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Wooden box with lid flipped back, text and images inside lid, packets inside box and some outside box

Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542

Several million guests have seen a reproduction Sibley seed box, based on an original box in our collections, in the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village since 1994, when the box became part of the reinterpreted interior. Commercial seed sales of pre-packaged vegetable and flower seeds began in earnest during the 1860s, and by the mid-1880s, Hiram Sibley & Company advertised itself as the world’s largest seed company. That might be true. Sibley, who made his fortune as executive of the Western Union Telegraph Company, invested in farms and packing houses in several states and engaged in seed trade in several foreign countries. His entrepreneurial bent warranted more exploration, as did the details of the seed packets, all stowed carefully in the box in the General Store.

The reference photograph in our collections database for the original seed box showed a box with seed packets. The accession number, 29.1987.18.1, indicated that this was an early addition to The Henry Ford’s collections—the first number, 29, means that it was acquired in 1929. The second number indicates that it was in the 1,987th lot acquired that year, and the third number indicates that the box was the 18th item in the 29.1987 grouping. In fact, as research ultimately disclosed, our collections included the box, plus 108 original seed packets and a Sibley & Co. Seed catalog.

My need to know more started a chain reaction. First, this object had been in the collection for 90 years. It has known provenance: Accession records indicate that it was purchased with other items from a store in the tiny, rural, upstate New York community of Rock Stream. The Barnes family—Charles W. and then his son, Alonzo S.—operated the store. Alonzo died in 1929, which may have precipitated the sale. Our registrars researched and catalogued all parts of the set. We also acquired archival documents—a map of the town from the time the Barnes family operated the store and two postcards of the town—for our collections to add context around the seed box.

Black-and-white image of houses and trees along dirt road; printed and handwritten text
Main Street, Rock Stream, New York, 1908-1910 / THF146163

Filling in details about seed packets required further reconnaissance. This required removing the seed box from exhibit at the end of the 2019 Greenfield Village season. Our Exhibits team moved the reproduction box and the authentic seed packets it contained to our conservation labs. Conservation staff removed the packets, checked for damage, then cleaned and prepared the packets for digitization. In the meantime, Collections Management staff located the original box in collections storage and moved it to the conservation labs for cleaning.

Once the packets were cleaned, they were moved to our archives, where the packets were imaged. After the box was cleaned, Collections Management staff moved it to the photography studio. The individual seed packets, once imaged, also were moved to the photo studio. There, the packets rejoined the box, fitting into compartments spaced to accommodate “papers” as well as multiple-ounce “packets” of seeds. The final photograph above shows the rejoined box and original seeds – cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, eggplant, onion, pea, rutabaga, tomato, turnip, and other vegetables.

GIF rotating through a number of seed packets with images and text
Some of the individual seed packets that were digitized. See them all in our Digital Collections.

After the photo session, the seeds returned to the reproduction box, the box was sealed with its Plexiglas top to protect them, and Exhibits staff returned the box with its contents to the General Store in Greenfield Village.

It is important to note that the investigation, relocation, cleaning, digitizing, photography, and cataloging all occurred between January and March 2020, before COVID-19 closed the museum and delayed the opening of Greenfield Village. During that closure, between March 15 and July 9, the digitized records became part of numerous blogs written to meet the needs of patrons seeking information about food sources, vegetable gardening, food security—and about tomatoes!

It may seem difficult to justify the amount of time required from so many people to digitize one box and its many seed packets during the process. Each staff member involved in the process had to juggle numerous competing projects to make time to attend to the box and its packets. However, their work created invaluable digital resources that have already enhanced several of our blog posts. We may never know how many people were inspired to plant their own vegetable garden during a year of uncertainty partially, or wholly, because of “How Does Your Vegetable Garden Grow?,” or who just had to have a BLT after reading “Multiple Takes on Tomatoes.”

This is what digitization can do, and this is the effort that it takes. We all do it in the spirit of life-long learning.

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COVID 19 impact, photography, collections care, research, Greenfield Village buildings, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, by Debra A. Reid, digital collections, digitization

Here’s a quick story from the somewhat strange, but definitely true, files of a Collections Specialist, Cataloger, at The Henry Ford.

Recently, I was cataloging some photographs in our collection from the original site of the Susquehanna Plantation. This white house with a deep porch, now located in Greenfield Village, was originally located in the tidewater region of Maryland.

Long white house with sloped roof and open porch
Susquehanna Plantation in Greenfield Village. / THF2024

Some of our photos of the house when it still stood at its original site came from families who lived near the plantation. There are two photographs that include a woman with a rather unique name. She was born Rose Etta Dement in 1902 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. When she married George Leonard Stone in 1919 or 1920, her name became Rose Etta Stone.

Group of about seven people in and on a truck
Edward "Buster" Pussler, Malcolm Morris, Rosalie Pussler, Earl Stone, Wilhelmina Morris, Rose Stone, Helen Morris, and Mary Ruth Stone Woodburn Posing on a Truck, 1934. Here, Rose is pictured third from the left, sitting in the truck. / THF249737

Five women posing for photo in front of a house
Margaret Jones Dement, Agnes Ward, Elizabeth Russell, Viola Russell, and Rose Stone Standing in Front of the Susquehanna House, 1936. Rose is on the far left. / THF249739

When I was cataloging these two photos and doing some research on the people on Ancestry.com, it amused me to come across such a name. Obviously, the Rosetta Stone language learning software was far from existence in the mid-1930s when these photos were taken. It is possible this family knew of the actual artifact called the Rosetta Stone, which helped archaeologists decipher ancient languages, and got a nice little laugh when Rose Etta Dement married George Stone.

You never know what quirky treasures you’ll find among the digitized artifacts at The Henry Ford. Check them out for yourself here.

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digital collections, #digitization100K, digitization, by Shannon Rossi, Greenfield Village buildings, photographs, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, research

Man in suit and hat slightly leaning over towards a clock and wall with many slots for cards
Thomas Edison Punching the Time Clock at His West Orange, New Jersey Laboratory, August 27, 1912. Read on for more on this provenance research story! / THF108339

As my colleague Laura Lipp discusses in her blog post on cataloging, The Henry Ford’s registrar’s office sometimes “plays detective” by engaging in provenance research to determine the history of the ownership of an artifact – and to deepen our knowledge of the stories behind our artifacts.

First, a little background on our early collecting.

In the 1920s and 1930s, The Henry Ford received thousands upon thousands of artifacts from sources all over the country. Staff at that time attached paper and metal tags to the artifacts, writing their source information (either the donor or the point of purchase) on the tags. They also typically included the geographic location of the source and a date. In the 1950s, staff began to catalog the collection, assigning object identification numbers (“object IDs”) and creating files that held any documentation or correspondence about the artifacts. The object ID is the unique number assigned to an artifact that indicates what year the artifact came in, and links it to its “provenance”—the source it came from and any associated stories.

On occasion over the years, staff encounter artifacts that have lost their tags, or the tags have crumbled or become illegible, so the artifacts have been disassociated with their histories. At this point, the detective work begins, to figure out the artifact’s provenance. We have many internal resources at hand to perform provenance research – our catalog database, our files and correspondence, photographs of artifacts, inventories, original cataloging cards, and more. We also use the Internet, oftentimes turning to online genealogical databases of census and demographic records.

An example of disassociated artifacts came up one day when someone wanted to know what artifacts we had related to Alexander Hamilton (can’t imagine why). Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable and I started looking into it. Upon searching our database, we discovered that we had received some silver that descended in the Hamilton family to Alexander and Eliza’s great-great granddaughter, Mary Schuyler Hamilton: a “sugar bowl” and candlesticks. Unfortunately, the lost tags meant we had to work through all our silver records to see what might match.

We looped in Image Services Specialist Jim Orr and he found a photo of these silver artifacts taken around the time they arrived at our museum. Now we at least knew what they looked like! The sugar bowl was not a sugar bowl – with its pierced sides, the sugar would have leaked out. We expanded our search to other silver bowls and dishes, and the curator and I came across a record for a “sweetmeat” dish that sounded promising. The record had a silver project inventory number and a location. After a quick trip to one of our storage rooms, lo and behold, the “sweetmeat dish,” a bit tarnished, matched the artifact in the image! One down, candlesticks to go.

Silver dish with basket-like shape and handle
Sweetmeat Dish, Used by Alexander Hamilton, 1780-1800 / THF169541

After an unsuccessful stop in a storage area where there are many candlesticks, I returned to my desk and started going through all our silver candlestick records. Just as I was getting ready to call it a day, I reached a record, took a double-take, and called the curator over from his office to look at it. “OH MY …!” was the exclamation all my co-workers heard, “YOU FOUND THEM!” We reunited the candlesticks with the sweetmeat dish, had them photographed, and they are now viewable online. I can easily state that was one of my proudest days.

Tall thin silver candlesticks with broad square base, many decorative elements
Candlesticks, Used by Alexander Hamilton, 1780-1800 / THF169539

Most of the time, we know who donated artifacts, and where the donors lived. When looking to further document these artifacts in our collection, we do research into the donors to fill in information that wasn’t originally captured. While working on a project related to agricultural equipment, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid and I were interested in learning more about some artifacts that were donated by Iva and Ruby Fuerst, such as this potato digger and this hand dibble.

Machinery with wheels, gears, and what appears to be a conveyor belt
Potato Digger Donated to The Henry Ford by Iva and Ruby Fuerst / THF97302

Digging into the Internet and genealogical records, I was able to reconstruct a small family tree. Ruby and Iva’s grandparents, Lorenzo and Barbara Fuerst, immigrated from Germany and were farmers in Greenfield Township (now Detroit) starting in the late 1850s. After the passing of Barbara in 1905, Iva and Ruby’s father Jacob, who had an adjacent farm, continued farming in that area until he sold it in 1918 and bought a farm in Novi Township. We now know that some of the equipment was likely used first on the farms in Detroit and later in Novi. Ruby and Iva, with no heirs to pass the land to, sold most of the Novi farm to the city around 1970. It is now known as Fuerst Park, and you can find a photo of young Ruby and Iva in this brochure.

Wooden implement with broad handle and pointed end
Hand Dibble Donated to The Henry Ford by Iva and Ruby Fuerst / THF171836

It's not just 3D artifacts that need provenance research, but also some of our archival holdings. One day, staff encountered some timecards in the archives that appeared to have been used by Thomas Edison. Curious to know more and hopeful to verify that exciting association, Registrar Lisa Korzetz investigated the matter and was able to find correspondence with the donor, Miller Reese Hutchinson, chief engineer at Edison’s West Orange Laboratory. Hutchinson details in his letter that the four timecards he was donating were the first four cards used by Edison in 1912 after Hutchinson had installed a new time clock at the laboratory. He also donated a photograph of Edison using the timecards at the time clock. Hutchinson was determined for a week to try to capture Edison using the timecards and clock, and finally succeeded on the last day of the week!

Card with printed form filled out with typed, handwritten, and stamped text.
Time Card Punched by Thomas Edison at His West Orange Laboratory, for the Week Ending August 27, 1912 / THF108331

Today, when cataloging new artifacts for the collection, we document the provenance via the background information that the curator gleans from the donor or point of purchase. We do additional research to verify and fill in any historical background. We apply the object ID directly to the artifact in a manner approved by Conservation – different methods on different materials. We also make sure the number is discreet and easily reversible – meaning it can be removed without any adverse effects to the artifact. By using these standard museum practices to document and identify artifacts, we assist our curatorial colleagues in their pursuit to interpret and exhibit our collections to the public.

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digitization, collections care, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, research, by Aimee Burpee

As a Collections Specialist in the Registrar’s Office, I help catalog The Henry Ford’s collection. If you have used our Digital Collections, then you have seen a small part of what we capture when cataloging.

Cataloging is the process of documenting collections objects by recording information in a computer database. We record such information as who made the object, where it was used, what its measurements are, what it is made of, how it may have been used, and any related stories. In order to fully flesh out catalog records, we often must become detectives to figure out an object’s past. This could be as simple as searching patent records, or as complex as using Ancestry.com to learn more about the people behind the object.

Graphic with text
This graphic shows how cataloging fits into our larger digitization process.

So how do we catalog? Using standards that have been informed by the Getty Research Institute’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus, Library of Congress, and Nomenclature 4.0. We have adapted these standards and developed our own to ensure that each cataloger is on the same page. These standards guide us when describing the objects we are cataloging to ensure we use the same language—for example, whether or not to spell out the Saint in Saint Louis. This consistency will make sure the records are easily retrievable, both in our database and online.

Each object is assigned a number that enables us to track it in the collection, both physically and digitally (in our database). We record as much information as we can from the object itself. Unfortunately, most objects do not tell us when they were made, even if they do have manufacturer information. If it has patent information, that does not necessarily mean it was made in that year, either. We cross-reference catalogs, primary source documents, and sometimes other objects in the collection to narrow down date ranges.

Piece of equipment with many wires or cables
Model of Van Depoele Rotating Pole Motor, circa 1885 / THF165665

Sometimes we have to dig through genealogical records to figure out when an object was made. One such object, the motor model shown above, was documented as made by “Feigo,” but when the typo was corrected, I used Alexander J.R. Fiego’s entire professional history (from city directories available on Ancestry.com) to figure out when he made this motor model. It was fascinating tracking all of his professional changes throughout the years, as well as seeing advertisements in the city directories. Catalogers often fall down interesting rabbit holes while researching objects. Sometimes such research tangents help us connect previously unrelated objects in the collections, or we just learn more about the past – fun adventures we share with our co-workers!

page with text
A screenshot showing some of the many records available on AncestryLibrary.com that were used when researching Alexander J.R. FIego.

Brass cylinder with turnkey on side
Key Socket, circa 1885 / THF181206

Ensuring that our cataloging information is accurate can mean poring over United States patent records to help with narrowing down dates or finding manufacturers. While researching a light socket with the inscription: PAT. MAY 6 - 84 APR 21 - 85 JUNE 16 - 85 / U.S. / SYSTEM, patent records helped not only to narrow down when the object was created, as it would not be associated with any patent taken out after June 16, 1885, but also to identify the creator. Any company with “United States” in its name, like the “United States Electrical Lighting Company,” is likely going to be a challenge to find unless they are in a niche industry. Thankfully, the light socket had full patent dates that allowed me to easily search through patent records with the help of Google Patents; the ones that helped me identify the creator of this socket are linked above, and a screenshot, below, shows one of the June 16, 1885, patents.

Drawing labeled with numbers
One of the three patents that was used during the course of research on 00.1164.6.

Even with all of our due diligence, objects can sometimes be disassociated from their number over time. We refer to these objects as “found-in-collections,” and when researching them, go through the same process as above. However, since we do not know when the object was donated or how the donor used it, this is where we really become detectives. If we cannot uncover its actual number using our files, then it receives a found-in-collections number in the hopes that one day we can reunite it with its provenance.

(As an aside, provenance research is a very important part of our process and can take a long time. Look for an upcoming blog post by my colleague Aimee Burpee highlighting some interesting stories we have uncovered via provenance research.)

Once cataloged, if an object is requested for digitization, it is photographed and then the object record is put through a review process. After these steps are completed, the artifact is flagged for our Digital Collections and harvested by automated processes for release online—where you can search and view it!

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by Laura Myles, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digitization, research

The Henry Ford reached a digitization milestone recently, adding the 100,000th artifact to its Digital Collections website. The digitization team at The Henry Ford began a little over ten years ago to update and add to this site. Early on, we developed data standards that guided our progress. Certain required information -- a title, an object name, dimensions, creator, and searchable keywords, to name a few -- accompanies each object record. And every object that goes online must have an image that meets our standards.

Page with text; "Write a Summary" is highlighted
This graphic shows the various tasks in The Henry Ford's digitization workflow, and where writing a summary fits in.

But have you noticed that many of The Henry Ford’s online collections records have a small label-like paragraph -- something called "Summary"? As staff at The Henry Ford looked at other institutions' collections webpages, we noticed many contained standard descriptive information, but few explained the importance of the object. Some collections webpages added a detailed (sometimes dry) physical description, or maybe text from an old exhibit label, or sometimes long academic articles. The digital collections staff at The Henry Ford wanted something more reader-friendly, something informative, and perhaps even enjoyable. After a series of discussions, we decided that a short 60-word paragraph -- a Summary -- was the solution. A Summary would answer the question, “So what?” -- why is this object important for The Henry Ford to collect and preserve? -- and hopefully spur viewers to explore our digital collections more deeply.

A GIF scrolling down a webpage with car photo and text
A Summary is one of the first things you see when you go to a Digital Collections record page. This GIF shows the Summary for
Mustang serial number one, along with much other information about the car.

When staff originally conceived of the idea, a Summary was viewed as a vital part of the online data, but not a requirement. Finding the right words for some object Summaries takes time, and the 60-word limit is constricting -- though we do allow a few more words when needed. An object usually can tell multiple “So what?” stories, and curators -- the primary authors of a Summary -- would like to share them all. What one “So what?” story would you choose to tell if you were writing a Summary about the rocking chair used by President Lincoln on the night of his assassination, a Ford Model T, or the home (or cycle shop) of Orville and Wilbur Wright?

Even seemingly mundane objects offer interesting insights. Curators thoroughly research these objects then carefully choose words that will convey a coherent idea--while at the same time working within the prescribed word limits. Our research into an object's history and use provides viewers with a deeper understanding of our online collections.

Piece of equipment with dials
What could be more mundane than a wattmeter -- a device used to measure electricity usage? Learn more about how electric companies found ways to measure electricity usage and charge customers appropriately in the Summary for this c.1907 Type C Wattmeter. / THF168572

Standing man.
The man in this carte-de-visite was originally identified as an acrobat in our collection records. But while researching the image to write the Summary, the curator discovered that this "acrobat" was Henry Brown, a well-known long-distance walker. / THF210533

Though a Summary may not be perfect, we hope that it gives viewers an insight into our collections that will spark an "a-ha" moment. And staff at The Henry Ford have created well-researched blog posts, Expert Sets, What If stories, and Connect 3 and other videos for those viewers who want more in-depth stories about our collection.

So, how are we doing? Currently, more than 65,000 of the 100,000 Digital Collections objects have a Summary, and curators continue to add more. We have plenty of work in the future.

Do you want to give it a try?

Find an object in your home (or go to our Digital Collections website and find an object without a Summary) and write a 60-word Summary to answer the question, "So what?" -- why is this object important? Some objects may be easy to write about; others, not so much. Remember that readers should understand the concept you are trying to convey, and perhaps be inspired to want to know more.

The Henry Ford is facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the impact of our 16-week closure and reduced operations. We need your help in securing our future. Love the Henry Ford? Please support all that we treasure—including our digitization program. Longtime supporters of The Henry Ford will match your donation dollar for dollar, so your contribution will have double the impact.
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#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digitization, research, digital collections, by Andy Stupperich

Boxy blue vehicle in doorway; one person on hands and knees looking underneath; 2 other people standing nearby
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.

Side view of boxy blue shuttle with large windows and several people visible inside; grass in foreground and building in background
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.

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autonomous technology, technology, research, Michigan, by Matt Anderson, alternative fuel vehicles


Graphic containing textual images and #AskAnArchivist hashtag
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.


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research, by Ellice Engdahl, archives, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Brightly colored quilts hanging on a black backboard

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.

Quilts, mostly shades of black, white, and gray, hanging on a black backboard
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.)

Board titled "Why Women Under 45 Quilt," containing text and images, sitting on quilt
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.



Image of woman with long blonde hair in a long-sleeved red shirt.
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.

Quilt, primarily white with green border.
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.

Multi-colored quilt with complex design
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.

Multicolored quilt with pink flower in the center of concentric design
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.

Black and white QR code

Kristin Barrus is a graduate practicum student at The Henry Ford.

design, by Kristin Barrus, by Jeanine Head Miller, research, making, quilts

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.

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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.

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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!

research, by Samantha Johnson, recipes, Heinz, food, entrepreneurship, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Edison Easter 1

Many of us celebrate Easter with a number of traditions: dyed eggs, baskets full of candy, or decorations inspired by spring, just to name a few. Many of these traditions go back in history more than 100 years. 

At Edison Homestead in Greenfield Village, we showcase a variety of activities during the Easter weekend that would have been enjoyed around 1915. Where do we find our inspiration? Much of the instructional information used to plan these activities come from promotional booklets from companies like Dennison Manufacturing Co. and their Dennison’s Party Book, or from magazine publications like the Ladies Home Journal, both available to families at the time.

Edison Easter 5

In 1915, Easter crafts ranged from decorative pieces for the table to edible delights.  Dennison Manufacturing Co., which today is now known as Avery Products Corporation, was a large supplier of inexpensive paper products that encouraged decorations for any number of parties, including an Easter celebration. Listings in the Dennison’s Party Book contain a rabbit with basket of eggs decoration, decorated crepe paper, bon bon boxes, and purple and white festoons, all of which were priced at 25 cents or less. They also suggest how a table might be decorated using the items they have listed for sale as well as homemade items (made of paper, of course). 

Easter cards are one of the projects suggested in The Ladies Home Journal, 1912 April edition, and would have been an inexpensive craft to make as a gift. In fact, the journal states that, “[Easter] gifts should always be simple and inexpensive; if they are made rather than bought, so much the better.” Using images from flower catalogues, garden and agricultural magazines, the picture is traced on a folded edge of thick paper to create the body of the card. Once cut out, the image is then colored in and an insert is created to write an Easter note to the recipient.

Edison Easter 2

Like our own Easter traditions today, the journal included many references to sweet treats that could be given as gifts. Chocolate eggs could be made by carefully removing the raw egg from the shell, washing the shell, then filling it with melted chocolate. Once cooled, the egg shell could be colored and decorated with crayons and colored pencils, with a scrapbook pictured glued over the opening. Not only were sweets made, but so were displays to put them in. Moss glued onto a half egg shell provided a holding space for small candy eggs or jelly beans.

Feeling inspired and ready to try creating your own archive-inspired holiday decorations? Stop by the Benson Ford Research Center to see a copy of the Dennison's Party Book for yourself.

Emily Sovey is Supervisor of Inspiring and Living History at The Henry Ford.

Easter, research, making, home life, holidays, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Emily Sovey