Henry Ford on Why History is Bunk - What Did He Really Say?

Did Henry Ford Actually Say "History is Bunk" - and What Did He Mean?

American motor vehicle industry pioneer Henry Ford (1863 - 1947) standing next to the first and the ten millionth Model-T Ford.
American motor vehicle industry pioneer Henry Ford (1863 - 1947) standing next to the first and the ten millionth Model-T Ford. Keystone Features / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

One of the best known quotations of the inventor and entrepreneur Henry Ford is "History is bunk": Oddly enough, he never said exactly that, but he did say something along those lines many times during his life.

Say, what do I care about Napoleon? What do we care about what they did 500 or 1,000 years ago? I don't know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across and I don't care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we make today.
  • May 25, 1916, interview with Charles N. Wheeler in the Chicago Tribune, cited in Butterfield.

According to the historian Jessica Swigger, the reason there are so many versions of the statement floating around the internet is that Ford spent years trying to reframe and clarify the comment to himself and the rest of the world.

We're going to start something! I'm going to start up a museum and give people a true picture of the development of the country. That's the only history that is worth observing, that you can preserve in itself. We're going to build a museum that's going to show industrial history, and it won't be bunk!
  • 1919, quoted from in his Reminiscences, edited by E.G. Liebold, in the Ford Archives, as cited in Butterfield.

Ford sued the Chicago Tribune for libel in 1919 (in an editorial the Tribune had called him an "anarchist" and "ignorant idealist") and in court he was quizzed hard about the "history is bunk" quote:

  • Counsel for the Tribune Elliot G. Stevenson: But history was bunk, and art was no good? That was your attitude in 1916?
  • Henry Ford: I did not say it was bunk. It was bunk to me, but I did not say...
  • Stevenson: [interrupting quickly] It was bunk to you?
  • Ford: It was not much to me.
  • Stevenson: What do you mean by that?
  • Ford: Well, I haven't very much use for it. I didn't need it very bad.
  • Stevenson: What do you mean? Do you think we can provide for the future and care wisely with reference to the future in matters like preparation for defense, or anything of that sort, without knowing the history of what has happened in the past?
  • Ford: When we got into the war, the past didn't amount to much. History didn't usually last a week.
  • Stevenson: What do you mean, "History didn't last a week"?
  • Ford: In the present war, airships and things we used were out of date in a week.
  • Stevenson: What does that have to do with history?

Many of the sources today interpret the meaning of the quote to show that Ford was an iconoclast who disdained the importance of the past: but there is evidence that that industrial history of his was decidedly important to him. According to Butterfield, in his later life, Ford saved 14 million personal and business documents in his personal archives and built over 100 structures for the Henry Ford Museum-Greenfield Village-Edison Institute complex at Dearborn.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Archaeology Quotations

Butterfield R. 1965. Henry Ford, the Wayside Inn, and the Problem of "History Is Bunk".

Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 77:53-66.

Swigger JI. 2008. History is Bunk: Historical Memories at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village. Austin: University of Texas.

Upward GC. 1979. A Home for Our Heritage: The Building and Growth of Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum. Dearborn, Michigan: The Henry Ford Museum Press.

Lockerby, P. 2011. Henry Ford - Quote: "History is Bunk". Science 2.0 30 May.

Wheeler, CN. 1916. Interview with Henry Ford. The Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916, cited in Butterfield.