Hidden Gems of Our Manuscript Archives

12, October 2017

The Missouri Historical Society's Manuscript Archives contain more than 3,000 individual collections that range in size from a single document to 1,800 boxes full of documents. The vast array of material makes it difficult, if not impossible, for us archivists to know what’s in all of them. However, through our two primary tasks—processing collections and assisting researchers—we get to know the collections better. 

When we receive a newly donated manuscript collection, we process it, which means we read through every single page, figure out how to arrange the documents, and create a finding aid. The time we spend reading documents and creating finding aids means we can more effectively guide researchers to relevant collections and documents for their research topics. In turn, assisting researchers with their vast array of interests allows us to explore collections that we might not otherwise. As a result, we’ve discovered some amazing yet underused collections. We’re excited to introduce you to them here so you can come by the Library and Research Center and check them out for yourself!

1. Business Letterheads Collection

Scan of letterhead featuring Knickerbocker building next to contemporary image of the KnickerbockerLeft: Letterhead of the Jacob D. Straus Saddlery Co. from April 30, 1903. Missouri Historical Society Collections. Right: Knickerbocker building, ca. 2013. Photo by Dennis Northcott.

The Business Letterheads Collection sounds unassuming, but within its thousands of receipts written on the stationery of mostly St. Louis businesses is an intriguing find, especially if you're a genealogist: Many of the letterheads are adorned with engraved images of the buildings that housed the various businesses. In some cases, these buildings are still standing, like the Knickerbocker at 13th and Washington in downtown St. Louis. Now a loft residence, in 1903 the Knickerbocker was home to the Jacob D. Straus Saddlery Co. (note the billboard showing a horse on the roof).

These letterheads also illustrate how prevalent St. Louis’s former nickname was. It’s represented in the letterheads of the Mound City Mutual Fire and Marine Insurance Co. (1865), the Mound City Distilling Co. (1894), and the Mound City Iron Works (1907), among others.

2. St. Louis County, Missouri, Coroners' Records

Scan of page from Coroner Boislineiere's inquest bookPage from St. Louis County coroner Louis Charles Boisliniere's inquest book, 1858–1861. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

If you're looking for an interesting read, pop open the inquest book of a 19th-century St. Louis County coroner. By perusing these volumes (which you can see an overview of here), you’ll discover that drownings were a frequent cause of death and that bodies were often found in the Mississippi River and the long-gone Chouteau’s Pond, which once sat in the heart of downtown St. Louis. Reading of deaths from steamboat accidents and laudanum-assisted suicides will have you reflecting on a bygone era. 

Other entries will leave you simply shaking your head. For example, when Coroner Esrom Owens held an inquest in July 1839 on the body of Joseph Harris, he determined that the cause of death was “visitation of God; more probably intemperance; body found in an outhouse.” A month later, Owens recorded the unfortunate death of Elizabeth Weber, which was caused by the “incautious use of gunpowder in driving out mosquitoes.” And in February 1848, William Diez died from “drinking the oil of bitter almonds in order to prove that it was not poison, notwithstanding the remonstrance of Mr. and Mrs. Gross against it.”

3. Charles Parsons Papers

Color scan of transportation pass from the Charles Parsons PapersTransportation pass for Mrs. Mary Sullivan, laundress for the 18th Regiment of the Missouri Volunteer Infantry, dated March 31, 1863. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

During the Civil War, Charles Parsons was appointed assistant quartermaster of the Union rail and river transportation service and placed in charge of the St. Louis post. Parsons’s papers have been part of our archival collections  since around 1938, but they weren't processed until 2000. In fact, the papers were still in the original envelopes Parsons used for his filing system! As it turns out, the collection consists of accounts, correspondence, bills of lading, orders, transportation passes, charters, contracts, and other papers that provide extensive information on the logistics of transporting troops and supplies for the Union army in the western theater. It’s a fantastic source for anyone researching the Civil War in this region. 

One fascinating aspect of this collection is the presence of women buried within these papers. A large portion of the documents pertains to the steamboats that carried troops and supplies, including crew lists of the people who worked on them. Although these lists consist primarily of men, there’s always one woman, a chambermaid, on the boat. There are also thousands of transportation passes for people who were conveyed by the steamboats, including troop regiments, a single soldier rejoining his regiment, and regiment laundresses. An exploration of what life must have been like for these chambermaids and laundresses is just one research topic waiting to be explored in the Charles Parsons Papers.

4. Kate O'Flaherty Chopin Papers 

Color scan of original manuscript page and portrait of Kate ChopinOriginal manuscript of 1898 short story "The Storm" (left) and 1899 photograph of Kate Chopin (right). Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Kate Chopin was a St. Louisan who wrote colorful stories about Creole life in Louisiana, where she lived for a time. As a working mother, she wrote fiction, poetry, and book reviews to support her five children after her husband’s death. Her most famous novel, The Awakening, was published in 1899 to much scandal and clutching of pearls because of heroine Edna Pontellier, an American Anna Karenina, and her infidelity and subsequent suicide. 

Within the Kate O’Flaherty Chopin Papers are letters of encouragement from Chopin’s friends, who praise the literary merit of her novel and pooh-pooh the critics of the time. The collection also contains Chopin's original manuscripts of short stories; printed copies of her published stories; account books in which she recorded which stories were accepted for publication and the payments she received; and a personal diary that describes social life in St. Louis and her wedding trip to Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. 

The paper Chopin wrote on hasn’t fared well over time and is discolored and brittle, so preservation copies are provided to researchers rather than the originals. Fortunately, the entire collection has been digitized and is available for viewing online.

5. The Potter's Wheel Collection 

Color scan of Potter's Wheel cover and interior pagesCover of the February 1906 issue (left); poster by Williamina Parrish depicting Julia Marlowe as Rosalind, from the June 1907 issue (center); and "The Sea-Bird" poem by Sara Teasdale with design by Williamina Parrish, from the July 1907 issue (right). Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Early 20th-century St. Louis was indeed the place to be. Along with the excitement surrounding the 1904 World’s Fair and the innovation happening in flight, there was a small group of young women in their late teens and early twenties called the Potters who would have been really fun to hang out with. These young women were brought together by their shared love of art and literature and met periodically between 1904 and 1907 to drink wine and discuss their passions. 

Eventually, one member of the group suggested they put out a monthly magazine, and thus The Potter’s Wheel was born. “Magazine” is maybe a little misleading, because each issue of The Potter’s Wheel was handmade and one of a kind. The issues were beautifully illustrated throughout; generally focused on a theme, such as childhood; and included short stories, poetry, designs for household items such as scarves and lamps, paintings, essays, plays, photography, and sculpture (photographed, of course). Basically, any creative interest the young women had, they found a way to include it in the magazine. 

After each issue was complete, the women would pass it around and create a supplementary issue (kindly) criticizing one another’s work. Some members of the group went on to become well known, such as poet Sara Teasdale and sculptor Caroline Risque.

6. Paul Toelle Papers 

Scan of note from one of Prohibition agent Paul Toelle's raidsLoose notebook pages regarding Paul Toelle's raids during Prohibition, dated February 7–April 19, 1925. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Paul Toelle was born on November 20, 1888, in Missouri, and worked as a federal Prohibition agent. We purchased his collection of papers in 2011. Because we don’t have a large purchasing budget, most of our archival documents are donated to us. However, this unique collection was worth the investment. The papers regarding Toelle’s career as a Prohibition agent include folders of notes on his raids, daily reports, circulars of rules and regulations for Prohibition agents, and Toelle’s correspondence about his jobs and positions.

The notes on Toelle’s Prohibition raids are truly the best part of this collection. They provide details on the locations of raids, the liquor that was found, and the people involved. He documented raids conducted in every part of St. Louis City and County, clear evidence that people of all types continued to drink and produce alcoholic beverages during Prohibition.

—Molly Kodner, Archivist; Jaime Bourassa, Associate Archivist, Digitization; and Dennis Northcott, Associate Archivist, Reference

Membership appeal