Bryn Mawr College Art & Archaeology Collections

Bags From Around the World: A Cross-Cultural Approach to the Bag Making Tradition

March 26, 2001 through June 8, 2001
Rhys Carpenter Library of Art, Archaeology, and Cities
Fong Reading Room


Bags are found in every culture and are often essential to the survival of indigenous groups. They are useful in gathering herbs and plants, they are spiritually significant and purposeful, and they are useful for both carrying weapons for hunting and carrying tools for everyday use. Bags are a symbol of a group's history, and they are often reflective of a people's interaction with foreign cultures.

Bags evolved for many cultures, from practical objects to lucrative trade items, once native tribes discovered that they could use their artistic talents to trade with foreigners. Trade was especially useful for indigenous people who could no longer rely on traditional forms of subsistence. For example, Native Americans were no longer able to rely on hunting, gathering, and agriculture for survival when they turned to selling their tribal objects. As is obvious in some items in this display, the crafts were made to accommodate to the tastes and needs of tourists. Between the 1830s and 1930s Native Americansvisited newly developed tourist and vacation sites to sell art commodities such as beaded purses, cigarette cases, moccasins and dolls. Several of the items in this display are tourist commodities and demonstrate the meeting of various cultures to produce commodities.

The bags displayed in this exhibit come from North America, Africa, and Polynesia. They were chosen because they demonstrate various techniques of bag making, such as beadwork and weaving. They show the utilization of different materials: leather, glass beads, and woven fiber. They also demonstrate the spiritual, intercultural, and artistic significance of the bag making tradition.

1) Wedding Bag (Left)

This wedding bag is made of gold and white glass beads, a thin bead handle and tassel tie, and a small tassle at the bottom decorated with blue beads. The Christian cross in the center of the bag demonstrates the meeting of Western and African cultures as a result of missionary work in this region.

(2) Bag with Geometric Design (Below)
Yoruba, Nigeria

This bag, made of woven fiber and sewn beads comes from the Yoruba tribe in West Africa. The beads are trade items that came from Italy and Russia. The choice of color on the bag is significant. According to the Yoruba, colors represent different senses and temperaments. Whites represent cold senses; dark, warm, and cool colors (purples, greens, blues, browns) signify a warm temperature; bright colors are meant to symbolize hot senses. Often, colors are also associated with certain gods. White colors symbolize calmer, peaceful, and mediative gods, and hotter colors represent more volatile and temperamental gods.

(3)(4) Small Pouches
Great Plains, North America

These small pouches are made of beads and leather. The beads are arranged in a geometric pattern. The pouches might have been used to carry herbs, spices, snuff, or amulets. Amulets often symbolized spiritual gods or animals, and offered good luck and security in a portable bag.

(5) Tapa Cloth Bag (Left)
Papa and New Guinea

Tapa cloth, the material used for this bag, is a tradition native to Polynesia. The cloth is made by beating the bark of a tree for several days until it becomes thin, soft, and pliable cloth. The softening of the wood is facilitated by applying water. Beaters are family heirlooms, passed from mother to daughter. The tedious task of creating the tapa cloth is performed by women in the region. Roots, stems, and berries are used for dye. The designs on the cloths are often exclusive to particular families or clans. The tapa cloth bag pictured here would have been used as a purse.

6) Sally Bag
Plateau Region, Wasco Tribe
This cylindrical basket, made of woven plant fibers, a eather lining and a drawstring opening, is simply designed with colored bands and a geometric pattern. Basketry of this region was a technique mastered by women. This sally bag made in a tightly woven style, would have been useful in gathering wild plant foods. Often women would carry larger "burden" baskets on their backs, and would empty their filled sally bags into the larger baskets.

(7) Envelope Basket
Nukunonu, Tokelau Islands (in Polynesia)
This bag is made of coconut leaf fiber. The Western style of the bag indicates that it was a tourist item that was meant to be sold to visitors of the Islands.

(8) Leather Pouch
Northeast Region, Algonquin Tribe

This pouch is made of smoked leather embroidered with dyed porcupine quills. Thunderbird and small diamond patterns are typical of the Woodland tribes. The image of the Thunderbird is an important manito (spirit being). This bag could have carried medicinal herbs, or may have been a gathering bag used to collect herbs and grass.

(9) Leather Case
Northeast Region, Ojibwa Tribe

This case is made of smoked leather, metal cones, and porcupine quills. It was used to carry a knife or scissors, and would hang from a belt. The leather is dyed black through a smoking process. The embroidered porcupine designs are typical Woodland motifs.

(10) Cigarette Case
Louisiana, Chitmacha Tribe

This cigarette case, made of woven fibers in contrasting colors, is a tourist item that appealed to people travelling and interacting with Native Americans.


The bags featured in this collection represent various elements of the bag making tradition. They demonstrate the usefulness of bags, the cross-cultural features of bags, and the variation in bag making techniques. Furthermore, these bags highlight the aesthetic quality of these everyday items. Each bag featured is designed in a style reflective of its culture and of cultures with which native groups interacted. In all of these bags, much attention has been paid to the detail and beauty of the bag. The aesthetic quality of these bags brings beauty and culture to everyday objects. A similar phenomena occurs today in the realm of fashion and design. Bags in every culture illustrate a group's history, craftsmanship and way of life. They present the effects of the mixing of cultures, and the adjustments that indigenous groups make to sustain themselves in changing times. The bags in this exhibit present a far from comprehensive collection of the variety of bags present in cultures of today and of the past. Yet they do illustrate the value of studying the bag making tradition.

CREDITS: The items in this display are from Bryn Mawr College's Collections. The exhibit and its accompanying text was prepared by Neta Borshansky '03. All photographs taken by Molly Greenfield '01.

Drewel, Henry John and John Mason, Bead Body and Soul: Art and
Light in the Yoruba Universe, Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998.
Taylor, Colin F., Native American Arts and Crafts, London:
Smithmark Publishers, 1995.

Bryn Mawr College Art & Archaeology Collections.

Bryn Mawr College Home Page.