BEADED HEARTS

Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of beaded hearts have been created by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) beadworkers over the last two hundred years. This 5 x 5-inch LOVE heart was made by Tuscarora sewer, Ethel Zomont, in 1982.

February is the month for Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is the day for hearts. Hearts are the most common form of Iroquois beaded pincushions. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of beaded hearts have been created by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) beadworkers over the last two hundred years. Some may wonder why the heart shape is a favorite shape of an American Indian art form. There may be multiple answers.

Iroquois beadworkers are very astute in creating heart pincushions in such large numbers. They know that hearts symbolize love and affection just like souvenirs.  Most beaded heart pincushions were made to sell as souvenirs, objects to remind someone of a good experience or friend. They recognize that the heart was a popular symbol to Victorian women in the mid-19th century when some of the earliest heart-shaped pincushions were created. People still love heart pincushions in the 21st century.

This small two sided early Seneca (2 x 2 inches) is easily portable.

Heart pincushion souvenirs remind the traveler of fond memories of a visit to a special place such as a natural wonder, city, or fair. A heart-shaped souvenir is also a good gift to a beloved friend or family member who did not make the trip. Ranging as small as the two sided 2″ early Seneca (shown above), they are easily portable. Even the largest examples at 6.25 x 6.25 inches (see below) are convenient to transport. Most all have hangers and are meant to be displayed vertically on a wall so their designs can be better appreciated.

A beautiful 6.25″ pincushion.

To make the souvenir more meaningful, several carry beaded messages such as REMEMBER ME, I LOVE YOU, DEAR MOTHER, or LOVE, and the place visited is often beaded on the face of the pincushions. NIAGARA FALLS and STATE FAIR are popular locations beaded on Tuscarora hearts because that is where they sold the majority of their beadwork. The Mohawks, who traveled extensively from their homes near Montreal included such place names as TUPPER LAKE, MT. CLEMENTS, TORONTO, and CHICAGO FAIR.

Many carry designs depicting birds, flowers, leaves or some other reminder of nature, and many carry the aroma of nature with their pleasant distinctive pine sawdust or sweet grass stuffings. Wool covered the faces of the early 19th century hearts and by mid-century purple velvet became the favorite fabric as it is in the 21st century. Polished cotton covered the backs of 19th and early 20th century hearts while cotton, often calico, replaced it. All of the early glass beads were imported from Europe while many 21st beadworkers purchased beads which were manufactured in Asia. No glass beads have been made in the United States.

Ever since Christopher Columbus gave glass beads to natives when he landed on October 12, 1492, the indigenous people in North America have loved sparkling glass beads. In the 1500s beads were traded up the Susquehanna, Hudson, and St Lawrence rivers into Iroquoia, the homeland of the Haudenosaunee in what is now central New York State.  There, the Mohawks lived in villages near the Mohawk River; the Oneida lived south of Oneida Lake; the Onondaga lived near Onondaga Lake; the Cayuga villages were located near the lake that carries their name; and, the Seneca villages were located near the Genesee River in western New York State.

A heart of hearts featuring late 20th century heart pincushions.

The heart of hearts in the photo above features late 20th century heart pincushions. Note that these are covered with red velvet, although other color fabrics are also used. The six near the top of the heart of hearts were made by Tuscarora sewers living on the Tuscarora reservation near Niagara Falls. The STATE FAIR 1958 was the first piece that I ever bought. I bought it as a souvenir of my 1958 visit to the Indian Village at the New York State Fair where they are still being sold each September. The rest of the hearts with multiple loops hanging from them were made on a Mohawk reserve near Montreal. Similar hearts can be purchased at 21st century events such as Pow Wows and Indian Art Festivals. The pincushion at the bottom of the Heart of hearts is called a trilobe heart, the heart variant that often exhibits more elaborate and larger designs than the Valentine heart.

Older pieces can be found in antique stores but they are also available on internet sites such as eBay and Etsy. They are priced based on size, cleanliness, completeness, and elaborateness. Small (4 x 4 inch) hearts can be purchased for $40, while larger ones may go for over $200.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Heart pincushions are among the dozens of types of Iroquois beadwork that will be featured in an exhibit at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, this spring. The exhibit, BEADED TREASURES OF HAUDENONSAUNEE ART, will be open between April 2, 2019 and June 16, 2019.


Dolores Elliott is a retired archaeologist who has researched the art and artifacts of the indigenous people of the Northeast for the last 50 years. Since the 1970s, her research has concentrated on the beadwork created by the Iroquois. As a museum consultant she has mounted over a dozen exhibits. She has written fourteen publications about Iroquois beadwork, and she organizes an annual International Iroquois Beadwork Conference. For more information check out www.otsiningo.com. She can be contacted through email at Dolores@stny.rr.com.

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