Streets of Old Detroit

The Streets of Old Detroit

The Detroit Historical Museum’s most beloved signature exhibit, located in the lower level of the museum, is undoubtedly the Streets of Old Detroit. Step into Detroit’s past and experience the city’s dramatic transformation from rural frontier town to industrial giant in three time periods: the 1840s, 1870s and 1900s.  

In the 1840s, Detroit was a small town of simple buildings and small shops. Welcoming immigrants and catering to travelers, Detroit, with a population of about 9,000, was leaving the fur trade behind to become a major commercial center in the western wilderness. New transportation methods - namely canals, steamships and trains - hastened the development of the city. New settlers arrived daily. The city roads were often dirt and mud, but main thoroughfares featured cobblestones. Detroit was slowly industrializing. While grist and saw mills were still the leaders, tobacco manufacturing, soap and candle making, edge tool manufacturers, brass and iron foundries, breweries were emerging. Manufacture of carriages and wagons began, which later became a leading industry. The refining of metals quickly superseded all other industries in importance. Copper smelting, with 7 establishments and an output of $1.5 million worth of ingots, outranked the iron industry.  In 1860, there were 163 manufacturing businesses that employed more than 2,000 men. Thirteen kinds of products were listed. Detroit in 1840 also boasted 27 dry goods stores, 25 grocery provision stores, 14 hardware stores, 7 clothing stores, 8 silversmiths and jewelers, 8 druggists, 10 extensive forwarding and commission stores, 3 bookstores and 4 hotels. The following stores in the exhibition illustrate the city's growth:

  • Democratic Free Press printing office
  • Blacksmith
  • Detroit Savings Bank
  • Henry Doty, Auction and Commission Merchant
  • J and D Flattery Furniture Manufactory
  • J L King Clothing Emporium

Streets of Old DetroitIn the 1870s, Detroit was a stable and flourishing city, brimming with skilled residents that develop new businesses and industries. Growing wealth is reflected in the variety of goods and services available to Detroiters. The population had grown to over 80,000.Building was booming, and impressive architecture – public, commercial, and private – was a primary consideration to the citizens. In the mid-19th century, Detroit was compared to Paris because of its scenic parks and beautiful buildings with fancy mansions spreading up Woodward and out Jefferson and Fort Avenues. Cobblestone streets were being supplemented with a much smoother cedar and tar pavement. Manufacturing became the major employer of the city. Steel, copper, shoes, tobacco, shipbuilding, stoves, seeds, paint, and pharmaceuticals were only a few of the commodities that Detroit was becoming known for throughout the United States and in many foreign countries. In the 1870s section of the exhibit, which represents the heart of the city, includes:

  • Sanders Confectionary
  • Fire House
  • W.D. Sutton - Joiner, Cabinet and Repair Shop
  • Fancy Goods store
  • F.H. Fyfe and Co. Fine Shoes
  • A. Schultz Sewing Machines
  • Russell House Hotel and Barber Shop
  • J. Sattler Tobacconist
  • Chas. Schwartz Toy Store

In the 1900s, Detroit had become an optimistic and prosperous city. The city's ready access to natural resources and capital resulted in large and innovative companies that lead the city to forefront of American commerce. Detroit at the turn of the century was a growing city about to hit its industrial boom with the introduction of the automobile. The population had skyrocketed to about 290,000 residents. The streets were paved with brick and electric lights illuminated the streets of the main commercial district. Buildings in the 1900 section of the exhibit include:

  • Huber and Metzer Bicycle Shop
  • Henry C. Reinhold Prescription Pharmacy
  • Wilson and Kresge 5 and 10 Cent Store
  • Sylvester S. Smith Dentist Office
  • AC Dietsche & Company Souvenir Store
  • Detroit Music Company
  • Automobile Equipment Company

The exhibit also features a “discovery room” that includes hands-on activities for families that help illustrate the daily lives of Detroiters in the nineteenth century.