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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

Contact at a distance: 3D models of collections

By: admin | What's New | January 5, 2012
There's nothing quite like handling a historic artifact.  Turning over an object in your hands, tracing its shape and testing its weight, you're free to focus on any detail that grabs your interest, from the lace on a debutante's glove to the rust on a blacksmith's tongs.  You can hold it out at arm's length to see how it reflects light at different angles, then pull it in close to examine surface details.  Handling an object offers an immediate sense of how it was used by its owners, and of its function (or lack of function) in everyday life.  Above all, it creates intimacy--a kind of communion between person and thing that can inspire curiosity, empathy, and awe.

Connecting people and things in an intimate way is one of the core duties of history museums.  But for most institutions, letting visitors handle more than a carefully-chosen sliver of their artifact collections isn't practical.  Frequent handling can damage an object in a matter of days.  And even the sturdiest relics are out of reach for would-be handlers who live too far away to visit them.

What, then, can museums do to recreate the miracle of contact at a distance?  To encourage handling without the wear-and-tear?  Digital photographs in online catalogs do a great deal, but they have limits.  Take this picture of a Dakota tobacco pouch, for example.

Beaded leather tobacco pouch

It's a fine image; you can see the intricate seed bead and porcupine quill panels, the water damage to the buckskin shell and even, if you zoom in, the beads trimming the lip of the opening.  But what does the pouch look like when you flip it over?   How deep is the pocket?  What would you see if you could stand it on its end and look inside--that is, if you could treat it like the three-dimensional object it is rather than as a two-dimensional picture?

Thanks to a collaboration between the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota, now you can.

Not too far from MHS, on its Minneapolis campus, the U of M houses a remarkable facility called the Evolutionary Anthropology Laboratory (EAL).  For years, the EAL has been using white light scanning technology to create three-dimensional models of primate bones, allowing anthropology students to conduct up-close research without harming the original specimens.  In 2009, EAL staff used this technology to scan a rare eighteenth century globe acquired by MHS, and in 2011 they returned to capture ten additional artifacts, including a telephone, a toy elephant, a pair of moccasins, a rifle, a knife sheath, a radio, two Civil War-era gowns and the tobacco pouch pictured above.  After several weeks of scanning sessions in the MHS photo lab and post-processing at the EAL, the models were complete.

3D models of each of these objects are now available via Collections Online, a searchable database of MHS artifacts.  Opening a model on your computer is easy and requires no special software--just a standard PDF viewer like Adobe Reader.  Here's what to do.

1.  Click on any of the images above.  The Collections Online record of the object will display in a new tab or window.

2.  Click on the icon that looks like a page from a notebook.  The model should open inside your browser.

3.  Select an option from the 3D Tools menu to move the object in any way you'd like.  Choose from pan, zoom, spin, rotate, fly and walk functions.

From here, you're free to explore the object at your own pace, and with your own motives.  Pan across the knife sheath from end to end.   Zoom into the radio's dial to read its preset stations.  Rotate the gowns for a full appreciation of the silhouette created by Victorian corsets and crinolines.  And take another look at that tobacco pouch.

The seed bead panel on this side, as it turns out, is arranged in a completely different pattern.  Where the first side featured regular diagonal stripes, this pattern is more complex, with triangles and rectangles artfully arranged into a symmetrical grid.  It's an important feature of the object that the original photograph hides, and that 3D artifact handling brings back to life.

-Lizzie Ehrenhalt, Collections Assistant

Governor Swift's 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation

By: admin | What's New | November 14, 2011

Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1863

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. Quick, what first jumps to mind? Airport congestion? Turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie? Football? Doorbuster sales at department stores? These are Thanksgiving hallmarks to many of us. But when did Thanksgiving become a national holiday? The Pilgrims’ celebration at Plymouth Plantation in 1621 may well come to mind, but that predates nationhood.

The first official national Thanksgiving occurred during one of the United States’ darkest chapters: the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln—persuaded by a renowned female editor—did “invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States . . . to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next [i.e., 1863] as a day of thanksgiving and prayer to our beneficent Father . . . .” In a noteworthy coincidence of timing, America’s first official observance occurred exactly seven days after Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address.

Prior to 1863, it was at a state’s discretion when (or whether) there was a day of Thanksgiving. The Minnesota Historical Society has several such proclamations as part of its gubernatorial collections. Now, the MHS has acquired Governor Henry A. Swift’s 1863 proclamation, which follows suit with Lincoln’s. In it, Swift highlights contemporary events—the Civil War, the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, immigration, drought — in language that, to the modern reader, may seem occasionally brusque or even insensitive. Informed by a prevalent perspective in 1863, Swift’s proclamation now serves as documentary evidence to that perspective yet remains available for ongoing interpretation and analysis.

Christopher Welter, Collections Assistant

When the Welfare of the Traveler Came First

By: admin | What's New | November 2, 2011
Conoco Touraide, 1936Conoco Map of Glacier National Park

Remember when auto travel was romantic? Neither do we; so it was nice last month when a donor walked into the library with a reminder. Glenn Jaglowski brought us a pamphlet prepared by the Conoco Company in 1936 especially for his father, Alexander. The Jaglowski family lived in Hibbing, Minnesota and wanted to take a car camping trip to Glacier and Yellowstone Parks. Having a membership in the Conoco Travel Club allowed the Jaglowskis to request Conoco’s Travel Bureau to create a “Touraide,” an itinerary that included every piece of information they would need along the way. This included maps with highlighted routes, mileage charts, accommodations, narrative and photographic descriptions of the states the Jaglowskis would be traveling through, and perhaps most importantly, the locations of the Conoco gas stations along the way. Rubber stamped updates were added to the maps to warn the family that, for example, certain mountain passes are usually open by May 15th but it would be wise to call ahead and check. Fabulously, the donated Touraide included the triangular car window sticker identifying the Jaglowskis as Conoco Travel Club members. I have no doubt that they received an extra big smile from the gas station attendant while their gas was being pumped for them.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian

Northeastern Minnesota InformationConoco Travel Club Sticker

Beyond Fitz, Red, and Ole: Minnesota Literature in the 1920’s

By: admin | What's New | September 16, 2011
The Twenties were a very rich decade for local writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair (Red) Lewis, and O. E. Rolvaag all published a novel in 1920 and continued to do so throughout the decade. While the three of them remain in the cannon to this day, the Minnesota Historical Society has identified more than one hundred other novels by other Minnesota writers that received just as much attention at the time. These other writers and novels were widely reviewed and widely read when they were published. Predicting which books would still be in print and read 80 years after they were published would have been impossible.

Come see a selection of these beautiful, interesting books on display in the Library Lobby of the Minnesota Historical Society. The Library is free and open to the public. These will be on display until mid-November.

1876 Northfield Bank Robbery Goes Digital

By: admin | What's New | August 30, 2011


Seven minutes: that’s how long it took for the James-Younger gang’s Northfield bank robbery to fail utterly.  Since September 7, 1876, the foiled raid has been discussed and disputed repeatedly.  The Minnesota Historical Society maintains a significant cache of material—from first-person testimonies and reminiscences to government records—documenting the attempted robbery and its aftereffects.  Now, much of this material has been digitized and is accessible via the Web.

Cole Younger's account of the Northfield bank robbery, [1897], page 1 of 18.

One interesting item is Cole Younger’s first written account of the robbery, penned to aid in his subsequent parole effort.  Other items include southern Minnesota residents’ recollections and impressions of the gang, both before the event and after.  One woman, for instance, recalls how as a six-year-old she and her family observed the gang spend the night prior to the attempted robbery in a rural school outside of Red Wing—and includes a map of the farmstead and school.

“An Incident in the Career of the James Brothers,” as told to Mrs. Herbert W. Meyer, circa 1962, page 2 of 2.

Most of the material comes from official state records, which derive from the criminal trial, prison terms, and paroles/pardons of the Younger brothers.  The materials on whole have significant research value, but some items are of singular interest.  For instance, on January 8, 1902, Miss Alix J. Mueller wrote Governor Van Sant “a woman’s prayer for mercy to one whom she loves.”  Miss Mueller had met Cole’s younger brother Jim at the Stillwater State Prison about 1896, and a romance and engagement ensued.  Though Jim was paroled in 1901, he was precluded from entering into legally binding contracts—including marriage.  Miss Mueller entreated the governor’s assistance, yet her very words foretold the end: “For he is sorely stricken, and I am an invalid.”  No pardon being granted, Jim Younger committed suicide nine months later in St. Paul, and Alix Mueller died of tuberculosis about a year and a half later.  Partly as a result of his brother’s fate, Cole Younger was granted a conditional pardon in 1903.

Alix J. Mueller (St. Paul) to Governor Van Sant, January 8, 1902, pages 1 and 3 of 3.Alix Mueller Photo

There are other novel items as well.  Upon being released from prison, Jim and Cole Younger had to submit monthly parole reports.  These reports essentially acted as employment records, and the current employer was obliged to vouch for the report’s accuracy.  Coincidentally, one of these reports links Minnesota’s most famous bank robbery—the Northfield raid—to perhaps its most infamous crime era—the gangland 1930s.  In April 1902, Cole was working for St. Paul Police Chief John J. O’Connor, watching his homestead and laborers.  O’Connor had provided safe haven for criminals in St. Paul during his tenure, as long as they didn’t perpetrate their crimes within city limits. Though O’Connor retired in 1920, his system persisted, ultimately proving an inducement to the likes of John Dillinger and the Barker-Karpis gang.

Monthly parole report, [April 21, 1902].Cole Younger pardon certificate, 1903, front.

Digitization of this material was made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008.  Here follows the list of collections that contain digitized material about the attempted Northfield bank robbery:

Christopher Welter, Collections Assistant

Learn More:

"Spirit of St. Louis" liqueur decanter

By: admin | What's New | August 1, 2011
History's milestones are commemorated in the most unusual ways. Charles Lindbergh's 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean is a prime example. Seemingly, no sooner had Lindy touched down at Le Bourget Airport than vendors were selling coins, pins, photos, models, and jewelry - along with anything else you can possibly imagine - to mark the historic flight. There are more than 250 of these souvenirs in the Minnesota Historical Society's collection.

The most recent addition came to us earlier this summer. This ceramic crème de menthe decanter is in the form of a surprisingly detailed model of the Spirit of St. Louis. It was the third in a series commemorating "Famous Firsts" in aviation. (Other decanters included Wiley Post's Winnie Mae, and the Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport plane.) Produced 45 years after the flight, the bottle speaks to the lasting significance of - and popular interest in - Lindbergh's feat.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

Come See It - Civil War Display in Library Lobby

By: admin | What's New | May 2, 2011
The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first unit from any state pledged to fight for the Uni1st Minnesota Civil War drumon. As part of the Army of the Potomac, the 1st took part in many significant battles and campaigns including Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, and Gettysburg.The Battle of Gettysburg was the 1st Minnesota's finest hour, where it made a heroic charge that helped secure the Union victory. The regiment suffered heavy losses as a result.

Currently on display in the Library Lobby is a small sample of the Minnesota Historical Society's objects, letters, and diaries carried through the war by members of this storied regiment. Also on display are some regimental histories from the Collection.

This small exhibit is just the tip of the iceberg; stop by to learn more about the resources available relating to the Civil War.

The exhibit is open during Library Hours until Labor Day.

Sword and Scabbard

Charles W. Holman Collection Returns to Minnesota

By: admin | What's New | April 15, 2011
Holman Flight Certificate

The MHS is pleased to announce the acquisition of a collection of papers and memorabilia of Charles W. "Speed" Holman, famed aviator, first chief pilot of Northwest Airlines, and namesake of St. Paul's downtown airport. Highlights of the collection include three licenses (1927-1928) signed by Orville Wright, a 1926 license to carry air mail for the United States Post Office, and Holman's personal flight logbook covering his flights from December 5, 1929, to May 17, 1931. On that date Holman flew to Omaha, Nebraska, where he died in a horrific crash while performing at an air show before 20,000 spectators. Dozens of letters and telegrams document Holman's international flights, the New York to Spokane air race that ensured his place in aviation history, and expressions of sympathy to his widow and Northwest Airways after his death. Famed World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker telegraphed “We grieve with you and Charles family in this hour of loss.” Other "personal" items document the purchase and sale of his Minneapolis home and include a life insurance policy, his 1927 income tax return, and his Northwest Airways business card.

The collection also includes artifacts from Holman's life - a leather box for important documents inscribed with his name, his baby rattle and leather baby shoe spats, a leather wallet, license holders, and empty shell casings from the salute at his funeral, one of the largest held in St. Paul to that time.

The Society was able to acquire this collection with monies from Minnesota's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. The collection will be available for research and viewing after it has been arranged and cataloged. Some of the documents will be digitized and available through the Society's website.

Holman Collection

Minnesota Originals

By: admin | What's New | April 4, 2011

Curator of Art Brian Szott was on a recent episode of the tpt series Minnesota Originals discussing the fabulous art collection. Click on the logo below to watch.

Winter on the Hill

By: admin | What's New | February 28, 2011
Winter on the Hill

Each year, the staff of the James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, presents a display of historic Winter Carnival memorabilia in the Music Room of the house.  The display coincides with the Winter Carnival in St. Paul, and provides a view into the past, highlighting the involvement of the Hill Family in the Carnival and winter sports activities.  The display showcases examples of the breadth and depth of the Society’s collections which includes items representing 125 years of Carnival history.

000_0002Winter on the Hill

The objects in the display date from 1887, the second year of the Winter Carnival, to 1917 when Louis Hill was involved with its revival.  The lap robe and snow shoes belonged to James J. and Mary Hill, respectively.   The objects inside the case are ephemera from Carnivals in 1887, 1888, and 1916, and are a good representation of graphic and advertising styles from those years.  They also document early St. Paul businesses marketing Carnival souvenirs.

Paul Storch, Collections Liaison, Historic Sites and Museums Division

Winter on the HillWinter on the HillWinter on the Hill


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