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2. Factory

"The man who builds a factory builds a temple; the man who works there worships there." This sentiment, attributed to Calvin Coolidge, conveys the awe generated by a modern sprawling industrial complex.1 And none was as awe-inspiring as the Ford complex on the Rouge River near Detroit, begun in 1915 and completed in 1928 as Ford prepared to introduce the new Model A. Unlike the original Highland Park factory, it was more than an assembly plant. It was an empire, containing within its thousand acres a power plant, steel mills, blast furnaces, cement plant, machine shop, sawmill, paper mill, glass plant, the largest foundry in the world, and, of course, the auto assembly plant. "America's Mecca," wrote Vanity Fair that year, "the most significant monument in America." MONUMENT. And from a 21st-century perspective: "It was big. It was bold. It was breathtaking. For most of the 20th century, the world-famous River Rouge plant was a monumental complex that was the embodiment of manufacturing on an epic scale."2 EPIC. Let us examine this monument, this "temple," through photographs, paintings, and films that portray it as the apex of the Machine Age.

  • Works of Charles Sheeler. Internal Link to Discussing Art page In 1927 the photographer and painter Charles Sheeler was hired by Ford's advertising agency to create a series of photographs of the Rouge complex for its Model A marketing campaign. The photographs became almost as famous as the car, published first in Vanity Fair (February 1928) and still widely available for purchase. Captivated by the Rouge, Sheeler later depicted its robust monumentality in paintings of the precisionist style, of which he was a forerunner, which employed precise commanding lines, stark geometric shapes, little detail, no texture, and rarely included a human being. Three of the most famous paintings are American Landscape (1930), Classic Landscape (1931), and River Rouge Plant (1932). What response did Sheeler intend to evoke in the viewer? Why did he title two of the paintings "landscapes," a term usually applied to purely natural settings? Why is there no human presence in the paintings (except for a tiny figure in American Landscape)?

  • Silent films of the Ford River Rouge complex, ca. 1932. Produced by the Ford Motor Company, these films are dynamic promotional pieces portraying the Ford complex as a triumph of the Machine Age—a behemoth that dwarfs mere humans. In A Tour thru the Rouge Plants, we join an airplane and bus tour of the complex; intertitles (black-panel text) describe its massive scale and productivity:

    If the film had a sound track, it would consist of blasting horns, a driving bass, and insistent percussions. The second film, The Source of the Ford Car, shows us the transport of resources to the Rouge plant from the Ford-owned Brazilian rubber plantations and Great Lakes coal mines and forests. We see close-up views of machine tooling, the auto manufacturing process, and the workers who man the machines. (Part Two is not available online.) Compare the impressions and impact of the Ford films with the Sheeler paintings and photographs. What is gained with movement? with a still image? How might the films have been different if Sheeler had produced them?

For commentary on the factory environment for the working men, see "Machine Age."

Discussion Questions

  1. What aspects of the River Rouge complex capture your attention? Why?
  2. What aspects appear to have caught Sheeler's artistic interest?
  3. What response did Sheeler want to evoke in the viewer from his photographs? from his precisionist paintings?
  4. What non-physical aspects of the Rouge complex did he want to capture in the works?
  5. Did he portray the Rouge as a monument or a "temple"? What other nouns would describe the Rouge in Sheeler's works?
  6. Why did he minimize the presence of people? If a human is included, what purpose does it serve?
  7. Compare Sheeler's photographs with later commercial photographs of the River Rouge plant. What different purposes do they serve? What makes Sheeler's photographs compelling?
  8. Identify the precisionist aspects of Sheeler's paintings of the Rouge plant, and compare them with the industrial scenes of other precisionists. (See Supplemental Sites below.) What characterizes precisionist industrial landscapes? What interpretation of the Machine Age is fostered in these works?
  9. View a selection of American landscapes from the 19th-century Hudson River School. Why did Sheeler title two of his River Rouge paintings American Landscape and Classic Landscape?
  10. Why do you think the Ford Motor Company produced the films of the River Rouge plant?
  11. Do you think they were successful marketing tools for Ford automobiles?
  12. How might the films have been different if Sheeler had produced them?
  13. Compare the Ford films with Sheeler's visual works. What is unique about each medium—film, photography, and painting? How does each medium provide a unique mode for interpreting the Machine Age?
  14. In visual works, what is gained with movement? with still imagery? with color or black-and-white?
  15. Why are the films considered documentary works, and Sheeler's images considered art?
  16. What overall impression of the Machine Age is conveyed in these films and images of the River Rouge plant? what impression of man within the Machine Age?

Framing Questions

  • How did "machine age" innovations change American life in the Twenties?
  • How did fans and critics of the changes, including artists, express their views?
  • What longterm effects on American society did they predict from the innovations? To what extent were they accurate?
  • How does their commentary resemble 21st-century discussion about technological innovation and social change, e.g., the Internet, social networking, robotics, nanotechnology, informatics, and more?

Supplemental Sites

David Andrews, Common Ground, Spring 2004 (National Park Service) History of the Rouge (The Henry Ford)

The Rouge: An Industrial Icon, special section of Assembly, May 20, 2003

Commercial photographs of the River Rouge complex, including an overhead aerial photograph, 1975, for comparison with Sheeler photographs (

Short films from British Pathé News Precisionism (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Charles Sheeler, overviews Charles Sheeler, other River Rouge works for comparison Diego Rivera, murals of the Ford River Rouge Plant for the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932-1933 Other modernist paintings of industrial plants

1 Bruce Barton, "The Silent Man on Beacon Hill: An Appreciation of Calvin Coolidge," Woman's Home Companion, March 1920. (Coolidge was the governor of Massachusetts in 1920.)
2 Austin Weber, "The Rouge: An Industrial Icon," Assembly, May 20, 2003.

– Charles Sheeler, photographs of the River Rouge Ford Plant, gelatin silver prints, 1927. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection. Reproduced by permission.
    -Ford Plant, River Rouge, Criss-Crossed Conveyors
    -Ford Plant, River Rouge, Stamping Press
– Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, oil on canvas, 1930 (detail). Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 166.1934. Reproduced by permission.
– Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, oil on canvas, 1931. National Gallery of Art, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth. 2000.39.2. The National Gallery of Art believes this image to be in the public domain.
– Stills from Tours thru the Rouge Plant and The Source of the Ford Car, silent films produced by the Ford Motor Co., ca. 1932. Courtesy of British Pathé News and the Internet Moving Image Archive.

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