williams mistakenly told The Henry Ford that “The Busy World” had been built by David Hoy. And that he “began it in 1830 and took 17 years to make it.” As we found, not quite so—at least the part about David Hoy. Our research showed that Hoy didn’t build it. He acquired the automaton some time later.

The general dates given for the construction of “The Busy World” appear to be correct. The figures and objects shown in the scenes reflect the era of the 1830s—including the women’s fashions, the Franklin heating stove (upper left section), and the serpent, a musical instrument (lower right section).

Therefore, David Hoy couldn’t have made it. Hoy was born in Bovina in Delaware County—but not until 1848. His family moved to Iowa when he was ten. By the mid-1870s, Hoy returned to Delaware County, where he married and had three children. During the following decades, he would make his living as a farmer, carpenter, stone mason, and teamster. Hoy must have acquired “The Busy World” sometime after he returned to Delaware County as an adult. (A 1905 newspaper article noted that the automaton was “now run by a Walton man, David Hoy,” so someone else probably toured it before Hoy.) The wagon that now carries “The Busy World” was a later addition—one likely added by Hoy, who mounted the automaton figures and machinery in the wagon to make it easier to transport. (One newspaper article mentions that the automaton platforms were originally displayed in a tent.)

So, we found some answers—yet questions remain.

Was the automaton originally called “The Busy World”? It seems that it may have acquired that title in the late-19th or early-20th century, since it is not mentioned on the banner or tickets.

And, despite all our efforts, the identities of the original makers of “The Busy World”—whoever these talented individuals were—remain a mystery for now.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

making, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, popular culture, research, by Jeanine Head Miller

In my last two blog posts (“The Enigmatic Sidney Houghton, Designer to Henry and Clara Ford,” and “Sidney Houghton: The Fair Lane Rail Car and the Engineering Laboratory Offices”), I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872-1950), a British interior designer and interior architect met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I, and worked on projects like Henry Ford’s yacht Sialia, Henry and Clara Ford’s private railcar Fair Lane, and offices for Henry and Edsel Ford in the Ford Engineering Laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan. This blog centers on the most intimate of Houghton’s work for the Fords, the Fair Lane estate.

(For clarity’s sake, it is important to note that the Fair Lane estate is a historic house museum, independent of The Henry Ford. The house is currently undergoing a major restoration. You can learn more about the Fair Lane estate here.)

The Fair Lane Commission


Page with text and image of sculpture of ship surrounded by human figures in the waves, one sounding a conch-shell horn
Cover of Houghton Brochure / THF121214

The single document that best details the relationship between Sidney Houghton and the Fords is a brochure, more a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm. From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. Unfortunately for us, images of Fair Lane were not included in the 1930s Houghton brochure, likely because of the private nature of the commission.

However, The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center holds exterior and interior photographs of the house, taken at a variety of dates. Additionally, our archives holds a select group of Houghton’s designs for Fair Lane’s furniture. These are the only surviving drawings of Houghton’s Ford-related furniture. One of my greatest joys in researching this blog was locating the completed pieces of furniture in historic photographs.

The Story of Fair Lane


The story of Fair Lane began in 1909, when Henry Ford bought large tracts of land in Dearborn Township, the place of his birth. At that time, Henry, his wife, Clara, and their son, Edsel, were living comfortably in the fashionable Boston-Edison neighborhood of Detroit, not far from the Highland Park plant where the famous Model T automobiles were manufactured. Henry was considering options for building a larger home, where he and his family could have more space and greater privacy. They were also considering building in Grosse Pointe, a community where many of Detroit’s leaders of industry were constructing homes. They even bought a parcel of land there that eventually became the site of Edsel and his wife Eleanor’s home in the 1920s.

In the summer of 1909, Ford visited the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park, Illinois, studio. The result was a commission for a large estate along the Rouge River in Dearborn. Scholars believe that Henry Ford heard about Wright from one of his chief engineers and neighbor, C. Harold Wills, who previously contracted Wright to build a home for his family in Detroit. By November of 1909, Wright had closed his studio and turned his practice over to the Chicago architectural firm of Von Holst and Fyfe, with his best draftsperson, Marion Mahony, overseeing all of Wright’s remaining projects. Wright felt that his architectural practice was at a “critical impasse” and went to Europe to work on a summary portfolio of his career, published in 1910. He was accompanied by Mrs. Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. This scandalous situation seems not to have affected the Fords, as Marion Mahony continued work on Fair Lane.

Drawing of large white house with trees and other greenery in front
Presentation Drawing of Fair Lane, 1914 / THF157872

The project continued slowly through the next few years, until circumstances in the Fords’ lives made securing a new home a priority. In January 1914, Henry Ford announced his famous “five dollar day” wage for factory workers. His home on Edison Avenue near the plant was besieged by job seekers and the Fords lost any semblance of privacy. They soon realized that that the new Dearborn house was a priority. In February 1914, Clara Ford, who had taken the leadership role on the new house, called a meeting of Von Holst, Mahony and related designers. A number of elegant presentations of the home were shown to Clara Ford, including the design above. Many of these are now in public collections and give us a sense of the proposed estate. Two can be accessed here and here.

Instead of continuing to work with Marion Mahoney, Clara Ford chose Pittsburgh architect William Van Tine to complete the house. Van Tine was known in New York and the East, and it is generally thought that Clara Ford was seeking to emulate the tastes of women of her social status. Another key factor was the direction of American taste: the Prairie style promoted by Frank Lloyd Wright and Marion Mahony was rapidly losing currency and Americans increasingly favored revival styles, including Colonial and Medieval Revivals.

Fair Lane as Built


Construction site of large house by a body of water
Fair Lane from the Rouge River, 1915 / THF98284

Black-and-white photo of large stone house with turrets
Fair Lane Entrance, 1916 / THF149961

When I look at images of Van Tine’s house, completed in early 1916, I am struck by the odd composition, such as the sloping horizontal rooflines, especially to the left of the front entrance. These seem derived from Marion Mahony’s designs. There are vertical, castle-like forms, such as the one just to the right of the entrance, which are not at peace with the rest of the house. The result is a hodge-podge of disharmonious elements that barely coexist with each other.

Blueprint showing aerial layout of large house and extensive gardens
Planting Plan for Fair Lane Grounds Number 5, November 1915 / THF155894

The planting plan above gives us a sense of Van Tine’s arrangement of the house. To the far left is Henry Ford’s power house, which is connected to the house through a tunnel under the rose garden. The tunnel ends near the indoor swimming pool intended for son Edsel’s use.

Interior of house with carved wood, heavy draperies, and staircase
Entry Hall from the Living Room around 1925 / THF126547

Room interior with carved wood, ornately patterned ceiling, bookcases, and upholstered chairs among other furniture
Library in 1951 / THF98258

Page with text and photograph or drawing of room interior with carved wood, fireplace, and upholstered furniture
Living Room in March 1916 / THF126073

The main rooms of the house are indicated in an area labeled as “residence” on the plan. The first-floor entrance consists of a grand hall and wide staircase. To the right of the hall is a small library. The hall leads into what the Fords described as their living room, the heart of the house. At the rear of the photograph above, please note the player organ installed in late 1915.

Black-and-white photograph of room with large, dark fireplace and ornate ceilings and furniture
Music Room in 1951 / THF126543

The entrance to the music room is to the right of the player organ in the living room. It is by far the largest and grandest room in the house. The photograph above shows it in its final incarnation, shortly after Clara Ford’s death.

Room interior with round dining table and four chairs, oriental rug, and ornately carved wooden walls and plastered ceiling
Dining Room in 1925 / THF98262

The dining room leads off the living room and is another grand room, although it lacks the scale of the music room. As you can see, all the large public rooms at Fair Lane are rather dark and heavily decorated.

Black-and-white photo of long, narrow room filled with wicker furniture with many windows along one wall
Sun Porch, Identified as the Loggia on the Ground Plan, about 1925 / THF137033

The sun porch is unlike any other public room in Fair Lane. It was filled with light and was said to have been one of the Fords’ favorite rooms. Also, unlike the rest of the house, it was filled with wicker furniture.

As you can see, Fair Lane was a very dark and heavily decorated home. We know that the Fords—Clara in particular—were unhappy with the interior. For example, sometime in the 1920s or the 1930s, Clara Ford went so far as to paint the walnut paneling in the music room. This north facing room must have appeared very dark, especially on a cloudy winter day.

Sidney Houghton’s Work at Fair Lane


Records in the Benson Ford Research Center indicate that Sidney Houghton began consulting on furnishings for Fair Lane in 1919. The records and correspondence continue through 1925, with proposals and payments through the entire period. The only “before” and “after” photographs that we have are of the living room.

Room interior with intricately carved wood and fireplace, filled with upholstered chairs, a table, and other furniture
Living Room in 1919 / THF132991

THF136074
Living Room in 1940 / THF136074

By 1940, the furnishings of 1919 have been completely removed. The clutter of the 1919 furnishings have been replaced with groups of furniture oriented around the fireplace. The whole arrangement appears coherent and logical. The furniture styles of the 1940 living room are a mixture of historic English and American. Is this the work of Sidney Houghton? While we know that Houghton was working extensively at Fair Lane, we have no surviving renderings for furniture in this room.

Houghton’s Documented Designs for Fair Lane


Bedroom interior with two twin beds, a fireplace, and other furniture
Master Bedroom in 1951 / THF149959

Like the living room, the master bedroom contains a mixture of furnishings in historic English and American styles. For example, the mantelpiece is described as a “Wedgewood,” as the colored decoration derives from Wedgewood’s English Jasperware, first made in the 18th century. There are also pieces that are American in origin, such as the William and Mary–style table in front of the fireplace, and the Federal-style slant front desk in the corner, to the right of the window.

This room also contains two twin beds, likely designed by Sidney Houghton. They are made of veneered walnut with inlaid medallions done in a Chinoiserie style, a western interpretation of oriental design.

Yellowed and torn drawing of a four-poster, canopied bed
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bed, 1921-1923 / THF626014

The headboard and footboard, as well as the crest rail and legs, of this bed are identical to those on the twin beds in the 1951 photograph. Houghton may have presented this design to Clara Ford, and she chose to have twin beds without a canopy produced instead.

Interior of bedroom with twin bed, chairs, and other furniture
Master Bedroom in 1951 / THF149955

The opposite wall in the master bedroom shows us again a combination of English and American historic furniture. They include an American Queen Anne oval table in the left corner. To the right of it is a Queen Anne style dressing table, partly obscured by an upholstered armchair. What is of interest is the dressing table and mirror at the center of the back wall. These are Houghton’s designs.

Yellowed drawing of dressing table or vanity
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bedroom Dressing Table and Looking Glass, 1921-1923 / THF626012

We can see that the dressing table matches the bed—the inlaid medallions are also done in a Chinoiserie style—so this appears be part of a bedroom suite. Indeed, there is another design that does not appear in the room.

Yellowed, torn drawing of a cabinet topped with a mirror
Design by Sidney Houghton Design for Fair Lane, Bedroom Cabinet or Chest, 1921-1923 / THF626016

This piece likely was presented to Clara Ford and rejected, or, if produced, removed before the photograph was taken in 1951.

Yellowed drawing of a chest of drawers
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Chest of Drawers and Case, possibly for Bedroom, 1921-1923 / THF626010

This chest of drawers appears to relate to the bedroom suite, as it is similar in scale, although it lacks the inlaid medallions.

Yellowed drawing of a semi-circle shaped desk with raised cubbies around the edge
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Ladies Writing Table, 1921-1923 / THF626008

This elegant ladies desk may have been intended for the Fords’ bedroom. Like the chest, it may have been rejected or removed later.

The Benson Ford Research Center holds more of Houghton’s furniture designs for Fair Lane, although none appear in the historic photographs.

Round desk with drawers or cubbies around outside
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Center Table or Partners Desk, 1921-1923 / THF626002

This heavy, masculine-looking piece was likely not part of the bedroom suite. If fabricated, it would have been a large, clunky piece of furniture.

Drawing of a wooden side table
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table, 1921-1923 / THF625998

This piece, done in the Louis XV or 18th-century Rococo style is a departure from anything visible at Fair Lane. Clara Ford likely rejected it.

There are also Houghton sketches and working drawings in the archive.

Drawings of front and side of sideboard or cabinet and front and side of chair
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Slant Front Desk and Chair, 1921-1923 / THF625994

Page with drawing of stool or table and measurements and notes written above
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table or Stool, 1921-1923 / THF626000

These designs were likely drawn on-site and presented as ideas for Clara’s approval.

Conclusion


As these drawings suggest, Sidney Houghton was extremely talented. He could work in a variety of styles and produced high-quality furniture. He transformed Fair Lane during the early 1920s from an eclectic mix to a more simplified combination of 18th-century English and American styles. This post represents the beginning of inquiry into the role of Houghton at Fair Lane, which should be continued over time. My next blog post will examine Sidney Houghton’s later work for the Fords and the end of their relationship.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

Sidney Houghton, drawings, research, archives, design, Michigan, Dearborn, Clara Ford, Henry Ford, home life, furnishings, decorative arts, by Charles Sable

Large red wheeled piece of equipment in a field with a number of people riding on itFMC Cascade Tomato Harvester in Use, circa 1985 / THF146505


The adoption of mechanical tomato harvesters in the 1960s both industrialized tomato production and ushered in a countermovement of small growers and local food advocates. How could one machine prompt such contradictory but real changes in agriculture? The full story spans decades and reveals complex relationships of supply and demand—for both agricultural products and the people who grow and harvest them.

Shortage and Struggle


Green label with logo, text, and image of peppers and tomato half
California’s labor shortage threatened the supply of processing tomatoes for ketchup, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products. Can label, "Del Monte Brand Spanish Style Tomato Sauce," circa 1930. / THF294183, detail

To meet rising demand for processing tomatoes (to be made into ketchups, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products) in the early 20th century, growers needed laborers to pick them. Those laborers, in turn, needed living wages. Tensions between growers and laborers came to a head during the New Deal era of the 1930s, when government policies promised minimum wages, maximum hours, and workers’ compensation. Yet, lobbyists working for growers and agricultural processers convinced policy makers to exempt agricultural workers from these protections.

Laborers voted with their feet, seeking employment beyond farm fields. This caused a critical labor shortage that became even more acute during World War II for growers raising tomatoes and other crops in California and beyond. To meet demand, the United States and Mexican governments negotiated the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. This guest labor program brought millions of farmworkers, known as braceros, from Mexico to work in the United States for short periods of time between 1942 and 1964.

Man sits on a stack of wood or doors with a field behind him, looking in a box; four other men look on
This photograph illustrated a news report on braceros resuming the tomato harvest near Danville, Illinois, in August 1945. / THF147934

A chain of events during the 1960s called attention to the plight of agricultural laborers. Edward R. Murrow’s television documentary Harvest of Shame (1960) highlighted the precarious existence of migrant laborers who worked picking perishable fruits and vegetables in the Midwest and along the East Coast. The Bracero Program expired in 1964, reducing the number of available laborers and increasing growers’ dependence on the existing labor pool. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, along with other anti-poverty and housing legislation, made it clear that migratory and seasonal laborers had the right to humane treatment.

On the West Coast, Filipino laborers organized as part of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Seeking better wages and a more favorable rate of payment, they launched a grape strike that expanded into Delano, California, in 1965. The National Farm Workers Association, consisting mostly of Mexican migratory workers, joined the cause. This coordinated effort resulted in a new organization, the United Farm Workers (UFW), with Cesar Chavez as president.

Red flag with white circle containing stylistic, blocky silhouette of eagle and text "FARMWORKERS AFL-CIO"
The organizing efforts of groups like the United Farm Workers to secure better wages and living conditions for agricultural laborers in California gained national attention in the 1960s. United Farm Workers flag, circa 1970. / THF94392

The UFW devised innovative solutions to increase pressure on growers, and—especially due to the efforts of co-founder Dolores Huerta—built the Delano grape strike into a national boycott. This focused attention on basic needs for migratory and seasonal laborers. In addition to ensuring some protections for individuals, the coordinated effort secured the right for migratory and seasonal laborers as a class to collectively bargain.

Engineering a Solution to Labor Shortages


Tomato growers, keen on getting their crop planted, cultivated, and harvested at the optimum times, were interested in mechanical solutions that could address labor shortages. Mechanizing the harvest of this perishable commodity, however, proved to be a time-consuming challenge.

Scientists at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), sought a labor shortage solution through mechanical and biological engineering. Research and development begun in the 1940s finally resulted in the successful design of both a mechanical tomato harvester (created in partnership with Blackwelder Manufacturing Company) and a tomato that could withstand mechanical harvesting (the VF145).

Black-and-white photo of man holding vegetable (sweet potato?) in a field
Large piece of mobile equipment in field with a number of people on it
Top: UC Davis vegetable crops researcher Gordie “Jack” Hanna developed the machine-harvestable VF145 tomato. Bottom: An early mechanical tomato harvester underway. Images from the 1968 USDA Yearbook,
Science for Better Living. / THF621133 and THF621134

By 1961, Blackwelder had released a commercial harvester and recommended the VF145 tomato for optimum mechanical harvesting. FMC Corporation released a competing harvester by 1966. Manufacturers touted the labor-saving value of mechanical harvesters at a time when the supply of laborers was too small to meet demand, and the adoption of this new technology was swift. In 1961, 25 mechanical harvesters picked about one-half of one percent of California’s tomato crop. Between 1965 and 1966, the number of harvesters doubled from 250 to 512 and the percentage of mechanically harvested tomatoes in California rocketed from 20 percent to 70 percent. By 1970, the transition was complete, with 99.9 percent of California’s tomato crop harvested mechanically. (For more, see Mark Kramer’s essay, "The Ruination of the Tomato," in the January 1980 issue of The Atlantic.)

Contradictory Impact


Some might claim mechanical harvesters helped save California’s processed tomato industry—by 1980, California growers produced 85 percent of that crop. But a closer look reveals a more complicated cause-and-effect. While growers could theoretically save their crop by replacing some labor with machines, many small-scale growers could not save their businesses from large-scale competition. By 1971, the number of tomato farmers had dropped by 82 percent. (This consolidation was mirrored elsewhere in the industry, as just four companies—Del Monte, Heinz, Campbell, and Libby’s—processed 72 percent of tomatoes by 1980.)

Page with text, image of tomatoes on tomato plants in field, and small image of piece of farm equipment
Tomato harvester advertisements promised farmers could save their businesses by replacing scarce laborers with machines, but many small-scale growers could not save themselves from large-scale competitors. Advertisement for FMC Corporation Tomato Harvester, circa 1966. / THF610767

A group of growers sued UC Davis, challenging the school for investing so much to develop the tomato harvester without spending comparable resources to address the needs of small farmers. In response, UC Davis opened its Small Farm Center, an advocacy center for alternative farmers, in 1979. These events coincided with wider efforts to hold the United States Department of Agriculture accountable for unequal distribution of support, resulting in increased attention at the national level to economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse farmers. Around this same time, food activist Alice Waters raised awareness through her advocacy of locally sourced foods. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, founded in Berkeley, California, in 1971, became an anchor for the burgeoning Slow Food movement.

So, while mechanical tomato harvesters—like the one on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—represent large-scale scientific and industrial advances, they also offer insight into this country’s complex labor history and help tell stories about small-scale farmers and their connections to communities, customers, and all of us who eat.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

farming equipment, research, labor relations, Hispanic and Latino history, food, farms and farming, by Saige Jedele, by Debra A. Reid, agriculture

Our new limited-engagement exhibit, Collecting Mobility: New Objects, New Stories, opening to the public October 23, 2021, takes you behind the scenes at The Henry Ford to show you how we continue to grow our vast collection of more than 26 million artifacts. One key question the exhibit asks is why we collect the items we collect. To get more insight on the artifacts on exhibit and future trends that may impact our collecting, we reached out to several of our partners. In this post from that series, our friends at the University of Michigan, donors of the Navya Autonom® driverless shuttle bus in the exhibit, tackle questions about autonomous vehicles.


The Mcity shuttle project was less about autonomous vehicle (AV) technology than it was about human psychology. Why is it important to understand our current attitudes and comfort levels with self-driving vehicles?

Self-driving vehicles promise a better world for all of us by making roads safer, reducing fuel use, and providing more equitable, more accessible mobility options to more people. None of those benefits can be realized, however, if the public does not trust fully automated vehicles or is afraid to ride in them.

When the Mcity Driverless Shuttle launched in June 2018, consumer trust in automated vehicles was declining in the wake of two fatal crashes involving partially automated vehicles in Arizona and California. Mcity wanted to better understand how consumer attitudes about self-driving vehicles might be affected if they were able to experience the technology first-hand.

Squat blue van with large glass windows all the way around and doors slid open; text and graphics on side
Navya Autonom® Driverless Shuttle Bus, used on the University of Michigan's North Campus and Mcity Test Facility, 2017, now in the collections of The Henry Ford and on exhibit in Collecting Mobility in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation until January 2, 2022. / THF188013


Mcity worked with global market research firm J.D. Power to survey shuttle riders and non-riders—bicyclists, pedestrians, drivers of other vehicles—about their experience. By the time Mcity’s research wrapped up in December 2019, consumer sentiment nationally remained weak, according to separate surveys published in early 2020 by AAA and J.D. Power. But Mcity Driverless Shuttle survey results showed that 86 percent of riders trusted the technology after riding in the shuttle, as did 67 percent of nonriders surveyed.

Understanding the role of public trust and acceptance is essential to widespread adoption of new mobility technologies.

Self-driving cars may be the most disruptive mobility technology since the car itself. They will affect every aspect of our century-long relationship with the automobile. What can we do to ease the transition?

We must help consumers better understand the potential of this disruptive technology to improve the quality of their day-to-day life, as well as society as a whole. One way to do that is through exhibits like Collecting Mobility at The Henry Ford.

What we did not have at the dawn of the automotive age a century ago was the myriad ways to communicate that are at our fingertips today. On-demand multimedia content produced and shared by industry, government, academia, media, and other organizations teaches the public about self-driving technologies and their risks and benefits as they evolve, helping to smooth the transition to a new way of moving people and goods.

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communication, research, technology, by Greg McGuire, by Matt Anderson, cars, autonomous technology

Sidney Houghton is one of the most interesting and yet-to-be-documented figures in the group surrounding Henry and Clara Ford. Many in the Fords’ entourage are colorful and well-researched, including Harry Bennett, Henry’s security chief, known as the notorious head of the Ford Motor Company “Service” Department; Henry’s business manager, Ernest Liebold, who handled all financial transactions; and even their son, Edsel Ford, whose life and important cultural contributions are thoroughly documented. The great Ford historian Ford R. Bryan tells the story of these figures in his book, Henry’s Lieutenants (1993). Bryan frequently mentions Sidney Houghton, most notably in his book Friends, Family, and Forays (2002).

Perhaps Houghton remains undocumented because he was British, and in the decades before Internet resources became widely available, American researchers like Bryan had limited access to British sources. Today, we are fortunate to not only have the profound resources of the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford at our disposal, but also digital access to repositories around the world. As Curator of Decorative Arts, I have spent considerable time trying to fully grasp the enigmatic Mr. Houghton—his biography, his business, and, most importantly, his relationship with Henry and Clara Ford. This blog is the first in a series that will delve into this mostly hidden story.

Now, you may ask, why should we care about the Fords’ interior designer? Seeing and understanding the interior environments that the Fords created to live and work provides us with great insight into their characters, creating a well-rounded picture of their lives. We can understand their motivations and desires and see how these changed over time. We can peel back the larger-than-life personas of the Fords that come with such public lives and see them as individuals.

What Do We Know About Sidney Houghton’s Early Life?


Researching Houghton was not easy. The first place I looked was Ancestry.com, but Houghton is a very common name in Britain. After a lot of digging and working with colleagues at The Henry Ford, I located Sidney Charles Houghton, who was born in 1872 and died in 1950. He was the son of cabinetmaker Charles Houghton, which likely led to his interest in furniture-making and interior design.

One of the questions still in my mind is: Where was Houghton educated? To date, I have not been able to find out which art school he attended—these records do not appear to be available online. What I do know is that he married in 1895, and had a family consisting of two sons by 1898. By 1910, according to the British census, his business, Houghton Studio, was established in London.

Houghton in World War I


From Ford R. Bryan’s publications and resources in the Benson Ford Research Center, I knew that Houghton was in the British Navy during World War I. I searched the British National Archives and found his fascinating military service record. Houghton, I discovered, was an experienced yachtsman, and was commissioned as a commander. He helped to create patrol boats, called P-boats, that swiftly located enemy submarines. In 1917, he was sent to the United States to work with Reginald Fessenden (1866–1932), a Canadian-American inventor who worked in early radio. Together, they developed an early sonar system to locate enemy ships, submarines, and mines. For his contributions to the war effort, Houghton was awarded the Order of the British Empire, or O.B.E., in 1919.

Through the reminiscences of Ernest Liebold, held in the Benson Ford Research Center, I discovered that Houghton was brought into the Ford Motor Company’s war effort to create what Liebold called the Eagle boats. These were similar to the British P-boats. Unlike the relatively simple P-boats, though, the Eagle boats would be like a “young battleship,” according to Liebold. He went on to state that the boats would “have the eye of an eagle and would flit over the seas.”

Long, narrow boat on elevated trestle with a large group of people on land looking on
Eagle Boat #1 on Launching Trestle at the Ford Rouge Plant, July 11, 1918. / THF270275

Long, narrow boat decorated with flags and bunting on elevated trestle above water, as a crowd looks on
Eagle Boat #60 Lowered to Water, August 1919. / THF270277

Liebold continued:

Houghton came along, and he said, “We ought to have a listening device put on those ships to detect submarines.” That is where [Thomas] Edison came in to develop this listening device, and I think Houghton is the man who contacted him. I remember him coming out with a long rod and stuff, and it was so darned secret that nobody knew a thing about it.

They had a special room provided for it in the Eagle boats. It was to be this listening chamber in which the apparatus was placed. They could detect a submarine by the beat of its propellers. A magnetic signal could determine just exactly in what direction it was, [sic] and approximately, from the intensity of the sound of the beating of the propeller, they could tell just what distance and in what direction it was.

They would radio that information to the nearest battleship in a cordon of battleships, or destroyers or whatever they had. They would be able to attack the submarine, you see. That was the object of it.

As an integral member of the Eagle boat team, it is highly likely that Houghton travelled to Dearborn and met Henry Ford. We know from later correspondence that Henry and Clara developed an abiding personal friendship with Houghton which continued through the 1920s. They commissioned a series of projects, beginning with the Fords’ yacht, the Sialia—but I am getting ahead of myself. At this point, I would like to discuss Houghton’s work in interior design, specifically his role as an interior architect.

Sidney Houghton’s Studio


Page with text and image of sculpture featuring boat and figures in water
Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121214

Page with text
Back Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121230

This brochure or trade catalogue gives us great insight into the Houghton Studio. We date it to the late 1920s, when the projects Houghton worked on for the Fords were complete. From the text, we can see just what the firm’s capabilities were. The back cover reads: “Designs and estimates for decoration and furnishing of every kind / from the simplest to the most exotic / always in good style / always at exceptional values.” What this tells us is that Houghton Studio was a rarity in the interior design world.

Houghton was an interior architect, meaning that he designed both interiors and furnishings—the woodwork, wall treatments, lighting, furniture, textiles, and accessories—to create a unified interior environment. In new construction, an interior architect would collaborate with the architect to create an interior in harmony with the architecture. This contrasts with our present-day conception of an interior designer as a person who simply selects existing furnishings that harmonize to create a unified interior aesthetic. Obviously, Houghton Studio’s clients were wealthy and able to afford the best.

Page with text and three images: Two showing room interiors and one in a round inset showing the exterior of a building
Chateau Laurier National Hotel, Ottawa Canada. / THF121219a

Page with text and drawings of furniture--a wardrobe, dressing table and stool, dresser, nightstand, and two beds with a large headboard and two side tables
Designs for Modern Furniture. / THF121226a

Like most of his contemporaries, Houghton worked in a variety of styles, as demonstrated in the images above—from period revivals as seen in the Chateau Laurier National Hotel, in Ottawa, Canada, to his renderings for “Modern” furniture, done in what we would describe as the Art Deco style, which was synonymous with high-end 1920s taste.

Page with text
List of Commissions in the Houghton Catalogue. / THF121229b

One of the most interesting pages in the catalogue notes several commissions to design interiors for yachts, which was a specialty of the Houghton Studio. The most important of these was a commission for the Sialia, Henry Ford’s yacht. The Fords purchased the yacht just before World War I, and it was requisitioned for use by the U.S. Navy in 1917. The ship was returned to Henry Ford in 1920. At this point, Sidney Houghton was asked to redesign the interiors.

Henry Ford’s Sialia


Long boat docked next to an industrial crane or craneway
Henry Ford’s Yacht, Sialia, Docked at Ford Rouge Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, 1927. /THF140396

According to Ford R. Bryan, the cost of the interiors was approximately $150,000. As seen here, the interiors are comfortable, but relatively simple. During the 1920s, the Fords occasionally used the Sialia, but Henry and Clara Ford preferred other means of travel, usually by large Ford corporate ore carriers, when they traveled to their summer home in Michigan’s upper peninsula. According to the ship’s captain, Perry Stakes, Henry Ford never really liked the Sialia, and he sold it in July of 1927.

Room interior with piano, desk, upholstered chair
Parlor on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92100

Small room containing double bed with a dresser on either side and a round mirror above each dresser
Bedroom on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92098

Following the Sialia commission, the Fords found a kindred spirit in Houghton. The archives contain ample correspondence from the early 1920s, with the Fords asking Houghton to return to Dearborn. Houghton subsequently received a commission to design the interior of the Fords’ Fair Lane railroad car in 1920. Between 1920 and 1926, Houghton was deluged with projects from the Fords, including the redesign of the Fair Lane Estate interiors, design of Henry and Edsel’s offices in the new Ford Engineering Laboratory, interiors for the Dearborn Country Club, as well as interiors for the Henry Ford Hospital addition.

In the next post in this series, we will look closer at several of these projects and present surviving renderings from the Fair Lane remodeling, as well as furniture from the Engineering Laboratory offices.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

Sidney Houghton, World War I, technology, research, home life, Henry Ford, furnishings, Ford Motor Company, design, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, archives