Tufted Smoking Cap
Artist: Artist Once Known
Culture/People: Alaskan Athabascan, Den’a
Media: Velvet, moose hair, cloth liner
Dims: 3 x 6.75 x 6.75 in (7.62 x 17.145 x 17.145 cm)
Date: c. 1870
RTC No: NA0285
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011
Smoking caps were a men’s Victorian fashion item that prevented their hair from smelling like cigar, pipe, etc., smoke. Caps were often worn with a smoking jacket, which was warm, comfortable, and brightly colored. At a time when men’s clothing was primarily drab, these luxurious and often fanciful items were meant to be worn in private. Women often sewed the caps for their male partners, and some caps may have had a tassel hanging to one side like a Turkish Fez.
The term Athabascan refers to the family of languages spoken by the Den’a. Athabascans have lived in the boreal forests of the sub-arctic region of Alaska and Canada for at least 10,000 years. Prior to contact with the Western world, the Dene embellished their clothing with quillwork and embroidery, perhaps using animal hair. European influence brought new materials, such as beads and silk floss.
New design approaches were introduced after Russians and Europeans came to Alaska. The Alaskan Natives adopted some of these approaches while maintaining their traditional aesthetics.
These traders partnered with Indigenous women who were vital for their success. These women were their guides and interpreters and were skilled in hunting, trapping, cooking, sewing, and tanning hides. Additionally, they possessed knowledge of gathering and using medicinal plants, contributing to the alleviation of common ailments among early settlers, such as the prevention and treatment of scurvy.
European visitors purchased these uniquely made Indigenous smoking caps to bring back to Europe. Making and selling these items could be an essential source of income for the families of the Indigenous women who created them.
This cap incorporates floral designs made from dyed tufted moose hair. Tufting is used to create raised flowers by pulling moose hairs through a loop stitch and then molding them with scissors. It is a traditional art form shared by Athabascan and Métis women.
The cultural significance of the moose extends not only to artistic practices like moose hair tufting but also to where every element of the moose is honored and repurposed. Moose meat held a central place in the diet of the Athabascans, whose hunting skills included an understanding of animal behavior and tracking. This knowledge included skillful butchering, which could provide over 500 pounds of meat and fat. Beyond sustenance, the Athabascans embraced a deep respect for the moose, utilizing every part of the animal, following codes of respect for both the moose and the land. Nothing was discarded. Even leftover bones could be ground and boiled in times of food scarcity.
- “The Grand Old Smoker”, Myra Briedenham, https://journals.co.za/doi/pdf/10.10520/AJA10162275_592
- “History of Indigenous Art in Canada”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-art-in-canada
- “Collections Spotlight with Melissa Shaginoff”, Coe Center for the Arts, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVgcipuSa5U
- “Tufting”, Indigenous Yukon, https://indigenousyukon.ca/art-to-explore/learn-about-our-art/tufting
- “Smoking Caps”, Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture, https://www.metismuseum.ca/media/document.php/00745.Traditional%20Clothing.pdf
- “There are Two Versions of the Story of How the U.S. Purchases Alaska from Russia”, Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-russia-gave-alaska-americas-gateway-arctic-180962714/
- “Pioneer Women”, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/collections/meeting-of-frontiers/articles-and-essays/alaska/pioneer-women
- “Traditional Knowledge: People of the Forest”, Encounters North, https://www.encountersnorth.org/moose-summary/2017/8/2/traditional-knowledge-people-of-the-forest