This wallet is a fine example of Iroquois Indian beadwork dating from the 1840s. It was made by a Tuscarora woman whose people comprise the Sixth Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, and who resettled from their North Carolina homeland to western New York in the early 1700s. The beadwork artistry of the Tuscarora and their fellow Iroquoians (Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk) is described in two excellent books on Indian beadwork by collector and scholar Gerry Biron: Made of Thunder, Made of Glass: American Indian Beadwork of the Northeast (2006), and A Cherished Curiosity: The Souvenir Beaded Bag In Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art (2012).
Biron traces the history of beaded objects that the Iroquois made to sell to non-native Anglos of the middle and upper classes. This exchange began during the earliest years of Iroquois contact with Europeans. Shortly after the first trading post was established in 1608 in Montreal, the Iroquois living in upstate New York were able to obtain cut glass beads imported from Europe. Their traditional arts of adorning hide pouches and clothing with porcupine quills evolved to incorporate the new mediums of beads and fabric.
By the early 1800s, tourism was increasing in the Niagara Falls region near Iroquois lands, with the Tuscarora Reservation being closest to the Falls. This presented an opportunity for the Iroquois to make a subsistence living selling their creations to tourists.
By the early 1840s, the Iroquois had adapted both their beaded designs and the forms of objects they decorated to the Victorian tastes and sensibilities of their customers. Their traditional geometric and organic decorative motifs – curves, spirals, circles and wavy lines – gave way to floral decoration. Biron calls this beadwork the “Niagara floral style” because it was developed largely by Iroquois vendors at Niagara Falls.
Based on Biron’s research, we can date this wallet with good certainty to the mid-1840s. This was the earliest period of the Niagara floral style in which the flowers are round rather than elongated, are smaller, and have longer stems than in later floral designs. Also, the design is bilaterally symmetrical and worked with smaller beads than were used in later designs. The multiple colors of beads – white, blue, ivory, rose, green and gold – are vibrant against the black velvet background.
The pictorial imagery of a bird was also introduced during this time period. Contemporary Tuscarora artists call the bird a Carolina Parakeet, after the now extinct bird that was native to their ancestral North Carolina homeland. Biron says the Iroquois beadwork designers most likely took their cue for the bird motif from Euro-American women’s own needlepoint projects in which it was popular to embellish pincushions, purses and the like with bird imagery.