Academic journal article Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)

Ford's Sociology Department and the Americanization Campaign and the Manufacture of Popular Culture among Line Assembly Workers C.1910-1917

Academic journal article Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)

Ford's Sociology Department and the Americanization Campaign and the Manufacture of Popular Culture among Line Assembly Workers C.1910-1917

Article excerpt

This paper focuses on two aspects of the system of personnel management created and implemented in the Ford Motor Company (FMC) from c.1910 to 1917; popularly known as the FIVE DOLLAR DAY, this system of management had a tremendous impact on Ford workers, on the City of Highland Park and the greater metropolitan area of Detroit, Michigan. The underlying question guiding this paper is, what role the management system at the FMC had in determining popular culture in Ford's Highland Park plant (also known as the Crystal Palace), and in the City of Highland Park, Michigan.

There is no doubt that the major event in the social history of Highland Park was the announcement of the profit-sharing plan, better known as the FIVE DOLLAR DAY. Samuel Marquis referred to the plan as the "granddaddy of company-initiated reform plans," and explained that the plan involved rationalizing the Ford employment and wage structure by reducing the number of job categories, by regularizing pay scales, by reducing the foreman's power to hire and fire employees, and by raising the pay of certain classes of employees to a five-dollar minimum.1 As initially conceived, the profit-sharing plan supplemented and extended earlier reforms that had been aimed at making the administration of the Ford factory more efficient. In contrast to John R. Lee's reforms of October 1913 emphasizing the more scientific management of labor, the Five Dollar Day added the extra dimension of welfare-work to the industrial betterment program of the company.2

It was on Monday afternoon of January 5, 1914, when the announcement of the plan came with much fanfare. The press release explained that the foundation of this revolutionary plan was a profit-sharing program that would increase the minimum daily wage of qualified workers to five dollars; it was also noted that three eight-hour shifts would replace the existing two nine-hour shifts, and that 4,000 more workers would be added to the existing workforce of 15,000.3

In a manner of speaking, Ford profit-sharing was like much of the welfare work that was common during the early decades of the twentieth century. Rooted in the intellectual traditions of the Social Gospel and Progressivism, and known as "industrial betterment" and "industrial welfare work," the Ford plan had several components. As described by the National Civic Federation, welfare-work or industrial betterment programs of the era involved "special consideration for physical comfort wherever labor is performed; opportunities for recreation; educational advantages; the providing of suitable sanitary homes...plans for saving and lending money, and provisions for insurance and pensions."4 In short, welfare work was aimed at improving the culture of industrial workers and their families.

The stated objectives of Ford's plan paralleled the definition of the National Civic Foundation, and in this regard, the FMC was like many other companies. But, the FMC was also different from other companies in several important ways; major differences were the zeal, the absolute conviction and arrogance with which Ford's Sociological Department pursued its objectives. The Health and Safety program within the Crystal Palace, the effort to upgrade the "home and housing conditions," and the "Americanization" program are excellent examples of Ford's commitment to molding the culture of Ford workers.

The adoption of this plan was, in part, motivated by the desire to (1) increase efficiency in production, and therefore increase profits by reducing the rate of turnover in the labor force; (2) by the desire to give workers a "stake" in contributing to the increased production while re-shaping the workforce to suit the needs of the new industrial system; (3) and by the desire to upgrade the quality of life of the workforce. Regarding some of the results attributed to the profitsharing plan, one official said that the Ford Motor Company made more cars and greater earnings than ever before; hence, reasoned the official, there could be no doubt that the Five-Dollar Day was the greatest success for the Ford Motor Company and its workers.5 Another official said, "I think the Ford profit-sharing plan made real citizens out of our employees, out of the type that never would have been [real citizens] otherwise."6 Henry Ford himself had much to say about the plan; he hastened to assert: (a) that the plan was not charity, but profit-sharing based on the level of production and sales, (b) that employees should use their share of the profits to upgrade the quality of their lives, (c) and that the plan was the best cost-cutting device ever introduced by the company. With reference to changes in the manufacturing processes associated with the plan, Nevins has captured the sentiment most often expressed; he concluded that, "the enlightened new labor rules, the five-dollar minimum, and the struggle of the Sociological Department to raise living standards constituted, despite inescapable shortcomings, a lustrous chapter in the history of the company and a memorable page in the record of American industry."7

It has already been suggested that part of what motivated the implementation of the profit-sharing plan was a desire to reduce the enormous turnover in the workforce of the Crystal Palace.8 Although there were a number of plausible explanations for the high turnover (including the preference for more "suitable" work elsewhere), John R. Lee's poll of the workforce during the summer of 1913 revealed that much of the dissatisfaction among workers resulted from: (a) work days that were too long, (b) wages that were too low, (c) unsanitary and otherwise undesirable shop conditions, (d) bad housing, (e) and perhaps most importantly, the unintelligent and often abusive handling of men by foremen and superintendents.9 Dissatisfaction among workers and the resulting turnover was undoubtedly a compelling argument for the cultural reform package introduced the following year.10

The reforms, sometimes referred to as the "Lee Reforms," were introduced on October 12, 1913. The reform package included: (1) a 15 percent wage increase, (2) a new skill-wages classification, (3) and created the Employee's Savings and Loan Association. Along with the creation of a new system of job classification, and the Employee's Savings and Loan Association, a major change in departmental organization was made; the Ford Employment Office became the Ford Employment Department, and it gradually acquired and centralized the functions of hiring and firing that had been the "stick and carrot" of foremen, and it became responsible for all phases of labor relations.

Having allotted $10 million to the profit-sharing plan, the board of directors appointed John R. Lee to implement it and left it to him to work out the "details." Among the first actions taken by Lee was the establishment of the Sociological Department, which would be the primary instrument for implementing the plan. In 1914, O.J. Abell estimated that the Sociological Department employed about 100 investigators, including physicians on the medical staff and others who were among the most trusted employees of the Ford Motor Company. While there is some uncertainty about the size of the department, there is no doubt that whatever its size, the department set out to accomplish objectives unprecedented in the annals of welfare capitalism.

The central task of the Sociological Department was to determine whether or not workers were eligible to participate in the profit-sharing plan, and to advise and reshape the culture of those who were found deficient. In order to determine eligibility, the Sociological Department investigated everyone employed, except high level managers and supervisors; those investigated included salesmen, foremen, clerks and factory workers. The determination of eligibility was largely at the discretion of the investigators, all of whom were "good Ford men" whose culture was of the type the company hoped to create. Generally speaking, to be eligible, a worker had to exhibit or demonstrate thrift, good habits, and good home conditions.12 Additionally, in an effort to stem the flood of job seekers who shortly after the announcement of the Five-Dollar Day began appearing at the gates of the Crystal Palace, a six-month residency in the Detroit area became a condition of eligibility. With thriftiness, good habits, good home conditions, and a six-month residency as the requirements of eligibility, 10 percent of the employees failed to qualify on the basis of age or sex (unmarried men and females were categorically excluded for profit-sharing), and another 40 percent could not qualify without raising their cultural standards to meet those outlined by Ford.13 A strong bias against the ethnic cultures is suggested by the fact that out of 1400 employees who were in the first group to qualify, 1381 were of British ancestry. To a large extent then, the mission of the Sociological Department was to reform (i.e., Americanize) the "ethnics" so that they might become good "Ford men," and therefore qualify for participation in the profit-sharing plan.

Generally speaking, it was believed that the foundation of the desired culture must rest upon the restoration, maintenance, and/or creation of "good home conditions." In short, as Meyer has put it, "a fundamental premise of the Ford program was a particular middle-class vision of the role of the family and the home in the formation of social and cultural values."14 S.S. Marquis expressed the sentiment that seems to have dominated official thinking about the relationship of culture to production in the Crystal Palace; he stated that, "...the family is the foundation of the church and the state" and, Marquis continued, "we found that it is the foundation of right industrial conditions as well. Nothing tends to lower a man's efficiency more than wrong family relations."15

Clearly, there was room for improvement in the home and housing conditions of workers employed in the Crystal Palace and living in and around Highland Park. The Crystal Palace was the plant were Ford pioneered assembly line production in the automotive industry, and the main facility for Model T production. There can be no doubt that the Ford Motor Company took seriously the task of uplifting workers; but it must be remembered that Ford managers believed that the "Americanization" of workers meant, among other things, the improvement of home and housing conditions, the direct result of which would be increased production.

In the Detroit area, the Ford Motor Company led manufacturers in adopting "Americanization" objectives. The seed of what would become a full blown Americanization Campaign in 1914 could be found in the Ford Times as early as 1908; the Times was incessant in exhorting Ford workers (primarily Americans and Germans at this time) to ingest the American work ethic. One example of many early entreaties was in a New Year's resolution of Ford workers that states, "Of my own free will and accord, I sincerely covenant with myself...To exalt the Gospel of Work,...To keep head, heart, and hand so busy that I won't have time to think of my troubles. Because idleness is a disgrace, low aim is criminal, and work minus its spiritual quality becomes drudgery."16 Ford's Americanization program was among the most publicized, most extensive, and best organized efforts made to Americanize foreign-born workers; and its success so impressed local proponents of Americanization, that they convinced the Detroit Board of Commerce to promote Ford's methods in local factories. Thus, what had started as a plan to improve production at the Crystal Palace, soon became the basis of a broad program to manufacture the ideal culture.17

In an effort to replicate and disseminate the program that had been implemented at Ford, in 1915, the Detroit Board of Commerce created the Detroit Americanization Committee whose primary official purpose included the promotion and inculcation of the principles of American institutions and good citizenship. From the outset, the Detroit Americanization movement was dominated by the large employers of the city, and "they set the tone and policy."" The eleven-member Americanization Committee, a committee within the Detroit Board of Commerce, had six representatives of Detroit's leading corporations; including Henry W. Hoyt, vice president of the Great Lakes Engineering Company; F.S. Bigler, president of Michigan Bolt and Nut Company; Ernest L. Lloyd, president of Lloyd Construction Company; John R. Lee, director of the Ford Sociological Department; Horace Rackham, an attorney and "capitalist" who was Ford's legal counsel; and W.E. Scripps of the Scripps Motor Company, Scripps-Booth Cycle Car Company, and the Detroit News. In addition to those representing big business, the committee included Frank D. Cody, assistant superintendent of the city schools; A.J. Tuttle, U.S. District Judge; A.G. Studer, general secretary of the YM.C.A.; and Oscar B. Marx who was the mayor of the city and a businessman.19 Also on the committee were two persons who would later appear as prominent members of the Detroit Urban League: Fred Butsel was an attorney whose interest in social causes was well known, and Chester M. Culver was general manager of the Employer's Association of Detroit (EAD). The EAD was unquestionably the most powerful association of employers in the city, and every worker, whatever his nationality or culture, was in some way dependent upon it. Often, he was dependent in ways he would never know.

As stated by one Ford manager, "It is our aim and object to make better men and better American citizens, and to bring about a larger degree of comforts, habits, and a higher plane of living among our employees...."20 There were many Americanization programs, but perhaps because of the vigor with which Ford's efforts were publicized, the Ford program served as a model for a city-wide Americanization campaign in Detroit, and, in 1915, became the model for the National Americanization Day Committee and its national campaign for the assimilation of immigrants into American society.21 For the FMC, it was the school for the English language (run by Peter Roberts) that would insure full assimilation of the desired culture. As described by Marquis in 1916, the Ford English School, which had been established for immigrants employed in the Crystal Palace, provided five compulsory courses: "There is a course in industry and efficiency, a course in thrift and economy, a course in domestic relations, one in community relations, and one [probably anti-union] in industrial relations."22

From 1915 to 1916, the FMC reported that some 16,000 workers graduated from the Ford English School, and Ford statistics indicate that while 35.5 percent of the workforce did not speak English in 1914, only 11.7 percent did not speak the language in 1917.23

While speaking the English language may have been the most readily observable sign of the cultural conversion of immigrant workers, Ford officials believed that marital status, home ownership, a savings account, and the purchase of life insurance were important indicators of a worker's desire and willingness to be transformed into the preferred type of employees. Hence, the ability of a greater percentage of Ford workers to speak the English language, and improvements in home and housing conditions reported by the Sociological Department were seen as indications of the FMC's success in creating the ideal culture among Ford workers, while improving efficiency and production. Further evidence of Ford's overall commitment to upgrading the quality of life of Ford workers may be seen in the health and safety record in the Crystal Palace.

The Health and Safety Department at the Crystal Palace was created as part of the 1914 reforms, and in addition to providing a host of medical services, the newly instituted department issued monthly accident reports on a variety of physical conditions and diseases found among employees. The data reveals that despite concerted efforts aimed at "upgrading" the culture of the workforce, and a superior safety record, both occupational diseases and injuries resulting from accidents contributed significantly to the poor physical condition of many of the employees in the Crystal Palace.

In the automotive industry, as well as elsewhere in the world of industry, there were and still are occupational hazards that may have harmful effects on the health of workers. Arnold and Faroute reported on the notoriously unhealthy conditions in the foundry; at Ford it was observed that foundry workers suffered from severe heat and lack of ventilation, and "the air during work hours could not be endured by workmen, save those possessing respiratory organs of the most robust description, and many visitors were unable to walk through the Ford greyiron foundry...because they could not breathe the air.24 Conditions such as those described by Arnold and Faroute, and conditions in other parts of the factory have been associated with particular diseases. For example, Lowery observed that jobs connected with painting and metal finishing carried the most severe health problems in the auto industry, and lead poisoning, tuberculosis and silicosis led the list of job related diseases. The data for 1925 shows that 629 workers in the Crystal Palace were experiencing serious respiratory conditions.

Moreover, the record shows that amputated limbs were a major source of incapacity among employees in the Crystal Palace. It comes as no surprise then, that in the FMC the most common cause of permanent disability in the early 1920s was the loss of fingers or parts of fingers.25 It has been widely publicized that the FMC made a concerted effort to hire handicapped workers who might be found in the Detroit area. One FMC executive recalled that in the 1920s it was no longer necessary to look outside the Ford "family" to find handicapped workers, "...we had enough of our own company liabilities to take care of.... It helped the employee and the FMC. The company didn't have to pay workmen's comp because the man was employed."26 Although there were many accidents resulting in injury, Ford's records make it quite clear that most injuries were "slight."

The Michigan Department of Labor classified injuries resulting from accidents as fatal, serious, severe or slight; and a survey of reports published during the period under consideration shows that, in the Crystal Palace, the vast majority of injuries were slight. While there is a wide variation in the number of days that slightly injured persons were disabled (024), except in cases of the more extremely severe injuries, it was not possible to determine by the number of days lost whether the injury was slight or severe.27 It may be significant that while injuries of all classes appear to be evenly distributed among various age groups of employees, a sample of injuries reported during 1914 reveals that there was a disproportionately large number of injuries in the 18-25 age group.

Accidental injuries involving Ford's workers under 21 years of age need to be understood within the context of their employment in metal-manufacturing in Michigan. The Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor conducted a study of representative metal-manufacturing companies in Michigan and reported that 11 percent of all employees were persons under 21 years of age. Of those under 21 years of age, 99 percent were over 16, and about two-thirds were between 19 and 20.28 In 1918, "there were 1905 industrial accidents to minors resulting in death, dismemberment, or incapacity for work lasting from 15 days to one year. A large number of these accidents occurred in the metal-working industries,"29 in which the auto industry was a major employer; it is in this context that Ford's record should be analyzed.

During 1914, there were about 390 recorded injuries in the Crystal Palace, 22 involving workers who were 21 or younger. All of the reported injuries in this age group were classified as "slight." The year of 1915 witnessed a dramatic decrease in injuries to workers under 21 years of age; a total of about 300 injuries among all workers were reported, and only ten of these involved this youthful group. Again, there are several plausible explanations for the significant decrease in injuries to workers of this age group, but it is reasonable to argue that the decrease most probably resulted from the vigorous safety program of Ford's Health and Safety Department which, it should be recalled, were part of the Lee Reforms aimed at Americanizing (i.e., "upgrading") the culture of Ford workers. Whatever the source of decrease, the FMC deserves applause for the superior safety record in this age group. The record of injuries to workers between the ages of 25 and 40 is considerably less deserving of applause.

In sum, it may be noted that the Ford Motor Company's apparent commitment to improving the culture of its workers by (a) upgrading home and housing conditions, (b) Americanization, (c) and minimizing the risk of injury in the workplace and in the home, was dually motivated. That is to say, Ford's efforts were based on the presumption that an improved culture was essential to the achievement of optimal efficiency in production. Despite the duality in motivation, several indicators of the objective aspect of the quality of life suggest that the culture of the labor force that produced the Model T was significantly different from that of other automotive workers in the Detroit area. The comparatively high quality of life of the builders of the Model T was achieved at the expense of privacy, autonomy, and perhaps dignity and self-esteem. Ford officials, scholarly and journalistic writers, and the workers themselves have often disagreed on whether the end justified the means, but Ida Tarbell, who visited the Crystal Palace with the intention of exposing the abuses of Ford's paternalism, was so thoroughly impressed by what she saw, that she told the Detroit Executive Club that, "I don't care what you call it-philanthropy, paternalism, autocracy-the results which are being obtained are worth all you can set against them, and the errors in the plan will provoke their own remedies."30


1 Ford Motor Company Archives, hereafter FMCA. FMCA/Accession 63, Box 1: S.S. Marquis, "Profit Sharing;" John R. Lee, "The So-Called Profit Sharing System in the Ford Plant," Annals AAPSS, 45 (May 1916) 299 and 308; O.J. Abel, "The Making of Men, Motor Cars and Profits," Iron Age, 95 (7 Jan. 1915) 37; John A. Fitch,

"Ford of Detroit and his Ten Million Dollar Profit Sharing Plan," Survey 31 (7 Feb. 1915, 545-50).

2 Stephen Meyer II. The Five Dollar Day (Albany, NY, 1981), 108.

3FMCA/Accession 940, Box 16: "Press Release on Five Dollar Day;" New York Times, 6 Jan. 1914. Almost immediately, Highland Park was flooded with job seekers. See Detroit News, 5-7, 10 Jan. 1914; Detroit Times, 7-10 Jan. 1914; Detroit News Journal, 12 Jan. 1914; also Detroit Free Press, 12-14 Jan. 1914.

4 Daniel Nelson, Managers and Workers: Origins of the New Factory System in the United States, 1880-1920 (Madison, 1975), 101. For discussions of the various origins and assumptions about welfare work, see: Henry Eilbirt, "The Development of Personnel Management in the United States," Business History Review XXx III, 1959; Don D. Lescohier, "Working Conditions," in vol. 3 of John R. Commons, et al., History of Labor in the United States, 1896-1932 (New York, 1935); Leon P. Alford, "The Status of Industrial Relations," Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 41 (June 1919); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Bulletin, No. 250, 13.

5 Charles E. Sorenson, My Forty Years With Ford (New

York, 1959), 142. Sorenson's opinion, is undoubtedly biased, but representative of Ford insiders and sympathizers. James Couzens, who at the time was vice president of the Ford Motor Company, stated in a press interview that he thought the profit-sharing plan was good, and that it might serve as an example for other employers (New York Times 6 Jan. 1914). On the other side of the issue, Meyer has suggested that, "In the end, Ford paternalism failed, and perhaps, even proved irrelevant [sic]. Remembering that the Five Dollar Day was but a part of a larger effort that included the Americanization campaign, Meyer remarked that, "Perhaps the most significant feature of the Ford Americanization program was its direction opposite of Henry Ford, Couzens, Liebold, et al." (See Stephen Meyers, "Adapting the Immigrant to the Line: Americanization in the Ford Factory, 1914-1921." Journal of Social History 14 Fall 1980.)

6FMCA/Oral History Section: "The Reminiscences of E.G. Liebold," 226.

7Allan Nevins. Ford: The Times, The Man, The Company (New York 1954), 550.

8 The problem of "turnover" was a major concern at the Crystal Palace as elsewhere in the automotive industry. Eilbirt (1959) noted that around 1910 "a new idea" played an important part in advancing personnel administration. For example, the computations of Alexander, Fisher, et al., revealed previously hidden costs of considerably magnitude in labor turnovers. "After c.1910, one could scarcely read any subsequent treatment having to do with labor, whether written by friend or critic, executive, physician, psycholo

gist, psychiatrist, or academic student, which omits some mention of turnover as a universal evil to be avoided." See Magnus Alexander, "Hiring and Firing," Annals AAPSS, Volume 65 (May 1919); and Boyd Fisher, "Methods of Reducing the Labor Turnover," Annals (May 1919).

9FMCA/Accession 940, Box 17: "Instructions to Investigators."

10 Lee, "Profit Sharing System," 300.

11 Meyer, Five Dollar Day. 104.

12 Lee, "Profit Sharing System," Meyer, Five Dollar Day, 104. About 250 women employed at the Crystal Place at this time were initially excluded from participation in profit-sharing; but, a vocal outry from feminist leaders such as Helen Keller, Anna Howard Shaw, et al., apparently persuaded the Ford Motor Company to reconsider, and women were then included in profit-sharing.

13 FMCA/Accession 63 A: S.S. Marquis, "Memo on Profit Sharing" c.1916. As reported by Meyer (page 115) the first memo clearly suggesting a "Sociological" Department was dated Nov. 1914; see FMCA, Accession 683, Box 1, "Letter to Cleveland Branch," 29 April 1914.

14 Oliver J. Abell, "The Ford Plan for Employees," Iron Age, 29 Jan. 1914; Meyer, Five Dollar Day, 127.

15 FMCA/Accession 293, Box 1: "Ford Profit Sharing."

16 FMCA/Accession 940, Box 17: "Instructions to Investigators"; Accession 62, Box 58: "Report of Sociological Department," 12 Oct. 1914.

17 FMCA/Accession 62, Box 58: "Report of Sociological Department," 12 Oct. 1914.

18 Meyer, Five Dollar Day, 123; Boris Emmett, "Profit Sharing in the United States," Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 208 (1916), 106; Ford Motor Company, "Helpful Hints," 13.

19 FMCA/Accession 293, Box 1, "Profit Sharing."

20 Howard C. Hill. "The Americanization Movement," The American Journal of Sociology Vol. XXIX No. 6 (May 1919), 613.

21 Articles of Association of Americanization Committee of Detroit, Article I, Section 2 (1925), ACD Papers: 3.

22 Kennedy, Over Here: World War and American Society, 63.

23John Higham. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1960-1925. (New York, Athenum, 1963) 263; cited in Kennedy, 1980: 64.

24 Gerd Korman. Industrialization: Immigrants and Americanization. Madison, 1967: 144.

25 Nelson, Managers and Workers, 144.

26 Ford Times, 2 Dec. 1908:1; Meyer, Five Dollar Day, 68-69.

27Meyer, Five Dollar Day, 68; Zunz, Changing Face of Inequality, 313; Nelson, Managers and Workers, 144-45.

28 Hill, "The Americanization Movement," 633.

29 Nelson, Managers and Workers, 144-45.

30 Quoted in Fisher, "How to Reduce Turnover," 33.


Works Cited


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[Author Affiliation]

Clarence Hooker is an Associate Professor in the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University.

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