“In its entirety, the Michael Graves Design product archive tells a 39-year history of art, culture, and commerce, along with countless stories about the power of design,” said Patricia Mooradian, president and CEO of The Henry Ford. “We are honored that the team chose The Henry Ford as the location to house this collection that shows that everyday products can be designed with both purpose and playfulness.”
This coach's whistle teakettle was designed by Michael Graves for Target in 1999./ THF179699
Graves’ first designs for Target debuted in 1999. The collaboration eventually brought over 2,000 products to market across 20 categories, including kitchen electrics, gadgets, cleaning supplies, home décor, and storage and organization. This groundbreaking 15-year partnership with Target transformed mass-merchandising strategies, elevated consumers’ expectations for design, and made Target a design destination.
In addition to high-end client relationships, Michael Graves Design’s revolutionary approach to common home products, known as “Art of the Everyday Object,” solidified it as a pioneer in the contemporary design industry.
Toilet brush designed by Michael Graves. / THF179683
“Michael Graves and his designers performed a kind of design alchemy, transforming often humble things—thousands of them—into objects of delight, humor, and elegance,” said Marc Greuther, vice president, historical resources and chief curator at The Henry Ford. “He showed that seeming near-opposites, such as practicality, whimsy, affordability, decoration, and modernity, could actually coexist—and move swiftly off the shelves of everyday retailers.”
Those who decorated for Christian holidays made the gathering of evergreens a ritual. Families and friends ventured into the woods and cut conifers and other wintergreens to festoon churches, ballrooms, and private homes. This post focuses on the process of acquiring the iconic Christmas tree, a conifer or cone-bearing tree, evergreen because it retained its foliage throughout the winter season and prized for its shape, color, aroma, and association with gift-giving.
The native ranges of conifers affected personal preferences for Christmas trees.
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), the perch for a female and male cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), drawn by John Jay Audubon (1785–1851) in Cincinnati, Ohio, April 1811, reproduced by the New York Historical Society in 1966. / THF251903
Across the southern and eastern United States, the eastern red cedar (really, a juniper) proved a popular tree choice for those who could cut their own. The tree grew rapidly along the edges of woods, encroaching into fields and pastures. Thus, removing a few trees to deck the halls at Christmas time also served the purpose of containing the juniper and retaining arable land and pasture.
The balsam fir (Abies balsamea) appealed to landowners for many of the same reasons. A report in the Detroit Free Press (December 10, 1901) explained that in Maine, the “young firs, which are almost exclusively used for Christmas trees, are good for nothing else—in many sections being considered a nuisance, as they grow like burdocks and crowd out better trees.” Harvesting the trees for urban markets became a festive occasion as the reporter explained, with “whole families going into the woods and taking their dinners along.”
Print made from a watercolor sketch of “Alpine Fir” by Mary Vaux Walcott (1860–1940), printed by William Edmund Rudge, Inc., 1925. / THF125075
The subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), also known as the Alpine fir, grew in the high-elevation forests of the Canadian Rockies and western United States. It was much less easily accessible for families harvesting their Christmas tree, but its tall profile and stout branches appealed to Christmas tree shoppers none the less.
Bringing evergreens into private and public spaces during the darkest days of the year (the winter solstice) offered hope for the next growing season. Germanic people receive credit for adding light to the conifer. An 1836 illustration, “Christmas Eve,” showed a Christmas tree with candles aglow. The editor explained this as a well-known German tradition “that almost every family has its Christmas tree covered with a hundred lights and many beautiful gifts, and surrounded generally by a little group of happy beings” (The Stranger’s Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, edited by Hermann Bokum and published in Boston by Light & Horton in 1836, page 9).
The hand-tinted lithograph below, of a boy carrying a tree and a girl carrying a bundle of greens, printed in Hamburg, reinforced a tradition that increasing numbers of German immigrants brought with them to America during the mid-19th century.
Color Lithograph, "The Christmas Tree," printed by Gustav W. Seitz, Hamburg, 1856–1866. / THF108194
By 1867, “the pleasant Germanic custom of gathering the family round a Christmas tree ... has become thoroughly domesticated in this country.” So declared Harper’s Weekly (December 18, 1867) in a brief explanation of the reasons why families no longer hung stockings ‘neath the chimney with care, but instead hung presents from Christmas trees. A full-page illustration of “The Christmas Tree” further emphasized the point.
Christmas tree decorated with candles, popcorn strings, and toys, circa 1900./ THF290114
The bucolic imagery of bringing a Christmas tree home through snowy fields to a rural farmhouse contrasted with the risky business of tree markets.
Hallmark "Memories of Christmas" Christmas ornament, 1998./ THF186978
Families invested their labor in tree harvests. “A man cuts the trees close to the roots and a boy or a strong girl clips away with a sharp hatchet the few dead branches near the base. Women and boys tie the trees into bundles of a dozen each, binding them with strong cords, and then the harvest is piled into hayricks and taken to the nearest railroad station.” Often middlemen stepped in. As the New York World reported (reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901), “the evergreen harvests are generally bought by men who make a business in winter of supplying the holiday green markets of large cities.”
Families cutting conifers for urban markets, middlemen trying to sell them, and customers trying to buy them all relied on railroads to move the perishable cargo. This seasonal business was no holiday (to borrow colleague Matt Anderson’s turn of phrase in his blog post, “Winter Railroading was No Holiday”).
Christmas Tree Market, New York City, Detroit Publishing Company, circa 1903. Another view of this market at Barclay Street Station shows smaller trees in bundles to the left of the taller trees. These fit more closely the trees bound up by Maine families and shipped by train to the city, as described in the New York World article mentioned elsewhere in this post. / THF144363
Urban customers had little time to waste because trees arrived close to Christmas day. The Detroit Free Press reported that “Christmas trees, that is to say evergreens, are up in the market” (December 21, 1879). This arrival a few days before the holy day/holiday remained fairly consistent during the 19th century. A decade later (December 20, 1889), the Free Press reported, “Christmas trees have appeared on the market.”
What did these conifers cost? During December 1901, prices depended on tree height: “For trees five to six feet tall the buyers in Maine pay five cents, and for trees six to ten feet tall ten to fifteen cents. In the city these trees bring twenty-five cents to $1” (New York World reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901). Note that these prices are likely per foot, not per tree.
Customers looking for Christmas evergreen goods in Detroit a week later (December 18, 1901) could expect to pay eight cents per foot for an “Xmas tree” as reported by the Free Press. The market price for a 20-yard roll of “evergreen” was 85 cents to $1 and for a holly and evergreen wreath, $1 per dozen. In 2021 prices, that’s an average of $1.63 to $2.60 per foot for a six-foot tree, and $27.66 to $32.54 for a 20-yard roll of evergreen.
Whether families cut their own or paid market price for their conifer, photographs of home interiors indicate the ways they decorated.
First electrically lighted Christmas tree, home of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison Electric Light Company, December 1882. / THF69137
A magnifying glass and close inspection of the original print could confirm the tree type that Edward Hibberd Johnson, wife Margaret, and their three children (Edward H. Jr., Edna, and Lillian) enjoyed as of December 22, 1882. Subscribers to the Detroit Post and Tribune could read about this first tree lit with electric lights—80 red, white, and blue bulbs, hand wired—as reported by journalist William Augustus Croffut. The Johnson family (or their staff) also strung electric lights in the garland running from window treatments to the ceiling light fixture. Readers of Croffut’s article might even have anticipated the possibilities in Detroit, because the Western Edison Light Company had just offered an Edison incandescent light plant for use at Detroit’s Central Market. Detroit’s Committee on Gas was considering the proposal (Detroit Free Press, December 6, 1882).
Artificial illumination of the Christmas tree became standard practice quickly.
Christmas greens at Holiday Nights, December 5, 2021. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford, answers some questions about the Vegetable Building from Detroit’s Central Market, which is currently being reconstructed in Greenfield Village, on The Henry Ford’s Instagram account, August 5, 2021.
To celebrate National Farmers Market Week last week, some of our staff interviewed Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford, on site in Greenfield Village, where the Vegetable Building from Detroit’s Central Market is being reconstructed. In case you missed this story on our Instagram account, catch up below! And you can read even more about the Vegetable Building’s history and The Henry Ford’s plans for its future in prior blog posts.
Tell us about the Detroit Central Market Vegetable Building project.
The Detroit Central Market Vegetable Building project is a great museum project because museums collect, preserve, and interpret. We collected this building back in 2003, and it was in storage for almost 20 years, protected. Now it's being reconstructed in Greenfield Village as a hub for future food-related programs.
What is the significance of this Vegetable Building structure from the Detroit Central Market?
This structure is historically significant for a few different reasons. The master builders who are reconstructing it say that it's the most ornate timber-frame structure in North America that they've seen. That relates to another aspect of its significance, because it was designed by an architect who came from Bavaria, John Schaffer. He created the plans, and then there would have been a builder and master timber framers who erected it back in 1860, before it opened in 1861.
One of the original ornamental wooden brackets from the Detroit Central Market Vegetable Building. / THF173219
It's also an opportunity for us to talk about rural and urban connections, because the City of Detroit established the market to make sure that the citizens in the city could get food. So, it furthered food access and brought the farmers to the city.
How did The Henry Ford acquire the Vegetable Building from Detroit Central Market?
The Henry Ford acquired this building in 2003, purchasing it from the City of Detroit as an effort to save it from demolition—because it was planned for demolition. That was in its 140th year. It had spent 30 years downtown in Detroit, between 1861 and 1894, and then 110 years on Belle Isle. During that 110 years, it had seen plenty of use as a shelter for vehicles and horses, as a riding stable, and as a storage building. Saving it really preserved a huge part of Detroit culture—but also public space culture, because it had been in use that whole 110 years on the public park on Belle Isle.
What’s the process for moving and restoring a historic structure in Greenfield Village?
After The Henry Ford purchased the building, staff and contractors then had to dismantle it, and it was stored until we had the financial support to reconstruct it. Master timber framer Christian and Sons, Incorporated, was hired to dismantle it—and almost 20 years later, they also oversaw the reconstruction of the timber frame roof. The Henry Ford’s recently retired Curator of Historic Structures and Collections Manager Jim McCabe worked with them on the whole process, with the reconstruction currently underway in Greenfield Village. Right now, the master tradesmen are putting purlins on the roof, and sheeting for the slate shingles that will top off the historic structure.
When the Vegetable Building was deconstructed on Belle Isle in 2003, the original materials were carefully tracked and stored so that eventually they could be reconstructed in Greenfield Village. / THF113552
What are the most interesting facets of working on the Detroit Central Market Vegetable Building project?
Working on this project allows me to do history research, which is what I absolutely love to do. I also know that guests have interests that don’t necessarily involve digging into the historic archive.
When we talk to guests, they often ask how much of a building is original. It's an interesting aspect of preservation for this project that half of the columns, 16 of the 32, will be original, and half of them will be replicas, to make sure that the structure is compliant with code and structurally sound engineering.
What’s the significance of National Farmers Market Week?
National Farmers Market Week is important for us because we are able to share this work in progress and get to some of the nuances about farmers markets. Detroit Central Market was Detroit’s public market: It was constructed, owned, and operated by the city and engaged many more people, many more vendors, than farmers and market gardeners alone.
But today you might hear the term farmers market, and it often means a farmer-owned and -operated cooperative venture in a community to ensure that farmers who grow produce have customers to sell to directly. So this opportunity to share during National Farmers Market Week helps us celebrate our work, the work of artisans, and the ongoing engagement between growers and you, the consumer.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Central Market in Downtown Detroit, Michigan, circa 1890. / THF96803
As a 2021 Simmons intern at The Henry Ford, my experience, skillset, and reverence for community engagement, localization, and food justice combined into a recipe for growth.
I came to this work having spent the winter working with staff from The Henry Ford and a group of my peers on a script for a Central Market character that will debut in Greenfield Village in 2022. I also brought my knowledge of the local food environment, agroecological issues, museology, key contacts, and equity methodology. This confluence of background knowledge enabled me to envision a plan for weekly open-air historical markets in Greenfield Village that will preserve slow food culture in an urban environment. Ultimately, this has brought me one step closer to my career in designing and interpreting agroecological landscapes with communities before I head off to Burlington, Vermont, to start my PhD in Food Systems.
By now you have likely read of the reconstructed Central Market Vegetable Building in Greenfield Village. You may even know how The Henry Ford plans to bring it to life in Spring 2022 through the resurrection of historical markets for visitors to purchase fresh cut flowers, fruits, vegetables, and honey, or to pick up a cup of coffee and hear stories from market characters such as Mary Judge. This weekly educational market experience will offer a dozen growers a space to share their story, practices, and agricultural knowledge with highly engaged visitors, providing them access to the thousands of members and visitors who come to Greenfield Village every day.
Central Market vegetable shed reconstruction by Christian & Son, Inc. construction company on July 15, 2021. / Photo taken by Ayana Curran-Howes.
These markets will begin with a spring flower market in April 2022, where visitors can purchase lilies, pansies, and sweet peas, to name a few. This will whet the appetites of museumgoers for the weekly Saturday markets, from mid-June through mid-August, where 12-24 farmers (scaled up over time) will sell honey, fruit, vegetables, flowers, dairy, poultry, eggs, value-added items (like jams, pickles, salsa, and bread), and refreshments (such as coffee, cider, and donuts).
People look at flowers for sale at the Central Market, undated (BHC glass neg. no. 2553). / Detail of image from Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. (EB02e878)
I conducted historical research to answer the questions, “What fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs were being sold in the Central Market? When? By whom? Where in the market?” This work focused on bookending the market, looking extensively at the 1860s and 1890s. I conducted primary research using Michigan Farmer from the 1850s and 1860s, seed catalogs and nurserymen specimen books from The Henry Ford’s Digital Collections, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and the Detroit Free Press archives.
D.M. Ferry & Co. Seed Annual Descriptive Catalogue, 1883, front and back covers. / THF620066, THF620067
Michigan Farmer journals were particularly helpful for identifying notable growers and specific varieties beloved by growers. In the 1863 Michigan Farmer, the most popular varieties of pears described for growers are Belle Lucrative, Flemish Beauty, and the Bartlett, which “deservedly stands without a rival.” This journal also introduces growers to new varieties like Clapp’s Favorite, which is “similar to Bartlett in form, but less musky in flavor” (Michigan Farmer, October, 1863, pg. 162–163). These specific varieties will be important for prioritizing heritage varieties in the market, a key component of slow food culture.
Description and depiction of pear varieties, Michigan Farmer, October 1863, pg. 163. / via Google Books, reproduced from the University of Michigan.
In order to paint a picture of what vendors sold within the market, we used city directories, George W. Hawes’ Michigan State Gazetteer, the Prairie Farmer Annual, Detroit Free Press advertisements, and some references to stall-keepers within newspaper articles from the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News. When we could identify what stalls individual hucksters, market gardeners, florists, butchers, and fishmongers occupied, we still had to discern where these stalls were located inside the vegetable shed. One Detroit News article was particularly helpful in orienting where certain types of vendors were situated: “Just at this time the southern row of stalls in the vegetable market is a center of floral radiance and beauty” (Detroit News, “Seen on the Streets,” May 24, 1891). Central Market shoppers found butchers in the Central Market building and fruit vendors on many corners around the market, and hired unskilled laborers, such as chimney sweeps, at the east entrance of the Central Market vegetable shed.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan. / Sanborn Map Company, Vol. 2, 1884, with annotations by Ayana Curran-Howes.
Then, to bring this historical research forward, I had to identify key farmers, as well as community organizations and other markets, who should be involved—in order to ensure the longevity and impact of this initiative. To not remain purely about the past, but to connect the past to the present and inspire the future, we had to become aware of how this Central Market project would be perceived and could be supported by the incredible urban agriculture community that exists in Detroit today and in southeast Michigan at large.
Consequently, I crafted an interpretation plan to ensure the markets become a sustainable, vital part of the slow food movement in Southeast Michigan. This plan is grounded in several desires: to be seen by market gardeners as a profitable venture and by the community as an asset, to be relevant to the local food environment (e.g., not to be redundant or competitive with other local markets), and to be feasible for staff of The Henry Ford and participating farmers. Additionally, we want to make sure that the market both showcases the ingenuity of late 19th-century market gardeners and hucksters and continues to foster ingenuity in present-day farmers, as this is what helps them to thrive on the outskirts of the market economy.
Simmons intern Ayana Curran-Howes, presenting on July 22, 2021, to 30+ staff of The Henry Ford and affiliates, including Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, at the annual Historical Resources internship presentations, organized by Sophia Kloc (featured left), Office Administrator for Historical Resources. / Photo captured by Deirdre Hennebury, Associate Director of the Museum Studies Program at University of Michigan.
This is also a significant component of larger initiatives underway. Jennifer Junkermeier-Khan, this year’s other Simmons intern, has drafted a five-year strategic plan to “Inspire and provide training for the next generation of food entrepreneurs, innovators, and visionaries with a focus on sustainability, health, and social justice.” Community engagement is one of four pillars of this plan and is imperative for making the Central Market vegetable building installation a springboard into a new era for The Henry Ford: an era that not only speaks openly about difficult histories, including violence and racism (past and present) in the food system, but also seeks to create a counter-narrative and opportunities for social justice hyper-locally.
Consequently, we want this work to be founded in equity from the start, given the legacy of—and ongoing—racism within our food system and market economy. This will require long-term relationship development with the surrounding community and careful selection of vendors. Thus, I created criteria for selecting vendors to ensure that farmers who can benefit the most are approached, as well as those who have knowledge to share with visitors on farming practices, produce varieties, and their own cultural and food traditions. Some of the criteria for vendors include whether they are minority-owned and -operated; using family or fair-wage labor; using integrated pest management, mixed livestock-crop, and no-till systems; and growing heritage varieties and breeds.
This historic marketplace will allow growers to develop their narrative around their practices, varieties, and cultural heritage, immortalizing their stories and recording their history in ways they are not currently captured and appreciated.
Not many growers specialize in heirloom varieties in this area—this may be something they are interested in but are not currently growing due to slow production, financial costs, and lack of demand from consumers. By incentivizing and making heirlooms more visible, we can increase demand by consumers and increase their feasibility for farmers.
Lastly, for the Central Market vegetable building and its weekly markets to have a lasting impact on visitors and lead to the food systems change we hope to see, they have to have a “big idea” and a few key messages. Within broader institutional initiatives, the Central Market will “transform relationships between consumers and the origins of their food through immersive historic market educational experiences that center the stories of diverse producers, past and present, to progress slow food culture.”This big idea will be supported by key messages for visitors to take home with them.
First, the current industrial agricultural system supports fast food culture. This harms the environment through soil erosion and nutrient degradation. It is also extremely inefficient at producing “real” food. Vast monocultures (or the cultivation of single crops in a given area) occupy most agricultural lands in the United States, resulting in products used for biofuels, animal feed, and processed foods. Our current agricultural system is also discriminatory and disconnects consumers from their food and those who produce it.
Second, slow food culture, preserved and practiced in museum spaces, and led by diverse producers in the local food environment, can heal this metabolic and sociocultural rift. This is done in large part by the replacement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with heirloom crops and livestock bred to produce way beyond their bodily means with heritage varieties. With the preservation of genetic diversity through heritage and heirloom crops, farmers gain resilience against climate change. Diversity protects farmers against devastation to their crops and provides environmental benefits like erosion prevention. Growing heirlooms can also improve human health through the nutritional quality of food and can preserve cultural heritages. “Every culture in the world has a history of growing and cooking food for health, taste, beauty, and affordability,” and it is our goal to be a part of active preservation—not simply in the museum’s collections for perpetuity, but practiced in real time (Waters et al. 2021, pg. 118).
Simmons Interns Jennifer Junkermeier-Khan (left) and Ayana Curran-Howes (right), with Debra Reid, advisor and The Henry Ford’s Curator for Agriculture and the Environment. / Taken July 15, 2021, outside Lovett Hall at The Henry Ford.
Many genes incorporated into GMOs are stolen (biopiracy) from indigenous varieties, so that corporations profit from centuries of stewardship and plant knowledge by Black, Indigenous, Latina/o, and other marginalized groups (Shiva, 2016). Taking practices out of context and without the wisdom of those who stewarded them into existence only ensures that they are co-opted and watered down. Thus, the third key message of the Central Market vegetable building and its weekly markets is that social justice and supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) farmers is restorative agriculture, and the practices of restorative agricultural practices are only carried forward from the past by diverse producers.
Lastly, visitors will walk away with an understanding and appreciation for public markets, where entrepreneurship, opportunity, struggle, and community all collide. All these messages will be told through the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes at the market—through performances, signage, and experiences, such as cooking demonstrations and magicians roaming the market vying for visitors’ attention.
Shiva, Vandana. Who Really Feeds the World?: The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology. North Atlantic Books, 2016.
Waters, Alice, et al. We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto. Penguin Press, 2021.
Sustenance is not usually associated with flowers or the horticultural industry, but cut flowers and ornamental plants have been nourishing humans for centuries. Flowers aid people through hard times by providing joy, mental health benefits, and ephemeral beauty unmatched in many eyes. Additionally, cut flower cultivation is a critical source of revenue and ecosystem service for agricultural entrepreneurs.
Stereograph of a blooming tree peony, circa 1865 / THF66255
The horticulture industry grew rapidly during the 19th century. New businesses, such as Mount Hope Nursery and Gardens out of Rochester, New York, used an expanding transportation infrastructure to market ornamental plants to Midwesterners starting during the 1840s. Yet, while consumers’ interest in ornamentation grew, so did their displeasure with distant producers distributing plants of unverifiable quality. Soon enough, local seed companies and seedling and transplant growers met Detroiters’ needs, establishing greater levels of trust between producer and consumer (Lyon-Jenness, 2004). D.M. Ferry & Co., established in Detroit in 1867, sold vegetable and flower seeds, as well as fruit tree grafts, direct to consumers and farmers.
At the heart of horticulture lies a tension between respect for local, native species and the appeal of newly engineered, “perfect” cultivars. Entrepreneurs such as Hiram Sibley invested in the new and novel, building fruit, vegetable, and flower farms, as well as distribution centers, in multiple states.
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542
Plant breeders such as Luther Burbank sought a climate to support year-round experimentation. As a result, he relocated from Massachusetts to California, where he cultivated roses, crimson poppies, daisies, and more than 800 other plants over the decades. Companies in other parts of the country—Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. in Louisiana, Missouri, and the W. Atlee Burpee Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—partnered with Burbank or established their own California operations to maintain a competitive edge. These larger farms had to send their flowers by rail across the country and as such, engineered for consistency and mass production.
Field of Burbank's Rosy Crimson Escholtzia, April 13, 1908, Santa Rosa, California. / THF277209
Advertising fueled growth. Companies marketed seeds directly to homeowners, farmers, and market gardeners through a combination of colorful packets, seed boxes, catalogs, specimen books, trade cards, and purchasing schemes. Merchants could reference colorful trade literature issued by D.M. Ferry & Company as they planned flower seed purchases for the next year. The 1879 catalog even oriented merchants to its seed farms and trial grounds near Detroit. A D.M. Ferry trade card (seen below) advertised more than the early flowering sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) in 1889, featuring twelve “choice kinds” available in Ferry seed boxes or through orders submitted by merchants directly to the company (Little and Kantor, Journal of Heredity, 1941). Customers who returned ten empty seed packets earned a copy of Ferry’s Floral Album.
Trade Card for Sweet Pea Seeds, D.M. Ferry & Company, 1889. / THF214415
Additionally, magazines such as Vick’s Illustrated Family Magazine, published by Rochester, New York, seedsman James Vick, served as a clearinghouse of information for consumers and growers alike.
Flowers were not always grown in isolation. Cultivating and selling vegetables side-by-side with flowers was common practice, as it provided farmers diversity in income with the ebb and flow of seasons. The addition of flowers proved mutually beneficial to both profits and productivity for farms, as they attract pollinators and receive a high mark-up in the market. Furthermore, flowers could be placed alongside vegetables on farm stands as a means to decorate and draw the attention of market goers.
Market gardeners who also grew flowers saw the potential in Detroit, and this helped develop the floriculture industry. John Ford, a Scottish immigrant, gained visibility through his entries at the Annual Fair of Michigan State Agricultural Society, winning awards for cut flowers, dahlias, and German asters, as well as culinary vegetables, strawberries, and nutmeg melons, throughout the 1850s and 1860s (The Michigan Farmer, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1861/62, 1863/64). Ford served on the Detroit City Common Council. After that body approved construction, in 1860, of a new Vegetable Shed for Detroit’s City Hall Market (also known as Central Market), Ford or members of his family operated a stand in the market until at least 1882.
Another market gardener, John Breitmeyer, an immigrant from Bavaria, settled in Detroit in 1852 and grew a booming floral business. He anticipated the growth of the floral industry, building hot houses for roses in 1886 and establishing the first florist shop in Detroit in 1890 off Bates Street (The American Florist, April 28, 1900, pg. 1213). He worked with his two sons, who had studied floriculture in Philadelphia, to raise plants and flowers, but “the latter seemed the most profitable” (Detroit Journal, reprinted in Fort Worth Daily Gazette, August 12, 1889, pg. 4). There were 200 floral shops in Detroit by 1930, when the Breitmeyer family operation grew to specialize in “chrysanthymums [sic], carnations, and sweet peas” in addition to roses (Detroit Free Press, April 6, 1930).
Detroit City Business Directory, Volume II, 1889-1890, page 125 / THF277531
Florists sold cut flowers to satisfy consumers willing to part with hard-earned money on such temporary satisfaction. Many factors influenced their decisions: weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage; brightening a home interior; thanking a host; or treating a sweetheart. Whatever the reason, Breitmeyer and Ford and others responded to the zeal for floral ornamentation.
Memorial Floral Arrangement, circa 1878 / THF210195
The Michigan Farmer encouraged readers to “bring a few daisies and butter-cups from your last field walk, and keep them alive in a little water; aye, preserve but a branch of clover, or a handful of flower grass—one of the most elegant, as well as cheapest of nature’s productions and you have something on your table that reminds you of the beauties of God’s creation, and gives you a link with the poets and sages that have done it most honor. Put but a rose, or a lily, or a violet, on your table, and you and Lord Bacon have a custom in common.” (July 1863, pg. 32). Though the preferences varied, flowers inside the home were simultaneously a luxury and something that everyday people could afford, and connected them to poets and lords.
Publications encouraged the trade through how-to columns on decorating with flowers. This clipping from the Michigan Farmer explained how to construct a centerpiece featuring cut flowers.
Description of simple DIY floral ornaments in the household. Excerpt from Michigan Farmer, August, 1863/64, pg. 84. / Image via HathiTrust
What types of flowers might growers raise to fill their baskets and ornament their tables? The Michigan Farmer indicated that “no garden” should be without dahlias “as a part of its autumn glory” (April 1857, pg. 115) and that growers should “never be without” a Moutan peony (February 1858, pg. 48).
Urban markets featured many more plants and cut flowers to satisfy consumer demand. The Detroit News reported in May 1891 that “tulips of every hue and the modest daisy or bachelor’s button still linger on the stalls, but they are the first floral offerings of the spring, and their day is now about over.” The florists rapidly restocked, filling their southern row of stalls in the vegetable market with “floral radiance and beauty…. The hydrangeas with their pink or snow-white balls; fuchsias, with their bell-like cups and purple hearts; geraniums, in all the colors of the rainbow; the heliotrope, with its light-pink blossom; the begonia, with its wax green leaves; verbenas in pink, purple and white; the marguerite, with its white and yellow star; the kelseloria [Calceolaria] in blushing red or golden yellow; the modest mignonette, with its neutral tints but exquisite perfume; and the blue and fragrant forget-me-not” (“Seen on the Streets,” May 24, 1891).
Florists stood at the ready to satisfy customers’ needs, especially for a beau seeking a bouquet to woo his lover (Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1870). On one occasion, a woman reluctantly bought sunflower seeds and catnip instead of climbers that would make her house look “almost like Paradise,” fearing that this ornamentation would cause the landlord to raise her rent (Detroit Free Press, April 27, 1879). In other instances, men “commissioned” by their wives stopped by the flower stands in Central Market, perusing “roses, pansies, and hyacinth bulbs” (Detroit Free Press, January 10, 1890).
Shoppers at Central Market crowd around potted lilies and cut flowers wrapped in paper, undated (BHC glass neg. no. 1911). / Image from Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library (EB02e398)
By the late 19th century, customers had many options to satisfy their appetite for flowers. Many Detroiters purchased their flowers and ornamental plants at the Vegetable Building in Central Market. One huckster turned florist, Mary Judge, engaged customers at her Central Market floral stand with a pretty rose bush for a quarter (not 20 cents, or she’d make no profit), geraniums for 10 cents, or a “beyutiful little flower” for 5 cents (Detroit News, May 24, 1891).
They could also frequent florist shops like John Breitmeyer’s by 1890, or purchase seed from merchants to raise their own. Many reasons motivated them, from satisfying a sweetheart to keeping up with their neighbors’ ornamental plantings. No doubt, beautiful trade cards helped stir up allure and demand for popular garden flowers such as pansies.
Trade Card for Pansies Seeds, D. M. Ferry & Co., 1889 / THF298777
The entrepreneurs and florists of the 19th century sowed the seeds for an industry that remains vigorous but is far more globalized. There are botanic stories still to uncover and after centuries of cultivation, these beautiful ornaments still sustain something deeper within us.
Stewart, Amy. Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. Algonquin Books, 2008.
Lyon-Jenness, C. (2004). Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America. Business History Review,78(3), 381-421. doi:10.2307/25096907
"History of Detroit and Michigan," Silas Farmer, 1884, page 794 / THF139107
Fresh food markets have always brought communities of all backgrounds together for nutritional and social sustenance. The markets of the 19th century were different than today’s in terms of sanitation, regulations, and petty crimes, but the desire for community that existed then remains true. Today, Detroit’s Eastern Market and dozens of other markets in southeast Michigan provide citizens with food security and support a burgeoning urban agricultural movement and the local economy.
Interior of a farmers’ market, 1875, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Originally published in Earl Shinn, A Century After: Picturesque Glimpses of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania (published in Philadelphia by Lane Allen & Scott and J.W. Lauderbach, 1875), pg. 156, on the title page of the chapter "Marketry.” This illustrates what we can imagine the inside of Central Market looked like on a busy market day. / THF610498
The Vegetable Building (now being reconstructed in Greenfield Village) opened in Detroit's public market, then known as City Hall Market, in 1861. It remained a hub of community cohesion and commercial competition for 30 years until the city closed it, later dismantling it and relocating it to Belle Isle in 1894. In the three decades that the Vegetable Building attracted vendors and customers, Detroit’s population grew from 45,619 to 205,876 (per Detroit Historical Society) and the market tried to keep pace.
Mounting calls for the demolition of Detroit’s rat-infested “eyesore” resulted in the obliteration of the three-story “Central Market” brick building that housed butchers and market administrators between 1880 and 1894. It also prompted removal of the Vegetable Building to Belle Isle, and its replacement with a retail park (Cadillac Square) and a new public market (Eastern Market). This process destroyed the public market in central Detroit, but ultimately preserved the market’s Vegetable Building.
The Henry Ford acquired the Vegetable Building in 2003. After its reconstruction, the Central Market’s Vegetable Building will allow us to tell the stories of the vendors and consumers that frequented the market. These stories will illustrate that Central Market was a place where Detroiters came to purchase food stuffs, where entrepreneurs (many of them immigrants) were able to make a living, and where vibrant community life (including competition and discrimination) played out.
This year, we’ve been working to establish authentic stories as the basis for living history programming at the Vegetable Building, featuring costumed presenters and dramatic performances. Additional research underscores decisions about modern-day vendors invited to sell their honey, bread, pickles, eggs, flowers, and fresh fruits and vegetables to visitors at weekly markets and specialty markets in Greenfield Village.
Group of women, one with a baby carriage, in front of the Central Market Building, Detroit, Michigan, circa 1890. / THF623829
A partnership between The Henry Ford and the University of Michigan Museum Studies Program resulted in a script for a dramatic presentation that will help guests grasp the numerous ways that the market building affected urban life. Four students from the Museum Studies Program—Kathleen Brown (American Culture), Laurel Fricker (Classical Art and Archeology), Antonello Mastronardi (Classics), and myself, Ayana Curran-Howes (Environment & Sustainability)—crafted a script for a noteworthy Central Market character. The market was filled with characters, but one that captured the attention of newspaper reporters, the police, and a fair number of male suitors was Mary Judge. She became the focus of our investigation.
Our research into Mary Judge unveiled a fascinating and difficult, yet vibrant, individual. Newspaper reports documented her wit, sharp tongue, charm, and self-awareness as a woman staking her claim to independence. Newspaper reports from the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press gave us a foundation on which to build a script for an entertaining and educational performance.
Vegetable Shed at Detroit’s City Hall Market, known as Central Market after 1880. It is identified as “Cadillac Square Market (Detroit, Mich.)” in the George Washington Merrill photographs collection, University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library (BL003974). The original was one of two photographic images likely taken by James A. Jenney for A. J. Brow, Detroit, Michigan, and published as a stereograph. The original stereograph is in the Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library. We believe the woman circled in orange may be Mary Judge, vending flowers.
The script, featuring Mary Judge, is set during a Saturday night market in the 1880s. We chose a Saturday night market to introduce guests to the hustle and bustle of market life that everyday Detroit residents experienced. Farmers saved their best produce for busy Saturday nights when throngs of factory workers and working-class citizens came to purchase fresh produce and meat, as well as to socialize.
Mary Judge enters as a whirlwind. Her livelihood depended on capturing the public’s attention, and the dramatic presentation conveys that urgency. Mary also conveys the tumultuous yet essential relationship that hucksters like herself had with the farmers who grew the products that hucksters resold. Mary’s success at reselling depended on the relationships she cultivated with other vendors and the larger market community. The eight-minute solo act features Mary’s opinions about the role of the market in Detroit life, before the politics around the closing of the market disrupted Mary’s status quo starting in 1891.
What did Mary resell? The Michigan climate lent itself to a wide array of produce. Consumers could choose between market crops such as strawberries and cherries, often eaten to the point of bellyache (Detroit Free Press, June 25, 1874), or other seasonal crops such as rhubarb, cucumbers, and celery worthy of larceny (Detroit Free Press, August 12, 1879). Mary herself sold many different things, including coffee, flowers, fruit, poultry, and “fried cakes, gingerbread, pig's feet” (November 22, 1875). The Free Press reported her doughnuts “were very fillin’ for the price” (February 28, 1876).
Additional carnival-like attractions included strong-man machines, magic tricks, and exotic pets for sale. The variety of attractions created a bustling crowd that made it “often a feat to swallow a cup of coffee, without having it spilled” (Detroit Free Press, December 19, 1869).
The research plan we devised included numerous stages.
We reviewed other dramatic performances at The Henry Ford, including “The Disagreeable Customer” at J.R. Jones General Store and “How I Got Over” at Susquehanna Plantation. We also reviewed expert advice about living history programming collected in the Living History Anthology (Katz-Hyman et al., 2018). These informed the structure and style of our script.
Then, we asked ourselves “What was the social and economic function of the market? Who was allowed to keep a stall in the market and in what ways were they restricted, supported, and able to survive in this market economy?” Answers to these questions were revealed through secondary sources including Gloria Main, “Women on the Edge: Life at Street Level in the Early Republic” (2012); Jen Manion, “Dangerous Publics,” in Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (2015); and Melanie Archer, “Self-Employment and Occupational Structure in an Industrializing City: Detroit, 1880” (1991).
We also looked at Detroit’s demographic data to understand the composition of the consumers in the market space. Then we conducted primary research, reviewing news reports published in the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News that featured Mary Judge over 30 years. These conveyed the verbiage of the time, the historic perspective on events, the politics of the past, and the atmosphere of the market. The newspaper coverage of the market generated a body of evidence that continues to inform us.
From left to right: Ayana Curran-Howes, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid, and Antonello Mastronardi, looking at the site where the Vegetable Building is being reconstructed in Greenfield Village, March 6, 2021. Photo taken by Laurel Fricker.
The low capital investment required to become a huckster allowed some immigrants to Detroit, including Mary Judge, to carve out a space in the public market. Other immigrants, including English and Irish individuals as well as Germans, Poles, and Italians, gained a toehold on economic independence. German butchers dominated the fresh- and processed-meat markets. They had more capital and political influence and, therefore, access to better stalls. In contrast, the Italians, newcomers during the 1880s, tried their hand at selling fruit.
Long before these European ethnic groups arrived, Black Detroiters faced racism in the marketplace and endured discrimination and violence. Nonetheless, they used the marketplace, as did other entrepreneurs, to sell their labor as chimney sweeps and whitewashers (those who painted cellars and building interiors, even the Vegetable Building interior, to intensify natural light).
The portrayal of Mary Judge will show guests how women used huckstering to gain financial independence. This was one of few alternatives for single women at the time, other than domestic service. Secondary readings and primary evidence indicated that women rarely held public-facing positions comparable to that of Mary Judge, the Central Market huckster. When they did, they were harassed by men and police alike. The consequences compounded for poor unmarried women, identified as “unladylike” in demeanor, and disruptive in action.
Hierarchies based on privilege kept many vendors marginalized. Female and immigrant vendors had to overcome language barriers, and had to navigate racism, sexism, and xenophobia when they tried to obtain permits, rent a stall, and obtain goods to sell. As an example, anti-immigrant sentiment followed Italian fruit vendors wherever they went. Mary Judge perpetrated this herself, verbally engaging with Italians and decrying their business decisions: “Go an’ absolve yerself of your business, sir; an’ not be hawkin’ ye’r truck on the streets this blessid day [Sunday]” (Detroit Free Press, July 25, 1887).
From left to right: Debra Reid, Kathleen Brown, Ayana Curran-Howes, Laurel Fricker, Antonello Mastronardi, and The Henry Ford’s Director of Greenfield Village Jim Johnson, standing outside the fenced off area where the Vegetable Building was being erected, March 6, 2021. Photo taken by Jeanine Head Miller.
All vendors faced other societal pressures. One of the most pernicious threats, petty theft perpetrated by those “sampling” products, undermined market vendors. Mary turned to market administrators to mediate her grievances, as did other vendors. She also reported abuses to the police, who intervened in some situations.
Despite these barriers, hucksters made this their way of life and stayed in the market for decades. Mary Judge, a twice-married devout Catholic, was as durable a huckster as one could be. She kept a stall from 1863 until city officials dismantled the market in 1894.
Starting in Spring 2022, you will be able to visit the Vegetable Building in Greenfield Village to meet the “queen of the market,” Mary Judge, selling coffee and decades of wisdom as a huckster from her stall. This one-woman show (as Mary would have preferred it) illustrates huckstering as an occupation and as a way of life.
Thanks to the following people for research support and guidance during the Winter 2021 term:
Gil Gallagher, curatorial research assistant volunteer, The Henry Ford
Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village and Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes, The Henry Ford
Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life, The Henry Ford
Patricia Montmurri, author/journalist, Detroit Free Press
Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford
Central Market in Downtown Detroit, Michigan, circa 1890 / THF96803
The historic Detroit Central Market vegetable shed will re-create a local food environment within Greenfield Village
Few mid-19th-century public market structures survive. Detroit’s vegetable shed or building, which opened in 1861, is one of the oldest of those survivors in the nation.
This ornamental bracket from the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed will be one of the architectural elements visitors will see when the building is reconstructed in Greenfield Village. / THF173219
The shed’s story is certainly harrowing. It escaped fire in 1876 and dismantling in 1894. A relocation to nearby Belle Isle saved it. There, it served many purposes until 2003, when The Henry Ford acquired it. And now, generous donors have made its reconstruction in Greenfield Village possible. (Follow @thehenryford on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and/or via our e-mails for more on when the shed will officially open in the village.)
Detroit Central Market’s Vegetable Shed, repurposed as a “horse shed,” circa 1900, on Detroit’s Belle Isle. / THF139104
As a reconstructed event space, the shed will serve as an open-air market of ideas, a place where food and common cause will bring people together to discuss meaty subjects, such as land use and regenerative agriculture, social entrepreneurship, urban and alternative agriculture, and food security. It will shelter a vibrant historic market vignette where florists, fishmongers, hucksters (hucksters being another term for market gardeners, people who raised vegetables to sell at market to retail customers), and peddlers all vied for sales. The scripted exchanges will inform us about ways that vendors historically managed ethnic tensions and provided a social safety net to the homeless, impoverished, and downtrodden. This content will be carefully curated and managed by The Henry Ford’s dedicated staff, who will ensure programming on the stuff of life in perpetuity.
Heart of a City
The Henry Ford’s vision for the restored Detroit Central Market vegetable shed as a communal center in Greenfield Village is akin to what Detroit city officials envisioned when they adopted a nearly 1,000-year-old tradition to establish a public market in 1802.
View of Detroit Central Market (here called “Cadillac Square Market”) from the roof of City Hall, circa 1875 / THF146289
The market grew near the city hall and was maintained by the city for decades, calling attention to the symbiotic relationship between urban governments, the market gardeners and farmers in and near the city, and the health and well-being of city dwellers. The market, in fact, was called City Hall Market until the city hall moved across the centrally located downtown gathering space known as Campus Martius. Thereafter, the name Detroit Central Market came to be—denoting the market’s location, but also its centrality to the civic, cultural, and ceremonial heart of the city. Within an easy walk lay city hall, the Michigan Solders’ and Sailors’ Monument, churches, schools, playhouses, and the opera, among other attractions. Within this vibrant environment, vendors went about their daily business helping customers feed themselves, a routine that fed a city.
Theoretically, a thriving city market eased Detroiters’ worries about the source of their next meal. It freed them to build a livelihood around something other than agriculture, while farmers and market gardeners knew they had a steady market for their produce and fresh meat. Today, we would call Detroit’s Central Market a “local food environment,” the place where customers bought foodstuffs directly from butchers, hucksters, florists, fishmongers, and confectioners.
A community grew within and around the market that facilitated entrepreneurship. Vendors, usually sole proprietors and startups, had a fixed number of resources—the vegetables, fruit and flowers they raised, fish they caught, fresh meat they butchered, knickknacks or “Yankee trinkets” they sold, or services such as chimney sweeping that they hawked to customers.
They had to be ingenious to draw attention to their resources and thus increase the likelihood of a sale. This made for vibrant market days.
People & Prejudices
Practicality dictated that the market be in the center of downtown Detroit and in the shadow of city hall. These were heavily trafficked areas, and structures were built as enclosed spaces to protect vendors and customers from the weather. The Detroit Common Council authorized, funded, maintained, and updated structures and built new ones as needed. It authorized a “clerk of the market” to collect rents, monitor compliance, mediate conflicts, and report to elected officials.
All did not go smoothly at Detroit’s Central Market, however. The fish market in the Catholic city of Detroit was, by many accounts, the poorest fish market in the country. Why? As one fish dealer explained, people in Detroit fished. Therefore, they did not have to buy. Yet care went into designating northern stalls in the vegetable building as the purview of fishmongers, available for auction and then for rent by the month, for ten months of the year.
People gather at the vegetable building at Detroit's Central Market, circa 1885 / THF136886
Records indicate that there was no love lost between fishmongers and butchers, likely because butchers held power that fishmongers did not. Butchers were organized. Some even served as elected officials. They held membership in community associations and had strong ties to ethnic and immigrant communities.
The vegetable shed at Detroit Central Market most obviously housed hucksters, many of them women. Of the 32 greengrocers and market hucksters who listed their business address as City Hall Market (CH Market) in the 1864–1865 Detroit City Directory, nearly one-third (ten) were women. In 1874, the percentage of women hucksters increased to nearly 40%. Racial diversity also existed. Several Black hucksters had market addresses over the years, and at least one had a relatively stable business selling garden vegetables at the market from the early 1860s to the mid-1870s. Overall, however, newspaper accounts stereotyped hucksters as country bumpkins unable to handle their market wagons. This indicated a lack of respect on the part of city dwellers who depended on these growers for their food.
Cultural conflict erupted at the market as individuals from numerous ethnic groups, some well-established and others newcomers, had to cohabitate and compete at the public market. Louis Schiappecasse, an Italian immigrant identified as the first outdoor fruit merchant in Detroit, provides a good case in point. He established himself on Jefferson Avenue across from the Biddle House in 1870. When he died in 1916, the headline read: “Millionaire Fruit Merchant Is Dead.” Yet, in the fever pitch of anti-immigrant sentiment in 1890, a newspaper reporter, without naming names, quoted shop owners near Central Market who were frustrated with Italian fruit salesmen too cheap to pay rent for a market stall. Instead, they claimed that fruit salesmen set up pop-up stands that obstructed sidewalks and made it difficult for patrons to enter some stores.
A customer at the Detroit Central Market vegetable building, 1885–1893 / THF623871
Finally, one of the most notable entrepreneurs at Central Market, who appears regularly in minutes of Detroit Common Council meetings, gained attention for her refusal to accept the city’s decision to close the market. Mary Judge was a widow, listed her address as an alleyway at least once, and changed her market specialty almost every year—sometimes selling vegetables, sometimes flowers, sometimes candy, sometimes refreshments. She also received special dispensation from Detroit’s Committee on Markets when she was cited for violating three market standards. She was allowed to sell vegetables out of stall No. 44 because she was “very poor and unfit for any other occupation.” This last affirmed the function of the public market as a social safety net.
Vendors practiced benevolence, too, operating as social entrepreneurs, at least in relation to residents in the Home for the Friendless. The Ladies’ Christian Union organized the Home for the Friendless in May 1860 to aid homeless women, children (including the children of incarcerated individuals), and elderly women. Twice each week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the market season, boys from the home carried a basket to the market. Butchers and hucksters filled the basket with produce and meats, which helped make ends meet at the home.
The Detroit Central Market vendors helped feed hundreds of thousands of mouths in downtown Detroit. When reconstructed in Greenfield Village, the vegetable shed where they once sold their wares will support programming that will enrich millions of minds on topics as wide ranging as agricultural ethics and food justice.
Countless stories await exploration: Stories based on the lives of vendors and their customers; city council members and market staff; and the business owners, entertainers, and entrepreneurs at work around the marketplace can all teach us lessons that we can adapt to help shape a better future.
For those who brought home our stoneware bread cloche (a versatile baking piece created by our artisans in Greenfield Village, which allows you to mix your dough, proof it, then bake it, all in one dish) during the holiday season last year, you know that the resulting bread is light and airy with a golden crust.
If you’re wondering what our go-to recipe is for this 1800s-inspired baking piece, it’s Sallie Lunn Bread. Made regularly inside the kitchen at Firestone Farmhouse and acting as the inspiration for recipes inside A Taste of History, this recipe is credited to Farmer’s and Housekeeper’s Cyclopaedia, Stephen Lewandowski, Ed., 1888, p. 326.
Sallie Lunn Bread
1quart (4 cups) of flour
1 pint (2 cups) of milk
1 tablespoonful of lard
1 tablespoonful of butter
2 spoonsful of sugar
1 gill of yeast
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. When baking inside of our stoneware bread cloche, bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the top is golden-brown and the loaf has a hollow sound when tapped.
Lish Dorset is Marketing Manager, Non-Admission Products, at The Henry Ford.
My name is Cheryl Preston, and I’m a graphic designer and design director at The Henry Ford. What I get to do here is design graphics for print and online use—design to educate teachers and learners, market events, support the stories we tell, sell food experiences, tempt shoppers, and guide visits around the museum, village and factory tour. I get to combine two passions, history and design, in one job.
We all know 2020 has been crazy and difficult in many ways. I have been working on this year’s digital-only holiday retail campaign, where we are featuring a lot of new and old favorite signature handcrafts, along with fun, innovative toys. This has been a bright spot in tough pandemic times for me right now.
I wanted to create a tiny bit of “happy" to give our supporters, with these free printable gift tags to bring the cheer. We all need even the tiny smiles, right? You can preview the gift tags below, or click here to download a PDF version of them for printing at home.
I’m in awe of the handcrafts from our Greenfield Village artists, and the products we offer to bring the past forward, and hope these tags help you share the fun!
Cheryl Preston is Design Director at The Henry Ford.
Trade Card for the Larkin Soap Company, 1900 / THF224516
As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we had the opportunity to delve into the history of the Larkin Company. What began as a small soap manufacturing business in 1875 became one of the nation’s leading mail-order businesses by 1900. This post highlights the Larkin Company’s rise to popularity under the multi-faceted, ingenious marketing strategy known as “The Larkin Idea."
While the Larkin Company sold its products throughout the country, the company had special appeal for rural customers, offering a broader range of product choices than stores in nearby villages and towns. The company would eventually develop a distribution system, contracting with local deliverymen to deliver Larkin products right to customers’ doorsteps – rather than customers having to pick them up in town. In the early 21st century, people today welcome this same opportunity for conveniently delivered goods!
In 1875, having worked in the soap business for more than a decade, John D. Larkin created his own soap company in Buffalo, New York, called J.D. Larkin, Manufacturer of Plain and Fancy Soaps. This would later become known as the Larkin Company. The first product, made for laundry use, was a yellow bar known as Sweet Home Soap. Boraxine, a flaked laundry soap, quickly followed, and continued to be a signature item in product lists throughout the company’s history.
The first salesman for the company was Larkin’s brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard was a skilled promoter and successful salesman, devising advertising strategies and boosting sales. In 1878, Hubbard was made a partner in the business, resulting in the company’s name change to J.D. Larkin & Company. With this partnership, Larkin oversaw the manufacturing of the products and Hubbard was placed in charge of advertising and promotion. One of the first strategies Hubbard adopted was offering a chromolithograph (color print) as a premium, or free giveaway, in each box of Boraxine. By 1883 – after additional products were added to Larkin’s line – Hubbard began offering finer premiums, such as a Japanese silk handkerchief in each box of “Elite” Toilet Soap.
Back of a Trade Card for J.D. Larkin & Co.’s “Elite” Toilet Soap, 1882 / THF296327
After years of “slinging soap,” Hubbard noted that direct sales to housewives were more profitable than selling to local merchants. The company was doing quite well – having distributors in every state east of the Rocky Mountains in its first decade – but Larkin and Hubbard believed that the company had even greater potential. In order to maximize profits, the company decided to eliminate all middlemen (including the sales force), thus entering the mail-order industry. The mail-order business was not new – Montgomery Ward & Company had made this popular a decade earlier. But in 1885, Hubbard developed a plan, called “The Larkin Idea,” that offered giveaways with the purchase of particular items from the company’s mail-order catalogs.
Page advertising Rugs as Larkin Premiums, in Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan: Factory-to-Family,” Fall and Winter 1917-1918 / THF298153
“The Larkin Idea” was simple: In cutting out all middlemen and selling Larkin products directly to housewives, the money that would have gone to the payroll of the middlemen would instead be used to create desirable premiums that would be given to customers with the purchase of Larkin products. This idea was encapsulated by the slogan, “Factory-to-Family,” and the tagline of “The Larkin Idea” became, “Save All Cost Which Adds No Value.”
Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Factory-To-Family Plan,” Spring and Summer, 1915 / THF297907
The first iteration of “The Larkin Idea” came in 1886 with the introduction of a Combination Box. By this time, the company was offering nine different soap products. At first, the Combination Box sold for $6, but a few years later, a $10 option emerged, offering enough products to last a family the entire year. The $10 Combination Boxes quickly gained popularity as customers could receive 142 products – 100 of those being Sweet Home Soap – and a free premium worth $10. Larkin also introduced a 30-day policy in which customers had 30 days to try a product before paying for it. This gave peace of mind to customers who wanted to try a product, risk-free, and also developed trust between the company and consumer. The public embraced “The Larkin Idea” with enthusiasm, ordering nearly 91,000 Combination Boxes a year!
Advertisement for Larkin Premiums, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298080
By 1892, the company changed its name once more, to Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company. As the popularity of the Combination Boxes grew, Larkin sought to expand its product and premium offerings. In 1897, Larkin offered 16 products – including 14 different soaps, a cold cream, and tooth powder – and that number increased every year. This led to the company eventually dropping “soap” from its name to become the Larkin Company in 1904.
Did You Know?
After leaving the Larkin Company, Elbert Hubbard would go on to found the Roycroft community of East Aurora, New York, in the mid-1890s. At the Roycroft community, hundreds of artisans came to live and work as part of an Arts and Crafts utopian community. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged quality craftsmanship of handcrafted works of simple form as a reaction to poorly made factory produced goods. With his marketing prowess and passion, Hubbard led the Roycrofters to become one of the most successful communities of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Explore more on the Arts and Crafts movement on our blog and in this Expert Set.
With the success of the Combination Box and the increasing number of customers nationwide, the company introduced another facet of “The Larkin Idea,” which would prove to be invaluable: Larkin Clubs. Women across the country were encouraged to become Larkin Secretaries, and as such they would gather friends and family to purchase products together. A Club-of-Ten was encouraged to have all members buy $1 worth of products each month, and a different member of the club would receive a premium of their choice every month.
Advertisement for a Larkin Club-of-Ten in the Trade Catalog, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298079
This Larkin Company infant swing/bed, was given to a woman by her sister, who sold Larkin products. (Gift of Ellen J. Adams) / THF174549
Women found a sense of pride in their participation in the clubs and enjoyed the social aspect of monthly meetings. At its peak, there were 90,000 Larkin Secretaries around the country. The Larkin Clubs were such a tremendous promotional force that the company stopped selling Combination Boxes in order to focus on its ever-increasing product and premium offerings. By 1905, the company began offering teas, spices, and additional foodstuffs among its products. Five years later, the company had added paints and varnishes, as well as rugs, clothing, and other textiles to its product line – along with 1,700 premiums to choose from, ranging from children’s toys to clothing to furniture. In 1915, the catalog featured 700 Larkin products spread over 33 pages, and offered 131 pages of premiums. One of the company’s advertising campaigns involved the idea that customers could furnish their entire house with Larkin products. This catalog for Larkin Wallpaper is an example of this idea in action.
Page showing a variety of Larkin products from the Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Home-Helper,” circa 1910 / THF297831
Larkin Premiums advertised in the publication, “My Larkin Clubs Earned These for Me,” circa 1912 / THF298076
Page from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The World’s Greatest Premium Values,” Fall and Winter 1930. The catalog from 1930 included one of the more unusual premiums Larkin offered - Hartz Mountain Canaries (guaranteed to sing) or a pair of mated Love Birds. Clickhereto view the 1930 catalog! / THF298067
As “The Larkin Idea” continued to gain popularity, the Larkin Company sought to bring those companies that produced the premiums under the Larkin umbrella. At its height, Larkin had over 30 subsidiary companies, and had furnished seed money to establish such businesses as the Barcolo Manufacturing Company, to produce furniture, and Buffalo Pottery to produce pottery and kitchenware. Since 1896, the company had begun expanding its manufacturing complex. This process continued through 1912, with 21 new structures built to accommodate the rapidly growing product and premiums list.
Deldare Candlestick, produced by Buffalo Pottery, 1911 / THF176916
Page from Larkin Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908. The Larkin Administration Building, completed in 1906 in Buffalo, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. / THF297783
Beginning in 1905, the company established branches and warehouses – first in Cleveland, and then in Boston, Chicago, New York City, Peoria and Philadelphia. With this expansion, Larkin was able to better serve its customers across the country. Despite experiencing significant growth, by 1918 the company found it had a surplus of food products far exceeding demand. Unable to move the product fast enough through mail order or the Secretary system, Larkin created retail establishments called “Larkin Economy Stores” as a way to sell these products. By 1922, there were 103 stores in Buffalo and northwestern New York, as well as others near the additional branches.
Back cover from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908 / THF297811
“The Larkin Idea” had taken the company to significant heights. By the mid-1920s, however, the company was beginning to falter for a number of reasons. National chains like A&P grocery stores and Woolworth’s presented stiff competition. Automobiles made going shopping easier, causing mail-order businesses to become less popular. Perhaps the greatest influence in Larkin’s demise was World War I, which had brought many Larkin Secretaries out of their homes and into the workforce, weakening the Larkin sales structure. The crippling economy during the Great Depression also impacted the company.
Between 1924 and 1926, all of the company’s top leadership either retired or passed away, including Larkin himself. Having failed to pass along knowledge and nurture younger leadership, the company was left with little expertise, leading to the company’s gradual closing.
Cover for Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan, Factory-To-Family,” Fall & Winter, 1917-1918 / THF298101
In 1939, the decision was made to stop manufacturing soap products, and two years later the manufacture of all products and premiums ceased as well. With an abundance of remaining inventory of both products and premiums, the Larkin Company was still able to fill orders until 1962.
What had started as a small soap manufacturing company became prominent enough to hold its own despite the tremendous popularity of mass-marketers, like Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward & Company. Through innovative marketing strategies and an entrepreneurial spirit, the Larkin Company experienced significant growth in a short period of time, finding its way into households across America.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and for reviewing this content.