Henry Ford revolutionized American manufacturing, bringing automobiles to the masses and creating a foundation for America’s middle class by pioneering liveable factory wages.
But his broader social legacy is complicated. In addition to those accomplishments, Ford used his leverage as an employer to try and aggressively socially engineer workers’ lives and “Americanize” those who had immigrated from elsewhere. Ford bitterly opposed labor unions, which he frequently described as a global Jewish conspiracy.
Indeed, as a vocal antisemite, he used his status as one of America's most well-known and trusted business leaders to systematically spread conspiracy theories about Jews. His screeds against Jewish people became so well-known at home and abroad that he is the only American whom Adolf Hitler compliments by name in Mein Kampf.
Ford Wage Increases Came With Strings Attached
A decade after Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company in 1903, he rolled out one of the biggest innovations in industrial history: the first moving assembly line for car production.
But while it dramatically reduced manufacturing time—from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes per car, allowing mass production of up to 10,000 Model T cars a day by 1925—it also made his workers’ jobs more monotonous and unsatisfying. The turnover rate at Ford’s Highland Park, Michigan factory soared to 370 percent.
To solve the problem, Ford realized it would be cheaper to raise wages (which at the time were competitive with those at other auto companies) than to continue hiring and training new people at the same pace. So on January 5, 1914, he announced that his company would double wages to $5 a day. The move proved seismic: By prompting wage hikes across the car industry, historians say, it gave American factory workers a crucial boost into the middle class, allowing many to afford their own Model Ts.
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At the time, the business titan’s top priority was to stabilize his work force. “Ford’s only goal—and he says this…was to pay people enough money to make them not quit all the time,” says Elizabeth D. Esch, a professor of American studies at the University of Kansas and author of The Color Line and the Assembly Line: Managing Race in the Ford Empire. Before the $5 wage, the company had to hire 52,000 people a year just to maintain a workforce of 14,000. “That’s just not a feasible way to run a business,” she says.
While $5 a day was a generous factory wage at the time, it came with a substantial catch. Technically, workers’ pay remained less than or near $2.50 a day, and the extra money was a bonus they had to earn. The year Ford introduced the bonus, he established a company Sociological Department that sent inspectors to the homes of his employees—at this point, mostly male immigrants—to make sure they were living in a way Ford approved of. Workers were denied the full $5 a day if their wives worked outside the home, if their homes were unclean, if they displayed signs of drinking or gambling, if they took in boarders or if they didn’t contribute to a savings account.
This desire to control his workers, and his belief that he could “improve” them, would become characteristic of Ford’s management style.
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Ford Forced Immigrant Workers into a Melting Pot
The inspections that came along with the $5 per day wage were a continuation of Ford’s ongoing efforts to “Americanize” his employees, most of whom were immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe or Mexico. (Ford's own father emigrated from Ireland and his mother's parents came to the U.S. from Belgium.) In 1913, he established an English school for workers because he thought the company would be safer and more efficient if everyone spoke the same language—but also because he believed immigrants should abandon their own languages and cultural practices, says Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum.
According to Rev. Samuel Marquis, the Episcopalian minister Ford hired to run the company's Sociological Department, attendance was compulsory, and a worker who hesitated was "laid off and given a chance for uninterrupted meditation and reconsideration. We seldom fail to change his mind."
The school’s graduation ceremonies made the company's antipathy to cultural differences painfully clear. “You would go to the ceremony dressed up in what today would be considered a stereotypical costume for whatever country you might be from,” Anderson says. “And then you’d walk up behind the stage, which was literally a giant melting pot.”
Graduates would then change clothes and emerge wearing a suit and tie, “so it would look to the audience as though you’d gone into this pot and emerged an ‘American,’ whatever that meant in Ford’s mind at the time,” he says.
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Segregation at Ford
The Ford Sociological Department and the home inspections disappeared by the early 1920s, at which point the $5 wage was no longer unique to the Ford company. Around this time, Ford started hiring more Black Americans, many of whom were moving north during the Great Migration, looking for economic opportunity.
Ford paid Black and white employees similar wages, but hired them for different jobs, believing Black people were inherently inferior and could only advance so far in the workplace, Anderson says. After Ford opened the River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Black employees commonly labored in its foundry and forge, which were some of the most dangerous places to work. This, combined with the fact that Black employees couldn’t rise to executive levels, created de facto segregation within the company.
Segregation was common in many American companies during the time when Jim Crow laws were still in place in much of the nation. And because many other companies either wouldn’t hire Black workers or wouldn’t pay them the same wages as white workers, Ford actually got a reputation as being more progressive than he was.
“Even though he would say and do these terribly racist things,” Esch says, “because he would actually hire [Black] people and pay them wages—it was much harder work—but pay them the same wages as he paid these other immigrant workers or white workers, he got a good reputation.”
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Violence Against Unions
By the time Ford began hiring more Black workers, his stance toward immigrants had changed. This started during World War I as he and other white American-born citizens became increasingly suspicious of German and Italian immigrants as possible enemies of the state. Ford became less concerned with “Americanizing” immigrants and more concerned with spying on them. This surveillance was also motivated by fears of unionization.
Ford opposed anything he saw as union organizing. When unemployed auto workers led a hunger march to the Ford River Rouge factory during the depths of the Great Depression in 1932 to demand the right to organize, police and members of the Ford Service Department, Ford’s private police force, threw tear gas at them, sprayed them with fire hoses and opened fire. The police and Ford’s men killed four marchers and injured dozens, including one marcher who died later. In 1937, Ford’s police brutally beat union organizers for trying to pass out leaflets at the Miller Road Overpass outside the River Rouge plant. During the so-called Battle of the Overpass, Ford’s men threw one union organizer over the side of the overpass; the 30-foot drop broke his back.
This violent opposition to unions helps explain why the Ford Motor Company was the last major auto manufacturer to sign a contract with the United Auto Workers union in 1941. Ford opposed unions because he wanted control of employees’ wages and working conditions. But there was another reason, too: Ford believed unions were part of an international Jewish conspiracy.
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Ford’s Legacy of Antisemitism
As waves of immigrants arrived in America in the late 19th and early 20th century, fears and biases grew in the public sphere. Ford, one of the wealthiest and most successful entrepreneurs in the world—and a major proponent of antisemitic conspiracy theories—gave legitimacy to some of these more virulent biases. He believed Jewish people had international control over unions, banks and the media, and that all were out to get him. In 1918, this paranoia motivated him to buy a struggling newspaper, the Dearborn Independent.
In 1920, Ford began publishing a weekly series called “The International Jew: The World’s Problem” on the paper’s front page. The series was based on an antisemitic hoax known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to reveal a global Jewish conspiracy for money and power. (In 1921, the London Times debunked the Protocols as a plagiarism largely based on a French political satire that didn’t mention Jewish people.) Ford continued his antisemitic series for several years and extended its reach by distributing the paper in Ford car dealerships around the country and republishing it in four booklets.
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Ford’s essays and booklets helped fuel antisemitism in the U.S. and abroad. Hitler was a fan of Ford’s antisemitic writing, mentioning the carmaker by name in his own 1925 anti-Jewish manifesto, Mein Kampf. In 1938, Germany awarded Ford the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the country’s highest medal for foreigners. Ford received the award for his “humanitarian ideals” and devotion “to the cause of peace, like [Germany’s] Führer and Chancellor has done,” according to the proclamation Hitler signed.
Ford’s name even came up during the Nuremberg trials when Baldur von Schirach, a former Reich youth leader of the National Socialist German Students League, described his own radicalization.
“The decisive antisemitic book which I read at that time and the book which influenced my comrades…was Henry Ford’s book, The International Jew,” he said at his 1946 trial.
“In those days this book made such a deep impression on my friends and myself because we saw in Henry Ford the representative of success,” he continued. “In the poverty-stricken and wretched Germany of the time, youth looked toward America, and apart from the great benefactor, Herbert Hoover, it was Henry Ford who to us represented America.”