April 21, 2020

Spring Cleaning adds to depth and breadth of MHS archives collections

by Rich Aarstad, Senior Archivist

The first quarter of calendar year 2020 started with a crush.  In just three months, the Montana Historical Society Research Center added 425 linear feet of records to our archival holdings, greatly enhancing our labor history and corporate history collections. Now if you are wondering how much 425 feet is...think one football field plus four first downs and you get an idea of the size!  Below are some of the highlights of these new materials now in our permanent collections.

Montana Public Employees' Association—80 linear feet dating between 1945 and 2017. While this is a stand-alone collection, it has intellectual ties to the Montana Education Association, Montana Federation of Teachers, and MEA-MFT records already held at by MHS.

Established in 1945 to promote a retirement system for public employees (state, county, and municipal), MPEA merged with MEA-MFT in 2018 creating the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
The MPEA Master Contract has withstood the test of time as it commemorates its 44th year.
MFPE-MDT Local 3511
Courtesy Local President David Krause

Montana AFL-CIO—285 linear feet dating between 1923 and 2016. This new donation fills in the Montana AFL-CIO collection already held by MHS: MC 341 Montana State AFL-CIO records 1896-2000.

Onsite storage of MT AFL-CIO records
Tailgate preliminary processing
Jeff Malcomson, Photograph Archives Manager, and Roberta Gebhardt, Library Manager, lend a much needed hand.
Senior Photograph Archivist, Kellyn Younggren packing up historic photos.
Archivist's Toolkit

Montana Power Company—60 linear feet  dating between 1896 and 1999. This transfer from the Butte Silver Bow Public Archives is the missing link that pulls together UPMC 6 Montana Power Company records 1885-1979 and MC 268 Montana Power Company Predecessor Company records 1880-1947.

How many feet of archival records can you fit in a 1/2 ton four-door pickup with canopy. Turns out 60 linear feet!
Ingesting the collection.
Archivist's best friend—the 3 shelf cart

April 13, 2020

Musings from an Exhibit Designer

by Roberta Jones-Wallace

“Long sleeves” prepared for exhibition along with other items of clothing which it might have been worn (MHS catalog numbers 1986.79.21, 1986.79.94, 1986.79.105, and L2014.08.05)

Numerous activities occur behind the scenes here at the Montana Historical Society. Newly acquired artifacts coming in must be catalogued, condition-reported, and carefully stored. Later, when we look at objects, or art, for possible exhibition, we assess items by their looks, sure, but also for their back story (their provenance), their condition (in need of conservation, or good to go?), and how well they fit the story we are trying to tell.

We look at their mounting needs (how we will display them) and case needs (how we will protect them). We think about how long an item will need to be on exhibit and plan ways to mitigate exposure for items susceptible to the damage caused by light. Clothing might need a mannequin; artwork, matting and framing; other items, small mounts or supports to allow them to “shine.” Archival and fragile paper items may need to be rotated in and out of the exhibit more frequently than less sensitive materials.

We also have to consider cultural context. We have in our collections a beautiful Chinese shirt, which we sent out for conservation in preparation of the exhibit, “Our Forgotten Pioneers: The Chinese in Montana.” When the shirt came back, the conservator made the comment that the person who wore it must have been a gorilla because the sleeves were inordinately long and the shirt itself quite broad. For each exhibit we produce, we must respect the customs and culture depicted. Our Chinese exhibit challenged us in many ways to try to depict the Chinese in Montana and show the clothing in our collections to our best understanding. In my scramble to understand this shirt and other items of clothing I had to reach into my poor memory banks—for I was sure I had seen images of Chinese wearing clothing with overly long sleeves. And indeed, I did find that the Chinese had quite rigorous protocol for clothing, color, and symbols which reflected social status and profession. This lovely shirt with its overlong sleeves may have been worn by a scholar, definitely someone of a higher status since the sleeves would interfere with manual labor.

Each exhibit we do, especially when depicting another culture, challenges my cultural bias—forcing me to try to be as sensitive as possible to representing our collections in the most respectful way I or we understand. We try to include consultants to help us in that endeavor, and to correct things when we get them wrong.

April 6, 2020

“Opposition makes me stronger for you:” The interconnected lives of Jeannette and Wellington D. Rankin

By Barrett Codieck

Jeannette and Wellington Rankin, circa 1914. Catalog #944-477. Montana Historical Society Research Center, Photograph Archives.

Montana history enthusiasts need no introduction to Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973), the first woman elected to the United States Congress. Over a dozen published biographies celebrate, mythologize, debunk, and simply seek to explain “Miss Jeannette.” Weaving in and out of every account of Jeannette’s life is the sometimes-enigmatic figure of her brother Wellington (1884-1966). No biographer can dismiss Wellington’s importance to his sister’s story, but the nature of the siblings’ relationship remains difficult to define. The Montana Historical Society Research Center holds newly expanded collections of the personal papers of both Rankins, offering new insights into these complex historical figures.

The Rankin family [date]: (L-R) Wellington, Harriet, John, Olive, Jeannette, and Philena. Catalog #Lot 039 B1F05.01. Montana Historical Society Research Center, Photograph Archives.

Besides the ties of family, two threads kept the Rankins connected throughout their lives: politics and money. Jeannette’s success in both of her elections were the result of favorable political circumstances and her great talent for organizing and campaigning in the field. However, both campaigns might never have happened without Wellington as campaign manager and financier. Once in office, Jeannette continued to seek Wellington’s political advice. Wellington was not shy to provide it, as he was dismayed by Jeannette’s antiwar votes and opposition to the all-powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company.

Wellington’s opposition to Jeannette’s actions was not necessarily ideological, although the two siblings would drift in very different ideological directions over the years. Rather, Wellington seemed galled by his sister’s willingness to sacrifice her electability by embracing unpopular and politically dangerous positions. Given that Wellington would wage and lose eight campaigns for public office between 1914 and 1952, it is perhaps understandable that he considered electability to be a precious resource.

“I shall…vote my conviction regardless of future of political life.” Jeannette Rankin to Wellington Rankin, April 22, 1917. Jeannette Rankin papers, MC 147, box 1, folder 1, Montana Historical Society Research Center, Archives. (Hereafter JR papers)
“let your conviction be right and not sickly.” Wellington Rankin to Jeannette Rankin, April 22, 1917. JR papers, box 1, folder 1.
“Grieved at vote but opposition makes me stronger for you.” Wellington Rankin to Jeannette Rankin, April 28, 1917. In this case Wellington was partly misinformed, Jeannette had voted for a competing conscription bill instead of President Wilson’s. JR papers, box 1, folder 1.
“Mining companies no possible way to blame.” Wellington Rankin to Jeannette Rankin, June 20, 1917. Wellington correctly predicted Jeannette’s response to the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine Disaster of 1917 and tried in vain to limit the political damage of opposing the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. JR papers, box 1, folder 1.

As critical as Wellington could be in private correspondence, in public he always maintained a united front with his sister. Even after Jeannette’s vote against entry into the Second World War made her politically toxic in Montana, Wellington refused to publicly criticize her during his own 1942 Senate run. Repaying loyalty with loyalty, during each of Wellington’s doomed campaigns Jeannette reached out to progressive and labor voters alienated by her brother’s increasing conservatism.

“My brother has been an active friend of labor always.” Jeannette Rankin to Edward Keating (editor of the newspaper Labor), June 11, 1934. Wellington D. Rankin papers, box 26, folder 4, Montana Historical Society Research Center, Archives. (Hereafter WR papers)

Money defined more than the Rankins’ political relationship, as Jeannette’s sources of income were often sporadic and unreliable while Wellington amassed an enormous fortune from his law practice, ranching empire, and business interests. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Jeannette relied upon Wellington’s financial support to care for their ailing mother and to afford expensive trips to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. At the same time, she adopted an idiosyncratic and anti-materialistic personal lifestyle and her politics became increasingly anti-capitalistic. This uncomfortable dynamic sometimes strained the siblings’ relationship, but again never broke their fundamental family loyalty.

“You were very good to send me the checks. For anyone without a salary I’m getting on fine.” Jeannette Rankin to Wellington Rankin, January 24, 1940. WR papers box 2, folder 9.
“I feel very badly over all the horrid things I said…I really do appreciate all you have done…to make it possible for me to go to Europe.” Jeannette Rankin to Wellington Rankin, July 25, 1937. WR papers box 2, folder 9.

Jeannette and Wellington’s relationship was far from that of typical siblings, yet its complex dynamics were driven by a relatable mix of love, loyalty, resentment, rivalry, and extreme familiarity common to all families. These archival records complement our understanding of the past and ultimately humanizes its very human subjects.

Explore the full finding aids to the Jeannette Rankin and Wellington D. Rankin papers.