I Invented the Modern Age
CHAPTER 1 A Homecoming
Saving the farm, then saving the entire past; between the steam engine and the Apple; “nobody knew anything about cars”; Fordism.
On a summer day in 1919 a middle-aged man left his Detroit office and drove out to Dearborn, ten miles away, to see the house where he’d been born. It was a farmhouse, long past its best days, and any passersby who noticed him poking around it must briefly have wondered what this visitor was doing there.
He wasn’t in any way flamboyant, but he was obviously prosperous, probably wearing one of the neat, quiet gray suits he favored year-round. A little over middle height, he stood so straight that most who met him described him as “tall.” He was moderately good-looking, but what might have been an ordinary face had already somehow proved impossible for painters, journalists, and even photographers to capture satisfactorily. Team sports had never interested him although he was athletic and loved to challenge friends to footraces; each time he moved to another vantage point in the farmhouse yard, he did it suddenly and quickly, almost as if he were answering a starting gun. He was not an architect, but he knew how things were put together,
and carefully studied the window frames, the chimney, the pitch of the roof. This might be his last chance to see the farmstead, because the house was about to be destroyed.
That was largely his fault. The flow of traffic had grown so heavy in the past decade that the Dearborn city fathers had decided the road bordering the sixty-year-old building needed to be widened. Every second car contributing to that traffic bore the man’s name. Henry Ford was making half the automobiles in America.
Few people have the means to defy this sort of progress, but Ford did. He had the farmhouse moved two hundred feet back from the new road. But once the house was safe, it wouldn’t let him alone. At first he merely had it restored—some carpentry, fresh paint—but that wasn’t enough. He found that he wanted it furnished as it had been in the 1870s, when he was a boy interested in machinery, taking watches apart in his room there.
Now the tenacious perfectionism of the man took over. Representative furniture, typical furniture of the 1860s, wouldn’t do. It had to be the same furniture. He’d kept warm in the Michigan winters beside a Starlight Stove in the front parlor. He spent months searching for one, found a near-perfect example—but no, it was a bit too small, it wasn’t a Model 25. Then there was the carpeting on the stairs, a faded rusty crimson that he remembered precisely. He had one of the fifty thousand men who worked for him go through antiques shops—local ones, at first, then as far away as Cincinnati—to match it.
The family china: He could remember the stair carpet, but not the plates he had once eaten off. Workers excavated where the dooryard had been, and came up with a ceramic shard large enough to reveal the pattern. Ford had a full dinner service reproduced. Beds, chairs, sofas were found and reupholstered. Ford’s agents got the right bureau, and Ford specified exactly what needles and thread should stock one of the drawers. He deviated from utter fidelity with the family organ. It was born with a foot-pump, but Ford had the instrument electrified—nobody could see the difference, after all—and when he stepped back into his youth he would sit at the keyboard for hours, laboriously
playing with a finger or two the first songs he’d heard: “Turkey in the Straw,” “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”
Upstairs the beds were made with fresh linen; out back stood the stacks of firewood, just as they had in his boyhood; the reservoirs of all the kerosene lamps were full, their wicks trimmed and ready for the match.
Ford had got more things than he’d needed to furnish his farmhouse. He kept the overflow in his office until 1922, when one of his tractor operations moved, leaving behind it an empty building that covered three acres. With this repository available, the carmaker’s ambitions expanded beyond the home of his youth to encompass the world of his youth.
Once again his agents went out, this time in their hundreds. They were, said the boss, to bring back “a complete series of every article ever used or made in America from the days of the first settlers down to the present time.”
The stream began to flow in: birdcages and settees and patent washboards; carriages, rifles, apple-parers; reapers and binders and the lunch wagon where Ford had grabbed meals when he was working for Detroit Edison back in the nineties. Ford accumulated enough objects, as it turned out, to entirely furnish, from weather vane and lightning rod to mantel clock and furnace, 107 buildings.
At the time, those buildings were living out their lives far from Ford and far from one another. One was a courthouse in Illinois where the young Abraham Lincoln had argued cases; two were Georgia slave cabins, one the brick storefront where Wilbur and Orville Wright sold bicycles while they conducted their momentous experiments.
The homely items Ford had collected still radiated the residual warmth of life from a vanished time, but the signals they sent out were faint, diffuse, cluttered. Put them in a landscape where men and women had used them, though, and their feeble, dissonant notes might become a powerful harmony.
Beyond the airport Ford had just built in Dearborn—it was 1926 now—lay a tract of land where nothing much at all had ever happened.
He would, he decided, inject these anonymous acres with history by building on them a monument to the past: a village that would preserve the “American life as lived” of what he called a “saner and sweeter” time.
The man incubating this plan had done more than anyone else alive to annihilate that life; and he found much of its sweet sanity repellent. Everyone today knows his name, but very few could attribute more than one statement to him, which is that history was “bunk.” The “bunk” part he perceived in history may have been the sheer mass of it, all those names you had to learn, all those treaties and tariffs and boundary disputes. Ford always liked to see the thing itself. Years later some of his old lieutenants would say he couldn’t read a blueprint. He could, and competently, too. But it is perfectly true that he would far rather see the objects encoded in the cool white lines. His sense of what was sound engineering transmitted itself most surely through his fingertips.
So it was with the past. Ford wanted to be able to handle it, to walk inside it and look around. He bought the Illinois courthouse and moved it to Dearborn, to the town he had named Greenfield Village, after his wife’s birthplace. He bought the Wright brothers’ cycle shop, and moved it there, too—and, to keep it company, the carpentry Queen Anne house the brothers grew up in. He brought Thomas Edison’s laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey, along with a dozen freight-car loads of Jersey dirt so it could stand amid the snails and fungi it had always known, and the boardinghouse where Edison’s hard-pressed staff hadn’t slept enough.
The Edison Illuminating Company and its dynamos took up residence near Noah Webster’s home. Toward the end of his life Ford moved his farmstead there, and you can walk right into it today and see that perfectly retrieved stair carpeting.
What you won’t see in Greenfield village is a bank, or a law office: Ford had no use for bankers and lawyers. Many of them were Jews, he believed, and all were leeches who lived off the blood of creativity. He had no hesitation—for many years, at least—in sharing this information
with anyone who would listen. This was Ford at his most independent and least attractive, tirelessly venting the cranky certainties that had seeped into his character even as he became famous.
All was mixed together as he conjured up his village, and it remains a place of contradictions, at least as far as his first expressed purpose goes. Edison and the Wrights had not worked to preserve the agrarian world of Ford’s boyhood. And neither had Ford.
As his village took shape, it turned out to be a wistful tribute not only to the sturdy American small farmer and the one-room schoolhouse where his children absorbed virtue along with grammar from their McGuffey’s Readers, but also to the forces that swept that world away, the dynamo and the electricity it conjured, the airplane, and of course the machine that Ford began building in 1903 in his Mack Avenue factory, whose gray-painted board front he carefully re-created.
Once, stopping at a house he was planning to move, where he had spent a good deal of time as a boy, Ford made a discovery. “I found some marbles, put a few of them in the palm of my hand, and as I applied pressure, they disintegrated. Life, change, had gone on.”
Not in Greenfield Village. As building after building arrived, as the automobile factory rose near the smithy, it became increasingly clear that this town was a concrete representation of Henry Ford’s mind, the things he missed, the things he took pride in, his ability to banish the things he disliked.
It was a monument not only to the agrarian youth of the nation, but also to the vehemently nonagrarian youth of Henry Ford.
Greenfield Village is a place unlike any other because its creator’s youth was unlike any other. Walking its streets as dusk fell, or going through the enormous museum he built next to it, Ford could retrieve that youth. And such was the strength of his engaging, elusive, infuriating personality that more than sixty years after his death, so can you and I.
He would have wanted that. His willful egotism only grew stronger as he aged, but it never got strong enough to blind him to the fact that the first half of his life was by far the better half.
Those were the years before an improvident libel suit had brought him into a nationally publicized trial in which the prosecution set out to prove his ignorance; before his bigotry boiled over and he was tormented into making insincere public retractions; before he was scared of his workers; before he got at odds with his only son and, in the view of his grandson Henry II, literally badgered him to death.
No, there’s none of that in Greenfield Village. Passing by its yards and alleys its founder would have caught spectral glimpses of his mother, dead when he was thirteen, of his first car jittering triumphantly through the vacant streets of two-in-the-morning Detroit, of the Grosse Pointe racetrack in 1901, where the pennant of blue smoke from the engine of Alexander Winton’s far more powerful automobile signaled Ford that he was about to win a career-saving victory, and of the day not long after his mother’s death when he and his father went into town. Their wagon came upon a steam-powered farm engine heading toward a job. There was nothing unusual about that, but rather than attaching it to draft horses, the owner had thought to attach it to itself. Hissing and smoking right there in the everyday road, the engine was moving toward the enchanted boy under its own power.
Every century or so, our republic has been remade by a new technology: 170 years ago it was the railroad; in our time it’s the microprocessor. These technologies do more than change our habits; they change the way we think. Henry David Thoreau, hearing the trains passing Walden Pond, wrote, “Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?” And of course anyone over the age of twenty (younger, and it’s simply the air you breathe) knows what computers and the Internet are doing to us now.
In between the steam locomotive and the Apple came Henry Ford’s Model T. One day toward the end of his life its maker was talking
with a local high school boy named John Dahlinger, whose father had helped lay out his village, and they got onto the subject of education. Ford spoke of the virtues of the McGuffey’s Reader era, and this sounded pretty fusty to Dahlinger. “But, sir,” he protested, “these are different times, this is the modern age and—”
“Young man,” Ford snapped, “I invented the modern age.”
The claim is as preposterous as it is megalomaniacal. It is also largely true.
Sometime early in 1908 a knot of workmen stood peering up at the ceiling in a building on Piquette Avenue in Detroit. A few years later, these men would have been drenched in daylight in a new factory so lavishly windowed that it was known as the Crystal Palace. But this was just like any other big factory, and the object of their attention glinted dully above them in the perpetual industrial dusk.
A new kind of engine, swaddled in more rope than the task demanded, was inching its way down toward the chassis of a new kind of car.
The descending engine began to swing heavily in its slings, and, accompanied by impotent shouted instructions, started to revolve, slowly and then faster, until it tore loose and plummeted down through the car body to the factory floor.
A worker named James O’Connor remembered the moment of horrible silence that followed ended when the two men superintending the mounting of the engine got into a heated disagreement about which of them had been responsible for the catastrophe.
“I know more about cars than you will ever know!” one yelled.
His colleague came back predictably with, “I know more about cars than you will ever know!”
Henry Ford didn’t find this a productive discussion. The slender man in the neat suit stepped forward and gestured them to pipe down. They’d fix the engine and try again. He’d stay around until the job
got done. He was annoyed, of course, but not full of fury and blame. There might be time for such indulgences in the years ahead, right now he was building his first Model T and he just wanted to get on with it.
The engine went in the next morning.
Decades later, James O’Connor, looking back on the squabble between the men in charge of the job, said, “I often think about them saying, “I know more about cars than you do.’ Nobody knew anything about cars.” That was not entirely true—253 American carmakers were in business at the time the engine fell—but it was true enough.
In 1925 an editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, seeking a contribution on a topic still too recent to have been mentioned in earlier editions, asked Henry Ford to write an article about “mass production.”
The essay appeared over Ford’s name. It is a lucid, concise, occasionally eloquent statement that, a little more than a decade later, the historian Roger Burlingame described as “a colossal blurb that begins “In origin, mass production is American and recent; its earliest notable appearance falls within the first decade of the 20th century,’ and devotes the remainder of the article and two full pages of half-tone plates [photographs] to the Ford factory.”
Burlingame said Ford’s “great one-man show” suggested that mass production had “never existed in the world before.” What about Eli Whitney, Burlingame asked, who had pioneered the idea of interchangeable parts for rifles back in the 1790s? What about Oliver Evans, whose fully automated flour mill had prefigured Ford’s moving assembly line at almost the same time? And Singer, who had deluged the world with his sewing machines a generation before Henry Ford ever thought of an automobile?
Burlingame’s ridicule did not touch on the question of the article’s authorship, although the man who actually wrote it, Ford’s spokesman and explainer William J. Cameron, said he “should be very much surprised to learn” that his boss had even read it.
Here, for example, is a passage from the Britannica essay that accurately states a belief Ford held: “The early factory system was uneconomical in all its aspects. Its beginnings brought greater risk and loss of capital than had been known before, lower wages and a more precarious outlook for the workers, and a decrease in quality with no compensating increase in the general supply of goods. More hours, more workers, more machines did not improve conditions; every increase did but enlarge the scale of fallacies built into business. Mere massing of men and tools was not enough; the profit motive, which damaged enterprise, was not enough.”
And here is a sample of this essay’s putative author writing, just a few years earlier, on the futility of war: “But the people who profitt [sic] from war must go . . . . War is created by people who have no country or home except Hadies Hell and live in every country.”
Ford wouldn’t have cared about Burlingame’s criticisms, nor would he have been in the least embarrassed had anyone accused him of putting his name to an article he’d never seen. He would have known he was in the right. He was always sure of that.
Often he was disastrously wrong about things, but he was not wrong about this big one. Mass production, which reshaped America in a decade, and which created our national prosperity in the twentieth century, was Henry Ford’s doing.
To a degree, even the phrase itself is. The Britannica’s editor asked him to write about “mass production,” but it was the “H.F.” attached to the article that planted the term in the language forever. Before that, people had called what it described “Fordism.”