Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Fulfilling the Need for Warmth and Comfort

QUESTION: On a recent road trip through the Southwest, I stopped at a flea market in Arizona where I found an old Indian blanket in black and white on a red background which I purchased for my bed back home. It looked to be in good shape and the price was right. Can you tell me which tribe may have made it and perhaps how old it is?

ANSWER: While your blanket may look like it had been made by one of the Native American tribes in the area, it actually wasn’t. Contrary to what most people think, blankets like this—known as American Indian trade blankets—were commercially machine-woven for the Native American market. Prior to the production of these blankets, Native Americans provided  warmth for themselves using natural materials and traditional weaving techniques.

Native Americans had long engaged in intertribal trading for useful items, but it was the colorful European goods that caught their attention. Over time, traders upgraded their goods from beads, looking glasses, and fish hooks to more practical items such as metal axes and cookware, flintlock rifles, and blankets. To trade a beaver skin or two for a durable woolen European blanket seemed fair to 18th and 19th-century Native Americans. Making a robe from an elk, deer, or buffalo hide was a time consuming, labor intensive process.

It was the French traders who began trading blankets as a result of their insatiable need for beaver pelts in the early l7ยบ-century in the St. Lawrence River area. By 1780, the British Hudson's Bay Company soon followed suit.

Blanket trading soon spread across America. The Hudson's Bay Company shipped hundreds of blankets to St. Louis, the last supply outpost for those venturing westward in the 1820s and 1830s. While those heading to the Rocky Mountains trapped their own beavers, those going north into the Upper Missouri region traded for beaver pelts with the Native Americans

The early Hudson's Bay Company trade blankets were a solid color with a wide darker band near each end. They sold their thick, striped blankets to trappers who, in turn, traded them to the Blackfeet and Northern Plains Indians.

Like any successful product, Hudson's Bay Company trade blankets attracted imitators. While some copied the Bay's blanket style, especially the bright multicolor pattern introduced around 1820, other companies duplicated geometric Indian designs.

By 1845 there were dozens of woolen manufacturers in America, but only 11 who made blankets, and just one, the Buffalo Manufacturing Company, which made Indian-style blankets.

The introduction of the Jacquard loom in the 1880s created a boon to the blanket business. It enabled blankets to have two sides and launched what historians and collectors call the 'Golden Age" of the American Indian trade blanket that lasted from 1880 to 1930.

Eventually, five major woolen mills began making Indian trade blankets in the United States during the latter part of the 19th century—J. Capps and Sons, Oregon City Woolen Mills, Buell Manufacturing Company, Racine Woolen Mills, and Pendleton Woolen Mills. Another, the Beacon Manufacturing Company of North Carolina, made Indian-style blankets for the American consumer.

Of the above makers, Pendleton is the most familiar label. It’s also the only one still in existence. The company credits its early success to marketing its blankets directly to Native American reservations through trading posts and producing colors and designs acceptable to specific tribes.

By the late 19th century, most Native Americans had settled on reservations. Trading posts became the distribution points for food, jewelry, clothes and, of course, blankets. Through the trading posts, the English and American woolen mills found a built-in market for their blankets, the quality and designs of which Native Americans appreciated. Eager to please their Native American customers, many mills sent designers to live among the Indians in order to learn what designs and colors would appeal to the different tribes and pueblos across the United States and Canada. From the beginning, Pendleton produced high-quality blankets that eventually became the favorite among Native Americans.

Unlike Europeans, many native people became bonded with their blankets day and night. The fact that they were made by someone else made no difference.

They gave blankets as gifts to celebrate births, marriages, and christenings. They also used blankets to pay off debts, to show gratitude, or to indicate status. And some used them to provide temporary shelter, as curtains or awnings, or for warmth and adornment. Native Americans cradled their babies in blankets, danced in blankets, and were often buried in blankets.

The name Pendleton became a universal and generic name for any of these distinctively patterned blankets, even those made by other mills. Today, collectors seek out pre-World War II blankets for their light weight and warmth.

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