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Beaded Pincushions

Two of the beaded pincushions in the Fenton History Center collection.

The story of the beaded souvenir pincushions begins with the pins themselves. Prior to the industrial revolution, pins and needles were hard to make and were therefore highly valued. The pincushions which were made to hold the pins and needles were mainly decorative items meant for showing that the ladies were prosperous enough to have pins and needles. Probably the first souvenir pincushions were presentation pillows and were gifts for coronations, royal births and marriages.

The beads which were used had their origins in medieval Venice, then spread to France and England to decorate the clothes of the rich and the royal. Spanish and Dutch traders brought them to the Americas where they were bartered with Native Americans for furs.

With industrialization came inexpensive pins. They became essential, given the complexity of ladies’ clothing. They were often carried on pocket sized pincushions as well as stored on more lavish ones. Native American as well as Victorian women made them to hold precious pins. When not made for their owner’s use, pincushions were made as tokens of affection or for charity bazaars. The most collectible Native American pincushions were made as commercial souvenirs in the nineteenth century.

The Native Americans who first received glass beads were part of the Iroquois or Six Nations Confederacy, living in Western New York and Canada. By the 1800’s they had invented the technique of raised beading. Contact with missionaries and nuns had given them sewing skills. Many wore cloth rather than hides and adorned them with beads rather than porcupine quills. They also began to decorate simple pincushions with beads, usually using white beads on a red wool ground. By the 1830’s Seneca from the Buffalo Creek area were making pincushions for sale. They decorated them “Children of the Great Spirit” — the flowers, the birds and the trees.

By 1850 women’s publications were telling readers how to bead like the Native Americans. With the continued loss of their hunting and farming lands, the Six Nations traded in souvenirs to supplement the decline in furs. They long considered beading a rite of passage for girls and a sacred task for women. Soon, however everyone in the family made and sold beaded souvenirs.

The introduction of vacations meant that visitors regularly turned up at tourist sites, especially Niagara Falls which was receiving 60,000 visitors a year by 1850. Because of their loyalty during the American Revolution, the Tuscarora were granted the rights to sell at Niagara Falls, but also acted as middlemen for related Native Americans. Additionally and 1873 treaty allowed Native American beadwork to pass freely between Canada and the United States without duty. The Native Americans also sold door-to-door, at train stations and at every kind of late 19th century fair, and brought them along for sale at Wild West Shows in which they participated. By the turn of the century (1900) raised beadwork dates, destinations and mottoes were added. These included — Niagara Falls, Montreal, Saratoga, Remember Me, My Honey, Dear Mother, and Think of Me. The shapes included a standard heart shape, a tri-lobe heart, also called an arrowhead, and five and six pointed stars, though the six points were also call snowflakes. Between World War I and World War II beaded pincushions were less ornate and after World War II were even simpler.

The pincushions shown are from the collection of the Fenton History Center. You’ll see boots, a tri-lobe heart, a blue six pointed star, or snowflake and a red square. The pincushions made a fine souvenir to remember an enjoyable vacation.

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