By Donald-Brian Johnson
You’ve made it to “the honeymoon capital of the world.” You’ve donned a floor-length rain slicker. You’ve boarded the “Maid of the Mist” tour boat, and gotten drenched by 3,160 tons-per-second torrents of gushing water.
Now, what to bring back as a souvenir of your day at Niagara Falls?
The earliest souvenirs of the Falls were chunks of “spar,” taken from the riverbed of the Niagara, and peddled as “petrified mist.” For the less gullible, there were more traditional mementos featuring images of the Falls: scenic postcards; chinaware; snow globes; paperweights; and tiny, barrel-shaped ‘peephole” viewers.
But at the very top of the list were keepsakes that put all those mass-produced knickknacks to shame: the hand-crafted beadwork creations of the Iroquois.
It seems only natural that the Iroquois would contribute to the heritage of Niagara Falls. They were, after all, familiar with its might and beauty long before settlers and sightseers arrived. Six Nations comprise the Iroquois confederation: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. The greatest beadwork output, however, and the most readily identifiable pieces, are credited to the Seneca, Tuscarora, and Mohawk.
Iroquois beadwork can be distinguished from that of other Native American artisans, in both construction and use of materials. To shape the beaded item, fabric is stretched or glued over cardboard (or, in the case of a soft-sided piece, such as a purse, over a cloth lining). Glass seed beads (which increased in size over the years), are then sewn directly through the fabric and backing, to create the intended design.
The use of leather, bone, or shell, while common in other Native American beadwork, is nearly non-existent in Iroquois interpretations. White thread is often used, adding to the sparkle of the glass beads, with metallic sequins accenting single beads. Bead color choices remain fairly uniform within a specific design, although a “rogue” bead can often be spotted. Speculation has it that the bead-of-a-different-color is the “signature” of an otherwise uncredited beadworker.
A defining characteristic of Iroquois beadwork – particularly that of the Tuscarora — is “raised” beading. Instead of using just enough beads to fill out a pattern, additional beads are strung and added to certain areas of the design, creating a layered, three-dimensional effect.
During beadwork’s Victorian heyday, objects and themes were chosen that would appeal to the buying public, cozy remembrances just right for the boudoir. Among the earliest were pincushions. Flowers, birds, and friendly forest creatures were favored visuals. Pincushion “fill” included sweet grass, sawdust, cotton, and even cattail fluff. For the stylish lady of the 1800s, extra-large pincushions were created to accommodate massive hat pins. Over the centuries, pincushions have accounted for roughly half of Iroquois beaded items.
However, a wide variety of other beaded objects also awaited: purses; picture frames; wall pockets; needle cases; match safes; clamshell needle cases; calling card cases; holders for pocket watches, scissors, eyeglasses, and mail; and hanging urns.
“Whimsies” were fanciful beaded pieces with no object other than to provide visual pleasure. Among the many: horseshoes, with the beaded slogan “Good Luck:” papoose dolls; canoes; and hanging birds, the beaded date hidden under their tails.
In the 200-plus years of souvenir Iroquois beadwork, it’s estimated that over 200,000 pieces have been created, many during the peak years of 1890-1920. The Seneca and Tuscarora centered their sales efforts primarily close to Niagara Falls, where “the buyers came to the beaders.” The Mohawk, their reservation located near Montreal, ventured further, traveling with fairs, Wild West shows and medicine shows. That’s why authentic examples of Iroquois beadwork can also be found far from the Falls.
And here’s good news for future explorers, heading to Niagara Falls, donning rain slickers, and boarding the “Maid of the Mist:” Iroquois beaders are still hard at work, fashioning new creations using the same techniques and artistry perfected by their ancestors. The ideal souvenir of a present-day “visit to the Falls” remains within reach!
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann.
Iroquois Beadwork courtesy of Rickie Engel, Maureen Maher, and Susan Phillips
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop”, a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos in October’s “Prohibition” column by Leslie Piña