The Mcity Driverless Shuttle arrives at The Henry Ford.
Thanks to a generous gift from the University of Michigan (U-M), The Henry Ford recently acquired its second autonomous vehicle: a driverless shuttle used by U-M’s Mcity connected and automated vehicle research center. Readers may recall that we acquired our first AV in 2018 – a 2016 General Motors Self-Driving Test Vehicle. While the GM car was an experimental vehicle focused on technology, the Mcity shuttle took part in an intriguing project more focused on the psychology of consumer trust and acceptance of driverless vehicles.
From June 4, 2018, through December 13, 2019, Mcity, a public-private research partnership led by U-M, operated this driverless shuttle at U-M’s North Campus Research Complex in Ann Arbor. The project’s purpose was to understand how passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers interacted with autonomous vehicles. In effect, the project was a way to gauge consumer acceptance of a decidedly unconventional new technology.
The shuttle donated to The Henry Ford is one of two fully-automated, electrically-powered, 11-seat shuttles Mcity operated on a fixed route around the research complex throughout the course of the study. The shuttles were built by French manufacturer Navya. In late 2016, Navya had delivered its first self-driving shuttle in North America to Mcity, where it was used to support research and to demonstrate automated vehicle technology. In June 2017, Mcity announced plans to launch a research project in the form of an on-campus shuttle service that would be open to the U-M community.
The Mcity Driverless Shuttle operated on a one-mile loop around the North Campus Research Complex at speeds averaging about 10 miles per hour. The service ran Monday-Friday from 9 AM to 3 PM. While its route avoided heavy-traffic arteries, the shuttle nevertheless shared two-way public roadways with cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. It operated in a variety of weather conditions, including winter cold and snow; but was not used in more extreme weather, such as heavy snow or rain.
The Mcity Driverless Shuttle on its route at the University of Michigan’s North Campus Research Complex. (Photo credit: University of Michigan)
While the shuttle and its technology are impressive enough, the impetus behind its use is arguably more important to The Henry Ford. The Mcity research project was the first driverless shuttle deployment in the United States that focused primarily on user behavior. Mcity’s goal was to learn more about how people reacted to AVs, rather than prove the technology. The two shuttles were equipped with exterior video recorders to capture reactions from people outside the shuttle, and interior video and audio recorders to capture reactions from passengers inside. On-board safety conductors, there to stop the shuttle in case of emergency, also observed rider behavior.
Mcity staff monitored ridership numbers and patterns throughout the project, and riders were encouraged to complete a survey about their experience that was developed by Mcity and the market research firm J.D. Power. Survey questions ranged from basic inquiries about age and relationship to the university, to more specific inquiries about reasons for riding, degree of satisfaction with the service, interest level in AV technology, and – most significantly – degree of trust in the shuttle and its driverless capabilities. The survey data was then analyzed by J.D. Power. You can learn more about the results through Mcity's white paper, "Mcity Driverless Shuttle: What We Learned About Consumer Acceptance of Automated Vehicles."
Along with the shuttle itself, U-M has kindly donated examples of the special signage installed by Mcity in support of the shuttle project. There are no current government regulations – at the federal, state, or local levels – for signage along a driverless vehicle route. Mcity developed its own signs to alert other road users to the shuttle’s presence. Samples include signs proclaiming “Shuttle Stop” and “Attention: Driverless Vehicle Route.”
Autonomous vehicles are coming to our streets – it’s no longer a question of “if,” but of “when.” Indeed, the Mcity shuttle project proves that AVs are, to an extent, already here. These driverless vehicles promise to be the most transformative development in ground transportation since the automobile itself. Self-driving capabilities will fundamentally change our relationship with the vehicle. The technology promises improved safety and economy in our cars and buses, greater capacity and efficiency on our roads, and enhanced mobility and quality of life for those unable to drive themselves. The Mcity Driverless Shuttle represents an important milestone on the road to autonomy, and it marks an important addition to The Henry Ford’s automotive collection.
Promotional image for #AskAnArchivist Day 2020 from the Society of American Archivists.
One day every October (American Archives Month), archivists flock to Twitter for #AskAnArchivist Day. The event, organized by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), allows archivists to explain what they do and answer questions from the public in real-time.
This year, four representatives from our Archives--Sr. Manager, Archives & Library, Brian Wilson; Reference Archivist Kathy Makas; Processing Archivist Janice Unger; and Processing Archivist Hilary Severyn--took shifts answering questions from The Henry Ford's Twitter account. Between the four of them, they covered topics ranging from the availability of research assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic to our Ford Motor Company records to mustache-related puns. Below are some highlights from the day's Q&A.
A display of quilts made by members of the Lincoln, Nebraska Modern Quilt Guild at American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.
The 400 quilts in The Henry Ford’s collection, dating from the 1700s to the 2000s, represent quilting traditions of nearly 300 years--all reflecting the resourcefulness and creativity of their makers. Quilts were among the objects of everyday life that Henry Ford collected as he gathered objects for his museum. Since Ford’s time, The Henry Ford’s curators have continued to add to the collection, gathering quilts that represent diverse quilting traditions.
Quilts serve a practical purpose as warm bedcovers. Yet they are also inherently about design--from a simple traditional pattern to a unique motif crafted through the expert manipulation of pattern and color. While many quiltmakers have no formal training in design, they instinctively create attractive quilts that display their innate talents.
Quiltmaking has continued to evolve, reflecting new aesthetics and influences. An exciting, robust trend of the past 20 years has been the Modern Quilt Movement—a style of quiltmaking we are eager to add to our collection.
A display of quilts made by members of the Lincoln, Nebraska Modern Quilt Guild at American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.
A wonderful opportunity arose. While giving a paper at the American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar, I met Kristin Barrus, who was presenting a poster session on “Why Women Under 45 Quilt.” (Silent Generation and Baby Boomers created the quilt revival of the post-Bicentennial era. They were followed by GenX and Millennial quilters, many of whom have shaped and embraced the Modern quilt aesthetic.)
Kristin Barrus’s poster, presented at the American Quilt Study Group Seminar in 2019. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.
Kristin, a graduate student studying Material Culture and Textile History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is not only knowledgeable about the Modern Quilt Movement, she’s a modern quiltmaker herself. We were delighted to have Kristin join us this Spring for a remote practicum experience at The Henry Ford, conducting research on the Modern Quilt Movement to help us more fully understand its vibrant landscape. Her research will inform strategic additions to our collections: examples of modern quilts, printed materials reflecting the movement, and books on the topic. Part of Kristin’s research involves a survey of modern quilters.
Here’s Kristin to tell you more about the Modern Quilt Movement, and her research survey.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Kristin Barrus. Photo by Alisha Tunks.
Hi, I’m glad to have this opportunity to tell you about my quilt research project! I started quiltmaking around 2003 in my twenties and got swept up with this new aesthetic called Modern quilting. I co-founded the Utah County Modern Quilt Group, which ran monthly for seven years in Lehi, Utah. While I taught at meetings, quilt shows and retreats, I realized I was more interested in watching the quiltmakers make connections with each other than with what came out of the other side of my sewing machine. (Although I do still love to make quilts!) The topic of my thesis for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is the first study of QuiltCon, an annual convention for Modern quiltmakers.
Modern Trends, Kristin Barrus, 2017. A sampler quilt turned Modern by joining several popular quilt blocks together in a new layout. Photo by Kristin Barrus.
There is much to celebrate and investigate in 21st century quiltmaking. The Modern Quilt Movement is a sub-category within quiltmaking, bracketed at years 2000–2020 for the purposes of my research. Modern is a very broad and sometimes contested term, not just a new aesthetic. It’s also a new kind of experience in the contemporary quilt world. People come to Modern quilting not only to make quilts, as traditional quiltmaking guilds do, but to be a part of the energetic vibe that happens at Modern meetings, both online and in person. Often people who do not consider themselves Modern quiltmakers join because they love the inclusive comradery, mini quilt swaps and inspiration of the Modern Quilt Movement. Thus this popular phenomenon is identified not only by what Modern quilts look like, but also the type of person and the community involved.
The main design philosophy of Modern is exploration through bending or breaking unspoken—and sometimes spoken—traditional quilt rules. It relies on the use of technology such as blogs, Instagram and digital publications to connect across distances, initially building a vibrant community online. Because of the variety and dispersed nature of these makers, Modern quilting is complicated. The look of Modern quilts can include brighter color palettes in solids or prints, or quiet neutrals to create quilts with a strong graphic feel. Or it could just be a new twist on a traditional pattern. Other common aspects include, but are not limited to, large use of negative space, asymmetrical design and straight-line, rather than curvilinear, quilting.
Group Improv, Kristin Barrus & Sew Night Friends, 2018. An example of collaborative quilt design by seven women, using popular colors and fabrics. Photo by Kristin Barrus.
For my practicum at The Henry Ford, I will present a paper on “The Landscape of the Modern Quilt Movement, 2000-2020” next Spring. I will also recommend specific quilts from the movement to consider acquiring for The Henry Ford’s collection, as well as books on the topic. In the meantime, I will be conducting recorded interviews with key individuals from the movement to be included in The Henry Ford’s archives, as well as future research.
My project also includes a survey for Modern quilters. I am hoping to hear from anyone who has participated in Modern quiltmaking in any way, via an anonymous survey. I hope to capture what Modern means to the people who play a part in it: What do they feel Modern is? What are the trends and people that have influenced them? This data will help academia study what the Modern Quilt Movement is, as well as its impact on the lives of many people all over the world. The survey is anonymous, contains 15 questions and takes about 5–8 minutes to complete.
Tula Pink Millefiori, Kristin Barrus, 2017. A hand applique medallion quilt using motifs from popular fabric designer Tula Pink. Photo by Kristin Barrus.
Let Your Modern Voice Be Heard
If you have participated in Modern quiltmaking in any way, please consider taking the survey, or sending it to someone you know who makes Modern quilts. The lines between Modern and Modern-traditional quiltmaking are blurred and intersect often. As you answer each question, please reflect on what Modern means to you specifically, regardless of how anyone else defines Modern quiltmaking. You can access the survey here, or using the QR code below.
Kristin Barrus is a graduate practicum student at The Henry Ford.
As Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, part of my job is to select items related to entrepreneurs within our collection to be digitized. Sometimes this calls for additional research to provide context and significance. Searching for the significance of an object or photograph can often feel like detective work. Sometimes we are able to do some sleuthing and find what we are looking for and other times we run out of leads. Recently, while working with the H. J. Heinz Company Records – the first archival collection selected for this project – we had the opportunity to dig deeper into the significance of a notebook and learn more about its owner.
This notebook containing hand-written recipes from the H. J. Heinz company has been on display at the Heinz House in Greenfield Village for the past several years. Upon getting a closer look, we discovered that there was a name written on the outside: Jn Koehrer.
The cover of the notebook states that it belongs to Jn Koehrer.
Who was this Jn (John) Koehrer? Unaware of any immediate connections to H. J. Heinz, we turned to Ancestry.com, where we discovered that John Koehrer (1871-1945) was listed as a foster son of Heinz’s cousin, Frederick Heinz. Census records noted that he worked for a “Pick Co.” – which we assumed was supposed to say “Pickle Co.” – and that his occupation was that of a “pickler” or a “foreman.” So now we have a connection to H. J. Heinz, but what does his notebook have to do with the company history?
A Google search for “‘John Koehrer’ Heinz” led us to our answer. An Architectural and Historical Survey of Muscatine, Iowa, noted that, “On January 29, 1893, the Muscatine Improvement and Manufacturing Company closed the contract with Heinz to build its first plant outside of Pittsburgh… The three-story brick building… Opened in 1894 under the management of John Koehrer.” There it was! – the reason he had a notebook of recipes, and why it was significant to company history, was because he was to manage the new Heinz factory and needed to make sure he could replicate the products.
Handwritten recipe from the notebook for “Chilli Sauce.” Half-way down the page you’ll notice that the recipe calls for “1/2 pound of xxx.” The three x’s can be found in other recipes too and represent a secret ingredient.
Additional research from online newspaper articles allowed us to discover what was primarily produced at the plant – sauerkraut, horseradish, pickles, ketchup, and other tomato products – and we inferred that the recipes within the notebook would have been fairly simple to produce at the factory. From previous conservation and cataloguing reports, we had dated the notebook to around 1890, which fit perfectly into the timeline for John to have used these recipes in Iowa.
With this new information we are now able to more accurately describe the notebook on display and the research we uncovered can be added to our records for future use. When it comes to historical research, you never truly know what you’re going to find. In this digital age, and with more resources at our fingertips than ever before, more hidden gems like this one can be uncovered – a joy to behold in the history field.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Aimee Burpee, Associate Registrar – Special Projects, for helping us uncover the mystery behind this notebook!
Earlier this week we shared another set of items that were recently digitized for our online collections: football artifacts to supplement our latest traveling exhibit, Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of those items is Edsel Ford’s 1934 season pass to home games of the Detroit Lions, which is actually on display inside the exhibit. In the picture of the pass you'll see that "Cancelled" is written in one of the top corners. After we shared the photo on Twitter yesterday Dave Birkett sent us this Tweet:
Anyone have any idea why "cancelled" would be written on that pass? @thehenryford
The explanation wasn't included in the online narrative for the pass and actually had several of us scratching our own heads - why was the pass cancelled? Thanks to Brian Wilson, Digital Processing Archivist at The Henry Ford, we found the answer.Here's Brian's report as he took a trip to our archives. - Lish Dorset Social Media Manager, The Henry Ford.Continue Reading
Last November, I made a trip to the Benson Ford Research Library to see a small (8-by-6.75-inch) album of watercolor drawings made by Lewis Miller, a Pennsylvania German carpenter who lived from the time of the American Revolution to the Centennial. I have long been intrigued by his drawings, which have provided me with great material for the history of American landscape design, my specialization as an art historian.
Over the years I had seen hundreds of Miller’s drawings, which are primarily in two collections: the York Heritage Center, York, Penn., and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum, Williamsburg, Va. There are about 2,000 of his drawings in these collections. The album, however, is alone in Dearborn and how it got there is an interesting story.
Donald Shelley, former executive director of Henry Ford Museum was himself from York, and knew well “the Chronicler” of his hometown. When Miller’s album appeared on the market in New York in the 1960s, Shelley purchased it for The Henry Ford collection. In his introduction to the only major work on Miller, (Miller, Lewis. Lewis Miller, Sketches and Chronicles: The Reflections of a Nineteenth Century Pennsylvania German Folk Artist. York, Pa: Historical Society of York County, 1966) Shelley said Miller’s work was unmatched by that of any other American folk artist.
When the opportunity arose to write an online article for Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, my colleagues, Kathryn Barush, Emily Pugh, and I immediately saw that Miller, whose large body of work had not been seriously studied in almost fifty years, was an ideal topic. The Dearborn album is a guide to Central Park, the greatest public urban park in America. It offered a focused entry into both Miller’s worldview and into the study of the most important landscape undertaking of the nineteenth century, New York City's first public park. The 54 leaves are filled with watercolors of the park’s earliest features and structures and inscribed with English and German poems and commentary.
Upon seeing the album, my first reaction, after delighting in its bright colors and charm that are lost in reproductions, was to query, what is this object? Why did this folk artist make it? How does it relate to the rest of his work? Kathryn Barush undertook the identification of all the texts that filled the sketchbook, English and German. That was the first breakthrough in terms of understanding the breadth of Miller’s literary appetite: William Cullen Bryant, Shakespeare, Martin Luther--a miscellany of poems, fiction, and travel literature as well as botanical lists. Then the images, once analyzed, compared and decoded, revealed a wealth of pictorial sources that drew from newspapers, magazines and again, travel literature. Miller was not the naive folk artist we took him to be, but rather a man of his times, and his works were an omnium-gatherum of visual culture.
This study has taught us a great deal about the penetration of the new pictorial press, especially in the middle decades of the 19th century, when innovations in printing and photographic technology revolutionized popular publishing. It is fitting that today’s innovations in online publishing has made it possible to bring the Miller album to the Web in a multifaceted digital facsimile. The online article designed by Emily Pugh unifies traditional scholarly interpretation with new tools and links to rich digital resources. Thus, the Dearborn album is important for two reasons. First, its study provided a model for how digital humanities can be a tool to enhance scholarly communication. More significantly, it has provided a key to writing a new interpretation of Miller’s lifetime of drawing and writing, one which sees him not as an exponent of a closed tradition but as a person partaking very much in contemporary life, where the deluge of visual and textual culture impressed and shaped his worldview. This is just the beginning of a new history of Lewis Miller.
Therese O'Malley is associate dean at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She oversees the Center's publications and scholarly programs. Her scholarly publications have focused on the history of landscape architecture and garden design, from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, concentrating on the transatlantic exchange of plants, ideas, and people.
Her recent publications include Keywords in American Landscape Design (Yale University Press), The Art of Natural History, co-edited with Amy W. Meyers (National Gallery of Art), and several articles on aspects of the early profession of landscape design and the history of botanic gardens.
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 & Content 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.
Bob Casey, automotive historian and former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, offers up some insight into the many books written on auto pioneer Henry Ford. Two of his favorites – both of which can be found in the Henry Ford Museum Store and the Greenfield Village Store – are The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, by Steven Watts, and Young Henry Ford: A Picture History of the First Forty Years, by Sidney Olson. “Watts’ book is the best one-volume biography of Henry Ford that I have ever read – despite all that has been written about Ford, Watts still manages to find new insights,” said Casey. “Olson mined the Ford family and business records to create a lively, well-illustrated account of Henry Ford’s first forty years, from his childhood to the initial success of Ford Motor Company.”
Jeff Seeno, intern in the Media and Film Relations department at The Henry Ford, asked Casey some questions recently about Henry Ford and these reflections of Ford’s life.
Many books written about Henry Ford either vigorously attack him, or grant him extraordinary praise for his accomplishments. Do you feel these books in any way distort the picture of the true man?
Both of these books are very balanced accounts of the true Henry Ford. These are also very personal accounts of Henry Ford’s life. For example, Ford did not appreciate the talents of his only son, Edsel, who had a great eye for cars. He loved the way cars looked, and according to Watts, Ford Motor Company could have completely dominated the market if they had harnessed Edsel’s insight. But Henry Ford loved to lap up the acclaim and position himself as an incumbent visionary, and he could articulate his vision so well that everyone wanted to jump on board.
How do these books establish the essential Henry Ford – not only as a social visionary, but as a figure who has a controversial personality?
In Olson’s book, he is not afraid to talk about the mean side of Henry Ford. He mentions that Ford was a prankster, and a mean one at that. He tells the story of a time when one of Henry’s employees, George Flint, who was rather sloppy, would leave his shoes lying about when he changed from his work clothes to his street clothes. In an effort to teach Flint to be neater, Ford nailed Flint’s shoes to the floor.
On the other end, Watts’ book shows that Ford had much strength in regards to charity and the growth of the Ford Motor Company. He was very philanthropic in a quirky way, but after executing his “Five Dollars a Day” plan, his forthright genius and creative power went to his head.