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.

Snail Mail Past: Historical Stationery From the State Archives Inspires Director’s Letterhead

I cannot count all the ways people can send an electronic message to one another these days. Email, text, Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn, Teams, Zoom, Twitter, direct message—the list seems endless. Even the once exalted method of the telephone has receded into a dim, distant place behind these other forms of messaging. People now regularly text me to see if I am able or willing to take a call. While most days I don’t feel particularly old, I fondly remember dial phones and the excitement of coming home to a blinking answering machine light! That all seems like ancient technology to me now.

On a personal level, I rarely see regular mail these days. I get forms and reports for review at the office, but personal mail is mostly just bills and junk punctuated a couple times a year with holiday or birthday cards. Truth is, I have received very few handwritten letters in the mail lately. But when I do get them, I treasure them. Before I came to the State Historical Society, I found that writing to other people the old-fashioned way—with paper, pen, and in cursive—brought me great joy. It turns out that it brought much happiness to the recipients of those letters as well. A couple of my friends confided that the letters meant more to them than I could have imagined.

My letter-writing habit got me thinking about stationery. I often used blank note cards or plain paper. But I wondered if something slightly more personalized might also fit the bill when it came to designing my director’s letterhead. I believe that answers to most of our issues in life can be found by looking back at our history. Most people think of archives as simply a way to source the past, but our State Archives contain thousands of examples of the very best historical graphic design as well. To this end, I asked Sarah Walker, head of reference services, for examples of stationery in our collections. Walker and Lindsay Meidinger, head of archival collections and information management, then served as sounding boards as I sifted through many samples. Just as I had suspected, I was richly rewarded with a plethora of beautiful, artistic, elegant, and professional examples of stationery that made me long for the days past when we communicated with each other by setting pen to paper and writing. TBH, BTW, NGL, those were the days—the days before we communicated primarily in emojis and acronyms! SMH.

A couple of the best examples I found included the stationery of the Lesmeister & Son Automobile Garage in Selz, North Dakota. I loved the graphics in this one with the old cars and the color. It just hollers “adventure.” I also liked the work on the Dakota Territory Centennial Commission stationery and other examples of company stationery that highlighted the organization’s officers. The Bismarck Diamond Jubilee graphic used the original streetscape of historic Bismarck to cleverly cast a shadow of the future Bismarck. What brilliant graphic design and use of color in that one! The steamboat and subtle other nuances in that letterhead caused my gaze to linger. Many businesses’ letterheads contained renderings of their buildings, indicating a great source of pride by the sender in the places they worked.

Lesmeister & Son Automobile Garage stationery, circa 1918. SHSND MSS 11354

Stationery made for Bismarck’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1947. SHSND MSS 11354

Dakota Territory Centennial Commission stationery, 1961. SHSND MSS 11354

After looking at a few of these, Dannie Dzialo, a talented graphic artist who also works in the State Archives, and I sat down to discuss things we liked or didn’t like about the archived stationery. Reference staff also weighed in on what was attractive to them. And then we thought about a few things that are important to me. After some back and forth, Dzialo submitted the finished letterhead, which includes images of the state Capitol and ND Heritage Center & State Museum as well as the names of the agency’s departmental directors, people with whom I am honored and proud to be associated. These elements are mixed with a few others that have deep meaning to me, including, of course, my faithful Labrador retrievers and a steamboat, an expression of my early love of maritime and North Dakota history. 

My new director’s stationery reflects my love of North Dakota history as well as other elements from my past with deep meaning to me.

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: A Tour of the Big Collections Room

In past blog posts, I gave a sneak peek at the initial processing lab and the main archaeology lab. Today, let’s take a tour of the big archaeological collections storage room.

Comparisons have been made to the warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”—but don’t worry, we have much better finding aids. We want people to be able to find the artifacts in the big archaeological collections storage room and use them for research, exhibits, and educational events.

This room was designed to hold at least 20 years of future incoming collections and related materials, with moveable shelving adding extra storage space. This gives us room to store large, oversized objects not currently on display, like this earthlodge model.

This large model of an unfinished rectangular earthlodge shows how it was constructed.

In this room we keep educational, federal, and state collections as well as accession paperwork and storage supplies.

The archaeological educational collection is one of my favorite collections to show people. You don’t just get to peer at items in this collection from afar—you can touch, hold, and look closely at them.

Some objects in the educational collection are replicas, objects that were made recently but from the same materials people used in the past. Because things like wood, hide, and sinew usually do not last long in North Dakota’s environment, replicas are often the only way to show objects made from these materials. For instance, the wooden paddles that were used to shape pottery.

Replica wooden pottery paddles and pottery sherds from the educational collection.

Sometimes replicas are used for experimental archaeology. Experimental archaeology involves using the same kinds of tools used in the past to learn more about how something was done, such as making stone tools. Replicas are often used so the original artifacts are not damaged or destroyed in the process.

A replica flintknapping kit for making stone tools. From left: a leather pad, a stone abrader, a deer antler tine flaker, a hammerstone, and an elk antler billet.

Other objects in the educational collection are cast replicas. Casts are made from a mold or 3D scan of a real artifact. This is useful for artifacts that are too fragile or rare to handle, or for artifacts that come from places outside of North Dakota. Only North Dakota collections are currently accepted into the archaeology collections. But sometimes it is useful for researchers to have access to comparisons from other places. This projectile point is a synthetic cast of a real Paleoindian projectile point from the Mill Iron site in Montana.

A realistic cast replica of a Goshen Paleoindian projectile point from the Mill Iron site in Montana.

The real artifacts in the educational collection have little or no provenience (i.e., we do not know exactly where they are from or what was found around them). While this means they are not very useful for scientific study, they are still useful for learning about objects and material types. Many of these artifacts are donated.

Examples of real artifacts with low provenience. Even though such artifacts might not be scientifically studied, they are very useful for training volunteers and staff to identify different kinds of materials in collections.

Collections from federal lands in North Dakota are kept in this room. We help curate North Dakota’s federal collections for the U.S.  Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This is just part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s North Dakota collections!

Artifacts from projects on state, county, or municipal lands are also stored here, in addition to donations from private landowners.

These boxes hold artifacts from Fort Abraham Lincoln (32MO141) and are part of North Dakota’s state collections.

Filing cabinets and storage supplies might not be too exciting to look at, but they are important. These are the accession files. Accession files tell us who donated a collection or what federal agency owns the collection and where the artifacts came from.

These accession files might not look exciting, but they hold treasures of information, such as where collections come from and who donated them.

Storage space for supplies means we can continue moving North Dakota’s collections out of old acidic boxes and into better materials to preserve the artifacts for the future.

Archival boxes ready and waiting to be put to good use.

If you would like to schedule an in-person tour of the archaeology collections, please contact us.