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collections up close Blog

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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What's New

New Library Exhibit - From the Closet to the Altar: a Modern History of LGBTQ Communities in Minnesota

By: admin | What's New | May 14, 2014
Come to the MNHS library lobby during library open hours and take a walk through the recent history of LGBTQ politics, activism, and controversy in Minnesota.

The idea for the From the Closet to the Altar exhibit was in part prompted by a recent acquisition of organizational records from Project 515. Project 515 has the unique standing as being probably one of the only organizations in Minnesota pleased to be closing their doors in 2014. Their mission, “to achieve equal rights for same sex couples under the law”, was accomplished on May 14, 2013 when Governor Mark Dayton signed HF 1054 into law. This law changed the definition of civil marriage from “between a man and a women” to “between two persons”, while striking language designating lawful marriage as “only between two persons of the opposite sex”.  Minnesotans have a range of thoughts regarding same-sex relationships, love, and marriage but the fact remains that our state has a long and colorful history surrounding our LGBTQ populace.

While some of the content in this exhibit may be disturbing to modern viewers, the Society is proud to showcase materials from our collections reflecting the varied and sometimes contentious history of LGBTQ communities and interested parties in Minnesota.

The exhibit will be on view until July 7, 2014.

Shelby Edwards, Assistant Manuscript Curator

Legacy Research Fellowship Announcement

By: admin | What's New | April 25, 2014
Awards were recently granted to several scholars to support research on Minnesota history conducted in the Minnesota Historical Society’s Gale Family Library. We are very pleased to share the winners of these grants and what they will be working on with you. All recipients will write MNopedia articles and several hope to produce Minnesota History articles as well.

William Millikan's project is Financing the Development of Minnesota with Indian Lands.  As Rhoda Gilman said in her letter of recommendation: "…his proposed work on the use of public land acquired through Indian treaties to underwrite financial instruments that could be used by entrepreneurs to develop private industrial, transportation, and mining empires has the potential to have not only regional and national significance, but possibly international as well.”

Ellen Manovich is a graduate student in history at the University of Minnesota researching the history of four Minneapolis neighborhoods surrounding the University of Minnesota. The committee was pleased to recommend funding some urban history, since Minneapolis is especially lacking when it comes to good histories.

Bruce White will compile an annotated bibliography of primary sources on 19th-century MN politician Henry Rice, looking toward writing a biography of Rice once those are in hand.  Rice was very influential in Minnesota and regional politics and in Indian affairs, but unlike Ramsey and Sibley he left only a small collection of papers.

Andrea Klein Bergman is a social scientist who has studied vulnerable populations, including immigrant refugees. She has done oral histories with the Bhutanese community in Minnesota and here proposes "a case study of the socio-cultural integration of Tibetan Americans in Minnesota," with a view to recommend changes in service to Tibetan immigrants to help them participate fully in Minnesota society.

Lois Glewwe will continue her research on the life of Dakota missionary Jane Smith Williamson, sister of Thomas Williamson, who founded the mission to the Dakota at Lac qui Parle.  In addition to Williamson’s personal story, Glewwe will investigate the mission school and their relationship with government schools for Native children.

Therese Cain brings training in political science and nonprofit management to her proposal to study why a single county in rural western Minnesota has voted Democratic in national elections since 1932, while all the surrounding counties have voted Republican.  Why is Swift County Blue? is the first stage of a project that Cain and her fellow researcher, anthropologist Sharon Doherty, have planned for a book.

Retired law professor Howard Vogel, a contributor to the award-winning book Mni Sota Makoce: Minnesota is a Dakota Place and a student of religion as well as law, will study Stephen R. Riggs's role in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Recently Vogel brought his work on Restorative Justice to the question of the US-Dakota War of 1862 and its results for the Dakota people. Looking at Riggs's role in that treaty is part of a larger project to understand how Christian missionaries understood their role of proselytizing the Dakota.

New Library Exhibit - Native American Beadwork in the MNHS’ Collections

By: admin | What's New | March 13, 2014
Come see the new Library Lobby exhibit on Native America beadwork, open the same hours as the Library.

Minnesota Historical Society is the repository for approximately 9,000 ethnographic objects of Native American origin. These objects include everything from basketry and ceramics to clothing and pipes, and span two and a half centuries. Perhaps 1,000 of those objects are embellished with beads; necklaces, leggings, sashes, shirts, pipe bags, watch fobs, feather bonnets, and things made for sale to the tourist trade are all represented in the Society’s collection, as are objects from every corner of the U.S. and Canada. Due to MNHS’ mission to specifically collect objects that are meaningful to the history of the state of Minnesota, the overwhelming majority of these items come from the immediate area. As a reflection of this regional depth, most of the Native beadwork in our collection falls into either the Plains (for example, Dakota, Lakota, Cheyenne) or Woodland (Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Cree) category.

This small exhibit draws specifically from MNHS’ collection of Native American beadwork. It is organized chronologically, beginning with the vitrine to the left when facing the glass doors to the Gale Family Library, and continuing in a clockwise fashion around the library registration desk. Within this exhibit one can explore pre-contact precursors to indigenous beadwork; different techniques used in beadwork; a glimpse of the wide variety of cultural styles in Native beadwork across the U.S. and Canada; how beaded objects functioned in the changing 19th century Native economy; and the modern resurgence of Native American beadwork.

More information can be found on these objects at Minnesota Historical Society’s collections website:


This exhibit will be on view until the end of April.

Leah Bowe
Collections Associate, NAGPRA

Swee-Tone perfume: what does a gallon of perfume have to do with bootlegging?

By: admin | What's New | February 4, 2014
In the early 1960s Ancker Hospital was located at Jefferson Avenue and Colborne Street in St. Paul. The hospital was preparing to move to a new location and by 1967 the old campus was completely demolished. A local “chunker” or “picker” (antiquer) had a friend working on a demolition crew at the old campus. Behind a false wall in a warehouse building the men discovered a cache of 70 gallon bottles of perfume made by the Nipola Company of St. Paul. This perfume was manufactured in the late 1920s, during the Prohibition Era.

Throughout Prohibition (1920-1933), the United States government distributed denatured grain alcohol for industrial use. Denatured alcohol contained additives making it poisonous, though still useful for commercial purposes. Thousands died as a result of drinking denatured alcohol stolen and resold by bootleggers. Soon, chemists employed by bootleggers began to “renature” the industrial alcohol, redistilling it into drinkable liquor. One product targeted by bootleggers was commercial perfume, which had high alcohol content that could be chemically extracted for use in bootlegged liquor.

Scan from film: Feb 11 1930 St. Paul Pioneer Press front page “Nipola Co. …"

In February, 1930, thirty-one corporations across the country were indicted for illegally diverting 1,000,000 gallons of government alcohol from legitimate commercial uses to bootleggers, in violation of national Prohibition laws. These companies were accused of taking part in a nation-wide syndicate headquartered in Chicago. Among the businesses named in the indictment was Nipola Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, a perfume manufacturer.

Nipola produced a number of scents beginning in 1927, including Swee-Tone, Ramona, and Lucky Lindy (after Charles Lindbergh). Of these perfumes, at least Swee-Tone was distributed nationally. The label on the gallon jug reads: “SWEE-TONE gives a delightful odor, refreshes the premises, and is a deodorizer as well. It is a "Many-Purpose" perfume--a standard, high-grade product.” Whether officers of the company were active in bootlegging or its products were merely being used by bootleggers is unclear. Luckily for Nipola and the other companies named in the indictment, Prohibition was repealed before the case could come to trial.

Be sure to stop by the current Library exhibit Dry Times: Temperance, Prohibition, and Gangsters in Minnesota 1900 - 1933.

Learn More:

Sondra Reierson, Associate 3D Curator

Hear Acquisitions Librarian Patrick Coleman on MPR!

By: admin | What's New | January 10, 2014
If you missed Patrick Coleman's appearance on All Things Considered with Dan Olson, here's the link to the story featuring many treasures of the Collection. Enjoy!


Dan Murphy’s Les Paul Goldtop Guitar

By: admin | What's New | November 20, 2013

“It was really a home spun band with very humble beginnings”.  That’s how former Soul Asylum lead guitarist Dan Murphy described his Minneapolis-based band, which rose to superstardom in 1992 with their hit single “Runaway Train”.  A native of Duluth, Murphy co-founded the group in 1981 with Karl Mueller and Dave Pirner as a trio under the name Loud Fast Rules, playing in garages, at parties, and in local clubs including First Avenue.  With the addition of Pat Morley on drums, the band changed its name to Soul Asylum in 1984 and began recording albums for the independent record label Twin/Tone Records. Grant Young replaced Morley on drums shortly after their debut album, Say What you Will, and for the next nine years the band played hundreds of concerts across the United States and Europe, building a following of fans and climbing the college radio charts.  After releasing a string of tepidly-received albums under the A&M label, the band signed with Columbia Records in 1992 and released Grave Dancers Union to critical and popular acclaim. The album’s success catapulted Soul Asylum to international celebrity and assured their reputation for the next twenty years as one of the world’s most renowned independent rock bands.

Purchased in the mid 1980’s at Benedict’s Music Store in Minneapolis, Murphy used this Gibson Les Paul guitar on every Soul Asylum album, starting with 1988’s Hang Time, until his departure from the band in 2012.  Murphy also logged hundreds of performances on the guitar as a member of Soul Asylum and the supergroup Golden Smog, including appearances at President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural ball, the MTV Music Awards, “Saturday Night Live”, the “David Letterman Show”, and the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno”.  The guitar joins the Society’s extensive holdings of artifacts and manuscript materials which document both the storied legacy of Soul Asylum and Dan Murphy’s celebrated achievements as a Minnesota musician.

Adam Scher, Senior Curator

Photo by Daniel Schwen.

New Library Exhibit - Dry Times: Temperance, Prohibition, and Gangsters in Minnesota, 1900 - 1933

By: admin | What's New | October 15, 2013

In anticipation of the opening November 9 of American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, we put together some material in the Library Lobby to showcase the Minnesota angle and whet visitors' appetite for more!

Minnesota played a major role in Prohibition, the banning of alcohol in the United States from 1920 – 1933 made possible by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.  The Temperance Movement (supporters of making liquor illegal) had been active here since the 1880s, but it was the National Prohibition Act (also known as the Volstead Act) championed by Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead that made the Amendment reality.

Liquor, of course, did not go away, just underground. A brisk illegal trade in alcohol could be found nationwide, but it was to Saint Paul the gangsters would come to either vacation or “let things cool off.” An arrangement with the Saint Paul Police made the city a haven for criminals. As long as bribes were paid and crime was not committed in the city, Saint Paul Police agreed to look the other way. While this made for some interesting visitors, this arrangement did not last long.

Come take a look at these amazing pieces from that time, showing all sides in the great national debate that came to a largely joyous end in 1933.

This exhibit is open the same hours as the Library.

Learn More:

Matthew Marvin's Civil War diary, visualized

By: admin | What's New | October 2, 2013

The diaries kept by Civil War soldiers make for gripping reading.  They're full of the sights and sounds of military life in the 1860s, from routine dress parades and picket duty to dramatic battles like Gettysburg and Antietam.  But while the content of these accounts is priceless, it's sometimes hard for the average person to access.  Soldiers' handwriting is messy; their grammar and spelling are inconsistent; and the words they use are unfamiliar.  Sifting through all of a diary's entries in search of recurring themes can exhaust even the most dedicated reader.

With this in mind, a team of staff in the Collections Department is exploring creative ways to distill and display the content contained within historic manuscripts.  They hope to determine whether data visualization--the practice of transforming data sets into interactive graphs and pictures--can be used to make primary sources more accessible.  Funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, their project will produce three visualizations of a diary written by Matthew Marvin, a farmer from Winona, Minnesota who served in the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry between 1861 and 1864.

The first of the visualizations, created with the web-based presentation tool Prezi, is now available to the public.  For the best viewing experience, be sure to open the Prezi in full-screen mode. To do this, click on the screen enlarger icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the presentation tool bar.  You can move backwards and forwards through the Prezi by clicking on the arrows that appear at bottom-center of this tool bar.

Enjoy the visualization, and be sure to record your observations on the Prezi itself.  The project team welcomes your feedback.

Coya Knutson’s Accordion

By: admin | What's New | September 18, 2013

Cornelia “Coya” Knutson (1912-1996) dreamed of being an opera singer.  After graduating from Concordia College in 1934, the North Dakota native set out for New York City to study piano and voice at the prestigious Julliard School.  Regrettably, an operatic career was not in the cards but Coya would later apply her musical talents to succeed in an unrelated yet equally competitive vocation - politics.    She was helping her husband Andy manage a hotel and cafe in Oklee, Minnesota during the early 1940’s when the political bug bit her.  With accordion in hand she hit the campaign trail, singing her way across the state in a vivacious soprano. Inspired by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Coya became a staunch supporter of agricultural reform and won the hearts and votes of Minnesota’s rural communities.

After serving on the Red Lake County Board and in the Minnesota House of Representatives, the former music teacher and Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate stunned the state’s political establishment in 1954 by beating twelve-year incumbent Harold Hagen for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Coya Knutson was now the first woman from Minnesota elected to Congress, and Washington was soon to become equally astounded by her drive and commitment.   Despite her lack of seniority, Coya won a seat on the coveted House Agriculture Committee, initiated the first federal appropriations for cystic fibrosis research, introduced the first bill for the income tax check-off to fund Presidential election campaigns, and wrote the first federal student loan program.

But Knutson’s prospects for a long career in Congress were derailed in 1958 when husband Andy made a public plea for Coya to quit politics and return to Minnesota.  In a time when a woman’s place was in the home, not in the House of Representatives, Andy’s appeal struck a resonant chord with voters and toppled Coya’s bid for re-election. Coya Knutson never held elected office again, despite comeback attempts in 1960 and 1977, but her determination, dedication to service, and personal charm firmly established her as an iconic figure in Minnesota political history.

Adam Scher, Senior Curator

New Oral History Page Available - Voices of Minnesota

By: admin | What's New | August 20, 2013

The Minnesota Historical Society is pleased to announce that it now has the largest digitally available Oral History collection in the country - and possibly the world!

The collection had previously only been available on tape cassette or as paper transcriptions. Through years of digitization and cataloging Voices of Minnesota is the new online portal to the more than 1,300 Oral History interviews in our collection. You can search for specific oral history interviews through Collections Online or by subject matter on Voices of Minnesota.

Projects available online range from World War II to recent immigrants, politics, art, and much more.

Keep checking back - more Oral History projects and interviews are being added all the time!


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