Whimsies made by the Iroquois People

  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
MiqMak Bag
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.
Seneca Bag?
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.
Match Holder

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.whimsies-bird.jpg
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

33 Responses to “Whimsies made by the Iroquois People”

  1. Kay Cox Says:

    Oh, Kim. This is fascinating. I have seen “whimsies” but not the pincushions. In fact I remember my grandmother having a whimsy with a pocket that she kept her little embroidery scissors in. Oklahoma was Indian Territory when she and my grandfather moved there. My grandfather ran a store which had a lot of business with Native Americans, probably Choctaw. Thank you…very interesting and what a great collection!

  2. Sylvia Says:


    What a wonderful discussion of whimsies! Thanks–you’ve obviously spent a lot of time in research. While in Virginia with my in-laws, I saw some nice samples of all sorts of Indian beadwork ranging from pincushions to aprons and dresses. Then in Terlingua earlier this month, I found several examples as well. But I opted to get the coffee as a souvenier.

    By the way, I saw the Fine Focus Exhibit at HCCC–very nice—and hung so nicely. The wall with the bluish paint was perfect for the pieces hung on it.

  3. PaMdora Says:

    Fantastic collection!
    Thanks for all the photos.

  4. Calinda Says:

    Thanks Kim for all of your work on whimsies! This is an incredible collection. How do you keep all of these beautiful pieces – are they fragile?

  5. Kim Says:

    Yes they are fragile and part of why I would like to donate them to some museum or something at some point. I have them stored with acid free tissue but the humidity in Houston is probably not the best enviroment. I once went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on a City and Guilds field trip. They store huge quilts in these long bins so there are no folds and acid free tissue lovingly all around. It was amazing

  6. Dolores Elliott Says:

    Hi Kim, This is the first time that I’ve visited your site. You have some very nice pieces. The ones with the animals are amazing.
    I think all of your pieces here are Iroquois and none are from New England. The purse is an early Seneca one made before 1850;that is why it looks older. I’m working on a series of booklets on the various forms of Iroquois beadwork. We may also reprint the Flights of Fancy because we are getting lots of requests. I guess people are really starting to appreciate Iroquois beadwork.
    Thanks for contributing to the recent interest.

  7. Dolores Elliott Says:

    Hi, I just found your web site. You have some nice pieces.
    Thanks for spreading the word about these fascinating pieces of art.
    And I am working on a new booklet on Iroquois beadwork.

  8. Debbie Watts Says:

    Looking for a copy of Samuel Thomas’ workbook. Any ideas on how to get a copy? The hyperlink doesn’t work in the preceding page. Thank you.

  9. Dolores Elliott Says:

    You can order Sam’s workbook through our web site at http://www.otsiningo.com
    We’ve had a couple orders in the last month.
    Thanks for your interest.

  10. Betty Says:

    You can also order Sam’s book at Bear Paw at:www.bearpawartgallery.com

  11. Sayokla Williams Says:

    Kim: Please donate your collection to a Native American owned and operated Iroquois museum!! Any of them, would be absolutely delighted to own and display your pieces. There are a few I can name: Six Nations Museum in Ontario and Oneida Nation Museum, WI.

  12. Kim Says:

    I would want it to be in the US. What are my options?

  13. Cathy Lee Says:

    It’s good to get back to my roots again and to find many interesting patterns in beadwork styles and selections.

  14. victor Shiloski Says:

    Great Site, I have a beaded pillow that I am trying to
    find more information on. Any chanch of sending you a email
    with Photos to look at. I was told that it possible can be from the Maliseet Nation, or Metis Nation.

    Please advise. any help would be appreciated.
    thank you


  15. Dolores Elliott Says:

    Hi, if anyone is traveling near central New York State this summer you can stop at the Rockwell Museum of Western Art in Corning, New York and see my exhibit, “Sewing the Beads: 200 Years of Iroquois Glass Beadwork.” I have about 300 pieces on exhibit. I have also written a couple books recently. Check out our web site, http://www.otsining.com
    The exhibit will be up until Oct 4th.

  16. betmo Says:

    hi- my dad is seneca and there is a reservation in salamanca, ny:


    i know that he purchased notion baskets there for my sister and me- perhaps they have a museum there.

  17. jim tillman Says:

    hi this is wonderful information, i have a collection if whimsies, I have always seen some small differences in the bead work. Today I was at the Crazy Horse memorial, and amoung the displays, where several whimsies, which claim to be the work of kansas and oklahoma indians made for Pawnee Bill, and sold in new york. some had dates around 1910.

    What do you know about this?


    Jim Tillman

  18. Jare Says:

    Just found this discussion after participating in the 1st International Iroquois Beadwork conference this past weekend. Dolores was instrumental in getting this done. it was great and the next one (2010) will be on the Seneca Allegany Territory in Salamanca, NY. There is a Seneca operated museum there (Seneca-Iroquois National Museum) which has a very good Iroquois Beadwork Collection, which includes some early 1800s Seneca pieces. I know we want to collect more pieces, so anyone wishing to donate a part or all of their collection should contact us (senecamuseum.org for more info).

  19. Sayokla Williams Says:

    Some months back, I posted a message to you about donating your whimseys to an Iroquois Museum. You thought this was a great idea at the time. Are you planning on doing so or have you already done so? I’d like to give a nudge in the direction of the:

    Oneida Nation Museum, PO Box 365, Oneida, WI 54155.
    Ph (920) 869-2214

    It is a small museum but they will be expanding in the future. Their collection is small and your pieces would add to it considerably. Please create a post and let us all know which one or several museums you have opted to donate to.

    Yawanko (Thank you)
    Sayokla Williams

  20. Nancy Pereira Says:

    Your website was very interesting with a lot of helpful information. Years ago, my mother bought a whimsy for me, al-
    though we didn’t know what it was at the time. I have just started researching these after speaking to an antique dealer who had a few. Mine is a pincushion, approx 7 inches square. The center is purple velvet with an eagle with two American flags in his beak. The odd thing about it is that the flags are upside down, with the blue star section being in the lower right hand corner. Do you know if there are others like this, or if this pattern of flag is rather rare? I thought perhaps you might’ve come across something like this in your collections. I’d appreciate anything you can tell about this. Thanks

  21. Kim Says:

    eagles and flags are highly collectible variations of the whimsey
    http://www.turkeymountaincrafts.com should be able to give you an appraisal

  22. Steve Begner Says:

    I think the website you meant to reference is the following: http://www.turkeymountaintraders.com

    The Woodlands beadwork is great stuff. It’s nice to see it represented in a blog.

  23. Kristine Says:

    Hello Kim,
    I am doing research for a collector of Native American Art, and I’m focusing specifically on his Iroquois beadwork collection; but there are a few pieces that might be Mimac. I saw the resources you included, but I was wondering what resource you would suggest for best distinguishing between Iroquois and Micmac, and then between the different Iroquois tribes. Another big issue I’m dealing with is figuring out more specific, accurate dates. Any advice and assistance would be appreciated. Thanks, Kristine

  24. Cheryl Stein Says:

    your work is wonderful, thanks for sharing. I love whimsey’s of Iroquis Nation.

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  26. Bill Says:

    Do you know where I can find a source of beads to conserve whimseys? I sometimes find pieces with the beaded fringe damaged or missing and I would like to restore them with the correct type of beads but I have never been abl;e to find a source. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

  27. # Says:

    Thanks for getting sharing this data. Yet it’ll be absolutely good for getting some other information!

  28. Patsy Day Says:

    Yaw^ko/big thanks for these wonderful pieces … just doing some ‘raised’ beaded flowers for my traditional dress collar and your site gave me the inspiration to do more than flowers [altho’ my Indian name is Katsihtsyo’wa:n^’/Big Flower:gah jee jo wahn] I am still looking for more traditional/ancient edging patterns.

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  33. Victoria Mccomber Says:

    I am a Mohawk from Kahnawake and we mostly all do beadwork here , we still make whimsies and moccasins and jewerly, I love keeping the culture and traditions alive, especially at pow wows where everyones work can be shown. you can check out some work on my page Mohawk Crafters.