History Lecture Series: Henry Ford’s Borrowed Humanity: How the Same Man Lifted and Then Lost America – Julie Fenster, Author and Historian


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During this program, Julie Fenster will discuss Henry Ford, possibly the first American tycoon who was considered “beloved” but who turned darker in the years after the success of the famous Model T.

During the first ten years of Model T production, 1908-1918, Henry Ford was a homegrown hero to the working class. He offered a sturdy car at an affordable price, an astonishing feat at the time. Moreover, as the Model T became wildly popular and demand increased, the price went down — by a wide margin nearly every year. A businessman wasn’t supposed to do that. Next, Henry Ford was credited with suddenly raising wages for his workers to a minimum of five dollars per day. The $5 Day upended centuries of accepted economic theory because it gave workers far more than the going rate. A businessman wasn’t supposed to do that, either. Due to the $5 Day, Henry Ford was regarded as an unwelcome radical by big business, but as a favorite by everyone else. In fact, he was very probably the first tycoon in American history who could be described as “beloved.” After the first decade of the Model T, though, Ford became a darker and yet darker presence, fanning Fascism and anti-Semitism, while provoking bitter labor disputes at his company. It became sadly apparent that Henry Ford’s success in the economics of benevolence had never really been his. The liberal thinking in business, the revolutionary ideas and populist attitudes had all come from someone else: James Couzens. He was forced out of Ford Motor in 1919 and on either side of his departure lay before-and-after pictures of Henry Ford as a hero of the people.

Julie M. Fenster is an author and historian. After college, she worked for Automobile Quarterly, which led to an association with American Heritage. In its magazine of business history, Audacity, Fenster explored such topics as the well-meaning trouble with company towns, the effect of sewing machines on self-employment, especially that of women, and in a series of articles, a comparison of the management of Ford Motor and General Motors, under Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloane Jr., respectively. She has since written many books on the American story, including two with a direct relationship to Connecticut: the award-winning Ether Day, which describes the uncoordinated efforts of Horace Wells of Hartford and two men from Boston in developing the first surgical anesthetic; and, the New York Times bestseller Parish Priest, a biography of Father Michael McGivney, who founded the Knights of Columbus in New Haven.

This program is sponsored by Moira and Kevin Craw. The moderator is Stephen Hudspeth. This program is being hosted by Wilton Historical Society. No charge to attend, but a $10 donation to the hosting institution is suggested. Click here to donate.