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Henry Ford's Attempt to Make Us All Pilots

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Image of a Flivver reproduction via WikiMedia uploader FlugKerl2

"Mark my words: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come."

Auto magnate Henry Ford earned his fair share of ridicule in 1940 when he made that boisterous proclamation. The flying car may still be coming, but it's certainly taking its sweet time. Seven decades later, there's still no sign of it.

What makes Ford's confidence so mystifying is that the mogul had already spearheaded one attempt to put the common man in the sky, and that project had failed miserably. This is the story of that plane, the Ford Flivver.

In 1924, Ford acquired the Stout Metal Airplane Company and began working on various designs for civilian aircraft. Ford's aircraft division had some successes, like the Ford Tri-Motor transport plane that rolled out in 1926 and earned worldwide acclaim when Admiral Richard Byrd flew it over the South Pole in 1929.

Henry Ford had bigger goals for the division, though. He had already put automobile ownership within the average American's reach, so why not put a plane in every garage, too? The idea sounds ridiculous now – just as it probably did then – but Ford threw himself into the project. With engineer Otto Koppen at the helm, Ford's aircraft division went to work building "the Model T of the air."

Ford knew that successfully marketing a civilian plane would be tricky, so he charged Koppen with designing a small, light craft. (Koppen later said that Ford wanted a plane that would fit in his office.) By the summer of 1926, Koppen had come up with an aircraft that fit the bill. The Ford Flivver was a small single-seat plane that was just over 15 feet long and had a wingspan of just a hair under 23 feet. It ran on a 3-cylinder, 35-horsepower engine made by the Ford company Anzani, and it weighed just 350 pounds when empty.

As unlikely as the task initially sounded, Ford now had a prototype of his everyman's plane. Now he just needed to work out the kinks, show it to the world, and get every American in his own plane. Ford unveiled the Flivver on his 63rd birthday, July 30, 1926, with the company's trusty test pilot, Harry J. Brooks, at the controls.

When Brooks took that initial public flight in the Flivver, it looked like Ford had hit another home run. As Popular Science reported at the time, several novel features of the plane made it seem feasible that your average Joe could get behind the controls. The plane's flaps were arranged to give it maximum upward lift in small spaces, and a rear wheel made it possible to drive from one's home to a makeshift runway.

For the next year and a half, Brooks flew the original Flivver and two other prototypes as the company refined the design. Brooks loved the little plane so much that he actually used it to commute from his home to work. Brooks would tell the press, "Flying a plane like this is no more difficult than flying a large plane, except in this plane the pilot has to think a little faster."

Brooks was one of just two men ever to fly a Flivver. The other was Charles Lindbergh, and Lucky Lindy didn't share Brooks' enthusiasm for the design. Lindbergh later called the Flivver one of the worst planes he'd ever piloted.

Brooks even attempted to fly one of the Flivvers from Michigan all the way down to Miami on a single tank of gas in January 1928. Although rough weather forced a landing in Asheville, NC, the flight still set an American distance record for light planes. Brooks reported that the efficient little plane still had plenty of fuel to finish the trip; when the storm passed, he continued on to Florida.

Brooks' trip to Florida turned out to be the tragic end for the Flivver project. In late February 1928, Brooks was cruising over the ocean just south of Melbourne, FL, when the Flivver's engine locked up, smashing both plane and pilot into the water. The wreckage of the plane eventually washed ashore, but searchers never found Brooks' body.

Although Henry Ford moved quickly to announce that Brooks' death wouldn't alter the company's planes for the Flivver, the project quickly went south. Ford and the young test pilot had become friends, and reports surfaced that the mogul was distraught over Brooks' death. As Ford's guilt grew, he decided to end the Flivver project and get out of the light plane business entirely.

Ford's company later got back into the small aircraft business with projects like 1931's Stout Skycar series, but Ford was never able to put the common man in the air.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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Courtesy of Freeman's
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History
For Sale: More Than 150 Items of Victorian Mourning Art, Clothing, and Jewelry
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Courtesy of Freeman's

Funeral fashion hasn't always been reserved for memorial services, judging from a massive memento mori auction that's being billed as perhaps the largest collection of mourning art ever offered for sale. Spotted by Atlas Obscura and sponsored by Philadelphia-based Freeman’s auction house, the online sale—which kicks off on Wednesday, November 15—features more than 150 works from a renowned private collection, ranging from clothing and jewelry to artworks.

During the Victorian era, people paid tribute to their loved ones by wearing black mourning garb and symbolic accessories. (The latter often featured jet or real locks of hair, according to a 2008 article published in the academic journal Omega.) They also commissioned death-themed artworks and objects, including paintings, as exhibited by Angus Trumble's 2007 book Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria.

These items have long since fallen out of fashion, but some historic preservationists amassed their own macabre private collections. Anita Schorsch, who’s arguably the most famous collector of memento mori, used her historic treasures to launch the Museum of Mourning Art back in 1990. Located in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, the museum is—as its name suggests—the only institution in the nation devoted exclusively to mourning art. The museum has been closed since Schorsch's death in 2015, and the items featured in Freeman's auction are from her collection.

Check out some of its memento mori below, or view the online catalogue here.

Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Courtesy OF Freeman's


Hairwork shroud pin, 19th century, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's


18th century iron and brass cemetery padlock from London, England, part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
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History
Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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