Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Guest Blogger's blog

Patience is a Virtue: Thompson Submachine Gun was Worth the Wait

Appearing in American cinema films from The Devil’s Brigade to Bonnie & Clyde, a Thompson submachine gun with a drum magazine has joined the mythos of America. Sold primarily to the military and law enforcement, “Tommy guns” were also purchased by private citizens. With the fictionalized and serialized tales of the “mob vs. G-men,” it became part of our collective conscience.

Tommy gun

In the first part of March 1990, I joined the staff of the Museum Division of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Within days, our senior curator, Norman C. Paulson, told me of a Thompson submachine gun at the North Dakota State Penitentiary that had been "promised" to the State Historical Society by the former and current warden when they decided to surplus or transfer the gun.

Paulson and James E. Sperry, State Historical Society superintendent, had been informed about the Thompson as early as 1968. Former prison guards had sporadically kept Paulson informed about the gun from 1973 into the 1980s. Since Norman was on the verge of retiring, it now fell to me to “keep my ears open” about that gun. The torch had been passed, and I continued to “keep my ears open” and wait. After 50 years, on Sept. 11, 2018, the submachine gun was transferred to the State Historical Society by the Penitentiary. Truly, good things had come to those who wait.


  • 1928–Purchased by the Barnes County Sheriff’s Department, Valley City, North Dakota
  • Feb. 24, 1958–Transferred to North Dakota State Penitentiary by Theodore Hedstorm, sheriff of Barnes County, Valley City, North Dakota
  • Sept. 11, 2018–Transferred to State Historical Society by the Penitentiary

The “dope” on the gun
US Navy, Model 1928 Thompson submachine gun, .45 caliber, made by Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company for Auto-Ordnance Company. It was designed by John T. Thompson, a former US Army officer. This gun is fully automatic and uses either a 20-round stick magazine or a 50-round drum magazine.

This weapon uses .45 caliber, 230 grain, .45 ACP Ball ammunition (11.43 x 23 mm). The rate of fire is approximately 830 rounds per minute, with a muzzle velocity of 935 feet/second (285 meters/second).

  • Weight (empty): 10 pounds (4.5 kg)
  • Length: 33.7 (860 mm)
  • Barrel Length: 10.5"

It has three magazines:

Stick magazine

Two XX-Type 20-shot stick magazines. These were preferred by law enforcement because they do not jam.

Drum Magazine

One L-Type 50-round Thompson drum magazine. Popular in American fiction, this magazine can jam the action, rendering the gun useless.

Q: Was the gun used by criminals?
A: No, it was used by the Barnes County Sheriff’s Department from 1928–1958 and by State Penitentiary staff from 1958–2018.

Q: Was anyone shot by this gun?
A: Not to our knowledge.

Q: Can I buy a gun like this?
A: Not likely. The National Firearms Act of 1934 required that owners of this type of weapon must register them with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms and follow the law regarding possession, transfer, and transport of this weapon.

Guest Blogger: Mark Halvorson

Megan Steele portraitMark Halvorson is the Curator of Collections Research.

How Do I Love Thee: Valentine Ephemera Collection

In general, ephemera collections are not fancy collections. Instead they are composed of “stuff” that was originally produced for immediate consumption, some practical purpose, and/or with no thought to it being saved for any real length of time (much less perpetuity than, say, a book or photograph album). These can include, but are not limited to, greeting cards, business promotional items, flyers and bulletins for groups and organizations, and any 2-D visual materials that might be interesting in an exhibit.

The State Archives’ Ephemera Collection grew mainly out of the processing of a single collection — the Liessman Collection, from a family that kept almost every single piece of paper they encountered. Archivists determined a set of goals to streamline the collection and remove all the extraneous “stuff.” Some of that “stuff” did not fit the goals for the collection but still had value and was interesting, hence the incentive to officially create the Ephemera Collection (No. 11354).

These ephemeral items serve an interesting function for researchers with their vast and fascinating diversity. The documentation they provide about everyday life, particularly that of average men and women from all backgrounds, is extremely valuable for providing context of the societal mores. Sometimes that context it not flattering and espouses an idea that is abhorrent, such as the presumed inferiority of Indigenous people, but it is always important to look at history as it was with warts and all.

In addition, ephemera pieces can have genuine artistic merit and be generally pleasing to the eye, or just be cute and humorous.

Vintage Valentine's Day card with a little girl on the front "I've lost my head over you, Oh please, be my Valentine"

An example of humorous Valentine. SHSND SA 11354.0003.003-4

This is especially relevant in the case of the Valentine’s Day cards within the Ephemera Collection. Most of the cards are not dated formally, but assumptions can be made using other factors and context clues to date them; we have determined a general date range of our card to be circa 1910s thru 1940s. These cards are a wonderful window into the past and great for looking at what was popular romancing behavior, or lines, at the time.

Vintage Valentine's Day card with a Marine and puppy on the front, "Semper fidelis. That's me! Valentine-always faithful!"

Valentine with a Marine theme. Who doesn’t love a guy in uniform with a puppy!?

Vintage Valentine's Day card with a handyman and a walrus on the front

Alice in Wonderland–themed Valentine, alluding to “The Walrus and the Carpenter” poem in Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, 1871.

There are also a few Disney-inspired cards in the collection. It is interesting to see what was popular at the time, and get a taste of the emergence of mass-produced pop culture. Some of them are just darn cute, too!

Vintage Valentine's Day card with a little girl and boy on the front

Guest Blogger: Megan Steele

Megan Steele portraitMegan Steele is an archivist who works primarily with manuscript and photographic collections.