A picture is worth a thousand words, so the old saying goes. While today’s mystery item didn’t generate quite that many guesses, it certainly exemplified the idea that one image can be interpreted in many different ways.

In the case of today’s item, all those interpretations seemed entirely logical: mortar of one kind of another (for corn/grain, spices, coffee, apothecary’s concoctions), early lobster buoy, dreidel. They also were entirely wrong, bringing to mind another adage (sort of): You can’t judge a book by its cover.

This one required some decidedly out-of-the-box — or should we say basket? — thinking: It’s a Penobscot Indian tatting basket block, circa 1900.

Middle-class ladies from Biddeford painting, reading, knitting, and tatting in 1887.

In case you’re one of those people whose immediate reaction amounts to “Come again?” and a scratch of the head, tatting is an old technique for handcrafting decorative lace with a series of knots and loops.

Today’s mystery item, made of wood, was used as a form around which to construct baskets that held tatting thread. The basket’s cover had a small hole in the center through which the thread would be fed as needed.


Sew Clever

Native American basket weaving brings together the best of both worlds when it comes to human creativity and innovation: superb craftsmanship and functionality. Gorgeous to look at, intricately constructed, and generally intended to carry, contain, or show off something, the baskets–whether created in the distant past or by contemporary artisans–are cultural treasures.

We are lucky to have a number of particularly stunning and unique examples on Maine Memory Network. Some of these come from places like the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor and the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine in Orono. The Hudson owns the item shown above, which we used for today’s What-in-the-WORLD?-Wednesday artifact.

Without question, this particular basket is charming to look at and the ash splints used to construct it are woven so tightly and symmetrically that one is tempted to ask, How did they do that? The obvious next question is, And what is/was it used for?

We received some eminently practical answers to that question including:

  • May Day basket
  • Funnel
  • Wine Bottle holder
  • Tussy Mussy (miniature Victorian-era flower arrangement container, often pinned on as a brooch)

But the only right answer was the one that seemed far less obvious: a holder for sewing scissors. (Congratulations, Celeste Hyer!)

This basket was created by Penobscot Indian Theresa Camilla Lyon Sockalexis of Indian Island, circa 1934, and it is pretty clever. Who, after all, wants to reach blindly into the chock-full sewing basket and grab the wrong end of a pair of extra-sharp scissors?

Sockalexis also made an accompanying thimble basket, pin cushion, and button basket. For more on contemporary Native American basket weaving in Maine check out Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance.



The Necktie Has Nothing On This

When a man “dresses up” in the contemporary, western sense of the phrase, he generally puts on a suit and tie. If he intends to bump it up a notch, the tie’s design will be more dramatic than his standard work-a-day fare. Or, for really fancy occasions, he’ll don a tux, and he may choose a tie that knots into a bow.

While each of us can think of various celebrities and others who might add more creative items to their costuming, for the general male population, standard ties are about as ornamental as dressy guy neckwear gets.

So it’s always enchanting to examine the ceremonial dress of other cultures, and from earlier times, to see how gender doesn’t necessarily define who gets to wear the fun stuff.

Take today’s mystery artifact, pictured to the left. Fairly quickly, our Facebook guessers determined it was some kind of regalia, and several understood they were looking at a collar. But only one got so specific as to claim Penobscot Indian provenance–something a chief would wear during special ceremonies.

That is indeed the answer! This “cape collar” dates from 1870 and features medicinal and plant motifs. Penobscot men wore cape collars and cuffs for dances, ceremonies, inaugurations of governors and chiefs, and other special occasions. Read more about the item by clicking on the image or by clicking here. The cape collar is also included in the Maine Memory exhibit Gifts from Gluskabe: Maine Indian Artforms — in Part III: Birchbark, Beads and Continuing Traditions — which features many other fantastic items.

And speaking of “dressing up,” there’ll be all sorts of gorgeous items, ceremonial and otherwise, that you can see up close and personal beginning June 24 in our upcoming new museum exhibit, Dressing Up, Fitting In, Standing Out: Adornment & Identity in Maine. Mark your calendars!