Friday, July 22, 2011

Old Images of People with Iroquois Beaded Bags

     During the nineteenth century, ladies’ magazines like Godey’s Ladies Book, Peterson’s Magazine, Demorest’s and  Harper’s Bazaar kept women abreast of Paris fashion trends and allowed the average woman the opportunity to venture into the fashion world of the elite and upper classes.
     Joan Severa, Curator Emerita and costume history consultant for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Museum wrote that
[t]he nineteenth century was in a very large part based on appearances and… there was a powerful drive towards a “proper” fa├žade. It was of tremendous, almost moral significance during the nineteenth century that one appear cultured (Severa 1995: xv).

     It’s hard to underestimate the importance of fashion in the nineteenth century.
Fashion is extremely aristocratic in its tendencies,” wrote Mary P. Merrifield in 1854. “Every change emanates from the highest circles, who reject it when it has descended to the vulgar. No new form of dress was ever successful which did not originate among the aristocracy. From the ladies of the court, the fashions descended through all the ranks of society, until they at last died a natural death among the cast-off clothes of the housemaid” (Merrifield 1854).

     Literally thousands of mid-nineteenth century photographs of stylishly dressed women, young and old, have survived and in a small number of them the sitter is holding or wearing a Haudenosaunee beaded bag. They testify to the prestige and the prevailing taste for Hodenosaunee beadwork during the middle decades of the nineteenth century and it speaks to the especially high regard they held for these purses, an appreciation that would contribute to the preservation of the beaded bags now so prized by collectors.
     The transition from the old style of souvenir bags that were decorated with curvilinear and geometric designs to the Niagara floral style took place sometime in the early to mid-1840s, and examples of these bags are seen from time to time in daguerreotypes from this period. 
     The daguerreotype process, invented in 1839, was the first practical photographic method. It produced a sharp, positive image on a highly polished, silver-coated copper plate, but fell out of favor by 1860, replaced by the less expensive ambrotype. Introduced in 1854, the ambrotype process produced a negative image on a glass plate that could be viewed as a positive image by the addition of a black paper backing. It fell out of favor by the mid-1860s, replaced by the less expensive tintype and prints that were made on paper, such as cabinet cards and carte-de-visites.  Daguerreotypes were in vogue for about twenty years and ambrotypes for at least ten years so their lifespan nearly parallels the peak production years of the Niagara floral style. Tintypes and prints produced on paper first appeared in the mid-1850s. Thus, there is some overlap in the photographic processes that were in use.
     With a little effort, these early images can be accurately dated by the clothing styles worn by the subjects.  In the early years of photography, having a portrait taken by the fashionable daguerreotype process was a grand event for which people wore the newest and most stylish outfit in their wardrobe. By studying nineteenth-century fashion trends an old photograph can often be dated to within a year or two of when it was taken.

     For instance, in this early daguerreotype, a young woman wears a cartridge-pleated dress with a shortened waistline, a shirred, softly pleated front, a small collar of fine lace, and tight sleeves. These details, along with her hairstyle, suggest a circa 1847 date for this image. The long stems and ovate flowers on her Niagara-style bag indicate that even at this early date, the bilaterally symmetrical floral patterns were well developed into the recognizable Niagara style.  The flap is still scalloped and a hint of scalloping can be seen along the edge of the bag. 
        In another daguerreotype of an unidentified middle-aged couple, the woman’s dress has a long, board-like bodice. It wasn’t until 1853 that a more comfortable corset appeared. Her somewhat plain white work collar and sleeve frills, the tight sleeves of her dress, and her hairstyle, with the heavy side wings of hair that are widened over the ears, indicate a date of circa 1850. Her Niagara style bag has large, ovate florals and long thick stems and a white bead edge fringe.  The flap of the bag is more rectangular, and the bottom of the bag is rounded.

     This daguerreotype of Henrietta and Harry Gires is dated 1852.The bag in this photograph appears to have a bilaterally symmetrical design, which points to an early date. The lower edge of the flap is curved, and there is a beaded fringe along the perimeter of the bag. 
    The old photos in the following images not only help to contextualize the Niagara style of souvenir bags but they also illustrate the diversity of design that existed within this early floral tradition. Literally thousands of these bags still exist, and though they all have stylistic similarities, no two are exactly alike.
The earliest known daguerreotype of someone with a Niagara style bag. Circa 1845.
Mid-to late 1850s daguerreotype.
Early to mid 1850s daguerreotype.
Mid - to late 1850s daguerreotype.

Circa 1850 daguerreotype.
Circa 1860 daguerreotype.

Early to mid -1850s daguerreotype - the extra expense paid to the photographer to  hand color the bag testifies to its
importance to the sitter.

Daguerreotype - 1840s with a different style of Iroquois bag from the period.

Circa 1860 ambrotype. The style of the bag reflects the change going on in the Niagara style at this time. The ovate flowers from the earlier period have evolved into elongated leaf-like clusters and the long stems connecting the flowers have essentially dissapeared.
Another anbrotype from the early 1860s.

Another ambrotype from the early 1860s. The bags from this period had much more efficient designs and were not as elaborately beaded as those from the 1840s and 1850s.

Circa 1860 ambrotype with yet another style of Iroquois bag being made during that period. I've seen documented examples in this style that were collected from the Mohawk at Kahnawake (Caughnawaga).

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.

Visit my website to see more historic Iroquois beadwork.

References Cited

Merrifield, Mary Philadelphia
1854   Dress as Fine Art, London (Reprinted from articles published the previous year)

Severa, Joan
1995   Dressed for the Photographer – Ordinary Americans & Fashion 1840 – 1900. The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio & London, England.