Automotive Wayback Machine: The Jam Handy Organization Archive

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

You may never have heard of Henry Jamison “Jam” Handy, but almost a century before TV producer Matthew Weiner conjured up the fictional persona of ad man Don Draper, Jam Handy was inventing and shaping the way Americans bought and sold consumer goods, particularly cars. Along the way, he also shaped the way we learn about the world and how we see ourselves in it.

Jam Handy’s early life reads like an O’Henry story. Born in 1886 in Philadelphia, when he was five years old he moved with his family to Chicago. His father, a newspaper editor, had taken a job promoting the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Handy later claimed that the three years he spent watching the world’s fair being built and wandering its exhibits was the best education he could get. He breezed through school and was at the University of Michigan by the time he was 17.

Handy was a star athlete for the Wolverines, winning a bronze medal for swimming at the 1904 Olympics (and again in 1924 for water polo). He’s credited with introducing and popularizing the Australian crawl swimming stroke. His tenure in Ann Arbor, though, didn’t last very long. To supplement his income Handy worked as a college stringer for the Chicago Tribune and one of his stories humorously characterized his elocution professor as giving a lesson in lovemaking. The elocution professor and UofM president James Angell took exception and suspended Handy. Today, colleges offer courses for credit on masturbation and varsity athletes get out of jail and go straight to the starting lineup, but at the turn of the 20th century things were different. Handy found himself in a jam (sorry, I had to). Wherever he applied for admission, he was turned down, having been academically blackballed by Angell.

Feeling partly responsible, Tribune editor Medill McCormick offered Handy a job in the Tribune newsroom, rotating between various departments. Gaining an interest in advertising, Handy moved to an ad agency, where he was exposed to slide shows and early motion pictures and recognized their power to educate and persuade.

It was then that he decided to start his own company to produce promotional and educational movies. In 1911 he founded the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit. The rapidly growing auto industry provided a ready market for his training films. Handy also established relationships with the United States armed forces and produced training films during World War One. By the mid 1930s there were over 400 writers, directors, and trade craft workers employed by the company. At its heyday, the Jam Handy Organization even employed two full size orchestras full time just for the incidental music in its movies. Famed animator Max Fleischer worked for Handy in the 1940s and 1950s, producing the first animated version of Rudoph The Red Nosed Reindeer. Fleischer’s brother dave and cartoonist Rube Goldberg also worked for Handy.

Though his name is not well known outside the Detroit area, Handy’s influence on American culture has been profound. He’s been the subject of serious academic work by those in marketing, cultural and film studies. Handy’s educational and instructional films have also been the subject of parody on the not so serious Simpsons and MST3K tv comedy shows. Generations of Americans have been exposed to the “Imagine A World Without Zinc” style of cinema.

While the Handy organization made films on a cornucopia of subjects, of interest to the Best and Brightest is Handy’s work for the Detroit automakers, the major reason why the company was located in Michigan. Handy worked for a who’s who of American industrial firms, and a variety of government agencies, but he’s most closely associated with the car industry. The Handy company did work for Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac and GMC trucks, as well as the light truck side of Ford Motor Co., but it’s Handy’s work for Chevrolet that’s best remembered.

In the late 1930s, Handy produced over 100 newsreels, cartoons, instructional and informational films for Chevy, in their “Direct Mass Selling Series”. The films were distributed by the Paramount film organization and shown in theaters as shorts between films. Theater operators appreciated what today we’d call content. Though with our jaded eyes, the films are clearly promotional, Handy used a light hand and a soft sell. The Chevrolet Leader News newsreels mixed general interest newsreel stories with Chevy-centric features. Travelogues about tourist attractions would encourage travel by car (and also feature Chevrolet automobiles). The Handy group explained to Chevrolet salesmen how they used promotional theatrical releases in Helping You Sell.

The films were as likely to promote a corporate image as they were to promote specific car models. In the 1930s the JHO produced Master Hands, about Chevy manufacturing and in 1950s the Handy group produced a series of films like American Look and American Harvest that are ostensibly about the American way of life, though all the cars are Chevrolets. Some have referred to the cinematic style of these films as “capitalist realism”, others call them propaganda.

It was the Jam Handy Organization that produced the famous commercials with Dinah Shore singing See The USA In Your Chevrolet.

JHO also pioneered motivational films for their automotive customers, like Open Door: The Story of Foreman Jim Baxter and His Family.

During World War II, the Handy company produced over 7,000 instructional films for the military and industry. Genuinely patriotic (the Handy catalog of films is sprinkled heavily with American exceptionalism), they also produced films to motivate workers on the home front as well as propaganda for theatrical release.

The Jam Handy Organization, like many companies dependent on the domestic auto industry, eventually fell on hard times. One reference says that it was broken up in 1970, though I recall that Jam Handy studios were still active in Southfield, Michigan into the 1990s. The company’s own archives most likely have disappeared.

The company can be said in many ways to have invented audio-visual commercial advertising as we know it, so the loss of Handy archives is a historical and cultural loss. However, because the copyrights on its films have long since expired and the films have passed into the public domain, ironically that has helped preserve at least some of them for posterity. Rick Prelinger has archived and digitized hundreds of JHO films and they provide a looking glass into how car companies have crafted the images of their products and themselves.

The Jam Handy Organization archive is a rich vein to mine for a look at automobiles and their role in American culture during much of the 20th century. Too rich, I’m sure, for just one TTAC weekend piece, even with the managing editor & the B&B’s indulgence of my usual logorhea. There’s just so much there, from a 1927 silent film newsreel about General Motors to Cinderella in a 1937 Chevy to ’66 Chevys rolling off the line, the Handy archive is a veritable Automotive Wayback Machine.

I hope to return to the JHO archive, maybe even do a series if enough of the B&B like it.

First, though, let’s start with something light.

As mentioned, the Handy company didn’t scrimp. They hired first rate talent and many people got their start in the film industry working for the JHO. In addition to the Fleischer brothers, Handy also employed Frank Goldman, an animation pioneer. Two animated shorts, assumed to be the work of Goldman, promoted Chevrolet to theater audiences in 1936 and 1937.

In the first, A Coach For Cinderella, the fairy godmother has been replaced by elves who build Cinderella her coach. The do start with the traditional pumpkin, though this coach has a six cylinder engine with lightning bug spark plugs. The elves use a steam powered “modernizer” that turns the coach into a brand spanking new 1936 Chevrolet. Handy’s light touch is on display here. Were it not for the mention of Chevrolet’s sponsorship in the title screen and the last 20 seconds of the ~9 minute film, you’d never know it was an advertisement, just a 1930s vintage animated film about Cinderella.

The second film, A Ride For Cinderella, picks up the story as the wicked stepsisters are preparing for the prince’s ball. Handy’s screenwriters sort of mixed up some fairy tales because there’s a wicked witch straight out of Snow White whom the stepsisters pay to sabotage Cinderella. The demons and storms that the witch sends are to no avail because of Cinderella’s coach, a Chevrolet sedan, while the stepsisters’ own horsedrawn carriage is wrecked. Later, when the prince finds her, Cinderella despairs because she has no dowry, and the prince reassures her that her 1937 Chevrolet is dowry enough.

The Cinderella series must have been popular. In 1939, JHO spun off Princess and the Pauper, an Arabian Nights sort of tale where the pauper is transported to a princess on a magic carpet, which becomes a new Chevrolet.

It’s been a long way from A Coach For Cinderella to Find New Roads.

Disclaimer. Once, when I was a child, I auditioned for a role at the Jam Handy studios. JMO was just like a Hollywood studio, with casting calls, only in Detroit. I guess the script called for a family of redheads because the audition ended up drawing hundreds of redheads, lined up down the block. As I recall, I made the first cut, my hair was red enough (family lore has it that U.S. Senator Pat McNamara, a neighbor, took me and my older sister campaigning with him in Irish neighborhoods), but I didn’t have enough freckles.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

More by Ronnie Schreiber

Join the conversation
2 of 14 comments
  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Dec 17, 2013

    Very interesting! I'd like to know more about the end/dissolution of the business, as surely the assets were sold to someone - and someone still has them.

  • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Jan 06, 2014

    "Come back, zinc! Come back!" This was a great read and I'd be happy to see more of this/like this.

  • Mike Some Evs are hitting their 3 year lease residual values in 6 months.
  • Tassos Jong-iL I am just here for the beer! (did I say it right?)
  • El scotto Tim, to be tactful I think a great many of us would like a transcript of TTAC's podcast. 90 minutes is just too long for most of us to listen. -evil El Scotto kicking in- The blog at best provides amusement, 90 minutes is just too much. Way too much.
  • TooManyCars VoGhost; I was referring more to the Canadian context, but the same graft is occurring in the US of A and Europe. Political affiliation appears to be irrelevant.
  • The Oracle Going to see a lot of corporations migrating out of Delaware as the state of incorporation. Musk sets trends, he doesn’t follow them.