The life of Henry Ford, industrialist, pioneer of mass production, and public sage, spanned an 85-year period in the history of the United States that saw perhaps the most profound and fundamental changes in culture, politics, and technology in U.S. history, and his role was central in all these areas. Ford perfected the methods of mass production that reshaped industries beyond automobile manufacturing; he pioneered the sale of consumer goods to people of limited means; and his main product—the Model T car—reshaped the patterns of work and leisure for the country as a whole, transforming as well the nation’s infrastructure. He may be, perhaps, the one individual (or among the small handful of individuals) whose influence on 20th- and 21st-century life has been the most far ranging. His work as a pioneer in the auto industry did not commence until he was well into adulthood, and in his long life he acquired a reputation for honest, straight talk, homely wisdom, and progressive business management, although he also was associated with virulent anti-Semitism and, in his later years, with industrial despotism.
Ford was born on a farm in rural Michigan in the same month that saw the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. He died just at the beginning of the post–World War II era. As a child on the farm, Ford became entranced with new technologies that were increasingly mechanizing farmwork. On the other hand, he did not like farming. He took himself to nearby Detroit when he was 16 and, in a series of jobs, he learned all he could about engines and machinery. After a few years in the city, back in his hometown, while running a farm his father gave him to induce him to stay at home, he began experimenting with a design for a gasoline engine and a vehicle the engine would power, work he continued when he again moved to Detroit with his new wife and began a decade-long series of engineering positions with the Edison Illuminating Company. By the turn of the new century, he had progressed in his experiments with designing and building a self-propelled vehicle using an internal combustion engine and he and his associates founded the Detroit Motor Company (1899).
The quest to build an automobile was not Ford’s alone, of course. In fact, his contribution was more in the nature of perfecting technologies already developed and, later, in developing the process that allowed for the manufacture of cars on a mass scale and at a cost that made them affordable to people other than the well-off. By 1900, automobile manufacturers had sprung up in various locations around the country (by one estimate, cited by Steven Watts, just more than 500 companies were founded in the first decade of the 20th century, most of which failed within a few years), but the Detroit area was beginning to establish itself as the center of auto production with the introduction of the Oldsmobile, credited with being the first mass-produced American vehicle. Ransom E. Olds, the founder of the company, envisaged a mass-produced affordable car, as Ford did, but failed to achieve what his fellow Michigander accomplished. Olds left his company around the time that Ford, whose previous two attempts at founding a company had failed, started a third firm, The Ford Motor Company, and launched the first Model A, his first successful venture in 1904 (the second firm, called The Henry Ford Company, was reorganized as the Cadillac Automobile Company). A series of models followed, leading to the very successful Model N, but Ford was still pursuing his ideal of a low-cost, efficient, and durable vehicle that everyone (or nearly so) could afford. This ideal was realized in 1908 with the production of the fabled Model T. Its success vaulted Ford into the leadership of the infant industry and he remained its dominant figure for the next two decades. By the end of the Model T’s production in 1927, 15 million of them had been sold and they accounted for almost half of all vehicles on the road. The mushrooming sales of the “flivver” or “Tin Lizzie,” as it was affectionately known, soon outstripped the capacity of Ford’s factory in Detroit, and he planned and built a massive facility in Highland Park, which eventually incorporated Ford’s major innovation in manufacturing technology, the moving assembly line. (By this point, Ford was no longer a lone inventor, but had assembled a team of associates, many of whom remained with him for much of his long life; many also were summarily dismissed when they disagreed with him.)
Bringing the “work to the man, rather than the man to the work,” as Ford said, the moving assembly line revolutionized the manufacturing of automobiles and eventually everything else produced on a mass scale. It also transformed the nature of work for both good and ill. As most historians of industry agree, the production line “de-skilled” work so that what was once the activity of artisans and independent craftsmen applying hard-earned knowledge and skill to a large-scale task became a series of small-scale repetitive activities that minimally trained personnel could accomplish. The aggregate of all these small activities allowed, on the other hand, a greater scale of efficiency and economy. A car that previously took many hours to assemble could be completed in less than two hours, and later in even less time. (Eventually Ford would build an even bigger plant at River Rouge, and in his quest for economies of scale, he would take over all the production and shipping of raw materials, creating vertical integration in the industry.) This efficiency resulted in a lowering of production cost, and Ford was insistent on passing along the savings to his customers—a radical notion in the buccaneering days of industrial United States. The Model T sold originally for $850, the same price as the Model N it replaced, but over the years, its price declined (much the way prices for electronic equipment declined with improved technology in the 1990s). Steven Watts, in his biography of Ford, indicates that Ford was ambivalent about the effect his production methods had on his workers. On the one hand, he felt that the average worker “wants a job in which he does not have to put forth much physical exertion—above all he wants a job in which he does not have to think”; on the other hand, he realized that the breaking down of the production process into minute, repeatable steps resulted in boring, repetitive labor and often quick burnout by workers. He solved this problem to a degree with his major innovation in industrial relations—the introduction in 1914 of the $5.00 per day pay scale.
Ford’s radical pay scale was motivated by a combination of progressive idealism and enlightened self-interest. Ford seems to have been genuinely interested in sharing the profits of his successful vehicle with those who built it. He also believed that paying workers a fair wage would enable them to afford to buy what they made (another radical idea for the time), enhancing his company’s sales, of course. He also used the wage scale as a means of socializing his increasingly immigrant workforce. The hidden caveat in his policies was that to be eligible for the enhanced pay rate (twice what workers had previously received), employees had to pass lifestyle muster with his newly founded “sociological” department, whose agents visited workers at home to check on their domestic arrangements and certify that they lived an upright life. Ford was also progressive (and paternalistic) in attempting to Americanize his increasingly immigrant workforce, offering classes in English language skills and American values (including table manners), which culminated in a graduation ceremony in which the workers marched from a model of a steamship into a model of a cauldron (the “Ford English School Melting Pot”) and emerged waving American flags. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Ford Company’s labor policies became increasingly less progressive; in the labor wars of the 1930s, the Ford Company was notably resistant to the attempts of labor unions to organize workers, culminating in several brutal encounters between union officials and Ford Company “service department” employees—company police agents who were accused of intimidating workers as well as beating union officials.
Ford’s stances on other social issues over his long life present a mixture of progressive idealism and cranky positions. He underwrote many philanthropic ventures: civic improvements in Detroit; the creation of Greenfield Village, in his hometown of Dearborn, as a living museum of rural Americana; agricultural experimentation (especially in support of some that benefited African American farmers); educational ventures; and above all, the Ford Foundation, which underwrote many of these activities. (The foundation was the joint enterprise of Ford and his only son Edsel; since the 1970s, it has been independent of the Ford family and the company.) In the years before United States’ entrance into World War I, Ford was an active advocate for peace, sponsoring a Peace Ship, whose highly public mission to Europe to negotiate an end to the war ended in failure and public derision for Ford’s role. He was a long-term foe of Wall Street financiers, whom he regarded as parasites on the economy; he also despised labor unions. During the 1920s, Ford’s weekly newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, which he purchased as a vehicle for promulgating his views, published a series of notoriously anti-Semitic articles on “The International Jew,” which rehashed the ideas of the discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion, including, among other charges, that Jews were intent on world domination. Ford suspended the articles after a libel action brought by a Jewish labor organizer mentioned in the articles. In the 1930s, Ford was hostile to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and opposed American entry into Word War II, in which he was linked with Charles Lindbergh. (Ford was a supporter of Germany as a nation and his cars were the model for the Volkswagen, developed by Hitler’s government; Ford also accepted high honors from Hitler’s government in 1938, although Steven Watts maintains that he was not a Fascist; Ford was also admired by Lenin, the founder of modern Communism.)
For many years, through the 1920s, Ford took on the role of public sage, offering comments on various aspects of American life. His vision was that of someone rooted in 19th-century rural United States, advocating the homespun values of the small town, despite his being associated with the premier technological advances of modernity. Along with his good friend and mentor Thomas Edison, he was regarded as a folk hero, whose work benefited the people more directly and more profoundly than that of any other American. Watts maintains that Ford was also a shrewd controller and manipulator of his public image, affecting his homespun manner and claiming not to have much use for book learning (“History is bunk”). He was also a careful guardian of the company’s advertising image. At the peak of his success in the late teens and early 1920s, he was sought after to run for political office. His one actual campaign, for the Senate, in 1918, undertaken at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, ended in Ford’s narrow defeat. He had previously been urged by popular opinion to run for president, an idea he rejected at the time to support Wilson, only to consider again (briefly) in 1924 when he was sought by both Republicans and Democrats.
Ford maintained an exemplary private life (up to a point). Married to Clara Bryant for nearly 60 years, Ford lived relatively modestly for an industrial magnate of his era. He and his wife occupied an extensive but not opulent estate and had many servants but they spent their time in modest domesticity. Henry Ford’s one lapse from domestic rectitude was a long-term relationship with his secretary (a woman half his age), which may have resulted in the birth of child. The Fords had one son, Edsel (1893–1943), who became the president of the Ford Motor Company in 1919. The older and younger Ford clashed on the directions the company should take. The elder Ford was stubbornly committed to his vision of the Model T as the “universal car” and resisted the trend in automobile manufacturing toward annual product changes and emphasis on styling (although in its early years, the Model T was available in several colors, for the many years of its production, as Ford was often quoted as saying, people could have it any color “as long as it was black”). Edsel, on the other hand, was an advocate of styling and keeping the company competitive. Eventually, Henry agreed to end production of the Model T and introduce a second Model A in 1927, but by this time, the company had lost ground in the growing marketplace for cars. The relation of father and son remained tense throughout the remainder of Edsel’s life (he died at the age of 49, four years before his father’s death). The senior Ford undercut and criticized Edsel’s decisions, and maintained a cadre of company executives who were allied against Edsel and his associates. After Edsel’s death, and the increasing incapacitation of Henry, now in his mid-80s, a struggle ensued for control of the company, eventually won by Edsel’s oldest son, Henry Ford II, with the support of Clara Ford and Edsel’s wife. The company went through many transformations in the postwar era and suffered along with its fellow Detroit automakers in the “Big Three” (General Motors and Chrysler) in the face of competition from Japanese and German auto-makers, although of the three it held its own in the economic downturn of 2008 and refused an offer of government assistance—something that probably would have pleased Henry Ford.
Baldwin, Neil. Henry Ford and the Jews: Mass Production of Hate. New York: Public Affairs, 2003.
Ford, Henry. My Life and Work. 1922. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/My_Life_and_Work .
Hooker, Clarence. Life in the Crystal Palace, 1910–1927: Ford Workers in the Model T Era. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997.
“The Life of Henry Ford,” Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village. http://www.hfmgv.org/exhibits/hf/ .
Watts, Steven. The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. New York: Knopf, 2005.