Malachite’s Big Hole
Glass Trade Beads:
Glass beads were a major item in the inventory of a fur trader. For the trader, beads in small quantities were inexpensive and could be given out as “presents,” but when traded in large quantities were immensely profitable. In the new world, glass was completely unknown to the Indians and when introduced by the European traders was coveted as a rare substance. For the Indians, the glass beads, which were durable, available in an immense array of colors which were also colorfast when exposed to the sun and weather, transformed their traditional crafts and art. The Indians used beads in two basic ways, depending on the size of the beads: stringing and beadwork.
Large beads were strung. Pound beads (because they were sold by the pound. The term pony bead didn’t come into use until after the Civil War) were used sparingly to outline areas and edges. Strung beads were used in necklaces and pendants, in strands which could be wrapped around the body or object being decorated, and as decorative items for the hair. Beadwork involved the appliqué, or embroidery on a piece of leather or cloth, or the creation of a fabric with beads integral with the weave. The introduction of colorful glass “seed” beads was welcomed by the Indians as a replacement for more labor intensive techniques of decoration, particularly for traditional porcupine quillwork. With seed beads, decoration of clothing and objects changed dramatically. Using thin steel needles, also available from the traders, glass seed beads were used to cover entire surfaces with vibrant patterns. Appliqués of beadwork were used as decorations for everything imaginable, dresses, pendants, in strands which could be wrapped around the body or object being decorated, and as decorative items for the hair. Beadwork involved the appliqué, or embroidery on a piece of leather or cloth, or the creation of a fabric with beads integral with the weave. The introduction of colorful glass “seed” beads was welcomed by the Indians as a replacement for more labor intensive techniques of decoration, particularly for traditional porcupine quillwork. With seed beads, decoration of clothing and objects changed dramatically. Using thin steel needles, also available from the traders, glass seed beads were used to cover entire surfaces with vibrant patterns. Appliqués of beadwork were used as decorations for everything imaginable, dresses, shirts, moccasins, quivers, gun cases, etc, etc. The picture at right was made by Karl Bodmer in 1832-34 while he accompanied Prince Maximillian on the Upper Missouri River. This young man is wearing colored glass beads in strands of hair separated by white bone hair pipes. The blue and white patterned work on his chest may be seed-bead appliqué.
The use of appliquéd beadwork developed as an extension of the artforms expressed in earlier quillwork. Indian women were quick to realize that their traditional patterns could be executed using seed beads more easily than with quills, especially when fabrics were used. By the early 1800’s quill work, although never abandoned, was largely supplanted by the use of beadwork appliqués in areas with easy access to glass seed beads.
Glass beads were imported from European suppliers. Major European bead making centers were located in Holland, Bohemia and Moravia (Czechoslovakia). However the bead making trade was dominated by Venice in volume, quality and diversity until the end of the 19th Century. Venice enjoyed a near monopoly on bead production through the 1700’s. To establish and maintain this monopoly, laws were established in Venice in 1490 that placed the glass makers guild under the direct jurisdiction of the Council of Ten, then the highest governing body of the Venetian Republic. For the next fifty years, Venetian glass makers were forbidden, under penalty of death, from divulging glass making secrets, or from setting up competitive shops elsewhere. Profits derived from the manufacture of glass beads were immense. According to a report in 1632 (History of Beads) margins of up to 1,000% were not unusual. By the 1700’s bead making centers in Bohemia, Holland, and Moravia were able to cut into the Venetian monopoly with the help of renegade Venetian glass makers. Skilled Venetian artisans may also have been kidnapped for their knowledge of bead making.
The glasses used in beads were colored using trace amounts of various substances added to the molten glass in a controlled manner. Cobalt imparted a blue color, different copper salts imparted different hues of green, tin gave the glass a milky white color, and trace amounts of gold a red color.
In North America , the first beads traded for necklaces, pendants and stringing were generally available in white, blue and black. These colors were cheaper to produce then yellows and reds, and were thus more profitable. These colors may also have been more desirable to eastern Indians because they suggested the white and purple shades of the valuable wampum. Blue beads were particularly prized because the Indians lacked a natural dye source for this color.
There are two main types of glass beads: wound beads and drawn beads (also known as cane or tube beads). Wound beads were produced by working a solid cane of glass over a flame. As the glass became viscous, it was wound around a mandrel or metal rod. Prior to winding the glass, the mandrel was coated with clay or chalk to prevent the glass from adhering. The bead could be a simple loop of a single colored glass, or different colored glasses could be successively applied to the mandrel creating a layered bead. Beads of intricate patterns and shapes could be created with the mandrel wound method of manufacturing While still viscous and still on the metal rod, the crude bead was paddled, or rolled over flat, grooved or contoured forms to produce various shapes. Following this, the crude bead would again be worked over the flame and thin filaments or partial filaments of different colored glass were applied to the surface of the crude bead, followed by more paddling or shaping. This was a labor intensive and time consuming process, producing a single or limited numbers of beads at a time. However, very intricate patterns could be produced in and on the surface of the beads in this manner. As laborious as this process was, it did represented an improvement over previous bead making processes, because there was no need to perforate or drill a hole through the bead.
A variation of the wound bead process was Lamp Wound Beads. These beads were produced by heating glass filaments or rods over oil lamps as the heat source. The capital outlay for equipment, supplies, and labor was minimal for lamp wound beads and was carried on as a small scale cottage industry.
The drawn bead manufacturing process was known to the ancient Egyptians, but the knowledge was lost until 1490 when it was rediscovered by bead making artisans in Venice. Drawn beads represented an immense production improvement over wound glass beads in that hundreds or thousands of nearly identical beads could be produced at a time. Although drawn beads couldn’t replicate the complex patterns which could be produced in wound beads, diverse patterns, colors and shapes could still be created. The drawn glass bead process was essentially an industrial operation, requiring a large furnace, very hot fires, and multiple workers.
To produce drawn glass beads, an air pocket was introduced into a large blob of viscous glass creating a bubble. The glass bubble was attached to two metal plates. Two men, each holding one of the metal plates, would then run quickly in opposite directions, stretching and drawing out the glass bubble into a cylindrical rod which might be as much as three hundred feet long. The enclosed pocket of air was stretched out as well, forming an orifice that ran the entire length of the rod, producing a tube. The tube was cut into canes, and the canes subsequently cut into raw beads which were variously finished by reheating or grinding techniques.
Variations in drawn bead patterns could be produced by adding colored glass filaments or rods to the glass bubble prior to drawing it out into a tube. Spirals could be produced by twisting the glass bubble as it was drawn. The glass bubble could be layered by dipping it successively into different colored glasses, and/or it could be inlaid and marved.
Inlaying could be accomplished by placing solid glass rods of different colors vertically around the margins of a bucket, or circular form. The bubble of viscous glass was then inserted in to the center of the form and expanded by blowing more air into it until it contacted and adhered to the colored rods of glass around the sides. By reheating the glass bubble, the glass rods would gradually merge with the mass of the bubble.
If the bubble of viscous glass was given a triangular, square or other shaped cross-section, or was grooved, it would maintain these shapes as it was drawn out due to the “memory” properties of glass The process of shaping the glass is called marving and a marver is a flat surface of polished iron or marble, though some marvers have a surface of parallel grooves or ridges. The viscous glass bubble would be placed on the marver and shaped with paddles.
The tube beads could be converted into oval or rounded beads by additional processing. The raw beads were placed in an iron drum filled with a mixture of charcoal and clay. The drum was then set over a furnace and rotated until the glass became soft again. As the drum rotated the charcoal/clay mixture would be worked into the central hole, preventing it from closing up. The charcoal/clay mixture also prevented individual beads from adhering to each other. Due to the action of the rotating drum, as the glass softened, the sharp corners of the beads would take on a rounded shape.
By 1817 new processes were introduced to glass beadmaking including machinery to produce perfectly round beads.
For more information about beads and beadmaking see:
Hengesbaugh, Jeff. Trade Beads in The Book of Buckskinning III, 1985 published by Scurlock Publishing Co. ISBN 0-9605666-5-1
Dubin, Lois Sherr, The History of Beads, From 30,000 B.C to the Present. 1987, Published by Harry N Abrams, Inc. New York . ISBN 0-8109-0736-4