by John Staudenmaier, S. J. Oxford Companion to United States History, Oxford University Press 2001:275.



HENRY FORD (1863-1947) automobile manufacturer, collector, icon

In the turbulent world of early automobile manufacturing, Henry Ford stood out less for product design than for his race car marketing and his successful resistance to the Selden auto patents. What, then, catapulted him into the pantheon of U.S. heroes? Three contributions, all work of the extraordinary team that Ford led from c. 1906, coalesced to form his enduring reputation: The Model T, the Moving Assembly Line, and the Five Dollar Day.

The 1908 Model T is arguably the best match of technical design with societal context in US history. The T responded to terrible roads, a primitive maintenance sector and the high cost and poor quality of most cars with an exceptionally strong frame, high wheel clearance, and fix-yourself simplicity. Sustained demand drove production breakthroughs between 1908 and 1915 that were collectively named "the Assembly Line" or simply "Fordism." The line's integrated materials handling and machine tool specialization were achieved through an authoritarian redefinition of shopfloor politics that, by 1913, propelled worker turnover to unsustainable levels (380%). In response, Ford coupled the January 1914 announcement of the completed moving line with news that day wages would approximately double to $5.00 and the work day shorten from nine to eight hours.

The simultaneous news of extraordinary technical achievement and unimaginable beneficence to workers fused Ford's image at white heat. He began 1914 a respected manufacturer whose name adorned the world's best selling car. A month later he was the most famous person on earth. Until his death in 1947, "Mr. Ford" stood for these three achievements: a car for the masses, production technology miracles, and the working man's salvation.

Fame in large doses takes its toll. By 1915, Ford began retreating into solipsism. Earlier, Ford led the company at close range. Thus, c. 1906 he walked just one block from his home to an office adjoining the shop floor of the Piquette Street plant. By the twenties, he lived inside Fairlane's 2000 well guarded acres a mile upriver from his massive River Rouge plant. Fairlane's Dearborn location represents a need for insulation not only from the shop floor but also from Detroit's elite Grosse Pointe on the opposite side of the city. At the same time, creative lieutenants were driven from the company, stockholders were completely bought out, and employee conformity enforced with spies and sometimes brutal company police. Ford's occasional moments of engineering creativity, such as the 1932 V-8 engine, were overshadowed by the eccentricity and sometime violence of his later years.

Ford balanced his hunger for privacy with a lavish collecting project. During the twenties Ford agents scoured Britain and the United States for technological artifacts and historic relics. In 1929 their new home was christened The Edison Institute and Greenfield Village. Ford saw it as his school, where students could transcend textbook abstractions and learn from the creative engines of progress; the fully accredited school (kindergarten-twelve) operated for more than two decades. Popular demand led to opening for public admission in 1934, but Ford never relinquished his personal hold on the Museum and Village. Contemporary employees remember him as devoted to the younger students but aloof from ordinary visitors, "like the Phantom of the Opera," an elusive figure who roamed the grounds, often alone at night.

Nothing captures Ford's personal devolution better than the contrast between the foundries and assembly lines of the Rouge and the almost eerie privacy of Fairlane and the Museum and Village nearby. Obsession with his private world and growing aversion to work a-day management responsibilities reveal a man caught in the classic ambivalence of the Modernist technological aesthetic. Ford exulted in the march of inventive progress, nowhere more than in the gleaming arrays of past technologies with which he adorned the Museum's eight acre floor. Greenfield Village, by contrast, invokes a vaguely defined past, the nostalgic comfort of a world untroubled by change. On his midnight wanderings Ford favored both places.

The paradox of Ford's attachment to his fantasy world and his growing intolerance for dissent, coupled with the staying power of his heroic technological image help explain his enduring historical significance. Ford's celebration of and neurotic flight from "Progress" mirrors the ambivalence that continues in mainstream American experience. Shopping malls- cornucopias of new technology whose private property status protects shoppers from debate or deviant behavior--resonate today with Ford's flight to privacy a half century ago. Ironically, part of the original Fairlane estate now houses Dearborn's Fairlane Mall, a shoppers' enclave offering temporary relief from the turmoils of the larger world outside.


Allan Nevins, w. Frank E. Hill, Ford 3 Volumes,1954-63.

Anne Jardim, The First Henry Ford: A Study in Personality and Business Leadership, 1970.

David L. Lewis, The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company, 1976.

Stephen Meyer, III, The Five Dollar Day: Labor, Management and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908-1921,1981.

Robert Lacey, Ford: The Men and the Machine, 1986.

Donald Finlay Davis, Conspicuous Production: Automobiles and Elites in Detroit, 1899-1933, 1988.