As we digitize the collections of The Henry Ford, we try to find and tell complete stories—for example, we don’t just digitize the race car, but also trophies it won, and photos from some of its most famous races. Because of our broad collecting approach and the resultant depth of our collections, we uncover these stories all the time.
Sometimes fate and/or current events help us out. Though The Henry Ford is an independent institution, we do maintain a warm relationship with Ford Motor Company and often work together on projects. Recently we discovered a series of items in our collection that played a big role in Ford Motor Company’s history, both nearly 90 years ago and again just six years ago.
The items include a number of paintings, magazine advertisement proofs created from those (and other) paintings, and correspondence that formed an impressive ad campaign. The campaign itself consisted of 16 ads that ran in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines in 1924 and 1925. The ads, two-page spreads that contained both visually arresting artwork and a significant amount of text, explained the backstory of the Ford company at a time when, as Marc Greuther, Chief Curator and Curator of Industry and Design at The Henry Ford, states, the company was at “a certain kind of pinnacle” with their signature product, the Model T, but “the product is slipping.”
As fascinating as it is, this ad campaign might have disappeared into relative obscurity if it hadn’t been rediscovered by Ford Motor Company’s new President and CEO, Alan Mulally, in 2007. In a recent interview with Fast Company, Mulally said, “I was looking for a compelling vision, a comprehensive statement to deliver that strategy.” This ad campaign from the previous century provided just the fundamental sense of purpose that Mulally was after, and allowed him to create a new strategic vision that was embraced across Ford Motor Company.
As we discussed this backstory with Ford Motor Company, both organizations were extremely interested in highlighting the ad campaign. Marc Greuther conducted a one-on-one interview with Alan Mulally about the impact the earlier campaign had on today’s Ford Motor Company (you can view clips from that interview here and here). As discussions continued between our institutions, the Ford Motor Company Fund generously provided a grant to conserve and reframe some of the materials, as well as create videos covering the conservation process and interviews. We made plans to highlight some of the newly conserved paintings within our Driving America exhibit. The new exhibit was officially unveiled on June 24, with Alan Mulally and other luminaries (including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who checked in at the Museum on Foursquare) in attendance.
The interactive kiosk within this section of the exhibit was updated to include new video clips featuring Marc Greuther’s interview with Alan Mulally, as well as additional analysis of the campaign by Marc. It also now features an electronic collections set containing all of the paintings, ad proofs, and correspondence connected to the campaign, as well as other related materials.
In case you’ve ever wondered what it takes to pull this kind of historical story together, in both physical and digital formats, here are some of the groups that played a role:
Archivists from The Henry Ford combed the stacks, locating the ads and other materials related to the campaign
Registrars, archivists, and curators from The Henry Ford researched all of the materials as well as the backstory
Ford Motor Company provided access to Alan Mulally, Dean Weber (Manager of the Ford Archives), and other key corporate resources, both for interviews and project planning
The Ford Motor Company Fund provided a grant which underwrote conservation and reframing of some of the materials, as well as creation of videos covering the conservation process and interviews
Conservators, both at The Henry Ford and outside the institution, examined and conserved the artifacts
Curators at The Henry Ford planned the story, materials, and text for the new exhibit
Photographers and imaging specialists from The Henry Ford photographed and scanned of all the material
Digitization staff at The Henry Ford made sure all artifacts related to the campaign appeared online and on the interactive kiosk within this exhibit section
Museum and exhibits staff at The Henry Ford worked with contractors to update the Driving America exhibit with the new material
Events staff at The Henry Ford worked with Ford Motor Company to ensure the official unveiling went without a hitch
Ford Motor Company created a website to share photos, videos, and a press release relating to this project
And it continues to build… Staff at The Henry Ford have already fielded one loan request for some of the paintings and advertisements not used in Driving America (you can see them through October 2013 in the Michigan Modern exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.)
It certainly took a lot of time, effort, and funding to put this all together, but we hope you’ll agree that the resulting exhibit in Driving America within the Museum—as well as the digital assets, available to anyone around the world—are worth it. Let us know what you think.
Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford, is always trying to integrate the physical and the digital.
As a public researcher who has spent many hours using the archival holdings of the Benson Ford Research Center, I am always amazed by what I find among the papers and photographs of Henry, Clara and Edsel Ford. Perhaps I am a history geek, but many a time my research has led me to very memorable and enjoyable experiences, as was recently the case.
A good deal of my work takes me to Accession 1, the Fair Lane papers, comprised of the documents, photographs and ephemera found throughout Fair Lane, the Fords' home, after Clara passed away in 1950. Among the 74 cubic ft. of the Fair Lane papers, you will find documents related to the Fords' various activities beyond Ford Motor Company.
These are the records of the Fords' everyday lives—from drawings made by their young son, Edsel, to the sympathy cards they received upon his early death. The boxes include receipts of purchases they made, correspondence from famous friends, like the Edisons, and itineraries from trips abroad. The accession also includes dozens of compelling letters sent to Clara Ford from people asking her for money, and from others asking her to speak to her husband on their behalf to buy a family heirloom for his museum or employ a family member during the Depression. Thank goodness the Fords saved so much, for it gives us an insight into the forgotten details of their experiences, times they shared, decisions they had to make, and the heartaches and challenges they faced.
During a recent research project, I came across a letter from Helen Keller to Clara Ford, dated March 29, 1949, written two years after Henry's death. In the letter, Helen Keller (1880-1968) thanks Clara for her donation to the American Foundation for Overseas Blind. The Fords, Henry and Clara, as well as Edsel, had begun in the 1920s to donate to causes led by Helen Keller. Ford Motor Company's job training and placement for blind workers was one of the catalysts that began their association.
But the 1949 letter is so much more than an organizational thank you. As I read the three-page typed letter, it made me pause, as I imagined this extraordinary woman, penning this beautifully composed letter to Clara, sharing personal moments she experienced traveling the world and providing a personal window into her life.
Although this letter was not the primary focus of my research, it lured me on to new directions, causing me to ask more questions about the relationship of Helen Keller and the Fords, and the work of Helen Keller. It was a long time ago, back in elementary school, that I had read Helen Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life, but I recalled how remarkable a life she had led. Visiting a few websites allowed me to put the time the letter was written into a better context and learn more about the American Foundation for Overseas Blind, the organization referenced in the letter.
The new search engine available internally at the BFRC allowed the archivist to provide me with a list of all known items related to Helen Keller in other boxes. This is a wonderful new tool for researchers that is just getting launched. With so many records, this will assist researchers with finding material that before relied on a lot of work, skill and sometimes luck, to find related documents throughout the collection.
We located several letters that spanned the decades, sent to Henry, Clara and Edsel. Helen Keller traveled all over the world, speaking and raising money for various organizations that supported research and assistance for blind citizens. I learned that Edsel Ford was one of the lead organizers for one such visit to Detroit in 1930.
I recalled that during an earlier research project I had seen a photograph of Helen Keller on the porch of the Menlo Park Laboratory in Greenfield Village. Reviewing the search results, we located a few photos of Helen Keller with her secretary and companion, Polly Thompson, along with Edsel Ford and Francis Jehl, Thomas Edison's assistant. If you look at Helen Keller's hand, you can see it placed in Polly Thompson's.
During this research period, I happened to mention the Helen Keller letter to a friend, Sandy North, who is the former Director of the Redford Union Oral Program for the Hearing Impaired. Sandy has long been a great admirer of Helen Keller, even posting quotes of Keller in her classroom for many years. Sandy has been a member of The Henry Ford for many years, but had never visited the Benson Ford Research Center. I invited her to join me to see the Keller letter and photographs.
As Sandy later wrote to me:
Because of my vocation, I have always admired Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind. She learned language through feeling the fingers of her interpreter. She communicated to others through her oral speech…and spoke and wrote in several languages. She was a champion of the poor and women's rights at a time when women did not have the right to vote. She is my role model.
I had read Helen's speeches, but I had never read any of her personal correspondence. Here I was holding it! Her vocabulary far exceeded mine and her beautiful descriptive language brought tears to my eyes. Although the letters were typed, her signature was hand-printed by Helen! Best of all, I had copies made of the letters and could bring them home with me!
To think that all of this extensive collection of the Benson Ford Research Center is available to people of our community and people everywhere doing research!
It was a memorable experience for both of us and this blog post has been the result of this very interesting research project.
Along the way, I discovered another path of inquiry as I was researching the American Foundation for Overseas Blind. This organization is now named Helen Keller International. It was founded in 1915 by Helen Keller and George Kessler, a wealthy New York merchant, and is among the oldest non-profits dedicated to preventing blindness and reducing malnutrition. During the World Trade Center terrorist attack, their New York headquarters were destroyed; gratefully no employees were injured, but their collection of Helen Keller papers was lost. This circumstance makes this document even more valuable, not only to The Henry Ford’s collection, but also to Helen Keller International and to scholars studying Helen Keller's life and legacy.
So I hope that with more and more relevant archival materials being digitized and made freely available online, and with the sharing of expertise among these and other organizations as well, the association of the Fords with Helen Keller and their support for her causes can continue to be preserved and made better known.
Susan McCabe is the former curator of Henry Ford Estate, Dearborn. Shevholds an MA in history museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY at Oneonta. She has researched extensively and lectured on the life of Clara and Henry Ford.
Editor's note: Another organization with which Helen Keller was associated is the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). The AFB holds of the main body of Helen Keller papers, called the Helen Keller Archives, which includes personal papers that she bequeathed to them as well as professional papers from her tenure with AFB.