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Forgetting the Multi-Ethnic Past at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village (1929-1940)

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Abstract:

In 1929, fourteen years after saying that written “History” was “more or less bunk,” Henry Ford opened Greenfield Village, his outdoor history museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The museum, with an impressive size of 265 acres and almost 90 buildings, was immediately popular. Included among the structures were Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory, Noah Webster’s family home, and the shop where Ford built the Quadricycle. Ford described his collection as a visual challenge to written histories, using architecture and the interiors of laboratories, homes, and businesses to link American progress to technology, middle-class domesticity, and mass production. After Ford’s death, the site maintained its popularity. Since 1976 over one million visitors have attended each year. This paper departs from Greenfield Village to investigate the construction, dissemination, and popularity of historical narratives that forget America’s multicultural pasts. Drawing on archival records from 1929-1940, this paper considers how the Village constructed an American past that focused on a history of work and consumption, allowing an ethnically and racially diverse population to forget their differences through a celebration of the pastoral ideal and the middle-class.
Through architecture and material objects, the Village landscape embodies the spirit of Americanization that shaped much of the early twentieth-century. Historians have well documented Ford’s anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia, but none have examined how these views found a historical home at Greenfield Village. The majority of the buildings at the site represent the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, but they focus almost solely on how Anglo-Saxons contributed to national progress. Given Ford’s worldview, this absence is unsurprising. But this paper focuses both on Ford’s interior motives and on the site’s reception and popularity. Throughout the Great Depression, patrons paid 25 cents to tour the Village. By 1940, the site welcomed over 500,000 visitors each year from various races, classes, and ethnicities. The site’s association with Ford certainly accounts for, at least in part, its success. However, this paper suggests that the Village also served another function. Between 1930 and 1940, class increasingly trumped ethnicity, if not race, in social and political matters in Detroit. The Village’s historical narrative supported this shift. Visitors could forget their ethnic differences by finding common ground through the material pasts represented on Ford’s landscape. This paper suggests that such an historical narrative was appealing to the middle and working class as they sought to build organized labor unions. This paper addresses the academy’s growing interest in transnationalism by exploring how and why histories that forget America’s multicultural pasts are popular.
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Name: The American Studies Association
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MLA Citation:

Swigger, Jessie. "Forgetting the Multi-Ethnic Past at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village (1929-1940)" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185865_index.html>

APA Citation:

Swigger, J. , 2007-10-11 "Forgetting the Multi-Ethnic Past at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village (1929-1940)" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185865_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: In 1929, fourteen years after saying that written “History” was “more or less bunk,” Henry Ford opened Greenfield Village, his outdoor history museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The museum, with an impressive size of 265 acres and almost 90 buildings, was immediately popular. Included among the structures were Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory, Noah Webster’s family home, and the shop where Ford built the Quadricycle. Ford described his collection as a visual challenge to written histories, using architecture and the interiors of laboratories, homes, and businesses to link American progress to technology, middle-class domesticity, and mass production. After Ford’s death, the site maintained its popularity. Since 1976 over one million visitors have attended each year. This paper departs from Greenfield Village to investigate the construction, dissemination, and popularity of historical narratives that forget America’s multicultural pasts. Drawing on archival records from 1929-1940, this paper considers how the Village constructed an American past that focused on a history of work and consumption, allowing an ethnically and racially diverse population to forget their differences through a celebration of the pastoral ideal and the middle-class.
Through architecture and material objects, the Village landscape embodies the spirit of Americanization that shaped much of the early twentieth-century. Historians have well documented Ford’s anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia, but none have examined how these views found a historical home at Greenfield Village. The majority of the buildings at the site represent the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, but they focus almost solely on how Anglo-Saxons contributed to national progress. Given Ford’s worldview, this absence is unsurprising. But this paper focuses both on Ford’s interior motives and on the site’s reception and popularity. Throughout the Great Depression, patrons paid 25 cents to tour the Village. By 1940, the site welcomed over 500,000 visitors each year from various races, classes, and ethnicities. The site’s association with Ford certainly accounts for, at least in part, its success. However, this paper suggests that the Village also served another function. Between 1930 and 1940, class increasingly trumped ethnicity, if not race, in social and political matters in Detroit. The Village’s historical narrative supported this shift. Visitors could forget their ethnic differences by finding common ground through the material pasts represented on Ford’s landscape. This paper suggests that such an historical narrative was appealing to the middle and working class as they sought to build organized labor unions. This paper addresses the academy’s growing interest in transnationalism by exploring how and why histories that forget America’s multicultural pasts are popular.

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