With Henry Ford’s 150th birthday coming up tomorrow, the limited-engagement exhibition Henry Ford Museum is running this summer on world’s fairs of the 1930s will have a special focus on Henry Ford’s participation on the fairs.
In concert with the “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World Fairs of the 1930s” exhibit in the museum gallery; said Donna Braden, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Public Life; six cases devoted to “Ford at the Fair” have been set up outside the gallery. They contain artifacts and ephemera from the expositions: Chicago, IL—A Century of Progress International Exposition (1933–34); San Diego, CA—California Pacific International Exposition (1935-36); Dallas, TX—Texas Centennial Exposition (1936); Cleveland, OH—Great Lakes Exposition (1936-37); San Francisco, CA—Golden Gate International Exposition (1939-40); and New York, NY—New York World’s Fair (1939-40).
Ironically, Ford boycotted the very first World’s Fair in 1933, according to Braden, because he felt that General Motors had copied his idea for building an assembly line for the fair. He built his own exhibit and took it on the road, she said, but Ford realized his mistake when the Century of Progress drew so much attendance and attention.
Another irony was that attendance was sagging the next year, but interest in the exposition revived when Ford opened up the Rotunda (which was later moved to Dearborn after the fair). The building had a couple wings and covered 12 acres, and was “very eye-catching,” both during the day, and highlighted by special lighting at night.
With such great success at Chicago, Braden said, that led to Henry Ford participating in other world’s fairs.
“The formula was established at the 1934 fair,” she said. “Though the buildings were different at each of the other fairs, the exhibits were basically the same.”
Each Ford exhibit would show the extent that Ford Motor Co. had really penetrated the world by the 1930s, and the latest car models that Ford was bringing out. However, Braden added that by this time, Ford’s interests had gone far beyond automobiles, so he brought educational materials, the experiments he was conducting with soybeans, and the antiques he was collecting at this time for Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village at that time.
Another component of these Ford exhibitions, Braden said, would show off the trade schools that Henry Ford had started with the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. In showing the history of cars, Henry Ford seemed to have special fondness for showing the first quadricycle he built, she said, and the first 1903 Model A that Ford Motor Co. had ever sold. Other parts of the exhibit would talk about the origins of Ford Motor Co., as well as the materials Ford used to make car parts like the soybean.
In regards to the automobile, Braden noted one interesting feature each fair shared was a road: in Chicago, it was the “Road to the World;” in Texas it was the “Roads to the Southwest;” and in San Francisco it was the “Roads of the Pacific”—each of which people could drive their automobiles on, or use the walkway that ran along the road.
Interestingly, the 1939 World’s Fair in New York had the “Road to Tomorrow,” which predicted the coming of freeways. It showed that these roads that would not have intersections, and would allow traffic to move in safety. In pictures of the “Road to Tomorrow,” Braden pointed out one thing that appears odd to modern eyes is it had a walkway as well, which safety concerns would never allow on a modern freeway, “but it must have been very intriguing to people back then.”
It was only a short time later that actual freeways were constructed to serve Ford plants, as the first segment of the Willow Run expressway that was constructed in 1942, and the Davison developed into a modern freeway by the 1940s. It was due to the “Road to Tomorrow,” Braden said, that gave engineers researching on how to build these projects solid information to draw on, “not fanciful ideas.”
The central exhibition in the Henry Ford Museum brings together nearly 150 artifacts of these fairs, such as building models, architectural remnants, furniture, period-film footage, Elektro the Moto-Man robot, and paper items (such as posters, flyers, and souvenir booklets). With the New York World’s Fair theme on designing tomorrow, “they put out some wonderful 3-D souvenir booklets.”
“We did a lot of work borrowing things from people who didn’t realize what wonderful souvenir items they had,” Braden said.
“That relates to the Henry Ford display as well.”
Braden believes there were a couple reasons why the 1930s fairs focused so strongly on introducing new ideas on the future of American life.
“During the Depression, people needed to have hope for the future, and planners of these fairs realized this would be good theme to adopt,” she said. “There were six fairs in all in the United States in the 1930s, which was unprecedented, and climaxed in New York in helping people have hopes and dreams for the future.”
The other factor, she believes, was the new aesthetics, the new changes in the field of industrial design which had been present before, “but really flowered in the 1930s.” A more unified look with smooth and round edges was seen as a sign of progress, “and also kind of a symbol for a futuristic theme,” Braden said, and that is why people are looking back on it fondly.
In terms of look familiar to the people today, Braden said, it is the appliances, washing machines, modern kitchen and electricity that has flowered since that era.
“It looks familiar, because that is exactly what we have today,” Braden said.
However, exhibits that eventually proved to be more like dead ends rather a look at the future, tended to be on houses, she said. Architects envisioned houses with a streamlined look coming in the future, “and that was totally not the case.” The architecture of neighborhoods have remained traditional.
The classic example of this is the regular exhibit possessed by the Henry Ford Museum, the Dymaxion designed by Buckminster Fuller, is an “odd-looking” metallic round house. These small dwellings were intended to be built on a grand scale in entire neighborhoods, but Braden believes the reason this never happened was “people didn’t think it looked like a house.
“It was interestinmg to look at, and people who were into design revered the Dymaxion,” she said. “But something made people stick to old-fashioned housing.”
Another dead-end that has an odd look today is the Westinghouse robot, Braden said. It walked and talked, and even smoked cigarettes, in an apparent attempt to make people comfortable with robots as being “human-like, not scary.” However, robots which are not humanoid looking remained only in science fiction films such as “Star Wars,” Braden noted, though the basic idea behind Electro came true in real life, with embedded smart technology.
Henry Ford’s July 27 birthday coincides with the opening of the Detroit Maker Faire, which features more than 400 participants who “Tinker. Hack. Invent. Make.” from 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on the grounds of The Henry Ford, 20900 Oakwood Blvd. in Dearborn. In its own way, Branden said the Maker Faire “definitely” shares the outlook that the 1930s world fairs had on the future, in the way that it is oriented toward highlighting the ingenuity of the individual.
“That’s an idea that was always held up by Henry Ford himself,” she said. “He kind of revered people who looked a lot like himself.”
If the Henry Ford Museum, the trade schools, and Greenfield Village are looked at closely, Braden said, it becomes clear that was “pretty typical” of Henry Ford, because the people Henry Ford highlighted in these institutions he founded (such as the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison) were “ordinary people who did their own kind of experimentation, and didn’t give up after failure.
“The Maker Faire reinforces those ideals today,” she concluded.
“Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s” opened last April, and is scheduled to run until Sept. 2. It is free to those with an admission to Henry Ford Museum. For information on hours and getting tickets, call (313) 982-6001 or (800) 835-5237 or go to http://www.thehenryford.org.
For tickets and general information on the Maker Faire, visit makerfairedetroit.com, or call the Call Center at (313) 982-6001 to inquire and make your reservation.