Ford’s methods of remaking human derelicts (1915)

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to or other companies. Qualifying purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Ford’s methods of remaking human derelicts

Famous philanthropist applies horse sense to ex-convicts in his man factory with wonderful results — His sociological department, costing $9,000 a month, cares for 14,000 men without spying

Can Henry Ford make good?

When the automobile manufacturer told the United States Commission on Industrial Relations recently that he could take every convict in Sing Sing and make a man of him, he invited an examination of his ability to do so. Every thinking mind began to ask whether it was simply a casual assertion or a real expression of ability supported by an efficient plan, a working plant and actual accomplishments.

“If you can do that,” I said to him just after he had made his remarkable statement, “You must have a man factory in Highland Park.”

“I can do it,” he replied, “but I do not claim to have a man factory. I have an automobile factory where we do something more than turn out machines. The best thing for you to do is to come out to Detroit and see exactly what we are doing and find out what we have done. Then you can judge for yourself. Words never count for much in this world. It’s deeds.”

So I went to Detroit and thence to Highland Park unannounced. One of the first questions I asked was:

“You say you can make men; what do you call a man?”

The answer came quickly:

“One who stands four square to the world in reference to the functions that should be absolutely right with regard to himself, those who are dependent upon him and society in general.”

“How do you make men?”

“By the application of horse sense.”

Horse sense

E G Liebold, secretary to Mr Ford, conducted me through the extensive works – they cover sixty acres, he said – during the first hour; and I spent two days there, looking and questioning, mostly questioning. Every once in a while, Mr Liebold would explain to me something about how a particular part was being handled and the relation of part and handling to the mechanical system and the finished automobile.

I told him that the interest was not in automobiles nor how they were made there; not in the efficiency of Mr Ford’s manufacturing plant, nor in anything else that had to do with mechanics, machinery or business economics, nor even in his profit sharing plan, but in his man factory; how they made men, not how they made automobiles. If that was anywhere about I wanted to find it. So he opened every department in the factory to me and gave me every facility for investigating; as did the other lieutenants of Henry Ford as I met them, one after another.

The Ford sociological department

In the Ford sociological department, which has charge of the man making, there are records of more than 500 men who were put to work in the factory solely because the needed the uplift of work and good pay to turn them from ways of evil into ways of good. But what is more remarkable, there is no record of a single man among them who had to be dropped because he returned to the kind of life he formerly lived. Among them are 150 men who have served terms in various prisons for crimes ranging from murder to petty theft; the terms ranged from thirty-four years behind the bars to a few months. Most of these ex-convicts are counted among the best and most faithful workmen in the departments and in the labor to which they are assigned.

MORE  Old silent movies: Why so many classic films have been lost

The sociological department employs a force of eighty men, all under the supervision of John R Lee, who is assisted, as he puts it, by every man in the factory, from Mr Ford to the humblest worker about the shops. Forty of these men are subordinate executives, stenographers and clerks. The direct cost of the sociological department approximates $9,000 a month.

When there seems to be some good reason for considering the acceptance of an application for a job, the name and address of the applicant are given to an inspector, who jumps into one of the many automobiles kept for just such use and goes to the address given. There, he sees the applicant and his family, if he has any, and examines the conditions under which he lives. The inspector gets a fairly complete history of the man’s present condition.

What he has been or what he may become does not enter into consideration, and this is where Henry Ford’s system of employing men who have not lived righteous lives differs from any other. The only matter taken into account is what the man is today – the frame of mind he is in at the moment the inspector calls upon him. He may have been a bank burglar or a holdup man, a forger or a murderer, but if he displays an inclination to do right and go to work, he may be pretty sure that within a day or two he will be wearing a Ford badge and have a place in the factory. Past records don’t count and promises for the future are not taken into consideration, and there is always room for one more in this big plant.

Watching, but no spying

But a successful applicant is watched. Nobody realizes more than these people do that promises of reform are easily broken and that good intentions have their assigned place in the infernal regions unless they are supported by actual performances. Every one of the 14,000 men comes under the purview of the sociological department at least three times a year, whether he has a bad record or has all his life lived a decent and respectable life.

But there is no prying or spying. No inspector goes about among the man’s tradespeople to find if he pays his bills or asks his neighbors if he is beating his wife. The man himself is seen and questioned, usually in the presence of his wife or some other relative or friend, and always at his home or boarding house, and his statements are taken absolutely on faith, without a doubt or hesitation, unless there is reason to believe that he is concealing something. In the latter event he is faced with facts or reports and asked for an explanation.

If he has fallen from grace, he is encouraged to take a fresh grip on himself and make another try of it. If he does not indicate repentance for a misdeed or for wrong living he is punished but not discharged.

It might be supposed that the men would object to this constant and persistent watching of their private lives and resent it. As a matter of fact I made several trips on trolley cars on which workmen quitting with their various shifts were returning to their homes for the express purpose of getting into apparently casual conversation with them and finding out how they felt about this and some other matters incident to their employment in the Ford works. Not one of the number to whom I suggested that objection might well be made failed to reply that watching certainly was a good thing for many of the men, and what was good for one was good for all. Probably the boldness and the openness of the watchfulness saves it from being misconstrued and resented.

MORE  The Gettysburg Address: Photos, analysis & the full text of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech (1863)

Of course the duty of the inspector goes further than simply to make a report. Of the large number of foreigners employed in the factory, many of them ignorant of the English language, some are bound to be dwelling amid conditions which do not make for mental and moral improvement. It is the business of the inspector not only to note this but also to suggest, but never insist, that the man seek other and more improving quarters and associates. Congenial and uplifting environment, socially and industrially, is the keystone upon which the entire sociological work in Highland Park is built, and Mr. Ford holds that with both of these no man can go wrong.

Some of the men, both before and after employment, are found to be living in hovels or herded together in crowded and unsanitary boarding houses and surrounded by people who have uncertain ideas of right and wrong. They are urged to move and the way is made easy for them to do so. Not with money, but through steady employment at good wages, which guarantee to a man an ability to pay for a fair living amid beneficial surroundings.

Making good

Naturally, this has worked wonders in the style of living of the men. A large number of them own their homes, having advanced step by step from squalid surroundings to dwellings, which, both within and without, make other who are less fortunate or less industrious envious or emulative. Some photographs taken by the sociological department showing the improvement in style of living answer partly, at least, the question, “Can Henry Ford make good?”

Especially with men who have been criminals does the sociological department concern itself; not necessarily because it desires to, and never unless actual need arises. But almost daily some special activity of this kind is made necessary. Here is one case that occurred while I was in the factory.

A woman telephoned that she wished to speak to this department. Over the wire she told the executive to whom she was directed that the wife of one of the workmen had asked her to inform the factory that her husband, who had been employed in the works for several months, was giving indications of losing his hold. She wanted the Ford people to see if they could not help him.

That night an inspector called upon the man and found him apparently yielding to the temptations of his former companions. The cheery word, the pat on the back, the encouraging smile of this inspector, all given without the slightest hint of patronage, seemed to have the desired effect and the man expressed a renewed determination to take a stronger grip than ever and keep straight for what there was in it for him and his family.


>> Keep reading on the next page


More stories you might like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

join the fun

Don’t miss out on the latest and greatest vintage stuff!

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.