Exhibition | Detroit before the Automobile

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on October 27, 2014


Edward Walsh, View of Detroit and the Straits,
Taken from the Huron Church
, 1804
(University of Michigan: William L. Clements Library)

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Now on view at the University of Michigan, as noted at Art Daily:

Detroit before the Automobile: The William L. Clements Library Collection
University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 18 October 2014 — 18 January 2015

In spite of the economic reverses of the last few decades, Detroit is still perceived by most Americans as the cradle of the automotive industry and the testing ground for twentieth-century innovations in manufacturing that changed the world. ‘Motown’, however, was already two centuries old by the time the Model T rolled off the first assembly line. Detroit before the Automobile examines the first 200 years of the city’s history using rare books, manuscripts, maps, and graphics from the extensive collection of the University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library.

Detroit was founded by the French in 1701 as a trading center and agricultural settlement. In 1760 it passed to the British and became an important post for them during the American Revolution. It was ceded to the United States by the peace treaty of 1783, although the United States did not actually take control of the city until 1796. In 1805, Detroit became the capital of the Michigan Territory, but it was destroyed by fire the same year. Rebuilt to a radical new design, the town and fort were taken by the British at the outset of the War of 1812 and then recovered by the United States in 1813. In 1817 it saw the birth of the University of Michigan. During the nineteenth century, Detroit matured and grew in importance as a shipping center with a developing industrial base of shipbuilding, rail-car construction, stove manufacturing, and similar industries that ensured the city would have the infrastructure and transportation network needed to greet the infant auto industry at the dawn of the twentieth century.

The Clements Library has a rich variety of primary sources documenting the history of Detroit before 1900, from maps outlining the distinctive ‘ribbon farm’ land pattern of the French, to plans of the town, and prints charting the city’s increasing size and the height of its buildings. Together this array of primary documents brings to life the early history of one the oldest cities in the Midwest.

The exhibition is part of the U-M Collections Collaborations series, co-organized by and presented at UMMA and designed to showcase the renowned and diverse collections at the University of Michigan. The U-M Collections Collaborations series is generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


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