A Story Woven of Cloth on Display at The Henry Ford

It’s human to want to leave a legacy — some small impact on the world that will outlive us. For the Roddis family of Wisconsin, that legacy comes partially in the form of generations’ worth of clothing, now a part of The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation. Visit the new exhibit at The Henry Ford starting November 5. It’s sure to be a fun and inspirational trip! Read below for more information. 

“What’s absolutely wonderful about this collection is it’s from one family and spans many decades and several generations,” said Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life for The Henry Ford. “Often, people don’t save things to this degree — they get dispersed and their stories are lost.”

The Roddis family was a successful middle class family living in Marshfield, Wisconsin, from the 1890s to the 2010s. William H. Roddis moved to this small town from Milwaukee with his wife, Sara, and his son Hamilton and daughter Frances in 1894. There, he turned a struggling veneer business into the thriving Roddis Lumber and Veneer Company. His son Hamilton continued this success. And there, Hamilton Roddis and his wife, Catherine Prindle, raised a family of five daughters and one son.

Photo Courtesy of Gillian Bostock Ewing

Photo Courtesy of Gillian Bostock Ewing

Though living in a small town away from urban centers, the well-educated Roddis family was in touch with the larger world. The Roddis women loved stylish clothes and found ways to keep up with fashion. “Their closets held garments available in the stores of Milwaukee, Chicago, New York or Paris — as well as stylish garments made by Catherine,” Miller said.

Though the family was prosperous, they didn’t have an unlimited clothing budget, stocking their closets very wisely. “Their clothing was tasteful, beautifully designed and constructed, but not pretentious,” Miller added.

Hamilton and Catherine’s daughter Augusta played a key role in preserving the generations of the family’s garments acquired by The Henry Ford, storing items in her family home’s third-floor attic for decades.

Augusta Roddis died in 2011. The Henry Ford acquired her treasured collection in 2014. American Style and Spirit: 130 Years of Fashions and Lives of an Entrepreneurial Family goes on exhibit in the museum on November 5.

Photo Courtesy of Gillian Bostock Ewing

Photo Courtesy of Gillian Bostock Ewing

“Now that The Henry Ford is the custodian of the collection, it is our responsibility to preserve these garments for the future,” said Fran Faile, textile conservator at The Henry Ford. “We do that by housing them in specialized storage areas, exhibiting them only for limited periods of time and ensuring that the materials used for display are safe for the delicate fabrics. We are committed to providing the best possible care for the artifacts entrusted to us.”

Even the most delicate of repairs are considered carefully, she added.

“In the end, what the family appreciated about The Henry Ford was that we valued the context,” noted Miller. “The garments are lovely and interesting to look at, yet they take us beyond, into broader stories of America. So the collection is about more than just fashion. It’s about people — and the American experience spanning more than 130 years.”

Alexa Stanard is a guest writer for The Henry Ford. Her story, along with other facts about American Style and Spirit: 130 Years of Fashions and Lives of an Entrepreneurial Family can be see in the current issue of The Henry Ford Magazine. You can learn more about the Roddis collection of artifacts in our digital collections.

Titanic’s Michigan Connections

Today on our blog, Kristine Hass discusses Henry Ford Museum‘s display of Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition and the ship’s Michigan connections.

Although the ship may have gone down 100 years ago, almost 2,000 miles from where Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition is displayed at Henry Ford Museum, its story hits closer to home than I had realized.

It turns out that 64 passengers aboard the luxurious liner were Michigan-bound. Close to half were headed to Detroit, Dearborn and Pontiac, with the majority of the rest heading to the Upper Peninsula’s mining region. Furthermore, the very first person to board one of the lifeboats was a young newlywed – Helen Bishop – from Sturgis, Mich. That fateful night in 1912, she and her husband were heading home after a three-month honeymoon abroad.

When it was my time to enter the exhibit, I was given a boarding pass that identified a real passenger who traveled on the ship, along with the class in which she traveled (although some other guests’ boarding passes listed crew members), where she was coming from, where she was going and if she were traveling alone or with others. That alone gave me a personal investment in the fate of that individual. I knew I was hooked.

The exhibit is very engaging, taking you on a journey beginning with the ship’s conception and construction to its tragic conclusion. I couldn’t help but feel the excitement at the very beginning: The innovative plans, the luxurious accommodations of the first- and second-class cabins, the dreams of those planning to make a new life in the United States, and the pre-voyage hype – even while knowing the sad irony of the ship being touted as “unsinkable.”

As I traveled through the exhibit, the stories of the passengers’ lives aboard it started to take shape. There I was, viewing actual artifacts carefully recovered from the ship’s wreckage almost two-and-a-half miles deep on the ocean floor. That, coupled with the recreated settings from the grand first-class to the simple, yet efficient, spaces of third-class and crew – I couldn’t help but enter right into the story. I think it was seeing the encased chandelier that had once hung in the ship’s first-class accommodations when the experience changed for me and became very real.

I followed the timeline of events with the other visitors in the exhibit, and when the ship’s unhappy fate became clear through a series of events and tragedy imminent – the mood for everyone present became much more somber.

The stories of some of the passengers traveling to Michigan that are highlighted in the exhibit really struck me because of their close connections to my own home state. Honestly, I hadn’t given it much thought. The ship was traveling to New York; I hadn’t contemplated the passengers’ final destinations.

But there were Michigan connections throughout the ship’s history, from passengers young and old (or newly married) to the Michigan senator who chaired the U.S. Senate hearings that began just one day after surviving passengers of the wreck arrived in New York, with the results of the investigations leading to significant maritime reform, much of which is still in place today.

At the conclusion of the exhibit, I stood with others as we quietly compared the names on our boarding passes with those on the Memorial Wall. Each of us wondered if our passenger was one of the 700 to survive…or one of the more than 1,500 to go down with the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912.

I think the Titanic continues to fascinate because it had an impact on so many people – not just those aboard the ship, but their loved ones on the departing and waiting shores.

And I admit: I was relieved to learn that the third-class passenger on my boarding pass, who was traveling from Lebanon with her small children, had survived.

You can learn more about the Titanic exhibition on The Henry Ford’s blog.

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition is at Henry Ford Museum through Sept. 30, 2012. It is a ticketed exhibit with timed entries. It is recommended that visitors purchase tickets in advance. The Henry Ford is offering and opportunity to win four tickets the exhibit and museum in its weekly Titanic Ticket Tuesday giveaway via Facebook. Also, on the second Tuesday of each month through Sept., the museum and exhibit are open late and there is a 7 p.m. featured Titanic-related presentation. Playing at The Henry Ford IMAX Theatre are James Cameron’s Titanic: An IMAX 3-D Experience and the documentary that takes film-goers to the underwater site of the ship – Titanica.

Kristine Hass is a mother of five and long-time member of The Henry Ford. She frequently blogs about coming events and visits to America’s Greatest History Attraction. All photos courtesy of Kristine.