Two-Bears Canoe Cup: A Woodsman’s Water Dipper
Some antique rustic accessories – an elegant faux bois mirror, for instance – evoke refined indoor living, while others more strongly reflect the earthy lifestyles of outdoorsmen. Canoe cups are a good example of the latter.
Wooden canoe cups were a practical accessory that wilderness travelers used to dip drinking water from a lake or stream before water quality was a concern. They were typically made from a tree burl, often maple, that was hollowed out and shaped with a jackknife or crooked knife. The naturally round portion of the burl served as the cup, while wood extending from the burl served as an integral handle. The handle was usually punctured or carved with an open slot for fitting a leather thong, braided cord, or metal clip so that the cup could be attached to the traveler’s belt – thus the alternative name for canoe cups as “belt cups.”
The majority of canoe cups hail from Quebec, and less commonly from Maine and the Maritime Provinces. The strong Quebecois tradition of crafting canoe cups has roots in the early fur trade as French voyageurs came into contact with Native tribes and adopted their practice of making drinking cups from tree burls. While some cups found on the market today are unadorned (right), the more beguiling examples are decorated with carved and/or painted animals and landscapes of the northwoods and waterways.
The canoe cup in our current inventory is a good example of typical decorative themes and techniques. Two bears with raised paws, perhaps depicting a fighting stance, are slightly relief-carved and painted, and a wash of paint at their feet represents tufts of grass. The interior is carved to accentuate the natural heart-shape of the burl, which is also a fairly common treatment. The varnished surface and metal snap clip help to date this cup to circa 1930.
The two-bears cup has painted initials, presumably of the person who made and owned it. Some cups, however, were made by guides not for their own use, but to give as gifts to the “sports” who hired them – men of means from cities who traveled north to hunt and fish. Images of hunting and fishing implements and game were a popular decorative theme, as seen on the cups from our past inventory, below. The cup with the belt toggle carved in the shape of a canoe and a painted fish also displays the name of a well-known fishing river, the Mattawin.
In addition to making cups for themselves and their sports, there is evidence – namely canoe cups still marked with a price (see Peladaeu, M. B. 2006. Canoe Cups: A Neglected Collectible. Maine Antique Digest.) – that they were sold in northern tackle shops along with fishing, hunting and camping gear.
The example (left) bearing the name of a sporting lodge might have been sold as a souvenir at the lodge. The cup below, carved by a well-known Quebec folk artist, was definitely made for sale and probably not intended for use. This cup is somewhat unusual, as two accurately carved and painted trout form the handle, and the leather thong is attached to the back of the burl.
While all canoe cups share basic attributes, collectors appreciate their many decorative variations – from animals that are carved simply (the moose, left) or elaborately (the otter and wolf, right), to designs that incorporate the natural shape of the burl (the bear’s head below), to a vignette from a guide’s life (bottom of page).
Although carvers still make wooden canoe cups as novelties, their functional use waned with the increasing prevalence of aluminum and plastic cups for canoe tripping and backpacking. The early cups remain as testaments to the ingenuity and creativity of men who once lived and worked in the northern outdoors.
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