Some years ago Thomas A. Edison went to Europe. In the course of his wanderings he came to that exquisite gothic jewel, the Chapel of Saint Hubert, which hangs so entrancingly on the castle wall of Amboise, and which everyone knows is the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci. Here Mr. Edison gave out an interview to the gaping newspaper correspondents to the effect Leonardo was the outstanding mechanical genius of his time, inventing many useful devices and anticipating others. He did not mention that Leonardo was also an artist on the side, either because he did not know or because he did not consider it important. The newspapers commented on the ommission, and Collier's Weekly sent Julian Street to interview Mr. Edison's chum, Henry Ford, because what these two men say on any subject makes newspaper copy. The substance of Henry Ford's remarks was that he would not give five cents for all the art the world had produced. And the New Republic capped this naive observation with the comment that one needed but a glance at the Ford car to believe it.
Henry Ford is cited here merely as an illustration. His frank and blunt statement expressed the opinion held by most manufacturers at the beginning of the era of mass production and efficiency, though few were so honest. Art was something for museums. They endowed museums out of the money they made, and some of them even accumulated private collections. Those with a weakness for beauty were tempted to conceal it, lest they be suspected of unfitness to have a place in the practical, hard-headed, efficient world.
Back in the mauve decade, or the gay nineties, new inventions and discoveries were transforming our industrial system, but when a manufacturer produced a machine that worked he stopped. It never occurred to him to go on and make his device pleasant to look at as well as efficient. It must have been the persistent influence of the Puritan tradition that made manufacturers so suspicious of beauty and gave them such pathetic faith in mere ugliness. Beauty somehow seemed antagonistic to integrity. They managed in those days to reverse William Morris's dictum. They seldom found it necessary to make a thing beautiful in order to make it useful.
It was in those days that Henry Ford began making his famous car. It was an honest piece of work, a motor car that functioned, at an unbelievably low cost, though it did violence to three senses, sight, hearing, and smell; but people in those days were unable to forget long enough their wonder that the thing should be to mind the intrusion of more ugliness into a world that was losing peace and silence and the beauty that inheres in old things. And so the Ford car was put out, and chugged along faithfully on all our roads. The public laughed at it and christened it 'Lizzie,' but bought it and used it in increasing numbers, and Mr. Ford rested secure in his belief that he had solved one of the major problems of human existence and that there was nothing more to be done.
There is no doubt that Mr. Ford was sincere in what he said about art. He believed that the homeliness of his car was one of its virtues. He correctly read the minds of his fellow citizens, who suspected that mere prettiness camouflaged the fact that sterner virtues were lacking. The Ford car was homely, but it did its work. And standing firmly on this belief Henry Ford broke all records of production, distribution, and sales in a country where such things are a religion.
About this time Mr. Ford was waited upon by the research expert retained by a publication to study the changing habits of people and their effect on markets for goods. The inauguration of such bureaus of investigation marked the beginning of a new era in business—the application of scientific methods of research to manufacture and distribution. The purpose of this bureau was to render a constructive service to business as a preliminary to selling advertising space in the publications to which the expert owed allegiance. He had just completed an exhaustive survey of the trends in the motor-car market and had gone to Detroit to lay his findings before Henry Ford. The survey comprised three important conclusions: the manufacture of motor cars would in the future be concentrated in the hands of fewer organizations; woman would be an increasingly important influence in the purchase of cars; beauty in line and color would be the determining factor in selling cars. Mr. Ford's comment was that none of this concerned the Ford Motor Company, and he continued serenely on his way, producing his marvelously efficient car in increasing numbers and selling his product without difficulty.
Meanwhile the making of motor cars passed into its second phase and came under the sway of the cult of beauty. Mechanical improvement had reached its perihelion; the lower-priced cars were becoming dangerously efficient, and it was necessary to do something to justify the price asked for the more costly ones. The big cars were made more sightly. And then we had large gorgeously appareled cars at high prices, and small ugly useful cars at low prices. The car with the long wheel base and the stream line became the symbol of wealth. The stubby car which continued to retain the graceless lines with which it was born was the symbol of homely worth and modest circumstance. Under its humble exterior there beat an honest motor. Then Walter Chrysler showed that it was possible to make a small car beautiful, and motor manufacturers realized that people did not demand big cars, but merely cars in which they could take pride, and the growing congestion of our streets made occasion for a shorter wheel base. Manufacturers began experimenting with small cars of better appearance.