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Detroit: 1900-1930

Detroit: 1900-1930

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Detroit: 1900-1930

186 pages
34 minutes
Mar 28, 1999


In this new addition to the Images of America series,
Richard Bak takes us on a visual journey through Detroit s golden era, encompassing the first three decades of the twentieth century. It was during this time that the City of Detroit experienced its most rapid physical growth and underwent an unprecedented pace of social and technological change. Detroit: 1900 1930 contains nearly 190 illustrations, including studio portraits, snapshots, postcards, songsheet covers, and period advertisements. Collectively, these images evoke a past that is often too easily forgotten as older Detroiters pass away. As you thumb through the pages of this book, you will encounter such influential people as Henry Ford and other automotive pioneers who helped to put the world on wheels. Experience daily life as it was lived at the time of the First World War, and discover the major role Detroit played in this historic conflict. This volume highlights the wave of
immigration that occurred here at the turn of the century, when roughly half of the city s population hailed from other countries. Also featured are various scenes from the Roaring Twenties, the ill-fated experiment in Prohibition, and the effect of the Great Depression on the city s economy.
Mar 28, 1999

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Detroit - Richard Bak



Up until her death at age 90, my maternal grandmother, Theresa (Konieczny) Koscielny, could always pinpoint the exact day her formal schooling ended and her real education began. It was October 14, 1911, her 14th birthday. This meant that her parents—simple, hardworking Poles who had immigrated to Detroit in the late 19th century—would prepare a modest celebration inside the family’s cramped house on Horatio Street on the city’s west side. Of far greater significance, it meant that Theresa could now obtain her working papers, get a job, and start helping to support her parents and siblings.

Theresa dropped out of her sixth-grade class at St. Francis and found work as a buncher at the nearby San Telmo Cigar Company on Michigan Avenue. Seventy-five years later, my grandmother could still vividly recall how she and the other young women worked steadily at their tables inside the hot factory, with clouds of tobacco dust filling their nostrils. Those paid piece rate were afraid to leave their tables for the lavatory, for fear of losing several cigars. Theresa worked from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with a half hour for lunch. She worked half a day on Saturday, the traditional pay day.

Even by turn-of-the-century standards, Theresa’s wages weren’t much—maybe $2 or $3 a week. But like most children of large, working-class families, she dutifully turned over her pay to her parents.

In 1911, my grandmother was one of an estimated two million children between the ages of ten and 15 who were gainfully employed in mills, factories, and sweatshops throughout America. Even in retrospect, she never considered herself exploited. You were happy for the work, she told me. You could buy a pound of bologna then for a nickel.

It’s in large part because of my grandmother, who always enjoyed talking about her early years in Detroit, that I decided to put together this book illustrating the city’s golden era, a big-shouldered age encompassing the first three decades of the 20th century. Both my grandmother and Detroit reached maturity during this period, which was remarkable for the city’s rapid physical growth and the unprecedented pace of social and technological change. I have previously explored the years between 1900 and 1930 in an earlier book published by Arcadia entitled Detroit: A Postcard Album; in a sense, this volume can be viewed as a companion. These pages contain nearly 190 illustrations, including studio portraits, snapshots, postcards, songsheet covers, period advertisements, and even a couple of personal indulgences: a photograph of my grandmother and her family (page 53 ) and the cigar factory at which she worked (page 6). Collectively, these images evoke a past that grows fainter with the passing of every old-time Detroiter.

One such resident, Gladys (Rademacher) Benz, was born in 1903 and grew up on Scotten Street, not far from my grandmother. In summertime, Gladys recalled in her old age, some of the streetcars were open-sided and we could ride to Belle Isle or Waterworks Park and have picnics under the shade trees . . . Sometimes, after school, I would put my roller skates on and skate to the bakery shop, but usually I had to help my mother with the house chores. Every day I would clean the chimneys of the oil lamps and bring kindling wood from the shed for the kitchen stove. We had running water from the kitchen sink and would take baths and do our laundry in large metal tubs placed on the kitchen floor. Ice was delivered every few days for our icebox and every day after school I would go to the butcher shop . . . to get groceries for the following day. Our lives were simple, but full of happiness.

Working on this project naturally got me musing about what it would have been like to live in a time and a place devoid of television, cell phones, facsimile machines, laptop computers, freeways, jet planes, the Internet, punctureless tires, frozen bagels, and microwave ovens. Less convenient, certainly, but the minor annoyances would have been offset by a greater civility, sense of community, and—despite the mad energy of the Roaring Twenties—a less frenzied lifestyle than we have today. People today are almost desperate to recapture this past, as is demonstrated by the rising number of New Urbanism housing developments, those intimately scaled communities boasting the sidewalks and front porches that previous generations took for granted.

On the other hand, I reminded myself, society had its share of problems then, not the least of which were irregular employment, poor pay, unsafe factories, substandard housing, overcrowded schools, bad roads, racial and religious intolerance, and highly communicative diseases like tuberculosis and influenza.

It’s for the sake of balance, then, that I can’t fully subscribe to the nostalgic notion of the good old days. Sorry, Grandma. Sorry, Gladys. Sorry, New Urbanism. The past was not necessarily better in every way, or even in most ways. As this portrait of old Detroit demonstrates, it was simply different, which should be reason enough for a second look.



DAWN OF DETROIT’S AUTO AGE. Detroit can be said to have entered the 20th century a few years earlier than the rest of the country. On March 6, 1896, a 28-year-old mechanical engineer named Charles Brady King drove his four-cylinder horseless carriage down Detroit’s streets. It was the

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