Henry Ford ranks among the most important figures of the industrial era. He founded the Ford Motor Company, which pioneered assembly-line production, driving down costs and making automobile ownership a staple feature of middle-class American life. Through it all, he maintained a highly idiosyncratic style of charitable giving. He saw work as the purpose of human existence, and he deeply disliked anything—especially something well-intentioned, like philanthropy—that seemed to undermine its discipline. He distrusted organized charities, although he created a few himself. Despite his misgivings, Ford seems to have dedicated about one-third of his income to philanthropy.
Henry Ford was born on a Michigan farm in July 1863. He absorbed the farmer’s tireless work ethic, but hated agriculture. His inclination was mechanical, and as a boy he would strip down and reassemble any machine he could find. (“Every clock in the Ford house shudders when it sees Henry coming,” a friend once quipped.) At the age of 16, he left the farm and headed to Detroit, where he found work first as a machinist, and later as an engineer.
In average years, Henry Ford gave away about a third of his income, and he preferred to give money to individual people, face to face and with a firm handshake.
Ford settled into a comfortable middle-class life in Detroit, marrying Clara Bryant in 1888 and getting a job at the Edison Illuminating Company in 1891. Every night, he tinkered in the garage behind his house. The neighbors called him “Crazy Henry” for his obsession, but in 1896 he rolled out his first self-propelled vehicle: the Ford Quadricycle. With encouragement from Thomas Edison, Ford kept experimenting—and began to believe he could create his own automobile company.
By the time Ford turned 39 he had founded two car companies. Both had failed—one with a bang, the other with a whimper—yet he was undeterred. In 1903, he borrowed $28,000 to establish the Ford Motor Company. The early cars produced by this firm generated enough profit to make Ford wealthy, and to give him time to take on a more long-range project: the Model T.
When it rolled off the assembly line in October 1908, the Model T revolutionized the automobile industry. In relentless pursuit of efficiency gains, Ford had developed unprecedented production methods. He used machine-made, standardized parts, which were put together along a continuously moving assembly line. The results were staggering. At a time when cars regularly sold for $1,000, he was soon selling the Model T for $345. Orders poured in. By 1915, about half of all cars on earth were Fords. Eventually, some 15 million Model Ts were sold.
Henry Ford owned the Ford Motor Company until his death. By the mid-1920s, his net worth was estimated around $1.2 billion, and though Ford’s market share gradually diminished, the company’s stunning success made its namesake one of the wealthiest men in American history.
Yet Ford seemed almost indifferent to money and all it could buy. A dry cleaner once returned a $125,000 check that he had accidentally left in his suit pocket. Ford once declined a dinner invitation at the White House to honor the King and Queen of England. His wife, he explained, had a previously scheduled meeting of her garden club.
Being unimpressed by money may help explain Ford’s extensive charitable giving during his lifetime. In average years, Ford gave away about 33 percent of his income. By way of comparison, most people in his tax bracket gave away 5 percent. What Ford himself considered to be the most genuine philanthropy were small gifts to individuals, of which he gave many. Biographer William Greenleaf records “impulsive and warm-hearted acts of individual generosity that saw him give away money, food, automobiles, or other articles.” While driving through the Massachusetts countryside, for example, Ford came across an elderly couple whose farmhouse had just been destroyed in a storm. He asked a few questions, then reached into his pocket and gave the farmers all the cash he had on him, some $200.
To Ford’s mind, writes Greenleaf, charitable giving should be “a private and individual act,” one that was “spontaneous on the part of the giver, unanticipated and unsought by the beneficiary, and a gratuitous gesture without any element of calculation.” By contrast, Ford despised virtually all institutional charity. To his mind, it “degrades recipients and drugs their self-respect,” while creating a “feeling of resentment which nearly always overtakes the objects of charity.” He preferred to give money to individual people, face to face and with a firm handshake; barring that, he was willing to fund a cause of his own creation.
And Ford did launch a few projects of his own. In 1911, he and his wife created Valley Farm, an 80-acre home for orphan boys. During the First World War, he housed Belgian war refugees at Oughtrington Hall, and in 1915, he headed a “peace ship” that sailed for Europe with 120 American representatives, hoping to persuade the European powers to quit the conflict. He built a trade school in Detroit and a school for African Americans in Georgia. During the Great Depression, he paid for two work camps for boys.
Two of his philanthropic projects, however, were particularly conspicuous, because of both their size and their strategy. The first was the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. In 1914, the residents of Detroit started a subscription campaign to build a modern medical facility. Construction began, but was halted when the half-completed facility foundered in debt. Ford took over, completing the project with his own funds, served as its first president, and over the course of his lifetime, gave it about $14 million. To this day, it remains one of Detroit’s largest hospitals.
Ford wanted the Henry Ford Hospital to reflect his philosophy of work and self-reliance. The hospital’s patients were workingmen and their families—solid citizens who wanted excellent health care but did not want to beg for charity to settle the bills. He thus subsidized some of the cost of the medical care, but took pains to ensure that patients would still have to bear some of the costs they incurred. “There are plenty of hospitals for the rich,” Ford explained. “There are plenty of hospitals for the poor. There are no hospitals for those who can afford to pay only a moderate amount and yet desire to pay without a feeling that they are recipients of charity.”
Ford’s other major philanthropic passion was historical preservation. Many biographers have noted the irony of the industrialist who brought about the future paying for philanthropy meant to preserve the past. His interest was whetted in 1919 when he restored his family’s homestead in Dearborn. His first major preservation endeavor was the Wayside Inn, near South Sudbury, Massachusetts, a tavern celebrated in verse by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. To enhance the property, Ford bought up surrounding buildings and restored them, too, at a total cost of $15 million.
Ford was a lifelong collector of Americana, and in 1926 he decided to house his collection in Dearborn. For over 20 years, Ford had collected everything from locomotives to fabric samples to historic buildings—including the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law and the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop—and had them shipped to Dearborn. The entire collection opened in October 1929, with President Hoover officiating. It remains one of the country’s great living-history museums, known as Greenfield Village.
Ford was born in 1863, a few weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg; he died in 1947, a few months before Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. His life spanned from the steam engine to the jet engine—and Ford himself was responsible for much of that technological revolution. Yet his vision for philanthropy tended toward the 19th century. “I have no patience with professional charity or with any sort of commercialized humanitarianism,” Ford wrote in 1923. “The moment human helpfulness is systematized, organized, commercialized, and professionalized, the heart of it is extinguished, and it becomes a cold and clammy thing.”
- Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Fords: An American Epic (Simon and Schuster, 1987)
- Garet Garrett, The Wild Wheel: The World of Henry Ford (Cresset Press, 1952)
- William Greenleaf, From These Beginnings: The Early Philanthropy of Henry and Edsel Ford, 1911-1936 (Wayne State University Press, 1964)