Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Short History of the Hair Pipe

For nearly two centuries white men who have traded with the Indians of the Eastern Woodlands and the Great Plains have referred to a tubular bead measuring 1½ inches or more in length which they carried in stock by the name of "hair pipe." The origin of the name is obscure.

James Adair in 1775 noted the wearing of long, conch columella beads among southeastern Indians (Chickasaw, Creeks, and Cherokee) in the early historic period. Writing of the customs of these Indians in the period shortly after white contact, but before European trade goods had been introduced among them in quantity, he stated:

"Formerly four deer-skins was the price of a large conch shell bead, about the length and thickness of a man's forefinger; which they fixed to the crown of their head, as an high ornament -- so greatly they valued them."Add Image

Certainly the name itself fails to suggest the variety of ways in which Indians employed these long beads as articles of personal adornment. Nor should the application of this name to articles made by Whites for trade to Indians identify this form of ornament as a white man's invention. It appears more probable that the trade hair pipe was a white man's substitute for a type of long, cylindrical ornament which had its origin in prehistoric Indian culture.

This appears to be the only certain early historic reference to a method of wearing long, conch-shell beads by Indians. It would appear logical that the name "hair pipe" consistently applied by traders to the long, hollow, cylindrical ornaments supplied to Indians of the Woodlands and Plains in later years was derived from the traders' knowledge of Indian usage as hair ornaments of roughly similar-appearing articles of native manufacture.

George Catlin was the first artist to clearly portray this use of hair pipes. His portrait of the Plains Cree chief, He-Who-Has-Eyes- Behind-Him, known also as Eyes-on-Both-Sides and Broken Arm, painted in the fall of 1831, displays four long hair pipes, two of which are pendent at each side of the head from a cord passing over the forehead above the hairline.
Necklaces composed of hair pipes, large trade beads, and, in some cases, short lengths of clamshell wampum strung on cords appear in many of George Catlin's portraits of Indian men and women of the Woodlands and Great Plains painted in the year 1831-46. Add ImageAdd Image

Catlin's pictorial record clearly indicates the popularity of the hair-pipe necklace among the Add Imageprominent leaders of the Comanche in the mid-1830's. His portrait of the Mountain of Rocks, second chief of that tribe in 1834, shows him wearing a hair-pipe necklace.

Catlin alone of the artists of the precamera period illustrated still another use of hair pipes. His portrait of Tee-too-sah (better known as Dohasan), first chief of the Kiowa, painted in 1834, shows him Add Imagewearing a close-fittAdd Imageing choker of four row horizontal hair pipes.

There are no other illustrations of this ornament of hair pipes depicting its use prior to 1880. However, the wearing of a similar ornament of dentalium shells was not uncommon among the Dakota tribes. The photograph of Iron Black Bird, (to the left)a Yankton Indian, taken in 1867, shows the wearing of the dentalium shell choker.

The most striking and ingenious method of employing hair pipes in adornment was that of stringing considerable numbers of them on buckskin cords horizontally or diagonally in two or more vertical rows to form an elaborate breastplate. This breastplate was not illustrated in the works of any artists who drew or painted the Plains Indians in the first half of the 19th century.

The Comanche were fond of wearing hair-pipe necklaces in Catlin's time (1834). Available evidence suggests that the Comanche invented the hair-pipe breastplate, probably before 1854 and certainly before 1867. In the latter year Dr. Edward Palmer collected what appears to be the oldest dated specimen of a hair-pipe breastplate while he was among the Comanche.
It was accessioned November 12, 1868. It consists of 30 shell hair pipes, each 4 inches long, strung horizontally on buckskin cords in two vertical rows of 15 pipes each. At each end of each pipe is a large yellow glass trade bead. A strip of commercial leather three-eighths of an inch wide and one-eighth of an inch thick separates the two rows of hair pipes, and the outer ends of the buckskin cords are tied to vertical strips of the same material.

The latter strips are covered with bindings of trade cloth. A large German silver ornament hangs from the center of the breastplate. The breastplate was suspended from the neck of the wearer by a buckskin cord. This simple breastplate of 30 pipes may be regarded as the type specimen of the hair-pipe breastplate in the Plains. Although later examples were much larger, they employed the same general method of construction. Generally, however, they lacked the trade-cloth wrapping and the German silver pendant.

Thrifty Indians seem to have been loathe to discard broken hair pipes. They may have reused solid portions of broken pipes as pendants in the decoration of small beaded containers. Such reuse appears probable in the decoration of a Mandan awl case collected in 1869. The two short segments of shell hair pipes measure 1 ¼ inches in length.

The pipes appearing on a Kiowa toilet case collected in the 1890's are 1 7/8 inches long . However, whole shell hair pipes in short lengths sometimes were employed in the same way. As seen in this Northern Cheyenne awl case with two full-length 2-inch shell hair-pipe pendants. These specimens afford examples of still another use of hair pipes in Plains Indian decoration.

About the year 1880, at a time when the demand for large numbers of hair pipes for use in making elaborate breastplates was increasing, the Plains Indians began to obtain a cheaper and much less fragile hair pipe than the shell one long in use. The peculiar circumstances of the origin of this substitute - the bone hair pipe - comprise an interesting chapter in the history of Indian use of hair pipes.

Joseph H. Sherburne in his first year of trade with the Ponca had among his wares a quantity of corncob pipes. The corncob bowls were equipped with bone stems. These pipes sold readily but without comment from the Indians. Upon his next trip to the Ponca, Mr. Sherburne found the corncob pipes in great demand. White Eagle, chief of the tribe, showed him an elaborate neck ornament made of the bone stems of the pipes strung on buckskin thongs.

The Kiowa breastplate shown to the left, illustrates the transition from shell to bone hair pipes in Indian ornament. Of the 144 hair pipes in this specimen, 49 (at the top) are of bone. The remainder, including two broken pipes, are of shell. It must have been made up during the preceding decade when bone hair pipes were beginning to replace shell hair pipes in the Kiowa trade.

In the period of general economic depression among the Plains Indians following the extermination of the buffalo, during which they subsisted largely upon Government rations, possession of an elaborate hair-pipe breastplate or necklace was a coveted symbol of greater-than-average prosperity among these proud people. Not only did the Indians wear these ornaments when they attended ceremonies and participated in traditional social dances on their own reservations, but they wore them when they dressed to visit the Great White Father in Washington, when they took part in wildwest shows, such as the famous one organized by William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) in 1883, and when they appeared in costume at national, regional, State, and local exhibitions or fairs.

The cessation of intertribal wars after the Plains Indians were settled on reservations was followed by a period of increased friendly contacts between neighboring tribes formerly hostile to one another. Visits back and forth among these Indians were accompanied by the exchange of gifts between members of different tribes. These conditions encouraged diffusion of hair-pipe breastplates and necklaces during the Reservation Period.

(All the above illustrations and artwork
copyright 1996 Smithsonian Institute )

This natural bone hair pipe choker consists of 18- 1 1/2 inch hair pipes, red and black crow beads with black leather spacers. It has leather tabs with black leather laces.

It measures 15 inches. Created the same way as they were over 200 years ago. This choker has been cleansed as the Elders taught with sage and sweetgrass.

Remember that 10% of my sales go to help the children at the St. Joseph's Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota.

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  1. Wonderful article. The pictures are fabulous. You make me wish there was a way to trace my family tree back to find out where I fit in. Keep writing, you have a devoted follower here.

  2. Osiyo, I'm pleased to find your site and enjoyed this visit. I'll be back for more, and tell my friends where you are.

  3. I always enjoy your lessons Van, so keep 'em coming eh? :)

  4. Hello Van, there is a blog award for you at http://studio618.blogspot.com/2009/05/blog-award.html.

    Wonderful post here!


  5. KB, about a year ago I visited my daughter in Seattle where we attended an art exhibit by Catlin at the Seattle Art Museum. Who knew that I could be reliving some of those same moments with you later. Wado, my brother.


  6. I think the hair care is very important for every woman, because the hair represent one of the most attractive point. A woman can even conquer a man just with a beautiful hair, and when that happend is better the man buy viagra for a great sexual performance.

  7. I have an old Native American breastplate. I would like to find out more information about it since it is very elaborate. There are 5 rows of beads, I can provide high resolution images.

  8. Exactly what bone or shell makes the hair pipe? Was a lathe type action used to make the uniform shape?