Emotional Objects Archive: The Native American Birch Box

Emotional Objects Archive

This is the first in a new series of guest posts aiming to create an  ‘archive’ of emotional objects in history. If you would like to contribute with a short post (up to 1,000 words) exploring the emotional dimensions of a particular object, or perhaps an encounter with an object in an archive or museum, please email us at emotionalobjects2013@gmail.com or send @EmotionalObject a Direct Message on Twitter.

Sarah Ann Robin presented a paper at the Emotional Objects conference on the ‘Materialisation of Love among the English in the Seventeenth Century.’ She is currently completing a PhD at Lancaster University, exploring heterosexual love in seventeenth-century England and the Americas, chiefly through material culture.

The Native American Birch Box

In amongst the pieces which have brought illumination and clarity to my doctorate, I was inadvertently pointed toward several brilliant ‘things’ which turned out not to be of use. While these things will be unlikely to make their way into my thesis, this blog seems the perfect place to introduce one of them to an audience of interested readers.

When I visited Cotehele in Cornwall, on a sunny day in April of 2011, I was going to see several different objects. One of those was a small box, covered in birch bark of North American provenance, with specific association to the Huron tribe. The date was unclear, but I had been warned it may be just outside my period of interest. As a most helpful National Trust employee folded back the tissue paper, my heart sank a little: the figures of a man and woman on the front were seated and clothed in a most Austen-like way. Still, I was not so defined by my early modern timeframe that I was going to leave in a huff. I sat down – eager to carefully examine and photograph the box. So much of the time researchers are restricted by glass or other barriers; this was a wonderful opportunity.

The top of the box

The top of the box (click to enlarge all images)

The box was 9 cm x 13.5 cm, and 12 cm in depth. Each side (except the base) had a different image sewn into the thin bark, which seemed to be stretched over the wood. The top had a small handle protruding from the centre, with trees, foliage, animals and human figures about it. The far left figures were in combat, the far two on the right carried long instruments, and in the middle, two figures, the largest of them all, embraced.

The front of the box

The front of the box

On the front panel, a large figure, who I believed to be Native American, crouched down, leaning toward an animal – possibly brandishing a weapon of sorts. Two other Native Americans were seated with their legs in the air, possibly playing instruments, as a fabulous bird swooped down above their heads. Above the metal lock and situated on the side of the lid, were the two European figures I had initially seen. They were seated: the man was in the midst of offering the woman a heart, and she was reaching out to accept it.

Duelling colonists on the left side of the box

Duelling colonists on the left side of the box

The other sides each revealed another scene. One the left side, two colonists were partaking in a duel, while another watched on: the long coats of the duellers flying out behind them. On the back of the box, a colonist was riding a white horse; a long weapon in his hand, and a dog running before him. The final side, to the right of the front panel, was that of a wealthy couple, possibly the Governor of the French colony and his wife. They sat facing one another, with a six piece tea service between them. That scene was of amusing detail. The Governor wore a stylish black wig with a ribbon, and a beauty patch just below his eye. The woman held a fan in one hand, and perhaps most noticeably, had an impossibly large nose. There were other details: a rolling canopy above their heads, period chairs and tea cups, and a little black dog with a collar around its neck. Each scene was a fascinating colonial image, designed by a tribe who would, probably, have reason to fear offending the recipient of the gift. However, whoever made the box from the Huron Tribe was also bold enough to give the Governor’s wife a very large nose.

Detail: the Governor and his wife taking tea

Detail: the Governor and his wife taking tea

The metal hinges, lock and the polished interior did not seem to be as old as the rest of the box, but I was no expert on it. In places, the original sketching of the designs were visible beneath the embroidery. It seemed that not all of the design had been embroidered over: some parts had a puncturing effect along the painted lines, rather than the thread, which seemed to be a plant fibre. The outside of the box had started to break down in places and one corner of the birch bark had disintegrated entirely. This allowed me to see the surface beneath. The makers had stuffed the space between wood and bark with a hair – probably moose which coiled and whispered out from the fraying sections. As the camera flash illuminated the hidden space between bark and wood, my mind’s eye imagined the creation process –a person sat with a tool, puncturing the bark; sewing it all together. The damaged section somehow permitted me access to something which was not intended to be seen, and this felt like a privilege.

The hidden surface beneath the embroidery

The hidden surface beneath the embroidery

I had reasons for excluding the box from my work that I will not go into here, but it seemed a pity that an item which was so fascinating in Native American history, Colonial history, social history – and many others no doubt, should be wrapped back up and not discussed further. It sprang forth numerous questions: why did the Huron Tribe make a gift for the French colonists, and why this one? Why was it kept? What was the Tribe attempting to convey in depicting two cultures, who they evidently saw as very different, but who seemed to be living side-by-side on the box, without interfering with the other? Was there a satirical element in how the Tribe portrayed the French? Perhaps these questions may be discussed further in comments and responses to this post.

Thanks to the National Trust and to the staff at Cotehele. All images were taken by Sarah Ann Robin and are used courtesy of the National Trust.

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