Two-Bears Canoe Cup: A Woodsman’s Water Dipper


Some antique rustic accessories – an elegant faux bois mirror, for instance – evoke refined indoor living, while others more strongly reflect the earthy lifestyles of outdoorsmen.  Canoe cups are a good example of the latter. 

Wooden canoe cups were a practical accessory that wilderness travelers used to dip drinking water from a lake or stream before water quality was a concern. They were typically made from a tree burl, often maple, that was hollowed out and shaped with a jackknife or crooked knife.  The naturally round portion of the burl served as the cup, while wood extending from the burl served as an integral handle.  The handle was usually punctured or carved with an open slot for fitting a leather thong, braided cord, or metal clip so that the cup could be attached to the traveler’s belt – thus the alternative name for canoe cups as “belt cups.”

burl canoe cupThe majority of canoe cups hail from Quebec, and less commonly from Maine and the Maritime Provinces.  The strong Quebecois tradition of crafting canoe cups has roots in the early fur trade as French voyageurs came into contact with Native tribes and adopted their practice of making drinking cups from tree burls.  While some cups found on the market today are unadorned (right), the more beguiling examples are decorated with carved and/or painted animals and landscapes of the northwoods and waterways. 

two bears canoe cupThe canoe cup in our current inventory is a good example of typical decorative themes and techniques.  Two bears with raised paws, perhaps depicting a fighting stance, are slightly relief-carved and painted, and a wash of paint at their feet represents tufts of grass.  The interior is carved to accentuate the natural heart-shape of the burl, which is also a fairly common treatment.  The varnished surface and metal snap clip help to date this cup to circa 1930.

The two-bears cup has painted initials, presumably of the person who made and owned it.  Some cups, however, were made by guides not for their own use, but to give as gifts to the “sports” who hired them – men of means from cities who traveled north to hunt and fish.  Images of hunting and fishing implements and game were a popular decorative theme, as seen on the cups from our past inventory, below.  The cup with the belt toggle carved in the shape of a canoe and a painted fish also displays the name of a well-known fishing river, the Mattawin.

canoe cup with fishcanoe cup with deer

    trout canoe cupcanoe toggle canoe cup 


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Heritage Goods


There has been much discussion within the antiques trade over the past several years surmising that the word “antiques” is off-putting to potential new and younger audiences.  The argument is that the word conjures images of fusty artifacts, gaudy furniture or delicate bric-a-brac – not things that are practical or desirable for active, contemporary households.

Yet at the very same time purveyors of new merchandise, especially in ubiquitous home décor catalogs, liberally use the term “antique” to describe items of which they may have a stock of 100,000, bearing names such as “antique French café table.” These furnishings may be loosely styled after a period design, have an artificially aged surface or even be a fairly good look-alike reproduction, but they did not originate in the period they mimic.  Roadside gift shops also often display the word antiques prominently, turning their store sign into a siren call compelling certain shoppers to stop in, only to find a store full of new merchandise with vaguely antique flair.  The word antique seems to lend a cache to what these merchants are selling.  So while some antiques dealers seek to retreat from the term, marketers of new goods are flocking to it.  That is a conundrum to contemplate.

Despite how it is often misused, antique as a noun fundamentally implies that an object has significant age (used as an adjective in phrases such as “antique finish” or “antique style” the word is less restrictive).  But how much age is significant?  A definition derived from the criterion that the U.S. Customs Service uses to decide if something can cross its borders duty-free is that an antique is 100 or more years old.  Yet the 100-year benchmark, while convenient, is somewhat arbitrary.  What is more important in the antiques business is to understand an object’s origin, specifically whether it was original to the time period and stylistic expressions of the past era in which it was made.  A piece of furniture born of the 1940s can thus be called antique, even though it is currently just 70 years old.

While age is a prerequisite for an object to legitimately enter the antiques marketplace, it is not all that is important.  To qualify as an antique worthy of buying and selling, an object must meet a standard of quality, having an intrinsic value based on features such as craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal, rarity or historical importance.  In other words, not everything old merits being traded as an antique.

Is it possible, then, to coin a new term that conveys the same standards of authenticity and value as “antique” while sidestepping negative associations of antiques with irrelevancy?  Some subgenres within the broad antiques market have adopted descriptors such as “mid-century modern” or “folk art” that distinguish those objects in a helpful and appealing way, but there is no alternative nomenclature broad enough to encompass all categories of historical objects.

We propose that a term that has potential to appeal to hipsters and general consumers without repelling traditionalists is Heritage Goods.  “Heritage” conveys the positive attributes associated with antiques – history, special meaning, inheritance and value.  “Goods” is broad enough to cover all forms of furnishings and decorative arts, from tea cups to tall clocks.  To add clarity (and protection from having the phrase co-opted by marketers of newly manufactured goods), antiques dealers would need to customize the term with a subtitle specifying the age range of the antiques they most typically carry.  In our case that would be “Heritage Goods: 1840s to 1940s.”

New terminology can creep or sweep in to common parlance depending on how popular the object, behavior or phenomenon it describes becomes – whether “jogging” or “blogging.”   Short of a multimillion dollar marketing campaign, however, it could be difficult for antiques dealers to use a new descriptor for what they sell without the risk of missing their target audience altogether. Those who already know the range of what authentic antiques can encompass do not need to be lured by alternative terminology.  But for people who have yet to experience the pleasures of owning and living with goods from past eras, an intriguing descriptor might invite them to partake, and in the process make the antiques marketplace a more inclusive domain.

We are curious what reactions the term “Heritage Goods” will generate.  As readers of this Journal article, you are the first trial audience. Let us know your thoughts, and stay tuned as we report back with the results of our foray into broadening the lexicon of our trade. 


(© Copyright 2012 Text is not to be copied without permission. Flag image from Library of Congress public archives.)


Keech Souvenir Canoe Paddles


Keech canoe paddlesKeech paddles are well known to collectors of rustic accessories.  They are appreciated for their finely-detailed, painted scenes, as well as for the delicate quality of each carved paddle.  They date from 1890 to 1920 and can turn up anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, since they traveled home with far-flung vacationers who had visited upstate New York.

The maker of these paddles was Alpheus E. Keech (1855-1926) who lived most of his life near the St. Lawrence River in the 1000 Islands region of northern New York.  He descended from a long line of men whose lives centered around water navigation; he was even named after a ship captain uncle who died in a wreck on Lake Erie.

When he was 30 years old, while still making a living as a carpenter in the family’s boat-building business, Alpheus began focusing his talents as an artist.  In addition to producing large paintings of steamships, sailboats, and landscapes, he established a studio (pictured below) to make and sell small souvenirs, the most popular of which were his paint-decorated model canoe paddles. Keep Reading

Your Antiquing Profile


A while back we came across a web store for children’s toys and gear (“The Land of Nod”) which at one time assisted people shopping for just the right gift for a little one by organizing merchandise according to the child’s personality – the Crafty Kid, the Smarty Pants, the Entertainer, and so on. This provoked our own musings about how a website selling antiques might organize itself in a similar way.

After conversations with fellow antiques dealers who have also been in the business of selling quality Americana for upwards of twenty years, we’ve converged on a typology of people who buy the types of antiques we all sell.  Here are the results of our ruminations-over-drinks scholarship, winnowed down to just three catch-all categories: Keep Reading