Thursday, September 15, 2016

Wild optimism at the museum

The Politics and Voting exhibit came down the other day, and with it out of the way the S.O. and I started tackling what's left in the attic. With nothing up against the wall in that part of the museum, it was possible to remove the lattice that screened the loft and get things down without having to go through the office.

And what did we find hiding up there? A couple huge boxes, the kind in which toilet paper used to get delivered to stores, stuffed full of hats. I'd been curious about those boxes because I could see them through the lattice but couldn't get at them until quite a few smaller boxes got moved out of the way. The ginormous hat boxes did cause me once again to think dark thoughts: there were loose cards in the boxes giving identifying information (e.g., "donated by. . ." or "worn by. . .") but none of them were attached to any particular hats. More artifacts with no known provenance. I'm not sure just how many face palms that calls for, but I'm thinking Multiple. And of course they were all just dumped into the boxes. No attempt whatsoever at providing any padding or tissue wrapping or anything at all to protect them. You know what happens when you pile hats a couple feet high in large cardboard carton? The ones on the bottom end up looking like pancakes. Okay, so maybe it calls for a "The Stupid It Burns."

Obviously, the hats were not the source of the title shown above. Nope, the wild optimism comes from another attic find, the smaller boxes blocking access to the hats. When we started clearing out that attic, I got asked about various things that had been donated to the museum over the years and I kept telling people they might be in the attic. Lots of boxes I hadn't gotten to yet.

Well, now I can tell people that I don't have a clue what happened to the missing objects. Turned out most of the boxes in the attic were filled with pageant books, or the equivalent thereof. Back in 1969, the Historical Society sponsored a history pageant. As part of that pageant, they put together a program book that included the script for the play and a few essays on local history, most of which focused on the history of the missionaries, especially (no surprise here) Father (later Bishop) Frederic Baraga. They had several thousand copies of that book printed. The following year, they did another pageant (same script, one assumes). Had another book put together for it. And then L'Anse and Arvon Township celebrated their centennials so in 1971 yet another book got printed. And in 1972-73. There was a long hiatus, but then in the early 1980s some of the people who been involved in the original pageants decided it would nice to try again so they put together an ethnic pageant. Naturally, it included a book.
Why the actors in the pageant got stuck looking like extras from "F Troop" is a mystery to me. Loin cloths were made from Naugahyde; shirts and leggings were faux suede.  

I've been told by some people that the 1972-73 book, also known as "the one with the red cover," is the best of the lot. I don't know. It does have a good description of the archeological work done at Sand Point. Still, I kind of lean towards the ethnic pageant: it's got a nice essay by Matti Kaups about Finns in Baraga County, there's another interesting article by Myrtle Tolonen (former KBIC tribal chairman) on Native American history. . . to me, the ethnic pageant book seems to have the highest quality of writing. Too bad more people didn't think that way at the time it came out. And this is where the wild optimism comes in.

Turns out most of the boxes in the attic were packed full of pageant books. Hundreds and hundreds of pageant books. I already knew we had a lot of copies of books that our now deceased president had told people we were sold out of. Over the past 3 years as I've worked my way through various boxes and file drawers and the more accessible stuff I kept finding more copies of all of them. And then I pulled 11 cases -- eleven!! -- of the ethnic pageant books down from the attic. Each box holds between 80 and 100 books. We've got over 1,000 copies of a book that if we're lucky we sell maybe one a year.

It got worse. That book with the red cover? At least a dozen cases of it. The L'Anse-Arvon centennial? Not quite as bad, but still multiple boxes. Multiple cases of unsold calendars. Two cases of a postcard book that I think we've sold one copy of in the past 4 years. Just who was the incurable optimist who thought that the fact that a mountain of unsold publications was not a sign that maybe it wasn't such a hot idea to subsidize Globe Printing by ordering thousands of copies of a book at a shot? By the time they did the ethnic pageant, they already had dozens of cases of unsold books from their previous four publishing attempts. I've dealt with printers. I somehow doubt Globe told the Historical Society that the minimum press run had to be thousands of copies of anything. What type of rich fantasy life did the person who suggested that as the order have? There are barely 7,000 people in the whole county -- who did they think was going to buy all those books?

Bottom line is that the attic that I'd been assured was full of stuff that people had donated was actually half full of unsold historical society publications. Words almost fail me. I wish I possessed the fluency to curse in Finn (my mother's curses were always way more colorful than anything I can come up with in English).

You want to hear the best part? We sell these books in our little gift shop for $5 each. In a typical season, we'll unload a couple, usually purchased by people who recognize a relative in one of the pageant photos. However, there's a used book store in another U.P. community that gets more tourist traffic than we do. The owners come into the museum about once a year, buy a few pageant books, and then resell them at $20 per copy. It amazes me. I guess they get the tourists with money to burn on weird souvenirs and we get the locals wondering if it's worth $5 to get the copy of the book with their grandmother on the cover.

Oh, and that "rifle" the pioneer woman is holding? It's a toy single shot cap gun manufactured by a company in Kentucky.


  1. One of the beauties of modern technology is desktop publishing and the ability to print on demand. It used to be the first copy of a book cost $100,000 by the time it was printed and after that they were $1.00 each. So printing wasn't an issue, just selling them, as you pointed out. Totally different game now. I do not envy you the task of heaving all those cases of books though.

  2. Minimum press run for something like the pageant books was probably quite low because they're soft cover and saddle stapled, which is the world's simplest and cheapest type of binding. Offset printing didn't cost much if the client could manage to bring in camera ready copy. Even with more complicated publications, the initial press run didn't have to be humongous before the advent of on-demand publishing. An acquisitions editor from Rutgers University Press told me back in about 1992 that when they looked at submissions, they thought in terms of "will this book sell 800 copies?" That was apparently the cut-off for making money instead of losing it. No doubt the sales price of the book got adjusted according to stuff like page count and paper stock.

  3. all I could think of is what I could do with those hats..


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