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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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"Motherwort" Quilt

By: admin | What's New | May 20, 2008


Quilting is a $4 billion dollar industry, as reported by the director of the Houston Quilt Festival in a recent newscast. Interest in quilting was revived in the early 1970s along with other forms of handwork. Today quilters in their enthusiasm demonstrate their interest in both traditional and experimental quilting. “Motherwort” is a contemporary quilt by a Minnesota quilter recently added to the permanent collection.It is an abstracted floral image with rich color in the designer’s choice of printed cottons and decorative machine stitching.  

The quilter, Clare Degerness of Moorhead, Minnesota, notes: "I approach quilt making from both a construction background and a life long interest in art. Both aspects of my quilt art are important - original, creative and precise construction. Although I began quilt making with traditional patterns and techniques, my own creativity has stretched to include original designs, non-traditional fabrics, and construction techniques never taught in Home Economics.... My work goes beyond my own space into public places where, hopefully it educates and inspires.” (Quote from Proverbial Challenge website.)

Linda McShannock, Curator

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Pontifications and books 11, 12, and 13

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | May 19, 2008
Pat's Pontification # 1: If you are a Minnesota writer who makes the cover of Time magazine (for your writing, Jesse, for your writing), you have to be on the 150 Best Books list. If Time confers two covers on you, you get two books on the list.time-lewis.jpgtime-lewis-2.jpgtime-garrison.jpg

So let's add three books using this foolproof method of choosing Minnesota's best books.

Sinclair Lewis. Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott. New York: 1920.
Sinclair Lewis. Babbitt. New Yor
k: 1922.
Garrison Keillor. Lake Wobegon Days. New York: 1985.

Lewis is the 600-pound gorilla of Minnesota literature. Try as you might to ignore him, he is going to have to be dealt with. And for good reason! He is still relevant and still a good read, which is not something you can say about most 88-year-old American literature. If you read Lewis in school I would encourage you to reread him. Like Huck Finn, these books change significantly each decade of your life. Main Street was taught as a novel about the small mindedness of small towns but it is, perhaps more importantly, the first feminist novel. Carol asks, in chapter 16, "What is it we want - and need? ... I think perhaps we want a more conscious life. We're tired of drudging and sleeping and dying. We're tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists."

My only difficulty here was whether to list Lewis's canonical works or my favorites. Personally I love Lewis's worst book, Mantrap, where an effete Eastern lawyer goes to the north woods for adventure that ends in a canoe chase through a burning forest. Fabulous! I also love It Can't Happen Here, Lewis's most political novel about fascism coming to America. But then there is Pat's Pontification #2: when Hollywood thinks you are culturally iconic enough to make your Minnesota novel into a film three times, as is the case for Babbitt, your book automatically makes this list.

Just down the road [15.21 miles to be exact] from Gopher Prairie is, of course, Lake Wobegone. With a deft and lighter hand Keillor updates Lewis's cultural criticism and re-presents Minnesota to the world. Touted by Time as the new Mark Twain, I think of Keillor as the new Sinclair Lewis.

Please allow me one more pontification while I'm on a roll. PP#3: When a book spawns published parodies, it is a good indication that the author has struck a significant nerve and the book should be considered for the Best 150 list. Come into the MHS library and read parodies of all three of these titles. They are Ptomaine Street; The Triumph of the Nut, a 1923 book containing a parody of Babbitt; and Fascist Home Companion.


Northern Exposure

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | May 12, 2008

Last Friday evening WTIP  in Grand Marais, Minnesota interviewed me about the Best 150 Minnesota Books blog. It was great fun and made me long for a visit north. Two things came up in the interview that might be worth mentioning. First, they asked me about the wiki that I started, to identify fictitious Minnesota towns and the real towns on which they are based. If you are interested in Minnesota fiction this may amuse you, but more importantly I need your help identifying these Minnesota places. Second, host Ann Possis claimed that Canoeing with the Cree by Eric Sevareid was her favorite book. How can you not love a woman who appreciates such a guys-growing-up-on-an-outdoor-adventure book? Thanks Ann.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian

RetroRama - A Celebration of '50s Suburbia

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | May 12, 2008
Although RetroRama is over, you can still appreciate our trip into the basement at the History Center to examine and pull items from the MHS Collection that speak to the culture and fashion of the 1950s. We documented what we found and thought we’d share it with you…enjoy!


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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