Henry Ford’s Mirror of America

You might be surprised to learn that there was a moment in time when Ford Motor Company had one of the largest film studios outside of Hollywood. In April of 1914, when his company was barely a decade old, Henry Ford established the Ford Motion Picture Department. Along with motor vehicles, Ford began releasing films on a weekly basis, first a newsreel called The Ford Animated Weekly, and then The Ford Educational Weekly, which covered subjects of a less timely nature that could be exhibited longer. At its peak, the company newsletter, The Ford Times estimated that over 20 miles of film left their factory every week.

Workers in the Ford Motion Picture Department film a scene for an educational film.
(Still from Mirror of America)

Films produced by Ford covered a wide range of educational subjects, from demonstrating an industrial process such as making dolls in a factory to travelogues that brought faraway or exotic locales to a theater near you. By 1920, the Ford Times reported that their films received between ten and twelve million viewers in 7,000 theaters in the United States, plus circulation in foreign markets such as France, Mexico, and Japan.

This priceless historical record was not always in the public trust. In November of 1963 in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., William Clay Ford presented to the National Archives 1.8 million feet of historical footage created by Ford Motor Company. For the occasion of the donation, the Archives premiered Mirror of America, a film that highlighted the collection and Henry Ford’s interest in moving pictures. The film serves as an introduction to the films and also advertises the collection as open for research. (As one might expect, there is also a fair amount of homage to Henry Ford the man.)

Mirror of America (Local Identifer: 64.28)

Mirror of America includes a wide swath of the Ford Collection, including notable personalities of the day such as Thomas Edison, Buffalo Bill Cody, and the humorist Will Rogers. The resulting film demonstrates how the collection is a “mirror” of American life from the middle 1910s through the 1920s. (The assessment holds true as long as one considers that the “mirror” is pointed only in directions that were of interest to the Ford Motor Company at the time.) The Ford Collection covers aspects of American history that are not present in government-produced motion picture records, which is why it was a valuable acquisition.

Cameras captured William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (L) in 1916, a year prior to his death.
(Still from Mirror of America)

The involvement of Archives’ staff was extensive, even if it was not as direct as the credits would have us believe. A report in the January 1964 edition of the National Archives’ newsletter Archi-Views describes the project and the opening night ceremony, detailing the efforts of National Archives’ staff. Before footage could be selected, the film lab had to copy the flammable nitrate reels onto acetate safety stock  (the cost of the work was covered by a $200,000 grant from Ford). With the footage preserved, Deputy Archivist Dr. Robert Bahmer, Karl Trever, and Robert Jacoby winnowed the nearly two million feet down to a few hundred scenes that would be used in the film.

Once the footage was selected, the technical work of the film production, including writing and editing, was completed by Jerry McMechan and John Hollowaty from Ford Motor Company’s film department.

Mirror of America premiered November 18, 1963, when William Clay Ford officially presented the Ford Collection to the National Archives. According to the article in Archi-Views, the film was entered in film festivals in Monte Carlo and Nigeria. The program for the premiere noted that the addition of the Ford Collection to our existing collections was “an invaluable gift to future generations of Americans.” At over 50 years old, the documentary still stands as the best introduction to the Ford Collection, showcasing the depth, breadth, and quality of the footage.

Background information for this post came from the accession file for Mirror of America. For much, much more on the history of the Ford Motion Picture Department and the Ford Collection at the National Archives, see Phillip W. Stewart’s article “Henry Ford: Movie Mogul?” in the Winter 2014 issue of Prologue.

3 thoughts on “Henry Ford’s Mirror of America

  1. 1.8 million feet of film? By my best guess that is 350 something hours. I wish I had time to watch all that. The raw footage is ARC Identifier 90439?

    1. Here’s the series record: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/90439 I should have included it in the post, and will go back to add it. The donation was of 1.8 million feet, but if you start digging into it, you will find that there is a lot of duplication. The footage was cannibalized for new productions and bits and pieces ended up scattered. This would have been common for an active production environment and in no way a reflection of Ford’s care of the collection prior to donating it to the Archives. In fact, when you consider how much of it survived, Ford does far better than the usual gloomy statistics for the that time. As for runtime, if you considered that most of the footage was from the silent era, and would have been projected at 18fps, it would be closer to 450 hours.

  2. The aircraft identified as the “first model of the Martin bomber” (at 21:47) is actually footage of the first American-made (by Standard Aircraft, as I recall), Italian designed, Caproni CA-5 biplane bomber. I believe the reason it was filmed was because the plane was powered by three Ford-built Liberty engines. The footage was originally used in WHAT UNCLE SAM HAD UP HIS SLEEVE [FC-FC-1585] (7419628) from 1918.

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