Fordism: Detroit and the Birth of Mass Production

The original logo for the Ford Motor Company in 1903

After two failed attempts to launch an automobile industry, Henry Ford would succeed in his third attempt by creating the Ford Motor Company, which exists to this day since June 16th, 1903 in Detroit, Michigan.  Located in an area surrounded by the great lakes, Detroit was an excellent location for imports for raw material; lumber from Michigan itself, iron ore from Minnesota, and had established rail and water routes into and out of the city.  Detroit was also one of the key cities focused on the great migration, the time when blacks from the southern United States started to move north to the industrial cities of the northern states.  Between 1910 and 1920, Detroit’s population was increasing from 465k in 1910 to almost one million in 1920. 

While other motor companies existed in the city, including Cadillac, Dodge, and Chevrolet, the Ford Motor Company was unique in developing the car for the everyman in 1908, the Model T.  Cars had already existed in America by the time the Model T came out, but many of them were hand built, thus they were expensive and unreliable, while the Model T had reliability and an eventual lower cost.  How the Model T got to be affordable and reliable was a new production strategy pioneered by Ford, the belt driven assembly line.  Created in 1913, the belt driven assembly line brought each piece of the car to the worker, making the work more simple.  The assembly line was Henry Ford’s idea on how to cut down on waste, in this case wasted time, and be more efficient. 

The Ford Motor Co. used a large workforce, including many black workers.

With the belt driven assembly line now a part of the Highland Park factory, production of the Model T car would jump from just around 200k in 1913 to more than 500k in 1915.  Despite a more simplified work and with it the lack of need for specialists, workers that came to work for Ford were coming and going rapidly, though Detroit had plenty of people living in it, it was still a problem for the company.  To help fix the problem, Ford would announce the famous “Five Dollar Work Day” on January 4th, 1914, where the wage of workers would double from what they had before.  The hours of work were also eventually cut down to 8 hours a day, which would give employees more time to go out and use the funds they earned from their workday.  With a steady workforce, Ford was able to keep production of the Model T for many years. 

However, by around the mid 1920’s, Ford’s rivals like GM would catch up with Ford’s assembly line process and create better cars with higher performance.  Though reluctant at first, Ford would finally begin production of a new automobile in 1927, releasing the Model A.  The new Ford River Rouge Plant, which was fully completed in 1928, would be the focused plant that produced the Model A.  The Plant was also the focal point for needed resources, which would then use them to create the final product all in the same building.  Ford’s work continued well into the 20th Century, creating other iconic vehicles like the Ford GPW for the second world war, and the first generation of Mustang’s in the mid 1960’s.

The Ford Model A, the successor to the Model T, created in 1927.

Ford’s vision of efficiency and standard products, the use of assembly lines, and a high work wage for workers is known today as Fordism.  Despite Henry Ford’s questionable personal views, his ideas and practices help drive the modern world that we live in today.  Not only did the way that goods were produced changed, but with the automobile, it changed the cultural landscape around the United States and the world, and it all started in a small factory in Detroit, Michigan.