Section III: Amalgamation, Acculturation, Assimilation

Henry Ford’s Melting Pot

Jonathan Schwartz

In his characteristic gift for self-advertisement, Henry Ford once remarked: “I am more a manufacturer of men than of automobiles.” This paper is a study of the Ford Motor Company’s efforts at remaking the immigrants who came to Highland Park in the 1910s to work on the world’s largest and (I am told) fastest assembly line. I shall examine the Company’s Americanization programs and I shall also describe how these programs were experienced by one of the many ethnic groups that found its way to Highland Park during this period: the Armenian refugees. This paper, then, is a study of the theory and practice of the melting pot in its hottest and most active phase, the period of the First World War.

The idea for this paper first occurred to me when I visited a retired UAW members’ picnic at Belle Isle in September, 1963. I went to the picnic with my father-in-law, a retired Armenian Ford worker, and was introduced to a community with a distinct history that reached back to the early days of the assembly line–retired rank and file members of Local 600, and proud of their union. But these men had worked at Ford twenty and thirty years before they had a union, and it was their initial contact with Detroit and the Ford Motor Company that drew my attention. The only way to discover this history was to talk with the members of the community, and since that afternoon at Belle Isle I have visited several coffee houses and other picnic tables at Palmer Park. Always I was able to gain entry to the groups of Armenian men through a member of my wife’s family, either my father-in-law or my grandfather-in-law. I found very soon that while almost every Armenian man who came to Detroit had worked at Ford, not all of them remained Ford workers to the time of the UAW. Some had escaped, some were laid off. Those who were able to stick it out at Ford up to the days of the UAW organizing drive, tended to continue at Ford until retirement, with a UAW pension. Occupational differentiation did not result in any discernible contrasts of attitude or values among the Armenian men. The men who left the assembly line to start a shoe repair business or a grocery store did not consider their new trade in the terms of upward mobility and the fulfillment of the American dream. Establishing a business in Highland Park was a means, perhaps the only means, of establishing a permanent Armenian community. It was also a way of acknowledging the permanence of the Armenian community. Rather than being assimilated and “Americanized,” the Armenians who came to Detroit, and worked at Ford’s at least for a time, built a rather stable and autonomous ethnic community. The surviving founders of the early Armenian community in Detroit still meet regularly and informally in the coffee houses and clubs and, when weather permits, at the picnic tables of Palmer Park. The categories in which much sociological phenomena are cast simply do not fit the experience of the men I met and spoke with. Henry Ford’s dream of the great melting pot never happened, fortunately, and the sociological constructs which are derived from the melting pot image–assimilation, acculturation, upward mobility–do not fully describe what did occur among ethnic groups.

In January, 1914, came the announcement of the $5.00 a day wage from the Ford Motor Company in Highland Park. Thousands of men appeared at the factory gates seeking a daily wage that in many cases doubled what was the standard rate for assembly line workers. So turbulent was the scene outside the Ford Company that the Highland Park fire department turned hoses on the men to dampen and freeze their enthusiasm. Behind the dramatic episode at the plant gates was a systematic program of the Ford Motor Company to Americanize the foreign workers. The Ford Profit-Sharing Plan was the theory which “justified” the $5.00 a day wage, and the Company created two agencies to implement the plan. First was the Ford English School and second was the Ford Sociological Department. In no other large American manufacturing firm was the “melting pot” idea so completely institutionalized.

The Ford English School sought to instruct the foreign born in basic English speech and writing. But like most of Ford’s actions, a moral and even a religious impulse seemed to be at work. To teach English also meant to discourage the use of native languages. To teach English meant also to Americanize, and the Ford Company pursued its aim with missionary zeal. A contemporary spokesman for the company described and explained the functioning of the Ford English School.

For their (i.e., the workers’) intellectual improvement we have provided, among other things, the Ford English School. This is a school for foreigners in our employ, the enrollment averages about 2,000. The pupils are grouped in classes of about 25 to a class. The teachers are volunteers from the office and factory. There are over one hundred and sixty of them. Each class meets twice a week, and the session lasts about one hour and a half. Attendance is virtually compulsory. If a man declines to go to school, the advantages of the training are carefully explained to him. If he still hesitates, he is laid off and given a chance for uninterrupted meditation and reconsideration. He seldom fails to change his mind.

There are over 50 nationalities in the factory and there may be as many nationalities in each class as there are men present, for we make no attempt to group them according to language and race. The fact is we prefer that classes be mixed as to race and country, for our one great aim is to impress these men that the are, or should be, Americans, and that former racial, national, and linguistic differences are to be forgotten. (My emphasis.)[1]

To further impress upon the students in the Ford English School the fact that they were being remade into Americans, the administration of the school designed a unique graduation ceremony. Again I quote from the text in the archives of the Ford Motor Company:

Not long ago this school graduated over 500 men. Commencement exercises were held in the largest hall in the city. On the stage was represented an immigrant ship. In front of it was a huge melting pot. Down the gang plank came the members of the class dressed in their national garbs and carrying luggage such as they carried when they landed in this country. Down they poured into the Ford melting pot and disappeared. Then the teachers began to stir the contents of the pot with long ladles. Presently the pot began to boil over and out came the men dressed in their best American clothes and waving American flags.[2]

The melting pot doctrine found a perfect ritual in this graduation ceremony, but if that ritual meant one thing to the ministers, it probably had different meanings to the members of the flock. The symbolic transformation of the foreigner inside the melting pot into a flag waving American, may have been convincing to the teacher of the school, but it hardly touched the students. Ethnic communities survived the melting pot to the point where one can ask: was there in fact a melting pot? save in the minds of its creators? Changing clothes does not remake the man. Acquiring the basic skills in English, moreover, does not transform the immigrant worker into an American.

We may now ask how the other agency of the Ford Motor Company’s “melting pot,” the Sociological Department, attempted to reshape the men who worked in the plant. The $5.00 a day was to be paid only to those Ford workers who were deserving of it. The Ford Sociological Department sent investigators to visit the workers’ homes, and if an employee met certain standards of behavior and habits, he would receive the $5.00 wage. Otherwise he would have to wait until he passed. Alan Nevins, in his monumental history of the Ford Motor Company gives a compact description of the Sociological Department’s method:

Each investigator, equipped with a car, a driver, and an interpreter, was assigned a district in Detroit, mapped to contain a due proportion of Ford workers and if possible, a limited number of language groups. The subjects for inquiry made up a formidable list. Naturally, each worker was expected to furnish information on his marital status, the number of dependents and their ages, and his nationality, religion, and (if alien) prospects of citizenship. In addition, light was sought on his economic position. Did he own his home? If so, how large was the mortgage? If he rented a domicile, what did he pay? Was he in debt, and to whom? How much money had he saved, and where did he keep it? Did he carry life insurance, and at what premiums? His social outlook and mode of living also came under scrutiny. His health? His doctor? His recreations? The investigator meanwhile looked about sharply, if unobtrusively, so that he could report on ‘habits,’ ‘home condition,’ and ‘neighborhood.’ Before he left a given family, he knew whether its diet was adequate; whether it took in boarders–an evil practice which he was to discourage; and whether money was being sent abroad. All this information and more was placed on blue and white forms. The Sociological Department was nothing if not thorough.[3]

Unfortunately, for my research, the written reports of the investigators are not preserved in the archives of the Ford Motor Company. I would have liked to make these descriptions as concrete as that of the Ford English School’s graduation ritual. I have spoken with several Armenian men who remember the investigators. One recalls having photographs taken of his living room and bedroom. Several Armenians mentioned one of their brothers who failed to pass the inspection. He was living at the time in a rooming house in Delray. He didn’t receive the $5.00 a day. Eventually this man quit Ford and started a grocery store in Highland Park.

The investigators from the Ford Sociology Department cooperated on occasion with the Police Department, helping to correct their employees’ bad habits. S.S. Marquis cited a letter from Detroit Police Commissioner:

The Commissioner of police declared that the work done by the Company had ‘decreased in number the cases against your employees,’ and that the work done by the Sociological Department ‘very materially improved the housing conditions in this community, resulting in many thousands of men becoming better and more dependable citizens.[4]

One of the ways in which the Ford Sociological Department justified its moral and financial supervision of the workers was its claim to protect the employees against ethnic swindlers, who, the company said, frequently cheated their own people. John R. Lee, the first director of the Sociological Department, described how the Ford Company helped to “liberate” the foreign workers from ethnic exploitation:

We have actually found in Detroit petty empires existing. For instance, we know it to be true that when a group of Rumanians, we will say, arrive in New York, in some way or other they are shipped to Detroit and the knowledge of their coming imparted to someone in our city, who meets them at the station and who confiscates the party, so to speak, persuades them to live in quarters selected for them, to buy their merchandise in markets other than their own choosing and to live unto themselves and apart from the wholesome environment of the city, so that the instigators of all this may benefit through rentals and large profits on food, wearing apparel, etc.

Of course, it is to the interest of such men that these foreigners shall know nothing of the English language, of American ways and customs, or of local values, as these are the things which would liberate them from the bondage (and it is nothing more or less) under which they have unconsciously been placed.[5]

Though the actual reports of the Ford Sociological Department investigators are not contained in the archives of the Henry Ford Museum, there is a printed statistical analysis of the findings of the investigators for the year 1916. It is interesting that the classification of employees is by ethnic origin. Thus we have a way of comparing the different ethnic groups behavior in Detroit, but only from the criteria used by the Ford Sociological Department. Of its 40,903 employees, 16,457 were native Americans, though separate categories are given for “Negroes” (106) and American Indians (33). The Ford Company lists 58 different nationalities in its employ. There are twenty-four nationalities with at least 100 employees. They are as follows:

1. American 16,457 13. Lithuanian 541
2. Polish 7,525 14. Scottish 480
3. Italian 1,954 15. Serbian 456
4. Canadian 1,819 16. Armenian 437
5. Rumanian 1,750 17. Irish 399
6. Jewish 1,437 18. Ruthenian 368
7. German 1,360 19. Greek 281
8. Russian 1,160 20. Bohemian 240
9. English 1,159 21. Swedish 166
10. Hungarian 690 22. Croatian 159
11. Austrian 573 23. Finnish 106
12. Syrian 555 24. Negro 106

The method in which the Ford Sociological Department represented “nationality” is, of course, highly misleading. This method reflects the mechanistic views of the department towards ethnicity. The category of “American” which heads the list tells only that this group is white and native. It says little or nothing of its ethnic or regional background. One can assume that this group of “Americans” included a fairly large proportion of second and third generation immigrants. When we examine the behavior of this group of Americans by the investigators from the Sociological Department, it does not appear that the Americans were particularly good in their behavior or prudent in their habits. In other words, the Americans in this employ of the Ford Motor Company are not to be taken as examples to be followed by the foreign born. The ideal of American in the Americanization program is not, therefore, a folk or ethnic pattern. The idea of American is a norm, a moral standard, which was set and enforced as much as possible by the administration of the Ford Motor Company. If we were stunned at the concreteness of the Ford English School’s graduation ceremony of the melting pot, we ought to be stunned also at the abstractness of the Ford Sociological Department’s standards of behavior. The investigators judged the employees “habits” as “good,” “fair,” and “poor,” and statistics in these terms were compiled for each of the fifty-eight ethnic groups. No explanation of what constitutes good, fair, and poor habits is given. However, by talking with at least one ethnic group, we can gather what type of thing the Sociological Department had in mind. Gambling apparently was a “poor” habit–almost universal, but definitely to be discouraged. Saving in a bank was a “good” habit. The investigators urged the worker to start a savings account with the wages that he might otherwise have gambled. Living in a rooming house was not as “good” as buying a home. Living in an ethnic community was not as “good” as living in the wholesome environment of nondescript Detroit. It seems on reflection that the ideal of the Ford Sociological Department was a purely impersonal world, a world of interchangeable men who would operate like interchangeable parts of a machine. The “melting pot” at Ford’s was an assembly line.

If we turn to the Sociological Department’s statistical summary of the 437 Armenian Ford workers in 1916, we would see that at least from the standpoint of the Ford Motor Company, this relatively small nationality was well on its way to being melted down into the American society. By nearly all of its standards of behavior and good habits, the Armenians were being assimilated and Americanized. Only four Armenians of the entire number were found unable to speak English. Those Armenian workers who have savings accounts in Detroit banks held savings that were more than double those of the average employee. Armenians, moreover, were taking out life insurance policies at about the average rate. A smaller number of the Armenians than the average were married and had families, but this fact only testifies to the circumstances of the Armenian immigration to the United States. Armenian men immigrated, without families, and generally preceded by five or ten years the immigration of women. Young Armenian women often lived in orphanages in Armenia, for the earlier Turkish massacres were aimed at the male population. The women remained in orphanages until they received the money for passage to America. In Detroit the Armenian workers lived in rooming houses and shared the cooking and housework. They spent their leisure hours in the coffee houses and parks as they do to this day. According to the Ford investigators the habits of the Armenian workers were “good” or “fair.” They had the mode of behavior which marked them as dependable. Thus, the Armenians resembled in several respects the “norms” established by the Sociological Department.

The statistical portrait of the Armenian Ford workers hardly tells the real history of this group. The early immigrants were saving their wages at a higher rate in order to buy passage back to their native land. These men had left Armenia to avoid being drafted into the Turkish army. The World War and the subsequent massacres by the Turks in a sense sealed the fate of the Armenians who had already come to America. After 1915 there was no going back to Armenia. Rather, it became imperative to bring the survivors to the United States. Hence the powerful motive for saving among Armenian Ford workers. While the Ford Sociological Department viewed savings as “good” because it showed the character of restraint in an individual, we can see that the act of saving money can also represent a collective and not merely an individual will. The Armenian Ford workers saved money in order to create an Armenian community, not to individuate themselves in the American society. Similarly, as I mentioned at the opening of this paper, the reasons for starting a business in Highland Park were primarily those of building a solid economic base for the growing Armenian community. If an Armenian Ford worker quit Ford to start a business, it was not to separate himself from his fellow Armenians but to better cement his bonds with them. The business often served the Armenian neighborhood. We ought not to mistake these ethnic aspirations, as attempts to realize the “American dream.” For these several hundred Armenian men at Ford, the awesome consciousness of the survivor was far more persuasive and real than the American fantasy of the self-made man.

We must move ever closer to particular cases, away from the abstract profiles of the Ford Sociological Department. The historian who does research through conversations–oral history–has to develop a different temperament from that of the researcher in archives. In the archives one does a rapid interrogation of the materials at his desk, sorting through and discarding an immense number of documents. We usually know what we are after; and when we find it, there is the joy of discovery, a drink at the fountain, and the copying of the text in the notebook. While listening to old workers telling about the early days on the assembly line, the historian cannot be in a hurry, nor can he pounce upon the evidence when he hears it coming from the lips of his informers. The Armenian men I spoke with, or listened to, could not quite figure out why I was asking them all those questions. Sometimes they referred me to authorities or to experts on Armenian history. I never took their advice. I considered the men in the coffee houses the best experts on their own history, although they did not regard what they had done as historically significant. I rather think otherwise.

The men did not arrive in America as whole communities with a definite social organization. It took nearly two decades to establish Armenian organizations, like the church, in Detroit. The men arrived in this city after spending about two or three years moving from job to job in the United States. These wanderings are remarkable. One man recalls arriving in New York in 1907, making his way to Providence, Rhode Island, then and now an Armenian center in the U.S., and then up to Island Falls, Maine, where he worked in a shoe factory. Laid off from this job, he lived alone in the Maine woods for several months, hunting deer. Hearing of other Armenians in Pennsylvania and Missouri, he made his way to both places, always asking for other Armenians en route–not simply using a grape vine, but making a grape vine. Harry M. came to Detroit three years after landing in New York. He lived and worked briefly in Delray, and then got a job at Ford’s in Highland Park in the gear cutting department. In 1910, he was the third Armenian to be hired at Ford. He recalls how Ford used to take walks through the plant, something like a general reviewing his troops. He came up to Harry at the lathe and pulled his long dark hair, smiling and saying, “I wish my hair were like that.” None of the later Armenian workers remembers such a buoyant Henry Ford. Harry recalls the passionate feelings pro and con toward Henry Ford among both immigrants and natives. One worker who called his dog “Ford,” was attacked in a restaurant by a Ford loyalist. When a fight broke out, the man with the dog was arrested and fined for creating a disturbance. The loyalist was released.

Episodes such as these reveal better than any statistics the character of the factory city in those days; this character combined the explosiveness of frontier America and the harsh discipline of the assembly line. Ford himself personified these traits, but they were traits which could not be transmitted to all who came to work at Ford’s factory. My informants in the Armenian community tell me that when an Armenian arrived in Detroit needing work, one of the Armenian Ford workers would give that man’s name to his foreman, and the foreman would pass the name to the employment officers, who might then call the name in the waiting room, ask the man a few questions, and assign him to a department where he was needed. In this way, the Ford company managed, informally, to keep some distribution of ethnic groups. Favoritism, and sometimes bribery, could also get a man a job. No Armenian man from these early days ever remembers being promoted into a high post in the company. Nor did other ethnic groups rise in the ranks of the Ford management.

From what I can gather from the small number of former Ford workers I spoke with, the very early days at Ford in Highland Park were quite different from the late nineteen-tens, and particularly the twenties after the Rouge Plant was built.

Ethnicity is very much a part of the industrial and labor history of Detroit. Too often historians like to keep their categories separated from one another. The economic historian looks at the manufacturing firm; the labor historian looks at the local union; the ethnic historian looks at a particular nationality. But history does not live in the categories of scholarship. The social history of modern times cannot be placed in neat compartments. Rather, we can discover our history at those junctions or intersections where we, as people with distinct history, meet head on with institutions like schools and factories.

I hope that my little research into the Armenian workers who worked at Fords’ in Highland Park can be seen as an example of the kind of historiography which reveals the character of our society.

Taken from: Feinstein, Otto, editor. Ethnic groups in the City: Culture, Institutions and Power. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 197l.

  1. Henry Ford Museum, Archives. Accession 293, Marquis Papers, "The Ford Profit-Sharing Plan," pp. 11-12.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Alan Nevins. Ford: The Times, The Man, The Company, 3 volumes (New York, 1954) Vol. 1, p. 554.
  4. S.S. Marquis. Henry Ford: An Interpretation, (1923).
  5. John R. Lee. "The So-Called Profit-Sharing System in the Ford Plant," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 65 (May, 1916), pp. 305-6.


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