These “seal skin baby pants” were brought to my attention by Jenya Anichenko, who is a postdoctoral Fellow from the Anchorage Museum of Art in Dr. Fitzhugh’s office in the Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of Natural History. She was working out at the Museum Support Center (MSC) near our usual spot in the collection storage pod, where we do all of our cataloguing on the River Basin Survey collections. Jenya was actually at MSC to study indigenous skin boats, and came across these baby pants instead, which were collected with other materials that were of interest to her research.
The seal skin baby pants were found in an archaeological context in Point Barrow, Alaska, by James A. Ford ca. 1936, according to the handwritten tag on the artifact. The culture is identified as Eskimo, and the locality information says it was found under the entrance to an underground house. The Eskimos identified here would be the ancestral group to the modern Inupiat people of Barrow. Within the National Museum of Natural History, the accession number of the baby pants is 242284, and the catalog number is A401629.
Rear view of the seal skin baby pants, Catalog number A401629, National Museum of Natural History. Photo Credit: Meghan Mulkerin
Left: Seal skin baby pants, front view. Right: Seal skin baby pants draw-string detail (click on photos to enlarge). Seal skin baby pants, A401629, National Museum of Natural History. Photo Credit: Meghan Mulkerin
A publication by Ford about his archaeological work in Alaska can be downloaded here. The baby pants are featured on page 219 in that book, figure 106b, b1. An excerpt reads:
“Birnirk: … In this same locality a pair of child's pants was found (Fig. 106b, b'). These are for a waist about 64 cm. in circumference and are well made of sealskin, with the fur turned inside. The doubled, triangular portion of the garment which passes between the legs is made of brown sealskin; the leg openings are tastefully edged with light-colored skin strips. A de-haired and bleached sealskin strip sewed around the waist carries a braided sinew drawstring that ties in front.” (Ford 1959:220)
These baby pants are unique, in that it is very rare to have the evidence in hand of infant care in ancient times (Bill Fitzhugh, Curator of Archaeology and Director, Arctic Studies Center identifies the Birnirk site as dating to ca. 800-1000 AD). The pants clearly demonstrate a large degree of care and love for the infant for whom they were made. It is made of several different kinds of fur, carefully stitched in multiple pieces, and held on with a draw-string cord.
It is evident that they were made to fit well. However, these pants are not a diaper! I was disabused of this idea by our ethnology curator, Igor Krupnik. I went to his office to inquire about it, and he was able to pull a reference off of his shelf in under a minute and flip straight to the page on diapering practices among the Chukchee, who are a tribe in the same cultural area, on the Russian (Siberian) side of the Chukchi Sea. Ask a curator! What he showed me was that diapers would generally have been made from reindeer moss, hair and possibly wood shavings. The arrangement was so effective that “this diaper with moss has been adopted by all the tribes of north-eastern Siberia, including the Russians, because of its practical convenience” (Bogoras 1909:252).
Figure 184: Infant's Dress, in Bogoras 1909:252. "The sleeves and breeches have no openings at all, so that the child's feet and hands are kept warm inside. A square diaper (ma'ki) is sewed on at the back. It can be tucked between the child's legs, and its ends fastened in front by strings. With small infants this diaper is filled with reindeer-moss and hair, which absorbs the excreta and is changed several times a day" (Bogoras 1909:252). Dr. Krupnik clarifies that the area where the diaper is attached is open to the air so the baby basically remains dressed while the diaper is changed.
However, Bill Fitzhugh confirmed my suspicion that around the house, where very little clothing is worn due to the warmth, these pants might function somewhat similarly to the rubber pants we put over babies’ diapers, with the moss being packed inside, and changed. It’s easy to imagine an active baby or toddler quickly shedding the contraption seen in the image above when left to its own devices in the house. Not so if these little pants were on over it! “Small boys up to about three years of age, walking around with the strings of this diaper untied and dragging in the snow, is a familiar sight in Chukchee or Koryak camps.” (Bogoras 1909:252) Loin-breeches very similar to these so called baby pants, were worn by men and women within their homes.
For more information on James A. Ford, you can read the finding guide to his papers in the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian, which is also located at the Museum Support Center. JSTOR also has an article on his life, published in American Antiquity.
We hope this gives you an interesting glimpse into the kinds of things our collections can reveal! Let us know if you have questions.
By: Meghan Mulkerin, Collections Specialist and Research Contractor
Bogoras, W. 1909 The Chukchee. American Museum of Natural History Volume XI. E.J. Brill Ltd., Leiden.
Ford, James A. 1959 Eskimo Prehistory in the Vicinity of Point Barrow, Alaska. Anthropological Papers American Museum of Natural History Vol. 47, Part 1. New York.