Saturday, August 27, 2011

Unusual 19th Century Iroquois Floral Bags

     During the nineteenth century, the western New York Haudenosaunee, and particularly the Tuscaroras, were on the frontlines of the world’s most exciting and emerging tourist market.  Many of the Victorians who came to Niagara Falls were conscious of fashion and any stylish dress accessories they would have acquired there – such as beaded bags – would have reflected their sense of refinement and taste.
    The beaded bags that the Haudenosaunee produced for the tourist trade are distinctive and changed stylistically over time. These changes occurred gradually but, as a general rule, distinguishable style refinements can be categorized and placed into specific time periods.
Figure 1 - Typical floral bag in the Niagara style. Private collection.
During the classic period of Haudenosaunee souvenir beadwork (1800-1840s), many bags featured curvilinear and geometric designs and organic motifs. Not long after the dawn of the Victorian era however, which began in June of 1837 with the reign of Queen Victoria, a major design transformation – the rise of the Niagara floral style – took place in Haudenosaunee beadwork (figure 1). This example is typical of bags seen in this style. The flowers were frequently ovate in shape and often delineated in two shades of the same hue. Some researchers consider this a diagnostic feature of the style. The color combinations were, in many instances, a medium blue and pale blue; wine red and pink; solid yellow and transparent yellow; and white and crystal. 
     As a general rule, the earliest bags in this floral style (mid-1840s to mid-1850s) had long, thick beaded stems, usually in dark transparent green, though blue is occasionally used and there are other exceptions.  Earlier bags also had smaller beads than later examples. Despite the general diagnostic rule stated above, all of the primary and secondary colors were used on these bags. Red, white, pink, rose, pumpkin, crystal, opaque greasy yellow and transparent yellow, gold, and various distinct hues of blue beads were the predominant colors used. From time to time, purple, violet and green are seen in the flowers and other combinations are found. Occasionally, green beads were used for flowers, but generally green was reserved for stems and occasionally for leaves. Numerous examples from the early period of this floral style had bilaterally symmetrical designs. As many as sixteen colors have been observed on unique examples of these bags and though some beadwork enthusiasts cling to the notion that all the pieces in this style were made in the four diagnostic color combinations, I will demonstrate that the overwhelming evidence doesn’t support this notion. 
    Deborah Harding indicated in her thesis on Iroquois beaded bags that unlike the irregular patterning of colors found in the earlier curvilinear and geometric style (1800-1840s), the Niagara floral style (or Euro-floral style as she refers to it) exhibited “a very regular patterning of color choices.”  Although the use of specific color combinations such as dark blue/light blue, red/pink and opaque green/transparent green can be considered a diagnostic feature of these bags, “[s]tatistically, however, only the combinations of opaque dark blue with opaque light blue, and opaque green with transparent green showed any significance.” She said that opaque red with opaque pink and transparent red with transparent pink combinations “produced results of low statistical significance” (Harding 1994:61).
     Pieter Hovens has written that [d]uring the second half of the nineteenth-century floral designs. . . carried positive associations with ideals of womanhood and domesticity, explaining why the floral beadwork used by Native women to ornament dress and household accessories was so popular with Victorians consumers (Hovens 2010:26). 
    Perhaps as an accommodation to Victorian fashion trends, the floral motifs on these bags became the predominate beadwork style that would be made and sold by the Haudenosaunee during the early Victorian period and the overwhelming evidence suggests that these bags were made in many Haudenosaunee communities. Museum and private collections contain hundreds of examples that were either collected from or are attributed to the Tuscaroras, Senecas, Onondagas and the Mohawk. Because so many of these bags were sold at Niagara Falls, they are generally referred to as Niagara floral-style.

Figure 2 - C. 1860 CDV of a lady, possibly Seneca, with a Niagara floral-style
beaded bag. Private collection. Photographer: C.A. Douglas & Co., Buffalo, NY
It's unusual to find early images of Native people wearing these bags but in the circa 1860, hand-tinted, carte-de-visite (CDV) in figure 2, what was likely a Seneca woman is wearing one from her waist belt in the form of a chatelaine purse. Did she make the bag? That is certainly an unanswered question but in all probability she did. 
     Other evidence suggests that this floral style could have originated with the Seneca from the Tonawanda Reservation in western New York (see: A Cherished Curiosity – The Niagara Floral-style Beaded Bag in the Victorian Era in American Indian Art Magazine, Autumn 2010). This particular blog posting will focus on the unusual examples that were done in the Niagara floral style and will highlight those bags that do not fit the diagnostic characteristics described above. 

Figure 3 - Niagara floral style bag beaded on silk. Collection of
Jeff Graybill.
    The use of silk ribbon as an edge trim on early souvenir bags may have been occasioned by events in France. “Large stocks of ribbons were dumped on the Indian market when the French Revolution [1789-1799] enforced in France a rigid simplicity of dress” (Brasser 1976: 38). Franklin Allen points out that during the period from 1841 to 1846, “there was a noticeable falling off in the demand for silk goods” (Allen 1904:32). These dates coincide with the rapid decline in the use of silk edging on beaded bags and with the introduction of the Niagara floral style that, more often than not, was beaded on velvet and used a cotton ribbon/hem tape as the edge binding. But not all bags in this style were done this way.    

Figure 4 - C. 1830s Seneca bag with a rudimentary form of the Niagara
style in the center panel. Private collection.
     The origin of this floral style has long been a topic of discussion among collectors and researchers alike.  Evidence in the way of dated examples and early photographs suggests it emerged during the early to mid-1840s, in the waning years of the classic period of Haudenosaunee beadwork. But it’s possible that this style developed even earlier than that. During the transition from the curvilinear style to the Niagara floral style, Native beadworkers were experimenting with the form and occasionally examples are found where the entire bag was beaded on silk. The purse in figure 3 is an early example in the Niagara floral style and it may date to the late 1830s or early 1840s. The stem style on this bag has an incipient representation of the thick stems that would come to dominate the designs on mature examples of the early Niagara floral style. The stem on this bag is also very similar to one on a Seneca example from the 1830s (figure 4). This example has a rudimentary form of the Niagara floral-style in the center panel of the bag. 

Figure 5 - Early floral bag beaded on silk.
Collection of Jeff Graybill.
The bag in figure 4 may be the genesis of the style and adds weight to the argument that this floral style originated with the Seneca from western New York. The bead colors used to delineate the flowers and leaves on the example in figure 3 are unusual. This bag also has a two-bead edging along the perimeter, a beading technique that is usually found on pieces from the classic period of Haudenosaunee beadwork (1800-1840s) and the shape of the bag is a variation of the hex shape found on many early bags.

Figure 6 - Early Niagara style bag beaded on silk.
Private collection.

Two other unusual bags in the early Niagara style (figures 5 & 6) are also beaded on silk. Though the elongated shape of both bags is similar, the beading style on each is different and the floral forms and use of color on figure 6 is not typical of the style. This bag also has a false flap with a beaded fringe.

Figure 7 - Early floral bag that is beaded on silk. The bilaterally symmetrical
design is more typical of the type we see on these yet some of the color combinations used are atypical.
Collection of Jeff Graybill.
The bilateral symmetry and the floral designs on the silk bag in figure 7 are more typical of those observed in the Niagara floral style yet the color choices used throughout are not the diagnostic color combinations usually associated with this floral style. The example in figure 8 is beaded on black velvet and the design motifs are very similar to those on the bag in figure 7 yet again, the diagnostic color combinations are not used throughout.

Figure 8 - Beaded bag on black velvet in the Niagara floral style. C. 1850. The color combinations are atypical.
Private collection.

Figure 9 - A floral bag beaded on silk with unusual color combinations on some of the flowers. The flowers are also depicted in various stages of blossoming, a technique that was associated with some Seneca beadworkers. Private collection.

     The images that follow are a small sampling of more unusual bags that do not fit the standard diagnostic for the Niagara floral-style. I’ve seen hundreds of these unusual examples over the years and it’s obvious, even from a cursory examination of these bags, that Native beadworkers were not limiting themselves to this so-called four-color theory.
     The possible evolution of these bags from the Seneca model described in the American Indian Art Magazine article cited earlier as well as the similarity of the design in the early Seneca bag (figure 4) and the photograph of what was likely a Seneca woman wearing a Niagara floral bag in figure 2 suggests that the style could have originated with the Seneca in the late 1830s or early 1840s. Within a very short period of time, and no doubt due to the bags’ popularity, other Haudenosaunee communities started making them.
     Vast quantities of these bags were made and sold after 1845 and in all likelihood, commercial motives influenced the rapid dispersion of the style to other Haudenosaunee communities. These bags were pervasive, and the extent to which they were admired by Victorian women no doubt fueled the dissemination of the style throughout the region. The style had become so popular and widespread that mid-nineteenth century ladies magazines occasionally ran illustrated articles that described to their readers how they could make their own (see: Phillips 1998:219, figure 6.18).
Figure 10 - A circa 1850 Niagara floral bag with atypical color combinations used to delineate the flowers.
Private collection.
Figure 11 - An unusual treatment of the flowers on this circa 1850 floral bag. Private collection.
Figure 12 - A Niagara floral bags from the 1850s with atypical color combinations for the flowers.
Private collection.
Figure 13 - Another C. 1850 Niagara style bag
with atypical color combinations for the flowers.
Private collection.
Figure 14 - Circa 1850 with atypical color combinations.
Private collection.
Figure 15 - From the 1850s with atypical color combinations in some of
the floral motifs. Private collection.
Figure 16 - Very unusual color use and design on this early floral bag. The edge binding
is done in silk. Private collection.

Figure 17 - An early floral bag with blue/black and red/black bead combinations.
This 1840s bag also has a silk edge binding. There are 14 unique bead colors on this example.

Figure 18 - Daguerreotype (1843-1845).
     Figure 18 illustrates the earliest known Niagara floral bag in a photograph. In this recently found image, the style of the young girl’s dress along with its tight sleeves, elongated bodice, and shallow V neckline date this rare image to the 1843-1845 period. Unlike many daguerreotypes from the mid-nineteenth century where the sitters wore their most fashionable outfits, these seem like plain folks.  The older woman’s dress is very unfashionable for the period and was likely just a generic house/work dress with a shapeless, practical jacket.  The bag must have been a prized possession.

Detail of the bag in figure 18.

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

Allen, Franklin
1904   The Silk Industry of the World at the Opening of the Twentieth Century. Published by The Silk Association of America.

Brasser, Ted J.
1976   Bo’Jou, Neejee! Profiles of Canadian Indian Art. Published by the National Museum of Man. The National Museums of Canada.

Harding, Deborah
1994   Bagging the Tourist Market: A Descriptive and Statistical Study of 19th Century Iroquois Beaded Bags. Masters Thesis. Anthropology Department, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Hovens, Pieter
2010   The Ten Kate Collection 1882-1888 in European Review of Native American Studies, Monograph 4. Series Editor: Christian F. Feest. National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, The Netherlands, ZKF Publishers.

Phillips, Ruth B.
1998   Trading Identities – The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast 1700-1900. University of Washington Press & McGill-Queen’s University Press.