Remembering Henry Ford’s failed suburban utopia in Brazil

Read about Fordlandia, Henry Ford’s town built from scratch in Brazil:

The community was spurred by a problem caused by the incredible success of Ford’s empire. By the early 1900s, America was gobbling up more than 70 percent of the world’s rubber, most of it going to Detroit. These were the days when rubber still came from plants—meaning that most of it had to be shipped from Southeast Asia. Ford, a dude who was pretty into efficiency, was hesitant to keep buying his company’s supply from Asia, where British rubber plantations were churning out most of the global supply. So he set out to establish his own rubber farm. In a fit of creativity, he named it Fordlandia.

In 1928, Ford sent an envoy of supplies and Ford workers to a 6,000-square-mile plot of land on the Amazon. The charter’s mission was to embed American suburbia in the heart of the rainforest. Within a relatively short period of time, they’d set up homes, running water, electricity—plus all kinds of other extras (like swimming pools) that played to Ford’s belief that leisure was an essential part of the economy.

Local workers were expected to adopt a suburban Michigan lifestyle, too—along with a healthy dose of Ford’s own morals, which meant that both booze and ladies were outlawed within the town. According to a terrific podcast from How Things Work, the transplant town even hosted mandatory square dancing. Hamburgers and other American fare featured in the cafeteria…

But it turned out that rubber plants were being cultivated in Southeast Asia instead for a very good reason: There were no natural floral predators there, as there were in Brazil. Production was sluggish, and the Michigan managers had zero botany know-how.

Three things are notable: Ford’s attempt to control production from start to finish, his interest in having a company town, and his idea that he could simply import an American suburb to Brazil. This could be interpreted as a quixotic effort but it also seems to have darker undertones of American imperialism.

The sociological department at Ford

I stumbled across an interesting piece of information the other day: Henry Ford established a sociological department at his company in 1913. Here are some interesting tidbits about the short-lived department culled from some varied sources:

From a University of Michigan website:

The Sociological Department of the Ford Motor Company was organized in March, 1913, and oversaw a broad array of social benefits for Ford employees, including assistance in living in well-maintained single-family homes as opposed to small apartments. After the announcement of the Five Dollar Day in 1914, the Sociological Department was responsible for determining if employees’ personal lives and personal habits made them eligible for the full wage. This phase of the Department’s activities terminated with the reorganization of the company in 1920.

From a blogger:

On January 5 1914, Ford announced the revolutionary five-dollar, eight-hour day:

What the company announced was not a plan to pay workers an hourly rate equivalent to five dollars a day. Instead, the company announced a plan to allow the workers to share in the company profits at a rate that promised five dollars a day … The five-dollar profit sharing plan was designed by the company to include only those who were ‘worthy’ and who would ‘not debauch the additional money he receives’.

The Sociological Department, under the leadership of the Reverend Samuel S. Marquis, was put in charge of administering the programme and investigating the home lives of workers: “investigators from the Sociological Department visited workers’ homes and suggested ways to achieve the company’s standards for ‘better morals,’ sanitary living conditions, and ‘habits of thrift and saving’.”…

Inspired by welfare capitalism, Ford’s “philosophy adopted a paternalistic attitude toward workers that, in Ford’s case, was rooted in the Protestant work ethic. Ford believed in it and wanted his employees to adopt it…” And Ford’s social standards reached far beyond the confines of work-life. The PBS film Demon Rum documents the Sociological Department’s efforts to “end the working man’s drinking habit” and how the “success of the small program led to a national prohibition campaign.”

-A 2004 article in American Culture titled “Ford’s Sociology Department and the Americanization Campaign and the Manufacture of Popular Culture Among Assembly Line Workers.”

A two-day lesson for (high school?) students on the topic.

I am not surprised by Ford’s actions: there was a lot of pressure at the time to improve efficiency and a number of companies tried other tactics we might consider paternalistic today (example: the Pullman town which is now part of Chicago).

I am also reminded about the changed role of sociology. Ford seems to have viewed sociology as a means of “social engineering” or enforcing particular ways of living. This involved very strong value judgments and a lot of company control over workers. I imagine this would make most, if not all, sociologists today very nervous.