Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Rare 19th Century Photograph of an Individual Wearing a Wabanaki Beaded Bag

I’ve been a collector since I was a kid. I’m not sure what motivates a child to start collecting; maybe it’s in our DNA.  But I started collecting coins and stamps when I was still in grade school and by the time I entered high school, I was collecting vintage matchbooks, postcards, old cameras and photographs. The coins, stamps, cameras and old matchbooks have long found new homes but my lifelong obsession with old photographs continues.
My interest in Northeast Woodland beadwork has focused my collecting interest in the photographs and recently I found a very rare image that I would like to share with you (figure 1).  

Figure 1 - Carte-de-visit (CDV) of a young woman dressed in Wabanaki beadwork and wearing a Wabanaki beaded bag.  From the 1860s. Photographer: M. G. Trask, Bangor, Maine.

Figure 1 detail.

Figure 1, bag detail.

I’m not sure if the subject is Wabanaki but her accouterments certainly are. Of particular interest to me in the photograph is the beaded bag the subject is wearing. In all the years I’ve spent collecting these old images, this is the only one I have found where the subject is, without doubt, wearing a Wabanaki beaded bag. In comparison, I have seen a hundred or more images where the subject was wearing an Iroquois beaded bag.
Over the years, I’ve seen many examples of Wabanaki bags in this style, often described as being vase shaped or in the shape of an inverted keyhole, and most were dated from about the 1870s to as late as 1900. This photograph is from the 1860s which indicates that they were being made at an earlier date.  Stylistically, the bag is well-developed, so this form could have originated even earlier. This is only one style of Wabanaki beaded bag and other styles exists. Whether this represents the community or family they were from or is a style particular to the maker is unknown but the flowers and leaf patterns on the vase shaped bags are stylistically distinctive. Many of the flowers are daisy-like and can have as many as fifteen petals or as few as five and they usually have squared-off or gently rounded ends (figure 2).

Figure 2

The leaf patterns on Wabanaki bags are often in the shape of a heart or ovate and usually fully beaded.  Like the Iroquois, the Wabanaki also incorporated paper patterns over which their flower and leaf designs were beaded. The main stem of the floral design often rises from the center base of the bag in a flat bundle of beads, each string of which connects to a flower or leaf. These stems occasionally had bi-lobed or tri-lobed buds or ears connected to them.  Generally, this style of Wabanaki bag didn’t have a two-bead or zippered edging along the outside, although they are sometimes seen with a beaded fringe like the one in the photograph.

Raised beadwork is a technique of beading that is generally associated with both the Tuscaroras and the Mohawks. The high style of raised beadwork employed by the Mohawks appears both on bags and other items of fanciful beadwork. It doesn’t appear in Haudenosaunee beadwork until the mid-nineteenth century. Interestingly, some of the Wabanaki bags in this style incorporate a type of raised beadwork. Some Wabanaki examples I have studied have a definite arch to the beads that was brought about by adding padding beneath the paper patterns (figures 3 and 4) and this technique is evident on many examples of 19th century Wabanaki beadwork. 

Figure 3 - Example of  a Wabanaki beaded bag with a form of raised beadwork

Detail of the bag in figure 3.

Figure 4 - Another example of a Wabanaki beaded bag with raised beadwork.

Detail of the bag in figure 4.

In comparison, some Tuscarora examples that employ a spiral weave, achieve this raised beadwork effect by beading over a single string of beads (see figures 5a-c).

Figure 5a, showing a method of achieve raised beadwork in Tuscarora work.

Figure 5a

Figure 5b.

It has been reported in the literature that raised beadwork is not exclusive to the Iroquois as it has also been observed in the beadwork of Algonquian Speaking tribes from Southern New England. Examples of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century beadwork of the Mohegan and Niantic also employ a type of raised beadwork. See: Decorative Art of the Indian Tribes of Connecticut by Frank Speck, Canada Department of Mines, Memoir 75, Ottawa, 1915 and Beads and Beadwork of the American Indians by William Orchard [1929] 1975:Pl. XXXVII. It’s also been found on the work of the Montauk from Long Island and a form of raised beadwork has been identified on some Wabanaki beaded bags and hats from the second half of the nineteenth century. There was also a form of raised Berlin Work that was popular in Europe and America at the time the Iroquois were developing their own raised beadwork (Hartley 1859:87).

What follows is a representative sample of bags in the vase or inverted keyhole shape that illustrates the variability within this particular style. All of these date to the second half of the 19th century.

If you have an interest in Northeast Woodland beadwork you might find my book of interest. Titled: A Cherished Curiosity: TheSouvenir Beaded Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art by GerryBiron. 
Published in 2012. This is a brand new, hard cover book with dust jacket. 184 pages and profusely illustrated. 8.5 x 11 inches. ISBN 978-0-9785414-1-5.
Since the early nineteenth century, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) beaded bags have been admired and cherished by travelers to Niagara Falls and other tourist destinations for their aesthetic beauty, detailed artistry, and the creative spirit of their makers.  A long neglected and misunderstood area of American Indian artistry, "souvenir" art as it's come to be called, played a crucial role in the subsistence of many Indian families during the nineteenth century. This lavishly illustrated history examines these bags – the most extensively produced dress accessory made by the Haudenosaunee – along with the historical development of beadworking both as an art form and as a subsistence practice for Native women.
In this book, the beadwork is considered in the context of art, fashion, and the tourist economy of the nineteenth century. Illustrated with over one hundred and fifty of the most important – and exquisite – examples of these bags, along with a unique collection of historical photographs of the bags in their original context, this book provides essential reading for collectors and researchers of this little understood area of American Indian art.

References Cited:

Hartley, Florence
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.


  1. another fine chapter Gerry, thank you very much! Might you happen to know what was used for padding, under the Wabanaki raised beadwork?

    1. Hi Rhonda,
      Not sure what the padding is. All my Wabanaki pieces are currently on exhibit at the Castallani Museum so I don't have access to them.

  2. Excellent - thank you for this information! Note the Wabanaki double curve motif down center of her skirt - The 3 trade silver platter brooches she wears, the peacock feathers in her beaded "crown" style headdress. Says the photographer was Bangor Maine -so most likely Penobscot woman. Have you circulated this among the Penobscot to see if they can identify her? May I do so? Bobby Ann Packwood -

    1. Hi Bobby,
      No I haven't circulated it among the Penobscot. I only recently acquired this photograph and thought I would do a blog posting on it. You're welcomed to share it with anyone.
      All the best,
      Gerry Biron

    2. I just noticed that she is also wearing a wampum belt and a wide, wampum necklace. Yes, the photographer is from Bangor and it would certainly suggest that her outfit and accouterments are from Indian Island. There were many non-Natives in the 19th century who were into playing Indian and getting photographed as such. There was a scholar, whose name escapes me right now, who wrote a book about this a few years ago. I've owned many such images over the years. Some of those folks belonged to the Improved Order of Red Men, a fraternal society, whose members routinely dressed as Indians. There were many non-Natives who also performed as Indians in plays, or worked in the circus. It is possible that that the subject's outfit belonged to the photographer who used it as a prop for his customers who were looking to be portrayed as an Indian. This was a common practice among artists and photographers during this period. It would be great if she could be identified, especially if she is Native.

    3. i know that Louis Belmont "Rolling Thunder" Newells father Thomas was married to Addie Allard at one time. she was white, but i found online a bottle for sale at an auction. . she also had identified herself as a doctor/doctress on a census record after she remarried. Thomas was also an Indian doctor so i'm almost positive the AC Newell on the bottle was her -also her middle initial was C. "Rare antique aqua glass bottle for The Wonderful Indian Liniment. Prepared by Indian Doctress A C Newell Oldtown Maine. Original old paper label with claims for medical cures . Some loss and shifting of paper label. Bottle measures 5" x 2 3/8". Pontil mark on base. No flaws to glass." was what it stated on the auction info

  3. then you have John w Johnson who married Susan Newell, who was Thomas's brother so she was Rolling thunder's aunt. anyway, she was native, but her husband John was white. however he believed himself to be native until his family identified him while travelling in his home town, he had apparently been kidnapped at a very young age probably by canadian Micmac, and he was raised in Canada until he ran away at age 11, and ended up with the Penobscot where he met Susan Newell. he truely believed himself to be native until he met his bio family again and he started to get old childhood memories back apparently. Susan had passed away and he remarried but always had the urge to travel as he spent his whole life in shows and selling baskets, doing other work


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