Our Favorite Things
Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Forget the History Channel. If you want to learn about a particular period in the past, take a look at the objects that were around at the time and lived to tell the tale. Museum artifacts are packed with information about the cultures that produced them, and I don’t just mean mummies and famous paintings. Even a humble boot—one that belonged to a woman who lived in, say, the late 1800s—can tell you a lot about the life and times of its owner. A flimsy upper and high heel would show that she was well off, and, like most wealthy Victorian women, not required to do much walking. Silk laces might point to the availability of imported luxury goods in her local department store. And the mark of a Parisian cobbler would attest to the popularity of French designs during the Gilded Age.
You can learn all this from a single object—so long as it’s in one piece. But what about those objects that don’t survive intact? What can we learn from them? Many artifacts have entered MHS collections over the years in less-than-complete condition. These are the scraps of history: frayed ropes, shards of wood, unraveling threads and twisted bits of metal. They are rescued from disaster scenes and scavenged from battlefields, and their provenance ranges from monumental (the destroyed battleship Merrimac) to mundane (a 1930s sofa). Unlike that hypothetical lady’s boot, with its laces and marks and physical quirks, these odds and ends don’t offer a lot of details for us to analyze. If artifacts speak the truth about history, these fragments whisper it.
Consider the three specimens above, all recovered from the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. An archaeologist might be able to figure out how they were originally made. A scientist might be able to tell you their precise age and chemical composition. But to the average history buff, their cultural context is going to remain a mystery. No matter how much you study that scrap of blanket, it’s not going to teach you anything terribly crucial about the battle of Gettysburg—its causes and aftermath, its function as a turning point in the war and, most importantly, the experiences of the soldiers who fought there.
In the end, fragmentary artifacts are valuable not as evidence of historical facts but as conduits to a material past that is otherwise closed off to us. After all witnesses to an event have died, we lose a link to the fullness of its meaning. In the case of Gettysburg, the death of its last veteran marked a shift in the way we understood the battle, distancing us from personal, embodied memories of the sights and sounds and emotions experienced during the campaign and leaving us with only the abstract statistics of an Important Historical Event.
Artifacts return a piece of Gettysburg’s material reality to us, proving as they do that the battle was fought with pieces of wood and wool and iron that are not so different from the wood and wool and iron we use today. There is an emotional resonance to be gained from restoring what you might call the thing-ness of history. And artifacts, no matter how fragmentary, transmit that thing-ness like nothing else.
One of the most striking objects in the fragments collection is another Civil War relic: the handle of a door in a Confederate prison in Millen, Georgia (above). Exposed nails give it a menacing, weapon-like look; the grip of many hands has lightened its surface. Looking at the handle, it’s hard not to start asking questions. What kind of room did the door open? Was it a cell? How often did prisoners get to go in and out? Before long, you’re imagining yourself into their place and time, your curiosity piqued by a 150 year-old chunk of wood.
Acting Head of Collections and Art Curator Brian Szott was on MPR’s Morning Edition with Cathy Wurzer discussing the Depression era Public Works Art Project, the new exhibit “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” and WPA art in the MHS Collection. These two pieces Brian mentioned as some of his favorites.
I recently came across what is now one of my favorite things in the Collection: a board game entitled “New Frontier.” This witty, politically-inspired game offers a spin on the popular Parker Brothers game MONOPOLY, complete with its own currency (Jack scrip), real estate (including “Humphrey’s Hot-Air Heating Co.” and the “Deficit Finance Co.”), and a GO square (here called the “Seat of Government”, where you “move fawhwad” through the “leadership gap” only by paying $2000 Jack in taxes).
The game was copyrighted in 1962, shortly after President John F. Kennedy took office on January 20, 1961, after winning a close election against Richard Nixon. Kennedy first used the term “New Frontier” during his speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. The term became a slogan representing the campaign and, later, the Kennedy Administration’s goals of eradicating poverty and propelling the space program.
The board game, “The Game Nobody Can Win” is the self-proclaimed “Funniest Political Game of the Century!” and game equipment includes a “Pad of paper to print your own money (There’s not enough Jack in existence to finance New Frontier).” This game speaks for itself—the instructions read, in part: “….An educational exercise for all registered voters…Under the New Frontier business profits are pitilessly taxed away and all players eventually go bankrupt and have their properties socialized…”
Ironic or simply hilarious, this game not only offers commentary on 1960s politics, but illustrates many parallels to current political debates in this presidential election year.
Click to enlarge rules
See the game on Collections Online.
Sondra Reierson, Collections Assistant
[Click above to enlarge cartoon]
One of my favorite things in the Collection is this political cartoon from 1858. I’m sure I don’t get all the points (155 years is a long time and well, one probably just had to be there) but it is a beautiful, large drawing containing many funny details, such as the devil as pied piper, the gin barrel, and the small figure reminding people that they “develop the resources of the state.” This cartoon answers the age-old (okay, actually 155 year old) question – why are we the Gopher state? This very cartoon started it all.
One of the first acts of the first legislature of the new state was to amend the brand new constitution, enabling them to issue credit and loan $5 million (or $ 137,000,000 in today’s dollars) to railroad interests. While some were against this, most people supported the amendment: it passed with 25,023 votes in favor and 6,733 against.
This cartoon is clearly in the nay column. It shows a railroad car full of bond holders being pulled by nine striped rodents with human heads, representing the legislators (many of whom also had a stake in the railroads). The issue of business looking for money never gets old, does it?
The artist is R. O. Sweeny from Saint Paul, and it was originally published as a broadside when the issue was being debated. So, from the messy ordeal of state development we got both the railroads and our nickname. The original drawing of this cartoon is currently on display in the Library Lobby during Library open hours.
Lori Williamson, Acquisitions and Outreach Coordinator
Anyone that knows anything about Prince’s Purple Rain (1984 film) or the First Avenue & 7th Street Entry music club knows that the latter features prominently in the former. Here we find an interesting piece of correspondence documenting the genesis of how these two famous Minnesota institutions became forever linked in the minds of pop culture enthusiasts everywhere. This letter from Purple Rain’s production company to the club’s manager outlines arrangements made for filming to be done at the venue. Among other details, the letter includes an agreement to close First Avenue from “Friday, November 26th to Tuesday, December 20th  for dressing, filming and strike during our filming of ‘Purple Rain’” in return for a $100,000 location and rental fee. The letter can be found among the 22 boxes of First Avenue & 7th Street Entry Band Files and Related Records, 1977-2004, held in the Minnesota Historical Society’s collections. Those interested in viewing the collection may wish to look at its electronic inventory before visiting the MHS Library.
Please click on image of letter below to enlarge it.
The Society holds a number of related items, including concert ephemera and publicity materials such as this Purple Rain movie brochure (below).
Prince’s original Purple Rain costume is also part of the Society’s collection. The costume, like Prince’s music, is a synthesis of various periods and styles. Learn more about the costume at our PunkFunkRockPop webpage. The outfit also can be viewed in the MN150 exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, which is open through the end of December, 2011.
John Knauss, Reference Associate
When Captain William G. LeDuc, of Hastings, Minnesota, reported for duty to the Union Army Quartermaster’s Department in 1862, he brought with him a bit of insurance: a vest made from jointed steel plates. Made by the Atwater Armor Company of New Haven, Connecticut, the vest consisted of eight separate plates connected by slotted rivets and hinges, worn over the shoulders with cotton web straps that fastened at the back. It certainly wasn’t physically comfortable, but it brought some psychological comfort – for a little while, at least.
Steel vests were not standard issue during the Civil War, but were sold by private sutlers that followed the armies on their campaigns. While they were wonderful in theory, the vests had a few drawbacks in practice. First and foremost, they were heavy. Everything the soldier took with him had to be carried on his person. A 10-pound vest – in addition to the required 50 pounds of standard equipment – became a burden very quickly on a long march in the summer sun. Likewise, in the heat of battle a steel vest restricted a soldier’s movement. (LeDuc, as an officer, could have transported his vest by wagon on marches, but that wouldn’t have helped him in battle.)
Second, the vests were of dubious value. They were produced by any number of manufacturers, to various levels of quality. Undoubtedly some of the vests did protect against bullets, but others were shot clean through when exposed to gunfire. There are stories of vests being damaged by bullets, and their resulting jagged edges tearing into wounds, making them worse. There were a few, too, made of “steel” that was nothing more than flimsy tin.
Third, a soldier with an armored vest was liable to be labeled a “shirker” by his comrades, scared to face the enemy. An armored vest might stop a bullet, but it was useless protection against any of the coward’s thousand deaths. (It should be noted that LeDuc’s vest only has plates in the front. Coward or not, any soldier wearing it certainly wasn’t planning on being shot in the back.)
For any or all of these reasons, most Civil War body armor simply was abandoned along the way. Complete, surviving pieces are somewhat rare today, making LeDuc’s vest a particularly special piece in our collection. Not surprisingly, the vest shows little sign of use. LeDuc didn’t need it, in any event. He survived the war (having been promoted to Brigadier General along the way) and returned to Hastings. He served a term as U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture in the Rutherford B. Hayes administration and involved himself in various business concerns – to mixed results. LeDuc passed away at age 94 in 1917.
Hair work jewelry originated in France and England in the 1700’s, evolving from the craft of wig makers. Initially, the jewelry functioned as a mourning memento and was a common funeral gift in the 18th century. Rings, brooches, necklaces, watch fobs, earrings and much more were crafted from the lock of a loved one. In the mid-1800s, the craft found its way to the United States including the growing metropolitan centers of Minnesota. Often, jewelry stores would have an in-house hair weaver while the jeweler would create the gold fittings. As the jewelry became more popular, it was also created at home as a woman’s parlor craft similar to knitting and crochet. In 1867 Mark Campbell, a hairwork distributor with outlets in both Chicago and New York, published the Self-Instructor in the Art of Hairwork, which advertised instructions on how to make hair jewelry of every description. Campbell’s book helped make hair jewelry an accessible craft. With a few home-made tools such as a braiding table with a rotating disc, lead weights, and simple forms such as a rod or pencil, anyone could make hair jewelry. Today, many excellent examples of hair jewelry are preserved in the Minnesota Historical Society’s collections. A few were made from the hair of, or worn by, such well known Minnesotans as Josiah Snelling, Alexander Ramsey, and William Watts Folwell.
The above watch chain is made of brown human hair in a square chain braid and twist chain braid. First, the hair is cut, massed in a bundle, and washed with soda to remove the grease. Groups of hairs are separated to make strands that are attached to metal weights to prevent tangling. The hair strands are then braided in a pattern around a form. This watch chain was probably braided around a wire, tubing, or a pencil. Once braided, the hair was boiled for 10 minutes to set it. After drying and cooling, the form was carefully removed and gold findings were attached.
This brooch is crafted with blonde and brown hair in an open lace braid.
This is a loop and button clasp bracelet made with blonde and brown hair. The blonde buttons and beads were made by rolling scrap paper into a form around which hair is wound.
Laura Marsolek, Collections Intern
The Minnesota Historical Society houses a small but important collection of Richard Bresnahan pottery including these two early teapots. Bresnahan has been artist-in-residence at St. John’s University outside St. Cloud and now operates the largest wood-fired kiln in North America. After apprenticing to Nakazato Takishi Pottery in Japan, Bresnahan returned to Minnesota in 1979 to run the St. Johns pottery program. He is well known for combining sensitivity to nature and a commitment to using local, renewable resources. This is reflected in all his pottery; the clay is gathered from an old abandoned road-bed, the fuel for the wood-fired kilns is collected in a sustainable fashion from the St. John’s grounds or obtained from the waste of local manufactures, and even the glazes are made from local straw, sunflower hulls and quartzite dust.
Bresnahan’s teapots are his signature work. Derived from traditional Japanese shapes and techniques they often have rattan handles made by Minnesota artist Paul Krueger.
A classic shape for both traditional Japanese pottery and Richard Bresnahan, this Double-Gourd teapot features a spiral decoration made of blue slip. The serendipitous nature of a wood fired kiln is seen in the differing coloration on the left side view.
This flat teapot was fired in a kiln configuration called Tagnegashima which reaches 2500° F and gives the pot a soft brown/black color. It also features unusual Silicon Dioxide stone feet and lid handle.
The Minnesota Historical Society also has cups, platters, bowls and jars by Richard Bresnahan in the collection. They will be available for viewing using Search Our Collections soon.
Jason Onerheim, Collections Assistant, Minnesota Historical Society
Today, the “Penguin” golf shirt may be Munsingwear’s most recognized creation, but underwear was the company’s foundation. From 1890-1980, Munsingwear produced innovative undergarments, including the union suit and silk plated wool, for men, women, and children.
The Hollywood Vassarette division, established in 1958, specialized in women’s fashionable coordinated undergarments. This colorful sales promotion kit represents Munsingwear’s commitment to producing undergarments to complement a season’s trends and to create a desired silhouette. The 1964 sales promotion kit folder contains four full-color advertisements, a full-color foldout with merchandise display suggestions, and an illustrated booklet, “A Re-cap of Our Fashion Notebook for Spring-Summer, 1964”, describing the current trends.
Sales Promotion Kit: Hollywood Vassarette, 1963. Munsingwear, Inc. Records. Minnesota Historical Society.
An online inventory for the Munsingwear collection is available at http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00206.xml
Sehri Strom, Collections Assistant
One of the first times in my career that I asked myself A) do I really get to do this for a living? and B) will I get my butt fired for buying this? was when I purchased a Bob Dylan manuscript. The item in question was Dylan’s lyrics to “Temporary Like Achilles.” Dylan recorded perhaps his best work ever on the double album Blonde on Blonde and when he was finished he handed his manuscripts, including this one, to the Nashville studio engineer Charley Bragg. Bragg later auctioned off the work through a London house and the Historical Society picked up “TLA” from a rare book dealer in Hollywood, CA in 1988. A thing of beauty, isn’t it? (Click to enlarge.)
Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian