Native Made Rustic Furniture
Antiques dealers who look at thousands of old objects each year inevitably start to refine categories for the antiques they encounter. Repeated exposure to and study of antiques enable dealers to move from catch-all categorizations such as “Art Pottery” or “Quilts” to informed subcategories targeting what person/group/manufacturer made the item, in what region of the country or world, and when.
The closer objects are to the specialty areas of antiques that a dealer most frequently buys and sells, the more refined the dealer’s categorization of those things becomes. While we might lump together many individual pieces of furniture within the category “Mid-century Modern” and leave it at that, another dealer might lump together all “Rustic Furniture” and call it good. Needless to say, we have learned to classify rustic furniture into many different subcategories, each with its own themes and variations.
Native Rustic Furniture
One subcategory of antique rustic furniture that we continue to find and learn about was made both by Native Americans in the United States and First Nations tribes in Canada. For centuries, the aboriginal peoples of North America traditionally transformed materials found in nature into utilitarian objects for shelter, transportation, clothing, storage and other essentials of daily life, as illustrated in the above photo of Ojibwe bark teepees and a bark canoe.
Being adept at relying on what nature provides positioned native people to use those materials in creative ways as they adapted to living in non-Indian cultural contexts. While the following opinion of a white man who helped establish one of the first Indian crafts stores in Michigan reflects the dominant society’s patronizing attitudes towards Native Americans during the early 1900s, it does recognize native people’s finesse in working with natural materials: “The Indian’s absolute simplicity, unerring instinct, and wonderful knowledge of natural things surely give him a place among Nature’s best interpreters.” (from The Indian’s Friend, Volume 22 No. 1, September 1909)
Knowing where to find, how best to harvest, and how to work with natural materials such as bark and twigs, enabled native people to make a living at a time when they were struggling to transition from their traditional ways of life to a cash-based economy. During the mid- to late-19th century, a market for their craftsmanship fortuitously emerged as the rusticator movement gained momentum.
Wealthy urbanites who headed to beautiful, remote natural areas for vacations developed an appreciation for crafts that evoked pleasant memories of their escape into nature. Some of these rusticators established second homes in resort areas and sought appropriate interior furnishings for their cottages and camps, while others purchased furniture to take back for the porches and lawns of their formal homes.
Native people sold their goods in a variety of places – at souvenir shops on or near their reservations, at sporting lodges and camps where they worked as guides, and at itinerant encampments they set up in rusticator havens such as Bar Harbor, Maine. In these ways they either went where the tourists were, or the tourists came to them.
While small souvenirs such as beadwork, tanned hides, quillwork and baskets were produced and sold in great quantities, native people also made and sold some rustic furniture in these locations. Note the rustic settee that Stanislaus Francis sits on (and no doubt made and offered for sale) in the above photo from Maine.
Likewise, in an early 20th century article titled “Indian Industries in Michigan” (The Indian’s Friend, Volume 22 No. 1, September 1909) Miss Grade Travis describes a “modest little Indian workshop” in Wayagamug, Michigan filled with crafts made by a group of 50 Indians comprising Ojibwes from the Garden River Reserve in Canada and Ottawas from Michigan. She reports that furniture made by the native men were among the items offered for sale.
What then, did that furniture look like? We are familiar with four* different forms of native-made rustic furniture that evolved in the northeastern and midwestern regions of the U.S. and Canada during the rusticator era: Bark panel, Mosaic twig and bark, Bentwood, and Branch and burl furniture.
Bark Panel Furniture
The furniture most likely sold in the Michigan shop that Miss Travis described was elm bark panel furniture, as this was the form traditionally made by Ojibwes of the Georgian Bay region of Lake Huron. Since they used elm bark to sheath canoes and shelters, it was a logical choice for furniture as well.
The chair, table and bar stools pictured below (from our past inventory) are typical forms of elm bark panel furniture. Sheets of elm bark were applied on peeled pole frames made of softwoods that were also locally available, such as white cedar. The furniture design is simple, but sturdy and functional with a distinctive rustic aesthetic.
Mosaic Twig and Bark Furniture
The rustic furniture made by Mi’kmaq craftsmen was more refined than elm bark panel furniture, both in its design and execution. It originated in Nova Scotia where Mi’kmaq bands live throughout the province. The table from our recent inventory pictured below is a particularly good example of Mi’kmaq rustic furniture. The top has segments of bark inlaid among decorative rows of split twigs. Bark and shaped twigs also form the apron. The base is gracefully fashioned from intertwined peeled branches.
It has been interesting to see variations within this type of twig and bark mosaic furniture over the years, and we hope to find more of it in the future.
Another category of native rustic furniture is characterized by having backs and arms that are fashioned from bent hickory or willow saplings. Here is a rare photo documenting a Native American rustic furniture builder in the process of making bentwood furniture.
We have owned a variety of bentwood furniture over the years, which was a form made by both Native Americans and non-native craftsmen. This chair from our past inventory illustrates a more elaborate form of the style of chairs shown in the above photo of Bill Isaacs at work.
Whereas Isaacs was an Iroquois, bentwood furniture was also made by Penobscot and Passamaquoddy craftsmen. The fancifully painted bench from our past inventory (below) is an example of Maine-made Penobscot furniture.
Here is another rare photo showing a Native American furniture maker with his wares, in this case a Passamaquoddy man. Passamaquoddy tribesmen camped and produced crafts on Saddleback Island in Maine near what is now Acadia National Park during the late 1890s. They made daily trips via canoe to the mainland to sell their goods. One local writer at the time stated that “their handiwork is being well exemplified by a number of rustic and ornamental chairs, settees, etc., purchased from them by many of our citizens.” (McBride & Prins, p. 81)
Among the citizens who purchased Passamaquoddy rustic furniture was the family of Stonington, Maine resident Dorothy Sylvester, who is shown in the photo below (McBride & Prins, p. 83) sitting on a rustic settee made by the Passamaquoddys on Saddleback Island in 1898. Notice that in addition to the peeled, naturally sinuous branches comprising the back of the settee, there is a knob at the top of the central pole. That is a white birch root burl, a distinctive element in Penobscot and Passamaquoddy furniture.
Here is another example of a more elaborate native-made, two-seat settee incorporating birch root burls:
It is not surprising that birch root burls show up in northeastern tribes’ rustic furniture. Penobscots traditionally used white birch root burls to make ceremonial clubs, such as the two shown below from our past inventory. Both have chip-carved handles, but the first one has an unadorned burl crown, similar to the burls used for rustic furniture, and the other has a carved face on the burl which is the more common treatment on Penobscot clubs.
This pair of rocking chairs and a white painted settee are additional examples of Penobscot branch and root burl furniture from our past inventory. Each has half-round slat seats, straight twig latticework, bent twig ornamentation, and root burl uprights. This subcategory of native-made rustic furniture qualifies as the most ornate and exuberant that we have encountered.
Miss Travis concluded her 1909 reflections on the native handicrafts for sale in a northern Michigan shop with these words: “The Indian has a message – for the truth is always beautiful, and the White Man is learning, not only to listen, but to heed and appreciate.” Although her phrasing is dated, her sentiment rings true over 100 years later to those who recognize, admire or live with antique, native-made rustic furniture.
Gilborn Gilborn, C. (1987). Adirondack furniture and the rustic tradition. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
McBride, B. and Prins, H.E.L. (2009). Indians in Eden: Wabanakis and Rusticators on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, 1840s-1920. Camden, ME: Down East Press.
Phillips, R. B. (1998). Trading identities: The souvenir in Native North American art from the northeast, 1700-1900. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
*We have not included in this discussion another type of furniture associated with Native craftspeople, namely Mi’kmaq quillwork paneled furniture. Although the quill panels were native made, they were typically applied to formal furniture that was made by Europeans, so the furniture itself was neither rustic nor native made. See our article discussing quillwork paneled furniture here: Micmac Quillwork on Birch Bark