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Archive for March, 2009

Preserving Digital Content in the 21st Century

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Bob Horton, Director of Library, Publications & Collections, takes a look at the considerable challenges involved in preserving digital content. While content keeps growing and storage media keep changing, historical organizations struggle to keep up.

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Populist Moment?

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

“If you put a banker, a lawyer and a capitalist in a barrel and roll it down a hill, no matter where it stops there will always be a son-of-a-bitch on top.”    Saying from the Farmer’s Movement

An article in the New York Times this week suggested that, given the bad economy [there I go again], and the pitchfork and torch level of anger to lavish bonuses paid to those who may have been responsible for it, we may be looking at resurgent political populism. If the Times pundits are correct we should hear a variation of the above quote emanating from the halls of congress soon. For further inspiration, I suggest they look to Minnesota history and literature, especially one of Minnesota’s best books…

Edmund Boisgilbert, MD (Ignatius Donnelly) Caesar’s Column: a Story of the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Schulte and Company, 1890.

I know you are familiar with Edward Bellamy’s 1890 utopian novel, Looking Backward. It was a bestseller at a time when the public was hungry to hear that all the social and economic strife would be amicably resolved and a just society would result. An alternative dystopian view came from Minnesota’s voice of the people, Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly was a key figure in the Greenback Party, the Farmer’s Alliance Party, and the People’s Party. In his first novel, Caesar’s Column, he explored what would happen if the combined nineteenth century trends of corruption and concentration of wealth in the hands of a powerful few continued unabated until 1988. In other words, what would happen if his reform movements failed? The populists answer was that this would lead to barbarism and an unprecedented bloody revolution in America.

Two years after its publication Donnelly penned the preamble to the People’s Party platform and it read just like Caesar’s Column. “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes – paupers and millionaires… A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents and is taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.”

Yes, the novel is melodramatic, especially to the modern reader’s ear, but contemporary readers were not bothered by the tone. Word of mouth created a publishing sensation. The first printing of two hundred copies was published under Donnelly’s pseudonym and sold out quickly. By the end of 1890 the book was selling 1,000 copies a week. By the end of the century it had sold almost a quarter of a million copies in the US and twice that many in Europe. Donnelly’s dystopia was as popular as Bellamy’s utopia. Harvard reprinted the book in 1960 and it is still in print today.

Martin Ridge’s biography of this renaissance man of Minnesota, Ignatius Donnelly: Portrait of a Politician, was awarded “Best Book” by the American Historical Association when it was published. The MHS has kept the book in print.

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Delisle globe, 1765 – Quicktime VR

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Take a spin!

The Delisle Globe is a spectacular and important recent addition to our collection and is currently on view in the Minnesota on the Map exhibit.

We can now offer you the chance to move and manipulate this amazing and fragile 1765 French globe yourself in ways one never could in real life. Take your mouse, click and move the globe around. See it from different viewpoints, zoom in and visit the Northwest Passage, Lake Superior, or the mysterious cities in the lower Mississippi Valley.

More on the globe

Let us know what you think!

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Be aware Quicktime is required to view the file and that at 53MB the Quicktime VR file will take time to load before the image can be manipulated.

Evolutionary Anthropology LaboratoryOur thanks for making this possible go to John Soderberg, managing director at the University of Minnesota’s Evolutionary Anthropology Laboratory, and Michele Stillinger.

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Minnesota Prints and Printmakers, 1900 – 1945

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Minnesota Prints and Printmakers, 1900-1945, an exhibition of over 50 prints by 42 artists currently on view at the James J. Hill House, explores an exciting chapter in the history of art making in Minnesota. Reflecting national trends, printmaking in Minnesota before 1945 was dominated by two distinct styles. 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. In his book of the same title, author Bob Crump ably demonstrates that this period in Minnesota’s art history was as lively as it was productive. Minnesota Prints and Printmakers celebrates the genius of the artists working between 1900 and 1945.

Brian Szott, Curator of Art

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USS Minnesota Photograph and Relic

Friday, March 20th, 2009

The Society recently acquired a pair of interesting items associated with the Navy frigate USS Minnesota. The vessel was launched in 1855 and served as flagship of the Union’s Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. The Minnesota is best remembered for her participation in the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, the famed clash between the ironclads Monitor and Virginia.

The acquired items include a photograph of the Minnesota, and a relic made from her hull. The photo, taken around 1898, shows the venerable frigate in her last assignment as an apparent barracks ship with the Massachusetts Naval Militia. The relic is a small fragment of the vessel’s oak hull, with a silver plaque proclaiming its origin. The fragment was made by Thomas Buttler & Company of Boston, the firm that scrapped the ship in 1901.

The photo and relic complement two other pieces already in the Society’s collection: the Minnesota’s wheel and bell. Together, they preserve the memory of the first Navy ship named for the state (er, territory) and a witness to one of the most remarkable naval battles in history.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

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The town that isn’t there

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

If this blog were called “favorite people” mine would hands down be Ignatius Donnelly. Since it is not I’ll  work him in in another way. How ‘bout a map of the town Donnelly planned as the Chicago of the north?

George P. Hopkins

Plan of the city of Nininger, Dakotah County, Minnesota.

Philadelphia: T. Sinclair’s Lith.

The economy was booming in this area before the Panic of 1857 and Minnesota was platted, or laid out, for enough towns to accommodate a population fifteen times the state’s actual numbers! One territorial legislator with a sense of humor, noting the alarming number of proposed towns, offered legislation setting aside 1/3 of Minnesota for agriculture.

Nininger City, near present day Hastings, was typical of the real-estate speculator’s dreams to capitalize on the territorial boom, except that it was Ignatius Donnelly who promoted this particular town as the “Chicago of the North.” Donnelly partnered in this venture with John Nininger, brother-in-law of Alexander Ramsey. Nininger’s wife noted that “two heads were better than one even if one – even if one should be a ‘Sour Kraut’ and the other a ‘Paddy.’” Donnelly promoted the town as far away as Scotland through speeches, a newspaper, and an Emigrant Aid Association. By the summer of 1857 the “city” reached the point of having nearly one hundred houses, a school, an Atheneum, and a modest cultural life, but water was still being brought up from the river by oxen. The fate of Nininger City was hurt when Hastings won the designation of county seat, but its fate was sealed in August of ‘57 when credit tightened [is this starting to sound familiar?] and banks called in their western paper. Speculative ventures like these “paper towns” were hardest hit. The depression also dried up the land grant program for railroads and the proposed Nininger, St. Peter, and Western Railroad, a necessary component to the town’s success, was a casualty.  Donnelly’s nearly realized dream of becoming a millionaire vanished.

My favorite part of this favorite things story occurs early on. The ne’er-do-well John Donnelly almost sabotaged the project, and the economic well being of his little brother Ignatius, by “misbehaving” in while in Nininger. When John returned to Philadelphia he proclaimed to the very people Ignatius was trying to interest in investing in his project that “Hell is a better place than Nininger City.”

For a further list of these pre-panic ghost towns see Brad Oftelie’s carto-bibliography Territorial Plat Maps of Minnesota.

Note: One of the two copies of this map in the MHS collection has a familiar ownership signature written in red on the face of the map. It reads, with a flourish, “A. J. Hill.” Alfred J. Hill was born in London in 1823 and migrated to the U. S. as a 33 year old. Soon after settling in St. Paul Hill served in the Civil War in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. It is his collection that forms the core of our library of over 22,000 Minnesota maps.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian and Map Curator

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An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs