Miss Nettie's Notebooks and the MHS Story
The Missouri Historical Society officially turns 150 years old today. That’s a remarkable milestone to reach, and it begs the question “How does a museum thrive for 150 years?” It must have a solid collection and tell compelling stories, certainly, but it must also have a long line of dedicated staff who both preserve the past and push the institution forward. Few of us here now will leave the mark on the Society that a woman named Nettie Beauregard did.
A previous post gave an overview of Miss Nettie’s work for the Society between 1913 and 1940. This post takes a closer look at some of the entries she made within her little red notebooks regarding her daily work. Although Nettie was usually quite succinct and professional in what she recorded, sometimes a sense of her personality shines thorugh. For example, when a member of the board wanted the new building to remain open on Christmas Day 1914, Nettie noted that “Judge Douglas had Francis keep open all day, but only four callers came.” There were similar notations for Thanksgiving, and it’s perhaps notable that nowadays the Missouri History Museum shuts down on just two days a year—Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day!
Some of the notations are all too familiar to staff working today, like the confusion over our name. An entry dated July 14, 1914, says “To Floyd C. Shoemaker, State Historical Society telling him this is not the St. Louis Historical Society.”
Nettie was also anxious to promote the Society’s work and wasn’t above a little gentle nagging, like this notation about correspondence with the former president of the United States: “7/16/14 To Theodore Roosevelt asking him to acknowledge and say what he thinks of the Quarterlies I sent him.” Clearly it worked, because she later noted: “9/20/14 From Theodore Roosevelt, personal letter praising our publications.”
She also kept track of things that she found personally interesting, be they milestones in flight (which she tracked long before she became the curator for the Lindbergh collection) or royal visits to St. Louis. For example: “Oct. 21, 1919 King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium with the Crown Prince visit St. Louis—drove past the Jefferson Memorial about 10.30. They look the part. The king very handsome and fair, the queen very slight and small with a most sensitive face. The crown prince looked so young and “fussed” as Mayer Kiel tried to entertain him on the drive through town.”
National milestones featured in her notebooks too, including the sudden death of President Harding and the end of World War I. On November 11, 1919, she wrote:
“Victory!! Germany surrenders, Kaiser abdicates and flees to Holland, Armistice signed—War is ended! Public Holiday proclaimed. At 2:45AM every steam whistle and siren blew as the news of Victory was received and continued incessantly until noon; the city is wild with joy. Noise and flags everywhere. Most things centering around the [unclear] hotel from Broadway to 12th street. Celebration continued until midnight—many effigies of the Kaiser in innumerable parades.”
It’s especially exciting when a notation in Nettie’s notebooks coincides with objects that we have on display or images that we see regularly here in the Museum. Case in point: This image of a giant flag draped across the Museum hung in our multipurpose room for many years, but no one had a sense of why the flag was there. Miss Nettie explained: “6/14/1914 Flag Day. Big Parade to carry mammoth flag which they hung on Jefferson Memorial. It covered 1/2 the building and spread some distance on the ground. 75’ x 105’ speeches, bands playing.”
In 1923, Nettie recorded in a very matter-of-fact way what may have been the biggest coup of her tenure—obtaining the Clark collection from the reluctant granddaughter of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), beating out curators from all over the country. “October 30. Unpacked the Voorhis collection of Wm. Clark relics: 6 oil portraits, Indian relics, 6 rush bottom chairs.” Here you can see the rush-bottom chairs, which are currently on display in the Museum’s Currents gallery.
There’s no doubt that Nettie’s notebooks also contain information about practices that make modern museum professionals cringe, such as moving cases in and out of the west side of the building for banquets and meetings, and having irreplaceable clothing belonging to the Chouteau family photographed downtown while being worn by Chouteau descendants. On balance though, the notebooks bring home how much the people working at MHM have in common over the last 150 years—a passion for our shared history and a dedication to making that history accessible to the public.
—Elizabeth Pickard, Director of Interpretive Programs