*** biographies : Henry Ford

Biographies: Henry Ford (United States, 1863-1947)

Henry Ford
Figure 1.--Henry Ford had a love of American folk traditions and crafts. Ford in particular he promoted folk dancing like square dancing. Interestingly, the assessmbly-line mass production methods that he perfected was a major factor in undermining craft production methods. The press caption here read, "Childreb Learn of McGuffey at First Hand: In the log cabin birthplace of William Holmes McGuffey , one of the show places of Greenfield Village, Henry Ford shows a group of school children how an old time spinning wheel really works. Ford will be host this week-end to the Federation of McGuffey societies." The photograph was taken July 1, 1938.

Few individuals have so impacted the lives of individuals in America and around the world as Henry Ford. Henry grew up in rural Michigan and as an adult remained nostalgic about the rural way of life that he experienced. He loved to tinker, but dislike the hard work involved in farming and academic study. He was as a result poorly educated and left school at 15 nearly illiterare. He seems to have been rather lazy as a boy and that did not change as he grew older. A rather surprising trait in a man who was to become a champion of American industry. Ford was so consistently right about mechanics and manufacturing that he thought he was knew about a wide range of toics that he knew nothing about.


Henry was the eldest of William and Mary Ford's six children. William was a farmer. His father William Ford (1826-1905), was born in County Cork, Ireland. The family was originally from Somerset, England. His mother, Mary Ford née Litogot (1839-76), was born in Michigan as the youngest child of Belgian immigrants. Her parents had died when she was a child and she was adopted by neighbors, the O'Herns.


Henry Ford was born on the family farm in Greenfield Township, Michigan (July 30, 1863). The other Ford children were Margaret Ford (1867-1938); Jane Ford (c. 1868-1945); William Ford (1871-1917) and Robert Ford (1873-1934). Ford from a early point developed a disliking for farm labor. His interest was in mechanics. Henry was an invenerate tinkerer. His father presented him with a pocket watch in his early teens. Ford was fascinated with it. He found ir fascinating to dismantled and reassembled the timepieces of friends and neighbors many times. He acquired the reputation as the local watch repairman. The young Ford was devastated when his mother died (1876). His father expected him as the eldest to eventually take over the family farm. Henry had no desire tomdo so. He absolutely despised farm work. Later in life wrote, "I never had any particular love for the farm -- it was the mother on the farm I loved." `


Ford as ayoung man walked 4 miles to their Episcopal church every Sunday.


Henry attended a one-room school when he was not needed on the farm. He showed little interest in school, however, and as a result was poorly educated. He left school at 15 nearly illiterare. He seems to have been rather lazy as a boy and that did not change as he grew older. [Brinkley] A rather surprising trait in a man who was to become a champion of American industry.


Ford, after school, leving the family farm went to Detroit a rising industrial city aftr the Civil War. He sought a manufacturing job. He was fired from his first factory job and thn failed in a variety of business efforts. Detroit began as aport fo the fur trade. The British after te Revolution did not want to turn the post to the Aericans. The city during the 19th century grew into a thriving hub of commerce and industry. A fire destroyed the emerging city (1805). After a devastating fire in 1805, Augustus B. Woodward devised a street plan similar to Pierre Charles L'Enfant's design for Washington, D.C. Monumental avenues and traffic circles were planned to fan out in radial fashion from Campus Martius Park in the heart of the city. This was intended to ease traffic patterns and trees were planted along the boulevards and parks. The city spread along Jefferson Avenue, with multiple manufacturing firms taking advantage of the transportation resources afforded by the river and a parallel rail line. By the late-19th century when Fod arrived, several Gilded Age mansions were built just east of Detroit's current downtown. Detroit was referred to by some as the Paris of the West for its architecture, and for Washington Boulevard, recently electrified by Thomas Edison. It was Ford, the unknown, virtuallu uneducated farm boy that would turn Detroit into a illar of the American industrial jugernaught.

Ford Motor Company

Unlike many other of the great industrialists, success came relatively late. He was 40 years old when he founded the Ford Motor Company (1903). At the time there were many small manucatuers. Cars were not built in large factories, but in samll craft shops. He like other early automobile manufactuers. They believed that publicity would attract interest in their cars. And the best advertisment was see in building cars athr won races. Ford began building and driving racecars. It was thus at racetracks that Ford's name began to be recognized. Of course few customers wanted a souped up racecar. They wanted a reliable motor vehicle. Ford made a number of models, all unemarlavle vecause thay were expensive like those of his competitors. The Ford Motor Company sold its first car, a Model A, to Dr. E. Pfennig, a dentist, for $850 (1903). Ford continually worked to tinker and improve the cars' design. Models B, C, and F. None especially exited consumers.

Model T

Henry Ford is best known for the the Model "T" Ford and his inovative assessmbly lines which enabled the mass production of the automobile. It was not Ford that invented the automobile or the assembly line. Ford's genbius was to put the two together and in the process transformed America more than any other ndustrialist. It was Ford who first set up an assembly line to mass profuce automobiles. From 1909 to 1927, the Ford Motor Company built more than 15 million Model T cars. The Model "T" brought the automobile within the price range of the average American worker. Not understood at the time was the enormous consequence of this development. This changed the face of America and cities as was a key step in creating the American car-culture. Cities began to devlop around the automobile which became the very center of the country's econonomy and had profound consequences for the American life style, affecting work, leisure, sexuality, archetecture, music, movies, and much more. Both the automobile and mass-consumerism played a key role in making modern America. It also led to a massive expansion of the automobile industry and American industry in general. Besides the economib and social ramifications, the industrial jugernaught that Ford and the Model-T helped create would be a central factor in defeating the totalitarian powers that arose after World War I.

Assesmbly Line

Ford inagurated the assembly line in 1913. He did not, however, invent it. He did improve on it. He adopted the idea from another Michigan based automobile company run by Ransom Olds1--who produced the Oldsmobile. Earlier teams worked together on a car. Then they moved and the car stood still. Finally Olds conceived of the car moving while the workers stood still. His inspiration was apparently the meat packing plants. The efficencenies involved were enormous. They allowed first Olds and than Ford to reduce the cost of the automobile. It was Ford who turned reducing costs into an obsession -- bringing the autmobile into the price range of working men. Other American manufacturers adopoted the assembly line sustem. This occurred at the time that when European workers were often hard put to afford a bicycle. The United States was already the greatest industrial power, the explosion of industrial power began to move the United States toward outstripping all of Europe combined. Auto msnufscturing in Europe remained more of a craft shop activity. This simple matter would affect the ourcome of both World war vI and II. Americn manufscturers opened up operations in Europe. This had more affect in the Soviet Union than Germany.

The $5 Day

The problem with the assembly line was that workers did like it. Ford had troublke keeping workers. Ford as a result intoduved the "Five Dollar Day" in 1914. He reduced the work day to 8 hours. These were key steps in the modern consumer economy. Will Roger's pointed out during the Depresion that America was the only country to go to the poor house in an automobile. Ford was noted at first for offering a living wage to his workers and later for fighting unionization by hiring thugs to attack union leaders. Ford $5 wage attracted many immigrant workers. Ford insisted that they learn English in a company school. There was a 'melting pot ceremony'. Graduates glad in ethnic clothing would move into a melting pot and come out dressed as Americans. Ford also had inspectors check company housing to make sure that workers were leading virtuous lives, keeoing clean hoses, seding the children to school, and opening savings accounts.

The Model-A

Henry Ford and the Model-T Tin Lizzy had put America on wheels, but there other automobile companies. Some coukld not compete. Other simply adopted Ford's innovations and werec able to compete with him. It is interesting that the great inniovative genious that created the Model-T did not want to innovate any further. He consudered the Model-T as the peakn of engineering genius. And he resisted change, famouskly saying, "A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black." His Model -T was so sucessful that he thught that he could dictate to the market. And he amaxingky did so for almost two decades, but ultimately as sucessfyl businessmen find out, the customer is o=always rightb in the end. American car buyers in the Roaring Twenties turn away from the Model-T Tin Lizzie. Its time had come and gone. Genderal Motors, Chrysler , Packard and others were were building cars that that were nbugger, faster, and certainly flahier and Ford's sales were feeling the impact. America was modernizing its highway system and consumer tastes had chabnged. Ford continued to beliece that the Model T was still wht was best for America, especually modest-inciome Americans. And he believed the Model-T was best for thise in rural ares. (And until the 1920s, most Americans lived in rural areas.) So Ford eventually, reluctantly caved in. He ordered Ford's engineers to design a brand new Ford -- the Model-A. And after a two decade run at Highland Park, he wanted a new plant based on the experience gained. And as at Hihland Parl, he turned to Albert Kahn to design it--River Rouge. This would be the world's first 'verically integrated factory'. Raw materials and not just parts would arrive at one end. And the finished Mofel-As, and not just black ones, would be driven out the other end.

Unappealing Aspects

Ford is a biographers dream in that he was a quirky oddball. Despite his central role in American industry, there were many unappealing aspects to his character. Ford not only used extra-legal violence to fight unionization, but was a vicious anti-Semite. He despised Jews, bankers, and unions. And wrote hate-filled pamflets linking all three. He even admired Adolf Hitler, although this in fairness to Ford, was before Hitler became a mass murderer.

World War II and Willow Run

Henry Ford was an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a pacifist which may seem a contraduiction, but we have the advantage of history to go on. After Hiler asnd Stalin launched the War (1939), the Allies as in World War I turned to American, for food, raw materials and manufctured goods. And President Rooseveltv turned to GM Chairman Willian Knudsen, a fierce New Deal critic, to begin preparing American industry for war. It was not an easy task. American industry was emerging from the Depressio and reoporting real profits for the first time in years. Many did not want to prepare for war. And Ford was the greatest holdout. Hard pressed Britain was in desperate need for more of the phenomely imprtnt Merlin engines that powered the Spitfire and would power mny other asircraft. They offered Ford a contract. Edsel was interested, but his father turned the British down flat. America would build Merlins for Britain, but it would be Packard, not Ford. (The Ford subsidiary in Britain would be a major producer of Merlins.) The Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor would change everything (1941). Ford was a pacifist, but he was also a patriot. When America went to war, so did Ford. In adiition by this time, Ford was approching his 80s and Edsel was increasingly running the company. The result was Willow Run (Air Force Plant 31,--the largest war facgtiory in the World, it originally spanned two Michigan counties. Ford insisited on an L-shaoe to keep it out of the Democratic county. It would also be designd of course by Albrt Kahn, although he died before the fsctiry was comopleted. Willow Run (Air Force Plant 31), produced the B-24 bomber which along with the B-17 would turn the NAZI Reich into piles of smoldering rubble. America priduced over 18,000 B-24s, half of which were built at Willow Run.

Grisha Goluboff

Given Ford's blatant anti-Semitism, it is rather interesting that he came to the aid of famed child violin prodigy Grish Coluboff. It was automobile industrialist Henry Ford, of all people, who let Grisha use a Strad from his personal collection, later delivering it to Grisha in an armored car with armed guards for Grisha to use as long as he needed the instrument. All the drama does rather smack of a public relations department. There is a wonderful picture of Henry Ford presenting Grisha with the Strad. This is of course surprising because because Ford and with his hate-filled mouth piece, The Dearborn Independent, was one of the most vicious anti-Semites in American history. The NAZIs actually reprinted some of Ford's books as part of their anti-Jewish campaign. One wonders if this was Ford's idea or that of his public relations department. Ford at the time was locked in a bitter and increasingly violent struggle with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and badly in need of good publicity. As it sometimes the case of many ardent haters, they sometimes find one "good" individual from the target group. Or perhaps it was that Grisha was a child. Whatever the reason, he did loan him the Strad. After Ford's death, his son recalled it saying Ford's collection of violins couldn't be broken up.

Pacifism and Isolationism

Less offensive was Ford's commitment to Pacifism. After World War I broke out, he put together a peace ship and sailed to Europe. The European leaders refused to meet with him. While the mission failed, many gave hm credit for at least trying. When America entered the war, he won government contracts. He offered to return the profits, but never did so. After the War, he claimed that the War was caused by gready bankers and industrialists which he thought were mostly Jews. (In fact Jews at the time were excluded from most boardrooms and banks.) This was one of many examples in which Ford would write about matters he had no knowledge of. His financial support for pacifism was combined with financial support for Hitler from an early point. Ford Motors also had operations in both thecSoviet Union and Germany as well as Britain and France. His isolationism aided the NAZIs and Japanese militarists by promoting isolationism and making it diificult for President Roosevelt to confront their aggressive moves.


Ford purchased a small newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. He made it into a weekly magazine which eventually had a circulation of 0.8 million. He used it to promote anti-semitism and other pet ideas. He didn't like cosmetics, popular dances, and short skirts. A collection of anti-Semetic articles appearng in the magazine wa republished as a book--The International Jew. The bok was reublished by the NAZIs in Germany. He was taken to court for libel, but laimed he had nothing to do with the articles. Ford never advocated violence against Jews. His publications, however, provided justification for such violence.

Folk Culture

Ford had a love of American folk traditions and crafts. He grew up in rural Michigan and as an adult remained nostalgic about the rural way of life that he experienced. Which is kind of intereting because he intendly diliked farming. e loved to tinker, but disliked the hard work involved in farming, Annd he disliked school. Ford in particular he promoted folk dancing like square dancing. Interestingly, the assessmbly-line mass profuction methods that he perfected was a major factor in undermining craft production methods. Ford created Greenfield Village as a historical center to protect American historical sites as a yay of permanently preserving America's early-19rg century foundation. It is a collection of some 100 historic buildings on a 200-acre (80-hectare) site near Dearborn in southeastern Michigan. Ford began the project during the Depression (1933). He panstakingly relocated or reconstructed buildings there from throughout the United States. The village includes the birthplaces, homes, or workplaces of famous Americans, including his own. Also founs there are buildings associated with William Holmes McGuffey, Noah Webster, Luther Burbank, Wilbur and Orville Wright, and many others. Other prminent wxhibiruins Thomas A. Edison's laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey;a Stephen Foster memorial; a courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law; a steam-powered paddleboat and several locomotives; and representative English and early American homes, public buildings, and craft shops. The adjoining Henry Ford Museum houses a fascinating collection of Americana. A modern ad for Greeniels Village reads, "Experience firsthand the sights, sounds and sensations of America's fascinating formation, where over 80 acres brim with resourcefulness and ingenuity. Here, 300 years of American perseverance serve as a living reminder that anything is possible. Step foot in the lab where Thomas Edison had his lightbulb moment or the workshop where the Wright brothers taught us to reach for the sky. Take a ride in a real Model T, or a walk through four working farms. Rub shoulders with world-class artisans, and explore the place where America�s can-do spirit inspires you to go out and get it done."

America and the Automobile

No mechanical device affected American culture more than the automobile. Much of the growth in the American economy after the turn of the 20th century was centered on the new automobile. The American economy by the 1920s was to a large extent centered on the automobile. It was the industry centered on the automobile and trucks that peovided the back bone for the arsenal of democracy that helped defeat the NAZIs and Japanese militarists in World War I. The autmobile also have a profound cultural imapct on America. City planning began to take place when the automobile in mind. Sometimes more attention was given go the automobile than people. The autmobile made possible the move to the suburbs, especilly after World War II. There wre many other cultural impacts of the automobile. Few events were more important for an America boy than obtaining that all important driving license. Other countries were similarly affected, but not to the same extent as the United States. Historical images of boys' clothing sometimes appeared in automobile adverisements. Many American families would have photographs taken around the family automobile. It is interesting to note when searching through E-Bay, the number of American portraits picturing the children and parents with the family car.


Ford marriaded Clara Bryant (1888). Henry's father as a edding present gave him a large piece of land on which Henry built a small house, a sawmill, and a shop he could use for to tinkering.


The Ford's only had one son, Edsel, who was born November 6, 1893. He was Edsel named after a childhood friend Edsel Ruddiman. I have no information on his childhood at this time or the clothes he wore as a boy. Edsel married Elenor and they had four children: Henry II, Benson, Josephine, and William Clay. Ford retired in 19?? and Edsel became president of the Ford Motor Company for a quarter of a century. Edsel grew up in and around the Ford Motor Company that his father devoted himself to. There was the controversy of his World War I draft notice and an exemption, the change from the Model T to the Model A, and the creation of the Ford Foundation. Edsel's role in Ford is rather lost today, but it was in fact significant. [Dominguez] Needless to say, he had nothing to do with the disatrous Edsel car named after him.

Final Years

Edsel ran Ford after his father retired. Edsel died unexpectedly, however, during 1943 in the midst of World War II. His father briefly resumed the presidency, but because of his age and health was not up to the task. He had suffered two strokes by this time. as a result, 2 years later in 1945, Ford handed over the presidency to his grandson and Edsel's son, Henry Ford II. Ford died at home April 7, 1947.


Brinkley, Douglas. Wheeles for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (Viking, 2003), 858p.

Dominguez, Henry L. Edsel: The Story of Henry Ford's Forgotten Son (SAE), 425p.


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Created: June 17, 2003
Last updated: 2:05 PM 7/9/2023