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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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A book, a bonus, and a good friend

By: admin | What's New | August 3, 2009
History of Wiskonsan, title pageSignature from History of Wiskonsan

Every once in a while the Minnesota Historical Society Library gets in a great book with a little bonus; not only is the text of the book important or interesting but the story of where the book has been is also fascinating. Very few of these back stories get better than the one for a book I picked up at the antiquarian book fair in St. Paul last month.

The book, Donald McLeod’s History of Wiskonsan[sic]: From its First Discovery to the Present Period. Buffalo: 1846, is significant having been published 3 years before Minnesota became a Territory. The volume is quite rare and contains a map that is lacking in many known copies. Its author would later settle in St. Paul, make his living in the book trade, and die here in 1903.

The back story I alluded to is that this particular copy fell into the hands of two miscreants engaged in what would become known as the “Coachman Forgeries.” Eugene “Pinny” Field (son of the respected writer, Eugene Field) and Harry Dayton Sickles attempted, with some success, to increase the value of books they were selling by making them look like they had come from the library of Abraham Lincoln. The scheme was simple enough. In 1931 a story ran in the national news that William P. Brown, Mary Todd Lincoln’s driver during the years after the President’s assassination, was still alive. Field and Sickles got him to autograph period books and maps. Frank Thatcher notarized and attested to the fact that the signature was authentic after which Sickles forged the name of Abraham Lincoln to the items. The resulting book looked as if it had the all important Presidential provenance and the notary’s imprimatur.

Our copy of McLeod has an inscription that reads “This book is from the collection of Abraham Lincoln and was presented to …William P. Brown in 1866 by Mary T. Lincoln.” Like all the “coachman forgeries” it is notarized but in this instance Lincoln’s signature was never forged on the book. It should be stressed that both the seller and the MHS knew the story of these forgeries (documented in the 2001 book Absolutely, Mr. Sickles? Positively, Mr. Field! By William L. Butts) and the price of the book reflected only the interesting story.

The book was purchased with the help of funds given as a memorial to one of the Society’s dearest friends, Floyd Risvold. Floyd was one of the most significant collectors of stamps, manuscripts, books and maps illuminating local and national history. He was a wise friend and mentor to me and his scholarship inspired me. His practicality too; he once told me that if today’s youth collected stamps they would easily be able to pass the state standards for American history. We are the poorer for his passing. As we Irish say, his likes will not be here again.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian

Map from History of Wiskonsan

Maps on Endpapers

By: admin | What's New | July 22, 2009
Mostly Mississippi endpages

Of the many uses of maps, one of our favorites is to decorate the endpapers of books. As the new exhibit in the Library Lobby shows, endpaper maps can be both beautiful and helpful to the reader. Works of fiction and nonfiction use this illuminating and artistic technique to enhance books. Come take a look!

This Library exhibit complements Minnesota on the Map, the exhibit which runs through Labor Day.

Minn of the Mississippi

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Frightening map

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | July 22, 2009

Effect of a 20-megaton bomb

As the curator of the currently showing “Minnesota on the Map” exhibit an elderly gentleman asked me if I could do the entire exhibit again with completely different maps. My immediate response was “I wish,” and then I told him that with another 23,000 maps in our collection to choose from it would be easy to do a sequel. In fact now that the map exhibit has been up for a few months I have been second guessing some of my decisions anyway.

One of the maps I had originally planned to put in the exhibit was a product of the revival of the “Ban the Bomb” movement which flourished briefly during the Reagan administration. It was known as the “Nuclear Freeze Movement.” The Friends for a Non-Violent World collaborated with Northern Sun Alliance [known for their creatively graphic anti-war merchandise] to produce a horrifying map titled “Effects of a 20-Megaton Bomb On the Twin Cities Ground Zero – State Fair Grounds, Detonated at Ground Level.”

Using data from the United States Office of Technological Assessment the maps shows a series of concentric circles overlain on a simple map of the state’s urban core. In few words and plain language they describe what would happen to people, plants and buildings in each zone. Some examples: in the six to eight mile radius “Total causalities;” ten miles, “People in basements survive 15 – 30 minutes;” fifteen to sixteen miles, “Ignition of buildings, grass, leaves, car upholstery.”

I wish I picked this map to be in the exhibit – which is coming down on Labor Day – as it is a perfect example of a strikingly successful use of a map for a political purpose.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian

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Highlights from the Hill Family Collection

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | July 20, 2009
Hill project cataloger Jillian Odland shares some fun and quirky objects, photos and letters she's found while working on the papers of St. Paul railroad baron James J. Hill, his son Louis W. Hill, and other Hill family members.


Picturing Minnesota

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | July 15, 2009
ElevatorsBrown County Fair

This blog has at least one faithful reader. He comments on every entry but insists on privately leaving his criticism off the blog. So in order to protect his anonymity let’s refer to him pseudonymously as TO’S. TO’S noticed that the list was favoring the wordy over the graphic and suggested that the next ten selections have pictures in them. I at least agree that there needs to be more illustrated books on our list of the 150 greatest Minnesota books. So here are two books that no Minnesota library – hell, let’s say no Minnesotan - should be without:

John Szarkowski. The Face of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958.

Bill Holm (essays) and Bob Firth (photography). Landscape of Ghosts. Stillwater, Minnesota: Voyageur Press, 1993.

The unusually accomplished artist/curator/critic Szarkowski began his professional career at the Walker Art Center after his service in World War II. As Minnesota approached its Centennial he was approached to commemorate the anniversary with this photo project. The result was a wondrous success capturing this place – these people - in a moment in time that words alone could never describe. If your heart doesn’t first swell with pride and then break from nostalgia while perusing this book then I’d say, “You’re not from around here are ya?” Szarkowski’s text is surprisingly interesting and, because the images are so compelling, too often over looked. He does an excellent job of summarizing mid-century understanding of the history and geography and geology of the state. He integrates text from postcards to government reports, one of which, a 1956 “Report of the Governor’s Committee on Higher Education” [see page 186] is as timely now as ever. His photos, shown here, are from Red Lake, pre-yuppified Grand Marais, Bloomington, and the Brown County Fair.

Father and Son, Red LakeGrand Marais, MNBloomington, MN

TO’S wisely suggested another book of photographs done 35 years after Szarkowski. Since I wholly agree, and could not say it nearly as well, here is his nomination in his words:

Take a look at Bill Holm and Bob Firth's LANDSCAPE OF GHOSTS (Voyageur Press, 1993) for my candidate for best MN photo book: fine balance of text and image (not "illustrating" but echoing each other); real depth in Holm's writing, with the expected humor and attitude and erudition; delicious color plus a slightly quirky sense of composition and subject matter in Firth's photos that sets them apart from the scenery porn that's common to photo books; crisp design and right size, good in the hand and on the lap; and a bonus in the poems that Holm sprinkles thru the text, a little anthology of MN prairie writers (Bly and Bly, Philip Dacey, Phoebe Hansen, Mark Vinz) and oh yeah, Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers and Willie Yeats to boot. If someone asked me what rural MN or the Midwestern prairie is all about, I'd send him a copy of this. How can you not love a book that starts, "Here is a book full of pictures of stuff nobody wants to look at and of essays on subjects no one  wants to read about"?

I prefer the peopled landscape of Szarkowski but this is not a competition so all I will add is that it is especially gratifying to see some themes and images that overlap in both books and encourage you to look at both works side by side.

Grave yards

Selected James J. Hill Digital Scans Now Available Online

By: admin | What's New | July 15, 2009

James J. Hill letter to Grandmother, 1856

Digital scans of 1,047 selected correspondence, clippings, and reports from the James J. Hill papers are now available on the web. These files, in pdf format, are accessible through an online inventory,  which lists a description of each item and provides a link directly to each digital version.

The digitized material comes from the General Correspondence series and the Northern Pacific Reorganization materials within the James J. Hill papers, and cover topics including the attempted merger of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads between 1893 and 1905 and the debate among Hill and other financiers over a potential loan to England and France during World War I.

These digital files came to the Minnesota Historical Society along with the Hill Family Collection, and we're pleased to make them available to users.  The original documents can be found in the James J. Hill papers, an inventory of which is also available online.

Jillian Odland, Hill Family Collection Cataloger

The Gun that Wounded John Dillinger

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | July 2, 2009
Gun that shot Dillinger

With all of the excitement over the new John Dillinger movie, Public Enemies, we remember that the notorious gangster spent time in St. Paul. In those days of crime and depression, St. Paul had something of a truce with criminals: so long as the gangsters didn't tear up the city, local authorities would not bother them. The city became a popular place to hide between sprees.

John Dillinger came to the Twin Cities in March 1934 after robbing a bank in Mason City, Iowa. He and his girlfriend, Evelyn "Billie" Frechette, rented a room at the Lincoln Court Apartments in St. Paul. The apartment manager grew suspicious of the couple, and reported them to the FBI. On March 31 two FBI agents, joined by Detective Henry Cummings of the St. Paul Police Department, knocked on the apartment door. Frechette stalled, an accomplice stumbled onto the scene, and a gunfight erupted. Dillinger burst into the hallway with a blazing machine gun and fled down a back stairway, but not before being hit in the leg by Detective Cummings.

Dillinger escaped, but his time was short. The FBI caught up with him in Chicago and killed their most-wanted man in an ambush on July 22. Detective Cummings, a 26-year veteran of the St. Paul force, retired shortly after the Lincoln Court duel. After he died, Cummings's heirs donated his Model 1905 Smith & Wesson Hand-Ejector revolver to the Minnesota Historical Society. This .38 gun is the very weapon Cummings fired at Dillinger on that fateful day. Today it is a vivid link to an exciting - if not terribly proud - chapter of Minnesota history.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

John DillingerEvelyn Frechette

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Flour Power: The Richard Ferrell Collection

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | June 26, 2009
Avid collector and donor Richard Ferrell describes how he got into collecting and the lessons he learned on the way to amassing the Richard Ferrell Flour Milling Industry History Collection, now a part of the Historical Society's collections.


The "Re" Count Bobblehead Doll

By: admin | What's New | June 23, 2009
Doll and Box

The 2008 election cycle was remarkable, distinguished by the historic victory of Barack Obama and significant gains for the Democratic Party in general. As Minnesotans know, one bit of election business remains undecided six months later. Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken continue their contest for Minnesota's vacant U.S. Senate seat.

As usual, the St. Paul Saints baseball team turned a big news story into a winning promotion. At its May 23 game against the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Canaries, the team gave away "Re" Count bobbleheads to the first 2,500 fans. The dolls, dressed like the number-loving Count von Count character of Sesame Street fame, feature a rotating head with two faces. Depending on your political proclivities, you can set the "Re" Count to display either Norm Coleman's or Al Franken's mug.

While the Society collected Franken and Coleman materials during last year's campaign, the "Re" Count is something special. It speaks to the unusually prolonged nature of the Senate race, and to the good humor with which Minnesotans have taken it. And it's one... one clever idea, too, ha ha ha!

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator


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By: admin | Our Favorite Things | June 23, 2009

Munsingwear undershirt

Munsingwear, Minnesota’s giant in underwear production, created knit underwear suitable for the entire family.  Marketing this underwear engaged even the family’s youngest.  Parents were encouraged to dress their children in “perfect fitting, long wearing, non-irritating” union suits.  Children were encouraged to bring their doll to be included in the Munsingwear family; or, in the 1930s, 10 cents would get you two doll undershirts by mail.

Incorporated in 1887 as Northwestern Knitting Company, with a later change in name to Munsingwear, the company produced knit goods in Minneapolis for over 100 years.   This undershirt from the Munsingwear archives looks like an advertising sample but is more likely an example of proper knitwear for dressing a favorite doll and encouraging repeat customers.

Linda McShannock, Objects Curator