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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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Numbers 8, 9, and 10

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | May 9, 2008


Natural History is destiny. In Minnesota anyway. Hell, if it weren’t for the beaver the only language you could hear around here would be Dakota. The great outdoors and the environment are crucial to our identity as Minnesotans, as many books on the 150 list will eventually attest. We care about our surroundings. We keep phenological journals to remember when the ice went out and when the first foolish robins show up in our back yards and we keep it to ourselves when we find a patch of morels. Fortunately for us, scientists have been describing the flora and fauna of this state for 150 years and surely will never be done. Let’s get started with three of the “best” books in this field.


Thomas S. Roberts. The Birds of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1932. gnawers-res.jpg

C. L. Herrick. Mammals of Minnesota: A Scientific and Popular Account… Minneapolis: Harrison and Smith, State Printers, 1892.

Conway MacMillan. Minnesota Plant Life. Saint Paul: Geological and Natural History Survey, 1899.

In my opening post for this blog I was only slightly joking about Nachtrieb’s The Leeches of Minnesota being one of the 150 best Minnesota books. It is more beautiful than The Mosquitoes of Minnesota by William Owen and not as compelling as Washburn’s The Hymenoptera of Minnesota. Roberts’ two-volume work, however, is the king of these natural histories. See this glowing review of Roberts in the July 1932 issue of “Auk” . The Birds of Minnesota has gorgeous illustrations by Allan Brooks, F. Lee Jaques [of whom we will hear more later], Walter Breckenridge, Walter Alois Weber, and even Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Compulsive collectors will need to own several copies of Birds. There is a signed, limited, ¾ leather edition and several updated editions. Like all of these books, Roberts provides a snapshot in time of the state's environment. It is surprising to see what birds are no longer native to this area for example, or to think about unlisted species that have now come to exploit a Minnesota habitat. Herrick’s early work on mammals is wonderful for its very funky illustrations, although educators today prefer Evan B. Hazard’s 1982 Mammals of Minnesota with its beautiful illustrations by Nan Kane. Finally, MacMillan is one of those books you would have to take if you were banished from the state. You can almost smell the various environments he describes. plant-life-res.jpg

Numbers 6 and 7

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | May 1, 2008

In an effort to mix it up a bit here, I'm going to suggest two of Minnesota's best 150 books that I am betting you have never seen. The books also address one of my very, very few pet peeves. The Twin Cities support a vibrant and creative book arts community. Thanks are due, in large part, to the efforts of Jim Sitter and civic visionaries such as Governor Elmer Andersen and Jay Cowles, who helped create the Minnesota Center for Book Arts twenty-five years ago. My peeve is that too many people believe that the birth of MCBA was the beginning of this important aspect of local culture. In fact, Minnesota has a long and rich history of fine presses making beautiful books.  As is often the case in history, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. We will write, discuss, and list more fine press books in upcoming posts but for now...

Arthur Upson. Octaves in an Oxford Garden. Minneapolis: E. D. Brooks, 1902.

Richard Realf. A Fragment of the Poem Symbolism. Minneapolis: Chemith Press, 1906.

The early Twentieth Century was a time of literary foment in Minnesota. Edmund Brooks and his rare bookstore were at the center of this scene, along with William C. Edgar and his literary magazine "The Bellman." Brooks served as patron for Arthur Upson, who wrote poetry in the morning and cataloged rare books for Brooks in the afternoon. Tragically, Upson died very young [probably a suicide], drowning in Lake Bemidji. Mary Moulton Cheney was also part of this cultural growth spurt. She worked with Upson and decorated his 1904 book, The City. Her Chemith Press book, listed above, is a good example of her exquisite work. Cheney was a designer, a member of the Handicraft Guild, and head of what became the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.  For more on this era I suggest reading the 1945 U of M Press book Of Brooks and Books by Lee Grove.   As a reminder, all of these books and "The Bellman" are available for your perusal in the MHS library.  Shown below are both colophons, which should be one of the first things you look at in a fine press book, as they frequently give details about how and who put the book together. 

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian


Streetcars in St. Paul and Minneapolis

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | April 29, 2008
Matt Anderson, Objects Curator, looks at the history of streetcars in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Trolley-related artifacts, photos and film footage in the Society's collection are featured. (4 min. 41 sec. / 12.2 MB)

Learn more about the Minnesota Historical Society's trolley resources at the streetcars History Topics page. Read about streetcars in the Minnesota's Greatest Generation Share Your Story page. See trolley photos in the Visual Resources Database. Learn about streetcars on the Selby-Lake line at the Right on Lake Street exhibit page. Purchase a copy of Twin Cities by Trolley in the online store.


By: admin | What's New | April 25, 2008


More than an exhibit...more than a's


Join us!

And be sure not to miss our guide to 1950s fashion.

Numbers 3, 4, and 5

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | April 24, 2008

Many years ago I thought I had invented a wonderful little icebreaker. I asked friends, colleagues, and strangers at cocktail parties (ok, they were keggers) this question; "if you were banished forever from Minnesota but had time to grab a book or two, which ones would you take to help you remember the place you love?" (When you come from Irish rebels it is easier to imagine banishment than the more traditional "stranded on a desert island" scenario.) Thinking this would be a good way to begin a discussion of not only books but of what one loves about Minnesota, I was appalled that few people had an answer.

Well, folks, this blog is the place to remedy that. Plus it is always nice to have some time to think about the question rather than being blindsided by some know-it-all snot at a party. Let us know what your favorites are, and if you want to pair them with an alcoholic beverage and a piece of music, knock yourself out.

Three more of Minnesota's 150 best books are:

Edward D. Neil The History of Minnesota; From the Earliest French Explorations to the Present Time. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1858

William Watts Folwell History of Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1921 - 1930.

Theodore C. Blegen Minnesota: A History of the State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963.

It almost seems like a joke that there was a history of the state the year it was born, but it is really not that unusual for contemporaries to write history. Neil, serious about the subtitle's statement "present time," updated the book through five editions adding 338 pages of newly discovered stories and information to the growing appendixes. The added vignettes have wonderful titles such as, "An Effeminate Man" and "A Nose Bitten Off."  Collectors will want to try to acquire the limited, large-paper first edition for their shelves. 

Folwell's work is monumental. The amount of detail is overwhelming. In fact, Professor Norman Moen once told me that I would know more Minnesota History than almost anyone else if I just read the footnotes in this book. Try that; it is totally true! Collectors will want to have the ¾ leather bound limited edition and the 1950's reprint.

Professor Blegen's book seems quite dated now, but it is important for providing a one-volume history that, along with its author, facilitated resurgence in the study of local history. Taken together these three books also provide a case study in historiography.

Exiled? I'll take Folwell, a cup of Pig's Eye Parrant's moonshine, and the fife and drums of Ol' Fort Snelling. Maybe.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian

First Minnesota Light Artillery Letter from the St. Louis Arsenal

By: admin | What's New | April 22, 2008
wm-full-letter.jpgThe Minnesota Historical Society has recently acquired a Civil War letter written on patriotic letter sheets on January 19, 1862, by William G. Christie from the St. Louis Arsenal, where he served as part of the First Minnesota Light Artillery. William G. Christie, son of James C. Christie and Elizabeth Gilchrist, was born December 18, 1830, in Dundee, Scotland. In 1861 he sold his farm in Olmsted County (MN) and enlisted with his brother, Thomas, in the Minnesota Artillery, First Battery of Light Artillery, in which they served until 1865.

The MHS holds the James C. Christie and Family papers. William and Thomas were excellent and prolific writers. The back-and-forth correspondence among the family members creates a wonderful display of details, events, and personalities through almost daily accounts with the First Minnesota Light Artillery. 

In our existing collection of William's correspondence, he wrote to his father, James C. Christie, on January 17 and 18, 1862, mentioning their change in location to the St. Louis Arsenal, guard duty, receiving muskets, living in tents, the buildings, illness and death at the camps, and the operations of making musket balls. Another letter to his brother, Alexander, on the 22nd of January mentions that Thomas is too lazy to write and that he'll do so when the spirit moves him, while William will return all letters written to him. Judging by the surviving collection, the spirit doesn't move Thomas to write until February, and he lets his brother Alexander know that he can't expect a letter for every one written.

In the case of the newly acquired letter written by William on January 19, 1862, we know that he is writing to his brother, most likely Alexander. The following excerpt displays William's astute observations:

"events are taking place so fast here that I am forced as it were to give you some things as it were over again. Well on last Wednesday; we came here: and are doing guard duty in place of some troops: that have been ordered of to Cario[?]: We had fortithree men: on duty last night and the same today. We will soon be relieved from such onerous duty for we will have 500 troops to keep the place. We will stay here until we are fully equipped with our whole accoutrements as Artillerients at Present we have muskets to duty with. There are a great buildings inside the walls There are three or four buildings occupied in storing cartridges and such like things. There is one building and two storied for making cartridges. Boys do the work and their fingers fly pretty nimble each boy will make from eight hundred or one thousand per day...There is a black smith shop in which they have quite a number of fires going. They are making nothing new here they shot and shell are cast in the foundry in the city. Only the repairing of muskets... We have an Irish Winter at Present. Tom will have some funny things to tell you about the seceshers. We have some sixtifive of them here they do police duty and all things of that sort. They are a poor shabby looking set tall light men with a great predominance of legs. They cut ice and Tom was with them in the ice guarding them...I have some sad news to tell you. We had had two deaths in our company within the past week one a german the other an American. The first one of Asthma. The other of the measles there is a great deal of fault as a lack of knowledge among the men or in fact both are the cause of a great deal of the sickness among us. They have not the least idea of the laws of health or Anatomy or phisology you would laugh to hear them talk of being sore in their stomach when in fact it is there heart or rather their windpipe so it goes they eat and drink ale they can..."

close-up-william-letter.jpgAn interesting notation underneath the patriotic saying on the letter: after "No North, No South, No East, No West But Equal and Exact Justice to all," William adds, "And also to the Negro."

He requests stimulating discussion from his brother and comments on his sister Sarah's health and school performance. He mentions that he will no longer write to a woman by the name of Ann again, describes pitching tents in a grove of trees, offering details of the tent's structure and what they did the first night.

William's letter is a welcomed addition to the Christie Family papers; please check out other Christie family letters at and through the Library.

 Molly Tierney, Manuscripts Curator

Numbers 1 and 2

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | April 18, 2008
leisure-class-spine.jpgOk. The hardest part is just getting started. Do I begin at the beginning, with the earliest indispensable Minnesota book? Father Hennepin's books will surely make the list. Or do I attempt the impossible; begin with the least important book on the list and end with a drum role and suggest the ultimate state volume?  Since I'm not ready to pronounce The Leaches of Minnesota less important than The Great Gatsby, let's jump right into the middle of this.

Today is grey and cold. I am in a dark mood so very, very uncharacteristic of the Irish. It does remind me of another ethnic group's stereotype, however, so we will begin our Best Minnesota Books list with two Norwegian-Minnesotans.   

Thorstein Veblen Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. New York: Macmillan Company, 1899.

O[le] E[dvart] Rolvaag Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927.

Veblen's provocative and seminal first book is the only one on our list that is also on the Grolier Club's list of One Hundred Influential American Books Printed before 1900. No one could coin a phrase like Veblen. His term "conspicuous consumption" was perhaps more relevant than ever as McMansions sprung up like dandelions in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. His related concept of "conspicuous waste" plagues us more today than at the time Veblen wrote his treatise. Veblen's beautiful rhetoric reminds me of the late William F. Buckley. The last line of Theory, for example, is: "The advantage of the accredited locutions lies in their reputability; they are reputable because they are cumbrous and out of date, and therefore argue waste of time and exemption from the use and the need of direct and forcible speech." The price of a first edition of this book is beyond most collectors' means. There are nice copies available however; John Kenneth Galbraith wrote the introduction for a 1973 reprint of Theory and several variant editions are currently in print, including one retitled Conspicuous Consumption.

giants-in-the-earth.jpgRolvaag's book was first published in Norwegian under the inexplicably dull title I de Dage or "In Those Days." There is no more powerful description of pioneer life in this region than Giants and no better example of how fiction can enhance historical understanding. I love to phone my non-Minnesota friends - who don't understand the harsh life of the Upper Mid-Westerner - and read the last paragraphs of this beautiful novel. It is worth giving away the ending. Collectors will want to find the beautiful but rare first edition, with the woodcut image of a sod house on the dust jacket. O. E. does the same great job describing the urban immigrant experience in his 1933 The Boat of Longing, which is another "must read."

Check back to see if Boat eventually makes our list of 150 Best Minnesota Books.   

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian

Welcome to the Best Books Blog!

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | April 14, 2008


Anniversaries are always a good excuse for looking back and making lofty pronouncements. The Historical Society, for example, used the occasion of Minnesota's sesquicentennial to proclaim the 150 people, places, and things that are quintessentially ours in the "MN 150" exhibit. Not wishing to be left out, Patrick Coleman, the Society's Acquisition Librarian, will over the course of this sesquicentennial year designate the greatest 150 Minnesota books. He will anoint these books twice a month beginning this month. Coleman is uniquely qualified to pontificate. By our calculations, he has spent 62,400 billable hours thinking about Minnesota books. We will not even mention the countless hours he was unable to leave his work behind and continued to think about Minnesota literature while paddling or skiing through l'étoile du nord. Still, we realize that any such list is subjective and open to other opinions which we strongly encourage. Readers, please feel free to both add to and take issue with Coleman's growing list! 

All works chosen as the 150 Best Minnesota Books will have been published in some recognizable form, and will either be about some aspect of the state or will have been written by a Minnesota author. We define Minnesota authors the same way we do for inclusion into the MHS library collections: the author will either have been born in Minnesota or will have spent enough time here to have been influenced by the culture or to have influenced the culture. For example, Sinclair Lewis did not stop being a Minnesota author when he took a job in New York and become a Minnesota author again when he moved back here. Not coincidently, all of these books are available for your perusal in the library at the MHS. Our hope is that you will be reminded of some old favorites and that you may discover some new books to enrich your understanding of this wonderful state, Minnesota.

Pulchritude*: feminine beauty in Minnesota, 1870 - present

By: admin | What's New | April 14, 2008

toni1.jpgWhile what is deemed beautiful has changed over time, the search for beauty is an ongoing saga. The new display in the Library Lobby features pieces from the collection that illustrate   that desire for perfect hair and makeup including institutions devoted to promoting beauty products.  Minnesota played a pivotal role in the drive to make beauty possible at home, with thriving early home permanent, hair care, and makeup industries in the Twin Cities.

Entrance to the Library is free and open to the public; follow this link for hours.

Images, clockwise: Permanent wave machine, 1937-1941; Toni Spin Curlers, 1954; human hair rat, ca. 1910.

*Pulchritude: physical beauty, comeliness


Golfer and Sportsman

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | April 11, 2008

Golfer and Sportsman magazine was a monthly periodical published and edited by Virginia Safford in Minneapolis, primarily covering the social scene in the western suburbs of Minneapolis but including St. Paul and other parts of the state as well. In the mid-1930s the subscription rate was $1.00 per year or 15 cents per issue; it was worth every penny and more. This misnamed periodical is a terrific resource overflowing with material of interest to a wide range of researchers.

Regular columns appear on topics including fashion, arts and culture, product reviews (named "Hello &Good Buys"), a monthly calendar (entitled "What Shall We Do?"), and a variety of sports. Sports included hockey, basketball, polo, fishing, canoeing, and figure skating--most with great close-up photos of local stars and famous visitors. The "Home of the Month" column features residences of the movers and shakers across the state, replete with photographs and descriptions touting interior design innovations and accompanied by tidbits about the designers and architects.

Other topics with regular coverage included card games, business and Wall Street, travel, book reviews, summer camp advertisements, pets and their owners, and where to stay, dine, drink and dance the night away. Frequent articles or biographies appear by Brenda Ueland and Grace Flandrau. nash-ad-res.jpgThe photographs of young debutantes, beaming brides, and men & women engaging in activities of a "sporty" nature are wonderful portraits of an era.

The advertisements illuminate and illustrate activities including home decorating, where to buy furnishings, and where to get the most fashionable clothes-from hats to suits to shoes. In issues from 1935-36 alone we find a full color advertisement for the Minnesota invented Toastmaster "pop-up" toaster (see below) and advertisements featuring Minneapolis dressmaker Agnes Reed's embroidered suits and dresses. Many ads are personalized like those of local celebs drinking Nash coffee in various settings. Others simply encourage you to eat at the Chinese Restaurant YUEN FALUNG LOW also known as "John's Place", to buy furniture at Wm. A. French Studios, Inc., or fly to exotic places via Northwest Airlines.

The Minnesota Historical Society library holds an incomplete run of Golfer and Sportsman magazine ranging in date from January 1933 - February 1943 and another set from October 1946 - October 1949. Resources such as this gem of social history are rich in advertisements, imagery, and monthly essays that enable us to better contextualize the objects, art, and printed materials already held by or sought for the Society's collections.

Marcia Anderson, Senior Curator