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  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.
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. 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.
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 and her immediate family are 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. One item 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 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.
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.
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
1915 “The Eastern Algonkian Wabanaki Confederacy” in the American Anthropologist, Vol. 17.
 1982 “The Iroquois – A Study in Cultural Evolution.” Cranbrook Institute of Science Bulletin Twenty-Three. Second Edition.
1994 Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material Culture. University of Arizona Press.