How Martin Luther King, Jr. Wrote His Momentous “I Have a Dream” Speech (1963)

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech ranks as one of the most famous of American speeches. As Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, says in his video above, it’s “arguably the most important and well-known speech of the 20th century.” King’s popular vision of a peaceful, harmonious, multiracial democracy might explain why nine out of ten Americans have a positive attitude toward King now. That polling looks very different by party affiliation. Even so, many more Americans look fondly on King’s memory than supported (or now support) the racial and economic justice for which he fought. The current use of King as a whitewashed martyr figure, Michael Harriot argues, obscures the reality of “a dream yet unfulfilled,” as King once called the U.S.

Even after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize win, only about 37% of Americans approved of his message in 1966 Gallup polling, a number that dropped even lower when he came out against the Vietnam war in 1967. Approval for MLK “only started to shift after his assassination in 1968,” writes Senior Data Scientist Linley Sanders at YouGov.  King’s “Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial may be posthumously remembered as his finest hour by those who weren’t there. For thousands of people who were, his address was also a fiery summation of the major themes up to that point in dozens of speeches and sermons.




“Riddled with big difficult terms and full of rhetorical devices that are intentional and practiced,” Puschak says, the speech eloquently explained “why fully 100 years after… the Emancipation Proclamation,” Black Americans were still politically disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged. It did so through a series of dense allusions to the Emancipation Proclamation, the country’s founding documents, the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and other artifacts of American national identity, in an attempt to “frame civil rights in the larger American mythology so that those who identify with that mythology might incorporate this struggle into that story.”

The American story has justified oppression and fear of the same people fighting for full integration into the national polity during the Civil Rights movement, a problematic irony of which King was hardly unaware. He also drew from traditions older than the U.S. founding — the humanism of Shakespeare and the prophetic voices of the Old Testament, for example. These were indeed practiced maneuvers. (King very much lived down the C he once got in a public speaking class.) But the rousing refrains in his speech’s conclusion — which gave the speech its title and spread its fame around the world — were ad-libbed.

“I started out reading the speech, and I read it down to a point… the audience response was wonderful that day” King later remembered. “And all of a sudden this thing came to me that… I’d used many times before… ‘I have a dream.'” The reference didn’t come out of nowhere, says Clarence Jones, who helped King write the speech’s text just hours before it was delivered. Jones recalled that King’s favorite gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out for the then-familiar (to her) theme:

As he was reading from the text of his prepared remarks, there came a point when Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting on the platform, said, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream.”

Now I have often speculated that she had heard him talk in other places… and make reference to the dream. On June 23, 1963, in Detroit, he had made very express reference to the dream.

When Mahalia shouted to him, I was standing about 50 feet behind him… and I saw it happening in real time. He just took the text of his speech and moved it to the left side of the lectern. … And I said to somebody standing next to me: “These people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.”

Before celebrating a redeemed interpretation of the American dream in his extemporaneous finale, King’s speech condemned the nation’s reality as morally corrupt and illegitimate. He urged restraint among his followers through nonviolent “direct action,” but foresaw worse to come before the country could realize its potential.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

“There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights,” King continued. “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Maybe it’s little wonder many white Americans, hearing these remarks, turned away from King’s vision of racial justice, which required reckoning with “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Ending the “unearned suffering” of Black Americans, King knew, would come at too great a cost to unearned privilege. Indeed, the FBI heard King’s words as a direct threat to the country’s historic power structure. After the “I Have Dream” speech, the Bureau seriously intensified its program to surveil, discredit, and destroy him.

Related Content: 

How Martin Luther King Jr. Got C’s in Public Speaking–Before Becoming a Straight-A Student & a World Class Orator

Martin Luther King Jr. Explains the Importance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Festival (1964)

Imagining the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Debate That Never Happened

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Nikola Tesla Claimed to Have Invented a “Death Ray,” Capable of Destroying Enemies 250 Miles Away & Making War Obsolete

Just last week I visited Niagara Falls and beheld the noble-looking statue of Nikola Tesla installed there. It struck me as a fitting tribute to the inventor of the Death Ray. But then, its presence probably had more to do with Tesla’s having advised the builders of the falls’ power plant to use two-phase alternating current, the form of electricity of which he’s now remembered as a pioneer. And in any case, Tesla never actually invented a death ray, or at least he never demonstrated one. He did, however, claim to have been working on a system he called “teleforce,” which shot what he described as a “death beam” — rays, he insisted, would never be feasible — both “thinner than a hair” and powerful enough to “destroy anything approaching within 200 miles,” making warfare effectively obsolete.

These pronouncements attracted special media attention in the 1930s. “Hype about the weapon really took off in the run-up to World War II as Nazi Germany assembled a fearsome air force,” writes Sam Kean at the Science History Institute. “People in Tesla’s homeland, then called Yugoslavia, begged him to return home and install the rays to protect them from the Nazi menace.” But no known evidence suggests that the elderly Tesla had figured out how to actually make teleforce work.




At that point he had more pressing problems, not least the cost of the hotels in which he lived. “In 1915, his famous Wardenclyffe tower plant was sold to help pay off his $20,000 debt at the Waldorf-Astoria,” writes Mental Floss’ Stacy Conradt, and later he racked up a similarly large bill at the Governor Clinton. “He couldn’t afford the payment, so instead, Tesla offered the management something priceless: one of his inventions.”

That “invention” may have been the box examined after Tesla’s death in 1943 by physicist John G. Trump (uncle of former President Donald Trump). Left in a hotel vault, it was rumored to be “a prototype of his death ray.” Tesla had included a note, writes Kean, that “claimed the prototype inside was worth $10,000. More ominously, it said the box would detonate if opened incorrectly.” But when “the physicist steeled himself and began tearing off the brown paper,” he “must have laughed at what he saw underneath: a Wheatstone bridge, a tool for measuring electrical resistance. It was a common, mundane device — some old junk, really. It was certainly not a death ray, not even close.”

Though it must have been as powerful a disappointment as it was a relief, did that discovery prove that Tesla never invented a death ray? The U.S. government didn’t take its chances on the matter: as History.com’s Sarah Pruitt tells it, agents “swooped in and took possession of all the property and documents from his room at the New Yorker Hotel” right after Tesla’s death. And “while the FBI originally recorded some 80 trunks among Tesla’s effects, only 60 arrived in Belgrade,” home of the Nikola Tesla Museum, nearly a decade later. The idea of death rays has long survived Tesla himself, taking on forms from the Reagan administration’s “Star Wars” nuclear defense program to the military laser weapons tested in recent years. Few such technologies seem capable of ending all war, as Tesla promised. But if one ever does, we could honor his memory by referring to it, in the manner he preferred, as not a death ray but a death beam.

Related Content:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Makes the Mona Lisa a Great Painting: A Deep Dive

This past summer we featured a short video introduction to the Mona Lisa here on Open Culture. You’d think that if any painting didn’t need an introduction, that would be the one. But the video’s creator James Payne showed many of us just how much we still have to learn about Leonardo’s most famous work of art — and indeed, perhaps the most famous work by any artist. On his Youtube channel Great Art Explained, Payne offers clear and powerful analyses of paintings from van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Hopper’s Nighthawks to Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych and Picasso’s Guernica. But there are some images to which a fifteen-minute video essay can’t hope to do justice.

In those cases, Payne has been known to follow up with a deluxe expanded edition. Taking on Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, he followed up three individual fifteen-minute videos — for a triptych, a neat union of form and substance — with a full-length treatment of the whole work.




Payne’s full-length version of his Mona Lisa video more than doubles the length of the original. “This is the more comprehensive version I always wanted to do,” he notes, adding that it “uses some of the information from the first film (but in higher resolution with better sound and with clearer graphics), as well as answering the hundreds of questions: Why doesn’t she have eyebrows? Is it a self-portrait? Is she only famous because she was stolen? How do we know what he was thinking?”

This time around, Payne has more to say about how Leonardo created such a compelling portrait on a technical level, but also why he came to paint it in the first place. On top of that, the expanded format gives him time to examine the much more conventional portraits Leonardo’s contemporaries were painting at the time, as well as what’s known as the Prado Mona Lisa. A depiction of the same sitter that may even have been painted simultaneously by one of Leonardo’s students, it makes for an illuminating object of comparison. Payne also gets into the 1911 theft and recovery that ultimately did a great deal for the painting’s reputation, as well as its 1963 exhibition in America that, thanks to television, turned it into a mass-media icon. By now we’ve all had more glimpses of the Mona Lisa more times than we can remember, but it takes enthusiasm like Payne’s to remind us of all the ways we can truly see it.

Related Content:

What Makes Leonardo’s Mona Lisa a Great Painting?: An Explanation in 15 Minutes

Why Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Painting is Not the Mona Lisa

How the Mona Lisa Went From Being Barely Known, to Suddenly the Most Famous Painting in the World (1911)

Original Portrait of the Mona Lisa Found Beneath the Paint Layers of da Vinci’s Masterpiece

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Introductions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picasso & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Introduction to the Chrysler Building, New York’s Art Deco Masterpiece, by John Malkovich (1994)

No old stuff for me, no bestial copyings of arches and columns and cornices. Me, I’m new.  
             — architect William Van Alen, designer of the Chrysler Building

Many people claim the Chrysler Building as their favorite New York City edifice and actor John Malkovich is one such:

It’s so crazy and vigorous in its execution, so breathtaking in its vision, so brilliantly eccentric.

Malkovich, who’s not shy about taking potshots at the city’s “violence and filth” in the BBC documentary short above, rhapsodizes over Detroit industrialist Walter P. Chrysler’s “latter day pyramid in Manhattan.”

Malkovich’s unmistakable voice, pegged by The Guardian as “wafting, whispery, and reedy” and which he himself poo poos as sounding like it belongs to someone who’s “labored under heavy narcotics for years,” pairs well with descriptions so plummy, one has to imagine he penned them himself. (No writer is credited.)




After showing us the open-to-the-public lobby’s “delicious Art Deco fittings,” ceiling mural, and intricate, veneered elevator doors, Malkovich gives us a tour of some off-limits upper floors.

Unlike the Empire State Building, which bested the Chrysler Building’s brief record as the world’s tallest building (1046 feet, 77 stories), you can’t purchase tickets to admire the view from the top.

But Malkovich has the star power to gain access to Celestial, the seventy-first floor observatory that has been closed to the public since 1945 and is currently occupied by a private firm.

He also has a wander around the barren Cloud Club, a supper club and speakeasy for gentleman one percenters. Its mishmash of styles represented a concession on architect Van Alen’s part. The building’s exterior was an elegant modernist homage to Chrysler’s hubcaps and hood ornaments, but between the 66th and 68th floor, the Cloud Club catered to the promiscuous tastes of the rich and powerful — Tudor, Olde English, Neo-Classical…

The New York Times reports that it boasted what “was reputed to be the grandest men’s room in all of New York.”

Duke Ellington soundtrack and vintage footage featuring Van Alen costumed to resemble his famous creation supply a taste of the excitement that heralded the building’s 1930 opening, even if those with a fear of heights may swoon at the sight of pretty young things reclining on high beams and performing other feats of derring-do.

Malkovich, ever the cool customer, displays his lack of vertigo by casually propping a foot on the rooftop’s edge to commune with the iconic eagle-headed gargoyles.

The building’s unique flourishes caused a sensation, but not everyone was a fan.

Malkovich clearly savors his swipe at critics who decried the new building as too shiny:

Fortunately these critics are long dead so we can’t even call their offices and taunt them as they should be taunted.

He’s more temperate when it comes to author and social philosopher Lewis Mumford, whose beef with the skyscraper is understandable, given the historic context — the stock market crashed the day after the secretly constructed spire was riveted into place:

Such buildings show one of the real dangers of a plutocracy: it gives the masters of our civilization an unusual opportunity to exhibit their barbarous egos, with no sense of restraint or shame.

Nearly one hundred years later, barbarous egos continue to erect skyscraping temples to their own vanity, but as Malkovich points out, they’re far blander, if taller.

The Chrysler Building is now widely recognized as one of New York City’s most magnificent jewels, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently approved plans to construct a public observation deck on the Chrysler Building’s 61st floor, just above its iconic Art Deco eagles, though it’s too early to tell if it will be ready in time for a centennial celebration.

Until then, the general public must content itself with exploring the Chrysler Building’s lobby during weekday business hours.

Related Content: 

Why Do People Hate Modern Architecture?: A Video Essay

Famous Architects Dress as Their Famous New York City Buildings (1931)

A New Interactive Map Shows All Four Million Buildings That Existed in New York City from 1939 to 1941

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Michelangelo Entered a Competition to Put a Missing Arm Back on Laocoön and His Sons — and Lost

Not many ancient statues are as well-known as Laocoön and His Sons. Masterfully sculpted some time between the first century BC and the first century AD, it depicts the eponymous Trojan priest in an agonizing struggle with the serpents that will kill one or both of his sons. The details of the tale vary depending on the teller: Virgil describes Laocoön as a priest of Poseidon who dared to attempt exposing the famous Trojan Horse ruse, and Sophocles describes him as a priest of Apollo who violated his vow of celibacy. Whichever version of the story he heard, the sculptor clearly drew from it powerful enough inspiration to impress Pliny the Elder, in whose Natural History the piece figures.

Even among the more artistically sophisticated beholders of the Renaissance, Laocoön and His Sons proved a captivating piece of work. Unearthed from a Roman vineyard in 1506, it looked to have weathered the intervening millennium and half with much less wear and tear than most large artifacts from antiquity — though Laocoön himself was, conspicuously, missing an arm. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Vatican architect Donato Bramante “held a contest to see who could come up with the best version of the arm restoration,” writes Kaushik Patowary at Amusing Planet. “Michelangelo suggested that Laocoön’s missing arm should be bent back as if the Trojan priest was trying to rip the serpent off his back.”

Michelangelo wasn’t the only Renaissance man in competition: “Raphael, who was a distant relative of Bramante, favored an extended arm. In the end, Jacopo Sansovino was declared the winner, whose version with an outstretched arm aligned with Raphael’s own vision of how the statue should look.” Laocoön was thus eventually restored with his arm outstreched, and kept that way until, “in a strange twist of fate, an antique backward-bent arm was discovered in a Roman workshop in 1906, a few hundred meters from where the statue group had been found four hundred years earlier.” Positioned just as Michelangelo had suggested, this disembodied marble limb turned out unmistakably to have come from Laocoön and His Sons — but about three and a half centuries too late, alas, for Michelangelo to lord it over Raphael.

Related Content:

A Creepy 19th Century Re-Creation of the Famous Ancient Roman Statue, Laocoön and His Sons

Michelangelo’s David: The Fascinating Story Behind the Renaissance Marble Creation

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Play a Kandinsky: A New Simulation Lets You Experience Kandinsky’s Synesthesia & the Sounds He May Have Heard When Painting “Yellow-Red-Blue”

Wassily Kandinsky could hear colors. Maybe you can too, but since studies so far have suggested that the underlying condition exists in less than five percent of the population, the odds are against it. Known as synesthesia, it involves one kind of sense perception being tied up with another: letters and numbers come with colors, sequences take on three-dimensional forms, sounds have tactile feelings. These unusual sensory connections can presumably encourage unusual kinds of thinking; perhaps unsurprisingly, synesthetic experiences have been reported by a variety of creators, from Billy Joel and David Hockney to Vladimir Nabokov and Nikola Tesla.

Few, however, have described synesthesia as eloquently as Kandinsky did. “Color is the keyboard,” he once said. “The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key.”




That quote must have shaped the mission of Play a Kandinsky, a collaboration between Google Arts and Culture and the Centre Pompidou. Enlisting the compositional services of experimental musicians Antoine Bertin and NSDOS, it gives even us non-synesthetes a chance to experience the intersection of sound and not just color but shape as well, in something of the same manner as the pioneering abstract painter must have.

As explained in the Listening In video above, Kandinsky heard yellow as a trumpet, red as a violin, and blue as an organ. An image of sufficient chromatic and formal variety must have set off a symphony in his head, much like the one Play a Kandinsky gives us a chance to conduct. As an interface it uses his 1925 painting Yellow-Red-Blue, each element of which, when clicked, adds another synesthetic layer of sound to the mix. These visual-sonic correspondences are based on Kandinsky’s own color theories as well as the music he would have heard, all processed with the formidable machine-learning resources at Google’s command. “What was he trying to make us feel with this painting?” Play a Kandinsky asks. But of course he didn’t have just one set of emotions in mind for his viewers, and making that possible was perhaps the most enduring achievement of his journey into abstraction.

Related Content:

The Evolution of Kandinsky’s Painting: A Journey from Realism to Vibrant Abstraction Over 46 Years

Wassily Kandinsky Syncs His Abstract Art to Mussorgsky’s Music in a Historic Bauhaus Theatre Production (1928)

Time Travel Back to 1926 and Watch Wassily Kandinsky Make Art in Some Rare Vintage Video

An Artist with Synesthesia Turns Jazz & Rock Classics Into Colorful Abstract Paintings

Artist Turns Famous Paintings, from Raphael to Monet to Lichtenstein, Into Innovative Soundscapes

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Scenes of New York City in 1945 Colorized & Revived with Artificial Intelligence

Are you irked when a movie or video you’re attempting to enjoy is constantly interrupted by the commentary of a chatty fellow audience member?

If so, don’t watch archivist Rick Prelinger’s 2017 assemblage, Lost Landscapes of New York, in the company of a New Yorker.

Unlike Open Culture favorite NASS’s five minute sample of Lost Landscapes of New York, above, which adds color and ambient audio to the unvarnished found footage,  Prelinger — described by the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis as a “collector extraordinaire…one of the great, undersung historians of 20th century cinema” — relishes such mouthiness from the audience. His black and white compilations are mostly silent.

If you are a New Yorker, view that as an invitation here.




For everyone else, on behalf of New Yorkers everywhere, we concede that our confident utterances may indeed drive you out of your gourd…

Tourists with just one visit to their name can be forgiven for flaunting their personal brushes with such hall of famers as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Washington Square Arch, but there’s no competing with long time residents’ intimate knowledge of the city’s geography.

It’s snobbery of a type, but have pity on us long time residents, who know we will be viewed as subordinates by those who were born within the five Boroughs.

(We submit that there are layers to this…a native of, say, the Hoosier State, who can remember the original Penn Station should be considered to have at least as much street cred as a millennial whose  birth in Brooklyn, Harlem or the West Village confers native New Yorker status.)

However you slice it, consider this fair warning that some of us, viewing Lost Landscapes of New York in your company, will not be able to stop ourselves from triumphantly crowing, “That’s 8th between 43rd and 44th!”

Again, it’s something Prelinger courts in local live screenings of his Lost Landscapes series

The phenomenon is not limited to New York.

Be the setting San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Detroit, he views audience outbursts as the soundtracks to his mostly silent, non-narrative pastiches drawn from his vast archive of vintage home movies, government-produced films, and background footage shot with an eye toward compositing into a feature film.

In a conversation with The Essay Review’s Lucy Schiller, he remarked:

I’ve discovered that home movies become something else when blown up to theater-screen size. The change of scale provokes a role change in the audience, who without necessarily expecting it become more than simple commentators. They turn into ethnographers, noticing and often remarking on every visible detail of kinship, word and gesture and every interpersonal exchange. They also respond as cultural geographers, calling out streets and neighborhoods and buildings, reading signs aloud, repeating tradenames and brands and marking extinct details in the cityscape. If I could capture them (and I generally cannot, because it is hard to intelligibly record the voices of hundreds of people in one room), it would play back like an urban research project distributed through a crowd of investigators. Each successful identification, each naming achieved, is an endorphin trigger.

Prelinger is happy to play fast and loose with chronological order, scrambling period fashions, and color and black-and-white stock. This crazy quilt approach is in step with his resistance to constructing narratives (“the curse of contemporary documentary”) and admiration for the way enthusiastic amateurs’ footage renders “caste distinctions between animals and humans, between places and their inhabitants” moot:

I am much less interested in the minutiae of local history than I am in the process of daylighting it, in the relationship of history and contemporary life.

His approach allows those of us who live or have lived here to revel in New York City’s long standing capacity for reinvention.

Like the anonymous tide of humanity bustling along our sidewalks (and darting into traffic, mid-block), the marquees, restaurant names and words on the delivery trucks aren’t fixed. We claim to hate it, but philosophers might suggest it’s what keeps us engaged.

You won’t find many street vendors hawking frumpy cotton undies these days, but there are plenty of corners where you can buy fruit and veg… and iPhone cases, earbuds, and COVID-19 era face masks.

As exciting as it is to successfully peg the quintessentially New York things that remain, there’s an equal thrill to recognizing and shouting out the things that don’t, especially if there’s a significant personal connection.

It makes us feel like we’re notable, contributing in some way.

You contribute, too, by watching Lost Landscapes of New York (2017) here, while simultanously keeping your eyes peeled for gratifyingly well attended, highly participated live screenings.

If vintage amateur footage you’re in possession of is gathering dust, consider donating it to expand Prelinger’s archive, already some 60,000 films strong.

Watch Prelinger’s Lost Landscapes compilations of other cities here and here (see episode 7 of his San Francisco series above).

Explore his massive archive on the Internet Archive.

And if you want to practice sounding like a “real New Yorker,” head back up to the top of the page, skip to the end, and inform everyone within earshot that that building is the old James A. Farley Post Office at 32nd and 8th:

“Now it’s Moynihan Train Hall! It opened on January 1! It’s part of Penn Station! Don’t forget to look up inside the 33rd street entrance, or you’ll miss Kehinde Wiley’s incredible stained-glass ceiling! And if you want a snack for the ride, you should hit H-Mart on 32nd just east of Greeley Square!”

Related Content:

See New York City in the 1930s and Now: A Side-by-Side Comparison of the Same Streets & Landmarks

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Story of the Edsel, Ford’s Infamously Failed Car Brand of the 1950s

For 60 years now, the name Edsel has been synonymous with failure. In a way, this vindicates the position of Henry Ford II, who opposed labeling a brand of cars with the name of his father Edsel Ford. The son of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford, Edsel Ford died young in 1943, and thus didn’t live to see “E Day,” the rollout of his namesake line of automobiles. It happened on September 4, 1957, the culmination of two years of research and development on what was for most of that time called the “E car,” the letter having been chosen to indicate the project’s experimental nature. Alas, all seven of Edsel’s first models struck the American public as too conventional to stand out — and at the same time, too odd to buy.

You can hear the story of Edsel in the two videos above, one from transportation enthusiast Ruairidh MacVeigh and another from Regular Car Reviews. Both offer explanations of how the brand’s cars were conceived, and what went wrong enough in their execution to make them a laughing stock still today. No Edsel postmortem can fail to consider the name itself, a choice made in desperation after the rejection of more than 6,000 other possibilities presented by the advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding.




Its manager of marketing research also unofficially sought the counsel of modernist poet Marianne Moore, whose suggestions included “Utopian Turtletop,” “Resilient Bullet,” “Mongoose Civique,” and “The Impeccable.”

Another factor cited as a cause of Edsel’s disappointing sales is its cars’ signature vertical grille, derided early on for its shape resembling a horse collar — among other, less mentionable things. Such aesthetic missteps may not have sunk the brand on their own, but they certainly didn’t counteract the effects of other, more mundane conditions. These included persistent assembly-line problems (without a dedicated factory, Edsels tended occasionally to come out with parts improperly installed or absent) and a 1957 economic recession that made upper-middle-tier automobiles of this kind unappealing to the American driver. Even the top-rated CBS television special The Edsel Show — despite its performances from the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and Louis Armstrong — drummed up little public enthusiasm.

Edsel lasted only from 1958 to 1960, in which time Ford manufactured 118,287 of its cars in total. Six decades after the mark’s retirement, fewer than 10,000 Edsel cars survive — most of them as sought-after collector’s items. For Edsels now have their appreciators, as evidenced by the video above from professional mid-century Americana enthusiast Charles Phoenix, who marvels over every feature of a 1958 Citation, Edsel’s top-of-the-line model, from its Teletouch push-button gear selector to its customizable speed-warning indicator. (Seatbelts came standard, despite being optional extras on other cars of the day.) Current Edsel owners also include lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, who showed off her mint 1958 Roundup in a recent video with Jay Leno — though she seems rather prouder of also owning Edsel Ford’s house.

Related Content:

The Museum of Failure: A Living Shrine to New Coke, the Ford Edsel, Google Glass & Other Epic Corporate Fails

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The Hertella Coffee Machine Mounted on a Volkswagen Dashboard (1959): The Most European Car Accessory Ever Made

178,000 Images Documenting the History of the Car Now Available on a New Stanford Web Site

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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