Early 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).
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.
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.
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.
The photo below shows the “Rushton-Canton (NY) Canoe Club” tent at the 1886 ACA meet. The famed boat designer and manufacturer J. Henry Rushton is the leftmost standing man, with his wife Leah seated in front of him. Although originally only men could be official members of the ACA, the annual meets were always family affairs that included the members’ wives and children. Seeing these club members and their wives in the dress of the period helps us visualize the culture of canoeing in its early days.
While the ACA meets brought together the members of many regional clubs, those clubs also regularly held their own events centered around getting out in canoes on their local waters. Typical goals of these clubs were “the promotion of physical culture and the art of canoeing” (as stated in the Washington Canoe Club’s 1904 charter).
During the early 1900s, many clubs established clubhouses in buildings along rivers, lakes and canals.
Specific History of the Pequot Canoe Club
The Pequot Canoe Club was appropriately named after the Native Americans who were once the dominant tribe in what is now the state of Connecticut. Headquartered in New Haven, the Pequot Canoe Club drew its membership from throughout the region of southeastern Connecticut that was the ancestral homeland of the Pequots.
Since they lived on the shores of several major rivers as well as along Long Island Sound, the Pequot peoples naturally used canoes. Their traditional canoes would have been dugouts, also known as “mishoon” (see pequotmuseum.org for more information). Wooden dugouts were being used by the Pequots in the 17th century at the time of their first contact with Europeans.
Taking inspiration for its name from local Native American history, the Pequot Canoe Club (PCC) was formed in 1886 as recounted in this note from Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation (Vol. VIII, April-September 1886):
Pequot Canoe Club was organized June 19, 1886 for the purpose of uniting amateur canoeists who reside along the north shore of Long Island Sound between Harlem River and New London. Burgee is 12×18 triangular with a Greek cross red on a white field surrounded by a three quarter inch red border. Totem a Greek cross in peak of mainsail. Commodore RP Wakeman Southport, vice commodore FP Sherwood, secretary/treasurer FP Lewis. Drawer 14. New Haven Conn.
Around this time the PCC also joined the umbrella American Canoeing Association (ACA) within its Eastern Division (comprising the New England states). The ACA produced Yearbooks that its members received for free, and another publisher produced an associated “Sportsman’s Directory” that included complete Canoe Club Lists and other resources along with the ACA Yearbook, each bound in duck and available for purchase.
The 1889 ACA Yearbook and the 1889 Canoe Club List with canvas covers (pictured below – from a private collection) list the PCC as having 37 members in 1890. These booklets belonged to F. P. Lewis who was a founding officer of the Pequot Canoe Club. He proudly hand-decorated the covers of his booklets with the PCC burgee showing its signature colors of red and white.
The Canoe Club List also illustrates the Pequot burgee and totem on the inside along with the burgees of many other canoe clubs.
The ACA Yearbooks from 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913 and 1915 also list either the PCC as a club or some of its individual members. However, it seems that the organization that was established in 1886 as the Pequot Canoe Club (PCC) later became the Pequot Canoe Association (PCA), which then splintered into two groups, with one group once again called the PCC and the other retaining the name PCA. A New York Times article from May 18, 1889 titled “An Exclusive Canoe Club” provides some insight on the schism:
The canoe owners of Long Island Sound have cut loose from the Pequot Canoe Association because owners of other kinds of craft were admitted to membership, and they have organized a genuine canoe association, owners of canoes only being admitted.
There were 19 charter members of the reborn, “canoes only” PCC, including Robert P. Wakeman who was the Commodore of the original 1886 PCC. The Sportsman’s Directory of 1891 listed the Commodore of the PCA as F. P. Lewis, so it seems that the owner of the directories pictured above became the leader of the club that was more inclusive of owners of various types of watercraft.
Was There Ever a Pequot Canoe Clubhouse?
This question is unanswered as of this writing. We assume that the PCC once had a physical clubhouse on which this sign hung, but we have not found documentation of such a building. We did however, find the following 1889 and 1890 references to the Club’s plans to build a clubhouse on one of the Thimble Islands in Long Island Sound off the coast of Connecticut:
The Pequot Canoe Association of New Haven has decided to hold its annual meet at the Thimble Islands in Long Island Sound from July 31 to August 7. The cruise of the fleet will begin August 8 and last three days. There is a project on foot in the club for a union of the owners of sloop yachts jib and mainsail boats steam or naphtha launches sharpies and yawls into an association for cruising and racing under the flag of the Pequots. One of the Thimble Islands will, it is expected, be secured for the permanent summer home of the association, where members with their families can enjoy their outings. (From Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Sport, Travel and Recreation, Vol. XIV April- September 1889)
The annual meet of the Pequot Canoe Association was held from July 31 to August 12 and was a most successful event. The racing week was marked by fair weather. One unpleasant feature was the inability of small boats at distant points to reach camp in time owing to the rough water and heavy rain. The membership has reached ninety two, and so favorable are the prospects that a club house will probably be erected for next season. (From: Outing: Sport, Adventure, Travel, Fiction, Volume 15, 1890)
Perhaps additional digging into the records of Thimble Islands historical associations would reveal whether the PCC ever built its intended headquarters on one of the islands. As far as we can tell the PCC no longer exists, although there is a long-standing Pequot Yacht Club in Southport, CT located on the mainland not far from the Thimble Islands. Interestingly, the 1891 Sportsman’s Directory lists the club as the “Pequot Y & C. A.” so perhaps the Pequot yacht and canoe clubs share some common history that has yet to be traced.
Décor with Provenance
As dealers, it is always gratifying to acquire objects that have decorative appeal along with historical significance. This sign dates back to the genesis of an important recreational movement that inspired the refinement of wooden canoes and the encouragement of canoeing expertise in the U.S. The sign also evokes the much earlier history of the Pequots, who were accomplished canoeists centuries before people of Anglo-European descent transformed canoeing into a sport. Any antique that can trigger bountiful daydreams about the life, times and activities of people in past ages is, we believe, an object worth living with.