Henry Ford (1863-1947) was one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century. He has been the subject of many books and films over the years, and the new documentary from the American Experience is one of the best I have seen.
The show opens in South America, at the site of what was once called “Fordlandia.“ In 1928, Ford bought 125,000 acres in Brazil, ostensibly to grow rubber for tires. As emerged later on though, the true reason behind the purchase was for Ford to build his very own paradise. In true Charles Foster Kane style, the grandiose project was never completed. Ford’s Xanadu may not have come to fruition, but the company he founded in 1903 still thrives. If instituting the ground-breaking assembly line means of production at his factories were all he had accomplished in his life, it would be enough. But there was much more to Ford’s life than just his cars.
He was a mass of contradictions. For one thing, even though he became one of the richest men in the world, Ford had a visceral hatred for “the wealthy.” This stemmed from his early attempts to get his business off the ground. When his backers discovered that he envisioned a vehicle for the working class, they pulled out. They saw the car as a “plaything for the rich.” Apparently, the idea of the common man having access to the automobile gave these snobs fits. They left Ford to his own devices, and in doing so they earned his lifelong enmity.
Ford may have been powerless when he was abandoned by his erstwhile partners in the beginning, but their actions came back to haunt them in a big way later on. With the success of the Ford Motor Company, he became part of what we now call the “one-percent.“ His revenge on his former backers took the form of a huge pay raise for his employees, and changed many lives. In an era when the average worker earned $2 a day for their efforts, Ford more than doubled his employees' wages to $5 a day.
To say that there was an outcry from his peers would be putting it mildly. Now they were forced to compete with the higher rate of pay. Ford had other reasons for the raise however, as it also made sound business sense. Turnover in his factories was high, and it was costly to train new employees. With the higher wage, turnover plummeted.