Niagara Falls novelty moccasins you could send through mail
The tiny moccasins were both cute and crude, but I was drawn to them by the bright yellow tag hanging off them. The moccasins had been mailed unwrapped to a woman in Delaware, and I found that surprising.
The tag bore two 1-cent stamps and an imprinted note:
“This novelty can be mailed anywhere as it is without wrapping or folding. Postage 1 ½ cents.” It was postmarked Niagara Falls, NY. It was a souvenir, used much the same as a postcard but a little more delightful in receiving.
I turned the tag on the flip side and found another printed message:
“Moccasins for little feet
Made for dollies, ain’t they neat?
Injuns made them far away.
I’m sending you a pair today.”
The sender had marked out the word “dollies” and penciled in a name that was not clear.
Given the use of the slur for Native Americans, I figured that these moccasins were likely sold by the same type of tourist shop that sold postcards back then and not the people who sold beautiful beadwork to tourists during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The most loveliest and intricate of the beadwork items, called whimsies (the word itself was said to be used initially in the 1950s to describe crafts done purely for tourists), were first made in the 1700s for trade among northeastern Native American peoples and sale to outsiders as a source of income. The Mohawk, Tuscarora and Seneca peoples of New York designed and created works for a Victorian clientele that took them back home for use and display.
The pieces were made of velvet, cardboard and stuffing decorated with elaborate raised beadwork that is now synonymous with the Iroquois people
The Iroquois made basketry, embroidery and beadwork that were sold at resorts and tourist attractions, including Niagara Falls, which attracted European and American tourists starting in the early 19th century to its wondrous waterfalls and romantic atmosphere.
No one could leave the spot without a souvenir. Especially ones made by Native Americans, who were still a novelty themselves to most people (who had always perceived them as a threat). “The Indian whimsy, one historian noted, was ‘a symbol, an object that could capture and make tangible something ephemeral and wild: the power and majesty of Niagara.'”
Tourists took home pincushions (the most common), picture frames, needle cases, wall pockets, match safes, model canoes and whisk broom holders. They could even have their beadwork inscribed. For many years, these items were known as Victorian embroidery, ignoring their Native American makers.
Beadwork sales by Native Americans did not go unnoticed by local merchants, who found ways to get in on it. Soon, tourists could also buy such souvenirs from both commercial shops and even non-Native Americans posing as Natives. The auction moccasins probably came from one of these stores.
One of the largest tourist shops was Tugby’s Mammoth Bazaar, whose 10 assistants helped customers to buy “curiosities, articles representative of Indian life and manners, toys, bijouterie (jewelry and trinkets), fancy goods,” along with a guide book to the Falls. There was also a Tugby museum next door with stuffed animals (10 cents admission).
A 1946 article in the Niagara Falls Gazette quoted from a book about those times:
“‘For many years, Indian bead-work was one of the main attractions offered in the bazaars here. An elderly generation of visitors will recall the familiar sight of aged Indian squaws, and dusky Indian maidens, who daily during the season of travel sat at various points along the route of the tourists on the steep banks of the road leading up the hill to Goat Island … offering for sale crude beadwork, pincushions, moccasins, etc. … The ‘Braves’ at home then made the toy canoes, the bows and arrows, the quivers, the war clubs and tomahawks, which the squaws also disposed of to tourists as souvenir of Niagara.
‘These squaw traders were a most picturesque feature of Niagara and the fact that those descendants of a passing race seldom or never sit by the roadside and offer their wares directly to the visitor is a distinct loss to the artistic environment of the cataract.
‘In those days some enterprising genius devised the scheme of manufacturing trinkets – such as watch charms, seals, etc. – cut out of that Niagara gymsum or ‘Petrified spray of the Falls.’ … And thus the manufacture of Niagara spar jewelry began.'”
The jewelry was small white pebbles or stones said to have medicinal properties – which it apparently did not.
In the late 19th century, the state of New York bought the land around the Falls for a Native State Reservation and shut down the commercial shops. Iroquois women, however, were allowed to continue to sell their wares in Prospect Park near the Falls.