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

World War II Sweetheart Jewelry

By: admin | What's New | June 4, 2009

The Minnesota's Greatest Generation exhibit prompted a number of new acquisitions to the collection. Among the most recent is a pair of bracelets made by Duluth native Ralph "Lefty" Brodin in 1943, while he was stationed in North Africa.

Manufactured and handmade jewelry pieces were popular mementos during both World Wars. For girlfriends, fiancées, wives, and mothers back home, these items provided tangible reminders of loved ones overseas. For soldiers, making the jewelry offered a way to pass the time and keep their minds occupied. Brodin crafted his two bracelets from aluminum, and carefully inscribed decorative borders and designs on them. He sent one to his wife, Ethel, and the other to his mother, Lena.

Sometime after making the bracelets, Ralph Brodin was transferred to Europe and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He survived the war and returned home to Duluth to raise three sons with Ethel. Though he never spoke much about his time overseas, Brodin's family preserved the bracelets and, in doing so, saved a small piece of his wartime experience.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

In Search of Lorenzo Lawrence

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | May 26, 2009
In Search of Lorenzo Lawrence is a story about identity lost and found. Dr. Elden Lawrence (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota) is a Dakota scholar and writer. For the past several years, Elden has been doing research in the MHS collections, trying to find out more about his ancestor Lorenzo Lawrence, who played a key role in the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. Lorenzo Lawrence is an enigmatic and controversial figure. Well-known in the 1860s, by the late 1880s he disappears into the mists of time. Elden is slowly piecing together the puzzle of Lorenzo's life. His biggest thrill came in September 2008 when, through a chance meeting with a stranger, he found a photograph of Lorenzo Lawrence.   Directed and produced by Ellen Miller and John Fulton.


Woods, Words, and Art

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

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

In 1950 the Japanese created the title of Ningen Kokuhō or Living National Treasure for select artists who are both masters of their craft and keepers of an important aspect of their culture. As a local wood engraver and fine press printer,  Gaylord Schanilec is such a living treasure.

The Minnesota Historical Society Library recently purchased the deluxe edition (one of 26 copies) of Schanilec's latest work -  the complicated, beautiful and unusual book Sylvæ. The book combines Schanilec's artistic and printing prowess with Ben Verhoeven's research and printing help to document twenty four varieties of trees on Schanilec's 20 acres near Stockholm, Wisconsin. The book was acquired with the generous support of C. A. Weyerhaeuser Funds. The book, along with a selection of wood prints, plates, and tools used to create it, are all on display in the Library Lobby now through the end of July.

Cameron Booth?

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

Cameron Booth

Portrait of a Soldier, 1918

Oil on board

In 2008, the Historical Society was the grateful recipient of a generous gift from Eva and Michelle Terrell, Portrait of a Soldier, by Cameron Booth. An extraordinary early painting by one of Minnesota’s best known 20th century artists, this oil sketch portrays a somewhat gaunt, uniformed soldier with a piercing gaze. It is signed with somber formality “George Cameron Booth, A.E.F. (American Expeditionary Force) France, 1918.”

Cameron Booth was born in Pennsylvania in 1892 and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1912 to 1917. Following his service in World War I, Booth accepted a teaching position in 1921 at the Minneapolis School of Art and made Minnesota his permanent home. Throughout his lengthy career he exhibited widely and received recognition for his artistic ability and teaching experience.

But, is this painting a portrait of an anonymous soldier, or a portrait of the artist himself?

We do know that Booth was indeed in France in 1918. The formality of the signature reads more like a title (or an epitaph) and the description on Booth’s draft registration card (bald, blue eyes) matches the person in the painting. But the painting’s history after its creation is mostly unknown. Before arriving to Minnesota, it was in a private collection in California and misidentified as a portrait of another Minnesota artist Adolf Dehn. The painting has been shown to a number of people who knew Booth in his later years but the results have been inconclusive.

The earliest image of Booth in the Minnesota Historical Society’s photograph collection is from the late 1930s—nearly twenty years after the portrait was painted. Similarities between the portrait and the photograph certainly exist but until a picture of Booth from the same time period is located, the work will be identified simply as Portrait of a Soldier.

This recent acquisition is the 55th painting by Cameron Booth in our fine art collection of more the 6,000 works of art. Many thanks to Eva and Michelle Terrell for this gift to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Brian Szott, Curator of Art

A Working Class Poet Is Something to Be

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | May 15, 2009

First I'll begin with an apology to the faithful readers of this blog. It has been too long between entries and I promise that will not happen again. There was an unusual confluence of good news leading me to rest on my laurels and bad news resulting in a furlough here at the MHS. [Op-ed: Please feel free to contact your elected officials to lobby for the resources necessary to maintain the high quality of the Historical Society.]

We also apologize for missing National Poetry Month and will make up for that by nominating an extraordinary work that qualifies for our canon; for anyone's canon.

Thomas McGrath. Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1962.

Born in North Dakota in 1916, McGrath became our Walt Whitman with the publication of his "pseudo-autobiography," Letters. McGrath was a working class, radical, political poet, which usually damns one to obscurity, and this may explain why his work is not better known. But most critics agree that McGrath's politics do not interfere with his art and in fact his experience as a farm boy, logger, rider of rails, shipyard welder, labor organizer, and soldier (as well as Rhodes Scholar) provide him with the raw material to write work that is as historic as it is insightful. The work is sensual, lusty, and manly (just in case you, dear male reader, might be poetry adverse). "Love and hunger!-that is my whole story" is a line from the book. Nature also plays an important part in McGrath's poetry as it did in his life.

Sometimes at evening with the dusk sifting down through the
And the trees like a smudge on the white hills and the hills
Into the hushed light, into the huge, the looming, holy
Night:--sometimes, then, in the pause and balance
Between dark and day, with the noise of our labor stilled,
And still in ourselves we felt our kinship, our commune
Against the cold.

McGrath would go on to add parts II, III, and, in 1985, part IV to this narrative epic poem. All four parts were published in a definitive text edition by Copper Canyon Press in 1997, seven years after the poet's death in Minneapolis.

To further entice you to read McGrath see the article about him from the New York Times Review of Books.

1955 Ford Customline Sedan

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | May 5, 2009

Three-dimensional objects in the Society's collection come in all shapes and sizes. While most are small enough to display in a glass case, others take up more room. Such is the case with one of my favorites, a 1955 Ford Customline Sedan. The car is one of our most recent acquisitions, and currently is on display in the Minnesota's Greatest Generation exhibit. The Ford has a special use history, having belonged to three generations of a single family. While that story is told in one of our podcasts, in this space I'd like to focus on the car itself.

The Customline series was Ford's mid-line entry. It was fancier than the spartan Mainline, but not as well-equipped as the Fairlane model. Ford built more than 235,000 four door (or "Fordor," to use the company's clever spelling) Customlines in 1955, making it one of the most popular models. The 1955 cars are distinguished by their wrap-around windshields and "egg crate" grilles, as well as their optional seat belts and air conditioners - both Ford firsts that year.

This car is somewhat unique among our objects in being so well-documented, beyond the family's own recollections. The car's serial number, A5PG167947, yields all sorts of information once it is decoded. The "A" identifies the engine as a six-cylinder overhead cam with 101 horsepower. The "5" denotes the model year of 1955. The "P" designates the place of production as the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul. The "G" identifies the body style, while the numerals indicate the car's consecutive unit number. Other codes reveal the car's body type, trim work, and color - "Mountain Green" in this case.

The sedan is equipped with a three-speed "Fordomatic" automatic transmission, an AM radio (added in the early 1970s but of the appropriate vintage), and Ford's "Magic Air" system, which allowed the cabin to heat up and the windows to defrost much faster - certainly handy in Minnesota. While the car does have seat belts, they are after-market add-ons, and not original Ford components. Other custom features installed by the owners include plastic seat covers, a Goldy Gopher window decal, and a loud klaxon affectionately described as an "oogah" horn.

All in all, it's a pretty special piece. The car was built in Minnesota and driven in Minnesota by the same family for three generations. It relates to transportation, manufacturing, and - in the context in which it is displayed now - post-war consumer culture. And did I mention that it has just 42,300 original miles?

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

Learn More:

1955 Ford Sedan: Vehicle for Family History

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | May 4, 2009
Collections Curator Matt Anderson presents the story of a 1955 Ford Sedan MHS acquired for the Minnesota's Greatest Generation exhibit. The car was purchased new, and then driven by three generations of the Bergan-Carr family before arriving in our collection. Oral history, family photos, and film of the St. Paul Ford plant add to the story.

Read more about the car's technical specifications in a separate post under "Our Favorite Things."

Manuscript Sermons by the Right Rev. H. B. Whipple, D.D., LL. D., Bishop of Minnesota

By: admin | What's New | April 22, 2009

The oratory skills of Minnesota's first Episcopal Bishop, Henry Benjamin Whipple, were highly regarded in the U.S. and abroad.  A recent donation gives readers the opportunity to read selected sermons written by Whipple with quill pen and ink.   This volume provides the opportunity to leaf through many pages of Whipple's flowery hand and experience the energizing tone of this man's oratory.

With the acquisition of this volume the Society now holds a fine complement to the official Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota records and the Henry B. Whipple papers.  This custom bound volume contains original manuscript versions of sermons given by Whipple between 1888 and 1889.  It was assembled by him and presented to the Library of the Bishop Seabury Divinity School, Faribault, 1889.  The sermons illustrate church politics as well as illuminate Whipple's historical knowledge, biblical scholarship, and his regard for people of many cultures and national origins.

In this role as Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, Whipple was required to attend annual church conventions across the United States. An avid traveler, Whipple frequented his home state of New York and made regular visits to Washington, D. C., for meetings relating to Indian policies.  After 1862, Henry Whipple gained notoriety as an advocate for American Indians. As an advisor to four presidents over 40 years, Whipple's opinion carried great weight in the eastern states-often more so than in Minnesota.

Marcia Anderson, Senior Curator

Learn More:

The Ramsey Piano

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | April 8, 2009
Cindy Olsen, Acting Site Manager at the Alexander Ramsey House, discusses conservation work recently done to the house’s 1872 Steinway grand piano, and the unusual circumstances involved in the preservation of a musical instrument. Pianist Jeremy Roth accompanies her comments with Bach’s “Prelude in C Major.”


North Shore Prints

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | April 3, 2009
Louis Orr, Duluth c.1920Dewey Albinson, Lake Superior Fish Houses, ca. 1925
This past winter I organized the exhibition Minnesota Prints and Printmakers, 1900-1945 which is on view at the James J. Hill House through the spring and summer of 2009. The exhibition of over 50 prints by 42 artists explores an exciting chapter in the history of art making in Minnesota. This period witnessed a revival of the centuries old etching process followed by the introduction of New Deal era innovations in color lithography and serigraphy. Minnesota Prints and Printmakers celebrates the genius of the artists working between 1900 and 1945.

It was a joy to review many of the society’s collection of more than 800 prints from this time period. One subject that emerged as a favorite were etchings and engravings of Duluth and the North Shore. Just as it does today, the shores of Lake Superior attracted artists in the first half of the 20th century. Included are five of my favorite images that are in the exhibition.

Caleb Winholtz, Fisherman’s Shack, c.1940George Resler, Fisherman at Duluth, 1933-34

Learn More:

Knute Heldner, Duluth Waterfront, c. 1925“Stormy Channel”, William Norman c. 1939