The origin of the pincushion is shrouded in the dark recesses of history. Many centuries ago, pins and needles were difficult to fabricate so their owners secured these highly valued items in specially made containers fashioned from precious metals, ivory and bone. Sometime during the 15th century in Europe, basic homespun pincushions that were tightly stuffed with wool roving and other materials came into use. Many were covered with colorful fabrics and over time they were made into an untold number of shapes including shoes, fans, dolls, fruits and vegetables.
By the 16th century, pin-pillows (cushions with designs on them made by the arrangement of pins on their surface) became popular and these evolved into cushions that were attached to silver or wooden stands. By the early 19th century, pincushions became an all-purpose sewing aid and many were designed to be clamped or screwed to the edge of a sewing table (figure 1) and they were used effectively to hold fabrics in place while sewing.
Perhaps the most popular form of pincushion was a tomato with attached strawberry emery (figure 2). Developed during the Tudor period (1485-1603), this shape was also adopted by 19th century Victorians. Wikipedia reports that according to folklore, “placing a tomato on the mantle of a new home guaranteed prosperity and repelled evil spirits. If tomatoes were out of season, families improvised by using a round ball of red fabric filled with sand or sawdust. The good-luck symbol also served a practical purpose—a place to store pins.”
|Figure 2 - Strawberry pincushion with strawberry emery.|
The 19th century gave rise to commercially manufactured pincushions as well and many were made to commemorate historical events. Beaded pincushions became popular during this period and Victorian ladies collected every variety of them. Many were made simply as a decorative item. Victorians loved to embellish their homes with unique and exotic items and their parlors or living rooms were the perfect setting to display their collections.
Exactly when the Iroquois began making beaded pincushions is not clearly understood. The mission schools that were established on the reservations were known to teach sewing and embroidery skills to their Native students so rudimentary pincushions made for personal use were likely constructed during that period (late 18th and early 19th centuries). It wasn’t until sometime later that the Iroquois began beading pincushions for sale as souvenirs. In 1891, Samuel Welch published his recollections of Buffalo, New York during the 1830s and he wrote that the Seneca from nearby Buffalo Creek were “fabricating embroideries and ornaments… [that]were oftentimes ingeniously wrought, in original designs, in very pretty and artistic patterns.” He mentions that one of the items they were making were [pin] cushions. (Welch 1891:115). His account references the earliest known period that pincushions were being made by the Iroquois.
|Figure 3 - Multi-lobed pincushion with original inscription on the back that it was |
collected at Niagara Falls in 1850. Private collection.
In another account recorded on May 25, 1852, Frances and Theresa Pulszky, two Hungarian exiles, visited the Tuscarora Reservation near Niagara Falls. Theresa wrote that they visited the home of a man of note and that he “greeted us cordially, and satisfied our questions about his mode of life in broken English.… His daughter-in-law was diligently embroidering pincushions.” In describing the beadwork they purchased, Pulszky said how the work was “tastefully… wrought! The same pattern is never repeated; the ornaments are poetically conceived, and executed with a richness of imagination which our manufacturers lack, accustomed as they are, to reproduce a thousand times the same design. To the children of the Great Spirit, the flowers, the birds, and the trees, speak a language, which transcribe in the charming figures, more pleasing to our eye than any artificial invention” (Pulszky and Pulszky 1853 (3): 121–125).
|Figure 4 - From Lewis Henry Morgan's Fifth Regents |
report to the State of New York.
Welch’s account above is evidence that by the 1830s the Seneca were producing pincushions for sale. By 1850, the sale of Indian beadwork was in full swing and one pincushion that was acquired on Bath Island had the following inscription on the back: “Bought at the Bath House on Bath Island, Falls of Niagara, Sept. 27, 1850.” There is also a name after the date but it’s barely legible, though it possibly says Peterman (figure 3). Bath Island was one of several islands in the Goat Island complex. Access to Goat Island was from Bath Island where a visitor would first have to pay a toll. There was a concession at the Bath Island Toll House that sold so called “Indian curiosities.” The pincushion illustrated here was possibly made by Caroline Parker as a very similar example is illustrated in Lewis Henry Morgan’s Fifth Regents Report to the state of New York, January 22, 1851, Plate 19, (figure 4 in this blog posting) and Morgan reported that Caroline had created most of the beadwork for the state collection that would ultimately become the New York State Museum. This snowflake or multi-lobed design was popular during the mid-19th century (see: figures 6-8).
In 2003, the journal of the Society of Bead Researchers titled “Beads,” published an article about Iroquois beadwork in which the author stated that the tradition of raised beadwork began in western New York in the late-eighteenth century. In support of this, the author presented a single pincushion that appears to have the date 1798 inscribed on the back, in ink (Elliot 2003:6). There are several factors that argue against this piece originating from the late eighteenth century. For one, the pincushion is multi-lobed and it has the same floral/star-like motif that were featured in the mid-19th century periodicals mentioned above. Although a few pre-1830 examples of Iroquois beadwork with embryonic floral decorations exist (all on beaded souvenir bags), it’s not until the post-1830 period that stylistic and representational floral designs became prevalent. Multi-lobed pincushions with star/floral-like motifs don’t appear in their work until the second quarter on the 19th century. The designs on pieces from the earliest period of souvenir beadwork were abstract, geometrical and curvilinear. Additionally, the style of beading on pieces from this embryonic period was very linear in its execution, and quite unlike the beading style on the pincushion. Early pieces of souvenir beadwork were likely derived from eighteenth century analogues that were made on hide and decorated with porcupine quills. The technique of using large areas of solid bead-fill in the manner illustrated on this pincushion does not appear in Haudenosaunee beadwork until several decades later. The beading style on this pincushion is consistent with other beaded items that date to the mid-19th century and the design of the pincushion in the bead journal article is almost identical to the one in figure 12. The similarity of the two is striking. The central design motif on each is constructed utilizing an identical lane stitch technique. The construction of the inside star/floral design on figure 12 and the two strings of clear beads that surround it are identical to those on the bead journal pincushion. Additionally, each piece uses two strings of blue and white beads, in the same order, along their outside edge. On the bead journal pincushion, just like the one in figure 12, there are traces of a red silk edge binding material and at one time it likely once had a two-beaded edging like the one in figure 12. Additionally, the beaded floral/star-like pattern on the bead journal pincushion has a paper template beneath the beads – another feature that doesn’t appear in Hausenosaunee beadwork until about the 1840s. Prior to this the linear designs in the beadwork did not allow for the use paper templates.
Furthermore, the beading style on this pincushion is not an early form of raised beadwork as the author of the bead journal article asserts. Raised beadwork is a type of lane stitch that has more beads on the thread than are necessary to cover a given distance. This causes the string of beads, when sewn down onto a base fabric, to form an arch above the surface of the fabric which gives the design a 3-D effect. The beading technique on the bead journal pincushion is clearly not raised beadwork. Rather it is a combination of lane stitch and overlaid or spot stitch, often referred to by Native artisans as flat beadwork and identical to the technique used in figure 12. Raised beadwork doesn’t appear in the art of the Haudenosaunee until the mid-nineteenth century nor is raised beadwork, as the author claims, “unique to the Haudenosaunee” and “made nowhere else in the world.” It’s been observed on Wabanaki beadwork from the third and fourth quarters of the nineteenth century and there are examples of raised beadwork among some of the Algonquian tribes from southern New England. It appears in the work of the Mohegan, Niantic, and the Montauk that date from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (see: Decorative Art of the Indian Tribes of Connecticut, by Frank Speck, Canada Dept. of Mines, Memoir75, Ottawa 1915 and Beads and Beadwork of the American Indians by William Orchard, 1975, Pl XXXVII). A form of raised beadwork also appears in Regency period beadwork from the first quarter of the 19th century in England.
Moreover, the origin of the four digit number on the back of the bead journal pincushion could have an alternative explanation. Other pieces of Iroquois beadwork are occasionally found with three and four digit numbers inked on the inside. Sometimes they represent an accurate date – but not always. Years ago I was offered an old beaded bag by an antique dealer who was unskilled at identifying historic American Indian beadwork. The piece he was offering had the number 1644, in old faded ink, beneath the flap and he was certain that it meant the bag was from that date. The piece was actually an Iroquois floral bag, in the Niagara style, from the mid-19th century yet he assumed that the piece was made in 1644 because of the presumed date. Although the number clearly didn’t represent an accurate date, it was distinctly old and may have been an inventory number or, like the date on the pincushion in the bead journal article, it could have been added years later by someone who mistakenly thought, assumed or was told it was made in 1798. The beading style of the pincushion is clearly from the mid-19th century and I’ve yet to see a beaded Iroquois pincushion that predates the 1830s.
From the collection of
Grant Wade Jonathan.
As evidenced by a circa 1860 stereoview (figure 21), the Iroquois were making much larger pincushions by this date and many were beaded almost exclusively with either white or crystal beads or a combination of the two on a bright red wool fabric. In 1859, Florence Hartley wrote that “the beadwork of the North American Indians is among the most beautiful. The Canadian Indian women sell large quantities to visitors to the Falls of Niagara, and a great deal of it finds its way to our large cities. It is of every imaginable form, and generally is done on a bright scarlet ground with pure white beads.” (Hartley 1859:25).
Precisely who these Canadian Indian women were is debatable. There are too few accounts that specifically mention the tribal origins of the beadworkers whom patrons were soliciting. Unfortunately, this limits our understanding of this marvelous beadwork. Often, references to the Indians are made in the broad sense so the Canadian Indian women could have been from any one of the Six Haudenosaunee Nations that live in Canada.
During this period Haudenosaunee beadworkers developed a fondness for crystal beads. This could have been an evolving esthetic, as clear beads have positive connotations associated with them, or it may have been the only beads available at the time. It’s also possible that their use had a more practical advantage: fewer colors to stock in inventory and leftover beads from one project could easily be used on another. Dated examples indicate that this style was popular until at least the late 1880s. Figure 22 is a Tuscarora example from the National Museum of the American Indian collection. What could be a Seneca piece is illustrated in figure 23. An exceptional cushion from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, decorated in both beads and dyed moosehair, is illustrated in figure 24. These large examples are approximately 8 inches in diameter. Another style of pincushion, though uncommon, is illustrated in figure 25. This style is in the shape of a small rectangular pillow and unusual forms like these may have been made strictly as a decorative item as many are found that are in near perfect condition. The style of beading on this piece appears to be Seneca.
|Figure 21 - One panel from a circa 1860 stereo view.|
|Figure 22 - Tuscarora. From the collection of the National |
Museum of the American Indian. Circa 1860.
|Figure 23 - Possibly Seneca. Late 1850s.|
|Figure 24 - From the collection of the Metropolitian Museum of Art. Possibly Seneca. With moosehair embroidery in the center. Circa 1860.|
Several old images exist of individuals wearing Iroquois pincushions though none are as early as the pincushions in this posting. One of the earliest I have seen is the example in figure 26. This looks to be circa 1900 and from a photographer in Brantford, Ontario suggesting it may have originated from the nearby Six Nations Reserve. The subject in figure 27 is wearing a similar pincushion that is dated 1909 in beads. A hand written note on the back reads: “For my Harold, love, your Allira.” The individual in the circa 1910 real photo postcard (RPPC) (figure 28) is also wearing a similar heart shaped pincushion and this individual is identified on the back as Big Bear, Caughnawaga Reserve [Kahnawake] near Montreal. The unidentified individual in the circa 1910 RPPC in figure 29 is wearing a large, tri-lobed pincushion at his waist.
The Wabanaki also produced pincushions during the 19th century and they were distinctly different from those the Iroquois were making. Most of the early ones I have seen are decorated with both beads and porcupine quills (figure 30). Figures 31 through 33 are other early Mi’kmaq examples.
The earliest image I have seen that contained a Wabanaki pincushion is a circa 1905 postcard of the Mi’kmaq Indian village in Halifax, Nova Scotia (figure 34). The items on the makeshift table might be pincushions or pillows, and they appear to be beaded but the image is not distinct enough to elaborate any further.
|Figure 30 - Likely Mi'kmaq. First quarter of the 19th century.|
|Figure 31 - Likely Mi'kmaq. Pre-1850.|
|Figure 32 - Mi'kmaq - 2nd quarter of the 19th century.|
|Figure 33 - Mi'kmaq. Pre-1850.|
|Figure 34 - Circa 1905 postcard of the Mi'kmaq village in Halifax, NS.|
2003 Beads: Journal of the Society of Bead Researchers, Vol. 15, edited by Karlis Karklins.
1984 The Niagara Falls Whimsey: The Object as a Symbol of Cultural Interface. Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Textiles and Design, the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
1859 Ladies Handbook of Fancy and Ornamental Work Comprising Directions and Patterns for Working in Appliqué, Bead Work, Braiding, Canvass Work, Knitting, Netting, Tatting, Worsted Work, Quilting, Patchwork, & c. & c. Illustrated with 262 engravings. John E. Potter, Publisher, Philadelphia.
2011 “The Remarkable Caroline G. Parker Mountplasant, Seneca Wolf Clan.” Western New York Heritage Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring.
Morgan, Lewis Henry
1850 “Report to the Regents of the University, upon the Articles Furnished to the Indian Collection.” In The Third Annual Report of the Regents of the University on the Condition of the State Cabinet of Natural History and Antiquarian Collection, Annexed Thereto pp. 63 – 93. Revised Edition: Printed by Weed, Parsons and Company, Albany.
1852 “Report on the Fabrics, Inventions, Implements and Utensils of the Iroquois, Made to the Regents of the University, Jan. 22, 1851; Illustrative of the Collection Annexed to the State Cabinet of Natural History, with Illustrations.” In The Fifth Annual Report of the Regents of the University on the Condition of the State Cabinet of Natural History and the Historical and Antiquarian Collection, Annexed Thereto, pp 68 – 117. Printed by Richard H. Pease, Albany.
Pulszky, Francis and Theresa
1853 White . Red . Black – Sketches of Society in the United States During the Visit of Their Guest, in Three Volumes – London: Trubner and Co.
Welch, Samuel M.
1891 Recollections of Buffalo During the Decade From 1830 to 1840, or Fifty Years Since. Descriptive and Illustrative, with Incidents and Anecdotes. Buffalo: Peter Paul & Brothers.