Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Furniture Made or Used by Native Canadians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



There was little regular furniture among the Indians, as home life was simple and wants were few. The furniture of the tipi differed from that used in the communal dwelling, for the character of the habitation controlled its furnishing. In all classes of habitations seats were generally arranged along the walls. Mats of plaited bark or of woven rushes and skins dressed only on one side were spread as seats, and pillows, formerly having skin cases, were stuffed with feathers, the hair of the deer or elk, in some cases scrapings from the hide, or, as in the S., the long, gray Spanish moss and used as cushions to sit on. Among some tribes a bearskin was the seat of honour. In the pueblos seats were of stone, or were rectangular stools made from a single block of wood, in addition to a masonry bench extending round or partly round the room. In N. California stools were circular in form. In the houses of the N. W. coast long settees were placed facing the fire, against the partitions that marked a family's space in the communal dwelling.


In the earth lodge and similar habitations stationary couches, which served as seats by day and as beds by night, were arranged against the walls. These were made by planting in the floor four tall posts on which were supported two shelves, or bunks, of wattled twigs, on which the bedding was placed. Sometimes both shelves were used as beds, but generally the upper one was used for storing the property of the person to whom the compartment belonged. In the lodges of some tribes, hung on a rod fastened across the two front poles, was a reed curtain, which could be rolled up or dropped to give seclusion to the occupant of the berth. Another form of bed consisted of a mat of willows stretched upon a low platform its tapering ends raised and fastened to tripods which formed head and foot boards. The skin of an animal, as the buffalo bull, killed in winter, was trimmed to fit the bed and served as the mattress, on which robes or blankets were spread as bedding. Pillows such as are described above were used, but in N. California were of wood and were used only in the men's sleeping lodge. Little children occupied cradles which varied in form and ornamentation, but were all constructed on the general plan of a portable box and adapted to the age of the child. Among some tribes a hammock, made by folding a skin about two ropes, was hung between posts and used to swing children to sleep. A crotched stick was thrust slanting into the edge of the fireplace, and from the crotch hung one or more smaller crotched sticks directly over the fire, serving as hooks for kettles in cooking. The household meal was often served on a mat. In the dwellings of the corn-growing Plains Indians the wooden mortar used for pounding maize was set at the right of the entrance and held firmly in place by sinking its pointed base well into the earthen floor. In every habitation a suspended pole or rack was placed near the fire for the drying of moccasins or other clothing. In the Pueblo house the mealing trough occupied a corner of the room, and was set at a sufficient distance from the wall to permit the women to kneel comfortably at their work and face the apartment. The trough was of stone and generally contained three metates, varying in coarseness, for hulling, cracking, and mealing the grain. Niches in the walls served as shelves or closets. Utensils varied with the methods of cooking in the different parts of the country; they were baskets, wooden and pottery vessels, and later, metal kettles. Household utensils, for cooking, eating, and drinking, were usually kept in or near the space belonging to the housewife, and consisted of baskets, boxes, platters, and bowls of wood or pottery, spoons of horn, wood, gourd, or pottery, and ladles. Some of the household utensils were ornamented with carving or painting, and not infrequently were treasured as heirlooms. Brooms of coarse grass or twigs were used to sweep the floor, and the wing of a bird served as a brush to keep the central fireplace tidy. The Pueblos tied a bunch of coarse grass near the middle, using the butt end for brushing the hair and the other for sweeping the floor. Some of the Plains and Rocky Mt. tribes used a wooden spade-like implement to remove the snow from the ground about the entrance of the lodge, and the Pueblos employed a similar implement for passing bread in and out of the ovens. The Plains tribes stored their food and other articles in packs made of parfleche and ornamented with painted designs; for preserving feathers until needed the Pueblos used wooden receptacles cut from a single stick, usually of cottonwood, and provided with a countersunk lid; on the N. W. coast elaborately carved boxes and trays were made for this purpose.


In the lodges of the Plains tribes the ornamented shields, weapons, saddles, bridles, and various accoutrements were always hung on the posts within the lodge, and gave colour and decorative effect to the otherwise plain interior of the native dwelling. In winter painted or embroidered skins were suspended between the inner circle of posts of the earth lodge and, like an arras, inclosed the space about the fire, adding much to the attractiveness of this picturesque habitation. Among the [Inuit] the stone lamp was the essential article of the household. It furnished light and heat and served as a stove for cooking. Such lamps, cut from steatite or basalt, cost much labour, and were handed down from one generation to another.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 174-175.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College