Henry Ford was a fascinating character who truly “gave birth to a modern America.” While he did not invent the automobile, nor the assembly-line technique of mass production, he revolutionized transportation by combining the two in order to make cars affordable and put the country on wheels. He also instituted living wages in his factories – more than double what most mechanics could earn elsewhere; established reduced work week hours; hired the disabled; started a profit-sharing system (open only to those who had been on the job more than six months and who conducted themselves according to a set of “socially approved” behaviors); set up a system of local dealerships so that potential drivers all over America could find and purchase cars; founded schools, hospitals, and an orphanage; sponsored a newspaper, and much more.
Unfortunately, the heading of “much more” would include Ford’s rabid anti-Semitic notions, which he had printed up regularly in his newspaper, “The Dearborn Independent.” The weekly essays were based on the idea that the Jews were “vile, lewd, nasty, erotic, and criminal,” and described the ways in which Ford believed they were responsible for most of the world’s problems. He even would not allow brass to be used in his Model T automobiles, because he was informed it was a “Jew metal.” (Engineers used it anyway but covered it up with black paint.)
Ford was also not the best father, regularly humiliating his son Edsel in front of executives and workers. He thought Edsel was weak, and found a substitute-son in Harry Bennett, a “tough guy” who became Ford’s “personal man,” and who developed a group of enforcers – 800-strong at one point – to roam through the main factor and apply pressure to employees to work faster and not socialize, or even smile. As Reis reports:
“Ford workers learned to communicate without moving their lips. They developed what became known as the ‘Ford whisper.’”
Ford created a museum collecting “Americana” which opened in 1929, with an adjoining “Greenfield Village” that featured many historical structures – some re-created, and others disassembled and then reassembled in Dearborn – including the Logan County Courthouse, where Lincoln argued cases as a young lawyer, Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Complex, the Wright Brothers Garden Shed, and even rides (of course). (You can look at a map here.)
In short, Henry Ford, as Reis writes, “was a man of monumental contradictions.” He had huge flaws, but at the same time, he “not only gave birth to a modern America, he was modern America.” He certainly deserves careful consideration in the history of the country.
Discussion: I love so many aspects of this series of books for kids from the Chicago Review Press. Most of all, they don’t shy away from giving a complete picture of the life of the person being profiled, warts and all. They demonstrate it is possible to applaud the accomplishments of acclaimed figures in history while at the same time admitting to more regrettable aspects of their lives. They understand that to eschew deification and expose inequality and injustice is not to question the entire American project, but to strengthen it by applying standards of fairness to which future citizens may aspire.
A second great feature of this series is the inclusion of activities that not only relate to the subject, but tie in different aspects of learning, from language arts to science to architecture, etc.
Some of the 21 activities in this book include instructions for the following:
construct a simple electric motor
design a hubcap (from a paper plate)
build a lemon-powered battery
build a bird feeder (Ford loved birds, and created a huge bird sanctuary of close to 1,500 acres providing a home to some 200 species)
learn the language of industrial drawing
make a moving assembly line
set up a recycling center (Ford anticipated the environmental movement by setting up recycling centers in his factories)
dance the waltz (Ford not only published a dance manual, but opened dancing schools for the boys and girls of Dearborn, which in time spread from Michigan to the East Coast)
This book also contains a time line, glossary, annotated list of internet resources, bibliography, and index.
Evaluation: This series of books from the Chicago Review Press for kids is outstanding. Each provides a comprehensive and accessible overview of the subject matter, adds fun and informative activities, and treats history as it should be treated: without misleading filters that glamorize and/or obfuscate the truth.
Published by Chicago Review Press, 2016