Monday, March 17, 2008

The Henry Ford Museum

By now I'm sure you've read of my fondness for the Greenfield Village open air museum located in Dearborn, Michigan. If you haven't you must be new to this blog. Well, on the same grounds of the Village is the Henry Ford Museum, an indoor collection of Americana second only to the Smithsonian in scope. That's a mighty big claim, I know, but read on to see why:
When Henry Ford (the man/car magnet) began collecting all things American back in the early days of the 20th century, folks from all over were very happy to help him out by sending him all of their "junk" they had stored in their basements and garages. Items of little use, including old-time farm implements, cooking and heating stoves, yarn winders, eating utensils, furniture, watches & clocks, spinning wheels, guns, etc.
Little did they know that what they were giving away (and in some cases, selling) would one day become museum pieces - objects that told the story of the average (and not-so-average) American of the 18th and 19th centuries. Other museums at the time held paintings of the great artists, furniture of kings and queens, and items that people of great wealth once owned. But that wasn't what Mr. Ford was interested in. He wanted to show the things that made America great. He wanted the light to shine on folks like you and me - everyday people.
At one point, Ford realized he needed a place to store all of his treasures and decided to build a museum, originally called the Edison Institute, after his hero Thomas Edison.
Ford’s collection grew beyond the everyday items that he obtained: more classic automobiles that you can imagine, George Washington’s camp bed and trunk from the late 1700’s, trains and more trains, buggies and carriages, pre- WWII airplanes, an original 1940’s diner, the car that Kennedy was killed in, a writing desk belonging to Mark Twain, and another belonging to Edgar Allen Poe, a teapot made by Paul Revere, Henry Ford’s very first car known as the Quadricycle, an original MacDonald’s sign from the 1950’s, lighting through the years…the collection of Americana just goes on and on.
There is one very unique piece of American History here that goes beyond the scope of what other museums - including the Smithsonian - has: the Lincoln Rocker. 
This is the actual chair that President Lincoln was sitting in at the Ford Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865. To his right sat his wife Mary, and just beyond her were their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris. Of course, as you (hopefully) know, around 10:30 John Wilkes Booth shot our 16th president at point blank in the back of the head, and the rest of the story is history.
Except for this chair.
What most do not know is that this chair now sits in the Henry Ford Museum. According to the web site American Lincoln Online  "The rocker's importance became obvious immediately after Lincoln's death. The War Department held it as evidence during the trial of the assassination conspirators.

And from an article in the Washington Post:
In January 1867, the War Department sent it to the Department of the Interior. Interior Secretary O.H. Browning acknowledged receipt of the chair, writing, "It will afford me satisfaction to have the Chair deposited in the proper place, among other relics, in this Department for safekeeping."
Soon after, the chair - along with the stovepipe hat Lincoln wore to the theater that night - were put on display at the Patent Office building. They were exhibited for only a year or two, and in 1869 the two items were delivered to the Smithsonian. They were kept in storage, their exact whereabouts a closely held secret. 
In 1893 the chair was sent to a museum that Union veteran and Lincolniana collector Osborn Oldroydit remained in storage. Then, in 1928, Blanche Chapman Ford, the widow of Harry Clay Ford (the original owner of the chair who loaned it to the Ford Theater for Lincoln's use), wrote to the Smithsonian. Was it true, she asked, that they had the chair, and if so, "Will you kindly tell me why it is not on exhibition?" She added that if it was not of use to the museum she would like to have it. opened at 516 10th St. NW, the house in which Lincoln died. There it stayed for the next four years. It was returned to the Smithsonian (where)
Smithsonian curator Theodore Belote responded that it was the museum's policy not to show objects "directly connected with such a horrible and deplorable event." Perhaps, but Brian Daniels, a Smithsonian Archives research associate who has studied the circuitous history of the chair, thinks there was another reason: Belote, the son of Maryland slave owners, was not fond of Lincoln. He was happy to see the chair go.
In the spring of 1929, Blanche Ford's son George collected the chair. That December it was on the auction block, selling for $2,400 to Israel Sack, a Boston antiques dealer who conveyed it to Henry Ford for his new museum.  
"This is the chair that embodies a transformative moment in time for America and indeed the world," said Christian Overland , vice president of the Henry Ford museum. 
"It kind of is like the one that got away," Daniels said.

I have read that the Smithsonian as well as the Ford Theater has asked numerous times for the chair for their own respective museums. Of course, the Henry Ford Museum has always responded in the same way - a resounding "no."
Think about it: if you were the curator of such a museum, would you let this piece of Americana go? The Henry Ford Museum has also painstakingly restored the chair in 1999 and placed it in a temperature-controlled environment to ensure its longevity for generations to come.

I believe my favorite part of the's a tie between the carriages and buggy department and the furniture exhibit. 
The Buckboard from 1885
The Chaise from 1870

And the Concord Coach - great for travelling - from 1865
Of course, the area with the trains is truly spectacular, too:
The Dewitt Clinton from 1831

The Sam Hill from 1858

and the gigantic Allegheny from 1941

The variety of items in this museum continually astound me.For instance, they can actually say "George Washington slept here" - well, not in the museum itself, but they do have his camping bed and other supplies from 1770 belonging to our soon to be 1st President!


And then there's a wonderful piece of mid-20th century that one rarely sees any more - Lamy's Diner from the 1940's

Please see the description of this wonderfully
interesting cupboard below the picture.
(The following information came from The Henry Ford site. I found it fascinating in that it brought this beautiful piece of furniture to life):
We believe that Hannah Barnard was born in the late 17th century, probably in Hadley, Massachusetts. She was 31 (a "spinster") when she married John Marsh in 1715 and died shortly thereafter giving birth to her daughter, Abigail. We believe that this was Hannah's "marriage" or "dower" chest--a fairly expensive piece of furniture she received or had made specifically to be brought into her new household. Her press cupboard stored precious household linens which were time-consuming to make, and may have held silver or ceramics in the upper portions.
The colorful hearts, petal flowers, vines, and half-circles are characteristic of a number of "Hadley-chests" made around Hadley, Massachusetts nearly three centuries ago. Six of them include women's names painted on the front, such as this. It is unusual for a piece of furniture to be decorated with anyone's name, much less a woman's. Why was her name put on the front?
We're not sure. Perhaps, after thirty years as a Barnard, did Hannah not want to forget her family name as she entered into marriage with Mr. Marsh? Or did it mark the fact that Hannah was well aware that while women could not inherit property, they could inherit moveable furniture? Did she ask that her name be painted there? Or was she surprised and embarrassed when she received it from her family or her betrothed?
We can only speculate. What we do know is that it is one of the few pieces of furniture that we can say was made for, and used by a woman.
The Hannah Barnard press cupboard is currently on display in the Fully Furnished exhibit in Henry Ford Museum.

As I said, I never cease to be amazed at the amount of American history found here inside this awesome museum - and to think that Greenfield Village is right next door!!
I will do future postings on other wonderful historical objects that are displayed inside this world of Americana.


Mike Gillett said...

Like the Barnard cupboard, everything in the museum - unless it went from factory to the museum - sat in someone's house (or garage). And was used daily. Sure, the car that Kennedy was killed in or the chair that Lincoln was killed in, are the big, "Wow, THEY actually touched this" awe-filled items. But someone actually hand-crafted (the older stuff) and someone used it (maybe the same person)... and this is something left. What was it's story and what is their story!? It is the questions that takes history from being dead and dry, to being alive and compelling. I love your site, bro!

Hannah said...

That's so funny. My name is Hannah Barnard~

Hannah said...

That's so funny. My name is Hannah Barnard!

Historical Ken said...

Thanks for writing Hannah - who knows, you could be a relation to the much older Hannah!

Unknown said...

What did you do with your wonderful paintings by
Paul Sample, William Barss, Henry McDaniel,Dwight Shepler, Glen Mcnutt,Charley Harper and others? (All used for illustrations in Ford Times)
Are they lost to posterity?

Historical Ken said...

jojo -
This blog has no affiliation with The Henry Ford. It is strictly written out of my love for the Village and museum.
Might I suggest you getting a hold of the Benson Ford Research Center to have your questions answered? They, if anyone, would be able to tell you what happened to the items you mentioned.
There site is: