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Collecting pieces of Minnesota's past for the future

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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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Foley World War II Canteen Set

By: admin | What's New | March 4, 2008
Canteen setThis humble canteen set, issued by the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, actually is a remarkable item. The canteen itself was made by the Vollrath Company of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, but the cup was made by the Foley Manufacturing Company of Minneapolis. The pieces were built to standard military specifications so, even though they were made 340 miles apart, the canteen fits inside the cup just as it should.

Prior to the war, Foley established itself as a successful cookware manufacturer. Its signature product, the Foley Food Mill, was an early hand-cranked version of the modern electric food processor. After Pearl Harbor, Foley joined many other U.S. companies in turning over its production facilities to wartime use. Given Foley's experience with kitchen components, it was only natural that it be selected to produce canteens and mess kits for American soldiers overseas.

The canteen set is a welcome addition to the collection, and it reminds us of the many crucial efforts made on the home front during the struggle of 1941-1945.

Cup handle, reads “U.S. / FOLEY MFG. CO. / 1944″Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

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Selections from the Bishop Whipple Collection of American Indian Art

By: admin | What's New | March 4, 2008
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"Selections from the Bishop Whipple Collection of American Indian Art," on view Feb. 15 - April 13 [PLEASE NOTE: THIS EXHIBIT IS NOW CLOSED.] at the Minnesota History Center, is presented in cooperation with the Science Museum of Minnesota.

The exhibit features examples of traditional quillwork, beaded garments, bandolier bags, as well as a variety of objects and lace produced at mission schools in Minnesota.

To learn more about Bishop Whipple and the exhibit, please visit:

Bishop Whipple Collection of American Indian Art Podcast

Selections from Bishop Whipple Collection Exhibit

or come to the History Center!

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Bishop Whipple Collection of American Indian Art

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | February 20, 2008
Senior Curator Marcia Anderson gives a brief overview of the new exhibit Selections from the Bishop Whipple Collection of American Indian Art, now on view at the Minnesota History Center. This podcast includes biographical information about Bishop Whipple as well as a closer look at a few pieces from his fabulous collection. (6 min. / 3.64 MB)

I-35W Bridge Mile Marker Sign

By: admin | What's New | February 19, 2008
Mile marker sign from I-35W bridge

The Minnesota Historical Society's primary collecting mission is to document people and events from the past. It is rare for us to collect present-day items because, without the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to identify significant objects and events. The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge across the Mississippi River on August 1, 2007, was an important exception.

In the days after the disaster, MHS curators discussed how best to document it in the Society's collection. Steel bridge girders are impressive, but they are difficult to move, exhibit and store, so we opted instead for smaller pieces. Road signs seemed an obvious choice, and a sign clearly connected to the bridge would be better still. The Minnesota Department of Transportation recommended a mile marker sign, and in October the Society took possession of the sign for mile 18.4, which stood on the northbound lane at the time of the collapse.

From a curator's perspective, the sign is an ideal artifact from the tragedy. It is quickly recognizable to viewers, is branded with the I-35W identification shield, and is directly connected to the bridge (the I-35W bridge stood between miles 18.3 and 18.7).  The sign is just one of several pieces the Society has collected from this event, but it will remain one of the most poignent.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

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Albert Colgrave, Artist Soldier

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | February 19, 2008
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One hundred and forty-five years ago, theater and war unexpectedly collided.  Albert Colgrave, a scenic artist for St. Paul theatres, carried his illustration pencils, paints and chalks as a soldier in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.  In April 2006, the Minnesota Historical Society acquired six, singular, carte de visite photographs that show Albert Colgrave as both artist and soldier. In three of the images, the young artist stands with his easel, palette or painted canvas. A fourth image shows the artist in the Federal uniform of the Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. The remaining two images are portraits.  These photographs are an outstanding complement to the Society's sixty-three, original Colgrave drawings (twenty-four of which are fist-hand views drawn during his participation in the U.S.-Dakota War).

Born in England in 1839, Albert Colgrave immigrated with his father and brother to Columbus, Ohio.  When only 18 years old, he moved in with his brother's family in St. Paul, Minnesota. Colgrave applied his artistic skills by painting sets for several local theaters.  An advertisement which he placed in a local newspaper boasted that he was capable of producing  "Banners, Transparencies, Flags, Emblems, Decorations, &c. on short notice for Processions, Parades, &c."

After the United States erupted in civil war, Colgrave joined a group of young men from the printing industry to organize a unit called  "The Young Men's Guard." In July 1862, the unit mustered in as Company G of the Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  Rather than being sent to battle the Confederate army, though, Company G was rushed to St. Peter, Minnesota, to assist in quelling the outbreak of hostilities between government troops and Dakota soldiers. Company G participated in the actions at Birch Coulee, Fort Ridgely and finally, Wood Lake and Camp Release. Following the conclusion of hostilities, they moved on to the Lower Sioux Agency, Mankato and lastly, Fort Snelling.  Colgrave sketched scenic views of the people, camps and battles.  Many of these were made in collaboration with photographer, Adrian Ebell, also a soldier participating in the campaign.  Together, their sketches and photographs formed the basis of engravings illustrating Ebell's 1863 article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, "The Indian Massacres and War of 1862."

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Albert Colgrave did not leave Minnesota when Company G was transferred with the rest of the Sixth Minnesota to the southern theater of war. While on march with his unit, he contracted typhoid fever and, upon reaching Glencoe, Minnesota, died on March 4, 1863.  Colgrave's remains were carried to St. Paul, where a large funeral was held and his body interred, in Oakland Cemetery. 

In 1981, the Society learned of a cache of Colgrave's original drawings held by a local resident. In 2006, these cartes de visite were located in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Society was fortunate to acquire both the drawings and photographs.  Together, the two collections preserve part of Minnesota's social, artistic and military history.  By making them accessible to the public for further research and study, we will enjoy an enhanced understanding of one man's efforts to document one of the most turbulent episodes in Minnesota's history.

The drawings and photographs are available at the History Center Library and online at the Society's Visual Resource Database at http://collections.mnhs.org/visualresources/.  For an in-depth review of Albert Colgrave (from which most of this information was gathered) and Adrian J. Ebell, see Camera and Sketchbook, Witnesses to the Sioux Uprising of 1862, compiled and edited by Alan R. Woolworth and Mary H. Bakeman, Park Genealogical Books, Roseville, MN, 2004.

Diane Adams-Graf, Curator of Sound and Visual Collections

Keeping Warm: Knits and Heaters Preserved at MHS

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | February 5, 2008
 knitted hat, wrist warmers, scarf, mittens, dickey, and stockingsHow do you keep warm in a Minnesota winter when freezing is not just the temperature, but the condition you feel whether indoors in a draft or outdoors in the wind? Common sense, long traditions and modern technology combine to provide us means to keep warm until that long awaited spring weather arrives.

What could be more basic to keeping warm than a hand-knitted accessory? The Society’s collection of hand-knitted items includes great examples of beauty and practicality that date from the mid 19th Century to the present. Minnesota’s knitting history includes examples from Northern European immigrants who expected family members to produce knitted items as part of their everyday duties. Thus, among others, we have examples from skilled knitters who have made Swedish wrist warmers, Latvian mittens, and Norwegian stockings. Our collection of helmet liners, chest warmers and hand-knit stockings remind us that patriotic, charitable knitting warms hearts and protects soldiers.

 insulated seat cushion, vacuum flask, soapstone foot warmer, fuel-operated hand warmer, and electric heaterA younger generation of 21st-Century knitters fuels the popularity of this craft to add their own style. Jayne Cobb, the character from the TV series Firefly, may have worn his ugly hat to honor his mother, but its popularity among fans is just as much about consciously creating the most glaringly offensive color combinations possible. Keeping warm has never been more stylish.

Cozy clothing is only one answer to the problem of keeping warm. Minnesotans have used a number of interesting devices for portable, personal warmth. Soapstone hand and foot warmers were early solutions. Once heated in an oven or in front of a fire, a stone could be wrapped in a mitten or placed in a pocket to provide radiant heat for a half hour. Fuel-operated hand warmers lasted longer – and lit cigarettes to boot – but were bulkier. Modern chemical-reaction hand warmers combine lasting heat with minimal size.

Portable kerosene heaters provided warmth for everyone in the room, but required open flames and liquid fuel. Electric heaters eliminated the fire and fuel, but required a nearby outlet. Seat cushions retailed under names like “Hot Seat” were said to work like magic. In fact there was a bit of illusion involved: the foam pellets inside reflected the user’s body heat rather than producing warmth of their own. Other devices added heat inside the body. What could be better, for example, than a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee on a bitter winter day? The Society’s collection includes an early brass vacuum flask, complete with cork stopper, from 1909, as well as the stainless steel and plastic bottle explorer Ann Bancroft used on her journey across Antarctica in 2000-2001.

The Minnesota Historical Society preserves a number of knitted clothing articles and personal heaters. The items in these photos are some of our favorite warmth-providing and chill-chasing objects from the Society’s collection.

Linda McShannock, Objects Curator

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

Recent Acquisition: WPA Art from Ah-Gwah-Ching

By: admin | What's New | January 29, 2008

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Art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another
land, but part of the present life of all living and creating peoples.
                                                                     Franklin Roosevelt


Late in 2007, the Minnesota Historical Society became the proud steward of a large collection of art from the Works Project Administration (WPA). The WPA (1935 - 1942) was part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program to put unemployed citizens back to work. In Minnesota, this program employed numerous artists crst-paul-small.JPGeating one of the most prolific and exciting periods in the history of art making in the state.



For nearly 70 years, this collection had remained on location at Ah-Gwah-Ching (meaning "out of doors" in Ojibwe), a state-run medical facility in Walker, MN. Originally opened as a tuberculosis hospital in 1907, the institution is scheduled to close early in 2008. The employees of the hospital and residents of Walker have taken great pride in (and great care of) this collection.



Originally commissioned by the federal government--which still claims title to all WPA material--the Historical Society has been identified as a facility best able to preserve, research and interpret the work from this important era. In an agreement with the General Services Administration, MHS will hold this work in perpetuity.

The Ah-Gwah-Ching archive, as it is now called, consists of more the 160 items including prints, watercolors, oils and woodcarvings by such artists as Bob Brown, Henry Bukowski, Reathel Keppen, Dorothea Lau, Alexander Oja and Bennet Swanson. A selection of this archive will be on view at the James J. Hill House beginning in May 2008.





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From top to bottom:
Communications (1936) by Ingrid Edwards
Train Yard (1936) by Sverre Hanssen
Nite in North St. Paul (1941) by Alexander Oja

Brian Szott, Curator of Art

Picturing Fort Snelling

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | January 24, 2008
Brian Szott, Curator of Art, looks at changing views of Fort Snelling seen through artwork and photography of the 19th and 20th Centuries. (6 min. 46 sec. / 17.5 MB)

Additional images of Fort Snelling can be seen in the Visual Resources Database. More about Fort Snelling artist Seth Eastman can be found under History Topics, and at the exhibit page for Seth Eastman: Artist on the Frontier.

Pinn Family Dolls

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | January 16, 2008
The Pinn Family dolls, simple dolls made from common household clothespins, come straight out of the Great Depression and the imagination of a Minnesota designer. Not only do they represent the simplicity and make-do attitude of the era, but they also give us a glimpse of an imagined family growing up in Minnesota. Their names reflect some clever double meanings: father, "Ty Pinn," mother, "Hattie Pinn," daughters, "Beauty Pinn," and "Clo Pinn," son, "Harry Pinn," and "Baby Pinn." This set of dolls was given to a young Wisconsin girl who summered in Forest Lake, Minnesota, and kept them safe in their original boxes. 

Pinn Family dollsThe original Schoenhut Company and its dolls didn't survive the Depression. Reorganized in 1935, the Otto Schoenhut Company of Philadelphia added Emily Myers's Pinn Family dolls to its product line and brought Myers, a Minnesota designer, to Philadelphia to teach employees how to paint the features and accessorize the dolls. In the late 1930s, Myers ended her contract with Schoenhut and manufactured the dolls herself from her home in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. 

Emily T. Myers (1886-1971) produced and sold individual collegiate dolls and Pinn Family dolls by mail order and at the Minnesota State Fair through the 1940s.

Linda McShannock, Objects Curator

WCCO-TV Goes Behind the Scenes at MHS

By: admin | What's New | January 10, 2008
WCCO-TV reporter Jeanette Trompeter recently peeked behind the scenes of the Minnesota Historical Society's History Center. Trompeter interviewed curators Linda McShannock and Matt Anderson about interesting pieces from the Society's collection, including a handgun used to wound John Dillinger, a duster worn by a James-Younger Gang member during the Northfield Raid, and pieces of Munsingwear underwear.

See Trompeter's report here: http://wcco.com/specialreports/minnesota.history.center.2.609055.html

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