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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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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


It's The Beatles!

By: admin | What's New | April 7, 2008

As we approach summer and the start of the outdoor concert season, we recall one of Minnesota's most memorable outdoor performances. The Beatles staged their second concert tour of the United States in the late summer of 1965. At this peak of Beatlemania, the Beatles played a mixture of outdoor stadiums and indoor arenas and for fans in Minnesota, that date came on August 21, 1965 at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.  The images seen here capture the Beatles' landing and their waiting fans at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, interviews with radio sponsor, WDGY and an ecstatic crowd at the stadium that warm evening.  Taken by newspaper photographers, Sully and Neale, these images are part of the Society's St. Paul Dispatch & Pioneer Press negative collection. This event was also captured on camera pf1269901.jpgby local teen Bill Carlson, and his photographs were recently published in The Beatles! A One-Night Stand in the Heartland

Diane Adams-Graf, Sound and Visual Curator

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Images, top to bottom:

The Beatles arrive at Twin Cities Metropolitan Airport

Fans at Beatles Concert. Metropolitan Stadium

The Beatles Concert at Metropolitan Stadium

1950s Fashion in the MHS Collection

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | April 7, 2008
Curator Linda McShannock explores 1950s fashion through dresses, hats, shoes and accessories in the Minnesota Historical Society's collection.

Fashion was the focus of the first in the Society's popular series of RetroRama programs. The next RetroRama event takes place on May 15, 2008.


Looking Back/Moving Forward: Recent Acquisitions to the Art Collection

By: admin | What's New | April 1, 2008
On view at the James J. Hill House through April 20, 2008

View of Mendota by Seth Eastman
In addition to interpretation and preservation, a primary responsibility of a curator is to build and expand the collection for which he or she is responsible.

This exhibition highlights some of the more notable acquisitions to the art collection over the last five years. The fifty works included here represent only a percentage of the art that has come to the Minnesota Historical Society and an even smaller fraction of the literally thousands of items acquired by the Society each year.

The title, "Looking Back/Moving Forward" refers to the fact that while the Society collects the art of the past (sometimes the very recent past!) it is always with an eye toward the future. Curators continually evaluate the interpretive value of an object for future generations.

It Takes a Whole Lot of Human Feeling by Rose J SmithAt the Society, not only are we charged with telling the story of our past, we also have a duty to tell the story of our present. That is why along with such 19th century masters as Eastman, Volk and Fournier and such modern masters as Wedin, Brown, Havens and Quirt, you’ll also find tomorrow’s masters such as Smith, Griffiths, Lynch and Swiszcz.

We have all heard the expression “every picture tells a story.” At the Minnesota Historical Society--if we’re lucky--our pictures tell many stories. Interpreting art through a historical context provides opportunities not available to other institutions. At the Society, a work of art becomes a portal through which the viewer can discover unique aspects of Minnesota’s history.

As Minnesota commemorates the 150th anniversary of statehood in 2008, we will acknowledge and celebrate those things that distinguish our state. One of Minnesota’s great accomplishments is its long tradition of art making. It is a mark of excellence for which we should be very proud.

Brian Szott, Curator of Art

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Army Nurse Ernestine Koranda

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | March 19, 2008
Army nurse Lieutenant Ernestine Koranda administers an injection.By many measures, the MHS Collections are vast.  You can lose yourself in them, figuratively, or—if you have call to enter collections storage areas—you may indeed become lost.  (Yes, some storage spaces are that big.)  I prefer another measure: the poignancy of one person's life.  In the case of Ernestine Koranda, one learns of the art and profession of nursing, the excitement and toils of wartime duty, and the grief occasioned by a premature death.

Shortly after graduating from Wadena High in 1930, Koranda enrolled at St. Paul's Ancker Hospital School of Nursing.  It's unlikely she anticipated World War II, her Army nurse duties, or her eventual deployment to Papua New Guinea.  She certainly could not have guessed that, as a result, her life would be documented in the MHS Collections.

If nicknames are endearments, then "Ernie" (to her Ancker classmates) and "Carmen" (to some of her fellow Army nurses) was well thought of.  A child during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, nurse Koranda specialized in contagious and children's diseases.  While serving in the Army, Lieutenant Koranda fell in love.  She and fiancé Bob Middleton were to be married over Christmas 1943.  Tragically, Koranda's plane crashed en route to Sydney, Australia, leaving no survivors.  The Army named a hospital ship in her honor—one of a select few so recognized before war's end.Lieutenant Esther Berg escorts Lieutenant Ernestine Koranda's body to St. Paul, Minnesota.

Ms. Koranda's life is documented variously in the MHS Collections.  Her student-nursing yearbook is in the book collection.  Her own image and words, as well as condolence letters, are in a manuscript collection.  In an oral history interview, fellow Ancker student Minna (Moehring) Freiberg remembers Ernestine as "a nice girl" and "a good nurse."  The ship USAHS Ernestine Koranda can be seen in the photograph collection.  Her autographed student-nurse bib (pictured below) and funerary flag are in the three-dimensional collection.  And the St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press's coverage of her returned remains is in the newspaper negative collection and newspaper microfilm collection (photo at right of friend with Koranda's coffin).

The MHS Collections document historical epochs.  They can also illuminate personal experience.  Ideally, they serve both ends, as they do for Ernestine Koranda's nursing career.

Christopher Welter, Government Records Assistant

Autographed corner of Koranda's student nurse bib.

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Fergus Falls State Hospital Papers

By: admin | What's New | March 19, 2008

Fergus Falls State Hospitalward-leave-card.jpg

Originally commissioned in 1885 by the State of Minnesota as the Third State Asylum for the Mentally Ill, the Fergus Falls State Hospital/Regional Treatment Center received its first patients in 1890.  The facility was self-sufficient with its own farm, food service, laundry, workshops and power plant.  The institution served 17 counties in northwestern and west central Minnesota, with the patient census reaching an all-time high of 2,078 in 1937,  The regional treatment center was one of the first multi-purpose campuses, serving those with developmental disabilities, chemical dependency as well as psychiatric illnesses.  For the past two decades patients have been moved to smaller community based facilities, and in 2007 the campus buildings were sold to the City of Fergus Falls

Selected historical records of the Fergus Falls State Hospital/Regional Treatment Center are preserved in the Minnesota State Archives, and with a few exceptions, are available for public use.

Fergus Falls Hospital LaundryFF State Hospital Laundry workers