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Indian Trade Blankets

Author: Kim Hill
Issue: March, 2009, Page 46

Photography by David B. Moore

This blanket by J. Capps and Sons dates from 1911. Author Barry Friedman explains that many Native Americans preferred a simple striped design over a blanket with a complex geometric motif.

When the last free American Indians were forced onto reservations in 1890, federally licensed trading posts run by whites were established on the reservations. Here, native peoples traded wool, beadwork and baskets for a broad range of items; but among the most desired offerings were boldly patterned woolen Indian trade blankets.   

For centuries, American Indians had produced their own robes and blankets from animal hides and fur, plant fibers or woven fabric. The Navajos, for example, made woven blankets entirely by hand until synthetic dyes became available. Trading post owners were convinced that non-Indian buyers would clamor for these Navajo weavings if they were produced as rugs.

“With the Navajos now exclusively weaving rugs, commercial woolen mill operators saw an opportunity to sell their machine-made blankets to the Indians,” says Barry Friedman, author of Chasing Rainbows: Collecting American Indian Trade & Camp Blankets (Bulfinch Press, 2002). “The result was Indians selling rugs to whites and whites selling Indian blankets to Native Americans. It’s a practice that continues to this day.”

Also generically known as Indian trade blankets, Indian-style blankets, or Pendletons, the wool weavings were universally embraced by tribes across the country. The earliest recorded sale of an Indian trade blanket occurred in 1892 at J. Capps and Sons in Jacksonville, Illinois. Along with Capps, other manufacturers included Pendleton Woolen Mills, Schuler & Benninghofen Woolen Mill Co., Racine Woolen Mills, Buell Manufacturing Co., Knight Woolen Mills, and Oregon City Woolen Mills.

Some Indian trade blankets, such as this one by Pendleton, feature fringe detailing. These blankets were called shawls and were made for women; weavings without fringe were called robes and manufactured for men. 
The firms also aggressively marketed the blankets to the masses. “Each company developed its own advertising and promotion campaigns, usually associating its blankets with romantic images of the American Indian and the American West and hoping this romanticism would attract customers,” writes Robert W. Kapoun in The Language of the Robe: American Indian Trade Blankets (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 1992).

Production of the blankets continued until 1942, when the attention of manufacturers was diverted to World War II. This is why serious collectors view 1942 as the cutoff year for collectible blankets, states Friedman. Pendleton was the only manufacturer to resume production, which occurred in 1947. It continues to make Indian trade blankets today.

Friedman says that unlike many other antiques, these blankets remain accessible to collectors. “For 50 years, huge numbers of wool trade blankets were produced,” he explains. “It is still absolutely possible to assemble a world-class collection today.”

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