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Tin Lizzies to T-Birds

By Emmett Berg | HUMANITIES, September/October 2003 | Volume 24, Number 5

“Americans have always identified the power to move as a critical vector of broader social and political power,” writes Virginia Scharff, professor of history at the University of New Mexico. Long the domain of engineers and auto buffs, the automobile industry is getting a fresh look from scholars in humanities disciplines around the country and Detroit-area teachers and archivists.

“The Automobile in American Life and Society” goes online this fall, merging science and technology with the humanities. The project draws upon resources available in and around the Motor City of Detroit, Michigan.

Scholars such as Scharff are mining the resources of the Henry Ford Museum with the help of professional archivists, with the results forming curricula and a website for students at the University of Michigan at Dearborn.

A main goal is to spur wider consideration of subjects once relegated to engineering and technical design curricula. Organizers hope to launch similar projects based in other regions that can lay claim to world--changing technology: Northern California and the computer, New Jersey and the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors, and Appalachia and mining.

The project team expects that combining the expertise of various disciplines will result in cross-pollination of discussion topics, readings, teaching materials, and assignments related to the auto.

The Henry Ford is supplying the website’s designers with photographs, oral histories, design drawings, films, advertisements, and archival documents. “Working with UMD faculty and the scholars is helping the museum understand what students want,” says Judith Endelman, chief curator at the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum. “That isn’t always so easy. . . . And we fulfill our educational mission by providing materials to undergraduates.”

“Auto aesthetics has received surprisingly sparse attention from scholars,” writes David Gartman, professor of sociology at the University of South Alabama. His essay on the history of scholarship on American auto design will be published on the website. “Of course, the popular automotive press produces a constant stream of books and magazines documenting the twists and turns of the automobile styles of the past, present, and future. But serious scholars have studiously avoided the topic.”

The site will feature essays not only on design, but also the auto seen through the prism of the environment, labor, gender, and race. Essays will be hyperlinked to photos, source documents, and other teaching aids.

“We’re starting with these essays and designing the website as an integrated whole,” says project director Jonathan Smith, who is an English professor at the University of Michigan at Dearborn.

This fall Smith will teach a course on the automobile in American life as part of a minor in science and technology studies offered to students for the first time. Developed in part through NEH funding, the multidisciplinary minor examines topics such as the design of cities and the iconic status of the car in American culture.

“I think it’s fair to say that for the working class and the lower class, which are less apt to own homes, the car carries greater symbolic weight,” Smith says.

The first “coachbuilders” at the turn of the twentieth century had been artisans catering to the rich. The first woodenpaneled motorcars shone with twenty layers of lacquer--not much use to the average rural farmer and out of reach with price tags of up to $7,500.

Henry Ford changed all that, as Gartman asserts in another online essay, “Pretty Boys and Tough Guys: The Cultural Antagonisms of Aesthetics and Engineering in Automotive History.”

“Automotive pioneers like Henry Ford saw the potential for the auto as a tool of mass transportation in a nation of great distances,” Gartman writes. “The farm boy Ford was motivated originally by a desire to lighten the toil of farmers and help them haul goods to market.”

Ford’s mass market vision required him to cut costs and pioneer new production methods to replace the prevailing mode of auto construction at the time, which relied on skilled craftsmen. Instead, detail tasks were created that could be performed by unskilled workers. By closely spacing production and assembly lines, less time was wasted carting material from one location to another. And because the mechanized ovens created to speed the painting process had the side effect of burning away all color pigments except black, all the early Model Ts came in one color.

Ford’s new method was a success at market. The $825 charged for Model Ts in 1908 shrank to just $265 by 1923, a testament to the efficiencies of mass production. The soon-to-be giant company even assuaged concerns about the drudgery of assembly lines by paying workers the then-princely sum of $5 a day, starting in 1915. Gartman’s essay will include links to oral histories from individual auto workers, most of them emigrating from Europe and Canada.

Even the visionary Ford may not have expected what followed the widespread debut of the Model T: disdain for mass-produced items as dehumanizing symbols. According to Gartman, the work ethic that defined earlier artisans was fast replaced by a consumption ethic, where workers compensated for repetitive jobs by defining themselves via the material goods or lifestyle that connoted success.

“The design of cars was an unconscious attempt to solve in the realm of culture the conflicts and contradictions raised by the rise of the system of mass production, for which the auto industry was largely responsible,” he writes.

Ford’s engineers designed the Model T to be flat, square, and roughedged to maximize economy and ease of assembly while still providing durable, strong shelters for occupants. But by the 1920s, other companies were capitalizing on Ford’s production methods. Enter Alfred Sloan, a young manager for General Motors.

Sloan created the annual model change and gave priority to styling over engineering advances. By keeping the same technology under the hood but changing the body every year, General Motors cars had the look of luxury in a mass-produced vehicle. That practice continues today: the Ford-owned brands Volvo and Jaguar, once foreignmade, maintain different body styles but now are mechanically similar to cars from the company’s luxury brand, Lincoln.

In another section of the website, scholars look at the changes the advent of the automobile has brought about in urban planning. According to Thomas Sugrue, professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, landscapes have been adapted to suit the auto--sometimes to the detriment of residents.

In his case study, Sugrue examines how the auto industry reshaped Detroit. He notes Detroit’s proximity to rail and shipping yards as a factor in its rise from a middling industrial town in 1900 to a city of nearly two million in the 1950s, and home of the Big Three American automakers. With a great need for skilled and unskilled workers, magnates such as Henry Ford recruited abroad and paid workers enough to attract applicants simply through word of mouth. Following World War I and subsequent acts of Congress restricting European immigration, says Sugrue, Ford looked to African Americans to fill positions.

“Black workers, however, tended to be concentrated in the most menial, difficult, and dangerous jobs, such as auto body painting, where workers breathed harmful paint fumes, and the foundry, where temperatures were often unbearable and where molten steel led to gruesome industrial accidents,” he writes.

Sugrue asserts that blacks were prevented from settling outside central Detroit neighborhoods, both by real estate agents and also by outright violence against those who would stray into white areas. “The result was the creation of two cities, one black and one white,” he writes. The segregation became more apparent as the Big Three shut its gargantuan plants in central Detroit and relocated elsewhere, first to the suburbs, then to lower-wage regions in America and ultimately, abroad. The plants remaining in Detroit were connected to the suburbs via expressways with names such as Dodge and Ford. These thoroughfares cut through poor neighborhoods and African American merchant districts. In an era of declining spending on mass transit, inner city residents found it more difficult to follow auto industry jobs into outlying suburbs such as Dearborn--where the Ford Motor Company established the University of Michigan to train new engineers, often hiring them when they graduated.

Scholars are looking not only at what the expansion of the industry has brought about, but also what the automobile has represented in terms of freedoms. In an essay on gender and the automobile, Virginia Scharff writes, “We love our cars because they symbolize that power and that freedom, and in some instances, they have been literally vehicles of emancipation.”

About the Author

Emmett Berg is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

Funding Information

The University of Michigan at Dearborn has received $220,000 in NEH support for the website “The Automobile in American Life and Society” and $24,370 for development of a science and technology studies minor.