Mythbusting, part 1: This is not “Minnehaha in 1860.”

This picture gets reprinted all the time in books, articles, and magazines.  It’s the most popularly reprinted image of Minnehaha Falls in the 19th century.  And it’s easy to understand why.  The caption clearly states that it is from 1860, and invites the reader back into the past with its advice, “Note costumes.” Putting precise dates on photographs of Minnehaha Falls is a difficult project, as no one knows better than the researchers of urbancreek.com. The very specific date here seems like a gift from the past.

Unfortunately, it’s wrong. On some rare occasions when this image is reprinted, the people standing in the background on the traverse behind the Falls are pointed out. But no one ever mentions the graffiti.

The often-reprinted "1860" postcard.
The often-reprinted “1860” postcard.

It’s the graffiti that makes the case. Look at the angular bridge supports in this picture. If you look carefully, you can see that there are some sort of painted letters on this bridge.

A close up of the bridge shows that someone has painted graffiti on the angular bridge supports.
A close up of the bridge shows that someone has painted graffiti on the angular bridge supports.

The tantalizing question is, “What does it say?”

Another picture of this first bridge across Minnehaha Creek below the Falls.
Another picture of this first bridge across Minnehaha Creek below the Falls. Taken by J. W. Love from Portage, Wisconsin, who was active in stereo-photography in 1867.
Another picture of the first bridge with its graffiti. This was taken by William Henry Illingworth, and was published by E. H. Burritt. The address given for Burritt was only in use for the year 1871, but Illingworth was photographing the falls in the 1860s, in-between junkets out West to do things like accompany General Custer on his Black Hills expedition of 1874.
Another picture of the first bridge with its graffiti. This was taken by William Henry Illingworth, and was published by E. H. Burritt. The address given for Burritt was only in use for the year 1871, but Illingworth is known to have photographed Minnehaha Falls during and after 1866, in-between junkets out West for activities like photographing General Custer and his Black Hills expedition of 1874.

By looking closely, one can read the words, “Mountain Root Bitters.”

And there’s the clue. The newspapers of Chaska and Taylor’s Falls in Minnesota, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin carried a few ads for Mountain Root Bitters, which were manufactured for a short time by Abel & Humiston of Sandwich, Illinois. Every newspaper ad for this product is dated 1867. No other advertising from any other year exists.

The tantalizing efficacy of Mountain Root Bitters makes one wish it were available today.
The tantalizing efficacy and obvious merit of Mountain Root Bitters makes one wish it were available today.

An 8×10 negative of the postcard image, most likely the original, is held by the Minnesota Historical Society. Their on-line record seems not to have any information about who took the picture or how it came to their collection. One might guess that it is part of the Bromley image collection, though it ought to be credited as such if it were.

Regardless of the lost provenance, this image must date from 1867. Most copies of the postcard come from around 1908, during the great postcard craze. It’s easy to imagine that a postcard publisher reprinted the picture with a best-guess date and released it to the marketplace. No known copy of this picture exists in earlier photographic formats, notably not as a carte de visite or as a stereo image pair (though the J.W. Love and the W. H. Illingworth pictures, shown above, are stereo images).


 

2 thoughts on “Mythbusting, part 1: This is not “Minnehaha in 1860.””

    1. Thanks, Steve. The Park Board also published this picture with another date, maybe 1863? It will take a bit of work to locate that, since I don’t recall *when* they published it.

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