Category Archives: From the Collection

Tonka: The Toy Truck from Mound

This backhoe was manufactured by a company established in Hennepin County whose name is derived from the Dakota word for “big” and inspired by a nearby lake. That company is Tonka, and its birthplace was in Mound. Tonka became well known for creating realistic large metal toy trucks and construction equipment like the one in our collection.

In 1946, Mound Metalcraft was established in an old schoolhouse by Lynn Everett Baker, Avery F. Crounse, and Alvin F. Tesch. The company’s original endeavored to manufacture metal gardening tools. In 1947, they acquired the patents to several metal toys and decided to supplement their product line with these new acquisitions. The patents included a steam shovel and a crane, which were the first toys they manufactured. Mound Metalcraft sold 37,000 of these models in the first year. At this point they embraced the toy business and abandoned producing garden implements all together. By 1955 Mound Metalcraft had changed its name to Tonka Toys Incorporated.

The earliest products manufactured by Tonka were made of 20-gauge automotive steel. After WWII, steel was widely available and cheap, and Tonka took advantage of this surplus. Not only were the original trucks made of steel, but the tires were made of solid rubber which made them heavy, especially for a child’s plaything. Over the years, modifications were made, like replacing the rubber with plastic. The model in our collection has two yellow steel cabs, one of which rotates and is attached to a moveable black steel arm and bucket, situated above four black plastic tires.

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In 1982, Tonka Toys left Mound due to production needs. In 1991, the company was acquired by Hasbro. The Tonka Truck was inducted to the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2001, taking its rightful place among other iconic, inventive, and beloved toys. In the past forty years Tonka has also manufactured a variety of other toys including dolls, figurines, stuffed animals, and video games. However, Tonka Trucks remain the company’s most well-known and popular product line, which has expanded to include over thirty different models. Seventy years ago, Tonka innovated the toy industry by creating functional, realistic, and durable trucks. Even now, millions of these trucks are sold each year, which is a testament to the vision shared by three residents of Hennepin County back in 1947.

Our Tonka Toys collection was inventoried and cataloged as part of our larger collections inventory project. This publication was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.

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If it Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix it: 135 Years of Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing

This bottle of liquid bluing was once ubiquitous in homes across America. The first sale of Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing (MSB) was recorded on July 30, 1883. It is still sold and distributed today and has been manufactured in Hennepin County for the entirety of its long and interesting history.

In the 1870s, Al Stewart was a traveling salesman throughout the Midwest. One of the products he sold was a bottle of liquid bluing that his family made at home using his proprietary formula. At this time, Minneapolis resident Luther Ford had opened the first five and dime store west of Pittsburgh. These two gentlemen met while Stuart was looking for someone to manufacture his bluing. Stewart sold the rights to MSB to Ford, who immediately made plans to distribute the product more widely.

In 1910, Ford’s son Allyn joined the business. Not long after that, Robert Ford also began working for his father, and the two brothers devoted all their efforts to distributing MSB. At that time, profits were generated by salesmen who worked out of Minneapolis. In 1918, the salesmen were replaced by food and grocery brokers. By 1925, business had grown so rapidly and steadily they added five additional factories across the United States and Canada. Sales reached their highest point in 1946. In the 1950’s, Luther Ford’s grandson, also named Luther, took over the family business from his father and uncle. He ran the business through the seventies. MSB has had a few more owners since that time, but they still consider themselves to be an “old-fashioned family business.”

All MSB production has returned to Hennepin County, moving from their original factory location in Minneapolis, to their current location in Bloomington in 1986. Sales have decreased over the past fifty years due to bluing being replaced by bleach for laundry purposes. However, bluing serves a variety of other purposes including hair care, textile dyeing, window cleaning, and as an essential ingredient in a “Salt Crystal Garden.” Today MSB still has a loyal following. In fact, that’s why the bottles that are sold today are essentially the same bluing that was sold in the 1880s.

The main change to the product over the years has been the packaging. In the beginning, MSB glass bottles were hand-blown. Then in 1907, the bottles began to be manufactured automatically. The bottles were capped with imported Portuguese corks that were specially designed for MSB. Red wood tops were then hand-glued to these corks. By 1962, plastic caps replaced the wood and cork ones. Then in 1970s, MSB began to replace the glass bottles with plastic. The glass bottles with red tops, (like the one we have in our collection from 1957), are now a rare collectors’ item.

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With the evolution of the bottle came some changes in the label. However, the image of the stern looking woman has been a constant. Before MSB was sold to Ford, Stuart was attempting to have a commercial label for his product made. The printer advised him to include an image of an older woman on the label to encourage sales. Stuart originally asked his wife for a photo of herself, but she refused. According to their story, Stuart in turn grabbed a photograph of his wife’s mother off their mantle and submitted it to the printer. This means that the famous image on bottles of MSB are not actually the real Mrs. Stewart, but her mother instead.

Since the first official sale of MSB in 1883, the company’s history has been one of innovative business development for a product that has remained mostly unchanged in 135 years. The company even quotes the old saying, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” They also obviously recognized the merit in continuing to keep the manufacturing of their product in Hennepin County, and given the longevity of Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing, they must be doing something right.

Our Mrs. Stewart’s materials were inventoried and cataloged as part of our larger collections inventory project. This publication was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.

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The Demise of Burnt Toast: The Invention of the Pop-up Toaster

Burnt toast doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you had to eat it on a consistent basis you may feel otherwise. Humans have been eating bread for over 6,000 years and toasting it over a fire for just as long. Electricity was first introduced to American homes in the late 1800s. This generated demand for electric household appliances. The first electric toaster was invented in the 1890s. This device could only toast one side of a slice of bread at a time and needed to be monitored closely so that it didn’t burn the toast. Apparently, this happened frequently enough to inspire an invention that most people in the twenty-first century take for granted: the automatic pop-up toaster.

In 1919, Minneapolis resident Charles P. Strite was working at a manufacturing plant in Stillwater. According to Strite, the cafeteria often served burnt toast. This inspired him to create a toaster that would toast bread automatically with minimal human intervention. Strite’s device was called the Toastmaster and he was awarded a patent for it in 1921. The Toastmaster had heating elements that could toast both sides of a slice of bread at the same time. The device also had a timer that would turn off the heat and a spring that would eject the toast, eliminating the chance of burning. Strite’s invention found its way into restaurants immediately. By 1926, he introduced a consumer version with a variable timer that allowed the user to adjust the desired lightness or darkness of their toast.

The toaster in this photograph, one of three Toastmasters we have in our collection, was manufactured in 1931. It is a model 1A2 in chrome with a sleek art deco design. There are two Bakelite handles on either end of toaster with a fabric covered power cord extending from the back.

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By 1930, more than one million toasters were being sold annually and by 1960 they had become ubiquitous in American kitchens. Today, a century since Charles Strite innovated the automated home appliance industry, toasters are still produced utilizing the same basic design. Although we may take perfectly toasted bread for granted, we should not forget that the inventor that allows us to do so was a resident of Hennepin County.

This toaster was inventoried and cataloged as part of our larger collections inventory project. This publication was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.

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The History of Handicrafts in the Great Minnesota Get-Together and How Changing Attitudes Have Shaped the Fair 

This intricate model stage coach made of metal and fabric was entered into the State Fair Craft Show in 1971. According to the ribbon still attached to one side, it won 4th place. An adhesive label on the same side indicates this is a model of a Concord Stage Coach “first manufactured in Concord New Hampshire in 1827.” 

 The model was donated by Carl G. Anderson just after it showed in the State Fair, in 1971. Anderson noted on his HHM donation form that “Concord Stage Coaches were first manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire in 1827 and shipped to the west by sailing vessels from Portsmouth, New Hampshire down the south Atlantic, around the tip of South America, up the Pacific Ocean to San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.  These were the finest coaches made in America.  They are still in use in western movies and the drivers today are as good as the drivers in the early days of the west.” 

 The Minnesota State Fair traces its roots to before the state itself. Territorial Fairs were held in Minnesota as early as 1854, and crafts have been a mainstay ever since then. The ancestor to the modern Creative Activities Department was the Women’s Work and Welfare Department. The early fair was largely targeted towards men, and this department arose as a place for women to congregate, socialize, and keep an eye on their children. Competitions in this department were dominated by quilts and other needlecraft, but baking and canning also became popular in the lead-up to the twentieth century. 

 The Women’s Work and Welfare Department (sometimes shortened to “Women’s Department”), as well as most of the fair, maintained a rural character before the twentieth century. The list of competitions was populated by practices like “darning and repair of napkins” and the making of log-cabin quilts, which by the 1890s were old and outdated. In 1902, Clara M. Luther was appointed superintendent of the department. She revised the competitions to introduce art forms popular in the growing urban landscape but were still absent from the state fair. These included things like basketry and miniature models, crafts more associated with professional arts and art schools. 

 With the modernization of the competitions at the turn of the century, another change was brought to the state fair. The shift away from the crafts of older generations meant that the individuals competing were now simply hobbyists in their craft. In the nineteenth century fairs, women submitting their artwork were often making quilts and clothing for their family already, as home-made objects were more of a necessity before the industrialization of the 1900s and 1910s. Creations on display were no longer fancified items of necessity, but pieces of art made by hobbyists in leisure-time. 

 These changes greatly impacted the overall “crafts show” of the state fair. By the 1920s, the State Fair Arts and Crafts Show was displaying very professional works of art. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, jewelry, metal and wood works were becoming more refined as the fair became urbanized and the organizers borrowed artwork from major museums like the Walker Art Center. 

 The 1910s through 1930s saw a dramatic increase in the number of men participating in Women’s Department competitions. Men submitting items were often those with a lot of free time on their hands: firemen, prison inmates, and the injured of WWI. The presence of men in this department increased over the decades and it became clear that this department was far from exclusively for women. The name of the department officially changed to the Home Activities Department in 1952. 

 The name of the department changed once again in 1971 to the Creative Activities Department, which remains the name today. While many things have changed about the nature of creative activities, some things have stayed the same. Canning, for example, is a time-honored tradition that you can still see at the fair this year. Other entries—a pocket watch chain made of hair, for example—have seen a sharp decline in popularity.  

 Why some practices still endure has everything to do with tradition. To this day, some of the most popular items on display have been with the fair from the very beginning. Attitudes on hobbies have changed creative activities too, and many trends and ideas have come and gone. The Creative Activities Department represents a microcosm of the State Fair itself. Both are monuments to traditions that connect us to our past while at the same time continually changing to reflect our present.  

 Author Bio: 

Paul Schneider-Krumpus is a recent high school graduate and will be studying history at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities this fall. He does research and photography for Hennepin History Museum. 

Sources and Further Reading: 

https://www.mnstatefair.org/about-the-fair/history/ 

Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair by Karal Ann Marling 

Minnesota State Fair: An Illustrated History by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky 

Minnesota State Fair, The History and Heritage of 100 Years by Ray P. Speer and Harry J. Frost 

Blood in the Streets: Governor Floyd B. Olson and the Teamsters’ Strike of 1934 

In 1934, the streets of Minneapolis were a battleground. Teamsters had declared a city-wide strike to end discrimination against union workers, and their cars of strikers chased heavily-guarded trucks to keep them from crossing picket lines. Roving battles were waged between convoys of police with riot guns and trucks of strikers. Crowds of club-wielding picketers and strikebreakers clashed in the market center over the unloading of goods onto non-union trucks. The three-month strike would be one of the deadliest in the state’s history.  

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Standing between the two sides of this violent struggle was Governor Floyd B. Olson. A former prosecutor, Olson had clashed in the past with the anti-union organization the Citizens’ Alliance that had formed the backbone of strikebreaking in Minneapolis since the turn of the century. These efforts, along with prosecution of corrupt businessmen and the Ku Klux Klan had won him the support of working-class Minnesotans, who would elect him governor in 1930 — the first governor elected on a Farmer-Labor ticket. As the strike began in May of 1934, he would be torn between his ties to the workers who supported his candidacy and his need as governor to keep the peace and maintain order in the city.  

 Olson carried this personalized portfolio with him that summer as he worked tirelessly to facilitate negotiations between unions and employers. After the first major episode of violence just days into the strike, when twenty thousand strikers and onlookers crowded the market district and special deputies were driven back from their attempts to unload non-union trucks, Olson secured a short-term truce between strike organizers and business owners, and days later a broader settlement between the two sides. 

 Olson’s settlement unraveled by July, and the threat of more violence hung over Minneapolis. On July 20th it came to a head as a heavily-armed police escort moved trucks labeled “hospital supplies” to deliveries around the city. The trucks were met by cars of unarmed strikers that attempted to block their deliveries. Police, armed with shotguns, responded by firing upon the cars and strikers, injuring more than sixty and killing two. The governor’s worst fears had come true.  

 “Bloody Friday,” as the event became known, threatened to tear the city apart as the organizations of the wealthy rallied behind the police and the working class renewed efforts to support the strike. One-hundred thousand lined the route of the funeral procession for the slain union activist Henry Ness. Unions rejected new settlement offers. Employers continued to move trucks despite union blockades. Olson was forced to act.  

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 The governor declared martial law and raided the headquarters of both unions, arresting organizers and members of the Citizens’ Alliance.  

 This time, Olson’s decisive action successfully brought an end to the violence and forced the two sides to a lasting settlement. With the support of President Roosevelt and pressure from the federal Reconstruction Finance Agency, negotiations succeeded. Employers conceded to workers’ demands of union recognition, non-discrimination, and seniority in hiring and firing. The back of the anti-union Citizens’ Alliance in Minneapolis was broken and unions gained a foothold in the once fiercely anti-union city.  

Olson went on to win a third term as governor in November on the back of his success and then ran for Senate in 1936 but he died of stomach cancer in August, just three months before the election. Although his efforts were cut short, Olson is remembered as a fierce advocate of Minnesota’s working class. And eventually this portfolio made its way to Hennepin History Museum, preserved for all these years as a physical connection to the summer of 1934 and a reminder of Olson’s role as an intermediary.  

 Author Bio 

Noah Barnaby is a Research Intern at Hennepin History Museum. He has a bachelor’s degree in History and Philosophy from the University of Minnesota, and focuses on Social, Economic, and Labor History.  

 Resources 

See also: 

An interview  with strike organizer Vincent Raymond Dunne  

Bryan D. Palmer. Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes of 1934. Haymarket Books, 2014. 

 Charles Walker. American City: A Rank-and-File History of Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press, 2005. 

 Dennis Harrington. Floyd B. Olson and the Teamster Strikes of 1934. 1977. 

Flour Power: Party Edition

At 7:30 in the morning, more than 1700 milling employees and their family, friends, and supporters, gathered in Minneapolis, picnics in hand, to board special trains that would carry them to Lake Minnetonka for the fourth annual Head Millers’ Association picnic.

The city’s flour mills were shut down for the day so that all employees had an opportunity to join in the festivities. It was an opportunity to celebrate the growth of milling in Minneapolis. Like any such celebratory event, it included plenty of speeches, as well as a baseball game, music and dancing, a banquet at the Hotel Lafayette, boat rides, and – what else? — flour sack races.

The picnic was covered extensively in the local newspapers, where it was proclaimed “the most successful picnic ever given at Lake Minnetonka.” In the words of a particularly enthusiastic journalist at the Sunday Tribune:

“Whether it was the efficient management, the absence of dissipation and the real pleasure unmixed with dissipation at these gatherings, or because the custom was inaugurated by a class of men to whom Minneapolis feels she owes her marvelous prosperity and rapid advancement, or whether both combined at once,the occurrence of the millers’ picnic was a season for a general turning out on a grand gala day, and each year the number participating has increased, and yesterday occurred the greatest and the best of them all.”

-Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, June 22, 1884

This miniature flour sack invitation now resides in the permanent collection at Hennepin History Museum, a reminder a fantastic summer day at the lake many years ago.

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Take the Bitter with the Sweet: Abdallah’s Banana Split Dish

This banana split dish is from the 4th generation family owned business established by Lebanese immigrant Albert Abdallah. Albert opened Calhoun Candy Depot in 1909 on the corner of Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue in the Uptown area of Minneapolis. In 1916 it was renamed Abdallah Candy Company. Abdallah’s served chocolate, caramels, toffee, truffles and ice cream.

Over the years Abdallah’s persevered in the face of adversity. After the Great Depression, Abdallah’s was forced to close due to bankruptcy. However, Albert was able to pay off his debt and reopened a smaller store a few blocks from its original location just a few years later. Abdallah’s later struggled through the Food Rationing Program enacted during World War II. Finally, in 1965 the business was destroyed in a fire caused by a gas explosion, forcing them to completely rebuild.

Through hard work and dedication, Albert Abdallah was able to establish a successful chocolatier and confectionery that is still in operation today, over a century later. His great-grandson carries on the family tradition in their current location in Burnsville, using some of the original recipes perfected by Albert.

Author Bio

Alyssa Thiede in the Assistant Collections Manager at Hennepin History Museum.