Journal

Penobscot Ash Splint Baskets

10.17.2016

ash splint baskets
Native American ash splint baskets have long been appreciated for their utilitarian and decorative qualities. Back before it was easy to mail-order goods from afar, people relied on what was locally produced or available in their hometown stores. Families lucky enough to live in regions where Native Americans made and sold baskets typically had all sizes, shapes and types of baskets put to various uses in their homes.

basket peddlers

Basket peddlers traveling door-to-door in the 19th century (McMullen & Handsman, 1987)

In my (KH) childhood home in northern Maine we had many baskets made by local Maliseets and Mi’kmaqs, as well as some Penobscot and Passamaquoddy baskets made on reserves south of our town. A large, strong-handled, thick-splint “potato-picking” basket held garden tools in our shed; a tall oval, handled basket with sweet grass trim held tins of mink oil and bottles of shoe polish in the back hallway; a delicate, two-tiered round picnic basket sat high on a shelf in the kitchen closet; and a lidded, low, round, fine-splint basket held ribbon and other sewing notions. One of my first purchases with babysitting money as a young teen was a “fancy basket” with rose and indigo colored splints which eventually became a cherished reminder of home in my college dorm room.

basket maker

Hands of a basket maker (Calloway, 1989)

Basket-making is still a vibrant Native American craft in northern Maine, but the three baskets we have just acquired are much earlier examples from the mid-19th century. While in an excellent state of preservation, these three Penobscot baskets date to circa 1850-60, which was prior to the widespread use of decorative techniques such as twisting splints into conical points (called the porcupine technique) and adorning edges with braided sweet grass.

 

multi-color ash splint basket

Round Penobscot lidded storage basket with handles and colored splints, c. 1850-60 (17″ diameter x 16″ high)

This tall, lidded storage basket has wide splints alternating with bands of fine splints. The two Penobscot baskets shown below are very similar in style, although not as tall, and also date from 1850-60.

Penobscot storage baskets

These baskets are in the collection of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine (photo from Eckstorm, 1932)

In addition to its large size, another striking feature of this basket is its multi-color splints. While the standards or warp (vertical splints) are blue and russet, the weavers or weft (horizontal splints) include yellow and green along with blue and russet.

dyed ash splint basket
Before the horizontal splints were woven into the body of the basket, color was applied to both the warp and weft splints with a cloth swab or soft brush dipped into a stain made from powdered pigments or cakes of watercolor paints (McMullen & Handsman, 1987). The color appears only on the exterior of the splints (with some interior edge leakage around the sides of the narrow splints). In later baskets whose splints were soaked in vats of aniline dyes, both the exterior and interior of the splints were richly colored.

baskets5

In a swabbed basket the bottom was left uncolored.

lid of an ash splint basket

In this tall basket the lid was also left its natural color. Ash splints are quite pale when freshly woven, but they darken to a golden beige with exposure to light and air over time.

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Late Summer Fish Catch

08.22.2016

Pair of fish portraits

Although we have not been fishing in actual waters this month, we have, as always, been trolling for antiques. Our most recent catch in the fish category is this appealing pair of oil on canvas portraits of a landlocked salmon and a brook trout. The body shapes of the salmon and brook trout are fairly accurate, as is their coloration. They are slightly naïve renditions rather than perfect anatomical representations, indicating that the artist was not academically trained.

fish close-ups

Both fish are shown hooked in realistic ways – on a side edge of the mouth for the salmon and the bottom edge of the mouth for the brook trout – situations that the artist had likely experienced firsthand.

close-ups of hooked fish

The fish are painted on a faux birch bark background, which is not an uncommon treatment for fish still life paintings, such as these two by Walter Steward from our past inventory.

Walter Steward trout and pickerel paintings

We have also found fish portraits painted directly on birch bark, such as the trout below.

trout painting on birch bark

Another fish/birch bark association we’ve encountered is commemorative silhouettes of actual fish traced and cut from birch bark, such as the one below that memorializes a fish caught on the Tobique River in New Brunswick in the 1940s.

birch bark trout silhouette

A much earlier birch bark trout silhouette was made by Percival Baxter (1876-1969), the 53rd Governor of Maine and after whom Baxter State Park is named, when he was just seven years old.

Trout silhouette by Percival Baxter

The text on the fish reads: “Speckled Trout (Salmo Fontinalis) Weight: 8 lbs, Caught at Toothakers Cove, Cupsuptic Lake, June 3rd, 1884 by Percival Proctor Baxter, Aged seven years. This is a correct outline of the fish. Guide Jerry Ellis Rangeley City, ME” (from collections of Baxter State Park; mainememorynetwork.net)

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Rustic with Provenance

06.16.2016

Finding unique, attractive and functional rustic furniture that was created in earlier eras is always a satisfying outcome of our hunt for antiques. Although all antiques have an origin story and a life history subsequent to our finding them, more often than not those specifics remain unknown to us. So it is particularly gratifying when we can trace the provenance of notable rustic furniture that we find, as we were able to do for these three tables in our current inventory.

Camp Nominigan tables

These pieces – a dining table, a game table and a coffee table – originated at Nominigan Camp, a lodge built in 1913 on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario. We have a handwritten note from the previous owner of the tables stating that they were given to his mother by Dr. Mary Northway whose family once owned Nominigan.

At wilderness outposts, furniture was usually made onsite from local trees. In this case the softwoods around Smoke Lake’s Loon Point, where Nominigan (meaning “Among the Balsams”) was built, provided the furniture’s raw materials. The frames of the tables are made of bark-on white cedar poles, and the table tops are pine.

Camp Nominigan rustic tables

 

Camp Nominigan rustic tables

They are sturdily built with tight tenons, and have classic rustic style.  But before providing more details about the furniture itself, it is worth delving into the history of Nominigan Camp, their original home.

Nominigan’s Origins

Nominigan Camp was built as an outpost of a Grand Trunk Railway resort called the Highland Inn located on Cache Lake in Algonquin Park (est. 1893). The Highland Inn was built in 1908 during the height of the rusticator movement to accommodate tourists who could travel to the Park relatively easily via train from their urban residences in Montreal and Toronto. The railway and Cache Lake Station were located directly in front of the Inn.

The Inn started modestly, serving primarily as a way station for anglers and campers who went on to explore the interior of the Park.

Highland Inn

The Highland Inn, circa 1910

 

Angler at Highland Inn

A guest at Highland Inn after a day of fishing.

It quickly grew in size, however, and gained amenities such as steam heating, modern kitchens and a formal dining room serving multi-course meals.

The Highland Inn

The Highland Inn after expansion. The railroad track is visible parallel to the shoreline.

The expanded inn attracted a larger clientele who enjoyed the combination of a remote wilderness setting with the luxuries of a fine hotel.

Guests at the Highland Inn.

Genteel guests at the Highland Inn.

As more guests brought families on vacations to the Inn, the owners saw a need and an opportunity to expand its entertainment options, so sightseeing trips became a favorite pastime. The most popular was the “Grand Outing” to Loon Point on Smoke Lake, which required traveling more than seven miles from the Inn via train, stagecoach, portage and boat.

Inevitably, the human urge to “make the wilderness comfortable” transformed Loon Point from a simple camping and day trip location to the site for a new lodge which became an official outpost of the Highland Inn, named Nominigan Camp. The following passage sardonically summarizes the genesis of Nomingan, which could also aptly describe the origins of many lodges and camps built by rusticators and those who served them during the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

Since it was already a beloved camping site … what was more appropriate than to put up a lodge to shelter these campers? Simple, of course – an outpost – only log buildings – but of course, we must include hot and cold running water, lighting and good meals. And there must be room to keep boats there, and perhaps a launch for sightseers who want more comfortable travel than by canoe, and good fireplaces to give cheer and… and… and… And so it was. (Northway, 1970a)

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Seth Steward Lake Painting

03.23.2016

Seth Steward lake painting
This scene captures the peaceful mood of a northern lake at sunrise on a calm, late summer day. The red maples are beginning to change color, but the foliage on all of the trees is still lush.

Seth steward lake painting
There are three people in a boat along the left shore, perhaps preparing for a day of fishing.

Seth Steward lake painting

The painting is housed in its original deep molded gilt-gesso frame (some minor losses) with overall dimensions of 33.5″ x 21.5″ and a sight size of 27″ x 15″.

Seth Steward lake painting

This oil on canvas scene was painted in 1914 (signed and dated lower left) by Seth Wyman Steward, Jr. (1844-1927) of Monson, Maine when the artist was 70 years old.

Seth steward lake painting

This photo of Seth working in his studio was taken circa 1915, so it captures how he would have looked during the time period when he created this lake painting.

Seth W. Steward, circa 1915

(from Monson Historical Society)

At that point in his life he had been working as a professional painter for nearly 50 years, ever since returning home to Maine in 1865 after serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. He advertised himself as a “painter, decorator and artist in oil” who also “hung paper and painted carriages.”

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Figural Burl Frame

02.22.2016

We are constantly on the hunt for quality rustic accessories, so feel rewarded when we find something as fantastic as this frame. It embodies the essence of rustic creativity – transforming natural materials into aesthetically pleasing and functional furnishings.

figural burl frame

The frame dates from an early era of rustic design, circa 1890-1900, and originated in the northeastern United States. It was most likely made in southern New England or New York, as it is similar to other burl-decorated pieces we have found from New York’s Hudson Valley region.

burl deer frame

It has a solid wooden frame backing that is covered in applied root burls and twigs. The burls are slabbed with flat backs so that they fit flush against the frame.

 

Figural Burl Frame

Some of the tendril-like root twigs on the frame are intact with the burls from which they grew. Additional root tendrils are applied over and around the burls to enhance the natural, intertwined appearance of a root mass while lending sculptural interest to the frame.

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Early Canoe Club Sign

11.17.2015

Pequot Canoe Club sign
This circa 1890 sign is a cultural artifact of the historic and hugely appealing (to us and other canoe aficionados) craze for recreational canoeing that swept the nation from the late 1800s into the early decades of the 1900s. The evolution from birch bark to wood and canvas canoes around this time period made canoes more widely available, and canoeing as a sport among the middle and upper classes was born.

Whereas birch bark canoes were largely utilitarian crafts, wood and canvas canoes inspired more sporting and recreational uses. Canoe outings varied from leisurely or romantic paddling jaunts (as depicted on the circa 1910 embroidered pillow from our past inventory) to organized meets for athletic activities such as canoe racing and jousting (as shown in the circa 1920s photos from the Washington Canoe Club).

canoeing pillow

high kneel canoeing

(from washingtoncanoeclub.org)

canoe jousting

(from washingtoncanoeclub.org)

athletic canoe club members

(from washingtoncanoeclub.org)

 

This sign is a product of that era, and of the penchant for canoe enthusiasts to form regional clubs, in this case in southeastern Connecticut. It is a well-made, hefty, double-sided wooden sign (30” wide, 1.5” deep, 22” high) with shaped and chamfered edges and hand-forged hanging rings.

Pequot Canoe Clulb sign

The face of each side of the sign is covered in thick, sanded black paint. The front side has gold lettering with the translucent tone of gilding, while the lettering on the reverse side is in a flatter mustard gold paint. The lettering on each side has an excellent, aged-crazed surface.

webpequotsign9

Pequot Canoe Clulb sign

Pequot canoe club sign

 

webpequotsign5

Back of the sign with mustard gold lettering.

webpequotsign7

This is a quality antique that meets the high standards for collectible folk art signs, but it is the history it evokes that gives it particular meaning within our specialty areas, including sporting art and artifacts (and in this case even with a Native American theme) hailing from the turn-of-the-20th-century rusticator era.

Broad Historical Context

This sign was made not long after the founding of the American Canoe Association (ACA) which occurred as the outcome of a meeting of 23 prominent men – all canoe enthusiasts – on Lake George in upstate New York in 1880. The ACA is still active today, making it “one of the oldest national sports governing bodies in North America” (NYSHA.org). Since its establishment, the ACA has held annual summer encampments or “meets” during which members camp out and participate in races and other events. Since 1903 the ACA meets have been held on its own Sugar Island in the 1000 Islands region of the St. Lawrence River.

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Bountiful Nature Painting

09.23.2015

Birds painting oil on canvasThis detailed and richly colored American oil painting (on canvas laid on wood) depicts flora and fauna in a lush forest understory complete with a small woodland pool. It is housed in a deep, embossed gilt frame that accentuates the quality of the artwork.

gilt frame

Although it is a large painting (21″ x 29″ sight size, 31″ x 39″ framed), it conveys an intimate view of nature, with just a small hint of a more expansive landscape illuminated beyond the trees in the top center of the painting.

birds painting

The forest tableau gives an immediate impression of nature’s profusion, largely due to the number and variety of birds represented. There are 15 individual birds in the painting, representing 13 different species including a blue jay, a mockingbird, a hummingbird, a bobolink, a meadowlark, a chestnut-sided warbler, a pair of yellow warblers, and a pair of woodpeckers.

birds painting

birds painting

birds painting

But close examination reveals many additional animals in the verdant scene, including three frogs, a turtle, three beetles, a spider, three butterflies, and a hive of bees.

birds painting

birds painting

birds painting

birds painting

Flora and fungi include violets, trumpet vines, ferns, jack-in-the-pulpit and a patch of inky cap mushrooms.

birds painting

Although the painting depicts some ecological interactions (birds foraging for a spider and bees), some life history details (a bird near its nest with a clutch of eggs), and some appropriate habitat matches (the reptile and amphibians near the pool, the woodpeckers on a tree trunk), the painter was clearly more concerned with aesthetics than with scientific accuracy. The bird and plant species are recognizable, yet they are embellished archetypes rather than exact portraits.

birds painting

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Grenfell Dog Team Hooked Mat

06.18.2015

grenfellsled1

A large (40″ wide x 27″ high) Grenfell dog team mat in excellent condition and mounted for hanging.

There are certain categories of antiques whose creation stories carry as much resonance for us as the masterful products themselves. Grenfell mats, such as this hooked portrayal of a dog team carrying a sled and mushers, constitute one of those categories of antiques whose origins evoke a rich and compelling history.

women hooking Grenfell mats

A mother and daughter hooking Grenfell mats in Labrador, circa 1930(https://www.mun.ca/mha/cw/va114-46-crafts.html)

In the late 1880’s, the people of northern Newfoundland and Labrador were making a subsistence living in isolated fishing communities that were accessible only by boat. When Dr. Wilfred Grenfell arrived from England in 1892, he found persevering, skilled people who were in much need of medical, material and economic assistance.

Dr. Wilfred Grenfell (1865-1940), circa 1910 (From Down to the Sea. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1910)

Grenfell believed that rather than offering only charity to the residents of northern coastal communities, it was best to develop long-term, self-sustaining strategies to help them alleviate their poverty. This led to the establishment of a cottage crafts industry called “the Industrial” as an enterprise of the larger Grenfell Mission, whereby local women could produce goods for supplemental income, or often simply for trade to the Mission in exchange for clothing for their families. (For an excellent overview of Grenfell Mission history and its handicrafts movement, along with photos of stunning Grenfell hooked mats, see the 2005 book Silk Stocking Mats by Paula Laverty, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.)

Grenfell village

Grenfell Mission community sometime prior to 1921 (http://shaggy-vm.library.mun.ca/qeii/cns/photos/geog1900.php?print=1)

The women of the region had a long-standing tradition of hooking floor mats during the winter months. An American occupational therapist named Jesse Luther whom Grenfell recruited to the Mission in 1906, recognized after a few years of focusing primarily on weaving and woodworking, that it made sense to build upon the women’s existing mat-hooking skills. Thus began decades of Grenfell hooked mat production that peaked in the 1920s-1930s, and declined after WWII.

Grenfell Industry staff and volunteers delivered hooking materials to women by boat and dogsled, and then collected the finished mats on return visits. The materials included burlap (locally called “brin”) for the backing (and sometimes for the hooking fabric), as well as dyed cotton, wool, rayon and most famously, used silk stockings donated by more affluent women in American, Canadian and British cities, for the hooking. The women also received sketches of the patterns to be hooked. Whereas their traditional patterns tended to be floral or geometric, part of the marketing genius of the Grenfell Mission’s employees, volunteers, and even the founder himself, was to create patterns that reflected the unique northern landscape and ways of life in Newfoundland and Labrador.

grenfellsleddetail

The dog team design was likely one of those originally sketched by Dr. Grenfell, based on his experience with using dogs and sleds as a means of winter transportation in the region. Grenfell must have had a special appreciation for dog teams, as in retirement he opened several mission and tea houses in Vermont and Connecticut which he named The Dog Team (the best known became The Dog Team Tavern restaurant in Middlebury, VT).

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An Exceptional Iroquois Bird Effigy Ladle

04.13.2015

Iroquois effigy feast ladle

This stunningly large sculptural object is an eloquent example of an Iroquois feast ladle dating from the late 18th/early 19th century (circa 1780-1820). This would have been used for portioning food into individual bowls from a caldron or large serving bowl, particularly during celebratory or ceremonial feasts.

It is made from a maple burl whose swirls, knots and irregular grain resulted from stunted twig buds that failed to elongate into limbs so grew instead as a round protuberance from a tree trunk. This burl ladle has a burnished patina and edge wear along the right side of the scoop, both attesting to its many years of past use.

Iroquois fest ladle bowl

Front and back of the scoop portion of the ladle showing the burl grain, edge wear and patina.

There is archeological evidence that the earliest Woodlands peoples used eating and serving ladles made of shell and antler, and journals kept by Europeans during their first encounters with Native Americans in the 1600s documented that wooden ladles were commonly used for eating meat stews and cornmeal mush.

While every individual in a tribe had a personal eating ladle, only one feast ladle was needed per clan, so this larger form of effigy ladle is scarce indeed.* In a study of 701 ladles (with and without effigies) in the collection of the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Betty Colt Prisch (1982) notes that the ladles ranged in length from 2”-12”, with the vast majority being 4”-8” long individual eating ladles. Only a few examples of the larger feast ladles in the 12” size range are in the collection, which began being formed over 175 years ago by the museum’s anthropologists.

Iroquois feast ladle

This ladle is 13.5″ long and 8.75″ wide. The photo below showing it next to a personal eating ladle emphasizes the contrast in size, and thereby function, of the two ladles.

Iroquois effigy ladles

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Snow Shoes with Provenance

03.18.2015

Tlingit snow shoes

It is always rewarding to find a quality artifact of the material culture of indigenous peoples (such as the First Nations in Canada and Native Americans in the U.S.), but even better when its provenance is known. More often than not the story behind an antique’s previous owners is lost in time, but in the case of these snow shoes we know quite a bit about their owner and collection history.

Chris Henne's study

The snow shoes on display in Chris Henne’s study, circa 1900.

These snow shoes were acquired by Christian Henne II on a trip to the Klondike in 1897. They were passed down in his family until they were recently sold by his now elderly granddaughter. They are in remarkably good condition, having hung on a wall since they were acquired 118 years ago. Tribal members would reweave their own snow shoes whenever the babiche wore out, but they would reuse the same frames for many years. Since neither the weaving nor frames of these snow shoes show signs of heavy use, they had most likely been recently made when given as a gift to Henne.

What is particularly intriguing about this rare form of snow shoes is that they were made by a cultural group (Tlingit) and within a region (Pacific Northwest Coast) that are not typically associated with snow travel accoutrements. However, the Northwest Coast Tlingit peoples also occupy less temperate regions away from the immediate coast, eastward into the mountainous region of the Yukon, which explains why snow shoes were part of some Tlingit tribes’ tradition.

Tlingit map

The Snow Shoes

Tlingit snow shoes

These snow shoes are a style made by Inland Tlingit, which includes the tribes (called Kwáan) Áa Tlein Ḵwáan of the Atlin Lake area, Deisleen Ḵwáan of the Teslin Lake area, and T’aaku Kwáan of the Taku River basin.

Tlingit groups

(http://www.ankn.uaf.edu)

 

tlingit snow shoes upturned toes

They have two-piece birch frames, bent into rounded, upturned toes where the wood is spliced and lashed together.

tlingit snow shoe toe

The frames are dyed red, and the fine weaving is either babiche (strips of semi-tanned hide) or sinew (dried tendons). The middle of the snowshoe where the foot is placed has wider weave, laced with stronger strips of rawhide.

Tlingit snow shoes foot section

While men usually made the frames, both men and women wove the netted sections of the shoes.

Native woman weaving snow shoes

(Library of Congress, circa 1900)

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