Imagine attending a choral concert in a century-old church. Instead of monochromatic robes, the choristers emerge in bright, radiant color with bold geometric design. The colors of the robes are a musical key, made visual—yellow for the soprano, orange for the contralto, red for the tenor, and purple for the bass. As the choristers sing and sway, the robes come alive, a modern counterpoint to the traditional church interior.
Imagination aside, this is a scene familiar to those who have watched the Hope College Chapel Choir perform. Originally a creation of Charles and Ray Eames from the 1950s, faithful replicas of the robes continue to be used.
The Hope College Chapel Choir at Dimnent Chapel, circa 2001. Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Although husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames collaborated in nearly everything, it was Ray who showed an early and enduring interest in textiles and fashion design. The daughter of a theatre aficionado and manager, she attended the Bennett School for Girls, a two-year college in Millbrook, New York, earning a degree in Fashion Design in 1933. She completed fashion sketches throughout her life—even creating original paper dolls with custom clothing, complete with the tabs used to affix the clothing onto the doll! She designed a few textiles (one of which—“Crosspatch”—won an honorable mention in a 1946 Museum of Modern Art competition) and dedicated significant energy into the design and creation of her own clothing. The clothes she designed for herself and for Charles are quintessential Eames—functional yet beautiful, with playful delights to be found in the details.
D.J. De Pree, the founder and president of the Herman Miller Furniture Company (which produced Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture), was known for his religious fervor. Further, the company is headquartered in Zeeland, Michigan, a Dutch-American enclave with deep Protestant Christian roots. So, when an employee suggested the creation of a company-sponsored chorus in 1952 (something that might otherwise have been an unusual corporate activity), the De Prees granted it legitimacy, naming it the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus and inviting the chorus to perform at company and company-sponsored events. They soon required choral robes to outfit the company chorus and asked Charles and Ray Eames to design them.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Soprano and Contralto Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75585, THF75580
With Ray’s background, it is likely that she was primarily responsible for the design, although as always in collaboration with her husband. The robes are bold and colorful and make a statement, but they are also functional. Their symbolism is evidence of the Eames’ signature research-heavy process and attention to detail. The colors of the robes identify the vocal type (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and each color’s hue (from light to dark) corresponds with the vocal range (from high to low). The horizontal black lines at the center of each robe reference the musical staff. Charles and Ray may have scoured the extensive Eames Office reference library to ensure symbolic depth and accuracy. Or, perhaps, this came from an ingrained knowledge of music. They enjoyed a variety of musical types, like jazz, folk, and classical, and music was a major component of the films they produced throughout their life, often collaborating with talented composers like Elmer Bernstein. The theatrical backdrop of Ray’s childhood, her interest in textiles and fashion, and the Eames’ interest in music coalesce in these robes.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Tenor and Bass Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75574, THF75569
The robes were designed at the Eames Office in Los Angeles, but it is unknown whether the robes were created there and shipped, finished, to Zeeland, or if the patterns and fabric were shipped and the robes were then sewn locally.
By 1960, the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus was disbanded, and Hugh De Pree, son of D.J. De Pree, donated the robes to the Hope College Chapel Choir in the neighboring city of Holland, Michigan, where the family had deep connections. The Hope College Chapel Choir was larger than the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus, so more robes had to be made. Doris Schrotenboer and Millie Grinwis, a mother and daughter team from Zeeland, made the extra. Millie Grinwis recalls that the fabric and patterns were shipped from the Eames Office to her mother’s home, where they were painstakingly put together.
After over 44 years in use, the original robes were retired in 2004. Unwilling, however, to part with the signature design, Hope College commissioned replicas, albeit in a slightly lighter fabric. The original robes were donated to several institutions. At The Henry Ford, these robes add an extra dimension to our design collections, as well as another way to better understand the many talents of Charles and Ray Eames.
The Hope College Chapel Choir recording at Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV, circa 1965. / Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She is also an alumnus of Hope College, where she was first delighted by these robes! Thank you to Geoffrey Reynolds at the Joint Archives of Holland for graciously sharing pictures of the Hope College Chapel Choir through the years.
Kalamazoo, Michigan, is known for its industry. For a relatively small midwestern city, it became a leader in the production of an impressive number of products, some more readily remembered today than others—including celery, paper, stoves, taxicabs, guitars, craft beer, and pharmaceuticals. At the turn of the 20th century, the Kalamazoo Corset Company gave the city more reasons to be noticed—for its high output of corsets, the advertising used to sell them, and for an historic labor strike, led primarily by women.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company began as the Featherbone Corset Company. The company’s name changed in 1894, a few years after the company was relocated 70+ miles from Three Oaks, Michigan, to the city of Kalamazoo. As the original name suggests, the company prided itself on its innovative use of turkey wing feathers—“featherbone”—which replaced the occasionally malodorous whalebone corsets (while these corsets were referred to as containing “whalebone,” it was actually whale baleen that was used, which is not bone).
While the company featured numerous lines of corsets, by 1908, they were focusing on advertising for their “American Beauty” line. These corsets were named to reflect a version of an idealized American woman—an “American Beauty.” Charles Dana Gibson had created his version of the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness, the “Gibson Girl,” during the 1890s—this “American Beauty” followed in her footsteps. The company’s use of “American Beauty” also likely referenced a deep crimson hybrid rose bred in Europe in 1875, which by the turn of the 20th century was popularized in America as the rather expensive American Beauty Rose. By associating their corset line with both the concept of the quintessential American girl and the coveted American Beauty Rose, they were sending a message to the consumer—"buy our corset and you too will take on these qualities!”
Promotional songs that advertised a product were becoming increasingly popular at the time. Since the end of the Civil War, Americans had been purchasing parlor pianos for their homes in great numbers—as many as 25,000 per year. The parlor piano became the center of most Americans’ musical experience. Music publishers, like those in the famous Tin Pan Alley of New York City, took note and sold sheet music aimed at these amateur musicians. The rise of music publishing led to a new mode of advertising for retailers and manufacturers. How better to promote your product than by creating a tune that consumers could play in their homes? It seems the Kalamazoo Corset Company agreed, hiring Harry H. Zickel and the Zickel Bros. to write three such songs to advertise the “American Beauty” line: the “American Beauty March and Two-Step” (1908), “My American Beauty Rose: Ballad” (1910), and “My American Beauty Girl” (1912).
Around the time these songs were being written, issues at the company began to come to light. The company was a major employer in the area, employing 1026 people, 835 of whom were women, in 1911. This made the company the largest employer of women in Kalamazoo. First in 1911, and then again in 1912, around 800 mostly female workers went on strike. They formed the Kalamazoo Corset Workers’ Union, Local 82 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and protested unequal wages, unsanitary working conditions, and sexual harassment.
The strike gained national attention and the ILGWU headquarters in New York City sent well-known women’s rights advocates Josephine Casey and Pauline Newman to Kalamazoo to assist in the negotiations. The strike looked to New York as an example—the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and subsequent “Uprising of the 20,000” strike of 1909–1910 had sparked more uprisings, some far from New York City, as in Kalamazoo’s example.
The protesters received support from local unions, but the owner of the company, James Hatfield, was a prominent Kalamazoo businessman and was well-liked among his upper-class peers. Local women’s organizations did not come to the aid of the protestors. Even the local group of suffragettes did not openly support the strike, possibly due to class issues (the suffragettes were upper class, while the women protesting were working class) or because their focus was on getting a women’s suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution passed. The women of the Kalamazoo Corset Company faced an uphill battle to obtain even a semblance of equality in the workplace.
The strike ended on June 15, 1912, ultimately unsuccessful. While an agreement was reached which addressed many of Local 82’s demands, no measures were put in place to ensure adherence, and the company quickly lapsed in its promises. Within just a few years, James Hatfield left the company to begin another, and the company was renamed Grace Corset Company. Between the financial woes wrought by the strike and changing fashions, difficult days for the company were ahead.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company’s business was women—manufacturing garments for women, shaping idealized notions of women—but it was still unable to adequately value the many women it employed by creating an equitable and safe workplace. In the end, the inability of the company to recognize the value of the gender by which they made their business helped to ensure its downfall.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Image of Martha Coston from her 1886 autobiography. (Not from the collections of The Henry Ford.)
Inventor Martha Coston overcame 19th-century gender stereotypes to help change the course of the Civil War, as well as boating safety. In 1848, tragedy struck when Martha’s husband, a successful inventor formerly employed in the Washington Navy Yard, died as a result of chemical exposure from his gas lighting experiments. His death was followed by the deaths of two of their children and a mother Martha was close to, and a relative mishandling Martha's remaining money. Martha was left a single mother with minimal support.
Sylvic Gas Light, B. Franklin Coston, Patentee, Washington City, D.C. N.B., Gas Light Generator, 1845. / THF287321
Martha needed a way to support herself and her two remaining children. Within her husband's papers, she discovered drawings for a pyrotechnic night signal that could be used by ships to communicate. After finding that the invention didn't work, she took on years of experiments in hopes of creating a functional signal flare. With no knowledge of chemistry or scientific methodology, Martha relied on others for help. Men often ignored her, didn't take her seriously, or deceived her.
Section of the First Transatlantic Cable, 1858. / THF77301
The signal set used three colors to create coded messages. As a patriotic woman, Martha wanted flares that burned red, white, and blue. While she had developed recipes for red and white, blue remained elusive. A breakthrough came in 1858, when Martha was in New York City watching fireworks during celebrations for the first transatlantic cable.
Illustration from an 1858 Harper's Weekly depicting the New York translatlantic cable firework celebration. / THF265993
Inspired by the fireworks, Martha wrote New York pyrotechnists looking for a strong blue, corresponding under a man's name for fear that she would be ignored. Instead of a blue, Martha was able to locate a recipe for a brilliant green. In 1859, Patent No. 23,536, a pyrotechnic night signal and code system, was granted, with Martha Coston as administrator—and her late husband as the inventor.
U.S. Army Model 1862 Percussion Signal Pistol, circa 1862. / THF170773
The U.S. Navy showed high interest in Martha's invention, but stalled the purchase of the patent until 1861, after the Civil War erupted. With a blockade of Southern ports in place, the Navy needed Martha's flares to communicate. Her business, the Coston Manufacturing Company, produced the flares and sold them at cost for the duration of the war. New York gun manufacturer William Marston produced the signal pistol above to exclusively fire Coston's multicolored signal flare.
A carte-de-visite depicting the "Official Escorts for the Japanese Ambassador's Visit to the United States,” circa 1860. Admiral David Dixon Porter is pictured right. / THF211796
In her 1886 autobiography,A Signal Success: The Work and Travels of Mrs. Martha J. Coston, Martha acknowledged the use of her flares in the success of the blockade. Confederate ships known as blockade-runners regularly sailed at night, and Coston's flares helped Union ships pursue these runners effectively, often resulting in prize money for the ship's officers. Admiral David Porter, pictured on the right above, wrote Martha about the impact her flares had on military operations, saying:
"The signals by night are very much more useful than the signals by day made with flags, for at night the signals can be so plainly read that mistakes are impossible, and a commander-in-chief can keep up a conversation with one of his vessels."
In January 1865, Wilmington, North Carolina, remained the last open port of the Confederacy. To cut the port off, Admiral David Porter and Major General Alfred Terry coordinated a joint assault of sea and land forces. The ensuing conflict, known as the Battle of Fort Fisher, resulted in a Union victory.
Illustration from an 1865 Harper's Weekly depicting the fall of Fort Fisher. / THF287568
According to Admiral Porter, Martha Coston's flares played a critical role. He later reminisced, "I shall never forget the beautiful sight presented at ten o'clock at night when Fort Fisher fell.... The order was given to send up rockets without stint and to burn the Coston Signals at all the yard-arms."
After the war, Martha Coston continued to improve upon her invention, filing several more patents—this time in her own name. When the United States Life-Saving Service, precursor to the United States Coast Guard, began using the Coston flare, Martha's invention became standard safety equipment for all boating vessels. Worldwide adoption of her invention led to the success of Martha's business, Coston Supply Company, which focused on maritime safety and stayed in business until the late 20th century.
Illustration from an 1881 Harper's Weekly depicting the United States Life-Saving Service using the Coston flare. / THF287571
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Deborah Sussman began her design career as an intern at the Eames Office in 1953. There, over the course of a decade, she was promoted to an art director and worked on graphic design, exhibitions, films, toy design, packaging, and photography. In 1963, she acted as designer for the “Beware of Imitations” image below, with Charles and Ray Eames as creative directors. Appearing as an advertisement in Arts & Architecture magazine, it celebrated Eames-designed furniture produced by Herman Miller. The image is a fascinating herald, hinting at how Sussman’s approach toward the power of large-scale graphics to communicate within environments would define her future vision.
Herman Miller “Beware of Imitations” Advertisement. / THF147716
The foundation image was printed to poster size and affixed to the outside wall of the Eames Office, where it was photographed in situ. The weathered brick wall, scrabbly Californian plant life, and spray-painted stencil additions surrounding the paste-up add texture to the image, revealing it to be evidence of a process. An image at the Library of Congress takes us one step further into this moment, revealing Sussman pasting up the original work.
If you look closely toward the bottom left of this image, you will also see a bouquet of flowers on a placard with the text, “Zeeland, Michigan.” Zeeland is, of course, home to the Herman Miller company, but the floral design has its own interesting lifespan. It appears on Herman Miller’s stock certificates and on the underside of a kiosk designed by the Eames Office for the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Sussman is credited with contributing to both projects.
Kiosk from the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. / THF156766
Detail of the underside of the IBM Kiosk. / THF171121
Sussman left the Eames Office temporarily to continue her design studies through a Fulbright scholarship in Germany, but was eventually “lured back” to California to work on the Mathematica exhibit. When The Henry Ford acquired the 1964 version of the Mathematica exhibit (now on permanent view in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation), extensive research was undertaken in the Charles & Ray Eames Papers at the Library of Congress to create the most historically accurate version of the exhibit possible. Photographs at the Library of Congress documented numerous contributions made by women to the exhibit’s design, including Sussman, Ray Eames, and many others. Sussman, for her part, once recounted setting the type for the mathematician biographies that appear on the History Timeline and also appears in a photograph working on the graphics for the base of the Multiplication Cube interactive.
Detail of the Multiplication Cube from the Eames Office-designed Mathematica exhibit. / THF164150
Detail of the History Timeline in Mathematica. / THF170845
In 1968, Sussman formed an independent design practice as Sussman/Prejza & Co. with her husband, Paul. Together they designed things like the “urban branding” for the cities of Long Beach and Santa Monica, California, and wayfinding signage for Walt Disney World and EuroDisney. Her favorite kind of work involved vibrant, larger-than-life graphic and typographic treatments installed in architectural spaces and outdoor urban areas. For this work, she is credited as a pioneer of “environmental design” and “Supergraphics.”
Design Preview / Brand Identity Guidelines for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. / THF287946
This approach is especially obvious in her design identity work for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The look and feel of the LA Olympics—created by Sussman/Prejza & C0. in collaboration with the Jerde Partnership—transformed the city of Los Angeles. The holistic plan was for “an energetic montage of color and form [to] appear on everything from tents to tickets.” There were 43 art installations, 28 game venues, 3 Olympic villages, and wayfinding signage. There was a monumental 145-foot tower of colorful scaffolding erected in Exposition Park. Color-coded gateways and walkways lined with concrete “Sonotubes” wrapped in bright abstract graphics. Uniforms for officials and volunteers.
An entire issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the project, in which the designers explained their hopes for a successful event as “a modern environment that recalls the imageable qualities of a medieval jousting festival” and one that anticipated that “the city will be transformed overnight, as if an invasion of butterflies has descended upon it.”
Souvenir Street Banner designed by Deborah Sussman for the LA 1984 Olympics. / THF171692
Color played an essential role in unifying the visual language of color, graphics, and typographic treatments. Notably, Sussman broke away from the palette of traditional red, white, and blue, and captured the “Southern California spirit” through shades of vibrant magenta, vermillion, aqua, purple, and sunset orange. A favorite quote in the Design Quarterly issue states: “The glorious colors—the banners, the kiosks and booths, even the trash cans and hot dog napkins—were happily original, all Toyland confetti, in light and airy shades all their own. We get enough of red-white-and-blue everywhere else, don’t we?”
Partial credit to Sussman’s approach can be connected to her early training at the Eames Office, where her mentors emphasized the value of playfulness. There, she had the opportunity to document festivals in other countries. She learned to appreciate folk art and the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Rim. And the “kit of parts” approach to design was part of everyday life at the Eames Office too, which undoubtedly influenced Sussman’s own adaptable “visual alphabet” for the 1984 LA Olympics. Today, her contributions for this and other projects stand as beloved and masterful examples of environmental graphic design. Like many designers who passed through the Eames Office, Deborah Sussman took what she learned, remixed it, and made it an evolved and color-saturated language all her own.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Jeanetta Holder with Her Indianapolis 500 Quilt Made for Bobby Unser, 1975-1980 / THF78732
On May 30, 1932, the day that Jeanetta Pearson Holder was born in Kentucky, race cars sped around the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about 250 miles to the north. The timing of Jeanetta’s birth was certainly a hint of things to come: she would grow up with a passion for auto racing, and, as an adult, become that sport’s “Quilt Lady.”
For four decades, Jeanetta combined her love of auto racing and her sewing talents to create unique quilts for winners of the Indianapolis 500 and other auto races.
Dale Earnhardt is wrapped in pride and his quilt after the 1995 Brickyard 400 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. / THF78819
A Love for Racing, A Talent for Sewing
As a little girl growing up on a Kentucky farm, Jeanetta made her own small race cars out of tobacco sticks and lard cans which she “raced everywhere [she] went.” Jeanetta’s childhood creative streak soon extended to sewing. She began to make clothes for her doll—and her pet cat. By the time she was 12, Jeanetta began sewing quilts, filling them with cotton batting from cotton she grew herself.
Jeanetta was clearly “driven.” When she didn’t have a car in which to take her driver’s license test, the teenager borrowed a taxicab. About this same time, Jeanetta started going to the race track. Soon 20-year-old Jeanetta was speeding around an oval dirt track at the wheel of a 1950 Hudson at Beech Bend Park in Warren County, Kentucky. In the early 1950s, women drivers were uncommon—and so was safety equipment. Jeanetta was dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans for these regional races.
In the fall of 2020, for the first time, an entire generation started school on a screen. As the new coronavirus abruptly cut many of us off from the world outside our homes, for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy digital communication tools, the Internet has become one of the most essential tools for surviving the COVID-19 pandemic. As sci-fi and scary as this may seem, there is also an opportunity here to transform—again—the Internet.
As COVID-19 continues to dramatically upend our lives, an ever-evolving digital world pushes us to rethink the purpose of the Internet and challenges us to re-create our digital and political lives as well as the Internet itself. The challenge is ensuring that all people will have the skills, knowledge and power to transform the Internet and shift its dependence on a commerce- and clickbait-driven economic model to become instead a universally guaranteed utility that serves people’s needs and allows creativity to flourish.
This challenge has been a long time coming. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Internet was on questionable ground. In early 2020, misinformation campaigns, privacy breaches, scams, and trolls proliferated online. When COVID-19 hit and the world was forced to shift the important tasks of daily life online, we saw (again) how digital inequalities persist—forcing poor and vulnerable communities to rely on low-speed connections and cheaper devices that can’t handle newer applications.
The Internet is a reflection of who we are as a society. We know that there are people who scam and bullies who perpetuate injustice. But there is also beauty, creativity, and brilliance. The more perspectives there are shaping this digital era, the more potential we have to tap the best parts of us and the world.
There is no silver bullet that will keep violence or small-mindedness at bay—online or off—but I know from 13 years of working on digital justice in Detroit that teaching technology is the first step toward decolonizing and democratizing it.
A City’s Story
Over the years, Detroit has faced many economic hardships, which has meant that digital access has too often taken a back seat. Bill Callahan, director of Connect Your Community 2.0, compiled data from the 2013 American Community Survey and found that Detroit ranked second for worst Internet connectivity in the United States.
Following that report, in 2017 the Quello Center of the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University reported that 33% of Detroit households lacked an Internet connection, fixed or mobile. Yet the world had already moved online.
By 2011, many government agencies had transitioned away from physical spaces, making social services only accessible via the Internet. My colleagues and I at Allied Media Projects (a nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, collaborative world) understood that access to and control of media and technology would be necessary to ensure a more just future. As Detroiters, we needed to figure out how to create Internet access in a city that was flat broke and digitally redlined by commercial Internet providers. We also needed to address the fact that many Detroiters who had never before used digital systems had a steep learning curve ahead of them.
The question we asked our communities, and answered collectively, originated from and addressed Detroit’s unique reality: What can the role of media and technology be in restoring neighborhoods and creating new economies based on mutual aid?
Illustration by Sylvia Pericles.
To answer this question, the concept and practice of community technology—a method of teaching and learning technology with the goals of building relationships and restoring neighborhoods—emerged. If we want to harness the potential of the digital future ahead of us, we need to reshape our current relationships with the digital world. We need to understand how it works, demand our rights within it, and be aware of how digital tools shape our relationships with each other and with the larger world. Ultimately, the goal of community technology is to remake the landscape of technological development and shift the power of technology from companies to communities. The place where this begins is by rethinking our digital literacy and tech education models.
Community technology is inspired by the citizenship schools of the Civil Rights movement. Founded by Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark on Johns Island, South Carolina, in the 1950s, citizenship schools taught adults how to read so that they could pass voter-registration literacy tests. But under the innocuous cover of adult-literacy classes, the schools actually taught participatory democracy and civil rights, community leadership and organizing, practical politics, and strategies and tactics of resistance and struggle.
I saw a through line from the issues that encouraged citizenship schools to emerge in the 1950s to the struggles that Detroit faced in the early 2000s. In the 21st century, communities with high-speed Internet access and high levels of digital literacy enjoyed a competitive advantage. The denial of these resources to low-income and communities of color compounded the existing inequality and further undermined social and economic welfare in those neighborhoods.
Like the citizenship schools, community technology embraces popular education, a movement-building model that creates spaces for communities to come together in order to analyze problems, collectively imagine solutions, and build the skills and knowledge required to implement visions. This educational model structures lessons around the goal of immediately solving the problem at hand. In the citizenship schools, lessons were planned around the goal of reading the U.S. Constitution. Along the way, participants developed the profound technical and social skills needed to solve the problem.
In 2008, when I first started teaching elders in Detroit how to use and understand the Internet, it was always hard to know where to start. There were so many things to do online. The first question I asked was: “What do you wish you could do with the Internet?” Oftentimes, folks wanted to be able to view images of their grandchildren that had been sent to their email, or they would want to communicate with loved ones across the seas. It would be nearly impossible for me to teach a class that attended to all of those individual needs while keeping everyone engaged.
I wondered: If I taught problem-solving rather than teaching technology, could I support the same elder who couldn’t view a digital photo of their grandchild to build and install Wi-Fi antennas and run an Internet service provider (ISP) in their neighborhood?
As impossible as that may sound, it worked. In 20 weeks, I saw former Luddites work with their neighbors to build wireless networks. This curriculum went on to shape the Equitable Internet Initiative, which has trained over 350 Digital Stewards throughout Detroit, New York, and Tennessee.
Illustration by Sylvia Pericles.
Over the eight years I ran the Digital Stewards Program, what I realized is that relevance can engage someone to learn, but curiosity is what cultivates the kind of lifelong learning that leads to liberation.
Citizenship schools remind me that liberation is not a product of having learned a skill but rather the continued ability to participate in and shape the world to meet your and your communities’ needs. Becoming a lifelong learner of technology—and aspiring constantly to use it for liberatory ends—is essential because technology is constantly changing.
Every software program I ever learned in college is now obsolete. To meaningfully participate in the digital era, we need to be able to adapt technology to meet our needs rather than change ourselves to adapt to new technologies.
In order to cultivate the agency and self-determination necessary to rescue this digital era from corporations and trolls, we will need to change how we as a society pass on knowledge and how—and for whom—we cultivate leadership and innovation. Too often, technological knowledge is presented as a pathway for individual advancement through participation in a digital economy that further consolidates power and wealth for corporations. During this time of physical isolation, how do we change the experience of being forced into endless video meetings and classrooms into something more like inhabiting and co-creating a digital commons? Can we create environments that allow people to engage with technology from a community context rather than as distanced individuals stuck staring at our screens?
The Internet’s culture is currently being shaped by corporations. Social media platforms, ISPs, and algorithms control our movements through almost all online space. Can we remake the Internet into a community that we can all inhabit, and move away from the metaphor of the Internet as an information superhighway? Perhaps we can begin to build the equivalent of sidewalks, public parks, and bike lanes.
As a generation faces an unprecedented year of school online, we would be wise to realize that this is an opportunity for all of us to learn together and become both more critical of how we engage technology and more aware of what we see is lacking. How do we want to form a community online, navigating, creating, and adapting online spaces for our collective survival?
Perhaps, unwanted though it is, the global pandemic can inspire us to finally create a digital world that is befitting of our time and presence there—and can inspire the justice, equality, and hope that our IRL world so badly needs right now.
This post was adapted from an article by Diana J. Nucera that originally appeared in the January–May 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine. Nucera, aka Mother Cyborg, is an artist, educator, and community organizer who explores innovative technology with communities most impacted by digital inequalities. Post edited by Puck Lo; illustrations by Sylvia Pericles.
Nude is Not a Color quilt, made by Hillary Goodwin, Rachael Dorr, and contributors from around the world, 2017. / THF185986
We often associate quilts with warmth and creativity. They can also make statements —serving as banners advocating a cause.
For nearly 200 years, American women have used needle and thread—once the only medium available to them—to express opinions, raise awareness, and advocate for social change. Women gathered in homes and in their communities to create quilts supporting causes like abolition, voting rights for women, and war relief.
This striking quilt, Nude is Not a Color, was created in 2017 by a worldwide community of women who gathered virtually to take a stand against racial bias. Learn more about the quilt below, and see it for yourself on exhibit as part of What We Wore in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, from March 11 through April 18, 2021.
The Quilt’s Story
In 2014, a clothing brand that sewist and blogger Bianca Springer of Pearland, Texas, had publicly supported introduced a new line of pale beige garments called Nude—a name long used by the fashion and cosmetic industries for products like hosiery and lipstick. Bianca took action. She contacted the company, thinking that the name was perhaps an oversight —reminding them that “nude” is a state of undress, not a color. And that the shade they chose as “nude” reflected only people of lighter skin tone—thus marginalizing people of color. Bianca’s perspective was repeatedly dismissed by company officials as overblown and irrelevant. She felt excluded and invisible.
Quiltmaker Hillary Goodwin of Auburn, California—also a fan of the company's clothing designs—wanted to stand in solidarity with her friend Bianca, and with other people of color. Together they decided to make a statement in fabric. Through Instagram, Hillary asked quilters to create a shirt block in whatever color fabric they felt best represented their skin tone, or that of their loved ones. Twenty-four quilters responded, from around the United States and around the world, including Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia. Hillary then combined these shirt blocks with an image of Bianca wearing one of the “Nude” brand garments—creating this motif of a woman of color clothed in many shades of “nude.” Rachael Dorr of Bronxville, New York, then free-motion machine-quilted the completed quilt top.
More people became aware of the company’s bias and lent their voices to the issue, demanding change—and the brand eventually altered the name of the garment collection. A global community of women, willing to use their talent and voices to take a stand against racism, made a difference.
*Designed and constructed by Hillary Goodwin, Auburn California
*Design assistance by Robin King, Auburn, California
*Paper-pieced shirt pattern designed by Carolyn Friedlander, Lake Wales, Florida
*Shirt blocks contributed by:
Carmen Alonso, Oviedo, Spain
Agnes Ang, Thousand Oaks, California
Berene Campbell, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Kirsty Cleverly, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia
Silvana Pereira Coutinho, Brazil
Anne Eriksson, Egmond aan den Hoef, The Netherlands
Hillary Goodwin, Auburn, California
Rebecca Green, United Kingdom
Lynn Carson Harris, Chelsea, Michigan
Phoebe Adair Harris, Chelsea, Michigan
Krista Hennebury, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Sandra Johnson, Orange, California
Chawne Kimber, Easton, Pennsylvania
Tamara King, Portland, Oregon
Alexandra Ledgerwood, Kansas City, Missouri
Maite Macias, Oviedo, Spain
Nicole Neblett, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Krishma Patel, Carteret, New Jersey
Amy Vaughn Ready, Billings, Montana
Sonia Sanchez, Oviedo, Spain
Rachel Singh, Seattle, Washington
Michele Spirko, Amherst, Massachusetts
Bianca Springer, Pearland, Texas
Jess Ziegler, Adel, Iowa
*Free-motion machine quilted by Rachael Dorr, Bronxville, New York
The makers each had a unique story to tell—below are some of their insights.
“Hearing of this encounter was an eye opener for me as a white woman. How would I feel if I had to explain to my daughter that her skin tone was not the “standard”? How many other ways does my white privilege benefit me without me acknowledging it? How could I help stand in solidarity with my friend?” —Hillary Goodwin, Auburn, California
“The … collection featured a non-diverse group of models wearing beige fabrics classified as "nude.” My "nude" skin is not beige and the use of the term made it clear they did not have me in mind… the color … only fits the white majority, signals white supremacy and marginalizes people of color… With the conceptualization of the quilt, the issue went from commiseration and emotional processing of systemic and overt racism, to a broader statement of activism.” —Bianca Springer, Pearland, Texas
“Although I considered myself a non-racist white person, I am not, of course, and I had never really given any thought to what it felt like to live life in a skin color that was not white. I credit my participation in the making of this quilt as the beginning of my slow and never-ending quest to be an anti-racist ally and to use the unearned privilege afforded me solely by my skin color to help bring some long overdue justice to this country.” —Tamara King, Portland, Oregon
"We are a group of three friends, we met through sewing… We live in Asturias, a small region in the north of Spain, that has traditionally been a land of emigrants … concepts such as "white privilege,” "black lives matter" … "segregation" ... sound very foreign to us… Choosing the fabrics for our "shirts" was … a surprise. How different we all are! And then seeing all the "shirts" … Mind blowing!” —Sonia Sanchez (along with friends Carment Alonso and Maite Macias), Oviedo, Spain
“I hope that the message of the quilt reaches a lot of people and, at least, has them thinking.” —Kirsty Cleverly, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia
“I grew up in the South at a time when bare legs were scandalous and pantyhose were expected on any good young lady. The color options were black, suntan, and nude. It never quite made sense why nude was so white and why my own predominant skin tone was equated to someone's suntan. Why would white skin be the default in such a creative industry as fashion? Unfortunately the industry still adheres to these color naming schemes, which only serve to make sure I know that I am Other in this society.” —Chawne Kimber, Easton, Pennsylvania
“My daughter, Phoebe, who was 10 at the time, often spent time in my sewing room with me and loved to help choose fabrics for my projects. I had Phoebe help choose a fabric that matched my skin tone. She noticed that HER skin matched a different color and wanted to contribute a block too. I loved that teachable moment we had in the sewing room… This moment contributed to her journey of looking at how people are the same, how people are different, representation, and fighting for social justice as she is now doing in her teens.” —Lynn Carson Harris, Chelsea, Michigan
“I am familiar with the disappointment when undergarments, hosiery, foundation creams made in cream/pink aka “nude" never quite match my more yellow/olive skin tone. Working with quilting cotton solids in skin tones that ranged from rich chocolate to yellow undertones was liberating as it helped me be more comfortable challenging the current paragon for skin tone.” —Agnes Ang, Thousand Oaks, California
“I was born into a white, middle-class family in South Africa during the sixties. When you live in a life where everyone looks and lives like you do, you come to believe that this is normal life, however of course, this is far from the truth. Despite my family being liberal, I was blind as to the impact that my privilege had had on the black communities around us… I have become more aware of this burden of my privilege on others… The simple awareness of how our world is designed for some but not all, should inspire us to make equitable changes to provide dignity for all. Inclusivity and raising each other up makes us a strong human race.” —Berene Campbell, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
“As an Asian Indian couple, a job move for my husband brought us to USA in 2001. Within a short time the unfortunate events of 9/11 occurred. Watching the morning news live, I saw the first tower being struck and a few minutes later the second! All telephone systems were down and I was not able to contact my husband… Fearing the worst possible harm to my husband, I panicked! I knocked on my neighbor’s door. We had shared the elevator a few times. All I wanted to know from her was, how far or near my husband’s workplace would be to the Twin Towers. She opened the door, took one look at me and yelled into my face, ‘Go back to wherever you came from, you [n-word]!’” —Krishma Patel, Carteret, New Jersey
“As a new grad and a South Asian female when I first went to work in investment banking I needed stockings to go with my business attire. I would always find loads of "Nude" colored stockings but they never kind of matched my skin color. A few stores would only carry that color and I had to go find specific stores that sold the ones matched my complexion.” —Rachel Singh, Seattle, Washington
“People like me with brown skin are thus ignored and rendered invisible. And yet, we exist and we matter. I contributed to this quilt to join with others who also believe that nude is not a color. I contributed two shirts: one shirt is the color of honey and the other cocoa brown. These shirts represent each of my brown-skinned daughters. May they never feel invisible. May they always know that their color of nude is just as worthy and beautiful.” —Nicole Neblett, Ann Arbor, Michigan
“…people of color face a world frequently viewed only through the white lens, while white people have blinders on to that experience… I’m proud to be part of this project and hope it inspires white viewers to open their hearts and minds to the anti-racism work we must continue to do for the sake of all humanity.” —Michele Spirko, Amherst, Massachusetts
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. All quilt contributor images from the collections of The Henry Ford.
Lyn St. James, photographed by Michelle Andonian, 2008 / THF58574
Lyn St. James was watching from afar when Janet Guthrie was trying to break into Indy car and stock car racing. At the time, St. James was a part-time competitor chasing a Sports Car Club of America road-racing national championship in a Ford Pinto.
“I was excited and pumped about my racing, and I watched her on the television and thought, ‘God, she’s struggling and nobody wants her there,’” St. James recalled. “She didn’t smile very much, and it made me say, ‘Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to put myself in that kind of situation when I was having so much fun?’”
This racing helmet worn by Lyn St. James is going on display in Driven to Win: Racing in America. / THF176437
In the early 1980s, Kelly Services sponsored the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) American Challenge championship and paid bonuses to female drivers. St. James parlayed an opportunity in that series, along with a chance encounter with legendary Ford executive Walter Hayes, into a highly successful relationship with Ford that produced six wins in IMSA competitions, including class victories at Daytona and Sebring, prior to shifting her focus to Indy cars. She is also the only woman to win an IMSA GT race driving solo.
Lyn St. James at IMSA, Watkins Glen, NY, 1985 / THF69459
“I wanted to test-drive one, just to experience the peak of race car performance,” she said. “I was just in heaven. I had set speed records in a stock car at Talladega, and in comparison, it felt numb. Dick Simon [IndyCar team owner] was very supportive, and that was a turning point. I wrote to 150 companies over four years seeking support. J.C. Penney was the 151st, but the first one that said yes.”
Finally, in 1992, St. James became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 since Guthrie last had, 15 years earlier. St. James finished 11th in the race, claiming Rookie of the Year honors (the first woman to do so). In 1994, she out-qualified reigning Indy car champion Nigel Mansell at Indy; she made a total of seven Indianapolis starts, with her last in 2000. She has been inducted into the Sports Car Club of America and the Florida Sports halls of fame, and held 21 international and national closed-circuit speed records over a 20-year period.
Lyn St. James’s Indy 500 history from 1992 to 2000. / THF284826
Mentor of Motorsports
St. James still occasionally competes in vintage races, and in addition is a speaker, author, philanthropist, and coach, but spends most of her time mentoring female drivers. Her foundation’s driver development program has graduated more than 230 participants over the last 25 years, including then-future Indy car drivers Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick.
Lyn St. James at her Complete Driver Academy, which provided a comprehensive education and training program for talented women race car drivers who aspired to attain the highest levels in motorsports, in Phoenix, Arizona in 2008 (photograph by Michelle Andonian). / THF58682
“It’s sad that leaders in motorsports have not figured out that the car levels the playing field for everyone,” St. James said. “The leaders have missed an opportunity to show how female involvement in racing really represents society. Women can perform and compete on an equal level.”
Involvement with The Henry Ford and
Driven to Win
In 2008, a small crew from The Henry Ford traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, to visit a race car driver academy for women. The institution, called Complete Driver Academy, was established by Lyn St. James in 1994 to help identify potential champion female drivers and provide the tools they needed to further their careers. The Henry Ford interviewed St. James there as part of its Visionaries on Innovation collection of video interviews, which also features other racing legends such as Mario Andretti.
Lyn St. James’ 1992 Indianapolis 500 "Rookie of the Year" trophy will be on exhibit in Driven to Win. / THF176451
In addition to documenting St. James’ oral history, The Henry Ford has many artifacts from her racing career in its collections—some of which will be on display in the new Driven to Win: Racing in America permanent exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where St. James is a showcased driver. “Lyn has been an adviser to the exhibit going back more than ten years,” said Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson. “From the start, she has offered her help and advice, including connecting us with innovators like motorsports training expert Jim Leo of PitFit Training in Indiana.”
Vicki Wood drove at least one Chrysler 300 car from Carl Kiekhaefer's NASCAR team—though we can’t be sure this Kiekhaefer Chrysler in our collection was driven by her. / THF90106
Stock car racer Vicki Wood was born March 15, 1919, in Detroit. Her success on Detroit area tracks in the early 1950s caught the attention of Chrysler's public relations office. Sensing a promotional opportunity, they arranged for her to try for speed records at Daytona Beach in 1955 and 1956. Each time, she drove a Chrysler—and it's possible, though we can’t be sure, that one was the Kiekhaefer Chrysler in our collection, pictured above.
Wood set several records on the sands of Daytona Beach between 1955 and 1960. In three of those years, her times beat all the male drivers. In 1960, Wood set a one-way speed record of 150.375 mph—the fastest one-way run by a woman in the history of Daytona’s beach course. Wood retired in 1963 but, because beach racing ended in 1959 when Daytona International Speedway opened, she’ll always be “the fastest woman on the beach.”
She passed away on June 5, 2020, in Troy, Michigan.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
“When I was growing up, I had pictures of a Lamborghini Countach and Porsche 959 on my wall next to Duran Duran,” laughed Beth Paretta, the first female executive to lead a performance division for a major auto manufacturer.
After graduate school, Paretta took a job selling cars, then landed a management role with Volkswagen Credit. “That taught me the behind the scenes of the automotive business,” she shared. “It was a good opportunity to sit on all sides of the table, to figure out what the manufacturers and the dealers want, let alone the customers.”
She then spent four years as the U.S. operations manager for Aston Martin. Because the company was so small, this gave Paretta hands-on experience in every aspect of the business—a major factor why she was recruited by Ralph Gilles and the late Sergio Marchionne to lead the SRT brand when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) spun it off as a separate “halo” division.
Running SRT brought responsibility for managing FCA’s American motorsports programs, taking Paretta’s life full circle. During her tenure, FCA drivers won multiple championships in NASCAR and International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). “Racing was a comfort for me since I was about 5 years old,” she said. “I found it weirdly soothing to watch, and I was mesmerized by it. At a basic level, I still find that. When I got involved, I loved solving business problems and figuring out how to do things better.”
Whether at VW, Aston, or FCA, Paretta often noticed something. “I spent much of my career sitting in meetings where I was the only woman at the table,” she said. “I’ll be honest, there were times at the beginning when I thought that was kind of cool. ‘Hey, look at me!’ But then I was like, ‘This isn’t cool at all. Why am I the only one here?’”
In 2015, Paretta formed Grace Autosport, using racing as a platform for encouraging young women to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. She hopes to eventually field a car in IMSA or the Indianapolis 500 with a pioneering all-female team.
“Racing is the fuel that keeps the spotlight on what we are doing, but the important work is the education,” Paretta said. “We know we can affect a kid’s trajectory of what they want to do when they are 10-12 years old. That’s when you plant the real seed. Racing is fantastic because it demonstrates teamwork, and it’s applied STEM, or STEM in action.”