Journal

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)

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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

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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.

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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

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Hand-Painted Tourists Sign

06.26.2013

Tourists sign

Although we all use the term “tourist” regularly, whether referring to ourselves on holiday or to hordes of vacationers invading our home towns, it is not so common to see signs on modern roadside establishments beckoning specifically to tourists.  In contrast, during the 1920s through the 1940s, beginning just after automobiles became ubiquitous among middle class families and highways were being established and improved, the word “tourist” was used to lure burgeoning road traffic into lodging establishments, gift shops, restaurants and dubious roadside attractions all across the country.

Tourist sign in Florida

Florida, 1941, U.S. National Archives

It is not surprising then, that most of the vintage tourists signs we acquire date from the 1920s-1940s.  The framed tourist sign that we have for sale (shown below) was made in the 1920s and came from the Catskills region of New York.  It was most likely attached to the top of another sign, as the legs are long enough to hold it aloft, but are not long (or rotted) enough to indicate that they were posted in the ground.

Tourists sign

This vintage photo taken in Louisiana shows the technique of layering signs to create the special effect of a place that gives you a lot for your time and money, making it irresistible for a traveler to pass by.

Signs in Louisiana

Louisiana, 1940, U.S. National Archives

Since running water, hot water, bathrooms, showers, heat and electricity could not to be taken for granted by tourists, these modern amenities merited special emphasis on road signs, whether layered as multiple signs, or painted all on the same sign.

Tourist signs

1938 in Ohio and 1940 in Maryland. U.S. National Archives.

While a lot of vintage tourist signs are simply painted in black and white, the one we are offering has multiple colors – green, ochre, red and black – which is not so common.

Tourists sign

The shadowed letters, arched word presentation, and flourish beneath the center indicate that this might have been created by a professional sign painter, although there is no signature.

Tourists sign

This sign is also double-sided and was definitely used outdoors, with the side that was presumably more exposed to harsh prevailing winds and driving rain being more weathered.

Tourists sign

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Canoeing Lithograph on Linen

05.23.2013

canoepill1

Illustrations of well-dressed ladies enjoying genteel sports, such as this lithograph on linen, accompanied a rise in popularity of sports participation among women during the final third of the 19th century.  After the Civil War elite women in the U.S., who had more time and energy for leisure pursuits than working-class women, began to participate more actively in croquet, archery, and tennis.

In the 1880s and 1890s upper-class women increasingly explored other physical sports such as horseback riding, bowling, rowing, canoeing, yachting, and skating.  Towards the end of the century, as the growing demand for female emancipation was leading up to the acquisition of voting rights for women, even bicycling and golf became possible pursuits for women.  (For additional historical details see “Women, sport and exercise in the 19th century” by Patricia Vertinsky in Women & Sport – Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by D. M. Costa  & S. Guthrie, 1994).

closeup canoeing image on linen

This lithograph captures the spirit of the sporting woman at the turn of the 20th century.  She resembles a “Gibson Girl,” a stereotyped look popularized by the magazine illustrator Charles Dana Gibson from 1890 through about 1910.  Like the woman in this lithograph, Gibson Girls were always impeccably dressed, attractive, confident, and somewhat athletic (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibson_Girl).  Similarly, this woman with her hair piled high, an hour-glass figure and fashionable clothing, projects enough confidence to steer her own boat, while still conveying appropriate social respectability.

We framed this print in a circa 1900 gold bead lined oak frame (~ 27” square) befitting its time period.

period oak frame

We have had several similar woman sporting pillow covers over the years which were likewise kept in storage or framed and never made into pillows.  The following examples help put into context the one in our current inventory for anyone considering starting a collection or simply interested in knowing more about this genre.

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Super Cool Aquaplane

04.29.2013

Arro-PlaneAnyone lucky enough to have grown up recreating on a freshwater lake may recognize this form of vintage water sports equipment.  It is a wooden aquaplane dating from circa 1930-40.

An aquaplane is “a board ridden by a standing person and pulled by a motorboat for entertainment” (www.lexic.us). This “Arro-Plane” was probably made by a water ski manufacturer, and has fantastic graphic appeal – painted with a long arrow shape that is crowned with an Indian head (think arrowhead) in strong red, white and blue colors.  The condition of the paint decoration with minor scuffs and wear indicates that the board must not have been used much.  In addition to being a cool piece of vintage sports equipment, this board has all of the attributes that are desirable in vintage trade signs.

Arroplane decoration

It is 71” long x 24” wide x 2” thick, and is quite heavy – about 35 pounds.

Thickness of arroplane

A rope harness would have been attached to the two side rings, and then a tow rope would have extended from the front of the aquaplane to the back of a motor boat.  The light blue patches near the back of the board are sand-painted to provide grip for wet feet.

Arroplane grips

This following rather comical vintage illustration shows aquaplaning technique during a thrilling ride behind what looks to be about a ten horse-power motor.

http://descowaterskis.com/desco_aquaplanes.htm

http://descowaterskis.com/desco_aquaplanes.htm

We also found a few 1924 vintage photos of aquaplane athletes that show the basic technique of board riding, as well as some fancier tricks.

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Decorated Birch Bark Container

03.21.2013

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

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Figural Crooked Knife

02.27.2013

(click photo to enlarge)

Crooked knives are multi-purpose tools that were made and used by Woodlands Indians as early as the 1600s.  They were documented by explorers, traders and missionaries as one of the most essential tools of “the Man of the North.”  Woodlands tribes include those in the Northeast (Maine and the Maritime Provinces) such as Micmac, Penobscot, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy, and those in the Eastern, Central and Western Great Lakes regions such as Iroquois, Huron, Cree, and Chippewa.

The circa 1880 Northeastern Woodlands Indian crooked knife pictured here has a handle carved in the shape of a curled human hand, exemplifying the blend of function and artistic expression that elevates embellished crooked knives beyond the status of an everyday tool.

An excellent book, “Mocotaugan:  The Story and Art of the Crooked Knife” (2003) by Russell Jalbert & Ned Jalbert (available as a pdf at mocotauganthebook.com), describes the crooked knife being used for everything from making wood shavings for fire starter to shaping ax handles, wigwam poles, storage vessel, snow shoes, canoe paddles, and birch bark canoes.  The unique angle at which the blade is set into the handle earned this knife the name “crooked.”   The blade is positioned so that the grip can be grasped with the thumb placed under the handle, allowing for a powerful stroke as the knife is drawn across wood towards the body.

Indians were adept at recycling useful materials, and often repurposed steel from a straight razor or a file to serve as the knife blade.  In our example, the knife is secured to the handle with a harness of inlaid lead or pewter, but often blades are held with leather or wire wrap.

Not all crooked knives were elaborately carved.  Utilitarian knives with simple handles would have been among the several crooked knives a woodsman typically owned.  This unpublished photo from circa 1880 of a group of Cree Indians in Quebec shows three men (sitting at far right, sitting center front, standing in back near the tent opening) using their everyday crooked knives to shape canoe paddles.

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Vintage Canoeing Photograph

01.31.2013

What motivates people to buy an antique photo? Serious photography collectors of course, seek high-value photos with historical or artistic significance due to the scene or person captured, the early photographic and printing methods used, or the photographer’s notoriety.

But people who are not specifically photography collectors are also drawn to vintage photographs for a variety of reasons.  These include attraction to the aesthetic richness of the image or appreciation for its inherent visual commentary that is thought-provoking or smile-inducing.  Or a photo might have a connection to a subject matter that relates to one’s broader areas of collecting or interest (e.g., railroads, dolls, barber shops).

Old photos can also remind people of a place or pastime they have enjoyed – an image of a person skating or an old farmhouse shaded by a maple tree need not be exactly identifiable to evoke nostalgia.  Finally, there are photos of an actual place that one knows well, but captured in an earlier era, thereby putting one’s experience of it into historical perspective; that is what attracted me (Jeff) to this photo.

Grand Lake Algonquin Park

The 7” x 9”  black-and-white image captures a circa 1910-1920 scene on Grand Lake in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park, a 2,946 square mile preserve of lakes and rivers established in 1893 which quickly became a desirable destination for wilderness canoe tripping.

Map of Grand Lake

I spent many summers canoeing, camping and guiding in Algonquin Park, and have paddled by this exact spot.  I found (and kept) a print of this image 15 years ago, so this one is now going to a customer for whom it also triggers positive associations with lakes and canoeing.

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