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—a complex man
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
One of the most remarkable facts about Henry Ford is that his fame and the Ford legend were born almost simultaneously, and born full-grown. Both came late in life, when he was fifty. The industrialist, we may say without exaggeration, was little known until he suddenly became a world celebrity. He was tossed into international eminence on January 5, 1914, when the Ford Motor Company startled the globe with its “Five Dollar Day.”Until then, Henry Ford had touched the national consciousness but occasionally and glancingly. He had founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903, when already forty; after some years of uncertain struggle, he had produced a model, distinguished from previous Models B, N, and S by the letter T, which precisely filled a ravenous national want; he had erected at Highland Park, just outside Detroit, one of the best-planned and most efficient factories in the world. He and a group of tireless, gifted associates were bringing to birth that magic implement of global change termed mass production; still little understood (for most people ignorantly equate it with quantity production, which is merely one of its half-dozen chief components) , and then not understood at all. Ford was, of course, known in the Detroit area as an astonishingly successful manufacturer, and in the automotive world as the dauntless leader of the battle against the Selden patent monopoly, bunt elsewhere until 1914 the name Ford connoted a brand, not a man.
Henry Ford’s sudden fame did not burst and fade; it remained fixed in the skies as a brightening star. Seekers for facts on the mind and character of the man before 1914 find that the materials are scanty, that most of them pertain to his activities as a racer and in the shop, and that when pieced together they furnish no real portrait. But after 1914, what a change! The spate of articles, books, interviews, and reminiscences becomes ever more torrential. “The Ford and Charlie Chaplin,” remarked Will Rogers, “are the best known objects in the world.” As the renown grew, unfortunately, so did the confusing legend. As one parodist of the Ford Motor Company slogan put it, “Watch the Ford myths go by!”
Lord Northcliffe extolled Henry Ford to the British public as symbol and exemplar of American energy, confidence and resourcefulness. In Paris Charles M. Schwab, invited to a dinner by Baron Rothschild, electrified the table by describing Ford’s achievements. For a time in 1923–24 Ford’s quasi-autobiography, translated as Mein Leven und Werke , was one of the two best-selling books in Germany. From Sweden to Turkey a new word, Fordismus , epitomized the new mass production engineering, the new low-price economy of abundance, and the new efficiency speed-up. Throughout Latin America Ford’s personality was regarded as summing up the quintessential American traits and gifts. As for Russia, painfully aware of her industrial backwardness, Henry Ford was a figure about whom moujiks and mechanics wove wistful dreams. Fordizatsia or Fordization was one of the terms of power in the new era. A visit from Ford, wrote Maurice Hindus, would have called out Russian admirers in hordes.
In the United States, too, the Ford of fact and the Ford of myth were for a time indistinguishably blended. “While I do not accept all of Mr. Ford’s industrial philosophy.” wrote John A. Ryan, Director of the National Catholic Welfare Council, after reading My Life and Works , “I realize more strongly than ever that he has made the greatest contribution toward a solution of more than one of our industrial problems that has yet been made by any captain of industry.” The public devoured books about him by Allan Benson, William L. Stidger, Rose Franklin Lane, Charles Merz, Ralph Graves, Dean Marquis and others. Technologists and manufacturers studied the classic work on Ford machines and Ford methods by Arnold and Faurote, an able primer of mass production requirements.
The fifteen years 1914 saw Henry Ford at apogee. The American masses took him to their hearts; every clerk and farmer had his own image of the man. But which lines in that image were false, and which true? The task of gaining a true portrait was not simplified by writers who tried to establish an artificial pattern, for of all human beings the complicated, disorganized Ford least responds to that effort. Nor was it simplified by the fact that Henry Ford discovered himself about the time the world did, and announced his discovery by pronunciamentos from on high and essays in selfportraiture which wove oriental embroideries about the real man.