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Edison & Ford Winter Estates Blog

Edison & Ford Winter Estates Blog

Music, Movies and Dance with Edison & Ford

Posted by Edison Ford Winter Estates On August 20th

The Edison & Ford Estates Presents a New Exhibit

by Pamela Miner, Estates Curator


When most people think of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, the light bulb and the automobile come to mind.  Though these ventures are worthy of the recognition received, Edison and Ford had a variety of interests, both business and personal.  Many projects Edison and Ford created converged to enhance their lives, and the lives of others.  This new exhibit particularly relates how music, movies and dance wove deeply through their lives.


On the subject of the phonograph, Edison’s goal was to create a machine to record and play back the human voice not only for entertainment, but for business, teaching, toys, and documentation.  Though Edison created a demonstration phonograph by 1879, it was not until 1887 that he returned his focus to its potential.  Many businesses found the machine too complex, and some companies found it to be profitable by using the phonograph for entertainment purposes. 

By 1889 Edison began to use musical recording to promote the phonograph. He also recognized the needed to produce the records and began to focus on creating the best type of record, as well as to select the best musicians and singers to record.  Edison continued in the phonograph business until 1929, finally conceding to the radio.


Even with his work and success with the phonograph, Edison did not think motion pictures would have commercial success.  He actually had the idea of motion pictures in the late 1870s, but it was not until 1888 that his interest peaked again.  He focused on making an “instrument which should do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, and that by a combination of the two, all motion and sound could be recorded and reproduced simultaneously,” but was unclear of the potential for this machine as entertainment. 

Edison relied on the earlier work of Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge to create moving images from still photographs.   He asked his staff photographer, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson to develop a machine to project images.  Working with several other staff, a demonstration machine was completed by 1891.  The first film studio, the Black Maria, was running by 1894.  Later that year, 25 kinetoscopes were sold for commercial use.  Andrew and Edwin Holland purchased 10 at $200 each and opened a kinetoscope parlor in Manhattan.  Charging five cents to view each machine, they made $120 the first day. 

As the industry started to form and films became longer, the cost for production and distribution increased.  Edison decided to get out of the movie business in 1918, and sold the studio to Lincoln & Parker Film Company.  Edison created integral equipment, as well as over 4000 pictures, and became the first honorary member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1929.


As Edison exited the phonograph and motion picture business, Henry Ford began a new endeavor into music and dance.  The story is told that in 1924 a group of friends sat at the Ford’s Fair Lane home one evening telling stories, and Clara Ford said to her husband Henry, “[W]e have danced very little since we have been married.”  Looking to do something about that, they planned to hold a Halloween party in the Ford family homestead barn. After that, the Fords never stopped dancing.

Dance instructor Benjamin Lovett was brought to Detroit from Massachusetts in 1924 as Ford’s “dance master.”  Lovett, along with his wife Charlotte, stayed in Detroit until 1945.  Throughout these twenty years Lovett taught traditional dance to the Ford family, friends, staff, and local school children.  The school dance program expanded across the country.  Ford considered dancing to be a form of social training for boys and girls, saying to Lovett, “Courtesy makes friends and good manners keep them.”

In conjunction with the traditional dance, traditional music was also revived.  Ford organized the Early American Dance Orchestra to accompany the dancers.  The core instruments in the orchestra were the violin, cymbalum, dulcimer, and sousaphone; sometimes added were the banjo, guitar, xylophone, or accordion.  The public was able to enjoy Ford’s love of music when The Early American Dance Music radio program broadcasted from January 1944 through July 1945, with Lovett calling the steps.  To continue the tradition today, one can purchase Good Morning, a collection of music and dances published by Lovett and Ford.

Visitors to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates can wander through the exhibit “Music, Movies and Dance with Edison & Ford” to learn more about these endeavors through photographs, letters, advertisements, and artifacts.  Follow the blog for special performances and lectures being presented in association with this exhibit.

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