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.
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.
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.