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Trash or Treasure? Items tied to Detroit's History

By Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit’s long and fascinating history is both inspiring and intriguing, so Adelia Strong Macker’s email request hoping to find out more about her vintage items fell on receptive ears.  

“We wish to bring two watercolor paintings and one pen and ink drawing done by my great grandfather and grandfather Mr. Charles Strong and Lawrence Strong,” she wrote. “They had a school on Griswold Ave. in Detroit from the early 1900s until 1930, when the Depression forced them to close their doors. My grandfather went on to work for the main advertisers for Ford Motor Company, Nelsons, until the mid-1970s. We want to donate these either to the DIA or the historical museum in Detroit.  But we want first to know if they have any value.”

A sweet dedication on the back of one of the items sealed the deal: “To My Grandchild, Adelia Strong, In remembrance of your great grandfather Charles J. Strong and your grandfather Lawrence S. Strong With Love and Affection.” It is signed L.S. Strong, Dec. 10, 1960.

Adelia Strong Macker with an ink-pen drawing from 1950, left, and two water-color paintings, center and right.

An internet search led to many references to the firm, including one from gumroad.com that was offering a vintage book for sale and listed some background (some of which differed from the family’s information) of the company and founder. “The Detroit School of Lettering was owned and operated by the Strong family in the late 1800's through the early 1900's, who at the time were a household name in the industry and considered today among the best of their era. While their more famous books like "Strong's Book of Design" and "The Art of Show Card Writing" are what they are best known for, these booklet provide an invaluable course on lettering from basic construction up through decoration and shading techniques.”

Brian Thomczek took a closer look at the items at a recent appraisal session held at the Michigan Design Center in Troy.

He dated the items between 1900 to 1950 based on their materials and appearance, noting that copies of the books her ancestors produced, including Strong’s Book of Designs”  ?? are still being sold online. Thomczek praised the fine detail apparent in the books and in the art work she brought in, noting that the lettering books display a mostly lost art.

Unfortunately, there’s a limited market for items like hers in today’s market, something Macker understands well. “Our children don’t want these, and we are hoping we can donate to the Detroit Historical Society or the DIA because they were Michigan artists,” she told the appraiser.

Unfortunately, interesting history doesn’t always add up to big price tags. Thomczek appraised each at $100 to $200 at auction, saying the watercolors could bring $100 to $200, and the drawing, which he praised as “a nice subject,” up to $200 despite not being signed. He advised she follow up with the DIA and the historical society about potential interest, adding that items like these are a great way to preserve and honor local history.

“I don’t want to give them to the kids,” Macker reiterated. “I’m afraid they’d just want to eBay them.”

Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: trashortreas@aol.com or The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure? 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime phone number. If chosen, you’ll need to bring the item to a free appraisal session and be willing to be featured with your item in the column. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.

About this item

Item: Art works

Owned by: Adelia Strong Macker

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated Value: $100 and up at auction