British Museum collections, £12.99
Length: 73.000 cm
Width: 63.000 cm
Africa, Oceania, Americas
From South Africa? North America? Europe?, probably 19th century AD
This feather cape illustrates the difficulties in accurate identification of objects in museums. In the early twentieth century, museum curators possessed varying degrees of knowledge, expertise and professional experience which sometimes led to guesswork when cataloguing unfamiliar objects. Records from this period are sometimes limited, incomplete or inaccurate. This feather cape has taxed the minds of anthropologists and curators and still remains a mystery.
There are a number of different opinions. One view is that the cape is from the Great Lakes region of Canada and made by North American Indians based on detailed information attributing it to the daughter of a Mesquakie chief in 1839. However, no other cape has been found in collections of Mesquakie material. Small turkey feather capes and feather yokes were worn by Indians on the eastern coast but were not like this example.
Research has uncovered about twelve similar capes in various collections and analyses have been made on the materials, construction, design motifs and types of feathers. The various museum records give them various provenances, including: the Chinese in South Africa, Hawaii, India, English and American Indian.
The reference to the Chinese in South Africa came from H.A Joyce, a British Museum curator, who made this suggestion without any supporting evidence. Further research confirms that a few Chinese labourers arrived in South Africa in 1815 and other came after 1890, making their dates too early or too late to have made feather capes.
The most positive identification has come from a curator of costume who noted the cape as a 'pelerine', a feather cape stitched to a canvas base worn by women. It is suggested that the American Indians made these capes in the Northeast states, possibly by the Iroquois who were making tourist items between 1830 to 1860. The techniques of manufacture diffused via the Great Lakes as far west as Iowa. However, even today it still remains a mystery. It may not be ethnographic at all, but simply a European fashion item.
N.O. Lurie and D. Anderson, 'A lost art form: a case study of 19th century feathered capes produced by American Indians in the Great Lakes Region', Museum Anthropology, 22 (2) (1998), 3-16