The Anti-Semitic Origins of Henry Ford's Arts Education Patronage

Article excerpt

Henry Ford (1863-1947) was a complex man. Perhaps the greatest irony of his life was the contrast between his ushering in modern urban America through mass produced gasoline-fueled automobiles and his deeply held philosophy that all Americans should live as the their forbearers did. Henry Ford saw twentieth century cities as a "pestiferous growth" and contrasted the "unnatural, twisted, and cooped up" lives of city people with the "wholesome life of independence and sterling honesty" that the agrarian life offered. (1) Ford was noted for editorializing in his personal newspaper, the Dearborn Independent (published in Dearborn, Michigan, his hometown and headquarters of Ford Motor Company), "The real United States lies outside the cities." (2) As historian Roderick Nash puts it, "The nostalgic, backward looking Henry Ford repeatedly deplored the very conditions that Ford the revolutionary industrialist did so much to bring about." (3)

Ford's mass production methods drove prices down for all sorts of goods, including musical goods. Music was increasingly available on the radio and on phonograph records. The widespread availability of popular music of the early twentieth century alarmed Henry Ford. Richard Peterson states, "Rather than see the auto and mass production as having any part in the changes, he saw the problems as stemming from alcohol, tobacco use, and sexual license--all three fostered in the atmosphere created by jazz dancing." (4) In Ford's mind, the people responsible for damaging society were those who promoted jazz music and dance: African Americans, recent immigrants, and particularly people who Ford often termed the "international Jew." (5) If the problem was simple, then the solution was equally simplistic. Henry Ford's cultural solution was to create and promote the music and dance of nineteenth century agrarian America. Many people shared this view that old-time music was morally superior to music of the present.

The purpose of this historical investigation is to propose that Henry Ford was a propagandist of American folk arts education and an arts educator for selective audiences. His well-documented anti-Semitic beliefs and writings influenced his promotion of early American folk music and dance. Like his inventor contemporaries, Ford enjoyed experimenting in chemical laboratories. But he also engaged in sociological experiments. He had a vision, based on anti-Semitic beliefs, about creating a more perfect society through arts education. With his financial wherewithal along with his own passion and determination to "reintroduce" to Americans a better and simpler way of life, Henry Ford was on a mission to promote, to the extent of propagandizing, American folk dance and music. This active promotion evolved into a culminating project in his life, in the rural South, in an agrarian, coastal Georgia community.

Research Questions

Given the purpose of this historical investigation, three research questions are posed. These questions are concerned with understanding the nature and beliefs of Henry Ford to help explain his motivations in promoting American folk arts education. The questions are: (1) What was the nature of Henry Ford? (2) What were the reasons behind Ford's interest in promoting folk arts education? (3) What were the motivations behind Ford's philanthropy in the rural South?

Politics and Anti-Semitic Beliefs

Throughout his life, Henry Ford enjoyed spending time in nature, primarily watching birds. His love of nature shaped his belief that people living in modern society needed to respect wildlife and the land in its natural state. Ford and Thomas Edison both held the view that society's rapid modernization was creating a population of people who did not respect nature nor share their views on conservation. As the human population grew in the 1910s, songbird and geese populations decreased. Noting this, Ford became involved in the politics of conservationism. …