Online visitors to the Detroit Historical Society’s Digital Collection may notice something called the the Davis Hillmer Collection. Crowley’s, Kern’s, B. Siegel Company, S. L. Bird & Sons, Kline’s, Newcomb Endicott – one man was able to document all these twentieth century Detroit retailers. Yes, other photographers at the time took it upon themselves to snap a few images here and there, but only Davis Hillmer was hired specifically to capture images of department stores. One retail giant, J. L. Hudson’s, hired Hillmer exclusively to record the interior and exterior displays of the ever-growing Detroit landmark department store.
Davis B. Hillmer, born in Plymouth, MI in 1896, was a self-taught photographer who began his career working for commercial photographer Jeffery White. By 1922 Hillmer had set up his own commercial photography business, eventually having offices on Canfield Street, Ferry Street, and Second Avenue. Secured by The J. L. Hudson Company in the late 1920s, Hillmer was called upon to photodocument the ever-changing retailer. For over fifty years, Hillmer observed through his lens as Hudson’s grew, celebrated holidays, struggled through war, and kept up with changing fashions.
Davis Hillmer retired in 1972, and after his death in 1979, his relatives generously donated over 2,000 black and white prints, and film negatives to the Detroit Historical Society in the early 1980s. Today, we have digitized over 1,000 photographs from the Davis Hillmer Collection, and will continue to add more to the digital collection in the coming months.