Friday, April 8, 2011

64th Anniversary of Death of Henry Ford

On this day in 1947, readers of the Ypsi papers learned that the 84-year-old "elder statesman of the automobile industry" had died at his home in Dearborn. His influence changed the demographics, economy, and even the very geography of Ypsi in ways that have lasted to this day. DD thinks of Ford Lake as a passing titan's footprint that filled up with water in his wake.

Now himself a historical figure, Ford is often misquoted, and misquoted without context, concerning his alleged quote "History is bunk." He did not say this as quoted, and a more thoughtful analysis of what Ford meant may be found in a 1999 Globe and Mail column by Robert Fulford:

"A few years ago, in an essay called 'Doing History,' [historian Eugen] Weber analyzed Henry Ford’s famous remark, 'History is bunk.' Since Ford was a bigot and a tyrant, that's usually quoted as an example of ignorance. But Weber used it to demonstrate that we can understand nothing except through context. Ford actually said 'History is more or less bunk,' which is slightly different, and he said it in 1916, in the middle of the First World War.

"Ford thought that devotion to the past prevents us from grappling with the present and may encourage us to make war out of historical grievance. In 1914 all the European leaders knew history, Ford said, yet they blundered into the worst war ever.

"On another occasion Ford recalled looking in American history books 'to learn how our forefathers harrowed the land'; he discovered that historians barely mentioned harrows, the iron-toothed rakes essential to modern farming. Harrows, Ford argued, meant more in history than guns and speeches. When history 'excludes harrows, and all the rest of daily life,' then history is bunk.

"Maybe Ford felt strongly about harrows because he manufactured them, Weber says; even so, he was right when he argued that history should tell how ordinary people lived. And Ford won. The rise of social history began in the 1920s with the Annales movement in France, and has spread ever since. As Weber says, 'The sort of history that Ford wanted is pretty much the history that we do today'."

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