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Recasting the Machine Age

Recasting the Machine Age: Henry Ford's Village Industries

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Recasting the Machine Age
    Book Description:

    Recasting the Machine Age recounts the history of Henry Ford's efforts to shift the production of Ford cars and trucks from the largescale factories he had pioneered in the Detroit area to nineteen decentralized, smallscale plants within sixty miles of Ford headquarters in Dearborn. The visionary who had become famous in the early twentieth century for his huge and technologically advanced Highland Park and River Rouge complexes gradually changed his focus beginning in the teens and continuing until his death in 1947. Ford may well have been motivated to spend great sums on the village industries in part to prevent the unionization of his company. But these industrial experiments represented much more than “union busting.” They were significant examples of profound social, cultural, and ideological shifts in America between the World Wars as reflected in the thought and practice of one notable industrialist. Howard P. Segal recounts the development of the plants, their fate after Ford's death, their recent revival as part of Michigan's renewed appreciation of its industrial heritage, and their connections to contemporary efforts to decentralize hightech working and living arrangements.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-160-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Introduction: Henry Ford, Centralization, and Decentralization
    (pp. 1-5)

    “Technology Spurs Decentralization across the Country.” So read a 1984New York Timesarticle on real estate trends in the United States.¹ Then in its early stage, the contemporary revolution in information processing and transmittal today allows large businesses and other institutions to disperse their offices and other facilities across the country and across the world without loss of the policy- and decision-making abilities that formerly required regular physical proximity. Thanks to computers, word processors, faxes, the Internet, and the World Wide Web, decentralization has become a fact of life in the United States and other highly technological societies.


  5. Chapter 1 Henry Ford’s Village Industries: Origins, Contexts, Rationales
    (pp. 6-16)

    Not far from the superhighways, skyscrapers, and huge auto plants of the greater Detroit area are the remnants of Henry Ford’s surprisingly little-known but still significant experiments in decentralized technology. The “village industries,” as Ford himself called them, were designed as small-scale, widely dispersed, frequently pastoral alternatives to the huge urban industrial systems characteristic of modern technological societies—the very systems Ford had helped to devise. They constituted a degree of decentralization considerably greater than that found in other large corporations of the day. “Everybody talks about industrial decentralization, the same as they do about the weather.” So wrote Arthur...

  6. Chapter 2 Decentralized Technology in the Village Industries: Scale, Scope, System, Vision
    (pp. 17-26)

    Modern technology is what made the village industries possible and—today—makes them more than antiquarian specimens. As the experiments faded from public consciousness after Ford’s death in 1947 and as most were sold by the Ford Motor Company in the following years, this point was soon forgotten along with the entire enterprise. Yet the concept of avowedly decentralized production that lay behind these nineteen communities presumed certain transportation, communication, assembly, and production advances without which the experiments would not have been practical. To be sure, some of the advances, such as efficient generators, trucks, telephones, and radios, were already...

  7. Chapter 3 Farm and Factory United
    (pp. 27-34)

    Smaller-scale tools and machines and networks of communities were not the only important dimensions of Henry Ford’s experiment. Equally significant was the prospect of healthier and happier living and working arrangements away from America’s crowded, congested cities. Despite his initial predictions that “every man will be a farmer … and every man will work in a factory or office,”¹ Ford’s eventual dream was to employ exclusively farmers, craftsmen, and other rural folk who could either walk or quickly drive (their Fords) to and from work. On the whole, this aspect of his vision was realized; relatively few urban dwellers, including...

  8. Chapter 4 Buildings and Workforce
    (pp. 35-50)

    The village industries varied considerably, not just in the automobile part manufactured or assembled on the premises but also in building design and size of workforce. Some—like the first two, Northville (which began operations in 1920) and Nankin Mills (1921)—were reconstructed nineteenth-century mills, usually gristmills abandoned after railroads leading to large milling centers made them obsolete and unprofitable. These reflected Ford’s preference for preserving or restoring original early American architecture whenever possible.¹ Others, however—like the next two, Phoenix (1922) and Plymouth (1923)—had completely new, modern buildings, sometimes on the site if not the very foundation of...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. Chapter 5 Administration and Relationship to Local Communities
    (pp. 51-58)

    Contrary to the Ford Motor Company’s publicity agents, the village industries never resembled the bastions of yeoman purity described in their various press releases. They were commercial enterprises as well as social experiments and, like nearly all else in the Ford empire, were under the constant scrutiny of Ford himself. “Anyone who knows Henry Ford’s working principles knows that [they] are not primarily undertaken as a form of social uplift.” So journal editor Arthur Van Vlissingen observed in 1938 about Ford’s aversion to activities whose principal concern was not greater efficiency and greater profits. Ford “would never undertake to bring...

  11. Chapter 6 Workers’ Experiences
    (pp. 59-74)

    As near as one can tell, in the absence of many contemporary inquiries of the village industry workers themselves, most appear to have enjoyed their factory positions, their diversity of employment, their comparatively lose authority structure (akin to Ford’s own first plant on Mack Avenue in Detroit), and the proximity of their residences to their workplaces. In the words of Francis Michaels, one of several former village industries workers whom I interviewed, “Working conditions in the Milford plant were much better than at the Rouge plant where I was first employed in 1935–38. I was transferred to the Milford...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. Chapter 7 Unionization
    (pp. 75-86)

    Nearly all the village industries had come into being by 1941, when the Ford Motor Company allowed its workforce finally to unionize—the last and most reluctant of the American automakers to do so.¹ Ford’s personal and in turn corporate hostility toward unions has been well documented.² Suffice it here to quote the 1937 pamphletFordismby Carl Raushenbush of the pro-union League for Industrial Democracy:

    On the industrial field in America, two formidable antagonists stand opposed—the United Automobile Workers [UAW], backed by the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations], and the Ford Motor Company, backed by all the anti-union...

  14. Chapter 8 The Decentralists and Other Visionaries
    (pp. 87-107)

    Henry Ford’s village industries did not come about in a vacuum, as the realization of one very rich and powerful man’s unique fantasies. Rather, they were part of efforts in many parts of America between the world wars to reverse the course of industrial urban life by promoting decentralization through the depopulation of large cities and through the adoption of smaller-scale but still modern technology useful for farms, villages, and individual households. One historian has characterized certain of these efforts as attempting to launch “the utopian reconstruction of modern civilization.”¹

    “Decentralization” became a buzzword of this period.² Visions of a...

  15. Chapter 9 American Industry Also Preaches Decentralization
    (pp. 108-120)

    Many mainstream businessmen and academics were also preaching the decentralization of industry, as they usually called it, between the wars. Admittedly, they did not have the missionary zeal of a Henry Ford or a Ralph Borsodi or a Helen and Scott Nearing or an Arthur Morgan or a southern Agrarian. Rather, they saw decentralization of industry as primarily an economic strategy, a means of improving production, distribution, sales, and so profits.

    In the pursuit of corporate decentralization, automobile manufacturers, writes Sugrue, “were in the vanguard.”¹ In 1936, for example, the Automobile Manufacturers Association itself announced that “despite the great concentration...

  16. Chapter 10 Decline of the Village Industries during World War II and After
    (pp. 121-129)

    Just as sentiments in favor of decentralization were finally beginning to influence American industry, World War II intervened, and the notion that bigger was not necessarily better and that decentralization might be more efficient seemed illogical, if not subversive. Nevertheless, months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, several of the village industries started gearing up for wartime production, and by the spring of 1942 all eighteen existing sites (Cherry Hill had not yet opened) had become integral parts of Ford Motor Company’s war effort. In most cases, happily, the items manufactured or assembled in peacetime could readily be altered...

  17. Chapter 11 Contemporary Renewal of the Village Industries in High-Tech America
    (pp. 130-151)

    Of the other eighteen sites besides Northville—the last of the village industries to cease operations—sixteen have become county or municipal government facilities—museums, offices, libraries, community and shopping centers, garages—or antique shops and, in six cases, plants or offices for other private businesses, some in high-tech areas. Willow Run has been abandoned and dismantled, and Ypsilanti was absorbed into the larger facility built in 1947, a Ford plant that remains in operation today. (See the Appendix for the contemporary status of all nineteen sites.) Historian David Lewis’s 1972 description of most of the sites remains true today:...

  18. Conclusion: Henry Ford Evolves from Mechanical to Social Engineer
    (pp. 152-160)

    Given the various decentralization efforts cited in chapter 11, one might quote approvingly the last line of the Ford Motor Company’s 1948 press release: “It all adds up to a realization that the seeds of the project planted … years ago by Henry Ford are bearing fruit” at long last, if not necessarily “for both the workers and the company.”¹ Were the village industries more widely known today, Ford might be a folk hero to a new generation of Americans, few of them raised on farms or in small towns. In his unsystematic, unorthodox way, Ford understood a good deal...

    (pp. 161-166)
  20. NOTES
    (pp. 167-222)
    (pp. 223-230)
    (pp. 231-232)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 233-244)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 245-247)