Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Made in New York: Indian “Whimsies”

Beaded pincushion with velvet center
 In my post last year on how the Erie Canal opened up New York state for tourism, I discussed the way Niagara Falls became the destination for fashionable travelers in the 19th century. And no trip to Niagara was complete without purchasing a souvenir or two. Beaded purses, pincushions, wall pockets, picture frames, and other novelties, made by the Tuscarora and other local Iroquois tribes, were by far the most popular. The Alice’s collection contains two classic examples of this type of Indian souvenir: a small flat purse, beaded with colorful flowers, and an elaborate star-shaped pincushion with three-dimensional designs in crystal beads.

Iroquois style beaded purse
The association of Native Americans with Niagara Falls goes back to at least the 18th century. Early images of the falls almost always included an Indian or two, to emphasize the “wild” nature of the falls. By the time tourism began in the early 19th century, Indian legends like the story of the Maid of the Mist had become part of the allure of Niagara Falls. Essentially, once white Americans no longer perceived Indians as a threat, they were sentimentalized and romanticized. Like the falls themselves, Indians were both symbols of untamed nature and safely domesticated and commercialized.

Textile historian Beverly Gordon has written about this phenomenon, describing how, by purchasing an Indian-made souvenir, tourists were “taking home a ‘piece’ of the Indian—and by association a ‘piece’ of the falls themselves.” The Indian whimsy was “a symbol, an object that could capture and make tangible something ephemeral and wild: the power and majesty of Niagara.”

Ca. 1870 photo of tourists purchasing
beadwork from Tuscarora women
Tuscarora women began selling beadwork at the falls as soon as tourists started to arrive in the early 1800s. Not surprisingly, businessmen quickly capitalized on the popularity of Indian souvenirs. By 1850 visitors could purchase souvenirs at two shops, owned by brothers Walter and Theodore Hulett—The Old Curiosity Shop and Indian Store, and the Great Western Indian Store—both of which were directly on the route to the falls. Soon they were joined by Isaac Davy’s Indian Bazaar, Fox’s Curiosity Shop, and others. In fact, there were so many Indians selling so many souvenirs that in the 1870s and 1880s stories began to circulate that the beadwork was not made by Indians, and that there were even “fake” Indians (who were actually Irish) selling their wares.

In 1885, New York state purchased the land contiguous to the falls and turned it into a public park. This was supposed to combat the commercialism of the falls and put visitors in a “composed receptive frame of mind.” Numerous hotels and stores, including Hulett’s Old Curiosity Shop, were torn down at this time. However, Tuscarora women were given permission to continue selling their wares in the park. Indian souvenirs remained very popular until around 1910, then came back for a time during the Great Depression.

Ca. 1850 daguerrotype of woman with beaded purse
One of the most interesting things about Indian whimsies is the number of photographs that survive from the 1850s and 1860s in which the sitters are holding Iroquois purses. Having one’s portrait taken at this time was a rare and special occasion, and people took great pains with the ways they presented themselves. That so many girls and young women chose to incorporate Indian purses into their portraits suggests that these souvenirs, though common, were also very special to their owners. They showed that the sitters were well-traveled and fashionable.

If you would like to learn more, Gerry Biron’s site Historic Iroquois and Wabanaki Beadwork is a great place to start. You can see many more wonderful photos of women with beadwork bags here and here. You can learn more about the souvenir industry of Niagara Falls here. Thanks to Gerry for letting me use some of his photos here!

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