By Vincent Curcio
When you hear the name “Henry Ford” do you feel a certain shiver inside? Does a sober look come over your face as you mumble, “Well, he was a terrible anti-Semite”? You aren’t wrong of course, as many books and articles have documented through the years. In fact, that reaction probably places you in the majority. Of course, you know about the Model T and the assembly line too.
But do you also know that 100 years ago he wrote about the ruinous effects of tobacco, and promoted the salubrious effects of a healthy diet and a good deal of exercise on a long and productive life? Furthermore, since he realized that oil wouldn’t last forever, he spent years trying to invent alternative fuels made from vegetable materials. Due to his abhorrence of waste, some 53 industries were created through his attempts to find uses for the byproducts of his factories — just one was the invention of the charcoal briquette from the wood shavings on his shop floor.
The assembly line itself was only one aspect of his most important creation: mass production, which was the foundation of our modern culture of material abundance, that replaced the age old culture of scarcity and want. The Model T, built on the assembly line, was probably the most important and influential piece of technology since the printing press. It was the basis on which mass production was built; the end result of the process was a new type of person, the worker-customer. Ford’s employment policies toward blacks, women and the handicapped, among others, were decades ahead of their time. His work in agriculture on soybeans alone would have made him a significant figure in 20th century American history.
But then there was the other side. His relentless self-promotion led to self-aggrandizement that was breathtaking in its scope, eventually allowing him to live on a reputation for socially-advanced ideas and achievements long after they began to warp and break down. Uneducated though he was, a rural 19th century man in background and outlook, he nevertheless came to believe that his preeminent success as a businessman ordained him as a modern sage, a leader who could guide ordinary men to a better life through his ideas. Unfortunately, many of his ideas were regressive and small-minded; sometimes they were far worse.
One of these ideas was anti-Semitism. He spent over six years and millions of dollars promoting vile Judeophobia through a series of articles called The International Jew in his Dearborn Independent periodical, reprinting them in books and publishing the notorious (and discredited) Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which even today have a pernicious anti-Semitic effect in certain parts of the world.
Furthermore, by 1937 a growing meanness in this increasingly isolated man led to an oppressive, militaristic atmosphere in his workplaces. The friend of the workingman had nearly become his enemy. Another demerit in his ledger was his ability to clothe personal greed in a mantle of civic virtue, as he did in the Muscle Shoals affair in the Tennessee Valley in 1923 and the Detroit banking Crisis of 1933.
Soaring heights and abysmal depths in his character produced a wildly mixed record in his public life and subsequent reputation. He remains an ambiguous figure, as much of a puzzle and a mystery today as he was when he lived.
Vincent Curcio is the author of Henry Ford; Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame; Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius; and, with Steven Englund, Charlie’s Prep. He was the General Manager and Producer of Lucille Lortel’s White Barn Theater for 25 years.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only American history articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Image credit: (1) Henry Ford, full-length portrait, standing, facing slightly left, leaving the White House after calling on the president. 1927. National Photo Company Collection via Library of Congress. (2) Vincent Curcio author photo by Michael Domenick Tedesco.