Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


Towards the middle of the nineteenth-century a swift and dramatic transformation occurred in textiles and other kinds of art made by Woodlands Indians in northeastern North America, This transformation was accomplished in part by a wholesale replacement of indigenous materials with Euro-American manufactures— cloth for hide, glass beads for porcupine quills and silk ribbon for paint. It also encompassed the introduction of entirely new object types and the substitution of a new vocabulary of floral imagery for older iconographic traditions.

It is not, of course, coincidental that this change in iconography and materials occurred simultaneously with the rapid growth of the tourist trade in the northeast. Although Native Americans had begun to make innovative types of souvenir items for Euro-American consumers in the eighteenth century, or perhaps even the seventeenth, the tourist trade assumed much greater economic importance in most areas after about 1820. (Phillips 1989) Following the defeats of the British- Native military alliances in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Indian lands in the northeast were suddenly opened up to European settlement. Deprived of their traditional subsistence base, Native people turned increasingly to the production of commercial items in order to survive.

Tourism in the northeast grew in tandem with the pace of settlement. By far the most important site was Niagara Falls, and Iroquois peoples living nearby began early to sell a wide range of items to the travelers who were attracted there.1 By the mid-century these items included beaded and embroidered domestic ornaments and clothing accessories as well as decorative splint-woven baskets and birchbark containers. The objects were made not only by Iroquois, but also by Micmac, Maleseet, Huron, and Abenaki people living from maritime Canada to western New York state. They were circulated throughout a wide area by efficient intertribal trading networks that had been in existence for many centuries. These networks also ensured that new artistic ideas spread quickly throughout the northeast, bringing about an overall similarity of object types in the region. (King 1985)

The first sustained publication and discussion of the new textile and garment types occurs in Lewis Henry Morgan's classic work, the League of the Iroquois of 1851. The plates clearly illustrate the abruptness of the transition between older and newer types, depicting both the traditional forms of linear-patterned, quill-embroidered moccasins (Fig. 1) and the more innovative garments decorated with the translucent glass beads and floral patterns dear to Victorian taste. (Fig. 2) Within a decade or so of Morgan's publication, however, the Iroquois had almost completely given up production of the older types of textiles.