The relationship between media novelty and industrial fantasy surely pre-dates Walter Benjamin’s polemical soundbite, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” published nearly twenty-one years after Henry Ford rolled out his first film, How Henry Ford Makes One Thousand Cars a Day (1914). It likely extends, then, beyond the Daguerrotype portrait session Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, and Marx’s daughters1 sat for in 1860, the year shoe workers in Lynn, Massachusetts, walked off the job in demand of higher wages, which culminated in 20,000 employees marching through the streets of New England and handing in their tools—one of the largest collective strikes of the early labor movement.2
The strike was led by a nascent incarnation of the Daughters of St. Crispin, the first national women’s labor union in the United States.3 Lynn, Massachusetts, isn’t—itself—an asshole, but rather an under-the-radar historical milieu turned kind-of-fucked-up place; translation: ripe for revitalization. Frederick Douglass moved to Lynn as a twenty-three-year-old fugitive slave in 1841; it’s where he became a preacher and then an abolitionist, all the while working on the autobiography that would out his identity, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845), thus triggering moves born of necessity—first abroad and then to Rochester, New York, his home in 1848, when he served as the only African-American delegate to the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls.4 That same year Marx and Engels published their 23-page political pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, and a series of global uprisings, commonly referred to as “The Revolutions of 1848,” were initiated by an ad-hoc coalition of workers, reformers, utopian theologists, free-love acolytes, Polish prisoners, ethical iconoclasts, and the middle classes—a coalition, as any, not long for this world. In short, the polyamorous marriage between media ideology and industrial imagination goes back to Plato’s Cave, at least, and in one New England town four miles north of Boston city limits, to shoe-manufacturing profiteers who paid lousy wages for perimetric and static use of something we call “labour-power at work.” Later this cohort of shoe factory owners would invest in a struggling energy company that grew so successful it merged with a firm similarly founded by Thomas Edison. Its first CEO, Charles Coffin, formerly of Coffin and Clough Shoes, Inc., gifted the burgeoning corporation its new name—General Electric.5 GE went on to become one of the original twelve companies that comprised the Dow Jones Industrial Average (1894), and at his death in 1926, Coffin was one of the wealthiest men in the world. Suffice to say, he was probably also an asshole.
Sometimes it’s best or easiest or the most reasonable or the least peripatetic to let mediation mirror a person’s proclivities and fetishes. Corporations are people, and Henry Ford was a particular kind of person—an asshole. By 1919, as reported by Ford’s in-house magazine, The Ford Man, over 1,000 miles worth of Ford films were shown weekly in theaters, dispersed throughout America, Canada, South Africa, India, Japan, most European nations, and quote—“The British Colonies”—unquote.6 Around this time, Ford had become the largest motion picture manufacturer in the world, spending $600,000 a year (the equivalent of 10 million dollars today) on film production and distribution.7 Not to bring up any megalomaniacal contemporary comparisons, but Ford’s films had titles like “Henry Ford Pilots Big Locomotive,” released in 1921, the same year as Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, to give you a sense of things, and featured, like all of Ford’s films, a Model-T radiator logo superimposed over the movie title. Ford’s films veered from quasi-ethnographic blight tourism to first-person renderings of American entrepreneurial capitalism: Henry Ford on a horse, Henry Ford in a hammock, moralizing Christian schlock, live circuses, Henry Ford on vacation, Henry Ford initiating the $5 a day wage as a form of welfare capitalism to sanitize and control worker’s private lives (while dangling “real” profit-sharing as a reward for internalizing Ford’s ur-maxim about leisure as the time to consume more mass-produced goods). “Fordism” formally entered the lexicon as a metonym when Antonio Gramsci labeled a section of his prison writings, “Americanism and Fordism” (1929–35), in which he would point out that Ford’s living-wage gambit seemed more like a capitalist response to the objective development of productive forces, than any kind of socialism in sheep’s clothing—more an American Technocratic gospel song than the opener from an International Workers’ Day playlist.
Right around this time—we’re still in 1919—Ford’s newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, viewed by 700,000 at its peak, published a piece on America’s obsession with the flexible betting line, the Black Sox scandal, and the rigging of World Series games, ill-competently headlined, “The Peril of Baseball: Too Much Jew.”
Two dozen or so more articles with this anti-Semitic vibe later, plus the decision to charge theaters $1 a week to screen single reels of footage, and the popular “Ford Educational Weekly” film series produced by the Henry Ford Motion Picture Company found its viewership down 75 percent.8 Almost a century later, in 2009, after a would-be extortionist demanded two million dollars to keep silent, prompting a confession by late-night talk show host David Letterman about his repeated sexual liaisons with and harassment of subordinate female staffers, Letterman’s ratings shot up 22 percent over the year’s average; Letterman, an asshole, once bought a Ford Fusion live on the air.9
Back in Dearborn, Henry Ford turned his attention to making promotional films for his vehicles, like The Ford Age (1923), screened at county fairs, secondary schools, dealer showrooms, perhaps on holidays and special events and maybe even at weddings—most definitely projected onto the sides of buildings—to an audience estimated at 2,500,000 viewers a month by the mid-1920s, until the Great Depression finally shut down Ford’s movie empire in 1932, with the de facto closure of his Highland Park studio. The Ford Motion Picture Company was revived in 1952, just in time for commercials, though it never achieved the same impact as when Henry Ford, an asshole, was its executive producer.
The 1860 image is readily accessible on the internet, but the real gem in our digitization of mid-19th-century Marx portraiture is an oft-circulated image of him with his daughter, Jenny Caroline, a socialist-journalist who also served as his secretary. Marx was married to a Jenny—Jenny von Westphalen—and in addition to Jenny Caroline, two additional of his seven children bore a variation of the name (Jenny Laura, Jenny Julia Eleanor), so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the photo has been captioned, “Marx and his wife, Jenny,” more often than not, throughout the sloppy annals of cyberspace, including the official Getty Images 300 dpi version, which you can purchase on gettyimages.com for $499.↩
Among others, Howard Zinn wrote about the strike in A People’s History of the United States (1980). Noting that the shoe workers began to organize as early as the 1830s, he quoted a piece from their “militant” newspaper, The Awl:a
The division of society into the producing and the non-producing classes, and the fact of the unequal distribution of value between the two, introduces us at once to another distinction—that of capital and labour. . . . labour now becomes a commodity. . . . Antagonism and opposition of interest is introduced in the community; capital and labour stand opposed (231).↩
Historian Mary H. Blewett notes that though the phrase, “Daughters of St. Crispin,” circulated in reference to some of the 1860 strikers, including one anonymous writer, the union wasn’t formalized until November 12, 1868. St. Crispin, as you may have guessed, is the patron saint of shoes.a
See Men, Women, and Work: Class, Gender, and Protest in the New England Shoe Industry, 1780–1910 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 393.↩
Tom Dalton, a longtime newspaperman who worked for the Salem News and Lynn Item, published Frederick Douglass: The Lynn Years (1841–1848) in 2018 on lulu dot com.↩
Google sponsored search result from www.investors.com:a
“Charles Coffin, The Man Who Electrified GE.”↩
The Ford Man (September 20, 1917), as cited by Phillip W. Stewart for a Winter 2014 publication at the National Archives site, drawn from his book Henry Ford’s Moving Picture Show, Volume One (SMS Press, 2011).↩
David L. Lewis, The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976), p. 115.↩
I keep trying to footnote this, but whenever I search for the citation (from the Library of Congress) on Google, the first three results are variations on the same theme—including this one from NY Mag’s Intelligencer blog: “Trump: Mueller’s Fault My Approval Rating Isn’t 75 Percent.”↩
Kate Stanhope, “Letterman’s Late Night Rivals Take Hits at Extortion Scandal,” TV Guide Online (October 3, 2009).↩