MOTHER DEAR ON MOTHER’S DAY

Iroquois beadwork made by skilled Haudenosaunee beaders is often made in the form of pincushions.  Figure 1: Star-shaped pincushion, 7.5 x 7.25 inches.

Mother’s Day became a national holiday in 1914 when Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. Anna Jarvis, the woman who was advocating for annual recognition of mothers emphasized that the apostrophe was before the possessive ”s” because it was to recognize one’s own mother and not all the mothers.

Each of us recognizes some woman as our mother. It may be the person who gave birth to us or the person who raised us. But, most of us have a woman whom we think of as our mother. This is a special relationship that is often recognized with gift giving. Sometimes it is a personal item, a flowering plant, a bouquet, or something else meaningful. One gift that would be especially meaningful, especially if the mother is a sewer or seamstress, is a pincushion.

Iroquois beadwork made by skilled Haudenosaunee beaders is often created in the form of pincushions. The pincushions are made in various shapes. There are star-shaped pincushions, hearts, trilobe hearts, boot-shaped pincushions, and more.  Many feature a pretty beaded flower that a mother would like. The fabric and beads come in cheerful colors that express love. Often several colors of fabric are used for the surface of the pincushion to make it extra special. Note that different colored velvets are used in the points around the perimeter of the pincushions in Figures 1 and 3. Red is probably the most popular fabric color in Iroquois beadwork. The shiny fabric on the boot-shaped pincushion in Figure 2 is an unusual pretty blue.

Figure 2: Boot-shaped pincushion, 4.25 x 3.5 inches.

Beaded on some of the pincushions are words such as DEAR MOTHER, MOTHER DEAR, MOTHER, MOM, DEAR MOM, TO MOTHER, or LOVE MOTHER. These are by far the most popular beaded words on 20th-century Iroquois beadwork; in fact, there are more mother designations than all the other phrases beaded on Iroquois pincushions.  Other familial words include GRANDMA, GRANDMOTHER, DEAR GRANDMOTHER, DEAR SISTER, AUNT, AUNTIE, FATHER, DEAR FATHER, SISTER, and SIS, but they are far outnumbered by those addressing “mother.”

Figure 3: Pincushion, 6 x 7 inches.

Although pincushions are the most common form to carry familial words, DEAR MOTHER appears on other beadwork forms such as the whisk broom holder with a bird on top (Figure 4). Rarely do whisk broom holders have words beaded on them.

Figure 4:  Whisk broom wall hanging, 8 x 5.5 inches.

Although the word MOTHER appears on more pieces of Iroquois beadwork than other words or non-geographical names, these pieces are rare to find in antique shops and are infrequently listed in online auctions. When they do appear for sale, many people do not realize they are made by Haudenosaunee beadworkers. To many, they do not look like American Indian beadwork, and because they are not recognized as authentic historic Iroquois beadwork, they are often not priced very high. When knowledgeable collectors find Iroquois beadwork with MOTHER or other sayings, they are quickly purchased.

Some of the other words beaded on Iroquois beadwork besides MOTHER and her relatives are:  LOVE, I LOVE YOU, TAKE ME DEAR, I LOVE YOU DEAR, FONDLY THINK OF THEE, LOVE YOU, TRUE LOVE, WITH LOVE, GOOD LUCK, MY FELLOW, JUST ONE GIRL, YOURS TRULY, BEST WISH, BEST WISHES, SMILE DEAR, ARE YOU SINGLE, HONEY, MY HONEY, TAKE ME DEAR, CALL AGAIN, O MY DEAR, FROM A FRIEND, FRIEND, MERRY CHRISTMAS, and HOME SWEET HOME.  But these phrases combined probably do not occur nearly as often as MOTHER or some saying that includes the word.

The pincushion in Figure 3 carries another message in the beads. It is the date 1941. A date gives even more information to the mother who receives the pincushion; she is reminded of what year she received the gift. Although dates on 20th-century pincushions are not rare, they seldom appear on DEAR MOTHER pieces or with other non-geographical words. Usually, words and dates do not appear on the same piece.

The first beaded dates appeared on pieces of Iroquois beadwork in the 1830s, and these were on Seneca purses. The earliest known dated pincushion was in 1850, but dates didn’t appear frequently until on Mohawk pieces in the late 1880s and throughout the 1890s. Dated pincushions became very common in the early 20th-century but most pincushions carried only a date and no words. Dates are common on 20th-century Tuscarora pieces. Dates appear infrequently on 21st-century beadwork.

The most common words beaded on the surface of Iroquois pincushions are geographical locations, presumably where the pincushions were meant to be sold. With the name of a place or event, the piece becomes a more meaningful souvenir to remember where it originated. The most common places beaded on pincushions are MONTREAL and TORONTO for Mohawk beadwork and NIAGARA FALLS and STATE FAIR for Tuscarora pieces. Often place names provide fascinating information. For example, the pieces that display KLONDIKE may indicate that Iroquois from the Montreal area joined in the Alaskan gold rush in the late 1890s. Most Iroquois beadwork with inscriptions such as DEAR MOTHER command higher prices than those that don’t have words or letters, but rare historic pieces such as the ones from Alaska are priced at several hundred dollars more.

Hundreds of people are collecting Iroquois beadwork and more people are joining our ranks every year. These collectibles are interesting historically, artistically, and are treasures of cultural art. Join us!

A reminder:  Over 100 pieces of fine Iroquois beadwork are included in the new exhibit BEADED TREASURES OF HAUDENOSAUNEE ART at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York. The exhibit will be up until June 16, 2019. As a bonus, there are many antique shops in central New York that you can visit on the way.


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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