MU history professor’s book shows Henry Ford’s influence

Steven Watts spent five years researching and writing about the Michigan automaker.
Monday, August 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:56 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Although most people associate Henry Ford with the assembly line and the Model T, MU history professor Steven Watts wanted his book to be about more than that. He wanted to convey that Ford’s mass production techniques encouraged the idea of consumer societies and the perception of America as the land of opportunity.

“The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and The American Century,” published by Knopf, is due to come out Aug. 9.

Ford was born July 30, 1863, near Detroit, Mich. Forty years later, he launched his now-famous Ford Motor Co., which created the Model T in 1908 and the first moving assembly line in 1913. Before the Great Depression, Ford produced 55 percent of all automobiles on the market. He was also the last auto maker to sign a contract allowing his workers to unionize and owned a controversial newspaper that published anti-Semitic articles. He died in 1947.

Watts, who specializes in cultural and intellectual history in the United States, said he typically teaches about Ford in his classes. But he was not inspired to write about Ford until he was working on a book about Walt Disney, “The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life,” and learned that Ford was an inspiration to Disney.

Ford inspired Disney for two reasons, Watts said. Disney visited Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., during the late 1940s, where he had a chance to meet Ford. Greenfield Village, a replication of a village in America from the 1800s that Ford rebuilt, helped Disney come up with the vision for Disneyland, he said.

“Disney also shared Ford’s regard for the common people,” Watts said. That regard was made evident in Disney’s Disneyland and Ford’s Model T.

Watts’ MU history colleagues Robert Collins and John Bullion each read chapters of the book before it was published.

“They made some suggestions and offered criticism,” Watts said.

“The book reminds one that here is someone who changed the world,” said Collins. “It is often easy to forget that there are such people who really do that.”

Bullion said Watts’ book will be recognized as “the definitive study of a man who had a greater impact upon the lives of people around the world than most presidents. (Watts) brilliantly describes how Ford was both a product of his culture and a molder of it.”

Watts, who took five years to write the book, researched the automobile giant at the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village.

In September, Watts will set out on a two-month nationwide book tour, appearing at book signings, discussions and interviews.

A book signing at MU will be from 3 to 4 p.m. Sept. 13 at University Bookstore.

The Ford book is Watts’ fourth; his first two publications covered the early American Republic and were aimed at a professional audience. He is now working on a book about publishing magnate Hugh Hefner.

Watts said he is motivated to write because of intellectual curiosity and the joy of writing. He said that whereas his first two books were aimed at a smaller niche audience, his last two books — about Disney and about Ford — have broader appeal.

“When you write books that more people can relate to, you get good reviews and wider appreciation,” Watts said. “… You get the best of both worlds.”

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