I began collecting Victorian beadwork when I was living in New Orleans in the 1980’s. My subsequent move to London in 1991 and to Denmark in the 1993 gave me ample opportunity to collect. I had a small collection of Victorian beadwork like these pelmets or valances that I bought at Alfies in London.
And this needlepoint hat pin cushion with beads.
One day as I was looking at a bootshaped pincushion covered in beads, a knowledgeable dealer disclosed the astonishing fact that these ‘whimsies” were made by Northeastern Woodlands Indians of the Victorian period for sale to tourists in the Niagara area.
Being of Native American descent, I was fascinated. They did not conform to my idea of “Indian” design. From then on, I have been collecting these bit by bit. My mother also has a collection of whimsies as part of her larger collection of Native American beadwork.
There were two main language groups of Native Americans in the northeast woodland region: Iroquois and Algonquin. Within those language groups were many individual tribes or nations.
The Iroquois (“Hodenausuanee”) Confederacy are made up of the Six Nations of Mohawk, Seneca, Tuscarora, Oneida, Cayuga and Onondaga. At the time Europeans first arrived in North America, the Confederacy was based in what is now the northeastern United States and southern Canada, including New England, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Quebec. Other speakers of the Iroquoian language are the Huron/Wyandot whose homeland was around Lake Huron.
Algonquian peoples refer to themselves as Anishnabek (“the people”) and they include such tribes as the Abenaki, Massachusett, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot and Montauk, Malisleet, and Mi’kmaq are also considered Northeast Woodland Indians. Other Algonquin people include the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Odawa (Ottawa) and Potawatomi
There are two distinct styles of Iroquois beadwork and most pieces can be assigned to one or the other: a western style and an eastern style. Because the makers of the western style have traditionally come from the reservations of western New York (mainly the Seneca and Tuscarora reservations) and the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario, Canada and the beadworkers sell at Niagara Falls, that style is called the Niagara Style.
The beadwork of the Mohawk reserves and reservations in the St. Lawrence Valley is referred to as the Mohawk Style. Raised beadwork developed by the Tuscarora and Mohawk in the last quarter of the nineteenth century add texture and interest to the bold patterns of flowers leaves and birds. Seneca beadwork is linear in design with the flowers and leaves being created by curvilinear lines of beads. Mi’kmaq and Maliseet items are decorated with multicolored floral designs that are denser and smaller than Mohawk florals.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the people of the Northeast were skilled in moosehair embroidery on birch bark. Nuns in Quebec in the early 1700s began making “Indian” bark ware curiosities with moose hair embroidery such as boxes for sale. These were often pictorial or floral in design and were sold mostly to the French. By the mid 1700’s increasing numbers of British swelled the market for “Indian” curios. Huron/Wendats, Mi’kmaq and Maliseet began mading quillwork curios for sale.
Ojibwa women, in response to the new availability of chintz fabric, began developing floral motifs in their quillwork. Euro-American women’s magazines of the same time were featuring instructions for Indian style beadwork.
After 1800, among Northeastern Woodland Indian women,in response to the continued influence of European trade, appliqué beading follows a distinctly different style from the mostly geometric Plains styles. Curvy flowers connected by spiraling vine tendrils are beaded onto black velvet or velveteen. Other European design conventions were also in evident from central medallions to stylized borders.
Native American “whimsies” are beadwork attributed to Woodland Indian women during Victorian times, which were made them for sale as souvenirs in Iroquois areas and Niagara Falls. Beaded bags and non-utilitarian “whimsies” became an important source of income for Iroquois women helping to support their families.
The early 19th century saw the creation of bags, pincushions, moccasins and picture frames decorated in simple geometric and floral designs.
During the mid-19th century – as Iroquois survival was threatened by land appropriations, the loss of traditional trade opportunities and other economic hardship – the Iroquois developed new types of beadwork items made to appeal to tourists visiting Niagara Falls. Sometimes entire families were involved in making these souvenirs.
Beaded objects the Victorians called “whimsies” such as pincushions and picture frames, gained tremendous popularity as a souvenir item. Beadwork production increased and became an important source of income for Iroquois families. Moccasins, bags, pincushions, needle cases, scissor cases, smoking caps, picture frames, jewelry, and match holders were brilliantly stitched with tiny glass beads by women, using tribal themes but also adapting to the Victorian tastes of their buyers. They were sold — and still are — at Niagara Falls and other sites near Iroquois communities. The majority of the pieces of beadwork were sold at public events and tourist attractions, but some were sold at train stations, and some Iroquois beadwork was also sold by members of Mohawk entertainment groups traveling with Wild West shows throughout North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mi’kmaq and Maliseet specialized in caps stylized like the Glengarry caps of Scotland, and flat bags that mimicked the style of Scottish bags worn with kilts. They also made moccasins which were often worn at home as slippers by Euro-Americans.
Another example is of cross-cultural exchange is the popular boot shaped pin cushion made by the Iroquois. The boot shape was a popular shape used in home-crafts of the time and became a standard in the Iroquois souvenir ware.
The boot shapes are decorated with Woodland Indian beadwork shapes of curving vines, woodland animals and birds. There are both left and right forms, both which have been produced in roughly equal numbers.
This a a rare find, a pair of Niagra style bootds
It appears that the earliest boots or high top shoes were the ones covered with all clear beads.
Probably from the Niagara area, they often are made with red, tan, or blue cloth.
Some boots, usually the largest ones, have a pocket on top. Some believe the pocket is to hold thimbles and scissors. Some Mohawk boots, especially those from the 1890s, are very large and loaded with beads while Niagara boots are often smaller.
Pincushions abound in many shapes and are often covered in beaded birds and flowers. Sometimes other animals like squirrels, cats, dogs, rabbits, beavers, and butterflies are beaded on the front of pincushions. Usually the beadwork is sewn over a pattern cut out of paper. Niagara beadwork features only a few beaded animals while Mohawk beadwork displays a wide variety of fantastic animals. Purple velvet and hot pink cloth are popular in Mohawk beadwork pincushions and other whimsies.
These pincushions usually have a loop of beads for hanging. Shapes range from scalloped rectangles to heart shapes reminiscent of the sailor/soldier pincushion valentines popular at the same time. The Seneca made six point star pincushions with snowflake designs.
Catering to the Victorian love of boxes the Iroquois made hanging boxes encrusted with bead work. Picture frames were popular items, sometimes holding one picture and more rarely holding a pair of pictures.
Horseshoe shaped and canoe shaped wall hangings were first made in the 1890s. Mohawk souvenir ware also included whisk broom and scissor wall pockets. Items for holding matches or watches also appear to have been popular.
Birds and strawberries are the only stuffed pieces made in the round. The birds come in two forms. The birds with wings down with a perch with balls hanging from it appear to be a Mohawk form. They often have dates beaded under their tails. Birds with wings held up are Tuscarora. Both birds were made with hangers. Birds were first made in the 1890s. They are made in two basic forms; one with the wings held down and one with the wings held up. The first type often has the date or the word BIRD beaded under the tail; these are made by Mohawk sewers. The others, which infrequently incorporate a date or NIAGARA FALLS beaded on them, are made by Tuscarora sewers. Sometimes Niagara birds are flat instead of round.
In the later part of the 19th century, bead workers began to incorporate slogans, dates and the names of tourist destinations into items of commemorative ware particularly pincushions as these souvenirs also became favored commemorative items linked to big fairs and other events. The most popular places beaded on pincushions are NIAGARA FALLS, NEW YORK STATE FAIR, MONTREAL, and TORONTO EXHIBITION. The most popular beaded phrase is GOOD LUCK, which appears on horseshoes. A bit of irony seems to be evident in the canoes with FAST embroidered on one side and BOAT embroidered on the other.
“BOX” is also common label on embroidered in beads on hanging boxes.
Another bit of irony is that American and Canadian flags along with birds resembling the bald eagle became popular motifs. Flag motifs were integrated into Mohawk beadwork pieces from the 1870s until about 1930. Since 9/11 flags have reappeared on Iroquois beadwork
Beaded dates on souvenir pieces were not common until the 1890s. Dates appear on canoes and horseshoes in the Niagara area as early as 1892 and are common under the tails of Mohawk birds by 1897. Late 1890s dates often appear on pincushions beaded with the name SARATOGA. These pieces have been attributed to Oneida or Abenaki bead workers. From 1900 to 1930 dates are common on Mohawk pieces and are most frequent around 1906.
Iroquois beadwork is offered on eBay regularly and the offerings come from all over the globe, attesting to the fact that these were souvenirs made for tourists traveling in the area. There is another other type of Iroquois beadwork.
The beadwork is on a wire base often in the shape of a chair, cup, or turtle. Wirework is still being done by craftspeople on the Seneca and Tuscarora reservations
Ruth B Phillips in her book “Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native American Art from the North East, 1700-1900” traces souvenir art of Algonquin and Iroquois people and this fascinating example of cross-cultural influence in art.The indigenous art forms are transformed into Victoriana while still retaining their link to traditional beadwork. Often disdained by museums in the mid-twentieth century as being “post contact”, and therefore irrelevant has been replaced by a new respect for the nature of cross cultural influences displayed in these knick-knacks.
“Flights of Fancy: An Introduction to Iroquois Beadwork” by Dolores N. Elliott has some interesting info on the two styles of Iroquois beadwork and identification of the various tribes.
Samuel Thomas’ “Beadwork Workbook” gives info on making this type of beadwork
“Brilliantly Beaded, Northeast Native American Beadwork” is an on-line exhibition which explores the evolution of Northeastern beadwork from the seventeenth century to the present-day.
Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life” is a touring exhibition of Iroquois beadwork.
You will find more info at http://www.otsiningo.com/ , a site on Iroquois studies.
Links to Iroquois resources http://www.otsiningo.com/Links.htm