- Henry Ford's Plan for the American Suburb: Dearborn and Detroit by Heather B. Barrow
Heather B. Barrow
DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2015
xii + 216 pp., $38.00 (cloth)
Henry Ford is best known as the architect of modern mass-production methods. His name is also associated with Fordism's fitful transformation of workers into middle-class consumers. Heather B. Barrow's study examines Fordism's effects on autoworkers in Dearborn, Michigan, the working-class suburb that developed around Ford Motor Company's River Rouge plant. By 1927, the Rouge had replaced the Highland Park factory where the Model T had been made. Barrow's book builds on the work of Stephen Meyer III (The Five Dollar Day: Labor, Management, and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908–1921 [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981]) and Clarence Hooker (Life in the Shadows of the Crystal Palace, 1910–1927: Ford Workers in the Model T Era [Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997]) on Ford's paternalism and Americanization efforts associated with his Sociological Department and the implementation of the profit-sharing plan better known as the "five-dollar day." Barrow argues that while Henry Ford hoped to make suburban life accessible to workers in Dearborn in the 1920s and 1930s, he ultimately failed to do so for most workers, particularly African Americans.
Ford wanted a new suburban, vertically integrated auto assembly facility that would escape Detroit's confines and allow him to continue his paternalist efforts. Barrow notes that he hoped Dearborn, located just west of Detroit, would "become the prototype of a uniquely American community that would feature a middle-class lifestyle attainable for many" (20). Although the heavy-handed paternalism of Ford's Sociological Department ended in 1920, Ford's vision of workers moving to new homes, buying cars, and engaging in family-oriented leisure activities in the suburbs signaled his social and cultural engineering aspirations. Construction of the new Rouge plant started in 1917 but was delayed until after World War I. By 1929, however, the plant employed ninety-eight thousand hourly workers and had become the "world's largest manufacturing facility under a single operator" (57). Dearborn's growth was similarly explosive; the city grew from five thousand to fifty thousand residents over the span of the 1920s.
Yet, as Barrow explains, Ford's vision of Dearborn as a suburb for the masses fell short in several ways. Perhaps most fundamentally, many of Ford's workers either could not afford or struggled to afford to live there. The Ford Homes subdivision was populated primarily by managerial employees, while lesser skilled workers obtained substandard housing, including so-called garage homes, one or two-room homes constructed on the rear parts of lots where garages would normally be. Although by 1926 about ten [End Page 100] thousand African Americans were employed by Ford, primarily at the Rouge plant, they were excluded from Dearborn. Most remained in substandard housing in Detroit. A few were able to locate in the Inkster Gardens subdivision, but African Americans' attempts to obtain suburban housing were generally thwarted.
For workers in Dearborn, Fordism's vaunted high wages were often illusory. Ford's ideas about middle-class life stressed sole male breadwinners, and he severely limited employment opportunities at the Rouge for married women. Employees of all backgrounds pursued multiple economic activities in order to support their families, as Hooker's study of the Highland Park plant points out. Ford frowned on his immigrant workers' practice of taking in boarders, yet approximately 20 percent to 30 percent of Ford workers who lived in Dearborn in 1930 were boarders, and Rouge employees used the practice to supplement their incomes (Hooker, Life in the Shadows of the Crystal Palace, 125). Even before the Great Depression, Ford employment was cyclical. Layoffs were common throughout the 1920s, and a majority of families used installment credit to finance basic consumer purchases.
Barrow's most revealing insights pertain to Ford workers' difficulties in getting to work. Not surprisingly, Henry Ford wanted his employees to purchase cars. Yet during...