The Smithsonian Sent Healing Wheels to WWI


An example of a 1917 Ford Model T Army ambulance, Courtesy of Ford Motor Company / The Henry Ford.

One of the challenges of being a reference archivist is focusing on the inquiries received, while suppressing the bits of information you come across that may be of personal interest (the corner of my desk is occupied by an ever increasing list of topics I aspire to research further on my own time). Recently, however, a colleague who is familiar with my interest in rare and vintage automobiles brought to my attention an announcement in Record Unit 298: Smithsonian Institution Local Notes Newsletter, 1916-1933, concerning a 1917 Model T Ford Ambulance that I was compelled to share. Besides, since most of the research had already been completed, I was not really indulging my personal interest, and I simply could not allow the time invested to be heaped onto an ever increasing pile of “to do…someday.”

In August, 1917, a few months after the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I, the employees of the Smithsonian Institution submitted a check for $1,006.00 to the Department of Military Relief of the American Red Cross “for the purchase of an ambulance to be sent abroad as soon as possible to the country where the need is most urgent. It is understood that $1,000 purchases a Ford automobile complete in every aspect and provides for its shipment to a foreign country. The additional sum of $6.00 is sent to cover the cost of two brass plates to be placed on the ambulance, and both inscribed as follows: Presented by the Employees of the Smithsonian Institution.”


An example of a 1917 Ford Model T Ambulance, Photo Credit Darin Schnabel (c) 2010 Courtesy of RM Auc

Notice was received in October 1917 that an ambulance had been procured, and was on its way to Russia. The costs for an ambulance were as follows: “Ambulance, $475; boxing, $30; extra equipment, $19.28; spare parts, $30.70; hood and radiator cover, $2.20; Pyrene fire extinguisher with extra fluid, $5.30; tow extra tires, $29.75, freight to New York, $14.64; war risk and marine insurance 9 per cent, $54.52. Total $660.39. Free shipping was obtained “through the generosity of the steamship company….leaving a balance of $339.61….The American Red Cross will apply this balance for the maintenance of the ambulance Unit of which your machine is a part. It probably will be spent immediately for spare tires.”

The images represent 1917 Ford Model T Ambulance conversions, but not the ambulance that the Smithsonian sent, of which we have no photos. Presumably, all the originals employed during WWI served gallantly and saved many lives.

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