Penmanship

Last Friday I played a gig with my friend Rollie Tussing, a wonderful guitar player (with or without slide), stomper, songwriter, and generally good guy. He also wears old hats well—not an easy feat in the 21st century.

Rollie said he’d bring a set list for me. Because we’d had only one rehearsal, I planned to make some notes on it. But when I saw the list, I changed my plan.

It could have been a set list from a Lead Belly jam session—carefully formed words in 19th-century style, with tall, perfectly pitched Ps and curlicue esses.

Photo by Peter Smith

Photo by Peter Smith

Rollie explained that he had always printed, and his handwriting was horrible. He wanted to do something about it so he could teach his kids good penmanship. Few schools teach cursive—let alone penmanship. So he got some fountain pens and some pens with nibs, found some 19th-century examples to follow, and spent about three years practicing. He tries to pen something every day.

My handwriting is horrible too, but I just use my old Cuisinart injury as an excuse.

That night, I rewrote the set list really big with a Sharpie. It wasn’t beautiful, but at least we could all read it without our old-people glasses. I gave Rollie’s original to our house-concert host, Johnny Williams, who said he’d frame it.

The other great thing about this happy discovery of Rollie’s hidden talent is that I’m currently working on furnishing an 1830s doctor’s office/apothecary in Honolulu. I think I found my label maker!

I’m looking forward to playing with Rollie again on May 5. Maybe this time I’ll get my own set list to frame (hint, hint!). I can hang it above my desk for inspiration.

Thoughts on Henry Ford at 150

Are you Henry Ford Curious? I recently finished working on a  web site, www.henryford150.com, 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!

Driving America wins an award!

The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) presents an annual award for excellence in museum exhibits. Driving America, the major automobile exhibit I worked on recently, was honored with the organization’s 2012 award. The exhibit team is thrilled! This photo wasn’t our celebration of the award. In fact, this was taken before the project was completed, and I don’t remember what we were celebrating. But who needs a reason to celebrate?

This was the main content development team—one of many teams that worked on various aspects of the project. The photos we’re holding up at the far end of the room are of the two people most responsible for the overarching content and themes of the exhibit—Donna Braden and Bob Casey. I don’t know why they weren’t there, but we were NOT celebrating their absence. Really, I swear. One thing you might notice is that the team is almost entirely women. HA! Take that, car guys everywhere!

This is the citation as printed in the program for the awards ceremony, held during the organization’s annual meeting–this year in Copenhagen. And no, I didn’t get to go to the ceremony. Dang.

Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits
Driving America, The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan

“The history of technology has long suffered an almost exclusively production-oriented perspective.  This is also a pertinent problem for museums of the history of technology, as artifacts of technology, the predominating exhibits on display, represent this production side.  It is an ingenious idea of the Henry Ford Museum to attempt to reverse this logic and focus on the use of technology and how it shaped society.  This is a particularly productive topic in the case of car history.

“Driving America explores the ways in which cars have transformed how we work, play, eat, and live.  It examines how we have adapted the automobile to our needs as well as how we have changed our world to adapt to the automobile’s needs.  This approach makes visible that choices are involved in the use of technology.  Moreover, visitors are challenged to think about how the choices we make today will affect the mobility of future generations.

“The exhibit successfully engages, entertains, and educates the general public, all of whom are familiar with automobiles, even if in many cases, without ever having thought about the car’s centrality in American civilization.  Driving America offers much for car buffs, who justly expect to see both rare and historically significant cars on their visit to the Henry Ford, which they would know has one of the most important automobile collections in the country.

“Driving America is what we would all expect as the winner of this prize: it is in a technology museum, exploring materials at the core of their collection.  The exhibit was able to display curatorial voice and selection with effective results. The Dibner committee would like to commend the curatorial team for Driving America, which does a masterful job of explaining the evolving role of the automobile in American life and the evolving technology and design of the automobile.”

ET and Me

My band played at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop in Nashville recently. It’s part museum, part record store, part music venue, and all real. It’s one of those rare places that evokes the presence of the past with no pretense or self-consciousness. As we were setting up, our bass player needed to elevate his small amp. We started to hand him an old wooden soda box—the type that little bottles of Coke were once shipped in. The sound man stopped us. “That’s the box Loretta Lynn stood on when she sang here! She was so short the folks in the back couldn’t see her.”

If the place were a museum, that box would be an artifact in a case with a label. Here, the whole building and everything in it—the decor, the memorabilia, the staff, the shows, and the stories—is a living artifact.

It’s the continuity of purpose, I think, that keeps the record shop from being touristy. The stage is the same one Ernest Tubb played on when he opened the shop in 1947. The Midnite Jamboree radio show that he started is still broadcast every Saturday night at midnight, right after the Grand Ol’ Opry. Traveling bands and local legends play here often. People just crowd in off the street when the music starts, standing around the record (now CD) bins–no chairs, no drinks, no cover.

I wonder what will happen to the store if and when music recordings leave the physical realm for good. They sell shirts and books and trinkets too. But it wouldn’t be much of a record store without recordings.

As we were packing up and the store was shutting down, the sound man told us the place was once a Civil War era hospital. He said they’ve heard liquid splashing, as if from the second floor windows to the street below, when no one was upstairs. Footfalls on the old wooden floorboards. Sawing sounds.

I’m not sure about ghosts. But even a confirmed skeptic like me might be converted to a believer. Just before I left the stage, I swear I saw ET.

Judging Straightness

This summer I was asked to judge how straight people were. But it’s not what you think.

I was a judge in a plowing competition—plowing the old-fashioned way, with horses. A straight furrow is a point of pride with expert plowboys and plowgirls (or ploughboys and ploughgirls, for those who prefer the British variants).

It’s not that I have any particular skill in plowing, but the annual ALHFAM plowing competition was short a judge. (ALHFAM is the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums.) When the chief judge, Bob Powell of the Highland Folk Museum in Scotland, asked me to help out, he said it was because I won the novice class a few years ago, and the next year—by virtue of having participated one time—got bumped up to the expert, or “fine” plowing class and took third place.

I reminded him that it had been a low-turnout year.

Nonetheless, I agreed to judge mostly because I hoped to extract bribes in the form of cold liquids. After all, we were in Farmer’s Branch, Texas in the scorching summer of 2012.

Da Judge

Why did I wear boots on a 100 degree day? I’m not from Texas!

We had three judges: one looking for consistent depth, one assessing style, and this humble plowgirl judging straightness. Keeping the plow going straight isn’t straightforward, pun intended. Changes in the soil, such as impacted areas or patches of clay, can turn the point, as can obstacles such as rocks. And it’s a little like backing up a trailer or piloting a boat with an outboard motor—you turn the opposite the direction you want to move. With a plow it’s more of a lean than a turn, but the concept is similar.

One contestant wore a dress, perhaps in a misguided attempt to sway the style judge. But the rules committee declared that attire—including the presence or absence of manly footwear—was not to be evaluated. And yes, we’ve had people plow barefoot before.

The more experience competitors have, the less instruction they receive from the plowing coach. All contestants were ably assisted by Bonnie and Max, a pair of Percheron draft horses, and Ken Murray who handled the reins and talked to his team. True experts working with their own teams can handle both the plow and the reins, but thankfully Ken wasn’t part of the competition.

When we got to the banquet where the awards were to be given, I found out that everyone got free cold beer, so all bribes were off. I introduced the ceremony with a little ditty I’d penned on the bus, sung to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Several ALHFAM members have asked for the lyrics. Why, I’m not sure. But here they are:

Oh say can you plow
When you do not know how?
While the judges hold court
And the horses are snorting?

The broad beam and bright share
Taken up on a dare,
While the road apples dropped
Were so bountifully steaming.

Yes the horse runs on grass!
No don’t look at his ass!
Keep your eyes on the dirt,
Best to not wear a skirt.

Oh say does that furrow
Look deep straight and true?
If it is, you win your class,
If it’s not, blame the ass!

One of the Canadian ALHFAM members asked me if it was disrespectful to appropriate the tune from our national anthem in this manner. I told him no, given that the tune started out as an English song celebrating wine, love, and poetry. Why can’t we celebrate beer, horses, and manure?

But in case some of you think I’m not sufficiently respecting America and/or plowing, here’s a poem written by Kentucky poet and author Jesse Stuart. It was published in 1934 in a collection of sonnets titled Man with a Bull Tongue Plow. He lived near where my mother grew up in eastern Kentucky, and near where my mom’s relatives (and my mom, when she was young) worked tobacco with mules for decades. Somewhere I have photos of one of my mom’s cousins in the tobacco with his mule team in 1977. If I can find them I’ll post them.

This is sonnet 10.

Hot summer days and we toil in the fields,
We hoe and plow tobacco, corn and cane,
We walk barefooted on mulch in the fields
Until the mulch is made mud by the rain,
When loose earth packs by rain we hoe again,
And when weeds grow we cut the weeds again.
Beneath the sun we watch the drifting skies,
We lift our hoes and look with sweat-dimmed eyes.
We watch the lazy drifting, drifting skies—
Tobacco leaves are pretty in the wind,
When all the weeds are cut around the stalks
And plows have cleaned the weeds well from the balks.
Tobacco plants are pretty in the wind—
Oh, prettier plants are harder now to find.
–Jesse Stuart

(Thanks to Derrick Birdsall for his photos, and for hosting a great conference.)

Eight Million Sunflower Seeds Can’t Be Wrong

The other day I spotted this headline: “Tate Buys 8 Million ‘Sunflower Seeds'”

For a moment, I thought that London’s famous Tate Modern was branching out into living history, or perhaps starting an heirloom seeds program like that of Pennsylvania’s Landis Valley Museum.

The single quotes should have tipped me off. These were hand-painted porcelain seeds, part of  a 100 million-seed art installation by Chinese artist Ai WeiWei. As I read on, I realized his original 2010 installation had a few similarities to some outdoor museum programs.

Seeds and plants–real ones–are important to many living history museums, as is the food that comes from them. But sometimes for the sake of interpretation, convenience, or cost, artifice comes into play. Imitation foods, products, people, or buildings can become stand-ins for the real thing, references to times and objects that no longer exist.

Mr. Ai’s handpainted seeds have multiple references: sunflower seeds were an important food source in difficult times; the tiny nuggets reminded him of tweets; Mao had called the Chinese people “sunflowers.” Mr. Ai hired 1600 Chinese artisans to make the seeds in a town where traditional porcelainware had been the mainstay for over 1000 years. In that sense, this project was a new application of traditional skills honed over generations–something some of the best living history museums also try to do by learning, preserving, and adapting historical methods and practices.

At first, Tate staff encouraged visitors to touch or wade through the pile of porcelain seeds. But they soon realized that the visitors’ movements caused the seeds to grind together, releasing hazardous dust. How many times have living history museums encouraged visitors to touch, feel, or immerse themselves in an activity and then had to back track when something went awry?

I don’t want to overextend the analogy. I was just having fun thinking about this modern art installation in terms of living history. But the folks at Landis Valley’s heirloom seed operation may want to take note: Sotheby’s sold a portion of the work–100,000 seeds–in London last year for more than half a million dollars. That’s about $5.60 per seed. Perhaps instead of printing an order form, Landis Valley should hire an auctioneer.

UPDATE Feb 3, 2013: Here’s a link to a CBS Sunday Morning feature on Ai WeiWei and a show of his work at the Hirshorn. Powerful.