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Oneida Lace Makers

    The Oneida Reservation has a long history associated with lace making. This unusual story begins with a Deaconess of the Episcopal Church named Sybil Carter, who first taught Oneida women the art of lace making in 1898.[1] According to J. K. Bloomfield, Carter was serving as a missionary in Japan when she noticed that the women had a natural ability with their “slender brown fingers” to make excellent pieces of work.[2] Carter is recorded as having made a promise to a missionary, Father Merrill, that she would send someone to the Oneida to teach them how to make lace.[3] After returning to New York, Carter sent Mrs. Charles Bronson, who was “a teacher of lace-making at Hampton,” to Oneida.[4] During her time in Oneida, Bronson taught lace-making to the “Sisters of the Holy Nativity and a few of the most expert Indian women.” The knowledge was eventually shared with other women on the reservation and the industry began to take shape. There was a need for funds up front in order to buy materials but the Oneidas were furnished this cost by Cotheal Smith in memory of her Sister; Smith was “a warm friend of the Oneidas.”[5]

    It did not take the Oneida women a long time to begin to diversify the lace work they produced and multiply their talent. They learned different styles of lace and new patterns and after constant exhortation to keep the lace clean and wash the hands carefully, Bloomfield states that “the bits of lace-work were returned to the Sisters with perfect neatness and exquisitely done, for the Indians proved apt scholars.”[6] The Oneida used the phrase “ ‘Jiot Kout sa-tso-hulon,’or “be always washing your hands,” because it was absolutely necessary for the lace to return in perfect condition.[7]The Indian women were supplied with “oyster pails, bags, or boxes…so as to hang their work high out of reach of their little ones.”[8]

    Notwithstanding that fact that all the work was done from home, and even though some of the women at this time lived in log homes, the pieces were completed with perfection and well preserved. The Oneida women quickly learned that lace making was profitable. In the first year, 1898, along “with the many interruptions from housework as well as summer help in field and garden,” they earned $1,200.[9] Lace made by this group of Indian women became something of prestige, and just two years after beginning their lace making industry the Oneida women were winning awards.

 

Laces, made by [Oneida] Indian women, was awarded the Gold Medal in open competition at the Paris Exposition, 1900; the Pan American at Buffalo, 1901; at Liege, 1905; at Milan, 1906; the Australian Exposition, 1908; and at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, it was awarded the Grand Prize, which is the highest recognition possible.[10]

 

    The Oneida women continued to sell their lace work for the next twenty years, making considerable profits and bringing in additional income to the reservation. One estimation states as many as 150 women were working on lace making and they “brought in $200.00 a week into Oneida.”[11] These estimations may have been a little high. Josephine Webster stated that she sent the finished lace every two weeks to New York with a product value of one to three hundred dollars. She claimed that “there was a time when I had charge of one hundred women.” The women made lace of all types including a bed spread and lots of altar lace.[12] Cushions and doilies were also made, and one of the pieces of altar lace was for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City.[13]

    All four sources consulted state that in 1926, “The Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association” came to an end. One source stated that “the industry was about to become a thing of the past, but there was so much demand for fancy laces by people who appreciate an article made by hand, that it remained for Mrs. I. N. Webster, the manager of the branch in Wisconsin, to continue with the art independently.”[14] It is important to note this comment because of the level of customer alluded to. The reference to customers who appreciated hand made lace illustrates two important pieces of information. The implication is that many people had begun to purchase machine made lace, presumably because it was cheaper. The second implication is that the Oneida women had found a way to market a high quality item to wealthy buyers.

    By the time Josephine Webster was interviewed by Tillie Baird, in 1938 or 1939, Webster was still doing the lace work without any connection to any other company or organization. “I still have some old customers and some new customers. I am quite busy at Christmas time to fill the orders. I have to have several women making lace in their spare time.” At this time the women engaged in making mostly table cloth lace, handkerchief cases, and many different kinds of bags.[15]

    There are two major factors that contributed to the success of the Oneida Lace Industry. As previously stated, there was a market for hand crafted lace to purchasers of high quality products accessed first through the Sybil Carter Association from New York, but also directly from producer to customer from 1926 on. The second factor is illustrated by Bloomfield in her book titled The Oneidas. She states that there was finally a work solution for the girls who returned to the reservation from the various schools they attended. Bloomfield gives light to another of the important issues on the Oneida reservation during this time period. Students who attended Boarding schools such as Haskell, Carlisle, and others, returned to the reservation with knowledge of industrial work but no avenue of utilizing the knowledge. Josephine Webster highlighted the fact that she had learned how to make lace while attending school. Bloomfield stated, “There is at last found something for the girls to do when they come back from various schools, so they no longer feel forced to leave their homes [on the reservation], to find employment elsewhere.”[16] The estimations of between 100 to 150 women working on lace during the height of the lace making production in Oneida is significant for such a small community. Something about lace making drew a significant amount of interest in the Oneida Community, and Bloomfield offers a very probable explanation. When coupled with the amount of money the women could make, lace making was an obvious industry for the Oneida Community.


[1] “Our Oneida Lace Work-Its History,” in The People of Red Stone, Vol. 1, No. 7, (October, 1939, photocopied), 4. Information on the Oneida Lace Makers, Oneida Nation Museum, Oneida, Wisconsin.
[2] J. K. Bloomfield, The Oneidas (New York: James Stewart, 1909, c1907), 346.
[3] “Our Oneida Lace…,” p 4.
[4] Bloomfield 1907, 346.
[5] Bloomfield 1907, 347.
[6] Bloomfield 1907, 347.
[7] Ta Luh Ya Wa Gu: Holy Apostle Church Mission to the Oneida, 1822-1972, 15. Information on the Oneida Lace Makers, Oneida Nation Museum, Oneida, Wisconsin.
[8] Bloomfield 1907, 347.
[9] Bloomfield 1907, 347-348.
[10] Oneida Indian Lace Makers…, p 4.
[11] Ta Luh Ya Wa Gu: Holy Apostle Church…, p 16. Information on the Oneida Lace Makers, Oneida Nation Museum, Oneida, Wisconsin.
[12] Josephine Webster to Tillie Baird, binder labeled OH-5T, entry T-57. WPA Oneida Language and Folklore Project, the Oneida Cultural Heritage Department, Green Bay, Wisconsin.
[13] Oneida Indian Lace…, p 3.
[14] Oneida Indian Lace…, p 3.
[15] Josephine Webster to Tillie Baird, binder labeled OH-5T, entry T-53. WPA Oneida Language and Folklore Project, the Oneida Cultural Heritage Department, Green Bay, Wisconsin.
[16] Bloomfield 1907, 348.