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Henry Ford and the American Century

by Steven Watts

Pub Date: Aug. 15th, 2005
ISBN: 0-375-40735-9
Publisher: Knopf

Hailed in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Henry Ford was “an American icon”—and, argues historian Watts, the principal architect of American consumer culture.

Born on a Michigan farm in 1863, Ford did not want for much; the crops were good, and his mother imparted to him a Victorian ethic that “forged a creed combining Protestant moralism, market individualism, the work ethic, and genteel restraint.” The McGuffey Readers did their part, too, as did Thomas Edison, whom Ford met after having developed a prototype car in 1896. Edison approved of his design, exclaiming, “Your car is self-contained—it carries its own power-plant—no fire, no boiler, no smoke, no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.” Ford took from Edison a certainty that technology could yield social good and wealth by improving the lot of the workers, as well as reinforcement for his own views on the virtues of hard work and frugality. He eventually turned social engineer, using some of his immense wealth to fund anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol crusades, all in the name of good business and efficiency; he once remarked that he would never hire a manager who looked to be worn or in bad shape, reckoning that such a fellow would use Ford’s money as poorly as he did his own body. About the time Ford’s business practices—don’t allow unions, but pay well, and the like—were being lauded in totalitarian Germany and Leninist Russia as the face of the industrial future, Ford expanded his extracurricular interests to include railing against Jews; as with his adoption of fad diets and spiritualist causes, Watts observes, Ford “offered a mishmash of half-digested concepts and visceral intuitions, rather than systematic analysis, so his social and cultural speculations did not probe very deeply.” Deeply enough, though, to lose market share and political influence—and to have his name forever associated with despicable causes as much as remembered for his very real achievements.

A smoothly written, comprehensive life of a man at once complex and superficial—truly an icon of the modern age.