Decorated Birch Bark Container


Sabattis Tomah birch bark wastebasket

This cylindrical container decorated with canoeing, hunting and camping images was made in the early 1900s by Sabattis Tomah, a Maine Passamaquoddy Indian who was the only son of Passamaquoddy chief and renowned birch bark artist Tomah Joseph (1837-1914).  Sabattis borrowed artistic birch bark techniques, themes and forms from his father, whose work is well-documented in the 1993 exhibition catalog History on Birchbark:  The Art of Tomah Joseph, Passamaquoddy by Joan A. Lester.

Book about Tomah Joseph

The bark of the white birch tree has been an important element of the material culture of Northern Woodlands Indian tribes since long before their contact with Europeans.  It was used for making such life essentials as wigwams, canoes, storage vessels, and even cooking pots. (As maple sugaring is in full swing here in New England, it is amazing to think that Woodlands tribes could make maple syrup by boiling sap with hot rocks added to sap-filled birch bark containers).

When birch bark was used as a raw material for making utilitarian goods, the flakey outer bark of the white birch tree was turned to the inside, while the interior bark formed the exterior of the object.

Birch bark wastebasket interior

This material is not only strong, pliable and water resistant, but the inner bark also makes an ideal canvas for decoration when harvested in the winter because that is when it has a solid maroon-brown rind.  When that darker rind is etched away, the inscribed design appears in the lighter bark layer just beneath it.

Design etched on birch bark

Keep Reading

Antiques Dealers as Sleuths in Fiction and Fact


In a sense, all antiques dealers are sleuths. A detective’s sensibility is required to be successful in the concrete enterprise of finding valuable old goods, as well as for the less tangible task of seeking the story behind an object, whether researching its particular provenance or just the historical context of the time and place in which it was made and used.

But one local antiques dealer here in Maine has taken things a step further by inventing a fictional alter ego – an antiques dealer who solves mysteries of the true-crime variety.  Like the author, Lea Wait, the protagonist of her “Shadows” mystery series is a dealer in antique prints.  The latest installment in the series, Shadows of a Down East Summer, finds 38-year old Maggie Summer taking an August vacation with her boyfriend (also an antiques dealer) at the home of his 91-year old aunt in the charming coastal Maine town of Waymouth, which is purely imagined, but strikingly similar to our own home base of Damariscotta.

Shadows of a Down East Summer book cover

The story interweaves some true historical details of the late 19th century life of the artist Winslow Homer at his studio in Prout’s Neck, Maine with a fictional crime spree in a modern-day small town. It intersperses excerpts from an invented 1890 journal of a young woman who posed with a friend for Homer while he sketched at the rocky shore.

The Bathers, wood engraving by Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, 1873

As the story progresses, we discover that this artist model’s descendants live in Waymouth, setting the stage for old family secrets and new family greed to result in theft and a murder.  Maggie helps solve these crimes by using her antiques dealer-honed skills, such as recognizing stolen paintings at an auction preview, and finding and interpreting primary historical documents.

Some aspects of the story involving the antiques business are realistic, and some not so much.  Maggie is a full-time professor and a part-time antiques dealer, which would be hard to pull off successfully in real life.  But a chapter about Maggie helping her boyfriend set up at an outdoor antiques show in a rain storm, trying to save his merchandise from damage while bemoaning the lack of customers and sales on such a filthy day, rings quite true.

Keep Reading