Biographies: Henry Ford (United States, 1863-1947)

Figure 1.--

Few individuals have so impacted the lives of individuals in America and around the world as Henry Ford. Henry grew up in rural Michigan and as an adult remained nostalgic about the rural way of life that he experienced. He loved to tinker, but dislike the hard work involved in farming and academic study. He was as a result poorly educated and left school at 15 nearly illiterare. He seems to have been rather lazy as a boy and that did not change as he grew older. A rather surprising trait in a man who was to become a champion of American industry. Ford was so consistently right about mechanics and manufacturing that he thought he was knew about a wide range of toics that he knew nothing about.


Henry was the eldest of William and Mary Ford's six children.


Henry grew up in rural Michigan and as an adult remained nostalgic about the rural way of life that he experienced. He loved to tinker, but disliked the hard work involved in farming and academic study.


He attended a one-room school. He showed little interest in school, however, and as a result was poorly educated. He left school at 15 nearly illiterare. He seems to have been rather lazy as a boy and that did not change as he grew older. [Brinkley] A rather surprising trait in a man who was to become a champion of American industry.


After school he went to Detroit. He was fired from his first factory job and thn failed in a variety of business efforts.

Ford Motor Company

Unlike many other of the great industrialists, success came relatively late. He was 40 years old when he founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903.

Model T

Henry Ford is best known for the the Model "T" Ford and his inovative assessmbly lines which enabled the mass production of the automobile. It was not Ford that invented the automobile or the assembly line. Ford's genbius was to put the two together and in the process transformed America more than any other ndustrialist. It was Ford who first set up an assembly line to mass profuce automobiles. From 1909 to 1927, the Ford Motor Company built more than 15 million Model T cars. The Model "T" brought the automobile within the price range of the average American worker. Not understood at the time was the enormous consequence of this development. This changed the face of America and cities as was a key step in creating the American car-culture. Cities began to devlop around the automobile which became the very center of the country's econonomy and had profound consequences for the American life style, affecting work, leisure, sexuality, archetecture, music, movies, and much more. Both the automobile and mass-consumerism played a key role in making modern America. It also led to a massive expansion of the automobile industry and American industry in general. Besides the economib and social ramifications, the industrial jugernaught that Ford and the Model-T helped create would be a central factor in defeating the totalitarian powers that arose after World War I.

Assesmbly Line

Ford inagurated the assembly line in 1913. Earlier teams worked together on a car. Then they moved and the car stood still. Finally he conceived of the car moving hile the workers stood still. His inspiration was meat pasvking plants. The feeicencenies involved were enormous. They allowed him to reduce the cost of the automobile, bringing one into the range of wrking men. This occurred at the time that when European wirkers were often hard put to afford a bicycle.

The $5 Day

The problem with the assembly line was that workers did like it. Ford had troublke keeping workers. Ford as a result intoduved the "Five Dollar Day" in 1914. He reduced the work day to 8 hours. These were key steps in the modern consumer economy. Will Roger's pointed out during the Depresion that America was the only country to go to the poor house in an automobile. Ford was noted at first for offering a living wage to his workers and later for fighting unionization by hiring thugs to attack union leaders. Ford $5 wage attracted many immigrant workers. Ford insisted that they learn English in a company school. There was a "melting pot ceremony". Graduates glad in ethnic clothing would move into a melting pot and come out dressed as Americans. Ford also had inspectors check company housing to make sure that workers were leading vrtous lives, keeoing clean hoses, seding the children to school, and opening savings accounts.

Unappealing Aspects

Ford is a biographers dream in that he was a quirky oddball. Despite his central role in American industry, there were many unappealing aspects to his character. Ford not only used extra-legal violence to fight unionization, but was a vicious anti-Semite. He despised Jews, bankers, and unions. And wrote hate-filled pamflets linking all three.

Grisha Goluboff

Given Ford's blatant anti-Semitism, it is rather interesting that he came to the aid of famed child violin prodigy Grish Coluboff. It was automobile industrialist Henry Ford, of all people, who let Grisha use a Strad from his personal collection, later delivering it to Grisha in an armored car with armed guards for Grisha to use as long as he needed the instrument. All the drama does rather smack of a public relations department. There is a wonderful picture of Henry Ford presenting Grisha with the Strad. This is of course surprising because because Ford and with his hate-filled mouth piece, The Dearborn Independent, was one of the most vicious anti-Semites in American history. The NAZIs actually reprinted some of Ford's books as part of their anti-Jewish campaign. One wonders if this was Ford's idea or that of his public relations department. Ford at the time was locked in a bitter and increasingly violent struggle with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and badly in need of good publicity. As it sometimes the case of many ardent haters, they sometimes find one "good" individual from the target group. Or perhaps it was that Grisha was a child. Whatever the reason, he did loan him the Strad. After Ford's death, his son recalled it saying Ford's collection of violins couldn't be broken up.

Pacifism and Isolationism

Less offensive was Ford's commitment to Pacifism. After World War I broke out, he put together a peace ship and sailed to Europe. The European leaders refused to meet with him. While the mission failed, many gave hm credit for at least trying. When America entered the war, he won government contracts. He offered to return the profits, but never did so. After the War, he claimed that the War was caused by gready bankers and industrialists which he thought were mostly Jews. (In fact Jews at the time were excluded from most boardrooms and banks.) This was one of many examples in which Ford would write about matters he had no knowledge of. His financial support for pacifism was combined with financial support for Hitler from an early point. Ford Motors also had operations in both thecSoviet Union and Germany as well as Britain and France. His isolationism aided the NAZIs and Japanese militarists by promoting isolationism and making it diificult for President Roosevelt to confront their aggressive moves.


Ford purchased a small newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. He made it into a weekly magazine which eventually had a circulation of 0.8 million. He used it to promote anti-semitism and other pet ideas. He didn't like cosmetics, popular dances, and short skirts. A collection of anti-Semetic articles appearng in the magazine wa republished as a book--The International Jew. The bok was reublished by the NAZIs in Germany. He was taken to court for libel, but laimed he had nothing to do with the articles. Ford never advocated violence against Jews. His publications, however, provided justification for such violence.

Folk Culture

He had a love of American folk traditions and crafts. Ford in particular he promoted folk dancing like square dancing. Interestingly, the assessmbly-line mass profuction methods that he perfected was a major factor in undermining craft production methods.

America and the Automobile

The most ironic aspect of Henry Ford's life was the impact that his mass-prpuced automobiles had on American life. The automobile was a major factor in forging modern America. It was For's assmblyline mass production methods that made this possible. Yet Ford remained throughout hois life enamored with crafts and folk culture which the automobile had a major role in destroying.


Ford marriaded Clara Bryant in 1888.


The Ford's only had one son, Edsel, who was born November 6, 1893. He was Edsel named after a childhood friend Edsel Ruddiman. I have no information on his childhood at this time or the clothes he wore as a boy. Edsel married Elenor and they had four children: Henry II, Benson, Josephine, and William Clay. Ford retired in 19?? and Edsel became president of the Ford Motor Company for a quarter of a century. Edsel grew up in and around the Ford Motor Company that his father devoted himself to. There was the controversy of his World War I draft notice and an exemption, the change from the Model T to the Model A, and the creation of the Ford Foundation. Edsel's role in Ford is rather lost today, but it was in fact significant. [Dominguez] Needless to say, he had nothing to do with the disatrous Edsel car named after him.

Final Years

Edsel ran Ford after his father retired. Edsel died unexpectedly, however, during 1943 in the midst of World War II. His father briefly resumed the presidency, but because of his age and health was not up to the task. He had suffered two strokes by this time. as a result, 2 years later in 1945, Ford handed over the presidency to his grandson and Edsel's son, Henry Ford II. Ford died at home April 7, 1947.


Brinkley, Douglas. Wheeles for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (Viking, 2003), 858p.

Dominguez, Henry L. Edsel: The Story of Henry Ford's Forgotten Son (SAE), 425p.


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Created: June 17, 2003
Last updated: 6:17 AM 5/13/2010