Collections Up Close

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.

All MNHS Blogs

Subscribe by e-mail:

 Subscribe in a reader

Daguerreotype of St. Anthony Falls

By: admin | What's New | December 8, 2009
Daguerreotype of St. Anthony Falls

The Minnesota Historical Society recently acquired a rare and historic quarter plate daguerreotype of the Falls of St. Anthony in Minnesota Territory, present day Minneapolis. The village of St. Anthony stood on the east side of the river and was a bustling area of settlement and industry by the mid-1850s when John W. Monell created this daguerreotype.

Daguerreotypes were mirror-like, one-of-a-kind photographs that first appeared in 1839 and peaked in popularity by 1856. These extremely fragile images on silvered copper plates were protected behind glass in attractive cases. This view of the waterfall is housed in its original case with a raised imprint on its velvet pad identifying the artist and location.

John W. Monell established his studio in St. Anthony in April 1854. The following year he won first prize at the Territorial Fair for his exhibit case of daguerreotype portraits and views of St. Anthony Falls, Minnehaha Falls, the Suspension Bridge, and other local sites. The view in this daguerreotype shows St. Anthony Falls from Hennepin Island. It is a variant of two similar views in the Society's collections, taken by unidentified daguerreotypists. This perspective is from a position further back and shows a raised conveyance made of lumber, across the foreground.  It is likely a chute used for facilitating the handling of lumber, shingles, and other wood products as they were sent downstream well below the falls.

Funds from the Virginia Moe Endowment for Historic Photographs and Lila Goff Acquisitions Endowment made it possible to make this important purchase. It is a significant addition to the Minnesota Historical Society's nationally-recognized collection of daguerreotypes of St. Anthony Falls and contributes to our earliest photographic history.

Diane Adams-Graf
Sound & Visual Curator
Learn More:

Philadelphia-style Fire Pumper

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | December 3, 2009
Philadelphia Pumper

Visitors to the exhibit Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World may be surprised to see an early 19th Century Pennsylvania fire pumper from the Minnesota Historical Society's collection. Franklin helped to establish the first Philadelphia volunteer fire company in 1735, which became a model for other cities, so the pumper certainly has a rightful place in the exhibit. But how did the pumper get here in the first place?

The answer lies with the Waterous Company of Minnesota. In 1886, Fred and Frank Waterous moved their father's fire engine manufacturing company from Winnipeg to South St. Paul. The company introduced the first fire pump powered by a gasoline engine in 1898. Waterous continues to produce pumps and other firefighting equipment to this day.

Even with its reputation for innovation, Waterous honored the industry's past. The company assembled a collection of historic vehicles and equipment, consisting both of significant Waterous products and more general apparatus. The Philadelphia-style pumper was a part of that assembly, and in 1966 the company transferred ownership of the lot to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Philadelphia-style pumpers, named for the city in which they were introduced, are characterized by "double-decker" configurations. The design allows four rows of firefighters - two on each end - to work the hand-powered pumping mechanism. Our example is a product of the Merrick & Agnew Company of Philadelphia, built around 1835. The pumper served the Friendship Fire Company of Danville, Pennsylvania.

The Benjamin Franklin exhibit gave us the perfect opportunity to put the pumper on display. Our conservators cleaned the wood, polished the brass, replicated missing components, and generally restored some of the luster to this intriguing artifact. We're pleased to be able to share it with the public once again.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

Minnesotans and the Space Program

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | December 2, 2009
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. We commemorate this milestone with a look at some of the Minnesotans who have contributed their talents to NASA over the years, along with some of the space-related objects in the Society’s collection. The space program endures as another legacy of Minnesota’s Greatest Generation.

Hazel Thorson Stoick Stoeckeler: A Retrospective

By: admin | What's New | November 30, 2009
Fish House, Lutsen

During her rich and varied career, Minneapolis-born Hazel Thorson Stoick Stoeckeler (b. 1918) has been an educator, designer, university professor and world traveler. Above all, one profession has remained constant over the last seven decades -- visual artist.

This retrospective exhibit examines the artist's career with over 40 works of art spanning more than 60 years. It begins with work from the Society's collection that date from the late 1930s and continues with prepatory sketches for a mural completed in 1945 for the University of Minnesota. The exhibit concludes with a series of watercolors that document Stoeckeler's trips around the globe. These small, exquisite images are featured in a book titled, "Porthole Views of the World."

Lenders to the exhibit include the Cook County Historical Society, Grand Marais, Minnesota; University of Minnesota Archives and Libraries; Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, University of Minnesota and the artist. This exhibit will be on view until January 17, 2010, at the James J. Hill House.

Tools of the tailoring trade

By: admin | What's New | November 19, 2009
Tailoring tools

Recently, we acquired well-worn tailors' tools used by a custom tailor in Duluth.  C. Paul Nelson emigrated to the U.S. from Sweden with his four daughters in early 1900.  Though tailoring has traditionally been a craft dominated by men, two of Nelson's daughters - Sophie and Hanna worked as "tailoresses."  According to the 1910 census, Sophie, Hanna and their father were working in Duluth.  In 1930 both Sophie and Paul Nelson were still working - Paul as a coat-maker and Sophie as a vest-maker.  In the 1900 Minneapolis City Directory, vest making was a woman's occupation.  Six women listed their occupation as vest-maker.  Often women worked on lighter weight garments or women's tailored clothing in a dressmaking shop rather than a tailor's shop.   In this same city directory, of the 724 tailors listed, 89 were women.

Though cutting and measuring are the hallmark skills of a tailor's art, these pressing tools - a tailor's clapper, tailor's blocks, trouser board, sleeve board and tailoring iron (a 15.5 lb weight) - donated by a member of the Nelson family are essential to giving the wool its proper shape and a crisp finish to the seams of a garment.

Included in this donation is an image of tailors at work in the shop of A. V. Ljungkvist in 1908; see below.  Paul Nelson is seated in a modified tailor-fashion at the far left.

Linda McShannock, Objects Curator

A. V. Ljungkuist tailor shop

How Your Library Book Gets to You

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | November 18, 2009
Patrons of the Society’s library know that it has “closed stacks.” Reference Assistants retrieve your requested books and bring them to you. In this episode, Acquisitions Librarian Patrick Coleman takes us behind the scenes to see where the books are stored, and how they make their way to the reading room.

Veterans Grave Index

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | November 11, 2009
Fort Snelling National Cemetery

Beginning in 1927, Minnesota statutes required that the Adjutant General maintain a permanent registry of the graves of all persons "who served in the military or naval forces of the United States and whose mortal remains rest in Minnesota". In 1943 this duty was transferred to the Commissioner of Veterans Affairs who later enlisted the help of funeral directors who were required to send information on deceased veterans to the Department of Veterans Affairs. By 1969 the program had become quite large and expensive and so was officially discontintued, but some 55,000 records of veterans had been compiled. Between 1970 and 1975 several counties and Fort Snelling cemetery continued to add records.

The report forms cover individuals from the Civil War through the Vietnam War who are buried in Minnesota. The information provided incudes: name, date and place of enlistment, rank and organization, date and place of discharge, residence, birth date, date and cause of death, name and address of next of kin, place and location of burial. Some forms also include photographs and clippings relating to the veteran. The collection is indexed on the MHS web site. Photocopies of Veterans Grave Registration records can be ordered through the index.

Hamp Smith, Reference Librarian

Home Grown Smut

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | November 4, 2009
Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang, 1921Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang, 1932

Wilford (Billy) H. Fawcett returned to Minnesota from World War I with a footlocker full of dirty jokes. On a slow night in 1920 while he was working at the Minneapolis Tribune he sorted through the jokes and put them into a pamphlet he titled "Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang" [whiz-bang being the sound shells made during the war]. So our next best Minnesota book is:

Captain Billy's Whiz Bang

The content was loosely organized around Whiz-Bang farm in Robbinsdale, the original Lake Woebegone. Characters included Gus, the hired man; Deacon Callahan, whose daughter, Lizzie's virtue was always being designed upon; and Pedro the bull who rejected unworthy author submissions. The masthead read "explosion of pedigreed bull." The jokes were juvenile, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, and haven't aged well.

The Girl: “You mustn’t come into my dressing room.”

The Man: “Why not? Am I not good enough?”

The Girl: “You might be worse.”

Or “Harold” said the pretty young teacher, “in the sentence ‘I saw the girl climb the fence’ how many i’s would you use?”

“Bofe of ‘em teacher” replied Harold with a grin.

Fawcett found a printer and enlisted his sons to distribute the press run from their wagons to Minneapolis at baseball games, drugstores and local hotels where the consigned blue humor was held under the counter. Word of mouth fueled sales. The magazine went from an initial press run of 5,000 to half a million once Fawcett created a distribution network that revolutionized the industry. Soon the "Whiz-bang" was in newsstands, hotels, and trains, all over the country.

By the end of the decade Fawcett had twelve magazines. "True Confessions" was the first followed by titles like "Screen Play," and "Modern Mechanics" [which was sued by "Popular Mechanics" beginning a seemingly never ending series of lawsuits]. Roscoe Fawcett, Billy's brother, was brought into the business and much of the work during summers was done on Pelican Lake at Fawcett's Breezy Point Lodge.

When Billy divorced his wife Annette, who he referred to in his publications as the "henna-headed heckler," she used his money to purchase a competitor of the "Whiz-bang" called the "Eye-Opener" and moved it to Minnesota. For a period of time Minnesota was the capital of indelicate literature.

The company eventually moved to Greenwich, Connecticut and played perhaps an even more important role in dictating literary taste. Fawcett Publication began Whiz Comics, staring Captain Marvel, and a line of original paperback books under the Gold Medal imprint.

The Company kept the same "Whiz-bang" sensibilities. The Gold Medal Books editor in 1964 stated that they were trying to blend the "shoot 'em up sex novel" with a helping of good literature. When Gold Medal Books editor -in-chief, William Lengel received a scathing review of a manuscript his inclination was to publish it rather than pass on it. One such title was Mandingo a title that sold two million copies in its first five years.

It is hard to understate the impact, for better or worse, Fawcett had on American culture. By the mid 1960's the Fawcett brothers presided over an empire with $75 million and 200,000 million units in annual sales.  CBS bought the company for $50 million in cash in 1977 [$ 160 mil in today's dollars].

The Minnesota Historical Society library has a nearly complete run of "Captain Billy's Whiz-bang" and has microfilmed it for posterity.

Whiz comics

Conserving Minnesota's Battle Flags

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | November 3, 2009
The Minnesota Historical Society recently began a project to conserve several Civil War and Spanish American War battle flags. Doug Bekke, Assistant to the Textile Conservator, explains the painstaking process of examining and treating each of these historic banners.


Preserving Death: Funerary Objects

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | October 19, 2009
We get into the Halloween spirit with a podcast on death-related objects in the Society’s collection. Curator Matt Anderson provides an overview of changing funeral customs, and then shares a look at a casket, a hearse, tombstones, and more.