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A 15th birthday is very special for many young women in Hispanic culture. Quinceañera, Spanish for “15 years,” marks her passage from girlhood to womanhood. Both a religious and a social event, quinceañera emphasizes the importance of family and community in the life of a young woman.

Open, tri-fold invitation with pink text on cream paper and embossed image of girl in a tiered gown
Invitation to Detroiter Maritza Garza’s quinceañera mass and reception, April 4, 1992. / THF91662

Historically, the quinceañera signified that a girl—having been taught skills like cooking, weaving, and childcare—was ready for marriage. The modern celebration is more likely to signal the beginning of formal dating. Today, the custom of quinceañera remains strongest in Mexico, where it likely originated. It is also celebrated not only in the United States, but also in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas.

Woman with long dark hair and glasses wearing pink gown with tiers and white lace holds an elaborate flower arrangement
Maritza Garza in her formal quinceañera gown. She selected a dress in a traditional pastel color, pink, purchasing it at a local bridal shop in Detroit. / THF91665

Diamond or rhinestone tiara with swirling design
Quinceañera tiara, 2011. / THF150077

An occasion shared with family and friends, the celebration is as elaborate as the family’s wishes and budget allow. The honoree wears a formal gown, along with a tiara or other hair ornament. The oldest tradition was a white dress, with other conventional choices being light pink, blue, or yellow. Now, quinceañera dresses come in many shades—from pastels to darker hues.

Two pages with pink text
Maritza Garza’s quinceañera court of honor. / THF207367

A “court” of family and friends help her celebrate her special day—the young women wear dresses that match and the young men don tuxedos.

Profile of woman in pink dress holding a bouquet of roses in a formal building (church?)
Maritza Garza during her quinceañera mass at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in April 1992. Holy Redeemer is located in the heart of Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood. Here, masses have been offered in Spanish since 1960 for the Mexican American congregation. / THF91666

A quinceañera begins with a religious service at a Catholic church. Then comes a party with food and dancing. Dancing at the “quince” traditionally includes a choreographed waltz-type dance—one of the highlights of the evening. Toasts are often offered. Sometimes, the cutting of a fancy cake takes place. Symbolic ceremonies at this celebration may include swapping out the honoree’s flat shoes for high heels, slipped onto her feet by her father or parental figure.

Blue magazine cover with three photos of people in formal dress with decorated cars; also contains text
Quinceañera celebrations may also include a ride in a lowrider. Arising from Mexican American culture, lowriders are customized family-size cars with street-scraping suspensions and ornamental paint. / THF104135

Some girls choose to celebrate their 15th birthday in a less traditional way, perhaps with a trip abroad. Like other celebrations and rites of passage, quinceañera traditions continue to evolve.

Traditional or non-traditional, a quinceañera celebration makes a young woman feel special as she continues her journey to adulthood.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic 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.

Michigan, Detroit, home life, childhood, women's history, Hispanic and Latino history, by Jeanine Head Miller

Large glass display case containing a wooden trunk and a number of garments and other pieces of apparel
Our current
What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features clothing from generations of one family. / THF188474

In 1935, 59-year-old Louise Hungerford sent a trunk full of clothing to Henry Ford—clothing that had belonged to her mother’s family, the Mitchells, who had lived in the village of Port Washington, New York, for six generations.

Page of hand-written (cursive) letter
Page of hand-written (cursive) letter
Letter from Louise Hungerford to Henry Ford, September 9, 1935. / THF624791 and THF624793

Ford had opened his museum to the public only two years before. Louise Hungerford was one of the hundreds of people who sent letters to Henry Ford at this time offering to give or sell him objects for his museum. The clothing she sent remains among the oldest in The Henry Ford’s collection.

Map of Port Washington with irregularly shaped area outlined in red
Map of Port Washington in 1873—the Mitchell home is highlighted in red. / (Not from the collections of The Henry Ford.)

The Mitchell Family and Port Washington


Since the 1690s, the Mitchells had been respected members of the Long Island community of Port Washington as it evolved from farming to shellfishing and construction sand and gravel. In the early 1800s, Port Washington (then called Cow Neck) provided garden produce for New York City residents and hay for their horses—all shipped to the city by packet ships. By the mid-1800s, oystering was profitable in the area. After the Civil War, the sand and gravel industry took hold, providing construction materials for the growing city of New York.

By the early 1900s, the village had become a summer resort and home for the wealthy. The Long Island Railroad reached Port Washington in 1898, providing convenient transportation to the area from New York City. The city’s Knickerbocker Yacht Club moved to Port Washington in 1907. By the mid-1930s—when Louise Hungerford sent Henry Ford the letter and trunk full of family clothing--Port Washington’s quaint homes and wooded hills had been giving way to prestigious residences and sailboats for over 30 years.

Town with two-story wooden houses by a body of water; also contains text
People wave from long, wooden dock over a body of water with houses visible along shoreline behind them; also contains text
Postcard views of Port Washington sent by tourists to family or friends about 1910. /
THF624985 and THF624981

Mitchell family occupations evolved through the years along with Port Washington’s local economy: farmer, ship’s captain, stagecoach operator, land developer, highway commissioner, librarian.

Preserving the Past


The Mitchell family had changed with the times—yet hung onto vestiges of its past. Family clothing had been stored for over a century, first in Manhasset Hall, the house that had been home to the Mitchells since the late 1760s. Generations of the extended Mitchell family were born there, grew up there, married there, raised families there, and died there.

Large, two-story wooden house with wrap-around porch; also contains printed and hand-written text
By the early 1900s, the Mitchell family home—added onto over the years before being sold out of the family—offered accommodations to tourists. The house was later torn down to make way for a housing development. / THF624821

When the Mitchell home was sold in 1887, the trunk full of clothing remained in the family. By the early 1900s, it was probably kept by Louise Hungerford’s aunt, Wilhelmina, and then by Louise’s mother, Mary. Wilhelmina had remained in Port Washington, helping establish the town’s first library and serving as its first librarian.

Brick building with sloping lawn and steps down to sidewalk in front; also contains text
Port Washington Public Library, where Wilhelmina Mitchell served as the first librarian. / THF624979

Wilhelmina’s sister, Mary Hungerford, lived most of her adult life in Watertown, New York, after her marriage to produce dealer Egbert Hungerford. But, sometime before 1930, Mary—now a widow—returned to her hometown of Port Washington, along with her daughter, Louise. Wilhelmina Mitchell passed away in 1927; Mary Mitchell Hungerford died in 1933. Fewer Mitchell family members remained in Port Washington to cherish these tucked-away pieces of the family’s past. So Louise Hungerford wrote her letter, offering the trunk and its contents to Henry Ford for his museum.

Looking Inside


Wooden trunk with open arched lid
Trunk, 1860-1880. / THF188046

What clothing was in the Mitchell family trunk? Once-fashionable apparel. Garments outgrown. Clothing saved for sentimental reasons—perhaps worn on a special occasion or kept in someone’s memory. Everything was handsewn; much was probably homemade.

Louise Hungerford—if she knew—didn’t provide the names of the family members who had once worn these items, and Henry Ford’s assistants didn’t think to ask. For a few garments, though, we made some guesses based on recent research. For many, the mystery remains.

Pink fabric slippers with small ruffle on top of body
Women’s Slippers, about 1830. / THF156005

Flat-soled slippers were the most common shoe type worn by women during the first part of the 1800s. The delicate pair above might have been donned for a special occasion. Footwear did not yet come in rights and lefts—the soles were straight.

Pale pink dress with empire waist; slight puff at top of long sleeves; tiers at bottom of body
Child’s Dress, 1810-1825. / THF28528

The high-waisted style and pastel silk fabric of the child’s dress depicted above mirror women’s fashions of the 1810s. This dress was probably worn with pantalettes (long underwear with a lace-trimmed hem) by a little girl—though a boy could have worn it as well. Infants and toddlers of both genders wore dresses at this time. The tucks could be let down as the child grew.

Simple brown booties with seam up center and laces on inseam
Woman’s Gaiters, 1830-1860. / THF31093

Gaiters—low boots with fabric uppers and leather toes and heels—were very popular as boots became the footwear of choice for walking. To give the appearance of daintiness, shoes were made on narrow lasts, a foot-shaped form. By the late 1850s, boots made entirely of leather were the most popular.

Long-sleeved, floor-length dress gathered at waist and neck, made of brown floral material
Dress, 1780-1795. / THF29521

By the late 1700s, women’s fashions were less full and less formal than earlier. The side seams of this dress are split—allowing entry into a pair of separate pockets that would be tied around the waist. The dress, lined with a different fabric, appears to be reversible. The dress above was possibly worn by Rebecca Hewlett Mitchell, who died in 1790—or by her sister Jane Hewlett, who became the second wife of Rebecca’s husband, John Mitchell, Jr. 

Two pear-shaped patchwork pockets connected by a cord or string
Pockets, 1790-1810. / THF30851

In the 1700s and early 1800s, women’s gowns didn’t have pockets stitched in. Instead, women wore separate pockets that tied around their waist. A woman put her hand through a slit in her skirt to pull out what she needed. This pocket has the initials JhM cross-stitched on the back. They were possibly owned by John Mitchell, Jr.’s second wife, Jane Hewlett Mitchell (born 1749), or by his unmarried daughter, Jane H. Mitchell (born 1785).

Dark gray suit with simple pants and a jacket with several rows of large black buttons converging at the waist in a W shape
Boy’s Eton Suit, 1820-1830. / THF28536

During the early 1800s, boys wore Eton suits—short jackets with long, straight trousers—for school or special occasions. The trousers buttoned to a shirt or suspenders under the short jacket. This one, made of silk, was a more expensive version, possibly worn by Charles W. Mitchell, who was born in 1816.

White sacks filled with something and gathered with ribbon at necks
Sleeve Puffs, about 1830. / THF188039

The enormous, exaggerated sleeves of 1830s women’s fashion needed something to hold them up. Sleeve plumpers did the trick, often in the form of down-filled pads like these that would tie on at the shoulder under the dress.

Beige corset with wide shoulder straps
Corset, 1830-1840. / THF30853

A corset was a supportive garment worn under a woman’s clothing. A busk—a flat piece of wood, metal, or animal bone—slid into the fabric pocket in front to keep the corset straight, while also ensuring an upright posture and a flatter stomach.

Simple light blue quilted skirt
Quilted Petticoat, 1760-1780. / THF30943

In the mid-to-late 1700s, women’s gowns had an open front or were looped up to reveal the petticoat underneath. Fashionable quilted petticoats usually had decorative stitching along the hemline. Women might quilt their own petticoats or buy one made in England—American merchants imported thousands during this time.

Brown pants with a houndstooth or checked pattern
Man’s Trousers, 1820-1850. / THF30007

These trousers appear to have been worn on an everyday basis for work. Both knees, having seen a lot of wear, have careful repairs.

Brown shoes with leather at bottom and quilted fabric above, tied with laces
Woman’s House Slippers, 1840-1855. / THF156001

The quilted fabric on these house slippers made them warmer—quite welcome during cold New York winters in a house heated only by fireplaces or cast-iron stoves.

Off-white bonnet with rows of boning and shirred fabric between them; ruffle at neck
Calash Bonnet, 1830-1839. / THF188043

Collapsible calash bonnets were named after the folding tops of horse-drawn carriages. These bonnets had been popular during the late 1700s with a balloon-shaped hood that protected the elaborate hairstyles then in fashion. Calash bonnets returned in the 1820s and 1830s, this time following current fashion—a small crown at the back of the head and an open brim. The ruffle at the back shaded the neck.

When Henry Ford was collecting during the mid-1900s, many of the objects were gathered from New England or the Midwest—often from people of similar backgrounds to his. We are looking to make our clothing collection and the stories it tells more inclusive and diverse. Do you have clothing you would like us to consider for The Henry Ford’s collection? Please contact us.



Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Joan DeMeo Lager of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society, Phyllis Sternemann, church historian at Christ Church Manhasset, and Gil Gallagher, curatorial volunteer at The Henry Ford, for meticulous research that revealed the story of generations of Port Washington Mitchells. Thanks also to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

women's history, home life, by Jeanine Head Miller, fashion, What We Wore, Henry Ford Museum

Woman in yellow coat and hat sits behind the wheel of an open car as a man in a vest and straw boater hat stands nearby
“Women at the Wheel,” like the duster-clad driver at the controls of this 1907 Cadillac Model K, were spotlighted at this year’s Old Car Festival.


After a longer-than-usual pause, Old Car Festival returned to Greenfield Village on September 11–12, 2021. Our celebration of early American motoring included more than 700 registered cars, trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles dating from the 1890s to 1932.

Each year we shine our spotlight on a particular make, model, or theme. For 2021, we celebrated “women at the wheel” in commemoration of the 101st anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. The automobile played a significant part in the fight for women’s suffrage. Cars expanded the range and reach of suffragists, allowing them to spread their message to smaller villages and hamlets located away from railroads. The automobile also provided a prominent mobile platform on which to hang signs and banners, and a traveling stage from which to make speeches and calls to action.

Three women in historic clothing and hats sit and stand by/on a black car
Ford Motor Company advertisements promoted the Model T as a source of freedom for American women.

From the start, automakers appealed specifically to women with targeted advertisements and booklets. Makers of early electric cars made a special point of advertising to well-to-do female buyers. Unlike early gasoline cars, electrics were clean, quiet, and required no crank starting or gear shifting. But many women weren’t bothered in the least by the gasoline car’s disadvantages. Alice Huyler Ramsey drove a gas-powered Maxwell across the United States in 1909, becoming the first woman to make the coast-to-coast road trip.

Small, largely open two-seater early automobile parked in front of a red brick building with white columns
This 1912 Baker Electric was used by five First Ladies of the United States. / THF67884

We celebrated women at the wheel with a very special 1912 Baker Electric Victoria. It was purchased for use at the White House by President William Howard Taft and driven by First Lady Helen Taft. When the Tafts left, the Baker stayed behind and was used by four subsequent First Ladies: Ellen Wilson, Edith Wilson, Florence Harding, and Grace Coolidge. The Baker was retired in 1928 and, shortly thereafter, made its way to The Henry Ford. Guests who made their way to The Lodge at Christie & Main saw the Baker on display alongside our 1922 Detroit Electric, and our replicas of Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle and his 1901 “Sweepstakes” race car.

People wearing historical clothing dance in couples in a street as people look on from the sidelines
Dancing under the streetlights, to the music of the River Raisin Ragtime Review, capped off Saturday evening.

Show participants and guests enjoyed a variety of activities built around the three decades represented by Old Car Festival’s vehicles. From the 1900s, we had a group of aged Civil War veterans enjoying a Grand Army of the Republic picnic. From the 1910s, we had a Ragtime Street Fair with music and dancing up and down Washington Boulevard. We had a few American doughboys stationed near Cotswold Cottage as well, lest we forget the Great War and its impact on daily life and industrial production. We commemorated the Roaring ’20s with a community garden party near the Bandstand, and—in keeping with our theme—with a presentation by historian Joseph Boggs on the “New Woman,” who challenged traditional gender norms during that exciting decade.

Man in a blue shirt and khakis holding a microphone gestures to an old-fashioned open car with two people in it, as spectators look on from the side
Expert narrators commented on cars, like this rare 1907 Richmond Merry Widow built by Wayne Works, during Pass-in-Review.

Naturally, those who came for the cars weren’t disappointed. We had everything from Auburns to Willys-Knights parked on every patch of open grass in Greenfield Village. As usual, our team of expert historians was on hand to narrate Pass-in-Review parades that included everything from 19th-century bicycles (brought by the always entertaining Michigan Wheelmen) to commercial trucks, wreckers and depot hacks. (If you weren’t able to see the Pass-in-Review in person, or would like to catch something again, you can watch the early vehicles, commercial vehicles, and bicycles parades on our Facebook page.) We finished off on Saturday evening with the gaslight tour. Anyone who’s experienced it will agree that watching those early autos parade through the village with their flickering gas and early electric lamps is a magical sight.

Low-angle photograph of an old-fashioned largely open maroon car exudes steam as spectators look on
Old Car Festival attracts a variety of motive power, but steam cars like this 1909 White Model O are always a hit.

There’s just something special about Old Car Festival. Several participants have told me that the show is the highlight of the year for them—bigger than birthdays and holidays. I think we all found a little extra joy this time out, resuming a beloved tradition that’s been a part of Greenfield Village for 70 years. We’ll look forward to seeing all our friends again in 2022.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

voting, women's history, by Matt Anderson, events, Greenfield Village, Old Car Festival, car shows, cars

Piece of machinery
Automatic Pinion Cutter, Used by the Waltham Watch Company, circa 1892 / THF110250


The roles women play in manufacturing are occasionally highlighted, but are often hidden—opposing states that these two stories from our collections demonstrate.

The Waltham Watch Company in Massachusetts was a world-famous example of a highly mechanized manufacturer of quality consumer goods. Specialized labor, new machines, and interchangeable parts combined to produce the company's low-cost, high-grade watches. Waltham mechanics first invented machines to cut pinions (small gears used in watch movements) in the 1860s; the improved version above, on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, was developed in the 1890s.

Page with text and five illustrations of a factory and factory workers
This article, “The American Watch Works,” from the July-December 1884 issue of Scientific American, discussed the women workers of the Waltham Watch Company. / THF286663

In the late 19th century, reports on the world-renowned company featured women workers. An 1884 Scientific American article specifically called out women’s work. The article explained that, “For certain kinds of work female operatives are preferred, on account of their greater delicacy and rapidity of manipulation.” Recognizing that gendered experiences—activities that required manual dexterity, such as sewing, or the exacting work of textile production—had prepared women for a range of delicate watchmaking operations, the Waltham company hired them to drill, punch, polish, and finish small watch parts, often using machines like the pinion cutter above. The company publicized equal pay and benefits for all its employees, but women workers were still segregated in many factory facilities and treated differently in the surrounding community.

Square of woven material in frame; also contains text label underneath
Burroughs B5000 Core Memory Plane, 1961. / THF170197

The same reasoning that guided women’s work at Waltham in the 19th century led 20th-century manufacturers to call on women to produce an early form of computer memory called core memory. Workers skillfully strung tiny rings of magnetic material on a wire grid under the lens of a microscope to create planes of core memory, like the one shown above from the Burroughs Corporation. (You can learn more about core memory weaving here, and more about the Burroughs Corporation here.) These woven planes would be stacked together in a grid structure to form the main memory of a computer.

However, unlike the women of Waltham, the stories of most core memory weavers—and other women like them in the manufacturing world—are still waiting to be told.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

THF Connect app, women's history, technology, manufacturing, Made in America, Henry Ford Museum, computers, by Saige Jedele

Drab-green military jeep

THF90487

The 1943 Willys-Overland Jeep above, currently on exhibit in Driving America in Henry Ford Museum, represents the millions of vehicles, aircraft, and military items produced by American automakers during World War II. With many men fighting overseas, women joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Ford’s Willow Run plant, which produced B-24 bomber airplanes, showed just how important these women were to America’s war effort.

Red, white, and blue line illustration of woman riveting airplane parts; also contains text
The character “Rosie the Riveter” is celebrated in this sheet music from 1942. / THF290068

More than 42,000 people worked at Willow Run. Approximately one-third were women. Riveting was an essential craft there—each B-24 had more than 300,000 rivets. The skilled women who accomplished this work at Willow Run and elsewhere inspired the symbolic character “Rosie the Riveter.” Women also served in clerical and support staff positions at the plant. Women and men earned the same pay for the same work.

Three women work inside large, oval metal shapes
Real-life Rosies rivet B-24 tail cones at Ford’s Willow Run Bomber Plant, June 1944 / THF272701

Willow Run produced 8,685 B-24 bombers. The plant captured the public’s imagination, with Rosie the Riveter appearing on government-sponsored posters and magazine ads, encouraging more women to join the war production effort. Rosies built plenty of Jeeps, too. Willys-Overland manufactured 380,000 of them, and women and men at Ford built another 279,000 Jeeps, identical to the Willys models, at six plants across the country.

Page with text and images of engines and military vehicles
Ford Motor Company humble-bragged about its wartime production, including Jeeps, tanks, B-24 bombers, and more, in this 1943 ad. / THF93700

Altogether, the women and men who worked in American automotive plants during World War II built 4 million engines, 2.8 million tanks and trucks, and 27,000 aircraft—fully one-fifth of the country’s military materials. Many women came to enjoy the independence and economic freedom provided by their jobs. But, when men returned at war’s end, the same government that called women to the factories now encouraged them to go back to working in the home, so men could reclaim factory jobs.

The women who labored in wartime factories were essential to America’s Arsenal of Democracy. They made Rosie the Riveter into an enduring feminist icon—and a powerful symbol of women’s contributions to the American economy.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

Michigan, airplanes, Driving America, THF Connect app, by Matt Anderson, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, women's history, World War II, Henry Ford Museum

Sewing machine built into wooden table with intricate, decorative metal base
This 1881 Singer sewing machine is on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Isaac Singer developed the first practical sewing machine for home use in the 1850s. / THF173635


Innovation has intended, and often unintended, effects. Take the sewing machine, for example. Its invention in the mid-1840s would make clothing more available and affordable. Yet, ironically, the sewing machine also resulted in a decline of sewing skills—not immediately, but over time. Nowadays, few of us know how to make clothing.

Once, things were very different. For centuries, sewing a family’s clothing by hand was a time-consuming and constant task for women. A woman often made hundreds of garments in her lifetime; all young girls were taught to sew.

Young girl sews the back of a young boy's jacket in an area with trees; also contains text
A trade card for Clark's O.N.T. Spool Cotton from the late nineteenth century depicts a young girl using her sewing skills to repair a rip in her brother’s jacket so that “It will be as good as new and Ma won’t know!” / THF298697

When the sewing machine came on the scene during the mid-1800s, this handy invention made a big difference. For example, it now took about an hour to sew a man’s shirt by machine—rather than 14 hours by hand. In the 1850s, clothing manufacturers quickly acquired sewing machines for their factories, and, as they became less expensive, people bought them for home use.

While machines made it easier to make clothing at home, buying clothing ready-made was even less work. By the early 1900s, the ready-to-wear industry offered a broad range of attractive clothing for men, women, and children. Increasingly, people bought their clothing in stores rather than making it themselves.

Woman in pink sleeveless dress with full skirt, wearing white gloves, poses in front of a couch
Patricia Jean Davis wears a prom dress she made herself in 1960. / THF123841

Sewing skills may have declined, but what have we gained? A lot. Mass-produced clothing has raised our standard of living: stylish, affordable clothing can be had off the rack. For many, sewing remains a creative outlet, rather than a required task. For them, making clothing is no longer something you have to do, but something you want to do.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

Henry Ford Museum, women's history, THF Connect app, manufacturing, making, home life, fashion, by Jeanine Head Miller

Pottery vase with impressionistic landscape scene in blues and greens

Vase, 1917 / THF176918

This Rookwood Pottery vase from our collection, on view in the Art Pottery of the 20th Century exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, can tell us an unexpected story about women’s work and craft in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the late 19th century, ladies of high social standing in America were encouraged to broaden their interests beyond their homes. One of the most acceptable ways to do this was by taking up decorative china painting. Over time, these privileged women created associations with classes in china painting for women of all economic backgrounds. Probably the most important of these women was socialite Maria Longworth Nichols of Cincinnati, Ohio, who went beyond the accepted norm and established her own pottery that she called Rookwood.

Complex of several intricately timbered buildings
Rookwood Pottery, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1900-1906 / THF297612

Beginning in 1880, Nichols hired talented young women—who would not have opportunities elsewhere—as well as men to create innovative ceramic wares in this novel commercial venture. At Rookwood, pioneering glazes and imagery made the Cincinnati-based company famous from coast to coast. One of the most significant innovations at Rookwood was its introduction of the “vellum” glaze in 1904. This signature glaze, seen on the vase at the top of this post, features a light-colored background where pictorial landscapes and flowers could appear almost like a painting.

Even before the development of the “vellum” glaze, competitors noticed Rookwood’s innovations and lured away some of their best potters and decorators. Also, over time, artists left Rookwood and started their own companies. They adopted Rookwood’s distinctive techniques, spreading the look of what was called “Art Pottery” around the United States. So, by the early decades of the 20th century, the pastime of ladies’ china painting evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry. Although Art Pottery flourished in the early 20th century, the arrival of the Great Depression and World War II all but extinguished Americans’ interest in decorative ceramics for the home.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

art, furnishings, Henry Ford Museum, women's history, making, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, THF Connect app

Large, open-sided building with many stands and people around it
"History of Detroit and Michigan," Silas Farmer, 1884, page 794 / THF139107


Fresh food markets have always brought communities of all backgrounds together for nutritional and social sustenance. The markets of the 19th century were different than today’s in terms of sanitation, regulations, and petty crimes, but the desire for community that existed then remains true. Today, Detroit’s Eastern Market and dozens of other markets in southeast Michigan provide citizens with food security and support a burgeoning urban agricultural movement and the local economy.

Interior of large building, crowded with people in large aisle with goods displayed on either side
Interior of a farmers’ market, 1875, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Originally published in Earl Shinn, A Century After: Picturesque Glimpses of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania (published in Philadelphia by Lane Allen & Scott and J.W. Lauderbach, 1875), pg. 156, on the title page of the chapter "Marketry.” This illustrates what we can imagine the inside of Central Market looked like on a busy market day. / THF610498

The Vegetable Building (now being reconstructed in Greenfield Village) opened in Detroit's public market, then known as City Hall Market, in 1861. It remained a hub of community cohesion and commercial competition for 30 years until the city closed it, later dismantling it and relocating it to Belle Isle in 1894. In the three decades that the Vegetable Building attracted vendors and customers, Detroit’s population grew from 45,619 to 205,876 (per Detroit Historical Society) and the market tried to keep pace.

Mounting calls for the demolition of Detroit’s rat-infested “eyesore” resulted in the obliteration of the three-story “Central Market” brick building that housed butchers and market administrators between 1880 and 1894. It also prompted removal of the Vegetable Building to Belle Isle, and its replacement with a retail park (Cadillac Square) and a new public market (Eastern Market). This process destroyed the public market in central Detroit, but ultimately preserved the market’s Vegetable Building.

The Henry Ford acquired the Vegetable Building in 2003. After its reconstruction, the Central Market’s Vegetable Building will allow us to tell the stories of the vendors and consumers that frequented the market. These stories will illustrate that Central Market was a place where Detroiters came to purchase food stuffs, where entrepreneurs (many of them immigrants) were able to make a living, and where vibrant community life (including competition and discrimination) played out.

This year, we’ve been working to establish authentic stories as the basis for living history programming at the Vegetable Building, featuring costumed presenters and dramatic performances. Additional research underscores decisions about modern-day vendors invited to sell their honey, bread, pickles, eggs, flowers, and fresh fruits and vegetables to visitors at weekly markets and specialty markets in Greenfield Village.

Small crowd of people, one with a baby carriage, on a street
Group of women, one with a baby carriage, in front of the Central Market Building, Detroit, Michigan, circa 1890. / THF623829

A partnership between The Henry Ford and the University of Michigan Museum Studies Program resulted in a script for a dramatic presentation that will help guests grasp the numerous ways that the market building affected urban life. Four students from the Museum Studies Program—Kathleen Brown (American Culture), Laurel Fricker (Classical Art and Archeology), Antonello Mastronardi (Classics), and myself, Ayana Curran-Howes (Environment & Sustainability)—crafted a script for a noteworthy Central Market character. The market was filled with characters, but one that captured the attention of newspaper reporters, the police, and a fair number of male suitors was Mary Judge. She became the focus of our investigation.

Our research into Mary Judge unveiled a fascinating and difficult, yet vibrant, individual. Newspaper reports documented her wit, sharp tongue, charm, and self-awareness as a woman staking her claim to independence. Newspaper reports from the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press gave us a foundation on which to build a script for an entertaining and educational performance.

Large open-sided building with vendors selling wares to people outside
Vegetable Shed at Detroit’s City Hall Market, known as Central Market after 1880. It is identified as “Cadillac Square Market (Detroit, Mich.)” in the George Washington Merrill photographs collection, University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library (BL003974). The original was one of two photographic images likely taken by James A. Jenney for A. J. Brow, Detroit, Michigan, and published as a stereograph. The original stereograph is in the Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library. We believe the woman circled in orange may be Mary Judge, vending flowers. 

The script, featuring Mary Judge, is set during a Saturday night market in the 1880s. We chose a Saturday night market to introduce guests to the hustle and bustle of market life that everyday Detroit residents experienced. Farmers saved their best produce for busy Saturday nights when throngs of factory workers and working-class citizens came to purchase fresh produce and meat, as well as to socialize.

Mary Judge enters as a whirlwind. Her livelihood depended on capturing the public’s attention, and the dramatic presentation conveys that urgency. Mary also conveys the tumultuous yet essential relationship that hucksters like herself had with the farmers who grew the products that hucksters resold. Mary’s success at reselling depended on the relationships she cultivated with other vendors and the larger market community. The eight-minute solo act features Mary’s opinions about the role of the market in Detroit life, before the politics around the closing of the market disrupted Mary’s status quo starting in 1891.

What did Mary resell? The Michigan climate lent itself to a wide array of produce. Consumers could choose between market crops such as strawberries and cherries, often eaten to the point of bellyache (Detroit Free Press, June 25, 1874), or other seasonal crops such as rhubarb, cucumbers, and celery worthy of larceny (Detroit Free Press, August 12, 1879). Mary herself sold many different things, including coffee, flowers, fruit, poultry, and “fried cakes, gingerbread, pig's feet” (November 22, 1875). The Free Press reported her doughnuts “were very fillin’ for the price” (February 28, 1876).

Illustration of several bunches of cherries, with text "Cherries"
Cherries. Nurseryman's Specimen Book, 1871-1888, page 48. / THF620211

Additional carnival-like attractions included strong-man machines, magic tricks, and exotic pets for sale. The variety of attractions created a bustling crowd that made it “often a feat to swallow a cup of coffee, without having it spilled” (Detroit Free Press, December 19, 1869).

The research plan we devised included numerous stages.

We reviewed other dramatic performances at The Henry Ford, including “The Disagreeable Customer” at J.R. Jones General Store and “How I Got Over” at Susquehanna Plantation. We also reviewed expert advice about living history programming collected in the Living History Anthology (Katz-Hyman et al., 2018). These informed the structure and style of our script.

Then, we asked ourselves “What was the social and economic function of the market? Who was allowed to keep a stall in the market and in what ways were they restricted, supported, and able to survive in this market economy?” Answers to these questions were revealed through secondary sources including Gloria Main, “Women on the Edge: Life at Street Level in the Early Republic” (2012); Jen Manion, “Dangerous Publics,” in Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (2015); and Melanie Archer, “Self-Employment and Occupational Structure in an Industrializing City: Detroit, 1880” (1991).

We also looked at Detroit’s demographic data to understand the composition of the consumers in the market space. Then we conducted primary research, reviewing news reports published in the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News that featured Mary Judge over 30 years. These conveyed the verbiage of the time, the historic perspective on events, the politics of the past, and the atmosphere of the market. The newspaper coverage of the market generated a body of evidence that continues to inform us.

Two people look at a construction site, while a third in a mask looks at the first two and gestures toward construction site
From left to right: Ayana Curran-Howes, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid, and Antonello Mastronardi, looking at the site where the Vegetable Building is being reconstructed in Greenfield Village, March 6, 2021. Photo taken by Laurel Fricker.

The low capital investment required to become a huckster allowed some immigrants to Detroit, including Mary Judge, to carve out a space in the public market. Other immigrants, including English and Irish individuals as well as Germans, Poles, and Italians, gained a toehold on economic independence. German butchers dominated the fresh- and processed-meat markets. They had more capital and political influence and, therefore, access to better stalls. In contrast, the Italians, newcomers during the 1880s, tried their hand at selling fruit.

Long before these European ethnic groups arrived, Black Detroiters faced racism in the marketplace and endured discrimination and violence. Nonetheless, they used the marketplace, as did other entrepreneurs, to sell their labor as chimney sweeps and whitewashers (those who painted cellars and building interiors, even the Vegetable Building interior, to intensify natural light).

The portrayal of Mary Judge will show guests how women used huckstering to gain financial independence. This was one of few alternatives for single women at the time, other than domestic service. Secondary readings and primary evidence indicated that women rarely held public-facing positions comparable to that of Mary Judge, the Central Market huckster. When they did, they were harassed by men and police alike. The consequences compounded for poor unmarried women, identified as “unladylike” in demeanor, and disruptive in action.

Hierarchies based on privilege kept many vendors marginalized. Female and immigrant vendors had to overcome language barriers, and had to navigate racism, sexism, and xenophobia when they tried to obtain permits, rent a stall, and obtain goods to sell. As an example, anti-immigrant sentiment followed Italian fruit vendors wherever they went. Mary Judge perpetrated this herself, verbally engaging with Italians and decrying their business decisions: “Go an’ absolve yerself of your business, sir; an’ not be hawkin’ ye’r truck on the streets this blessid day [Sunday]” (Detroit Free Press, July 25, 1887).

Six people pose in front of a wooden fence on either side of a sign reading "Coming Soon: The Vegetable Building from Detroit's Central Market"
From left to right: Debra Reid, Kathleen Brown, Ayana Curran-Howes, Laurel Fricker, Antonello Mastronardi, and The Henry Ford’s Director of Greenfield Village Jim Johnson, standing outside the fenced off area where the Vegetable Building was being erected, March 6, 2021. Photo taken by Jeanine Head Miller.

All vendors faced other societal pressures. One of the most pernicious threats, petty theft perpetrated by those “sampling” products, undermined market vendors. Mary turned to market administrators to mediate her grievances, as did other vendors. She also reported abuses to the police, who intervened in some situations.

Despite these barriers, hucksters made this their way of life and stayed in the market for decades. Mary Judge, a twice-married devout Catholic, was as durable a huckster as one could be. She kept a stall from 1863 until city officials dismantled the market in 1894.

Starting in Spring 2022, you will be able to visit the Vegetable Building in Greenfield Village to meet the “queen of the market,” Mary Judge, selling coffee and decades of wisdom as a huckster from her stall. This one-woman show (as Mary would have preferred it) illustrates huckstering as an occupation and as a way of life.

Thanks to the following people for research support and guidance during the Winter 2021 term:

  • Gil Gallagher, curatorial research assistant volunteer, The Henry Ford
  • Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village and Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes, The Henry Ford
  • Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life, The Henry Ford
  • Patricia Montmurri, author/journalist, Detroit Free Press
  • Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford
  • Susan Whitall, author/journalist, Detroit News



Ayana Curran-Howes is 2021 Simmons Intern at The Henry Ford.

food, shopping, women's history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Detroit, Detroit Central Market, research, by Ayana Curran Howes

Smiling woman with long blonde hair stands with blue furry puppet over one shoulder

Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz and Rosita. / Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop

Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz shares her journey to becoming a professional puppeteer, how she met Jim Henson, and what it’s like being a part of the Sesame Street family.

As a curator at The Henry Ford, I gained renewed appreciation for Jim Henson while researching the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street in 2019, then again while commemorating Henson’s legacy on the 30th anniversary of his passing in 2020. So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to interviewing Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz, puppeteer for the Sesame Street character Rosita and someone who had worked for and personally known Jim Henson.

Carmen enchanted us with her stories: growing up in Mexico; her personal interests and love of family; her passion for puppetry and how this turned into her involvement with Jim Henson Productions; how she helped create her Sesame Street character, who was vibrant, outspoken, and passionate—much like Carmen herself.

Carmen struck us as fearless—a young, raw talent beating out more seasoned professionals for work, leaving Mexico behind to attend a puppetry workshop in New York City because she desperately wanted to learn more, and staying there because Jim Henson himself asked her to. She regrets that she never returned home, but recognizes that, through her work, she can proudly represent and keep close to her heart her love of her homeland, community, and family.

—Donna R. Braden



Did you know from an early age that you wanted to work with puppets, become a professional puppeteer?

No. Of all my friends growing up in Mexico City, I was the one who had no idea what she wanted to do. Nothing that gave me a sign. At one time, I thought I wanted to go to the OlympicsI was good in sports, very competitive. I even wanted to work with and talk to the dolphins until I found out about all the science I would need.

When I was 5 or 6 years old, I did love to watch Topo Gigio [a character on a children’s puppet show on Italian television in the early 1960s] every Monday on TV. He was so alive. And then when I was 8, I remember having a playdate at a friend’s house watching Plaza Sésamo [Mexico’s Sesame Street, one of the first international co-productions of the show, which started running in 1972] for the first time. We laughed and sang.

I think my curiosity was thereI wanted to know how they did it. I watched the Muppets, too, when that show came out. But I didn’t know much about Jim Henson until a friend of my brother brought me a book, Of Muppets and Men [Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show, written by Christopher Finch], when I was in high school. The book had pictures of the puppeteers and explanations on how they did it. It was the first time I saw how it worked, and it blew my mind that they had to work with their arms above their heads, that they did the voices themselves.

Was reading that book your light bulb moment?

The light bulb really went on for me when my brother, who was working for Televisa [a Mexican mass media company] at the time, invited me and my friends to attend a workshop with Americans for a children’s show that had puppets. I was the only one called back. I was with a bunch of professional actors from universitythe youngest in the group at 18 with no idea of acting. On the third day of the workshop, they brought the puppets out, and we had to work with the cameras and monitors and learn how, when you move the puppet one way, it appears the other way on the monitorit’s inverted. That is when it really clicked for me. I started remembering all I had watched on TV, how the puppets breathe and walk. They live. I was mesmerized by the challenge to make this thing with no expression have expression.

Group of people in tight space, several holding puppets
While working on the children’s television show Super Ondas for Mexican mass media company Televisa in the 1980s, Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz (at right) was one of a small group of professional female puppeteers in the industry. / Photo courtesy of Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz

I loved it. I was in heaven. While the professional actors were having problems because their expressions were happening below, not above, I was making this puppet come alive. It didn’t matter that I was shy or didn’t have the acting skills.

I think my brother knew when he invited me to that workshop. After that, it all came together for mewhy I loved the puppets, the magic, the joy, the curiosity.

And I got a job working for Televisa.

How did you cross paths with Jim Henson?

I was working as a puppeteer at Televisa on The Treasure of Knowledge show when I met Kermit Love from the Henson group. He was in Mexico to train puppeteers from Plaza Sésamo. I asked him if he could help me. I felt that I was the only person in Mexico that was passionate about the puppets, that I had respect for them that no one else did. Most puppeteers were actors who were quick to move on to other things. I started asking questions about why we couldn’t do our own voices. I wanted to get better at my craft. I wanted our work to be better.

Kermit invited me to the U.S. to attend a workshop. So I went to Manhattan. One day, he came by and said, “We’re going to a party. Here’s your mask.” Suddenly, I was at a masquerade party thrown by Jim Henson at the Waldorf Astoria. That’s when I met Jim for the first time. It was so amazing. He was so amazing. He invited me to come observe production of his next season of Sesame Street. Just to see them working as a team. They were brilliant, geniuses, magicians. I thought to myself I would love to stay here. This is a dream.

 Carmen’s Calls to Action


Go Ahead and Dream

“Never be afraid of your dreams. And if things don’t work out quite the way you hoped now, you will find a way to make them work in the future.”

Making Mistakes Is OK
“Making mistakes is actually more than OK. It’s wonderful. It’s how we learn.”

Keep Growing
“Don’t be scared to try something new. Even now, I feel like me and Rosita still have a lot of space to grow, and we’re always learning new things, talking about topics I never thought we would be.”

Be Prepared to Work Hard
“Being a puppeteer in the Muppet style is so much fun, but it is difficult, hard work. If you like a challenge, teamwork, laughing a lot, and throwing out ideas and solving problems all the time, then this is for you.”


When Jim did call me and said he decided he wanted me to be a part of the Muppet family, that he wanted a strong female puppeteer, I raised my hands and was like, “WAAAWWW!”

That was 1989, just a year before Jim died.

What role did you play in bringing your Sesame Street character Rosita to life?

When Jim was alive, he told me he always wanted a bilingual character for Sesame Street. I told him I didn’t really speak a lot of English. I was probably at 25%. He said no worries. We will work together. It will come out naturally. It’ll be fun.

Designer Ed Christie first asked me to help write a bio for my character because he wanted to create someone I would be comfortable with. So I told him I wanted her to be colorful and present. We Latinos like to hug and kiss. She needs to be cuddly with flowing hair. I wanted her to play the guitar and be musical like I was.

I wanted to name her Rosita, after my best friend in Mexico City, Rosa. I really liked the idea of how people could R the R’s—RRRRRosita.

Meet Rosita, a Bilingual Turquoise Monster 
 

Full name: Rosita la Monstrua de las Cuevas (the Monster of the Caves)
Age: 5
Birthday: December 7
Birthplace: Mexico
Parents: Rosa and Ricardo
Puppeteer: Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz
Designer: Ed Christie
First TV appearance: Sesame Street, season 23, episode 2888 (1991)
Favorite Friends: Zoe, Elmo, Grover, Telly Monster, Prairie Dawn, and Abby Cadabby
Likes: Presenting the Spanish Word of the Day and playing her guitar. She’s very good with history as well as geography.


Ed heard all that and made a puppet that wasn’t tiny but had a presence. She has a round belly, live hands and wings like a flying squirrel. He said he designed her like that thinking of a flamenco skirt. And she’s turquoise, which is an important color in Mexican culture, representing life and hope.

I just loved her from the start. Rosita is my immigrant girl, a happy, family-oriented monster that speaks better English than I do. She’s confident, doesn’t mind making mistakes and has explosive feelings.

Is it difficult to bring Rosita’s explosive personality to life?

When you’re a puppeteer, you quickly learn that it is not just about your character above. It’s also about the layer underneath.

We are in a very physical situation that is often very uncomfortable. You can’t be claustrophobic and you can’t be smelly. We all joke about eating no onions or garlic, brushing your teeth.

With Rosita, I have someone else doing her right hand as well, so he has to match what I am doing so carefully. If you move the puppet slightly the wrong way, for example, it won’t look like it is listening. It is very specific, and you’re sharing a small, cramped space with others, looking at monitors and trying to work in extremely coordinated ways.

Group of people, two holding furry puppets, on TV set designed to look like a street
Carmen bringing Rosita to life on the set of Sesame Street. / Photo courtesy of Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop

As puppeteers, we are solving physical problems all the time, learning new ways to trick the cameras into presenting our characters as living, breathing things. It’s about subtle movements, creating reactions that match with the other characters.

In your creative community, in the entertainment industry in general, do you feel as if Jim Henson’s legacy is still alive and well?

Jim was amazing. His mind was brilliant. He was curious and put together this world around all the things he liked. He was ahead of his time, and we keep trying to keep his legacy alive because he had it right.

For me, I can see that he still touches people. I have so many young people come up and say, “I want to be a puppeteer. Jim Henson changed my life.” And so many of them are very, very clever. They are bringing all of these new ideas and technologies to the conversation. I’m so proud of everyone that comes to us that were inspired by Jim. It’s so rewarding.

What about with audiences? Does Jim’s vision resonate with the next generation?

I know animation is where it’s at today, but it’s just so flat, and Jim’s characters are just so alive. When we did Sesame Street’s 50th anniversary concert live a few years ago, I was so worried about the audience’s reaction to seeing us rolling around, sweating on the stage. What I felt instead was absolutely incredible. I saw grandparents with their grandkids, parents with their children singing and crying, connecting with each other. Because of Jim. It was so touching, so inspiring.

In terms of your impact, how has your career influenced others? Can you speak to the appreciation you have for how your role as Rosita is helping children learn and grow?

What this job has brought to me has been amazing, and impact really goes both ways. The impact Rosita has had on others and the impact people have had on my life because of her.

Blue furry puppet standing on one leg and holding yellow maracas
Rosita. / Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop

Rosita is part of lots of outreach within communities where so many see her and the other characters as friends. Today, we are working on racial justice messages, and Rosita and I have also been working with military families for 10 years. We’ve created videos for young parents so they can help explain deployment to their children. We’ve also had a script where Rosita’s dad comes back home from a tour of duty and is injured and in a wheelchair. The words in that videohow military families have to deal with both invisible and physical injuries, the suffering they face and sacrifices they makeI took it very personally. I even asked myself if I thought I was ready to become an American citizen. It was something I had researched before, but I was never sure if I was readyI’m so proud of my Mexican heritage. After working with military families, though, I said to myself that I was definitely ready, and I became an American citizen.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Jennifer LaForce is Editorial Director at Octane and Editor of The Henry Ford Magazine. This article was first published in the June–December 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

Hispanic and Latino history, women's history, TV, The Henry Ford Magazine, popular culture, Jim Henson, immigrants, by Jennifer LaForce, by Donna R. Braden

Corner of room with chairs, windows, and doors
Interior of Henry Ford’s Private Railroad Car, “Fair Lane,” June 22, 1921 / THF148015


Beginning in 1921, Henry and Clara Ford used their own railroad car, the Fair Lane, to travel in privacy. Clara Ford designed the interior in consultation with Sidney Houghton, an interior designer based in London. The interior guaranteed a comfortable trip for the Fords, their family, and others who accompanied them on more than 400 trips between 1921 and 1942.

The view out the railcar windows often featured the landscape between Dearborn, Michigan, and Richmond Hill, Georgia, located near Savannah. The Fords purchased more than 85,000 acres in the area, starting in 1925, remaking it into their southern retreat.

On at least three occasions, Henry Ford might have looked out that Fair Lane window, observing changes in the landscape between Richmond Hill and a siding (or short track near the main railroad tracks, where engines and cars can be parked when not in use) near Tuskegee, Alabama. Henry Ford took the railcar to the Tuskegee Institute in 1938, 1941, and 1942, and Clara accompanied Henry at least twice.

Two men, one Black and one white, pose in front of a car
Henry Ford and George Washington Carver, Tuskegee, Alabama, March 1938 / THF213839

Henry first met with George Washington Carver and Austin W. Curtis at Tuskegee on March 11, 1938. A small entourage accompanied him, including Ford’s personal secretary, Frank Campsall, and Wilbur M. Donaldson, a recent graduate of Ford’s school in Greenfield Village and student of engineering at Ford Motor Company.

Group of men walk on a sidewalk between grass and trees
George Washington Carver and Henry Ford on the Tuskegee Institute Campus, 1938. / THF213773

Photographs show these men viewing exhibits in the Carver Museum, installed at the time on the third floor of the library building on the Tuskegee campus (though it would soon move).

Five men in suits look at items some of them are holding in their hands
Austin Curtis, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Wilbur Donaldson, and Frank Campsall Inspect Peanut Oil, Tuskegee Institute, March 1938 / THF 213794

Man gestures to a table covered in glass jars while other men look on
Frank Campsall, Austin Curtis, Henry Ford, and George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, March 1938 / THF214101

Clara accompanied Henry on her first trip to Tuskegee Institute, in the comfort of the Fair Lane, in March 1941. Tuskegee president F.D. Patterson met them at the railway siding in Chehaw, Alabama, and drove them to Tuskegee. While Henry visited with Carver, Clara received a tour of the girls’ industrial building and the home economics department.

During this visit, the Fords helped dedicate the George W. Carver Museum, which had moved to a new space on campus. The relocated museum and the Carver laboratory both occupied the rehabilitated Laundry Building, next to Dorothy Hall, where Carver lived. A bust of Carver—sculpted by Steffen Thomas, installed on a pink marble slab, and dedicated in June 1937—stood outside this building.

The dedication included a ceremony that featured Clara and Henry Ford inscribing their names into a block of concrete seeded with plastic car parts. The Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s most influential Black newspapers, reported on the visit in its March 22, 1941, issue. That story itemized the car parts, all made from soybeans and soy fiber, that were incorporated—including a glove compartment door, distributor cap, gearshift knob, and horn button. These items symbolized an interest shared between Carver and Ford: seeking new uses for agricultural commodities.

Person wearing hat sits, head tipped down toward a wooden crate, while other people look on
Clara Ford, face obscured by her hat, inscribes her name in a block of concrete during the dedication of George Washington Carver Museum, March 1941, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Others in the photograph, left to right: George Washington Carver; Carrie J. Gleed, director of the Home Economics Department; Catherine Elizabeth Moton Patterson, daughter of Robert R. Moton (the second Tuskegee president) and wife of Frederick Douglass Patterson (the third Tuskegee president); Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson; Austin W. Curtis, Jr.; an unidentified Tuskegee student who assisted with the ceremony; and Henry Ford. / THF213788

Man sits at crate while other people look on
Henry Ford inscribing his name in a block of cement during the dedication of George Washington Carver Museum, Tuskegee Institute, March 1941 / THF213790

After the dedication, the Fords ate lunch in the dining room at Dorothy Hall, the building where Carver had his apartment, and toured the veterans’ hospital. They then returned to the Fair Lane railcar and headed for the main rail line in Atlanta for the rest of their journey north.

President Patterson directed a thank you letter to Henry Ford, dated March 14, 1941. In this letter, he commended Clara Ford for her “graciousness” and “her genuine interest in arts and crafts for women, particularly the weaving, [which] was a source of great encouragement to the members of that department.”

The last visit the Fords made to Tuskegee occurred in March 1942. The Fair Lane switched off at Chehaw, where Austin W. Curtis, Jr., met the Fords and drove them to Tuskegee via the grounds of the U.S. Veterans’ Hospital. Catherine Patterson and Clara Ford toured the Home Economics building and the work rooms where faculty taught women’s industries. Clara rode in the elevator that Henry had funded and had installed in Dorothy Hall in 1941, at a cost of $1,542.73, to ease Carver’s climb up the stairs to his apartment.

The Fords dined on a special luncheon menu featuring sandwiches with wild vegetable filling, prepared from one of Carver’s recipes. They topped the meal off with a layer cake made from powdered sweet potato, pecans, and peanuts that Carver prepared.

Tuskegee shared the Fords’ itinerary with Black newspapers, and the April 20, 1942, issue of Atlanta Daily World carried the news, “Carver Serves Ford New Food Products.” They concluded, in the tradition of social columns at the time, by describing what Henry and Clara Ford wore during the visit. “Mrs. Ford wore a black dress, black hat and gloves and a red cape with self-embroidery. Mr. Ford wore as usual an inconspicuously tailored business suit.”

Dr. Patterson wrote to Henry Ford on March 23, 1942, extending his regrets for not being at Tuskegee to greet the Fords. Patterson also reiterated thanks for “Mrs. Ford’s interest in Tuskegee Institute”—“The people in the School of Home Economics are always delighted and greatly encouraged with the interest she takes in the weaving and self-help project in the department.”

The Fords sold the Fair Lane in 1942. After many more miles on the rails with new owners over the next few decades, the Fair Lane came home to The Henry Ford. Extensive restoration returned its appearance to that envisioned by Clara Ford and implemented to ensure comfort for Henry and Clara and their traveling companions. Now the view from those windows features other artifacts on the floor of the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, in place of the varied landscapes, including those around the Tuskegee Institute, traveled by the Fords.

Rail car interior containing chairs, doors, windows, and arched ceiling
A view of the interior of Henry and Clara Ford’s private railroad car, the “Fair Lane,” constructed by the Pullman Company in 1921, restored by The Henry Ford to that era of elegance, and displayed in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF186264


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

Fair Lane railcar, women's history, travel, railroads, Henry Ford Museum, Henry Ford, George Washington Carver, Ford family, education, Clara Ford, by Debra A. Reid, African American history