Past Forward

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The Henry Ford acquired the Vegetable Building from Detroit's Central Farmers Market in 2003, saving it from demolition. Like the farmers markets of today, the Detroit Central Farmers Market was a gathering place – a commercial center, a hub of entrepreneurship and a community space where family, friends, and neighbors congregated and socialized. 

This farmers market can become a destination again, a resource for exploring America's agricultural past, present, and future. We need your help to make this happen. #PledgeYourPassion by making a gift this Giving Tuesday

Vegetable Building at Detroit Central Farmers Market, circa 1888.
Vegetable Building at Detroit Central Farmers Market, circa 1888. THF200604 

Learn more about the remarkable history of this important structure.  

The City of Detroit invested in a new permanent market building - this expansive vegetable hall - in 1860. Located at the east end of Michigan Avenue, just east of Woodward at Campus Martius, it was roughly four blocks square, extending from Woodward to Randolph. The major building in the market was the expansive vegetable building. Market gardeners, florists, orchardists, and nurserymen sold their produce from rented stalls between 1861 and 1893.  

The growth of Central Market reflects Detroit’s growth as a city. Much of Detroit’s early history revolved around its importance as a port and strategic location in the Great Lakes. During the 19th century, Detroit’s manufacturing base and its population grew rapidly, more than doubling every 10 years from just 2,222 people in 1830 to 45,619 in 1860. The Central Market was the first Detroit market not located by the docks, reflecting the city’s transition from a port town to a city. Farmers were now coming to Detroit to sell to city residents, rather than to ship produce to eastern cities.

1884 Sanborn insurance map of Central Market
This certified 1884 Sanborn insurance map shows the Central Market area, including the Vegetable Building and other shops. 

The Central Farmers Market began in 1843 as a simple shed built off the rear of the old City Hall building. Problems with traffic congestion caused by the market, along with the desire to make the prominent square more presentable, led newly elected Mayor Christian H. Buhl to pledge to build a new covered market building. The city hired local architect John Schaffer to develop plans. Schaffer’s design called for a “structure to be comprised of forty-eight iron columns supporting a wooden roof, [measuring] 70 by 242 feet from outside to outside.” The construction contract was awarded in June to Joel Gray at a cost of $5,312. In late September of 1860, the Detroit Free Press wrote: 

“The new market building in the rear of the City Hall is nearly competed and promises to be a fine structure. It covers the whole of the space occupied as a vegetable market, and consists of an open shed, the roof of which is supported on iron columns and a well-finished framework. The roof is of slate and cost about $1,500. It is designed in time to make a tile floor and erect fountains. The building will accommodate all the business of the market and will constitute an ornament as well as a great convenience to that important branch of city commerce.”

Carved wooden ornamentation on the Detroit Central Farmers Market building
Carved wooden ornamentation enhanced the appearance of the market building. THF113542 

In its first year, the market earned the city $1,127 in rent, covering 20% of the construction costs in one year. The building thrived as the vegetable market through the 1880s. The emergence of the Eastern Market, and the continuing desire to open the street to traffic, led the Common Council to decide to close the Central Market in 1892. In 1893 the Parks and Boulevards Commission, which operated Belle Isle, received approval to move the building to Belle Isle for use as a horse and vehicle shelter. The building was re-erected on Belle Isle in 1894. 

In later years it was converted to a riding stable – the sides were bricked in, the roof was altered to add clerestory windows to let in light, and an office and wash area was constructed in the south end. After the riding stable closed in 1963, the building was used to keep the horses of the Detroit Mounted Police, and then later used for storage. It was considered for demolition since the early 1970s. Over the summer of 2003, the building was dismantled and the parts from the original market building were preserved for re-erection in Greenfield Village.

Detroit Central Market building converted to a riding stable and moved to Belle Isle
After the market building was moved to Belle Isle, it was converted to a riding stable. It had been vacant for more than 20 years at the time of this photo. THF113549 

The Detroit Central Farmers Market vegetable building is a rare and important building. Because of fires and development pressures, wooden commercial buildings, particularly timber-framed buildings, rarely survive to the present in urban settings. This may be the only 19th century timber-frame market building surviving in the United States. Its move to Belle Isle saved it from demolition.

Historic view of the Detroit Central Farmers Market, taken in the late 1880s.
Historic view of the Detroit Central Farmers Market, taken in the late 1880s. THF96803 

The building is architecturally significant. It is an excellent expression of prevailing architectural tastes, as demonstrated by the Free Press review. It captures the rapidly changing world of building construction of the mid-19th century. The building represents the pinnacle of the timber framer’s craft; it is elegantly shaped and ornamented in a way that makes the frame itself the visual keystone of the design. It was built shortly before timber frame construction was eclipsed by the new balloon frame construction, which used dimensional lumber and nailed joints. The cast iron columns that support the timber-framed roof represent the newest in manufactured construction materials. Cast iron was the favorite material of the modern builder in the mid-19th century. It was easy to form into a variety of shapes, and ideal for adding ornamentation to buildings at a moderate cost. The columns in the market building have been formed to represent two different materials – the lower section resembles an elaborately carved stone column, while the upper section looks like the timber frame structure that it supports.

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Elegant joinery, supplemented by elaborated carvings, enhances the appearance of the timber frame. THF113530

Cast-iron columns on the Detroit Central Farmers Market building made to resemble stone below the capital and wood above the capital.
The cast-iron columns were made to resemble stone below the capital and wood above the capital. THF113505


The building captures the exuberance and optimism of the city of Detroit as it grew in its first wave from a frontier fort and outpost, to an important city. A “useful and beautiful” market building in the city’s central square was important to this image of this growing city – as evidenced by the fact that it took only nine months from Mayor Buhl’s inaugural address of January 11, 1860 promising a new market building, to its substantial completion. Few buildings survive from this first era of growth in the city of Detroit.  

For 30 years customers engaged with vendors at the Vegetable Building in Detroit's Central Market. For 110 years the building served the public in a variety of ways on Belle Isle. Your donation will help The Henry Ford rebuild this structure in the heart of Greenfield Village. There it will inspire future generations to learn about their food sources. Make history and #PledgeYourPassion this Giving Tuesday

Jim McCabe is former Collections Manager at The Henry Ford.

 

Detroit Central Market, shopping, philanthropy, Michigan, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, farms and farming, Detroit, by Jim McCabe, agriculture

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Left side of J.R. Jones General Store featuring large grocery “department” and a cigar case on the counter up front. (THF53774)

During the 1880s, proprietor James R. Jones would have welcomed customers to this general merchandise store—now in Greenfield Village but originally located in the rural village of Waterford, Michigan.  Jones sold everything here that townspeople, local farm families, or visiting out-of-towners might want—from groceries to fabrics to farm tools to fishing poles.  The store also served as a community gathering place, for customers to exchange news, socialize, and pick up mail.

Choices between similar products even in country stores like this one were quite plentiful.  Decisions by shoppers depended upon such things as their family background, gender, financial means, and personal values.

Here’s a sampling of some of the products that 1880s customers to the J.R. Jones store might have purchased.

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Sugar barrel (THF176665)

Sugar (approximate price: .08-.12/lb)

In a study of general store accounts from the era, customers purchased sugar more often than any other single product. It was, of course, used in cooking and baking, but large quantities of it were necessary for preserving fresh seasonal produce in the days before refrigeration. 

Sugar was available in many grades, from “A” (the highest) to brown to “X” (the lowest).  Sugar was available in bulk and, unless a storekeeper stocked several grades, customers had little choice in the quality of sugar they obtained at the local store.

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Store canisters for tea (THF176669)

Tea (approximate price: .45-.75/lb)

The Grocer’s Companion (1884) called tea the “foremost of all beverages in reference to its invigorating and restorative qualities.” Tea came in a tremendous variety of grades and types in the late 19th century, and store canisters were often specifically designed to hold the various types. They came from only one species of evergreen shrub or small tree. The differences came in how the tea was grown and how the leaves were treated.  All the tea in the J.R. Jones General Store came from China, which was considered the center of the tea industry at the time. This included:

  • “Black” teas, which underwent a fermentation process before drying.These included Oolong (strong and pungent, made from young leaves) and English Breakfast (in the 19th century, a blend that came from China, but was popularized in England).
  • “Green” teas, which were submitted immediately upon gathering to a high temperature in iron pans.These included Gunpowder (made from young leaves, fragrant and pungent taste with a greenish hue and shaped like round small shot); and Imperial (like Gunpowder but with larger leaves).

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Cans of tomatoes (THF176668)

Canned tomatoes (approximate price: .15/can)

Tomatoes were one of the most popular commercially available canned food products.  By the 1880s, improved manufacturing techniques in canning had raised the production of canned goods to a major American industry, making all manner of fruits, vegetables, and meats available year-round to just about everyone but the very poor.

Canned goods, however, had many critics. Some claimed that the food tasted “tinny,” that it was unhealthy, and that products were adulterated to add weight (this was before the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906). In some cases, women also could be looked down upon for relying on canned goods rather than canning and preserving themselves.  Nevertheless, the presence of canned goods in store accounts and advertisements attests to their popularity. 

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Packages of Magic Yeast and One Spoon Baking Powder (THF176670)

Magic Yeast and One Spoon Baking Powder (approximate price: .15-.25/box)

Despite the introduction of several different brands of baking powder during this time, yeast still remained the most popular bread-leavening agent. Many women made their own yeast and numerous recipes appeared in cookbooks. As for the commercially processed product, compressed yeast introduced by Gaff, Fleischman & Company in the 1860s, was considered the purest and most dependable form of yeast.

But many brands of packaged yeast cakes and powders, including this Magic Yeast, vied for competition in the market. Critics of these commercial yeast products claimed that their vitality could be easily destroyed by heat, cold or movement, and that they could make bread sour or moldy.  Still, they were much more convenient than the homemade. 

Baking powder, a leavening agent usually made from a proportion of cream of tartar and carbonate of soda, was fairly new on the scene in the 1880s. It saved careful measuring of one or both of these ingredients in baked goods, and saved hours of time over yeast in making bread. Dozens of baking powders, like this One Spoon brand, were available on the market.

But baking powder, more than just about any other cooking ingredient of the late 19th century, raised suspicion and complaints among housekeepers and advice writers alike.  High cost, poor performance, and leaving a bitter taste in foods comprised some of these complaints. But even more alarm was raised by accusations of adulteration—that is, the addition of impure ingredients like lime, earth, or alum, which could actually injure people’s health. Fortunately, most of these problems were worked out in the next decade or so, when the advent of “quick breads” really began. It was the adventurous housewife that tried baking powder in the 1880s. 

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Variety of graniteware coffee boilers (THF176673)

Graniteware coffee boiler (approximate price: 1.00-1.35)

When enamel-coated ironware was introduced in 1874, it was marketed as light (compared to cast iron), handsome (the gray mottled surface was considered picturesque and elegant), wholesome (wouldn’t rust or corrode like tinware and didn’t contain poisonous arsenic, lead, or antimony like cheap imitations), and durable (actually, it chipped easily but 3 out of 4 points in its favor weren’t bad!). Manufacturers of this so-called granite ironware, or graniteware (because of its visual appearance like granite), optimistically claimed that these goods would entirely supplant the “common and unserviceable” stamped tinware. (Actually, it was aluminum that did this in the early 20th century.)  In the 1890s, enamel-coated steel replaced much of the earlier granite ironware.

Coffee, as an accompaniment to breakfast and other meals, was an extremely popular beverage at this time. The most common way of preparing it was in an open boiler on a cookstove.

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Package of Rising Sun Stove Polish (THF176674)

Package of Rising Sun Stove Polish (approximate price: .08-.10/pkg)

This product would have been used in conjunction with blacking to clean and give luster to cast-iron stoves. It was mixed with a liquid agent (e.g., turpentine or soap-suds) for application to the stove. This was a crucial task for cleaning cast-iron stoves, but it was also marketed as necessary to maintaining a tasteful home. Rising Sun Stove Polish was very aggressive in its marketing. Advertisements boasted that it was “the oldest and most reliable stove polish in the world” and that it would “keep stoves looking good and operating efficiently.” 

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Case of boxes of cigars (THF176666)

Cigars (approximate price: .04-.08 apiece)

During the 1880s, cigar-smoking was extremely popular, especially among men who wanted to appear prosperous and ambitious. Unlike smoking tobacco (for pipes) and plugs of chewing tobacco, where production was monopolized by a few large national manufacturers, cigars were still produced at thousands of small, local manufactories across the country as well as in Havana, Cuba. Detroit had several cigar factories. As a result of this great number of producers, cigars came in a daunting array of sizes, colors, grades, and flavors. To the uninitiated, sometimes only the eye-catching images on their boxes in the store’s showcase distinguished one brand from another.

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Packages of Ayer’s Hair Vigor (THF176671)

Ayer’s Hair Vigor (approximate price: .50)

The hairstyles of the 1880s required an abundant supply of healthy hair in order to make it stand up as high and look as natural as possible. Hair dressings and restorers abounded, with Ayer’s Hair Vigor among the best known. 

This product claimed to promote hair growth, restore color and vitality to faded or gray hair, and render the hair soft, youthful, and glossy. It contained cream of tartar (removed the reddish color in hair caused by rust from iron-rich well water); glycerin (a moisturizer); lead acetate (which claimed to remove the gray hair); and a caustic soda (a.k.a. sodium hydroxide or lye), which claimed to be a hair relaxer or straightener. The colorful images of young women with long, luxurious hair on Ayer’s trade cards and packages must have encouraged older women to try this product as well. 

Medical journals attacked Ayer’s Hair Vigor as unsafe and denounced its manufacturer as deceiving the public. But the product’s allure persisted, and certainly J.R. Jones and his customers would have been unaware of any safety warnings from such journals. 

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Jars of Woodworth’s Ursina Bear Grease (THF176672)

Woodworth’s Ursina Bear Grease (approximate price: .12)

Pomades, oils, and dressings for keeping hair in place and sometimes for promoting hair growth were popular men’s grooming aids in the late 19th century. In fact, that is the major reason why ornamental lace tidies and antimacassars were so common—to protect the surfaces of chairs and sofas from these often greasy concoctions. This particular product claimed to be “real bear grease procured from the Rocky Mountains and very carefully refined.” 

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3 varieties of castor sets (THF176678)

Castor set (approximate price: $1.50-2.25)

In the 1880s, silver-plated castor sets frequently formed the centerpiece of the dining table for middle-class families, reflecting the families’ good taste and economic status.  Castor sets would have been a necessity in places like hotels and boardinghouses, where large groups of people dined—each with different tastes in food. They were available in a tremendous variety of styles and prices. Most contained two to six bottles, generally for holding pepper, mustard, oil, and vinegar, and sometimes other spices.

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Boxes of men’s and women’s collars (THF176676)

Men’s and women’s collars (approximate price: .10-.30)

A white shirt with a white collar and cuffs marked the man as someone of means, or at least on his way up. But clean collars and cuffs were always a necessity, no matter what color and style shirt a man wore. Enter replaceable collars and cuffs.

Men’s collars of the 1880s were plain in style and were made of paper, celluloid, or linen. Collars were high and tight, either “standing” (straight up around the neck) or “turned outward” (tips or side edges turned outward or over and slightly down), complementing the coats which buttoned high during this time. Paper and celluloid collars were considered disposable, while linen collars could be washed and ironed and kept fresh for a period of time.

Women’s dresses were time-consuming to make and costly to have someone else make. Purchasing a new collar was an inexpensive way of freshening or updating the look of a dress that had been around for a while. Ladies’ collars were detachable and could be used multiple times on various garments. They ranged in price, from fairly plain linen collars to intricate lace ones.

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Men’s derbies and straw hats (THF176675)

Men’s hats (approximate price: .50-1.75 for straw; $1.00-2.50 for derby)

While top, or silk, hats might have been worn by a wealthy city gentleman going to a fancy affair, Waterford men would have generally worn a bowler hat, supplemented by a low-crowned straw hat for summer occasions. The hard felt bowler (usually referred to as a derby in the United States) was a staple, durable hat that could have been worn all day long—even at work—and was generally considered a symbol of respectability. 

Also during this time, the hat industry aimed to persuade every man to purchase a new straw hat at the beginning of every summer. Straw hats tended to be water-resistant to hold up even on rainy days.

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Bolts of fabric (THF176677)

Fabric (approximate price: .05 for print to 1.30 for silk)

Women’s clothing was not ready-made yet, so all dresses had to be fashioned at home or by a seamstress.  Bolts of fabric and trims lined numerous shelves of general stores like this one.  The bolts of fabric in this store include:

  • “Print”– a general term for a fabric onto which patterns were printed or applied by dyes after it was machine-woven.Available in a huge variety of designs, it was about the cheapest and most durable, but least elegant, dress fabric available.
  • Linen – One of the oldest textile fabrics known, this would have been imported.It was more elegant and fashionable than cotton, but also quite a bit more expensive and harder to maintain.
  • Wool – A very warm and durable fabric, produced in mills in the eastern United States.(In fact, the fleece from sheep raised on farms around Waterford was shipped to these mills.)Wool was very serviceable for winter clothing.
  • Silk – Noted for its resiliency and elasticity, this would have been imported.It was quite a bit more expensive than wool, and dresses made of this material would have been elegant and stylish.

Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

fashion, furnishings, food, Michigan, J.R. Jones General Store, shopping, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Donna R. Braden

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Portrait of J.R. Jones taken about 1890 (
THF277166)

It took only a little bit of capital but a lot of business ingenuity and risk-taking to run a general store in the late 19th century. Because of the great financial risks involved, many storekeepers went out of business and stores changed hands often. The general store in Greenfield Village was one such store, changing hands at least nine times before being purchased by Henry Ford in 1927. J.R. Jones, the store’s proprietor between 1882 and 1888, was like many other storekeepers of his time—low on funds but high on ambition and filled with the dream of prosperity just around the corner.

James R. Jones was the youngest of seven children born to James, a stonemason, and Eliza Webb Jones. James, Sr. and Eliza, both originally from England, had moved to New York State, then to Stillwater, Minnesota (where James R. was born on January 5, 1858), before finally settling in Holly, Michigan, about 1865.

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Recreated interior of the general store in Greenfield Village, showing bolts of fabric, clothing, hats, and clothing accessories (THF53760)

Jimmie (as James R. was called well into adulthood) must have fancied himself quite a salesman when he clerked at his brother’s store while still in his teens. By the time he was twenty, he was already in charge of operating T. G. Richardson’s store in Waterford. And he must have been pretty good at that. A newspaper account of the time reported that, “Mr. James Jones, the accomplished ‘how many yards ma’am,’ from Holly has charge of Richardson’s store here and is well liked.” A few years later, in 1882, he decided to venture out on his own and he took over the proprietorship of the store that would eventually move to Greenfield Village.

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Front window of J.R. Jones store with display of sporting goods (THF176664)

The ingenuity that Jones demonstrated in attracting customers is evident in newspaper accounts of the time. For example, in 1884, “with the enterprise characteristic of the man,” Jones opened up a trade in sporting goods, in which he bought and sold second-hand guns (for the sport of hunting). That same year, as an added incentive for customers, Jones offered a free “chromo” (or colored lithograph) with every large bill of goods.

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Jones’s desk and office area recreated at the back of the general store in Greenfield Village, with an 1880s-era telephone on the wall (THF53764)

Jones was also resourceful in running his business, drawing customers by having his store serve as the site of the local post office from 1882 to 1885, during the presidency of Republican James A. Garfield, as well as having what was the first—and for a time the only—telephone in town installed in his store (probably in 1882). By 1887, the local business directory referred to Jones not only as a general store merchant but also as manager of the Michigan Bell Telephone Company in Waterford. To remain frugal, he and his wife lived upstairs from the store from about 1883 on, partitioning the space into several small rooms.

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J.R. Jones (right) with his brother-in-law, John Maybee, outside the Jones and Maybee General Store in Holly, Michigan, about 1890 (THF277163)

Around 1887, Jones must have decided that he could not make a profitable go of running the Waterford store. By 1890, he had returned to Holly where he ran a general store with his brother-in-law John Maybee, then he went on to stints as a salesman for the Cyclone Wire Fence Company and as a boot and shoe dealer.

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Portrait of J.R. Jones and his wife, Alice Isabelle Maybee Jones, about 1920 (THF277164)

Probably the high point of Jones’s later life came a few years before his death in 1933, when Henry Ford invited him to Greenfield Village to get his reactions to the historic installation he had just completed of the very general store that Jones had operated in Waterford back in the 1880s!

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of J.R. Jones’s great-nieces—Marion H. Roush, Isabel Maybee Stark, and Charlotte Maybee—for providing access to family photos in order to help us document J.R. Jones’s life.

Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

J.R. Jones General Store, shopping, Michigan, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Donna R. Braden

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With mail order catalogs, rural Americans could choose from among a much wider variety of goods than at their local general store. THF119939 and THF115221

Today, shopping opportunities are everywhere—as a way to purchase things we need, as well as leisure time entertainment. We cruise the mall, trod the aisles of big-box stores, browse the shelves of trendy boutiques, roll our carts down the grocery store aisle, stop off at the convenience store, flip through store catalogs delivered to our door, and shop online. We can even shop from the convenience of our smartphone or tablet. Shopping is now a 24-7 opportunity filled with endless choices of goods made all over the world.

During the late 19th century, things were quite different. Most Americans lived on farms or in small villages--shopping choices were limited. Yet, the advent of mail order shopping was opening up a world of new possibilities.

Shopping Locally
Where did most rural people shop during the late 19th century? Usually the small stores located at a nearby village or town or perhaps a general store located at a country crossroads.  These stores provided a narrow selection of items that served the needs of the locals, yet offered shoppers the tactile experience of handling the goods before deciding to purchase. Factories were turning out consumer goods of all kinds, advertising trumpeted the merits of the products to potential customers, and railroads made it easier to get those goods to rural stores as well urban ones—so rural shoppers in America’s hinterland could obtain some of the same or similar items found in the city. 

Still—small town shopkeepers couldn’t afford to stock an endless variety of merchandise to broaden their customers’ choices. So, instead of selecting from dozens of shoe styles or tableware patterns, or printed fabric designs, rural customers often made their choices from whatever goods were at hand in the local merchant’s store.

Mail Order Shopping Debuts
During the final decades of the 19th century, America’s farmers developed a growing discontent towards institutions they felt were stealing too large a share of their hard-earned profits: “middlemen” like the grain elevator operators who they felt were paying too low a price for their crops and the storekeepers who they felt charged them too high a price for the goods they bought at retail. Farmers organized themselves into “the Patrons of Husbandry,” also known as the Grange, to protest these inequities as well as seek opportunities to form cooperatives through which they could purchase goods at wholesale prices.

Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago recognized that his innovative idea for direct-mail marketing meshed well with this growing discontent on the part of farmers. In 1872, Montgomery Ward & Company launched what would become the first general mail order company in American history.  Advertising his company as “The Original Wholesale Grange Supply House,” Ward stated that the firm sold its goods to “Patrons of Husbandry, Farmers and Mechanics at Wholesale Prices.” His recipe for success—high volume, a wide selection of goods, ease of handling, and low prices—enabled Ward to extend the advantages found in urban marketplace directly to rural customers.

As Montgomery Ward & Company’s mail order business quickly grew, other companies joined in. The other mail order giant, Sears, Roebuck and Company, also located in Chicago, began offering mail order in 1888.  By 1900, these two mail order houses were the two greatest merchandisers in the world. Countless other firms offered a variety of goods from ready-made clothing to hardware and farm equipment, using the direct-marketing of mail order to extend their reach to customers all over the nation.

Mail order catalogs brought city and country together. The enticing products shown on their pages represented the new and modern to their rural readers, promising higher standards of living and material progress through the attractive goods and labor-saving devices displayed there. Mail order catalogs offered rural residents a “taste” of the urban experience, offering goods found in the shops and department stores that blossomed in the commercial districts of America’s burgeoning cities. Catalogs, of course, broadened the merchandise selection for some city people as well.

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Montgomery Ward & Company launched America’s first general mail order company.  Over 22 years later, their 1894-1895 catalog still proudly trumpeted this fact:  “Originators of the Mail Order Business.”
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A Cornucopia of Material Delights
Flipping through these mail order catalogs brought a visual feast of tens of thousands of products—some satisfying needs and some gratifying wants.  For a farm family whose lives and daily activities brought little variety, these catalogs opened a world of new material possibilities:  fashionable ready-made clothing, hats and hat trimmings, jewelry of all kinds, sewing machines, cook stoves, and hardware for use on the farm or stylish hinges to update farmhouse doors. Even carriages and automobiles could be shopped for by mail.  

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The northern Indiana family shown in this circa 1900 parlor photograph could have obtained many of the goods by mail order—even the piano. 
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The photograph above depicts a middle-class family from a farm or small town surrounded by the mass-produced goods that provided an attractive, comfortable lifestyle.  Many of the items could have been purchased from a mail order catalog. (Keep in mind that, while rural residents might have access to many of the same goods, they often had far less spending power than urban America.)

Delivering the Catalogs—and the Goods

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From placing the order to delivery of the goods, the image on the cover of this 1880s Jordan Marsh catalog suggests the ease of “successful” shopping by mail—allaying any concerns for those new to the process.  THF119786

Mail order catalogs came to farmers—not surprisingly--through the mail. Yet, for many years, that did not mean convenient delivery to their doorstep. Though city dwellers had enjoyed free home delivery of mail since 1863, rural residents still had to pick up their own mail at the nearest post office—even though they paid the same postage as the rest of the nation. Bad roads and distance often meant that farmers rarely picked up their mail more than once a week. So placing a catalog order could take longer for farm folk than city dwellers.  A farm family might pick up a catalog on a trip to town one week, then place the order the next time someone went to town. Payment for mail orders was made by money order, purchased through the post office.
In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added.  In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added.  In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added. In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

How did merchandise ordered get to the person who ordered it? Before the advent of rural free delivery, people could pick up small packages at the post office. Private express companies delivered larger packages shipped to the nearest railroad station, transporting them to the customer’s home. Farmers might use their own wagons to transport goods shipped by rail to them. 

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Heavy or large packages sent by mail were shipped to the local railroad station.  An express company would then deliver them to the customer.  If the customer owned a horse-drawn wagon, they might pick up the package at the railroad station themselves.
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After the beginning of rural free delivery, mail carriers delivered packages weighing up to four pounds to their customers’ mailboxes. By law, heavier packages had to be delivered by private express companies.  

In January 1913, the U.S. Postal Service established parcel post—now goods could be delivered directly to homes. It was an instant success, boosting mail-order businesses enormously. During the first five days of parcel post service nearly 1,600 post offices handled over 4 million parcel post packages. Within the first six months, 300 million parcels had been delivered. Weight and size limits were gradually expanded. By 1931, parcel post deliveries included packages weighing up to 70 pounds and measuring up to 100 inches.

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In the early years of rural mail delivery, farmers could use whatever was at hand as a mailbox—pails, cans or wooden crates. When rural free delivery became permanent and universal in 1902, the United States Post Office required rural customers to have regulation mailboxes in order to receive their mail.
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Something Gained, Something Lost
While catalog shopping brought variety and convenience to rural Americans during the late 19th and early 20th century, there was an important trade-off. The face-to-face communication and personal relationship that had existed between a local storekeeper and his customers was eroding, helped along by national advertising which told potential customers what to buy—rather than customers seeking the advice of the storekeeper. Too, stores became increasingly self-serve. This trend toward less personal, “non-local” shopping continued to grow throughout the 20th century for rural and urban people alike, involving not only orders by mail, but by phone and, eventually, the internet.  In the 21st century, sales of consumer goods increasingly take place online. 

Yet, more recently, people have come to value the attentive personal service offered and unique goods stocked by many local retailers. Many shoppers combine the advantages of shopping online for the wide variety goods available there, with the personal touch and service-oriented experience of shopping locally. Encouraging this shop-local trend are national campaigns like Small Business Saturday, which takes place Thanksgiving weekend, encouraging shoppers to patronize small retailers.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

shopping, mail order, by Jeanine Head Miller

Actually, the Tri-Motor of this story wasn't small at all. The all-metal airplane was rugged, dependable and equally adaptable to passenger and freight service. Built by Ford Motor Company from 1926 to 1933, the Ford Tri-Motor flew in many early American airline fleets and became the most popular airliner of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In all, 199 Tri-Motors were built during its seven-year production run. Over the course of their lives, many of the planes found varying uses, including the 48th Tri-Motor built, purchased in 1928 by Reid, Murdoch & Company. The manager of the sales department for Ford's Lincoln division, Arthur Hatch, had completed the sale of the plane while traveling by train with the president of Reid, Murdoch, & Company. The Chicago-based company had big plans for their Tri-Motor and turned its interior into a showroom for their Monarch Foods brand. A few of the canned items stocked on the plane included sweet pickles, peanut butter, popcorn, toffees, sardines, peas, asparagus, lima beans and corn.

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Ford Tri-Motor 4-AT-48 Used as a "Flying Grocery Store" for Reid, Murdoch and Company's Monarch Foods, 1928. THF94915

When it came time for the delivery of the Tri-Motor, the president of Reid, Murdouch & Co. insisted on coming to the Dearborn, Michigan, plant to personally turn the check over to Arthur Hatch. Named "Independence," the modified plane began its life as a flying salesroom, carrying samples of over 200 different food products to airports throughout the country. Occasionally, Monarch's pint-sized advertising characters, "The Teenie Weenies," also accompanied the plane on its stops.

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William B. Mayo, Head of Ford's Aircraft Division, Edsel B. Ford, president of Ford Motor Company, the president of Reid, Murdoch & Co. and Arthur Hatch, manager of the Lincoln sales department. THF285025

The Teenie Weenies
, a popular comic strip created by cartoonist and author William Donahey, began appearing in the Chicago Tribune during 1914. The adventures of the 2-inch tall "Teenie Weenies" took place in a town made-up of buildings created from recycled household products like shoes or food containers. In 1924, the Chicago Tribune discontinued the comic series allowing Reid, Murdoch & Co. to take advantage of the characters for use in advertising their Monarch Foods brand. In the company's advertisements, the cartoon characters used Monarch food containers for their buildings. On occasion, real-life examples of the characters (child actors) made appearances with Monarch's Tri-Motor.

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"The General" and "The Policeman" inspect the Ford Tri-Motor known as the Independence. THF94917

Besides the Ford Tri-Motor, the Teenie Weenies have another Michigan connection. On the shores of Lake Superior, east of Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore, sits a tiny town that goes by the name of Grand Marais. In the mid-1920s, Reid, Murdoch & Co. built William Donahey a summer cabin there. Inspiration for the building came right from Donahey's Teenie Weenies comic strip. The result – a building in the shape of a pickle barrel – today welcomes visitors as the Pickle Barrel House Museum.

Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

by Ryan Jelso, childhood, shopping, food, Ford Motor Company, airplanes

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Life is often a juggling act of work, play and family. While current-day clothiers experience the trials and tribulations of being small-town entrepreneurs in the big business of fashion, more than 100 years ago many women were facing similar circumstances, leaning on their sense of style to furnish a living.

In the late 1800s, Elizabeth Cohen had run a millinery store next to her husband’s dry goods store in Detroit. When he died and left her alone with a young family, she consolidated the shops under one roof. Living above the store, she was able to run a business and earn a living while staying near her children.

Cohen leveraged middle-class consumers’ growing fascination with fashion, using mass-produced components to create hats in the latest styles and to the individual tastes of customers. To attract business, resourceful store owners like Mrs. Cohen displayed goods in storefront windows and might have advertised through trade cards or by placing advertisements in newspapers, magazines or city directories.

“While Mrs. Cohen was more likely following fashion than creating it, it did take creativity and design skill,” Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford, said of Cohen’s millinery prowess. “She was a small maker connecting with local customers in her community — a 19th-century version of Etsy, perhaps, but without the online reach.”

And she certainly gained independence and the satisfaction of supporting her family while selling the hats she created from the factory-produced components she acquired. “People can appreciate the widowed Elizabeth Cohen’s balancing act,” added Miller, “successfully caring for her children while earning a living during an era when fewer opportunities were available to women.” 

Jennifer LaForce is a writer for The Henry Ford Magazine. This story originally appeared in the June-December 2016 issue.

women's history, The Henry Ford Magazine, shopping, Michigan, making, hats, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, fashion, entrepreneurship, Detroit, design, Cohen Millinery, by Jennifer LaForce

miller-blog

Go to the back of the museum, over in the area filled with hulking power-generating machinery, next to the grey mass of the Spokane water turbine, and you’ll find something new.  Or rather something almost a century old that’s new to the area.  Actually, you’ll find twelve things.  Or rather 795.  Okay, let me explain…

What you’ll find is a group of 12 display panels created in the mid-1920s for the L. Miller and Son lumber and hardware store of 1815 W. Division Street, Chicago, Illinois.  The installation consists of six panels of hand tools and six of hardware, all logically, carefully, and gracefully arrayed on green felt backing, mounted in glass-fronted doors.  Now they are arranged gallery-like on the wall, but originally they hinged out of a floor-to-ceiling cabinet system of shelves, bins, and drawers custom-fitted into the store’s long narrow retail space.  

The original business was founded by Louis Miller, a Russian immigrant who had arrived in the United States in 1894.  Miller and his family served a neighborhood made up of immigrants from Poland, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine (the second and third floors of part of the store property housed Russian and Polish social clubs).   The clear visibility of the store’s stock of tools and hardware made it easier for customers with a language barrier to find what they needed.  The display’s elegant arrangement was great salesmanship but could also serve a problem solving function: viewing tools and components is rather like scanning a menu of possible solutions. 

The neighborhood underwent several transformations over the years.  The final wave of European immigrants, primarily from Poland, arrived in the 1940s and 50s as refugees; Kennedy Expressway construction cut a wide swath through the area, and once completed in 1960 served to cut it off from neighborhoods to the east; by the 1970s many residents were fleeing to the suburbs and the area was becoming rife with gang activity.  The store, in its original location on Division (the “Polish Broadway” that served as the dividing line between the Wicker Park and East Village neighborhoods), endured through all these changes except for the most recent: gentrification.  The subsequent rise in property taxes finally prompted the need for the company to move to a new location. 

How Did the Exhibit Make Its Way to The Henry Ford?
During the 1950s the owners had already phased out the hardware side of the business in order to concentrate on lumber and construction materials.  The display remained in place, fondly remembered—and occasionally visited—by a dwindling number of locals.  In early 2011, with the business’s move looming, owner Bob Margolin (grandson of the founder) and I began to discuss The Henry Ford’s potential interest in acquiring the display.  In April Bob indicated that he would be travelling to Michigan on business and we agreed that bringing a sampling of the display—a panel or two to look at more closely—would be a good idea.  On the sunny afternoon of Friday April 29 I went out to meet him in our employee parking lot adjacent to Lovett Hall: he hadn’t brought a sampling, he’d brought the entire display, and had already started carefully propping the panels adjacent to one another against the side of his van—much to the fascination and enthrallment of numerous staff leaving for the day.  An amazing sight, it was as if the display had lurched out of the shadows to literally claim a day in the sun—and offer a kind of final proof of its sales power, even though there was no longer any stock of tools for it to sell.

The acquisition went ahead.  Now, precisely five years later, the display is on exhibit.  It is a museum of tools within a larger museum.  It is an artifact in its own right but it is made up of artifacts.  It is made up of stunningly ordinary stuff—the workaday items ordinarily built into homes or hidden in toolboxes—but it celebrates everyday practicality and resourcefulness.  Like a great many museum artifacts it is a paradox: in a state of rest, set sparkling in Made in America—but also active, continuing to work its magic, prompting an urge to build, fix, construct—making you want to somehow do something…

Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Senior Director, Historical Resources at The Henry Ford.

Learn more about the L. Miller and Son Hardware and Tool Display in this collection of artifact cards.

Continue Reading

making, communication, by Marc Greuther, shopping, immigrants, Made in America, Henry Ford Museum

Clara Ford took her model of a roadside market to major garden and flower events across the country. Here she poses with it at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City (THF117982).

Buying fresh produce direct from local farmers is a key to our efforts today to “eat local.” Nearly 90 years ago, Clara Ford was advocating the same thing, to improve on diets that were undermined by too much processed food and--more importantly to her--to improve the situations of rural farm women. Continue Reading

Michigan, women's history, cars, by Jim McCabe, food, shopping, Clara Ford, agriculture, farms and farming

It’s ironic – like, in the actual “opposite of what you’d expect” way as opposed to the “merely coincidental” way in which the term is often misused. The Ford Mustang is revered as one of the most “American” of all cars. Its name conjures up images of the Wild West. Its early logo incorporated red, white and blue stripes. The car’s very look is based on our country’s obsessions with speed and style. And yet Mustang Serial Number One, sold 50 years ago this month, went to a Canadian. Yeah, that’s irony.

On April 14, 1964, Eastern Provincial Airlines pilot Stanley Tucker walked into George Parsons Ford, a dealership perched on the eastern edge of the continent in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It was love at first sight. The sharp-looking Wimbledon White convertible jumped out at the 33 year-old pilot, and he knew he had to have it. We don’t know the name of the person who sold the car to Tucker – but the pilot must have been quite a salesman himself. Somehow, he convinced Parsons Ford to break street date and sell him the car three days before April 17, when Ford officially released Mustang to the world. He took serial number 5F08F100001 home and, for a short time, was the general public’s only Mustang owner.

Mustang Serial Number One should not have been sold on that early date. In fact, it shouldn’t have been sold at all. The car was one of approximately 180 pre-production cars built at the Rouge between February 10 and March 5, 1964. These initial cars served two purposes: 1.) They eased Ford into full production by familiarizing workers and supervisors with the build process, and 2.) They formed a batch of physical cars that could be shipped to every major Ford dealer in time for the April 17 launch. Logically, the first cars built were sent to the farthest dealers – hence Serial Number One wound up 2,180 miles from Dearborn in St. John’s. (Twelve of these pre-production cars, incidentally, went to the New York World’s Fair for use in Ford’s Magic Skyway ride.)

Serial Number One’s stamped vehicle identification number. (THF90611)

Being a pre-production or, if you will, “practice” car, Serial Number One has a few quirks not seen in regular Mustangs. Careful observers will notice that the hood’s fit is a little crooked. The door lock knobs have no grommets at their bases. The front grille’s color tends more toward gray than the bluish hue seen on regular production cars. The engine block is painted gray instead of the black on later Mustangs. Little details like these changed after full production began on March 9.

Not long after Capt. Tucker made his purchase, Ford tracked him down and asked to have Serial Number One back. Not surprisingly, Tucker declined the request. He spent the next two years putting some 10,000 miles on his pony car. By early 1966, when nearly one million Mustangs had been sold and the car’s status as a Ford landmark was secure, the Blue Oval called again. This time, Ford offered Tucker a worthy trade: in exchange for returning Serial Number One, he could have the One Millionth Mustang, equipped to his specifications. Tucker agreed and, when filling out the order, covered the entire option sheet with single large “X.” The only extra he didn’t take was the High Performance 289 engine – it carried a shorter warranty period.

Tucker came to Dearborn on March 2, 1966, met Ford vice-president (and Mustang father) Lee Iacocca, and posed for photos with his new Silver Frost 1966 Mustang convertible. Meanwhile, Ford reclaimed Tucker’s much-loved Serial Number One and soon donated it to The Henry Ford. Seventeen years after the trade, when Mustang Monthly magazine caught up with Tucker, the pilot expressed some understandable regret that he’d let go of Serial Number One. As we celebrate 50 years of Mustang, though, we can be grateful that 5F08F100001 is preserved for all to enjoy. Many of our visitors, upon seeing the car in Henry Ford Museum, get that same gleam in their eyes that Stanley Tucker must have gotten all those years ago.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford

convertibles, shopping, Mustangs, Ford Motor Company, cars, by Matt Anderson, aviators

As every visitor discovers, The Henry Ford is about more than cars and trucks. But if its other exhibits are its heart, The Henry Ford’s world-class automobile collection might be its soul. For the first time, that collection is captured in one major book – Driving America: The Henry Ford Automotive Collection.

Showcasing 100 historically-significant vehicles spanning a century-plus, Driving America puts a spotlight on the collection’s perhaps unexpected diversity. While it reflects Henry Ford’s fascination with American progress, the collection combines vehicles from nearly every major (and a few not-so-major) automaker, both foreign and domestic.

Indeed, one of the collection’s most famous vehicles, the 1931 Type 41 Bugatti Royale, was born in Europe. In an essay, Bob Casey, The Henry Ford’s former Senior Curator of Transportation, explains that after its original owner fled Hitler’s Germany, the Royale was abandoned in a New York junk yard.

Eventually rescued by Buick’s Charles Chayne, the Royale was donated to The Henry Ford in 1957, where it still delights a half-century on.

Driving America is filled with such trivia, providing a greater close-up than is possible on a museum floor. Across nearly 300 pages, vivid illustrations capture details such as the 1957 De Soto Fireflite’s pushbutton transmission, and the 1980 Comuta-Car’s label-maker dashboard. Technical specifications for each vehicle are also included.

But like the collection itself, Driving America tells as much a story of those who’ve designed, built and driven across two American centuries as of the vehicles themselves. Innovation and ingenuity reflect in Oldsmobile’s 1903 Curved Dash Roundabout, and the 1997 General Motors EV1; family and adventure in the 1984 Plymouth Voyager minivan and the 1959 Volkswagen Westfalia camper; triumph and tragedy in the 1987 Ford Thunderbird Stock Car, and in President Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental limousine.

In this regard, Driving America, like the collection it beautifully, thoroughly documents, honors not only The Henry Ford’s focus on the everyday extraordinary, but the automobile’s defining role in life as it’s known, or might someday be.

Driving America from The Henry Ford

Driving America, featuring a forward by Jay Leno and an introduction by Edsel Ford II, is available at The Henry Ford’s on-site gift shops and online shop. Special collector’s editions are also available.

Justin Mularski is a writer based in Detroit. He occasionally forsakes his laptop to read of times long past, cheer for the Tigers, or make lists of home improvement projects he’ll never actually complete.

by Justin Mularski, shopping, Henry Ford Museum, books, Driving America, cars