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Unique photo collection offers broad look at 19th century Michigan

Oct 19, 2015

There are many ways to revisit the stories of our past. Textbooks, journals and diaries, audio recordings and photographs – they all tell tales that might otherwise slip into the white noise of history.

David Tinder has been collection early Michigan photographs for all types for roughly 40 years now.

His collection of some 100,000 vintage images will be preserved at the University of Michigan Clements Library.

Tinder tells us he was always a collector of many things, but started gathering photos in 1964 when he bought a book on stereoviews.

“It just resonated with me, so I started buying stereoviews from all over the world, and three years later I had like 30,000 of them,” he says.

When a friend of his got a hold of some Detroit city directories from the late 1800s, Tinder discovered that he could use these to learn about the people who had taken some of the thousands of photos he had collected.

So, his interest piqued, he began seeking out photos of all kinds from Michigan.

Curator of Graphic Material at the Clements Library Clayton Lewis calls this collection “very significant.”

He explains that more than anything, individual collectors shape research libraries like the Clements Library.

“People who are passionate about a topic or a subject like Dave and have amassed a resource that’s unique, and when it comes to the University of Michigan … it changes the shape of scholarship,” Lewis says. “This is a wonderful example of that, it means a lot to the library.”

He tells us Tinder’s collection includes photos of all types from the 1840s all the way into the middle of the 20th century.

“Portrait photography, views of places, people at work, on the job, architecture, agriculture, there’s so many topics within the collection it’s really hard to make a comprehensive list of them,” Lewis says.

Despite the challenge it poses for archivists, Lewis tells us that the huge variety of photos in the collection tells us a lot about what mattered to people living in 19th century Michigan.

He says the real photo postcards are particularly fascinating, “because they cover so many aspects of American life.”

“They could be everyday occurrences, photos of natural disasters, the aftermath of a flood or a tornado, or it could be people in their back yard having dinner. It could be almost anything in that format,” he says.

“This is the way we lived. It is similar, but it’s very different than the way we live today,” Tinder says. “There’s so much in the collection, you get a very broad feeling of how life was.”

- Ryan Grimes, Stateside