This diorama, measuring only 16 inches by 20 inches, was hand-constructed by Massachusetts prisoner Patrick Culhane and sent to industrialist Henry Ford in 1915. Ellice Engdahl of the Henry Ford Museum writes in a recent blog post about the object that the diorama is made of scraps of many materials, including peach pits, cellulose, fabric, and metal.
In 1915, Ford famously offered jobs to ex-convicts, publicly guaranteeing to “take any convict from Sing Sing and make a man of him” through honest work. Culhane seems to have heard of this, addressing Ford in a note engraved on the glass case protecting the diorama:
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.
The “Monkey Bar” is a crowded room, full of simians in various states of dissipation. Monkeys play roulette, pool, poker, and the piano. The bar is fully furnished with animal-skin rugs, inlaid tables, and even a ticker-tape machine. In an amazing detail, two monkeys hunker behind the piano, smoking opium.
Engdahl writes that Culhane intended the display as a commentary on the ways that vice had led him and his fellow prisoners to commit crimes. Ford advocated for Prohibition, and it’s probable that Culhane was appealing to Ford’s sense of moral outrage by taking this approach.
By using monkeys as stand-ins for the convicts, Culhane tapped into a cultural fascination with the idea of evolution. In visual imagery of the time, monkeys often signified man’s dark side, embodying our tendencies toward violence, weakness, and vice.
According to Engdahl, Culhane’s bid for Ford’s attention worked: He got a job at the Cambridge, Mass., Ford Motor Company plant. Continuing correspondence with Ford’s secretary shows that Culhane married, had a family, and stayed out of jail.