porcupine quill box

A couple of days ago, I wrote about Porcupines here in eastern Ontario. This morning, while casting about for an idea for something to write about, I happened to look at the above quillwork box and thought how well it would relate to the Porcupine piece.

The round box in these three photos was made by native peoples here in Ontario, sometime in the early to mid-1940s. I don’t know much about the maker, but can tell you a little about the history of the box.

One summer, probably around 1944, my father set out from Toronto, to ride his bicycle north into that area known as the Muskokas. Somewhere along the Lake of Bays, which lies just southeast of Huntsville, and a little west of Algonquin Provincial Park, he came upon a native family selling various handmade goods, presumably to whatever tourists were traveling up that way. However, this was during the war years, so there wasn’t much traffic around that time. We used to ask my dad how come he was allowed to ride up there when he was just a teenager (he was around 16 at that time) and he said it was because there was so little traffic on the roads outside the city during those years, so riding a bicycle was actually pretty safe. Anyhow, he stopped to look at the various items and decided to buy the above quillwork box as a gift for his mother, and also a very small birchbark picture frame with a little bit of quillwork, to give to an older sister. Undoubtedly, he blew most of his hard earned savings on these two items, although I would imagine such objects weren’t anywhere near so costly as they are today — especially as the war years were probably very poor for those trying to eke out a little income selling tourist goods in what was, at that time, a very backwoods region of Ontario.

Now, a little about the box itself. It is about 15cm (6 inches) in diameter, and made of birchbark, with dyed Porcupine quillwork. The rim of both the box and the lid are edged with a little cord of sweetgrass. The lid is decorated with a scene of a moose and a tree. More traditional boxes were decorated with geometric designs, but in the early 20th century, those intended as tourist goods were decorated with animals or flowers. The sides of this box are decorated with a zigzag pattern that is probably based on a more traditional design. Unfortunately, over time, the quills have dried out and there are a few that are now broken or missing. I have spoken to the curator of a museum that also has several similar boxes, and they had theirs restored by a couple of native women up north of me. However, there are not too many people doing quillwork anymore as it is difficult and very time-consuming. These days, if you are able to locate quillwork, it is quite expensive — not at all surprising given how labour intensive it is from processing the quills, to making the birchbark boxes, and doing the actual quillwork. While looking around, I found one website for boxes made here in Ontario.

If you would like to read more about quillwork, there’s some excellent information on the NativeTech website. It begins with some history and background on this page. From there, you can follow several links at the bottom of the page to read other pages about designs and techniques.

This morning, while looking around for links to info on quillwork, I stumbled upon this discussion forum thread about quillwork. Not too surprisingly, many of the questions are about supply sources, and also how to remove, wash and dye quills recovered from a porcupine. As a few people on the thread mention, it isn’t too difficult to find roadkilled porcupines, but removing and preparing the quills isn’t exactly easy work, and it takes many quills to make a box — I believe one source mentioned it takes about 1,000 quills.

Click on all of the above photos to see larger views.

Tags: , ,

  • Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Trackback URI:
  • Comments RSS 2.0

17 Responses to “porcupine quill box”

  1. Mark Says:

    A very cool heirloom, made even more interesting and valuable by the family history involved.

  2. Marcia Bonta Says:

    Gorgeous box. Thanks for posting it. I’ve never seen anything like it.

  3. robin andrea Says:

    Wonderful story about your dad’s bicycle ride and this beautiful box. I have a friend here who uses quills in her art work, and yes it is a time-consuming labor of love.

  4. Celeste Says:

    A beautiful box! It’s too bad that such work and the patience to make it is getting so rare.

  5. Jimmy Says:

    Thoses are really cool looking…

  6. Cathy Says:

    Beyond the charm of the dear little box – lies the poignant reminder of the passage of time. From porcupine to a craftmen’s hands into your father’s then your grandmother’s care and now you photograph the porcupine’s quills as they still charm us even as they dry and a few`fall away.

  7. Xris (Flatbush Gardener) Says:

    Wow. Just wow.

  8. burning silo Says:

    Mark – Yes, it’s a wonderful heirloom. I’ve had a longtime interest in native art, so I value it on several levels.

    Marcia – Thanks. I’m not sure if many tribes produced them – I know they were produced mainly by eastern Woodlands tribes just as the Ojibway and MicMac. They may not have been produced too far to the south.

    robin – I’m very glad to know the story of the box, and of my father’s bicycle trip. I’ve always paid a lot of attention to small details in stories, and I’m glad that kind of information sticks with me.

    Celeste – Yes, I agree. It is too bad that many of these incredible arts are being lost as people are just too busy to work on projects that take a lot of time to complete. I used to do a lot of handspinning, and that’s another art that requires a lot of time and effort to make something.

    Jimmy – Yes, indeed, they are pretty cool!

    Cathy – I always feel that sense that the passage of time is entwined with these kinds of objects. I often think that of certain objects such as musical instruments that have been played by several generations of musicians. It must be incredible to play a violin that is even a century old… and yet many are much older.

    Xris – Thanks! Yes, it is a bit of a wow. I think so too. (-:

  9. Duncan Says:

    Makes me wonder how flexible are porcupine quills Bev? Did they perhaps soften them in some way to bend them? Wonderful thing to have.

  10. burning silo Says:

    Duncan – I think the quills lose a lot of their resilience during the preparation process. I believe they are boiled for awhile, or at least heated with dyes. They are ususally trimmed at one end, which also changes their strength. I believe that, for at least some kinds of quillwork, the quills are rolled or pressed to flatten them.

  11. Jim Poushinsky Says:

    I looked at this and being colour-blind had my attention
    caught by the shapes as well as the contrast. I didn’t see a tree, I saw a woman seated on a rock looking at the moose who is looking at her. Carol and Lisa both said it was green so had to be a tree, but I wonder… :-)

  12. burning silo Says:

    Him – Interesting! If I look at it purely as shapes, I can see what you mean about it being like a woman sitting on a rock.

  13. am Says:

    In spring of 1974, while traveling from Massachusetts to Washington State via the Trans-Canada Highway, I bought a birch bark, sweetgrass and porcupine quill potholder for my mother. Thanks for the reminder. We must have been traveling through Ontario when I bought that. I don’t know what happened to the potholder after my mother died in 1994. I can still remember how good the sweetgrass smelled with a teapot sitting on it. Thanks for all the wonderful links!

  14. Judy Says:

    Great picture and good information. I have recently become interested in learning how to make thses boxes. So far I have procured a dead porcupine and plucked it. Even that was very time consuming as it took about 12 hours. I now need to get the birch bark which can be gather in May.

  15. burning silo Says:

    Judy – How interesting! Let me know how the box turns out when finished. I’ve sometimes thought of trying to make one, but they certainly seem like a lot of work. It wouldn’t be difficult to find a roadkilled porcupine, but I’m sure it takes *a lot* of hard work to prepare the quills and make the birchbark box before even getting to the quillwork!!

  16. Cat Says:

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful story and what a treasure your Dad purchased as a gift to his mother. I love detailed work and it inspires me. If your want to see some amazing quillwork please check out Yvonne Walker-Keshick, she is an elder living in Michigan and offers Porcupine Quill Box workshops out of “Cycling Salamander Art Gallery” in Charlevoix, Michigan. Her work is phenomenal!!
    Thanks again for sharing!!!!!!!!!!!!

  17. bev Says:

    Hi Cat – Thanks for leaving a note. Yes, the box sure is a treasure. Thanks for the info on Yvonne Walker-Keshick. It’s good to know that there are still a few people carrying on some of these traditions.