Henry Ford remains, to this day, one of the most controversial figures in automotive history. An inventor, an industrialist, a racist, a patriot, a philanthropist, he was them all. One of his creations, more than any other, embodies all of those notions at once. It was the Ford Sociological Department.
Ford, and the man who founded the company, were both a product driven by and of their times. The company itself was founded in 1903, building a few cars most people haven’t heard of. The Model F and the Model K were some of its earliest offerings, but they weren’t really anything considered revolutionary. They were just two more slightly upscale cars in a sea of American automotive ingenuity.
As almost everybody knows by now, the Ford Model T changed everything for the life of the company. Instead of selling for $2000, or a little over $50,000 in today’s dollars, like the Model F, the 1909 Ford Model T sold for $850. Even still, Ford wasn’t able to sell that many, as the early cars will still assembled slowly, by hand. By 1910, though, Henry Ford’s introduction of assembly line production techniques and other efficiency improvements helped the factory churn out cars every three minutes.
And all that efficiency had an effect on the price, too. By 1915, the price of a new Model T had dropped by more than half, to $440. That’s just $10,228.08 in 2014 dollars. It was a damn cheap car for the masses. And boy, did the masses ever bite. Consumers eventually bought more than 15,000,000 Model Ts.
By 1914, the cars were everywhere. They were used as family cars, touring cars, roadsters, trucks, everything you could imagine and more. They were well and truly ubiquitous.
But building more cars than the world had ever seen before required a massive workforce. Over 14,000 workers, to be approximate. The problem with pinpointing down a definitive labor count at the beginning of that year was because the company had extremely high turnover. In the preceding year alone, the Ford Motor Company somehow managed to hire more than 52,000 people, despite having less than 15,000 on payroll at any one time. Factory work was boring, monotonous, dangerous, and it didn’t pay well at all.
This was no seasonal turnover. The company was in a constant state of mass exodus.
To combat the rate of worker attrition, Henry Ford had another brilliant idea. In the beginning of 1914, he more than doubled the minimum worker pay, from $2.34 (or $54.94 in 2014 dollars) a day, to $5 (or $117.39 in 2014 money) a day. The huge pay raise sent shockwaves through the automotive industry, not least of which because now it meant that a Ford worker could easily afford a Ford car.
But that didn’t mean they were allowed to buy one.
The $5 a day rate wasn’t just free money, that every worker got. Instead, you had to work at the company for at least six months, and you also had to buy in to a new set of rules. The extra pay came at a price.
As Richard Snow writes in his book I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford, a few basic stipulations were laid from day one:
To qualify for his doubled salary, the worker had to be thrifty and continent. He had to keep his home neat and his children healthy, and, if he were below the age of twenty-two, to be married.
That was just the start. Henry Ford wanted his workers to be model Americans, and to ensure that, he created a division within the Ford Motor Company to keep everyone in line. It was known as the Ford Sociological Department (or the Sociology Department, or the Society Department, really, depending on who you ask. But you get the idea.).
What started out as a team of 50 “Investigators” eventually morphed into a team of 200 people who probed every aspect of their employees lives. And I mean every aspect.
Investigators would show up unannounced at your home, just to make sure it was being kept clean. They’d ask questions that were less appropriate of a car company, than they were for the modern-day CIA. They’d query you about your spending habits, your alcohol consumption, even your marital relationships. They’d ask what you were buying, and they’d check on your children to make sure they were in school.
Women weren’t eligible, unless they were single and had to support children. Men weren’t eligible unless the only work their wives did was in the home.
They were Henry Ford’s personal morality enforcers, making sure that everyone who took one of his paychecks lived up to his standards. Those standards included patriotism and assimilation, especially when it came to language. This wasn’t just a wanton disregard for other cultures (though that wasn’t not a part of it), but rather a safety issue. In a time of massive amounts of immigration from Europe, all Ford workers had to speak English. On the factory floor, a simple miscommunication could get someone killed.
The Ford English School was rigorous, but it produced results. In fact, it was so thorough that a diploma from it could be counted towards a requirement for citizenship. But, like with most things associated with the Sociological Department, it had a darker side. Specifically, involving the graduation ceremony, as the Henry Ford Museum relates (bolding mine):
The culmination of the Ford English School program was the graduation ceremony where students were transformed into Americans. During the ceremony speakers gave rousing patriotic speeches and factory bands played marches and patriotic songs. The highlight of the event would be the transformation of immigrants into Americans. Students dressed in costumes reminiscent of their native homes stepped into a massive stage-prop cauldron that had a banner across the front identifying it as the AMERICAN MELTING POT. Seconds later, after a quick change out of sight of the audience, students emerged wearing “American” suits and hats, waving American flags, having undergone a spiritual smelting process where the impurities of foreignness were burnt off as slag to be tossed away leaving a new 100% American.
I’ll be the first person standing in line saying I’m proud to be an American, and I’m proud of my country. But burning off the impurities of the foreign is a bit much.
Henry Ford’s paternalism even extended the point where you needed the company’s permission if you wanted to buy a car, which included a requirement to be married and have children. And sometimes workers used that point to express their defiance, as Snow relates one anecdote from a worker to chief investigator John Lee:
“Mr. Lee, I would like to buy a car.”
“Got any money?”
“I have seven hundred dollars.”
“Do you have a family?”
“Yes, a wife and four children.”
“Is the furniture paid for?”
“Have you any insurance?”
“All right, you can buy a car.”
“Thanks, Mr. Lee.” On his way out the door the man turned and said, “Oh, by the way, Mr. Lee, my wife is going to have another baby. I’m going to buy a Buick.”
Take that, Ford.
A lot of workers, however, took the overbearing reach of the Sociological Department in stride. Not only did it offer a better factory wage than most newcomers to the United States could hope for anywhere, it also offered a host of new services to help the newly employed settle down. Low- or no-cost loans were on offer for buying new homes and furniture, lawyers were available for everything from citizenship applications to property purchasing, and a team of 10 doctors and 100 nurses was on staff to take care of employees and their families who fell ill, and also to advise on hygienic issues.
All of this information, and the rules that came with the benevolence, were available in pamphlets such as this one:
And that’s all very nice and helpful. But if you didn’t live up to the standards of Henry Ford and his Investigators, you were doomed. If you didn’t toe the line, you were initially blacklisted, and your prospects for promotion and advancement would vanish. Then you’d see your pay cut back to $2.34. If you still didn’t get the message of “speak English, get married, and be a good little American,” after six months, you’d be fired.
It was paternalism in its highest form, and yet, it worked. Turnover fell from 370% in 1913 to 16% in 1915. That’s a significant result.
But as America changed, so did the case for the Sociological Department. The $5 a day wage eventually turned out to be enormously expensive for Ford, as well as the cost of all those on-staff lawyers, doctors, investigators, and everybody else who were there just to support a productive workforce.
It was also highly controversial, and because of the competing economic, and ironically, societal factors, it was slowly wound down. Even Henry Ford himself found that he was against many of the program’s aspects, writing in his 1922 autobiography:
“paternalism has no place in industry. Welfare work that consists in prying into employees’ private concerns is out of date. Men need counsel and men need help, often special help; and all this ought to be rendered for decency’s sake. But the broad workable plan of investment and participation will do more to solidify industry and strengthen organization than will any social work on the outside. Without changing the principle we have changed the method of payment.”
But while paternalism eventually found itself the odd man out in Ford’s personality and corporate culture, it was definitely a weird footnote in the company’s corporate history.
Besides, it was replaced with something far more sinister. As the demand grew for unions, nastier spies and thugs found themselves under corporate employ. But we’ll get into that later.