- Historic Sites
What happened when the richest man in America decided to collect one of everything
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
If all this seemed wildly contradictory, Ford himself was a jumble of contradictions. In 1921, the very year he was tenderly restoring the family farm, there issued from Dearborn one of his typically cranky pronouncements: “The Cow Must Go!” The world, explained the Motor King to his countrymen, would do well to get rid of the filthy beast and learn to drink synthetic, sanitary factory-made milk. In 1924, the year he restored a country inn at the cost of more than half a million dollars, Ford also built the first all-metal trimotored airplane and plunged for a time into the new world of commercial aviation. That was the year, too, when Ford, wildly oscillating between the past and the future, launched his personal crusade to persuade Americans to take up the reel and the quadrille, Ford’s personal rejoinder to the jazz age in general and the black bottom and Charleston in particular.
“If only Mr. Ford was properly assembled,” lamented Dean Samuel Marquis, an Episcopal divine who knew the Motor King well. “There rages in him an endless conflict between ideals, emotions and impulses as unlike as day and night—a conflict that makes one feel that two personalities are striving within him for mastery.” The Edison Institute would be proof of that.
In the meantime Ford had become a collector of Americana. While restoring the homestead he had acquired a modest surplus of relics that did not fit the farm. Nevertheless they were old and familiar, and Ford could not bear to part with them. He piled them up in a corner of his office. So matters stood until 1922 when a Ford Motor Company tractor operation was moved to a new location, leaving vacant a three-acre building. The space seems to have inspired in Ford an intense determination to fill it. The result, quickly apparent, was the most rapid, the most all-embracing, the most original feat of collecting the world has ever seen. Ford’s resources as a collector were obviously extraordinary. His unparalleled wealth was accountable to no one. He owned the Ford Motor Company lock, stock, and barrel. His manpower resources were even more extraordinary. Every Ford employee was his to command; thousands of grateful Ford dealers could be treated as mere errand boys. Moreover, he had millions of admiring fans in the country—the “Ford Craze” the press called it in 1923—who looked on the Motor King as a benefactor. They too were ready to pitch in.
Even that was not all. In 1922 Ford had the field to himself, and the field, as defined by Ford, was so immense and so unorthodox that some people thought the Motor King had taken leave of his senses. What he wanted to collect was everything. His instructions to his collecting army were simple, clear, and comprehensive. “Get everything you can find! He wanted, as he later put it, “a complete series of every article ever used or made in America from the days of the first settlers down to the present time.”
Price was no object. Ford refused to haggle. Whatever anyone asked, he paid, since, in truth, he valued the humble relics of the American past far higher than anyone else did at the time. Once one of his aides approached a collector of old carriages with an offer to buy. The man dropped dead on the spot. When an assistant told him he was overpaying for something, Ford snapped back: “What difference does it make what it costs if it is what we want.”
Backed by Ford’s wealth, his zest, and his driving will, the Ford army marched and countermarched across the American landscape. The mighty net they threw over the country had a mesh of extraordinary fineness. Today visitors to the awesome museum can see—if they look sharply—poignant proof of that in its single smallest exhibit. It is a little collection showing the evolution of the clothespin, the oldest so big it suggests that American wives once hung out wet clothing with the wearers inside. With astounding swiftness, the army collected enough artifacts to outfit an old-time toy store, drugstore, barbershop, baker’s, milliner’s, cooper’s, pewterer’s, locksmith’s, and a dozen more, not to mention the complete period furnishings of the 107 buildings, spanning three hundred years, which now compose Greenfield Village.
When news got out that the Motor King was buying up priceless heirlooms, meaning things nobody had ever seen fit to put a price to, letters began pouring into Dearborn with offers to sell the old family spinning wheel, a Navaho rug, a quilt, a McCormack-Deering binder rusting in the yard. By and large Ford bought what was offered. As a result the man who wanted one of everything wound up with some five hundred spinning wheels. What the Ford army missed the man himself acquired from dealers. For 1922 the Ford Archives—an important part of the Edison Institute—shows requests for such items as “old Shaker bonnets,” “old nut pickers,” and “Scotch rolling pins for the making of scones.”