Inside the Peabody Museum: January 2011

Victorian Whimsies Still Charm

beaded whimsey

boat whimsey

"They [Tuscarora] make the Falls a place of rendezvous - a general depot, where they vend various articles of their own manufacture...Many of their devices are fanciful [and] skillfully worked out..."

--J.W. Ferree, The Falls of Niagara and the Scenes Around Them, 1876

Lavishly beaded whimsies were popular Victorian souvenirs sold in the Niagara Falls area and elsewhere.

Native American women of the Iroquois nation, particularly Tuscarora and Mohawk, crafted whimsies exclusively for the tourist trade. Mothers passed paper whimsey patterns to their daughters through the generations, and the women's artistry supported many families. During the winter production months, Tuscarora children sorted beads, cut cloth, sewed borders and inscriptions, and gathered cattail down for stuffing, while men traveled to sawmills to collect sawdust, also used for stuffing.

Whimsies were created with the tastes of the purchasers in mind. Pin cushions were the most popular forms, along with cushions, wall pockets, mats, needle cases, and hanging ornaments. The beaded ornamentation was often elaborate; birds, flowers, U.S. flags, hearts, and leaves were common motifs. "Niagara Falls" or another tourist destination might be emblazoned on the whimsey, such as the high-heeled boot pictured above. Or the destination might be omitted if the whimsey was destined to be sold in another tourist location.

Though the popularity of Niagara Falls peaked in the 1870s, whimseys continued to be commonly sold in the area up to the first World War.

Further reading: "The Whimsey and Its Contexts: A Multicultural Model of Material Culture Study," by Beverly Gordon in the Journal of American Culture, Vol. 9, Issue 1, 1986.

Left: Mohawk beaded whimsey in the shape of a canoe. Quebec, early-19th century. PM 995-29-10/73431.
Right: Tuscarora beaded whimsey in the shape of a high-heeled boot. Niagara Falls, late-18th–early-19th century. PM 995-29-10/73437. 

Good Fortune and Sweet Dreams, Zulu Style

zulu headrestAre you wishing for a fresh start in the New Year? Perhaps a wish-fulfilling headrest is just the inspiration you need.

This buffalo-shaped Zulu headrest from southeastern Africa was designed to multitask. The first task--which was highly practical--was to protect a sleeper's elaborate hairdo from getting mangled in the night. Although many Africans sleep on a flat mat, those with an elaborate hairstyle are likely to use a headrest or other support to avoid disturbing the painstakingly prepared hairstyle. Thus protected, elaborate hairstyles may last one or two months.

The second task had even more potential: to bring the sleeper good fortune. The rectangular lid on top lifts to reveal a small compartment in the belly. Inside, one would place charms to protect the sleeper and induce dreams of wealth and fulfillment. 

Headrests in Eastern Africa are usually composed of two horizontal wood panels supported by short wood posts. They reach only a few inches in height and lack imagery. Similar ones were found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Such headrests were photographed still in use in villages as late as the mid-20th century.

Carvers among the Zulu excel in producing long sturdy headrests of dense wood. Most are abstract designs, with repeated ridges at each end; figurative designs such as this bull are less common.

Research and excerpts from forthcoming article "African Art of the Outer and Inner Head" by Dr. Monni Adams.

New Online Map Shows Harvard Archaeology Worldwide

Archaeology @ Harvard

Harvard archaeologists are working all over the globe. For a taste of what researchers are doing and where they're doing it, visit Archaeology @ Harvard. Red and green "pins" will take you to archaeological sites where Harvard faculty or graduate students are working. Yellow pins show the locations of site material researched in a Harvard lab or the Peabody Museum.

Click the red pin in northern Peru to see a photo and learn more about Magdalena de Cao, Viejo: Cultural Encounters in Early Colonial Peru, the site of this year's discovery of a lost language (see September's Inside the Peabody Museum). View the larger map and select short descriptions of various projects ranging from the survey of China's Chengdu Plain to excavations in Harvard Yard.

Check out the Tell Brak Suburban Survey. Work from this project is featured in the exhibition Spying on the Past: Declassified Satellite Images and Archaeology. It's on view for a few more weeks only, through January 30, 2011.


See what's coming up in the Calendar of Events.



Did you miss the December lectures The Alphabet: Its Origins and History or Technology, Tombs, and Texts: Uncovering the Ancient Maya Past at Caracol, Belize? Listen here.

January 15

Noon-1:30 or 2:30-4:00 pm

Family Program

Amazing Aztecs. Advance registration required.