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.

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

National History Day: The Kids Are All Right

I have good news and bad news. First: the bad news—we are living in troubled times. However, that’s not really news. As a historian, I assure you, people have always been living in troubled times. Now: the good news—I have seen the future, and things are looking up. I see the future each year as students from around the state participate in the National History Day in North Dakota contest.

Group photo of NHD award winners

Students and teachers from Elgin-New Leipzig Public School participated in National History Day in North Dakota on April 7, 2017.

The state contest is affiliated with the National History Day contest that takes place in College Park, Maryland, in June. Similar to a science fair, the national contest has been around since the 1970s. If you ever need proof that the kids are alright, I encourage you to visit the National History Day website and review some of the past contest entries. I think you’ll agree with me that these kids are ready to take on the world.

Display board featuring Galileo

Exhibit Entry, Galileo, from the 2018 National History Day in North Dakota State Competition, Junior Group Exhibit, by Abigale Berger and Ruby Brunn of Dickinson Middle School.

Display board featuring Chicago skyscrapers

Exhibit Entry, Tragedy of the Great Fire and Triumph of Skyscraper City, from the 2019 National History Day Contest. 1st Place Senior Group Exhibit.

We work with teachers across the state all year to plan the state contest held each April. Workshops for educators and students in grades 6-12 provide a general overview of the program. We break things down into digestible parts that include selecting a topic, conducting historical research, and creating a contest entry. Entry categories include papers, documentaries, websites, performances, or exhibits. Students can work individually or in groups of up to five students. They compete to qualify for school, regional, state, and national contests. We also provide training to help students do more in-depth research, and better understand what our judges are looking for.

Documentary Entry, Echo of Falling Water: The Inundation of Celilo Falls, from the 2019 National History Day Contest. 1st Place Senior Group Documentary.

I’m so passionate about this program because students learn a variety of skills through National History Day, including strengthening their reading, research, and writing abilities. They select a historical topic they are personally interested in, which helps make history relevant and exciting. They flex their creativity muscles in developing an entry for the category of their choice. Research skills help with critical thinking and a build a more rigorous framework to analyze information. If they choose to work in a group, they learn collaboration skills. Explaining their work to adult judges helps them develop communication skills.

Performance Entry, Territorial Diplomacy: Seo Hui’s Compromise and Demands for the Goryeo Dynasty, from the 2018 National History Day Contest. 1st Place Senior Group Performance.

If you are a parent, student, or educator who would like to learn more about participating in National History Day in North Dakota, please contact me, Dani Stuckle, at or 701.328.2794. Our pool of judges includes a wide-range of professional backgrounds. Judges work in teams where seasoned judges help new judges learn the ropes. Contact me as soon as possible to be added to the 2020 judge roster. The state contest will be on Friday, April 17, 2020 at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. The contest is open to the public.

If you need to know that our future is in good hands, come check these entries out. You’ll go away feeling very reassured that things will be okay. Learn more at or