The Artifact as a Primary Source

Museums store a wealth of information in their collections. Each of the items that comprise the Morrison County Historical Society’s collection has its own story to tell and contributes to our knowledge of the world. They are valuable historical documents that can be used not only as exhibit objects and educational tools but also as primary sources for research.

Primary sources include those objects that are original or that supply “primary” or firsthand information. Diaries and letters are good examples. Less obvious examples include clothing, calendars, and bedpans. These are also primary sources and may sometimes be the only means of obtaining vital information.

One of the most fascinating types of primary sources are photographs. An amazing amount of historical information can be contained in a single image. An excellent example is a black and white photograph taken in 1905 of downtown Little Falls, Minnesota. The scene that has been captured provides clues to the development of Little Falls and also reveals insights on life in the Midwest at the turn of the century.

From this photograph we can learn what businesses were in operation at the time the picture was taken, where they were located, and what goods and services were available. The Simonet Brothers, for example, were conducting business in the M. Maurin building, a structure that was built in 1895. The advertising on the building indicates that this establishment sold furniture, carpet, wall paper, coffins, caskets, and window shades.

Research into the time period in which an artifact was produced and used can lead to exciting discoveries. One of the more popular subjects for photographs during the first decades of the twentieth century was Main Street. As Main Street was frequently the center or “heart” of urban society, a community’s prosperity was often reflected by the health and progress of its downtown. The 1905 photograph shows a densely-packed landscape of commercial structures fronting a wide unpaved street. The number and variety of business establishments, which include the Union Meat Market, Tomelty’s Bargain Bazaar, and Becker Brothers Men’s Outfitting Shop, suggests a prosperous and growing community.

Much can also be learned from the architecture. Most of the structures that are visible in this photograph are two-story brick buildings with large picture windows on the lower level, rows of tall narrow windows above, and false fronts at the roofline. The uniformity of the façades, or building fronts, reflects a typical Midwestern restraint in the adaptation of the Classical Revival. The Classical Revival was a popular architectural style in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was based on the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome and was believed to be appropriate for the democratic nation.

Like birth certificates and naturalization records, photographs are important historical documents. While primary sources cannot tell us everything about history, they are excellent research tools that can provide a wealth of information on the richness and complexity of life in Morrison County and the world.

By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 1999, Morrison County Historical Society

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