Thoughts on Henry Ford at 150

Are you Henry Ford Curious? I recently finished working on a  web site,, that I hope will provide some amusement, verify some facts, bust some myths and generally prove useful for visitors to the Detroit area. It features an interactive timeline of Henry Ford’s life (and a few key events after his death). Each of the approximately 100 entries has two or three sentences  and an historical photo. We couldn’t go much more than 100 entries without it becoming slow and cumbersome, or without missing our schedule and budget targets!

It was a quick turn-around project—I met the web designers/coders (Driven Solutions of Ferndale and BizNet of Wixom) on November 5 and the site went live December 11. In about six weeks I had to research and write it, select photos, give feedback on design and functionality, plus do organizational tasks such as uploading all those photos. Luckily I’ve done a lot of Ford-related projects in my career, so my office already looked like a Ford archive. (It now it looks like a Ford archive after an explosion!) It also helped that the main repository of photos, The Henry Ford, was a partner in the project and provided special access for me to select photos as well as expedited turnaround.

The web site is a partnership of several area museums, historic sites, and businesses, championed and spearheaded by MotorCities National Heritage Area, part of the National Park Service.

HF150 logo

It’s been interesting to see the responses to the timeline both before and after it went live. I thought the biggest issues prior to the site going live would be reviews and approvals, in particular how many and which negative things we could/should include. The usual suspects are Ford’s antisemitism, his efforts to prevent his plants from being unionized, and his strained relationship with his son, Edsel, and his increasing rigidity and erratic behavior as he grew old and started having strokes.

But there was none of the pushback I expected, I think because as the years go on and more research is done and more consequences unfold, even fans of Henry Ford have come to accept the facts and learn from the bad as well as the good. A couple of experts who are members of the Henry Ford Heritage Association reviewed the draft, and answered the questions that inevitably arise when even good historical sources are incomplete or contradictory. They and the MotorCities staff were the only people who reviewed it prior to the site going live. This was not History By Committee. The HFHA was—and is always—emphatic about not sugarcoating the story, as is MotorCities.

The biggest issue we had to resolve before going live was whether I could refer to him as just “Henry.” I’ve dealt with this on other projects. Some people think we should always call him either “Henry Ford” or “Mr. Ford,” usually rationalized by the fact that after a certain point early in his career no one called him Henry, always “Mr. Ford.” And I always argue that a) we are not in his presence, b) we don’t want to appear to be deferential to him, and c) we want the text to be inviting and lively, not stiff and formal. Then there are the purely writerly objections about avoiding repetition (complicated by the fact that using “Ford” alone is problematic because it’s also the name of the company), as well as historical objections such as the fact that his mother didn’t call him “Mr. Ford” when he was a boy.

As history, my approach to the timeline was summarized in the initial statement—that the Model T was like a pebble dropped in a still pond, the ever-expanding ripples still washing around us today. The Model T is the key to it all. If it weren’t for that car, so remarkably fit to the conditions and the market of its day, none of Henry Ford’s quirks, interests, prejudices, innovations, or charities would matter.

I approached each timeline entry as its own pebble. There are a few exceptions, but in most entries I didn’t explicitly state what that ripple effect was, instead leaving that to be picked up in later timeline entries, or sometimes assuming that the reader will either know, intuit, or make an effort to learn more. A timeline can’t accomplish everything. I’m hoping we can add bibliography to the site so it’s easier for people to follow up and avoid some of the dreck that’s out there.

Responses to the content have been interesting. Someone said it needed more about Albert Kahn, the union issues, and Ford’s poor relationship with Edsel. My opinion is that we treated the union issues pretty thoroughly, including the Hunger March, the Battle of the Overpass, and the ultimate resolution to the issue. Albert Kahn, the architect of many of the Ford factories and Edsel and Eleanor Ford’s home, is mentioned twice, but this is not a history of Albert Kahn. I do agree that the first mention of him should make some reference to Kahn’s body of work for Ford, and I’ll see if I can get it changed. In terms of the relationship with Edsel, we mention it once directly and several times indirectly, and we also reveal the power struggle that occurred after Edesl’s death as the young Henry Ford II tried to gain control.

A couple of my Jewish friends had the shuddering reaction to his name that is understandable given the platform and endorsement Ford provided for antisemitic propaganda. Like many Midwesterners of his generation with the anxieties and prejudices of the era, he was predisposed—even eager—to believe a false document, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, originally created in Russia in the 1890s, then debunked, then revived through translations and distribution in America and other countries. Unlike other Midwesterners, Ford owned a printing press. He also had a weekly newspaper, an editor, writers and ghostwriters, and—after the paper nearly failed—an enormous subscriber base composed of Model T buyers. (His dealers were told to include a subscription with every purchase.)

Today falsehoods can spread much more easily and cheaply via the internet, but even today untruths and conspiracy theories are given more credence when they are repeated by and incorporated into the “reporting” of a trusted person or source. Ford was a hero to many workers in the ‘teens. When a ghostwritten pamphlet called “The International Jew” appeared under Ford’s name, many people believed it because it had his name on it. Although Ford awkwardly apologized in 1927 and tried to destroy as many copies as he could, the pamphlet and its hateful contents had taken on a life of its own. It was later used by Hitler to further his own horrendous agenda. (Read Neil Baldwin’s book Henry Ford and the Jews for a full account.)

But just as we must deal in facts about what Ford did do, the same is true for what he didn’t do.

  • I have a friend who swears there is a photo of Henry Ford shaking hands with Hitler. There is not. They never met. There is, however, a photo of the German consuls of Cleveland and Detroit presenting the Grand Cross of the German Eagle to Ford in 1938. Hitler awarded it to Henry Ford for his pioneering work “in making autos available to the masses.” (Yes, the cross and sash still exist. I saw them and held them years ago when I worked at The Henry Ford. Powerful stuff.)
  • Henry Ford didn’t personally write the articles appearing under his name. He had a sixth-grade education, and was a terrible writer. Many of the sayings and quotations attributed to him have been edited to be more pithy and appealing.  That’s not to say he didn’t express those thoughts. Similarly, he definitely set the tone and direction for many of the antisemitic articles. But as much as he initiated and fostered these things himself, he was equally used by others with more aggressive and radical agendas.
  • One colleague relayed a “known fact” among pro-hemp enthusiasts that Ford had made a car out of hemp. I admit I had never heard that before. This one has a kernel of truth in it, but not nearly as large a kernel as the hempsters like to claim. Ford chemists worked on plastics that included soybeans and other farm products, and Henry Ford had an experimental car created with plastic body panels. According to contemporary newspaper reports, at least one of his experimental plastics contained a very small percentage of hemp. Henry Ford produced soy-based parts for production cars in addition to his experiments—horn buttons, handles, knobs, and distributor housings among them.
  • Somebody also claimed that Henry Ford’s early cars could run on any combustible fuel: gasoline, diesel, or kerosene. That is not true, at least not unmodified production Ford cars. Gasoline and diesel engines work differently because the fuels have different flash points. You can’t just substitute one fuel for the other without either making modifications, or having an engine specifically designed for multiple fuels, and Henry Ford didn’t make such engines. But Ford did try building an electric car in conjunction with Edison, who was doing extensive battery research. It didn’t go anywhere (pun intended).

Wow, this went on waaaay too long. I hope you check out the web site. Bye for now!