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Collecting pieces of Minnesota's past for the future


The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.

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Christmas Day Overseas

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 25, 2017

First Class Private Harry J. Madsen's Gold Star Roll file includes this letter to his family from his new camp in England on Christmas Day. He spent the day at the YMCA, and the letter is on YMCA H.M. Forces on Active Service stationary. He writes about Christmas there, wishes his family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and describes his journey to England.

Madsen was killed in action on July 19, 1918 in France.


England Dec 25 1917.
My Dear Mother,
To day is Christmas and I arrived at my new camp this morning. I have already had my dinner. We had our Christmas dinner on the boat. I'm well and getting along fine. I hope this letter will find yous all well as it leaves me. And heres hoping you's all a Merry Christmas & Happy New Year. I'm today enjoying myself in the Y.M.C.A. I'm enjoying a good smoke I got a box of cigars as chirstmas present from my wife. have you heard from her[?] She said that she was going to write to you. Don't worry about me mother because I'm getting along fine and I expect to be back home in a short time. We had no trouble at all in getting across the water we enjoyed the trip all the way. We had no storm at all. [...] Please ans[wer] soon and write often. Best love & wishes to all. As ever your son,
Harry J. Madsen

Citation: "Madsen, Harry J." Minnesota Public Safety Commission. Gold Star Roll. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota 114.D.4.4F

Christmas Eve Dinner: David Backus At Training Camp

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 25, 2017

In his diary on December 24, 1917, David Backus recounts his Christmas Eve dinner with friends in town. During war time on the front, decadent food was rare and meals beyond the basics were reserved for special occasions, like the holiday season. Backus and other writers in the MNHS archives almost always recount their holiday dinners.


Backus diary page

Monday Dec. 24-17.
Recieved a letter from Ed + two from Mother. No flying, today, peach of a day though a little cloudy. Well Percy Pyne John Young, Corverse, Box, Stuffy + I all walked over Paudy, 3 miles ordered dinner, which we ate at 6 P.M. Some dinner soup, broiled chicken, potatoes, French Fried toast jam, [...] custard, [...] red wine + champagne. Home two rolled in.

Citation: David Backus Collection. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. 123.D.10.6F

"Italians Drive Teuton Army" and "Enemy Masses Starve" - The Daily People's Press. December 23, 1917

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 23, 2017

The Spectacle of Dazzle Camouflage

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 22, 2017

During World War I, dazzle camouflage was used on military vessels to obscure them from U-boats. Though dazzle camouflage seems counter-intuative, ships were difficult to hide in the open ocean given changes in weather and light. This techinique of disruptive camouflage made it difficult to to tell the shape, direction, and speed of a ship, even if its presence could be detected. The technique and patterns were developed by French and British artists. The British and American militaries adopted dazzle because it was inexpensive, effective and boosted troop morale.
This image of the USS Leviathan belonged to William K. Fraser, a Private First Class in the 151st Field Artillary and Minneapolis native. It is unknown whether he was a passenger on this ship or if he ever saw it in person, as this image was available as a postcard.
The USS Leviathan was built as the German passenger liner Vaterland. The Vaterland was in Hoboken, New Jersey when World War I broke out and the ship was seized when the U.S. joined the conflict in April, 1917. The ship was refitted for troop transport service and renamed the USS Leviathan. During repairs in Liverpool, England, the Leviathan was repainted with its dazzle camouflage.


Fraser photo of ship

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Citation: William K. Fraser Diary, 1917-1919, 1944. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul Minnesota. P1943

Bank of Good Fortune

By: Lori Williamson | Item of the Day | December 22, 2017
Christmas card

This Christmas card is in the form of a check drawn from the Bank of Good Fortune. All best to you and yours for this holiday season and the year ahead!  Ca. 1900 - 1909.

Please note that Item of the Day will not be published over the upcoming holidays.

See it in Collections Online.

Women's Overseas Service League: Leila Halverson's Service as a Nurse Abroad

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 21, 2017

The Women's Overseas Service League was an organization formed by women who had served overseas during the First World War. Their records include biographical details about their members.

The biography of Leila Halverson, who left the United States for France in December of 1917 as a nurse for the American Red Cross, is a remarkable resume and notable also for the number of places she worked while abroad. Halverson started in a contagious hospital for refugee children from Belgium and occupied areas of France, and went on to serve in a hospital for allied soldiers (January 1918), as a night supervisor in a Red Cross hospital in Jerusalem (January 1919), as first surgical assitant in Haifa, Syria (April 1919), and finally as the nurse in charge at a Typhus hospital in Poland (July 1919). She returned to the U.S. in December 1919, and was Chief nurse at St. Paul Hospital when she joined W.O.S.L. in 1921.


Women's Overseas document
Women's Overseas document

Citation: "Leila Halverson." Women's Overseas Service League, St. Paul Unit, Records, 1919-1942. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. BH7/.W872

Mrs. Beasley, the talking doll

By: Lori Williamson | Item of the Day | December 21, 2017
Mrs. Beasley

Did you know someone who had a Mrs. Beasley? She was extremely popular between 1966 – 1972, due to the TV show Family Affair. This very doll will be on view in our 1968 exhibit, which opens this Saturday, December 23!

See it in Collections Online.

Tragedies At Training Camp: David Backus's Diary

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 20, 2017

David Backus' diary on December 20, 1917 describes an average day that turns tragic as a comrade crashes his plane and dies instantly. Backus describes arriving at the scene of the crash, straight into the ground at full speed just 900 feet away from him and other airmen. He recalls rushing to the site of the crash to find that the pilot, Lt. Paul, had died instantly, and describes as he and the other airmen pulled him from the wreckage. This tragic incident sheds light on the very real dangers soldiers faced, even in a training environment. However, business must continue as usual and later in the day Backus records four "Tours de Piste," or laps, in an 18-Metre plane.


Backus diary page
Backus diary page

Thursday Dec. 20-17.
Receved letters from Mother. Some cold, formation 6:30. Trucks over to St. Valentine Field. Well all the 72 of our fellows from Tours got their Active Orders + donned their Officers bars + paraphenelia. We are in 15 Metre Class. Well Lt. Paull, from Phil, just over few weeks, head of our section of 10, took his first + last hop on 15 Metre. Climbed too fast used rudder [ver...] from 120 meters, went into ground with motor full on about 900 feet from us. We ran- I was second man to reach the machine. He was killed instantly forehead severed by cord. We tore what was left of the plane apart trying to get him out. They brought an ax + I chopped iron ports away. We finally got him out, used lower wing for a stretcher. No doctor or ambulance anywhere around as usual. They would not let us fly until after lunch but [...] kept on. Sent over 3 18 Metres, Yong, Sherry, Brad + I had a lot of fun I got 4 long Tours de Piste + drove one machine home.

Citation: David Backus Collection. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. 123.D.10.6F

Readying the tree

By: Lori Williamson | Item of the Day | December 20, 2017
Photo of tree on piano

This photo of a woman happily arranging her tree is from 1954. Does anyone else get the vibe that perhaps this was taken as part of a Halvorson ad campaign? The photographer was Al Heitman, a professional photographer who worked in Minnesota from 1930s – 1970s.

See it in Collections Online.

Some Friendly Competition

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | December 19, 2017

On December 19, 1917 the Omaha Chapter of the American Red Cross extended an invitation by telegram to the St. Paul Chapter to join them in a friendly challenge. The Omaha Chapter reports that only Denver and Dallas have accepted their challenge to secure the most new members compared to population between December 17th and 25th, and extends this challenge to St. Paul. It is unknown if St. Paul accepted this challenge and the opportunity to generate contributions through competition.


Western Union Telegram

Citation: American Red Cross, Northern Division, records, 1915-1921. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. P781