Sunday, October 20, 2013

Puzzle Pouches

     The bags in figure 1 are generally referred to as puzzle pouches. The name comes from the split thongs that ingeniously extend from the top to form a puzzle-lock that kept the bag closed. 
Fig. 1 - A group of early bags on animal hide. These are generally referred to as puzzle pouches. Early to mid-nineteenth century.
Though little has been published about them, they appear to have been popular in places where the French first established their missions.  Speck pictures two in his monograph on the Iroquois (figure 2).
Fig. 2 - Photo from Speck’s monograph on the Iroquois illustrating two puzzle pouches.
The one on the left is on black buckskin, moosehair decorated on one side only and fringed with white beads. He says it was collected in the Iroquois area. The one on the far right is also on buckskin, covered on both sides with dyed porcupine quills and edged with beads. Speck indicates that some of the dyes used were in part commercial which would suggest a mid-nineteen century date for this piece. He suggests that the pouch is most likely of Algonkian origin (Speck [1945] 1982:6). The pouch on the left is quite early and possibly from the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
Fig. 3 - Puzzle pouch, dated 1834. From the Berkshire Museum collection. 
     The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, has a dated example with an old note that reads: “Procured by R.C. Baldwin of the Western Indians in 1834” (figure 3). This pouch has a turtle motif on one side and a central sun motif on the other. Both Haudenosaunee and Algonquian speaking groups in the northeast were making these bags and over time, their use spread as far west as the Great Lakes and beyond (figures 4 and 5).
Fig. 4 - Puzzle pouch, possibly Sioux. Late 19th to early 20th century.

Fig. 5 - Puzzle pouch, possibly Crow, c. 1920.

The undulating design along the perimeter of the pouch in figure 6 is similar to the celestial dome motif on the Iroquois bag in figure 7 but the central motif on this puzzle pouch looks Delaware. The Delaware were guests of the Oneidas in the early 1700s, and after the Revolutionary War some of them removed to the Six Nations Reserve in Canada where this bag might have originated.
Fig. 6 - Puzzle pouch, both sides shown; possibly Delaware. Glass beads (white, pink and grey), and a silk ribbon edge binding. Early nineteenth century.

Fig. 7 - Beaded bag Haudenosaunee type, possibly Seneca. Glass beads, black velvet fabric, silk ribbon edge binding. 7 inches high by 6.5 inches wide.  Circa 1830. The undulating celestial dome motif along the perimeter of this bag is most often encountered on clothing. This is an uncommon application of the design on a beaded bag. Inside the sky-dome is a tri-lobed motif that may be a representation of the earth-tree from the Haudenosaunee creation story. It’s very similar to a border design on a skirt in the Rochester Museum and Science Center (no. 70.89.61) attributed to the Seneca beadworker Caroline Parker.
     Puzzle pouches date back to the late eighteenth century and they may have been inspired by the miser or stocking purses that were popular as early as the mid-eighteenth century (figure 8).
Fig. 8 – Two ladies miser purses. Mid-nineteenth century. 
Although referred to as miser purses today, they were formally known as "long purses," "short purses" or "gentlemen's purses." Similar to the puzzle pouches, miser purses were used to hold coins that were inserted into a central, slotted opening. The coins were then held secure by rings that were slid down over the outside of the purse, to guard against the coins falling through the slit. Women generally wore them hung over a belt. Men’s purses were up to three times longer than a woman’s purse and men generally kept them in a pocket. Some scholars consider them a revival of the medieval practice of carrying coins in the extremities of an old sock.  Like the puzzle pouches, the design ensured that coins were secure and difficult to lose.    
Fig. 9 - Puzzle pouch, possibly Haudenosaunee, glass beads (blue and white), silk edge binding and silk inlays.  4.2 inches wide. Early nineteenth century.

      The bag in figure 9 is another early example and the surface of the bag is decorated with porcelain white and translucent blue beads and edged with a green silk ribbon. It also has silk ribbon inlays. On some early Iroquois beaded bags the overall field of decoration is monochromatic with the designs created in all white or nearly all white beadwork, in a characteristically linear fashion (see figure 3.4 in A Cherished Curiosity). Beaded on the front of figure 9 is a row of inverted triangles; on the reverse the triangles are beaded along the left and right margins of the pouch. The example in the Berkshire Museum has similar triangles along the perimeter. The anthropologist Frank Speck describes a comparable motif on a Wabanaki wampum belt from the same period that he said represented the tribal wigwams of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq (Speck 1915:501). Of course this is no assurance that the triangles on the puzzle pouches had the same connotation. Other designs, such as the diamond, sun, four-directional cross and double-curve motifs are found on both late-eighteenth century and early-nineteenth century examples of material culture and these designs may have a shared sensibility. It’s not likely their signification changed just because the medium they were applied to did. Some early souvenir bags have these same beaded triangles and this could be diagnostic of Iroquois work (figure 10).
Fig. 10 - Beaded bag, Northeast Woodland type, likely Haudenosaunee. Glass beads, black velvet fabric and silk ribbon edge binding. 7.6 inches high by 6.8 inches wide. Circa 1830s. Similar to a bag in the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester, NY (#C268) that is attributed to the Seneca of Buffalo Creek.

 The anthropologist Arthur Parker informs us that two parallel bead strings along the perimeter of a design on Seneca work represent the earth (Parker 1912:613). So the triangles on this piece could be literally interpreted as tribal wigwams sitting on terra firma, or more broadly they could represent a village or a Nation.
Fig. 11 - Puzzle pouch, possibly Haudenosaunee. Glass beads, mostly white with a scattering of red, green, black and blue, 3.4 inches wide. Early to mid-nineteenth century.
    The example in figure 11 is decorated mostly with white beads with a scattering of green, red, blue, and black beads. It came with an old, hand-written note that reads: “My grandfather bought this when he was peddling wooden ware out west among the Indians of an Indian girl.”  In the early nineteenth century (when this bag was made), “out west” was likely a reference to the Niagara frontier. The central sun-like feature on one side of this pouch could be a representation of the celestial or world tree from the Haudenosaunee creation story (see A Cherished Curiosity for more info on this) and the reverse of the pouch has beaded triangles. This seems to have been a common design element on pieces from the first half of the nineteenth century.
Fig. 12 - Two diminutive double puzzle pouches, possibly Haudenosaunee. The larger pouch is 3.2 inches wide, the smaller one is 2.2 inches wide. First half of the nineteenth century.
     The construction of the double puzzle pouches in figure 12 are more like the miser pouches described above that were made to hang over a belt. The diminutive size of the pouch in figure 12a suggests that it may have been made for a doll and the beading style points to a 1830s date. It also has the beaded triangles along the top flap.  Figure 12b also has the triangles on both sides of the bag. Puzzle pouches were almost exclusively beaded on hide, unlike bags that were made for the souvenir trade which were usually beaded on cloth.
     It’s also possible that Caroline Parker, the Seneca beadworker from the Tonowanda Reservation in western New York, produced puzzle pouches. In January of 1850, Lewis Henry Morgan traveled from the Tonawanda Reservation to Albany where he delivered a number of objects that he collected from Caroline Parker. She gifted Morgan’s brother-in-law, Charles T. Potter, a purse, which he acknowledged in a letter dated January 20, 1850, to Caroline. In it he writes that her kind present was “very beautiful and acceptable… We could not open the purse for a good while, it is very ingenious. I shall value it very much indeed” (Tooker 1994:68).
Fig. 13 - Three mid-nineteenth century Seneca puzzle pouches. These all incorporate a central floral motif that is similar to the one on the pincushion in figure 14. 
     It’s impossible to know what this piece looked like or if it was actually a puzzle pouch although the description suggests that it was. A number of mid-nineteenth century Seneca puzzle pouches exist (figure 13) but it would be conjecture to attribute them to Caroline Parker. She is generally given credit for producing most of the beadwork that was illustrated in Lewis Henry Morgan’s Regents Reports to Cabinet of State (NY) that appeared in the early 1850s. In one of them is a pincushion (figure 14) with a central floral/star motif that is similar to those depicted on the pouches in figure 13.
Fig. 14 - Illustration of a pincushion likely made by Caroline Parker. From Morgan’s fifth regent’s report, 1851, plate 18.
      There are still many unanswered questions about puzzle pouches and very few documented examples exist. Perhaps in time, we will learn more about them. What follows is a small gallery of puzzle pouches that I have come across, many of which are of unknown origin.
Fig. 15 - Puzzle pouch, mid to late nineteenth century. Possibly Delaware.

Fig. 16 - Puzzle pouch, mid to late nineteenth century.

Fig. 17 - Puzzle pouch. Possibly Meskwaki/Fox. 

Fig. 18 - Puzzle pouch. Looks to be mid-19th century. No other info available.

Fig 19 - Puzzle pouch, second half of the nineteenth century. Possibly Potawatomi. 

Fig. 20 - Puzzle pouch, mid to late nineteenth century. 

Instructions for making a puzzle pouch can be found on this website.

References Cited

Biron, Gerry
2012   A Cherished Curiosity: The Souvenir Beaded Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art.

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.

Parker, Arthur C.
1912  “Certain Iroquois Tree Myths and Symbols” in the American Anthropologist, Vol. 14

Speck, Frank
1915  “The Eastern Algonkian Wabanaki Confederacy” in the American Anthropologist, Vol. 17.
 [1945] 1982 “The Iroquois – A Study in Cultural Evolution.” Cranbrook Institute of Science Bulletin Twenty-Three. Second Edition.

Tooker, Elisabeth
1994   Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material Culture. University of Arizona Press.


  1. interesting Blog Post.... but I want to know how the puzzle purses work. Nowhere do you say or show how they function.

  2. Check out this website as they have some info on making them.