In honor of Home Movie Day, we’re featuring the home movies of Henry Ford. Home Movie Day is an annual event to raise awareness of the importance of home movies and encourage their preservation. This year’s Home Movie Day is Saturday, October 20th, but your local event may be held at any time throughout the year. (See the Center for Home Movies website to find a HMD near you, and check out the Home Movie Day Facebook page for the latest updates.)
A couple of years back, we featured a home movie collection that came to the National Archives via the Park Service. The Albert Breen films fit what most people would consider to be home movies; Breen was an avid amateur cinematographer and documented family trips around the country. This year, we’re highlighting a couple of our oldest home movies, which aren’t so typical. Films in the Ford Collection show glimpses of the life of industrialist Henry Ford, including camping trips with famous friends (1916 and 1921) and time spent at home with his grandsons (1920).
While it’s not entirely accurate to call 35mm films that were shot by a professional cameraman on Ford’s payroll “home movies,” we’re counting them anyway because there are so few examples prior to Kodak’s introduction of 16mm safety film in 1923. Before the portable, mass-market Cine-Kodak camera made amateur cinematography a mainstream hobby, filmmaking was for the very rich or the very serious hobbyist. In addition to being incredibly wealthy, Henry Ford had his own film studio churning out newsreels and educational productions. He could easily call on trained cameramen to record his memories.
Stills from FC-FC-4803.
Our first example begins with edited footage of inventor Thomas Edison, tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs on a camping trip in the Adirondacks in 1916. Along with Henry Ford, the group referred to themselves as “The Four Vagabonds,” and planned increasingly elaborate camping trips every summer. In the final segment of the reel, shot in the West Virginia mountains in 1921, there are horses and a sizable staff to support the group.
Stills from FC-FC-4678.
In the second reel, Henry Ford’s grandson, Henry II, rides on his grandfather’s shoulders, chases chickens, and climbs over a fence. The footage represents more traditional home movie subjects and could have come from any upper-class American family.
Preserving Your Home Movies
Even for the well-meaning family historian, home movies often become forgotten family artifacts that stay hidden in basements and attics. Experiencing an old photo album is as simple as opening the pages. A scanner or even a smart phone allows easy sharing with relatives. Films, however, require equipment to be viewed, which is a significant barrier to access for an individual who may not know what happened to the family projector or who worries that a machine may damage them. So how can you ensure that your home movies will be viewable for decades to come?
First and most important when it comes to preservation is proper storage. At NARA, we store film in climate-controlled vaults that were specifically designed for film. Of course, most people don’t have a film vault in their houses, but if you want your films to last longer, store them on the main floor of your house, which likely has the most stable temperature and humidity levels throughout the year. Typical storage places in your home, like basements and attics, are terrible for film. The heat and humidity common in these spaces cause film to deteriorate more rapidly than if they are stored in a climate-controlled space. Worse, if your basement floods, the films may be unrecoverable.
Viewing Home Movies
While it is still possible to view home movies with a projector and screen, the way they were originally seen, you should approach this with caution. Be sure that your films are not highly shrunken or damaged, and that your projector is clean and in good working order. Finding a Home Movie Day event in your area is a good way to get a quick assessment of your films and perhaps see one screened. Some events even offer to digitize a reel or two of your home movies for free.
For longer-term access, you probably want to have your films digitized. While you should be skeptical of any company that claims that they will “preserve” your home movies by transferring them to DVD, this is an easy access format will enable you to view and share your films with others. Just remember that the original film will probably last longer than any format you transfer to, so continue to protect it for the future. You will also need to migrate the copy to newer formats from time to time.
Already transferred your home movies to VHS in the 1990s? Digitize those now or you won’t be able to view them much longer—VCRs are officially obsolete. You could also spring for a new digital transfer of the film originals, but you still need to maintain the data in multiple places and keep up with new formats to ensure that your files are preserved and accessible for years to come.
For much more on how to view and preserve your home movies, check out recommendations from the Center for Home Movies.