Journal

Fabulous Floral Andirons

05.01.2014

floral andirons

This month we are pleased to present a pair of antique floral andirons that infuse as much joy into a room as a gigantic bouquet of actual flowers. These andirons are as functional as they are beautiful, having evolved from a centuries-old tradition establishing andirons as essential fireplace accessories. Ever since humans starting building fires in indoor fireplaces they have used firedogs – a pair of horizontal bars – to hold logs off the hearth, thereby improving air circulation for better burning and less smoke. Upright front guards were then added to the firedogs to prevent flaming logs from rolling forward.

The practical human impulse that led to the creation of andirons eventually led to the artistic human impulse to transform the front guards into beautiful ornaments.  There are endless variations on the shapes of andirons which correspond with major design aesthetics of different historical periods – in America these include the simple but shapely wrought iron andirons of the Colonial period, elegant brass lemon-top andirons of the Federal period, and heavily proportioned andirons of the Arts and Crafts era.

Most decorative andirons are either cast iron, which are shaped with molten iron that is poured into molds, or wrought iron, which are hand shaped by a blacksmith.  Most of the figural andirons we’ve bought and sold have been in the shape of animals, and are usually cast iron.  Figural wrought iron andirons with such an elaborate floral, foliate and spiral tendril design as these are far less common.

wrought iron floral andirons

Keep Reading

Iroquois Beaded Wallet

03.25.2014

Iroquois beaded wallet

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.

Iroquois at Niagra Falls selling beadwork

Ladies buying beaded bags from Tuscarora women at Niagara Falls
(reprinted in Biron, 2012)

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.

Iroquois floral beadwork

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.

iroquois beaded bird

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.

Keep Reading

Bears Hooked Rug

02.25.2014

bears hooked rug

For as long has there has been a market for antique American folk art, hooked rugs have been a strong category within it.  Many excellent examples are documented in the 1985 book American Hooked and Sewn Rugs: Folk Art Underfoot by Joel and Kate Kopp.  Hooked rugs that were made for simple household comfort by women who were not formally trained as artists were nonetheless often imbued with artistic expression. Such rugs have always appealed to us, and we have bought and sold many over the years.

The types of hooked rugs we’ve owned fit within three general categories of design: floral, geometric, and figural – meaning that they depict objects such as animals, houses or landscapes. Each category can be further divided as originating from a pattern or from the hooker’s own design.

floral hooked rug

Floral hooked rug

 

geometric hooked rug

Geometric hooked rug

 

owls hooked rug

Figural hooked rug

The two bears rug which we are currently offering for sale is an example of an original design figural hooked rug.  It is made of wool fabric strips, measures 53″ wide by 25″ high, and has been mounted on a frame for hanging.

bears hooked rug

The scene shows two bears, an adult and a cub, exploring a fallen tree in the forefront of a hilly landscape at sunrise.  Given how the bears seem to be intently focused on the tree stump, perhaps the creator imagined them raiding a bee hive within it.  The larger bear’s honey-colored, lolling tongue reinforces this impression.

Keep Reading

Old Hickory One-Drawer Stand

01.27.2014

Every so often we still acquire a piece of hickory furniture that we had seen pictured in vintage catalogs, but had yet to find on the market.  This little stand had caught our eye in the 1935 Old Hickory Furniture Company catalog because it is one of just a few Old Hickory end and side table designs that included a drawer.  We are pleased to finally have an example of this particular form to offer for sale.

Old HIckory one-drawer stand

This stand was produced within a special series of furniture introduced in 1935 that mixed hickory pole frames with distressed pine which, as the catalog relates, “lends its mellow charm to most cases and tables.” To increase the pine’s mellow surface character, workers at the Old Hickory factory distressed (or “antiqued”) the soft wood using chains and nails to impart the impression of a history of use.

Old Hickory one-drawer stand

The physical design of the pine and hickory furniture series also had a historical character, reflecting consumers’ interest in Colonial revival forms during the 1930s.  An entertaining sales pitch and aesthetic rationale for these designs was spelled out in the introduction to the 1935 Old Hickory catalog:

The files of Early Americana and a wide observation in the peasant districts of Europe have afforded many inspirations for the quaint, authentic and ‘true to type’ patterns shown in Old Hickory’s new groupings of rustic furniture…The details of a century-gone craftsmanship, the homely old materials, rope, leather, pine, square-headed nails, have all been faithfully used…There is, in these new patterns, relief from the jangle of cities and the standardized forms of today so wearisome to nerves and eyes.  They carry you back to wind-swept prairies, deep primeval forests, and last and best of all, the men and women who faced this wilderness, axe in hand, with which to new a home.

Keep Reading

Owl Bookends

12.30.2013

owl bookends

These bookends fit within several categories of collectibles, each with its own world of variation:  figural cast iron, bookends, and owls.  For our audience interested in rustic décor, it is more likely the owl form that will have primary appeal, with their value as uncommon vintage cast iron figures in excellent condition, as well as their usefulness as bookends, being secondary attractions.

owl bookends

For collectors of figural cast iron such as bookends and door stops, condition and rarity are important attributes. These bookends (6” high, 4.25” wide, 2.25” deep) retain their pristine original surface, painted in shades of yellow, green, brown, silver and black.

owl bookends

 The form is a stylized owl rather than a portrayal of a particular species – it captures the essence of owl anatomy including large, forward-facing eyes, a facial disk with shortened feathers, and an upright posture.

owls

(Barred owl photo from adenabrook.org)

Keep Reading

Rare Indiana Hickory Steamer Chair

11.25.2013

Hickory steamer chairThis hickory chair evokes the leisure lounging of passengers on the deck of a steamship, yet it is much sturdier than traditional steamer chairs which typically had light open cane weave or flat slats on the seat and back, and thin, collapsible mahogany frames.  In contrast, this chair has a sturdy hickory pole frame with solid double stretchers along its length, and a tight herringbone weave rattan cane seat and back.  It does, however, have the basic shape of a steamer chair with a long leg rest and a slightly inclined back rest, as seen in this vintage photo of passengers relaxing aboard a steamship.

passengers in steamer chairs

Photo postcard available on eBay

Despite Indiana’s proximity to the Great Lakes where passenger steamers were a popular means of transportation from the 1890s through the 1940s, these heavy hickory chairs would not have been manufactured with steamships in mind.  This circa 1930 ad for an Old Hickory steamer chair indicates that a more likely target audience for these chairs was institutions such as sanitariums, hospitals, hotels and resorts.

ohadweb

Keep Reading

Large-scale Birch Bark Canoe Model

10.23.2013

Native American birch bark canoe models that were made in the 1800s to early 1900s were accurate replicas of a tribe’s full-size birch bark canoes.  The scholarly book titled The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle (Smithsonian Institution, 1964) has numerous detailed drawings and descriptions of traditional birch bark canoes and their construction.  The authors document the characteristics of many different tribes’ canoes, which makes it possible to attribute a birch bark canoe model to a particular tribe.

 

birch bark canoe model

 

This early 20th century model has the shape and characteristics of an Abnaki canoe. The Abnaki Indians included some Malecites and Penobscots, as well as members of southern and central New England tribes including those in New Hampshire and Vermont.  Eventually this group settled on the St. Francis River in Quebec, so Abnakis were also known as St. Francis Indians.

The various tribes making up the Abnaki group each had its own traditional style of canoes, but by the 1850s when they were living together in settlements along the St. Francis River they produced distinctive canoes that were an amalgam of different tribes’ designs.  Known for their excellent quality, these canoes sold well to sportsmen who used them for hunting and fishing.

 

Abnaki birch bark canoe

Fisherman and guide in a St. Francis Abnaki canoe (Adney & Chapelle)

Keep Reading

Micmac Quillwork on Birch Bark

09.26.2013

Micmac quilled shair seat

This saddle-shaped birch bark panel is elaborately decorated with geometric designs fashioned from dyed porcupine quills.  It is a stunning example of traditional Micmac Indian quillwork dating from circa 1850-60, and has the provenance of past ownership by a distinguished British collector of tribal art.  That this graphic artwork was fashioned as a seat for a formal Victorian chair, and that it ended up in the hands of a European, both make perfect sense in light of the history of how this Native North American Indian craft evolved.

A Bit of History

Micmacs in the Nova Scotia region of Canada have used dyed porcupine quills as decorative ornamentation for hundreds of years, practicing this art long before their contact with Europeans.  Explorers and fishermen who first encountered Micmacs recorded observations of decorative quillwork, such as in this sailor’s account written in 1606:  “…the maids and women do make matachias (bracelets) with the quills or bristles of the porcupine, which they dye black, white and red colours, as lively as possible may be.”  (Whitehead, 1982)*

Given that there are 20,000-30,000 quills on a single porcupine (yes, somebody counted them), they were an abundant source of raw material for handicrafts.

porcupine

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol (northernwoodlands.org)

Not long after white people started living and trading among them, Micmacs turned their craftsmanship skills to making objects to sell to Europeans.  They had traditionally used techniques such as stitchery, loom weaving, wrapping and plaiting of porcupine quills to decorate objects for their own use.  They also decorated their birch bark canoes with porcupine quills, so inserting quills into birch bark to make decorative designs was another technique within their traditional repertoire. By the mid-1700s, when the souvenir industry was in full swing, the bark insertion technique had become the Micmac’s dominant form of quill ornamentation.

Birch bark boxes decorated with geometric mosaics of dyed porcupine quills were a staple of the Micmac’s trade with French and English settlers.  European entrepreneurs began buying up these crafts, and ships’ captains would resell them at their ports of call.   By the early 1800s, the sale of quillwork and other Indian crafts in Great Britain had become lucrative enough that their importation was taxed by the British government.

As the fur trade declined throughout the early 19th century, quill work became a primary source of Micmacs’ income. This explains their motivation to adapt quickly to European tastes, which during the Victorian era included fancifying even everyday household items such as tea cosies, straight-edge razor cases, comb boxes and napkin rings.

quilled wall pocket

19th Century quill decorated comb box wall pocket (Whitehead, 1982)

Sometime around 1840, a European fad for furniture inset with panels of quilled birch bark emerged.  Micmac women began to add chair bottoms made of birch bark ornamented with dyed porcupine quills to their wares.  In 1851, the Nova Scotia Industrial Exhibition offered a prize for “the best quill work chair bottoms.”

Solitary chair seats were produced for years prior to the production of matching sets of chair seats and chair backs, which helps us date our lone chair seat to the earlier production timeframe of the mid-1800s.  Single quilled chair bottoms sold for $2-$5 to homeowners and merchants, as well as directly to the cabinetmakers who mounted them on hand-crafted chairs.

The chairs into which quilled panels were inserted were fashioned in styles popular among Europeans of the time.  Several years ago, we sold a formal hall chair that had both a quilled back and a quilled seat to an American museum.  That chair (pictured below), had been purchased by James Du Pres, third Earl of Caledon, on a trip to Nova Scotia during the 1800s – an example of the vibrant trade that existed between Micmacs and enthusiastic British collectors.

Micmac quilled chair

Keep Reading

Decorated Indian Snow Shoes

08.27.2013

Although antique Indian snow shoes make appealing wall art on a purely aesthetic basis, they also embody history and cultural identity, a combination intrinsic to all good antique Native American art.  Since tribes across the northern expanse of North America made and used different styles of snow shoes, there exists a wide variety of shapes, sizes, materials and forms of decoration.

Having handled pairs of snow shoes from many areas, we are usually able to readily identify their region of origin.  When in doubt, we consult the few references that anthropologists have written specifically about traditional snow shoes, and read collection histories on pairs of snow shoes in museum collections.

snshoesallweb

This pair (above) in our current inventory is an excellent example of Eastern Cree snow shoes.  A photo (below) in the publication “Central Cree and Ojibway Crafts # 8 – Transportation” (Indian and Northern Affairs, Ottawa, Canada, 1974) shows a pair having the identical shape and similar decoration that was made by an Eastern Cree tribe member in Eastmain, Quebec, a township on the eastern shore of James Bay that is about an 18-hour drive northwest of Montreal.  These snow shoes, which are in the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, were made for a child seven to ten years of age, so are only 36” long x 8.5” wide.

eastmainshoes

In contrast, the snow shoes we have are a whopping 58” high x 13” wide so would have been made for an adult, but still are quite a bit larger than average adult snow shoes that we’ve seen from other regions.  They date from circa 1900-1920, and their condition is very good with a few areas where the webbing has broken away from the frame.

Keep Reading

Snow Snakes

07.22.2013

One of the more intriguing artifacts of northern Native Americans sports and game culture is a long wooden rod called a snow snake.  It is the only implement needed for the game of snow snakes, which has been played by Native men and boys for hundreds of years, and is still played in winter tournaments on some reservations.  Snow snakes are also beautiful sculptural objects – an 8’ long snow snake over a double door in our house always catches the eye of first-time visitors who also love to hold it and imagine how its smooth surface glides across the snow.

The techniques and rules of the game of snow snakes varied among tribes stretching across the vast regions of the country where there are snowy, frozen winters.  The shape of snow snakes also varied by region, with some being short and broad, while others, like the Iroquoian snakes we present here, being long and narrow.  (See Games of the North American Indians by Stewart Culin, a 1993 University of Nebraska Press reprint of an ethnographic tome originally published in 1907.)

 

two snow snakes

 

The object of the game is for players to see how far they can slide a snake across the snow, usually within a trough that has been built up and then grooved by dragging a log along its length. Players stand back then take several steps towards the beginning of the track – similar to a javelin thrower – while trying to maintain balance on slippery ground. They then throw or toss the snow snake into the track with an underhand motion (although Penobscots used an overhand toss when the snow was soft).  The challenge is to power the snake to slide a long distance without using so much force that it jumps the track and gets buried in the sidelines.

Experienced elders have attested to the difficulty of playing the game well, saying that the most successful players are those who began throwing as children. Recently, snakes thrown by the most skillful players have been recorded as traveling more than one mile in less than three minutes, at speeds clocked at 108 miles per hour in the first mile.

Teams of men play the game using the same track, and in some versions will stand their snake upright into the snow after a throw to mark the farthest point it reached. After a winner of each throw is declared, boys are sent to retrieve the snakes.  There are many variations of the methods and rules of the game (e.g., the number of men per team, how points are accumulated, and how many points constitute a win for a team), as well as variations in track design (e.g., tapering wall height, moguls, and drifts of powdered snow that the snake has to break through).

Some ceremonial aspects of the game have been documented as well.  In the 1940 book Penobscot Man, the anthropologist Frank Speck recounts chants and songs that Penobscots used to accompany a throw, with lyrics such as “Go quickly, my little snow snake, and catch the old woman (or the name of the opponent’s leading stick),” and incantations to the totem inscribed on one’s own snow snake such as:  “Frog, rush ahead and kill them.”

Just as with any piece of sports equipment, a snow snake is designed to maximize the chance of accomplishing the game’s objective.  An Iroquois snow snake is a long piece of wood – 6’ to 8’ – which typically started as a 1” block riven along the grain of a hardwood log such as maple, hickory or birch, and then carved and shaped into the form of an elongated snake with a slightly bulbous tip. The back end of the stick has a notch where the guiding index finger is placed during a throw, and the tip usually has an inlay of pewter.

snow snake pewter tips

The snakes are sanded and polished, sometimes decorated, and then coated with wax (or “medicine” as one Seneca snow snake maker calls it), the composition of which varies depending on snow conditions, and which is often made from secret recipes that are passed down through families.

The two snow snakes we are offering were acquired on the Cattaraugus Seneca Indian reservation and are signed by their owners.  The writing on the snakes is comprised of stippled dots incised with a sharp implement.  One snake is signed “Kelly Lay,” a Seneca Indian who lived at Cattaraugus from 1877-1940.

signed snow snake

The 1940 U.S. Census shows that he was the head of a household that included eight other people – his wife, five children, and two extended family members.  His snake is dated 1900 when he would have been 23 years old.  It also says “Newtown” which is a community within the reservation.

Newtown on snow snake

This snow snake also has two old repairs, a groove on the underside of the head that is colored with red pigment, and a pronounced notch on the back tip.

anow snake pigment

snow snake back end

The second snow snake bears the name “Boston Jim,” which is also written in stippled lettering.

Boston Jim snow snake

This was presumably the nickname of a Seneca man who had moved to or came from Boston, NY, a community that is less than 30 miles northeast of the Cattaraugus reserve.  This snake has some additional decoration – three red pigment dots and some line drawings, which might represent the owner’s totem or some other good luck spirit.

snow snake decoration

snow snake totem drawing

It also looks as though it was notched on the back tip, but the notch is smoothed somewhat with wear.

snow snake back end

Both snow snakes have protective pewter tips and bulbous heads.  A Chippewa man describing playing snow snakes as a child in 1928 explained that the thin tail end of the snake cut into the snow, ensuring that the broad leading head stayed on top. “Even if you goofed and threw it under the snow, it would crawl back up to the top,” he said.

 snow snake heads

Keep Reading