As Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford, I’m often asked what my favorite artifact is. This is a pretty tough question to answer when I have about 25 million artifacts to choose from—and to be honest, my favorites change all the time. Of the 18,000 or so artifacts added in our digital collections thus far, though, one of the items on my short list would have to be the Monkey Bar.
The Monkey Bar was created by Patrick J. Culhane (or possibly Culinane/Cullinane—correspondence we have related to the artifact contains several variants on his name) in 1914–15, while he was a prisoner at the Massachusetts State Prison at Charlestown, where he’d been sent after a conviction of “larceny from a conveyance.” Culhane crafted an amazingly extensive diorama by hand, out of materials including peach pits and scraps of wood, fabric, metal, cellulose, and plastic—and all on a base measuring about 16” x 20”.
Culhane intended the diorama to depict many of the worldly pitfalls that had put him and his fellow inmates on a path to prison. The Bar is chock full of monkeys engaged in all kinds of rambunctious activities—drinking alcohol, gluttonous eating, smoking (cigarettes, cigars, and opium), gambling and gaming in many forms (craps, roulette, checkers, shell game, and cards), playing music, monitoring the stock market via a ticker, and even paying off a policemonkey. Clearly some of the monkeys are ready to check into (or out of) the associated hotel, as they have their suitcases with them and keys and mail are visible behind the desk.
Perhaps surprisingly, monkey bars were created by other prisoners in the early part of the 20th century (another one was featured on Antiques Roadshow in 2007, for example), but the one in our collection is truly amazing in its tiny details, from the inlaid wood tables, to the cigar ash piling up wherever monkeys are smoking, to the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkey statuettes on top of the piano. Wherever you look in the great detail shots captured by our photographer, you see something new and striking.
The story didn’t end with the creation of this amazing piece, though. Likely working through intermediaries at a Boston-area Ford Motor Company plant, Culhane managed to get the Monkey Bar to Henry Ford. In this time period, Ford was particularly known for hiring those who might not otherwise have an equal shot, including the disabled, the mentally ill, and former convicts. A hand-calligraphed note on the Monkey Bar’s glass case reads “Presented to Mr. Henry Ford / As a token of appreciation and esteem for his many benevolent and magnanimous acts toward, and keen interest in, prisoners / By A Prisoner.”
Ford became interested in Culhane, and may even have interceded for his release. In January 1916, Culhane was hired to work at the Ford Motor Company plant in Cambridge, Mass. Ford’s secretary continued to correspond with the Cambridge plant about Culhane, which seems to indicate an ongoing interest on Ford’s part.
Over the next 15 years or so, Culhane married, had children, and became owner of his own roofing company, seemingly having turned his life around from his earlier, criminal days. One can only assume Henry Ford, given his views on the rehabilitation of former convicts and his continuing interest in Culhane, would have been overjoyed at this change of fortune.
Ellice Engdahl heads up the collections digitization effort at The Henry Ford, so gets many opportunities per day to revise her list of favorite objects. Invaluable assistance with this post was provided by her colleagues Lisa Korzetz, Registrar, and Andy Stupperich, Associate Curator.