Our Favorite Things
Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
If the words “United States” weren’t printed on it, you might think that this unusual bill came from Canada or Great Britain. But it’s very American, and evidence of a curious chapter in the history of American money. It’s an example of fractional currency, so called because it was issued in denominations (3, 5, 10, 15, 25, and 50 cents) worth less than $1.00. The use of fractional currency dates to the Civil War, when wartime inflation accompanied a sharp decrease in the value of paper money. Panicky citizens hoarded anything they could find containing precious metals, including pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Coins all but disappeared from circulation, making simple cash transactions difficult.
Casting about for a solution to the problem, U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase hit on the idea of pasting postage stamps to pieces of paper. The resulting bills posed no hoarding risk but could be created in various low-value denominations and exchanged for legal tender. The new postal currency proved so popular that the Treasury approved additional issues (this time of better-designed, harder-to-counterfeit bills that were themselves legal tender), and fractional currency was born. The era of the five-cent note lasted until 1876, when Americans were once again willing to part with their nickels and dimes in order to make exact change.
The unfamiliar gentleman on the five-cent bill shown above is Spencer M. Clark, Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau (now the Bureau of Printing and Engraving) from 1862 to 1868. Stories differ as to how Clark’s portrait came to be printed on the bill. Some say that the intended honoree was explorer William Clark, others Freeman Clark, a New York representative and eventual Comptroller of the Currency. Whatever the Bureau’s original plans, the superintendent saw to it that his own likeness appeared on the bill instead of one of his namesakes’. His arrogant move scandalized Congress, which responded by retiring all five-cent notes and passing a law banning portraits of living people from appearing on currency. Subsequent bill designers limited themselves to images of Lady Liberty (pictured on the 10- and 15-cent notes above), deceased Treasury secretaries and founding fathers like George Washington.
Lizzie Ehrenhalt, Collections Assistant
This inconspicuous cloth-bound copy of the New Testament has a remarkably full story to tell. It was published in 1851 by the American Bible Society in New York and by the time the southern States seceded from the Union, the Bible had made its way to Georgia. By 1862 it had come into the hands of Franklin Gassett, a twenty-five year old Private in the 6th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company G.
Frank Gassett was born into a large farming family in Georgia, the twelfth of fourteen siblings. The family home was located in Soda Town, Georgia, near Butler in west-central Georgia. When the call to enlist reached Taylor County, Frank, along with at least five of his brothers and his seventy-six year old father signed up. Frank, his father, and his brother John joined the 5th Infantry Georgia State Troops, Company F, on October 15, 1861. Five months later Frank Gasset put pencil to paper inside the front cover of his bible for the first time, writing: “A Testament / Apral 27th 1862 / Frank A. Gasset[’s] Book.” This may have been the day he received the bible, a day important enough to jot down before slipping the book into his uniform pocket for safekeeping.
After serving with the State regiment for only six months, Frank and two of his brothers, Malachi and Francis, transferred into the 6th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company G. They were immediately sent to Virginia to join the fight. On May 11, 1862, just two days before the muster rolls record his enrollment with his new regiment, Frank signed and dated his bible again, this time inside the back cover. Five days after enrolling with the 6th Georgia, Frank wrote in his bible, this time recording his arrival in Virginia: “New Kint Co. May 18th 1862”. Perhaps this was when he also recorded his home address and his father’s name in the bible’s pages, writing “F. A. Gassett / Butler, Georgia / or Sidertown” and “Direct your letter / to Wm Gassett / Sadatown / Ga”.
Within weeks of being at the front the reality of war set in. The next time Frank picked up his pencil, just five days after he takes part in the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), he wrote “God of Mercy / Rember us in this day of truble”. On September 17th, 1862, Frank Gassett and his Georgia regiment found themselves in an impossible situation. They were defending a fence in Miller’s cornfield, seventy miles northwest of Washington, when their right flank became exposed because the North Carolinians defending it fled. The 28th Pennsylvania and three small Ohio regiments advanced through the woods unseen and fired into the 6th Georgia at point blank range. Men fell in heaps. And then the charge began; men were run through with bayonets and clubbed with muskets until the few who remained standing ran for cover. Of 250 men in the 6th Georgia, only twenty-four escaped Antietam unscathed. Frank Gasset was not among them. He lay dead on the field with the bible he carried tucked in his pocket until a Yankee soldier came upon his body and discovered the bible.
New hands picked up a pencil and made an addition to the story, writing “This book was taken out of a Dead Rebel officer’s pocket / 17th day of Sept. 1862 / Battle fought on Banks of Antietam”. The Union soldier later gave the bible to his son Fred C. Cook, who made the final entry inside the bible’s cover: “Presented to Dr. A. E. Higbee by Fred C. Cook, whose father found this testament the day after the battle as described elsewhere herein”.
Cook was referring to a newspaper article published long after the war was over, on November 12, 1894. The St. Paul Daily Globe published this entertaining though only semi-factual article about the bible’s story, also reporting that an attempt to locate the Gassett family had been made. The bible remained in Minnesota, so it is likely that the attempts to reach the Gassetts failed.
The bible’s recipient, Albert Higbee, a native of New York, served with the 12th Wisconsin during the war and later moved to Minnesota. Long after his death, Higbee’s daughter Marjorie donated the well-worn bible to the Minnesota Historical Society with her father’s other Civil War keepsakes. Since 1961 the bible has rested in collections storage, just waiting for its story to be told again, hopefully with a bit more accuracy.
- Sondra Reierson, MHS Collections Assistant
Self Portrait, 1964
We are sorry to note the passing of artist and gallery owner Paul Kramer. Kramer was not only a member of Minnesota’s Greatest Generation (having served in the armed forces during WWII) but a member of a generation of great Minnesota artists. His career and artistic output ranks him as one of the most important Minnesota artists of the twentieth century.
Kramer taught at a number of art schools in the Twin Cities; worked at the St. Paul Art Center (now the Minnesota Museum of American Art) and the Fine Arts Department at the Minnesota State Fair; and formed his own gallery in 1965. He won many awards and his work is represented in museums as well as private and corporate collections. He humbly “considered himself a painter who was good at his craft.”
The Minnesota Historical Society is proud to have several fine selections of work spanning his long and productive career. Please see his obituary for more about him.
View of St. Paul, 1956
Apartment Walls, 1959
Swede Hollow, 1984
Red Wing, 1984
Model in Blue Dress, 1988
Fountain City WI, 2005
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