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  • Carole Conn

Iroquois Beadwork - Unique American Folk Art


Recently, I had a house call. The gentleman contacted me because he wanted to sell his late wife's "folk art collection". I acquired most of the collection, and among the items were a number of beaded pincushions, picture frames, boxes, and trinkets. I had seen similar ones in the past, but I just thought of them as over-the-top Victorian pincushions, and I'd had no interest in them. But now I owned 37 of them, so I thought I'd better find out more about them. I'm glad I did!


These items, heavily beaded and often dated, are the creations of Native American bead workers in northeastern United States, primarily in upstate New York, and southeastern Canada. The ones I acquired were all made between 1880 and 1920. But beadwork by Iroquois people has a long history.

The Iroquois Confederacy is made up of six nations - the Mohawk, Seneca, Tuscarora, Oneida, Cayuga and Onondaga. It was created long before the American Revolution and continues today.

Before the arrival of Europeans to the new world, native people were skilled in moosehair embroidery on birch bark. Mission schools, established on the reservations, taught sewing and embroidery skills as early as the 18th century. By the middle of the 18th century the British were actively seeking "Indian curios", and the Iroquois started making items to sell in order to help support their families.

By the 19th century Iroquois survival was threatened by land appropriations and a loss of trade opportunities, so they developed a type of beadwork which would appeal to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, and began selling them as souviners.


European fashion and trends in decoration influenced the Iroquois to adapt their ancient beading skills, their glass beads, and their tribal themes to Victorian preferences and tastes. They began to make items - pincushions, picture frames, match holders, boxes, purses and trinkets to sell at or near Niagara Falls, and at other sites near their communities, at state fairs, train stations and public events. This became an important source of income for Iroquois families.


These items were hugely collectible several years ago, and commanded astounding prices. But, like many things in the antiques world, they fell out of fashion and can now be had for a fraction of what they once cost. Considering the intricacy of the beadwork on many of them, their fanciful shapes and designs, and their age, they can be a real bargain. As with most things, condition and rarity are paramount. Recent sales on eBay, for example, have brought as little as $10 for a smaller, later item to several hundred dollars for unusual, old or large items in good condition.


In general, Iroquois beadwork fall into the following categories: pin cushions, picture frames, purses, boxes, birds, strawberries, boots and other trinkets, and commemoritive items with place names or phrases.

The Boot:

This is a fairly common form. It was very popular in the late 1800s in crafts of all types. The Iroquois adapted it to their beadwork, producing boot pincushions, boots with a pouch at the top, and boots with place names or phrases on them. They made both left and right facing boots. The little one in the middle says "Montreal". The one on the bottom left, "I Love You".

You can find boots of all types on eBay for between $20 - $75.

Boxes and Purses:

Some are soft, some firm. Several have "Box" beaded onto the top. Most have a carrying strap of beads. Many have dates. The beaded purse was an early Native American form long before the tourist trade, and it was adapted into various types in the late 1800s.

Animal motifs, stylized flowers and leaves, geometric shapes, dates and place names can all be found on these little purses. They command a wide range of prices from as little as $10 to several hundred.

Picture Frames:

Since tourists love postcards and photos, the Iroquois created beaded frames for them. Their value is enhanced if they have a period picture or postcard in them.

These are not as common and will probably cost about $40 and up.

Wall Pockets and Holders:

The shoe-shaped pieces to the left were meant to be hung on the wall for the storage of thimbles, scissors, matches or watches. The black and gray one is not Native American - it is "white woman" creation. Instruction books for Victorian ladies told them how to make items that look like the "Indian curios" they so loved.

The one on the near left is dated 1907 and has 2 open bottom pockets for matches. The one on the right has American flags on the single open bottom pocket for a whisk broom.

Pin Cushions:

These are some of the most beautiful and interesting objects created for the souviner trade. Many are heavily beaded and large, measuing over 10" in some cases. Woodland creatures, flowers, leaves, geometric patterns are common.

Some have place names on them:

Some have phrases on them:

The State Fair pincushion and the Dear Mother one are later - dating from the 1940s. Depending on condition, they can cost as much as the earlier ones, but generally speaking, the earlier the better.


Then there is the category that defies description. They are just whimsical. However, scholars in this area object to the term "whimsy" feeling that it connotes something that is unimportant. So I'll just call them curiosities. My favorites are the 2 canoes I got in the collection:

Each says "Fast" on one side, and "Boat" on the other. They are open at the top ad have a bead strap, so I guess they could be considered purses.

Birds are very popular too. Some have hangers, some don't. They just sit there.

The strawberry was a popular form in the 19th century, usually filled with sand and used as an emery for sharpening needles. This was the Iroquois adaptation of the strawberry emery.

Good Luck!


No discussion of Iroquois beadwork should end without pointing out the great skill it took to create some of these objects. The Mohawks, particularly, were skilled at raised, three dimensional beadwork:

Some of the stitching is so fine, and the beads so tightly fastened that one wonders how they accomplished all this by hand. I have seen examples of intricate floral design, patterened after European embroidery, although I didn't acquire any of those.

In the course of my research on this I met a wonderful new friend, Dolores Elliott, of the Iroquois Studies Association. She is an expert in all things related to Iroquois beadwork, and has written many books on the subject. She helped me identify my purchases and was tireless in her attention to this and very gracious in imparting her deep knowledge of the subject. Thank you, Dolores! This is the link to her article for Worthpoint on the subject:

So that's what I've learned about Iroquois beadwork. I believe them to be undervalued in the marketplace today. To get an idea of what they sell for now, look at completed listings on eBay. Lots of people ask hundreds for them, but they rarely get that much. Now would be a good time to start collecting these creations, if you're so inclined.


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