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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!

Teaching about Tipi Technology

Just take a walk through any of our galleries at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum, and you will notice countless connections between history and science. Highlighting these connections is one of my favorite parts of working at the State Historical Society. The most recent example I have been thinking about is the tipi.

The tipi is an example of Native American science and engineering ingenuity at work. These cone-shaped homes are well designed for life on the open prairie. The main structure consists of three (a tripod) or four lodgepole pines lashed together with a sinew rope. The tripod is usually set up with one pole on the southeast to frame part of the door, while the other two poles are on the north and south sides respectively. After the tripod is situated, the rest of the poles are added in order so they lock each other in place. A tipi might have as many as eighteen or more poles to complete the structure. The door is usually located on the east side.

table-top tipi model

Outreach Coordinator Danielle Stuckle sets up a table-top tipi model during a public program.

A tipi cover is made from either several buffalo hides sewn together or from a canvas. The tipi base isn’t a true circle, but is actually more of an oblong, egg-shape. This allows for the fire to remain directly under the smoke hole, yet moves it to the front of the tipi so there is more room for people to sit around the rear of the dwelling. This cone-shaped tipi on an oblong base is aerodynamic. As the wind moves over the structure, it pushes it into the ground and helps stabilize it. There is a slight tilt to the cone to enhance this effect. A tipi is brilliantly designed to stand up to the strong prevailing winds of the Great Plains.

Canvas from table-top tipi model

This canvas from the table-top tipi model shows how several buffalo hides are sewn together to make a tipi cover.

A tipi is lined throughout with an ozan, or dew cloth, made out of hide, canvas, or blankets. This liner only goes up about six feet from the ground. There is a gap between the liner and the cover, which creates a chimney effect. This produces a convection current that circulates air in the tipi and pulls smoke out through the opening at the top. The flaps around the smoke hole can be adjusted as the wind changes direction; much like the flue of the chimney can be adjusted. This helps draw the smoke out so that a fire can be used inside for cooking and for warmth. The dead air between the liner and the cover also helps to insulate the tipi and keep it warmer in the winter. Wood pegs are added to the tipi poles to help guide water down the pole, between the cover and the liner. The cohesive effect of water keeps rain water running down this path all the way to the ground and right out of the tipi. If rainfall is really heavy, a gutter or shallow moat can be dug around the tipi, ensuring the inside stays nice and dry.

Scale model tipi

This scale model of a tipi is used in education programs at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

A tipi is a well-designed structure, built out of locally available materials, to withstand the unique conditions of the Great Plains. We might not initially think of technological innovations in the distant past as science, though Native Americans used observations and experimentation to build knowledge about corn breeding, animal behavior, weather patterns, geology, and countless other aspects of the natural world. When it came to engineering their homes, Native Americans observed what works in this environment and experimented with different methods to build a better house. Certainly a practical and scientific approach we can appreciate.

Inventory: A Historic Treasure Hunt

When you mention to most people that you are doing inventory, their eyes glaze over and they start thinking of their summer vacation. I am one of those odd museum people, when I think of doing inventory, I think of all the interesting possibilities the inventory might bring and “treasures” I might find. The museum collections are over 100 years in the making and contain more than 74,000 objects (with more added daily). Keeping track of these objects can be a daunting task, so we routinely conduct inventories. Many times we just check off a box saying any given object is in the right place. But every so often, something fun happens—we find a forgotten historical treasure.

One of the most exciting discoveries was the silver filigree lamp shades with pink fringe from the USS North Dakota silver service (SHSND 6068.40-53). Once thought to be missing, they are now on view in the Hall of Honors in the lower level of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

Lamp Shade

Lamp shade, USS North Dakota silver service (6068.40)

That find, however, was recently eclipsed by the discovery of World War I–era surgical dressings made by the American Red Cross.

In preparation for our new WWI exhibits, I did an inventory of all the items donated by the American Red Cross. We have a collection of refugee clothing for men, women, and children, and we have “comfort” items made for the soldiers including knitted socks and a sleeveless sweater. We even have some hospital garments such as bed shirts (what we would now call hospital gowns) and a surgical gown, mask, and cap. These garments were made as models by the regional American Red Cross headquarters and then sent to chapters throughout the state. Along with the model garments, the local chapters received the cut pieces and directions for sewing. While we don’t have the pieces, we do have the model garments and many of the directions. But, I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed we didn’t have any of the iconic bandage rolls or surgical dressings I was reading about while researching the clothing items.

Digging deeper into our records, I found an entry for a “bandage” that came into our collections almost 20 years after the Red Cross garments. So with great anticipation and the help of a wonderful volunteer, we went looking for the bandage. We found a box with the artifact number we wanted, but inside we found only odd textile items and no obvious bandage roll near the top. Disappointed, I figured we might as well pull the whole box and clear up any discrepancies inside.

The first step was to search our paper files—but there was no file in the filing cabinet. Next, I checked the old card file. Prior to a computer database each artifact was given a 3x5” card with the artifact’s information, which hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. This card was the key to the treasure chest. It read, “Bandages, Red Cross, miscellaneous used during war. Received from Red Cross; October 15, 1937.” Instead of one bandage, we found 21 assorted bandages and surgical dressings that had never been properly cataloged. It was exciting as we found each piece nicely labeled: irrigation pad, gauze sponge, gauze wipe, shot bag, pneumonia jacket, and—YES!—a roll of gauze bandage! There is even a triangular bandage, a “many tailed” bandage, a “scultetus” bandage (a bandage used to protect, immobilize, compress, or support a wound or injured body part), and, one of my favorites, a “Paper-backed Irrigation Pad” (SHSND 5991.5).

The paper-backed irrigation pad was a wealth of information. The original catalog card had the phrase “used during war,” and the donation date of 1937 suggested these might be WWI-era items. They could have been from the Spanish-American War or the Mexican Border Conflict, as North Dakota troops served in both conflicts. As the name suggests, the paper-backed irrigation pad has paper as a backing material. But this is not just any kind of paper—it is a newspaper! Lucky for us, it was the front page of the Fargo Forum. While the full date was missing, enough of the headlines and one obituary made it possible for our State Archives team to find the date: Wednesday, June 5, 1918. YES, these are WWI-era items! We also learned the pad was made in or near Fargo, North Dakota, sometime between June 6 and November 11, 1918, but probably closer to the June date. Historic treasure indeed.

Paper-backed Irrigation Pad

Front and back of Paper-backed Irrigation Pad (5991.5)

Seeing all of these medical dressings makes me grateful for modern medicine and sterile conditions, and it makes me appreciate even more the homefront efforts that went into the Great War. The patriotic fervor that swept the nation had young and old men and women knitting scarves, sweaters, and socks for soldiers. But most of all I appreciate the legions of women who worked tirelessly to make hundreds of thousands of items to meet the needs of soldiers and refugees throughout Europe.


Guest Blogger: Jenny Yearous

Edna Kelly, ca 1918, Jenny Yearous' maternal grandmother, born 1900.Jenny Yearous is the Curator of Collections Management. Her main duty is to take care of the “stuff” that is held in the collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. She is especially interest in the many textiles held in the collections.