- Historic Sites
What happened when the richest man in America decided to collect one of everything
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
To keep a bridle on his growing passion for the past, Ford reserved one day a week for his personal collecting. Often he would motor around rural Michigan, eyes peeled for rusting farm machines. Spying one, an aide recalled, “he’d be out of the car and up to the farm door to dicker for that damned scrap.” Getting word that some household had something worth having, Ford would knock on the door, introduce himself as “Mr. Robinson,” and politely inform some flabbergasted housewife that he wanted to buy, say, her family china. With an aide at his side he would visit curio shops, spot an item he liked, whisper a few words to his companion, and quietly leave the premises. Then the aide would ask the storekeeper as casually as possible how much he wanted for the entire store. “It was quite amusing sometimes,” a Ford lieutenant recalled, “to see their consternation and regret when they found out who bought the goods.” Told to pack up their entire stock and ship it to Dearborn, they knew at once that the world’s richest man had passed through their lives, just once and no more.
By 1925, when the novelist Hamlin Garland paid it a visit, the sometime tractor plant was already bulging. To Garland it seemed at first “only an immense warehouse of discarded machinery and old furniture … the storehouse of the outworn.” Picking his way through the jumble, however, he found himself moved, as Ford himself was moved, by “the homely character of the objects. … Here was the long-legged stove under which, as a boy of five, I had laid to learn my letters. … I took into my hand the tin lantern which I had so often held while my father milked the cows.” Here, adjacent to the future-minded Ford Experimental Laboratory, lay “all the time-worn, work-worn humble tools and furnishings of the average American home” of rural days now passing.
At the onset homely and domestic artifacts were Ford’s chief preoccupation, the evidence, as he himself put it, of “American life as lived.” Gradually, however, another and quite different objective began taking shape alongside the first. Ford began systematically collecting at great cost an enormous array of machinery designed to exhibit the progressive mechanization of the human economy from its steam-power beginnings in the eighteenth-century England of Newcomen and Watts—that mighty Industrial Revolution which, of course, had turned Ford’s “saner and sweeter” life into a spiritual relic. If two Ford personalities were “striving for mastery,” neither would ever achieve it. As much as Ford loved the “magic of his youth” he continued to love with equal fervor the inexorable march of mechanical progress. However, Ford would view the contradiction from a vantage point foreclosed to the rest of us. In a sense the entire Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was part of Ford’s personal past and possessed in its own way the magic of his youth. If that magic adhered to “time-worn, work-worn, humble” things, it adhered equally to the thousand and one inventions and improvements—some famed, most unsung—which had contributed like so many tributary streams to the mighty river of assembly-line mass production, what historians now call the “Second Industrial Revolution.” In a word, to Fordismus.
By 1926, moreover, even the Industrial Revolution—the first one, that is—was taking on the sweetness of days gone by. That year a shocking turn of events was threatening to shatter Ford’s harmonious industrial empire: the beloved Model T, essentially unchanged since 1908, had begun to lose its popular appeal. The news stunned Dearborn. That such a thing could never happen had been the premise of Ford’s great achievement. It was because he—and he alone—had decided to design the perfect, pared-down cheap automobile and keep on producing it forever that he had been able to introduce the assembly line. That premise itself depended on a still larger assumption: that Americans would want a Model T forever. Ford could see no reason why they would not. The Model T embodied all the virtues Americans had so long admired. It was tough, durable, dependable, and simple—republican simplicity embodied in a vehicle. It was so down-to-earth, so stubbornly utilitarian that its very ugliness seemed a mark of its puritan mettle. Now a pretty little upstart called the Chevrolet was drawing Ford’s customers away in droves. Model T jokes were no longer affectionate: “Why is the Model T like a bathtub? Because nobody wants to be seen in one.” Urbanity, modishness, and jazz-age sophistication, all of which Ford profoundly loathed, were corrupting republican simplicity, and the corruption was now showing in the sales charts. Sometime in 1926 the Motor King was forced to make one of the most painful decisions of his career. As of May, 1927, the Model T would go out of production. The pride of Ford’s life was going away and with it his strongest link to an increasingly distasteful “Now.”