Greenfield Village may just look like a lot of buildings to some, but each building tells stories of people. When I wrote The Henry Ford Official Guidebook, it really hit me how unique and one-of-a-kind Greenfield Village is. I wanted to share several stories I found particularly interesting about Greenfield Village.
Researching Building Stories
Whenever we research a Village building, we usually start with archival material—looking at sources like census records, account books, store invoices (like the one below, related to Dr. Howard’s Office), and old photographs—to give us authentic accounts about our subjects’ lives. Here are some examples.
At Daggett Farmhouse, Samuel Daggett’s account book showed that he not only built houses but also dug stones for the community schoolhouse; made shingles for local people’s houses; made chairs, spinning wheels, coffins, and sleds; and even pulled teeth! If you are interested in learning more about how our research influenced the interpretation at Daggett, along with four other Village buildings, check out this blog post.
Daggett Farmhouse, photographed by Michelle Andonian. / THF54173
For Dr. Howard’s Office, we looked at old photographs, family reminiscences, the doctor’s daily record of patients and what he prescribed for them, his handwritten receipt (recipe) book of remedies, and invoices of supplies and dried herbs he purchased. You can read more about the history of Dr. Alonson Howard and his office in this blog post.
For J.R. Jones General Store, we used a range of primary sources, from local census records to photographs of the building on its original site (like the one below) to account books documenting purchases of store stock from similar general stores. You can read more about the history of J.R. Jones General Store in this blog post.
Photo of J.R. Jones General Store on its original site. / THF255033
Urbanization and Industrialization Seen through Greenfield Village Buildings
Many Greenfield Village buildings were acquired because of Henry Ford’s interests. But some give us the opportunity to look at larger trends in American life, especially related to urbanization and industrialization.
Engelbert Grimm sold clocks and watches to Detroit-area customers, including Henry Ford, in the 1880s. But Grimm Jewelry Store also demonstrates that in an increasingly urban and industrial nation, people were expected to know the time and be on time—all the time.
Grimm Jewelry Store in Greenfield Village. / THF1947
Related to this, notice the public clock in the Detroit Publishing Company photograph below of West 23rd Street, New York City, about 1908. (Clue: Look down the street, above the horse-drawn carriage, and you’ll see a large street clock on a stand.) You can read more about the emergence of “clock time” in this blog post.
Smiths Creek Depot is here because of its connection with Thomas Edison. But this building also shows us that railroad depots at the time were more than simply the place to catch a train—they were also bustling places where townspeople connected with the outside world. Below you can see a photo of Smiths Creek in Greenfield Village, as well asthe hustle and bustle of railroad depots in a wonderful image of the Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne, Wyoming, from about 1910.
Smiths Creek Depot in Greenfield Village. / THF1873
Henry Ford brought Sarah Jordan Boarding House to Greenfield Village because it was home to many of Thomas Edison’s workers. It was also one of three residences wired for Edison’s new electrical lighting system in December 1879—and it is the only one still in existence. In the bigger picture, the mushrooming of boarding houses at this time was particularly due to a shortage of affordable housing in the growing urban-industrial centers, which were experiencing a tremendous influx of new wage laborers.
Sarah Jordan Boarding House in Greenfield Village. / THF2007
Sarah Jordan Boarding House on its original site in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1879. / THF117242
Luther Burbank and Henry Ford
Other buildings in Greenfield Village have strong ties to Henry’s personal relationships. Henry Ford met horticulturalist Luther Burbank in connection with the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. That year, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a few other companions traveled there to attend Edison Day. Luther Burbank welcomed them to the area.
Panama-Pacific International Exposition Souvenir Medal. / THF154006
Afterward, the group followed Burbank up on an invitation to visit him at his experimental garden in Santa Rosa, California. Edison and Ford had a grand time there. Burbank later wrote, “The ladies said we acted like three schoolboys, but we didn’t care.”
Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank, and Henry Ford at Burbank's home in Santa Rosa, California. / THF126337
After that visit, the original group, plus tire magnate Harvey Firestone, drove by automobile to the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. During that trip, Edison proposed a camping trip for Ford, Firestone, and himself. The Vagabonds camping trips, taking place over the next nine years, were born!
Henry Ford was so inspired by Luther Burbank’s character, accomplishments, and “learning by doing” approach that he brought to Greenfield Village a modified version of the Luther Burbank Birthplace and a restored version of the Luther Burbank Garden Office from Santa Rosa.
Luther Burbank Garden Office in Greenfield Village. / THF1887
Greenfield Village Buildings and World’s Fair Connections
In a striking Albert Kahn–designed building, Ford Motor Company boasted the largest and most expensive corporate pavilion of the same Chicago fair. It drew some 75% of visitors to the fair that year. After the fair, the central part of this building was transported from Chicago to Dearborn, where it became the Ford Rotunda. It was used as a hospitality center until it burned in a devastating fire in 1962.
Ford at the Fair Brochure, showing the building section that would eventually become the Ford Rotunda. / THF210966
Ford Rotunda in Dearborn after a 1953 renovation. / THF142018
A presenter at the Texas Centennial Exposition demonstrates how the soybean oil extraction process works with a model of a soybean oil extractor that now resides in the Soybean Lab in Greenfield Village. / THF222337
Boys from Henry Ford's Edison Institute Schools operate miniature machine replicas in a scale model of the Menlo Park Machine Shop during the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. / THF250326
Village Buildings That Influenced Famous Men
Several people whose stories are represented in Greenfield Village were influenced by the places in which they grew up and worked, like the Wright Brothers, shown below on the porch of their Dayton, Ohio, home, now the Wright Home in the Village, around 1910.
In addition to practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln traveled to courthouses like the Logan County Courthouse in Greenfield Village to try court cases for local folk. The experiences he gained in these prepared him for his future role as U.S. president (read more about this in this “What If” story).
Enterprising young Tom Edison took a job as a newsboy on a local railway, where one of the stops was Smiths Creek Station. This and other experiences on that railway contributed to the man Thomas Edison would become—curious, entrepreneurial, interested in new technologies, and collaborative.
Young Thomas Edison as a newsboy and candy butcher. / THF116798
Henry Ford, the eldest of six children, was born and raised in the farmhouse pictured below, now known as Ford Home in Greenfield Village. Henry hated the drudgery of farm work. He spent his entire life trying to ease farmers’ burdens and make their lives easier.
Henry J. Heinz (the namesake of Heinz House in Greenfield Village) wasn’t just an inventor or an entrepreneur or a marketing genius: he was all of these things. Throughout the course of his career, he truly changed the way we eat and the way we think about what we eat.
Beginning with horseradish, Heinz expanded his business to include many relishes and pickles—stressing their purity and high quality at a time when other processed foods did not share these characteristics. The sample display case below highlights the phrase “pure food products.”
Heinz had an eye for promotion and advertising unequaled among his competitors. This included signs, billboards, special exhibits, and, as shown below, the specially constructed Heinz Ocean Pier, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which opened in 1898.
Advertising process photograph showing Heinz Ocean Pier. / THF117096
The pickle pin, for instance, was a wildly successful advertising promotion. Heinz first offered a free pickle-shaped watch fob at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. At some point, a pin replaced the watch fob, and the rest is history!
By the time of H.J. Heinz’s death in 1919, his company had grown into one of the largest food processing businesses in the nation. His company was known for its innovative food processing, packaging, advertising, and enlightened business practices. You can learn more about Heinz House and its journey to Greenfield Village here.
Even More Fun Facts about Greenfield Village Buildings
Most of the time, we focus on big themes that tell American history in relatable ways. When we choose a theme to focus on, we inevitably leave out interesting little-known facts. For example, Cohen Millinery was a dry goods store, a candy store, a Kroger grocery, and a restaurant during its lifetime!
Surprisingly, for most of its life prior to its incorporation into Greenfield Village, Logan County Courthouse was a private residence. Many different families had lived there, including Mr. and Mrs. Elijah Watkins, the last caretakers before Henry Ford acquired the building. They are depicted below, along with an interior shot of one of their rooms when Henry Ford’s agents went to look at the building.
Interior of Logan County Courthouse at its original site. / THF238596
In the 1820s, eastern Ohio farmers realized huge profits from the fine-grade wool of purebred Merino sheep. But by the 1880s, competition had made raising Merino sheep unprofitable. Benjamin Firestone, the previous owner of Firestone Farmhouse and father of Harvey Firestone, however, stuck with the tried and true. Today, you can visit our wrinkly friends grazing one of several pastures in the Village.
Merino sheep at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village in 2014. / THF119103
We have several different breeds of animals at the Village, but some of our most memorable were built, not bred. The Herschell-Spillman Carousel is a favorite amongst visitors. Many people think that all carousel animals were hand-carved. But the Herschell-Spillman Company, the makers of our carousel, created quantities of affordable carousel animals through a shop production system, using machinery to rough out parts. You can read more on the history of our carousel in this blog post.
And there you have it! Remember, odd and anachronistic as it might seem at times—the juxtaposed time periods, the buildings from so many different places, the specific people highlighted—there’s only one Greenfield Village!
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
This fall we welcomed Rich Sheridan, CEO (and Chief Storyteller) of Menlo Innovations, to The Henry Ford as an Entrepreneur in Residence. Rich is our second EIR to join us in 2019, following Melvin Parsons, founder of We The People Growers Association in Ypsilanti. Hear more about Melvin's story below.
Thanks to a grant, the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship has allowed The Henry Ford to provide the next generation of entrepreneurs with hands-on learning opportunities. This initiative includes the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, a public speaker series featuring influencers in entrepreneurship, workshops and the expansion of youth programming that leverages the institution’s Archive of American Innovation to create a deep and engaging understanding of invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship from a young age.
Learn more about Rich, his background, and his passion for cultivating joy.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your company, Menlo Innovations. I am a #PureMichigan kid. I grew up in Mount Clemens, Mich., just north of Detroit and attended Chippewa Valley High School where I started learning to program computers on a teletype in 1971. I then went to Ann Arbor and received a bachelor of science in computer science and a master of science in computer engineering from the University of Michigan. After graduation in 1982, I decided I loved Ann Arbor too much to leave and have been there ever since. I married my high school sweetheart, Carol, and we raised our three daughters (Megan, Lauren and Sarah) in a house we’ve been working on since we bought it in 1983. We have two granddaughters now and two more (twins!) on the way.
I co-founded Menlo Innovations in 2001 with James Goebel. We are a contract software design and development firm in downtown Ann Arbor with a mission to “end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.” Our goal since our founding is to return joy to technology … for the people who use the software our team creates, for the people who pay us to design and build it, and for the people who do the work.
Our team has done lots of work in the automotive industry, the healthcare industry, logistics, retail, in just about every technology and platform available.
Do you have a specific memory about your first visit to The Henry Ford? Growing up in Clinton Township (near Mount Clemens), there was a program offered every summer that I believe they called Summer Recreation. Most of the activities were at the elementary school I attended. They also offered field trips and once a summer they took us to Greenfield Village. I loved it every time I went. My specific memories include rock candy (!), the steam engine train, the Wright Brothers bicycle shop, the horse-drawn carriages, the Model-T fleet, the blacksmith shop, the glassblowing, and of course, the Menlo Park lab of Thomas Edison.
What inspires your most about Thomas Edison and his Menlo Laboratory? As a kid, I got goosebumps whenever I entered that lab. I’m not even sure if I knew what had actually happened there. I could sense the human energy that existed there, the camaraderie, the inventiveness, and the excitement of creating things that had a chance to change the world. I loved the fact that there was a “lab” that was wide open and filled with such fascinating equipment, above a machine shop. My favorites toys as a kid were Erector sets, electrical experimentation kits, LEGO blocks, chemistry sets, and a microscope. In my mind’s eye, I saw all of this at work in this lab and this was a place that adults worked! I wanted that in my own work life.
What have you been working on with The Henry Ford as our EIR? What excites you most about your time here? The Henry Ford wants to ensure they offer practical relevance to the problems we face in our world today. Businesses and engineers at those businesses have the opportunity to create great impact. The adults running those firms and working there need inspiration (just like we kids did). Businesses today need creativity, imagination, invention and innovation more now than ever. What better place to inspire and begin such a journey than The Henry Ford.
My project is to help the amazing team at The Henry Ford imagine an innovation space that businesses can use to bring their teams, their ideas, and perhaps even their customers to play, explore, invent and ideate. The space itself will be right in the middle of the museum. Thus, teams who use that space will be able to use the museum as a sort of lab for creating, drawing important lessons from the past and they ideate about the future. As William Pretzer said in his book Working at Inventing, “Henry Ford’s goal was to create a museum that would not only record the past but would shape the future as well. It would use the past to encourage visitors, especially the young, to aspire great achievements of their own.” It certainly worked for me!
Why is it important to put joy into your work every day? I have to admit, my desire to create Menlo Innovations was a selfish one. I wanted to create a workplace I wanted to come to every day, with energy, enthusiasm and inspiration. The beautiful thing is that this kind of environment is contagious. We actually get over 3,000 visitors every year who come from all over the world just to see how we do what we do. They can feel the energy of the place and we end up talking about the “business value of joy.” The visitors often ask, “Why is joy so important?” I present them with a rhetorical question: “Imagine half of my team had joy and the other half didn’t? Which half would you want working on your project?” Everyone chooses the joyful half (of course!). I then ask them why?
“They’d be more productive.”
“They’d care more about the outcome.”
“They’d produce higher quality.”
“They’d be easier to work with.”
There is, in fact, tangible business value to joy. We know this. Thomas Edison knew this. Henry Ford knew this. Now it’s time for the rest of the world to get on board.
A scene from the 1940 motion picture, “Young Tom Edison,” starring Mickey Rooney. THF125222
Spencer Tracy portrayed the inventor in the film, “Edison the Man,” released later that same year. THF58062
Thomas Alva Edison is an American “superhero.” It is not surprising, then, that his life story found its way into the movies during Hollywood’s golden age. It is, in fact, quite fitting, since Edison and an associate were instrumental in the development of early movie technology in the 1890s.
In 1940, Edison was the subject of not one, but two, Hollywood films: “Young Tom Edison,” starring Mickey Rooney, and “Edison the Man,” starring Spencer Tracy. These classic motion pictures were filmed in California. But Henry Ford’s well-known collection of Edison-related buildings and artifacts in Dearborn played a supporting role in MGM’s research for script development and set design.
To help prepare for their roles, MGM wanted the actors playing Thomas Edison to visit the Museum and Village to learn more about Edison. Here, Mickey Rooney records his voice on an early Edison tinfoil phonograph. THF125217
In February 1939, MGM scriptwriters Dore Schary and Hugo Butler came to Greenfield Village to see the Menlo Park Laboratory and the Edison-related artifacts in the Museum. (Schary and Butler later received an Academy Award nomination for their script for “Edison the Man.”) MGM also wanted the actors playing Thomas Edison in the films to be inspired by their own visits to Dearborn. Rooney arrived on October 23, 1939, just before filming of “Young Tom Edison” began in Hollywood. Tracy came a few days later.
A few weeks after his visit, Spencer Tracy wrote this letter of appreciation to Henry Ford. THF125214
Tracy was deeply impressed by his visit and wrote a letter to Henry Ford, “I am unable to find words to adequately express the deep and lasting imprint my short visit has made upon me…I shall make a supreme effort to do some small justice and no harm to the memory of your dear friend.”
Henry Ford lent an 1850s locomotive and some railroad cars from his museum for the publicity train that carried special guests from Detroit to Port Huron for the February 1940 premiere of “Young Tom Edison.” THF96236, THF96230
As the train rolled along from Detroit to Port Huron, Mickey Rooney hawked candy and newspapers to the passengers, just as Edison had done as a boy years before. Here, Rooney offers Edison’s widow, Mina Miller Edison Hughes, a newspaper. THF119959
As the special train arrived in Port Huron, fans rushed to greet Mickey Rooney. THF119966
Souvenir from “Young Tom Edison” February 1940 movie premiere. THF96232
Filming began on “Young Tom Edison” in early November 1939. By Christmas, it was complete, and MGM was planning for the film’s February 10, 1940, premiere in Port Huron, Michigan, where Edison had grown up. The festivities included a train ride from Detroit to Port Huron--the same route traveled by Edison in his youth when he sold candy and newspapers on the Grand Trunk railroad. Artifacts from the Museum added authenticity. Henry Ford loaned the 1858 “Sam Hill” steam locomotive and some train cars for the trip. Among the passengers were the film’s star, Mickey Rooney; Edsel Ford; Thomas Edison’s widow, Mina Miller Edison Hughes; and MGM studio executive Louis B. Mayer. In evening, “Young Tom Edison” premiered at three Port Huron theaters, with Rooney appearing at each.
Henry Ford shows Spencer Tracy around the Menlo Park Lab in Greenfield Village during Tracy’s October 1939 visit. THF123498
With the help of photographs and other documentation provided by Greenfield Village staff, MGM built an impressive full-sized version of the Menlo Park laboratory in California for “Edison the Man.” The movie set looked astonishingly like its Greenfield Village counterpart! THF125210
In mid-January 1940, filming began on “Edison the Man.” With the help of photographs and other documentation provided by Greenfield Village staff, MGM built an impressive full-sized version of the Menlo Park Laboratory, with its equipment, furnishings, and rows of bottles on the shelves. The movie set looked astonishingly like its Greenfield Village counterpart.
During the filming, Henry Ford put William Simonds on loan to MGM as a technical assistant. Simonds, a public relations manager for the Village and Museum, had published an Edison biography five years before. During the two-month filming of “Edison the Man” at MGM, Simonds reported back regularly. His letters provide an engaging behind-the-scenes look at the making of this classic Hollywood film.
Simonds told how Rita Johnson’s nervousness at playing her first big role--as Edison’s wife Mary--forced extra takes to complete some scenes. In one instance, Tracy ate five pieces of apple pie during numerous retakes of a scene. Simonds humorously described director Clarence Brown facing a long line of mothers and crying babies to choose an infant to play Edison’s child. He revealed how the stage crew had to scramble to repair the damage when part of the Menlo Park Laboratory set fell over, breaking many of the “chemical” bottles and spilling colored water all over the floor.
The model was sent to Henry Ford as a keepsake. Art director Cedric Gibbons, director Clarence Brown, cinematographer Harold Rosson, and the film’s stars Spencer Tracy and Rita Johnson signed it. THF49762
Filming of “Edison the Man” wrapped up in mid-March 1940 and it premiered May 16, 1940. There had been talk of holding its premiere in Dearborn, but, at the request of Edison’s son Charles, the film premiered in West Orange, New Jersey, where Edison developed many of his later inventions.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Nighttime Lighting Rehearsal at Henry Ford Museum, Preparing for Light's Golden Jubilee, October 18, 1929. THF96024
Invitation to Light's Golden Jubilee Celebration and Edison Institute Dedication, Dearborn, Michigan, 1929. THF9173
"Light's Golden Jubilee" Reception Badge, 1929. THF294662
On October 21, 1929, Henry Ford hosted an elaborate celebration in Dearborn, Mich., in honor of his friend Thomas A. Edison. Known as Light’s Golden Jubilee, the date marked the 50th anniversary of Edison’s invention of the electric light. Ford also planned his event as a dedication of his own lasting tribute to Thomas Edison and to American innovation, the Edison Institute of Technology (now known as Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation) and Greenfield Village. Here, Henry Ford had moved the Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory where the inventor made his discovery so many years before.
The RSVPs for Light's Golden Jubilee began pouring in to Ford Motor Company by early October 1929. Prominent businessmen like John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and J.P. Morgan, scientist Marie Curie, inventor Orville Wright, and humorist Will Rogers were among those who enthusiastically accepted Ford’s invitation to be part of the landmark event.
At 10 am that morning, President Herbert Hoover, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison arrived at Smiths Creek depot at Greenfield Village in a railroad car pulled by an 1858 steam-powered locomotive, reminiscent of Edison’s youth when he sold newspapers on Michigan’s Grand Trunk railroad line. Edison, Ford, and Hoover and their wives were met by invited guests that numbered more than 500. The crowd roared their approval and congratulations as Edison stepped from the train to begin the day’s festivities.
Ford, Hoover and Edison arrive at the Smiths Creek, Michigan depot where a young Edison had been thrown off the train 67 years earlier when he accidentally started a fire in a baggage car. The station was one of several Edison-related buildings that Henry Ford moved to Greenfield Village. THF294682
This painting of the Light’s Golden Jubilee banquet was begun in 1938 at the request of Henry Ford. Completed by artist Irving Bacon seven years later, the 17 x 7-foot painting hangs in the museum. THF119552
Edison and Jehl recreate the successful lighting of the first electric light in the restored Menlo Park Laboratory in Greenfield Village. President Hoover and Henry Ford look on. THF 118508
After the guests had been properly greeted and the throngs of media had gotten their quotes and photographs, Henry Ford gave Hoover a personal tour of the massive Ford Motor Company Rouge industrial complex, five miles away. Eighty-two-year-old Edison retired to Ford’s nearby Fair Lane estate to rest while the hundreds of guests gathered at the Clinton Inn (now known as Eagle Tavern) to enjoy lunch followed by afternoon horse-and-carriage tours of Greenfield Village.
The morning of the celebration brought forth rain. Twenty-eight historic buildings had been assembled in Greenfield Village from around the United States. The muddy grounds made sightseeing around the outdoor museum challenging, but they didn’t dampen enthusiasm. To combat the rain and mud, Ford supplied enclosed horse-drawn carriages to transport guests on tours of Greenfield Village. THF124662
That evening, guests gathered at the museum—the front galleries of which had been hurriedly completed just in time for the celebration. Fine crystal chandeliers, fitted with candles, cast a soft glow about the rooms. NBC Radio broadcaster Graham McNamee set the mood for the evening in a coast-to-coast live broadcast:
"Imagine the checkered effect of black and white evening dress, the brilliant splashes of color provided by the uniforms of military attaches and the great stylists of Paris and Fifth Avenue ...I have attended many celebrations, but I cannot recall even attempting to describe one staged in a more perfect setting."
After a sumptuous banquet, Edison, Ford, and Hoover went to the reconstructed Menlo Lab in Greenfield Village to re-create the lighting of the first electric lamp. There, Edison and Francis Jehl, his former assistant, both went to work—much like they had half a century earlier, preparing to forever change the world. As they worked, McNamee narrated to a hushed world: "Mr. Edison has two wires in his hand; now he is reaching up to the old lamp; now he is making the connection.… It lights! Light's Golden Jubilee has come to a triumphant climax."
As the connection was made in the Menlo Lab, the museum building was bathed in light and the museum’s replica of the Liberty Bell pealed for the first time. Overhead a plane flew by with the word “Edison” and the dates “79” and “29” illuminated under the wings. Car horns sounded, lights flashed on and off, and the world bathed itself in an electric light tribute to Edison.
Worldwide publicity of the Light’s Golden Jubilee event encouraged Americans from coast to coast—and people around the world—to participate in the celebration. People huddled around their radios, plunged into near darkness, using only candles or gas lamps for light, waiting for Edison's successful re-creation as a cue to turn on their lights as part of the celebration. Small towns and large cities put on elaborate light displays.
After the reenactment, Ford, Hoover, Edison and Jehl returned to the museum to hear accolades from President Hoover, a radio address by Albert Einstein broadcast from Germany, and Edison’s heartfelt remarks. Henry Ford, not wishing to steal the spotlight from his friend, did not speak or allow photographs at the evening ceremony.
This event was just the beginning—Ford’s tribute to Edison and to American innovation and inventiveness was a lasting one. The artifacts and buildings Ford gathered for his indoor and outdoor museums, now known collectively as The Henry Ford, have told stories of American innovation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness for 90 years. They will continue to inspire countless generations to come.
Terry Hoover is a Former Archivist at The Henry Ford.
In October 2017, Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation was awarded another Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant, allowing us to continue working to catalog, conserve, package, and rehouse over 3,000 items out of our Collections Storage Building. We've had the opportunity to work with some very interesting objects for this grant, from agricultural equipment to advertisement signs. There is a wide array of objects passing through the labs, visible to the public through the windows at the back of the museum.
This spring we treated many batteries made by Thomas Edison. Most of these originated from the late 19th century and varied in condition and composition. These early battery types consist of metal plates that were immersed in an electrolyte solution to generate electricity. The batteries themselves were stable and safe to handle because they contained no electrolyte. The batteries with unknown compositions sparked our curiosity (pun intended), since we needed to know what they were made of so that we could properly conserve them.
Sometimes while working in the lab, we need specialized equipment that we may not have on site. Fortunately, museums often work collaboratively to help each other find solutions. In this case, we collaborated with Conservation Scientist Christina Bisulca and the well-equipped analytical conservation lab at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA had the right tool for the job - a high-powered optical microscope and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer. An XRF spectrometer is essential to conservators because it is used to identify metals. It uses an X-ray beam to produce enough energy to excite electrons within the atoms of metal elements. When that energy is released, a specific signal is registered within the XRF spectrometer and the metal is identified.
The DIA’s XRF spectrometer analyzing the central core of one of the batteries. (Photo courtesy of Misty Grumbley.)
At the beginning of March, we brought several batteries to test at the DIA, including an Edison-Lalande battery, a Samson battery, and an Edison S-Type battery. The Edison S-type battery was particularly interesting, since we were not able to find any similar batteries to compare it to, and could not confirm the materials used through research alone.
When Thomas Edison decided to develop a commercial lighting system he had to do far more than design a light bulb and generator: he and his collaborators had to devise the entire system -- right down to the wire insulation and fuses. Even the electrical measuring instruments that were needed to chart the progress of experiments had to be sought from other fields such as telegraphy.
Edison demonstrated his lighting system to the public for the first time in December 1879, but the system was hardly a workable commercial product. Many refinements -- to increase durability, reliability, and cost-effectiveness -- would be needed before his lighting system could be described as a competitive product. One of the most important missing elements was a meter for keeping track of customers' electricity usage. The electrical meter that Edison and his collaborators devised was an ingenious device -- an arrangement that allowed the amount of electricity a customer used to be weighed.
The meter, known as the Edison Chemical or Electrolytic Meter, was in essence a laboratory apparatus installed in the basements of customers' buildings. It consisted of two glass jars filled with a zinc sulphate solution; immersed in each jar were a pair of electrodes -- matched pairs of zinc plates. The operation was deceptively simple. A portion of the current flowing into the customer's electrical system passed through the plates, causing an electrolytic reaction. The more electricity a customer used, the more zinc would be transferred from one plate to the other. It was this difference in weight that allowed the electrical bill to be determined. Usage was calculated on a monthly basis: an Edison employee would replace the previous month's plates with a new set whose weight had already been carefully recorded. The old plates were taken away to have their weight checked and a bill calculated. The body of the meter had to be tough and tamper-proof -- hence the term "ironclad" that was used to describe this all-metal meter. Later units were wooden boxes with a metal door. In either case, the enclosure was secured with the kind of lead seal that is still used to guard modern electric or gas meter mechanisms.
Meters like this remained in service in some installations well into the 1890s. Many customers were distrustful of this metering method, asserting that the plate removal and remote calculations allowed them no way of checking whether the company was padding their bills. Modern numerical meters allow consumers to see a read-out of their electricity, gas, or water usage. However, the meters' settings -- and indeed the consistency of different meters -- is still something we trust to the utility company.
Bergmann & Company Edison Chemical Meter, Used at the City Hotel, Sunbury, Pennsylvania, 1883. THF164679
As work progresses on the Electrical Collection thanks to an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, the fascinating context in which these objects were used is discovered. This Edison chemical meter used at the City Hotel in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, the first hotel commercially wired for electricity, and was part of the first three-wire power system in the world.
Following the success of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, the first central power station in the world, Thomas Edison sent his agent, P. B. Shaw, to find other ideal locations for more central power stations. The locations needed to have high gas prices to make the switch to electric lights appealing, and inexpensive fuel to help compete in the lighting business.
Shaw traveled the Coal Region of Pennsylvania to find a place that met the criteria, and organized multiple Edison Electric Illuminating Companies including Shamokin (1882), Sunbury (July 1883), and Mount Carmel (November 1883). The site selected in Sunbury backed up onto a stream flowing down from Shamokin, which would deposit coal on its banks after heavy rainfall or melting snow. Sunbury’s high cost of gas, free coal, and proximity to water meant that it was the perfect location for a power plant; however, the location was outside the town’s business center, which would add to the cost due to the length of wires needing to be strung from the power plant to potential customers.
To offset costs, Edison took a party of potential donors on his electric railway to demonstrate his innovative technology. After the demonstration, Edison was inspired to improve his two-wire system in use in New York by adding a third-wire to act as a neutral line, as well as using two dynamos to generate 220 volts while still allowing 110 volt lamp usage to ensure consistent distribution of power throughout the long wires. After a brief test, Edison applied for a patent and the three wires with conductors were strung to the City Hotel, thus making it the first building to be commercially wired for electricity and Sunbury the first city to have three wire commercial direct current incandescent lighting and overhead conductors.
On July 4, 1883, the City Hotel of Sunbury became the first building lit with incandescent carbon-filament light bulbs using the three wire system. To measure the electricity used by the hotel, an Edison Chemical Meter, one of the first electric wattmeters, was installed. These electrolytic meters measured electricity through electroplating, but needed to be removed and measured at the central station in order to bill customers. The meters were reliable, despite the cumbersome method for billing, but were phased out in the 1890s and replaced by mechanical meters, which were easier to read.
Laura Lipp Myles is Collections Specialist at The Henry Ford.
The first object was added to the collections of The Henry Ford over a century ago, years before our official dedication. Artifacts sometimes get overlooked in this large and long-standing collection for periods of time, particularly if they are in storage and have no or minimal digital record of their existence (a problem that digitization of the collection is chipping away at). We were recently combing through our collections database for artifacts related to natural history for an upcoming project, and happened across several items described as “specimen boxes.” A little more investigation revealed they are shadowboxes containing seashells collected by Thomas Edison in Fort Myers, Florida, home to his Ft. Myers Laboratory. We’ve just digitized these shadowboxes, including this star-chambered one—see all three by visiting our Digital Collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford contains many homes associated with famous people: the Wright family home, the Robert Frost home, the Noah Webster home—and the Edison homestead, the Canadian farmhouse owned by Thomas Edison’s grandparents. Henry Ford wanted his historical village to feature not only Menlo Park Lab, the fabled workplace of his friend and hero, but also to trace his upbringing with this home that young Thomas visited as child, where his parents had been married. We have just digitized over 50 images related to the Edison homestead on its original site, including this photo of Edison family gravestones taken in 1933.