Period Embroidery Beads

Beads manufactured nowadays differ from those made one or two hundred years ago, particulary thanks to the change of manufacturing technologies. Period American Indian beads, as well as European artifacts from 19th century, differ from modern in colour, shades and shape.

All beads used by American Indians for their beadwork during American colonial times were of European origin and made of glass. American Indians never made beads themselves, as laymen sometimes claim. In Europe, beads were used for producing bijou, embroidering pictures (pictures of saints for example) and sometimes tables were decorated with beadwork, as well as handbags and other items. 

Original cheyenne pipebag detail. Old seed beads.
Original Cheyenne pipebag detail from 60s, 19th century.

A large part of European bead production was intended for trading with the “savages”, particulary blacks in Africa, Amercan Indians in North America, India and other countries. European bead exports reached thousands of tons annually.

The most famous and productive European centres of bead production were Venice, the Murano islands and area of Jablonec nad Nisou (Gablonz an der Neiße) in Bohemia. All are still in business today.

Lakota strike a light pouch detail.
Lakota strike-a -light pouch. Detail of old seed beads.
Kiowa strike-a-light pouch. Old beads.
Kiowa strike-a-light-pouch, NMNH. Example of old beads.

Pony beads

The oldest beads, that plains Indians incorporated into their embroideries were so called “pony beads”. They gained their name because the white traders brought them on horses or ponies.

Pony beads reached the plains area during the second half of the 18th century. They were not sold in small bags as today, but threaded onto linen strings. Each thread or string measured about 30-40cm, was folded at half, tied at the ends, creating a loop, and several such loops were made into one sheaf.

Cheyenne pony beaded pipe bag.
Cheyenne (probably) pony beaded pipe bag. It is decorated with powder blue and white pony beads. It is most likely from pre-1840s period. British museum, London.
Quilled and pony beaded Crow war shirt sleeve strip from about 1850s period. British museum, London.

Pony beads colors

The oldest pony bead colors were various shades of powder blue and chalk white. Red with white core, transparent red, transparent green, night or Cheyenne blue (almost black), black, greasy yellow, corn and other colors came later.

 As pony beads were scarce at the beginning, they were first used in limited numbers, mostly in single lines, often just to border quillwork areas. Later, larger areas were embroidered completely with pony beads, for example knife sheaths, baby cradles, robe or blanket stripes, etc.

Detail of a moccasin collected by George Catlin, now in NMNH collections. It is quilled with wrapped horse hair technique and beaded with powder blue pony beads. Cca 1830s period.

Pony beads size

The diameter of pony beads can vary from about 2.5 mm to 4.5 mm, with 3.3 mmto 3.7 mm being the most common size.  That corresponds with contemporary marking from 5/0 to 10/0 with 7/0 being the most common. Due to the size of those beads and also their limited range of color, the pony bead embroideries can look a bit awkward or crude

This is also reason that distinguishing among various tribal styles can sometimes be difficult. From the fifties of the 19th century, pony beads were in decline, as they were replaced by smaller “seed beads”.

Side seam moccasins detail - heel area.
Cheyenne or Lakota side seam moccasins heel detail. NMNH. Notice various sizes of beads, pony beads, seed beads and some, that are rather somehow "in between".
Crow saddle ornament. Comparsion of seed and pony beads sizes.
Crow saddle ornament. Comparsion of seed and pony beads sizes.

Seed beads

In the 40’s, but primarilly the 50’s of the 19th century, the era of seed beads came into fashion. Seed beads are smaller than pony beads, their diamater vary from about 1.5  mm to 2.5 mm in diameter, with about 2 mm being the most common size. This correspond to present markings from 11/0 to 13/0

Seed beads appeared in wider color ranges than pony beads (some studies mention up to 80 shades). Various distinctive tribal styles and beadwork techniques developed with the arrival of seed beads. Seed bead emborideries are finer, more colourfull, and it is possible to experiment more with patterns. The second half of the 19th century is the era of seed bead embroideries flowering, so quillwork was somehow sidelined.

The seed beads imported to America remained primarily from Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and to a smaller extent from France, Netherlands and Belgium. In the reservation period, particulary during the 80’s, Bohemian beads prevailed. They were of brighter colours and more even shapes than italian beads.

Crow/Plateau otter bow case and quiver.
Crow-Plateau otter bow case and quiver. Seed beads appeared in wider color ranges and are smaller than pony beads, therefore seed bead emborideries are finer, more colourfull, and it is possible to experiment more with patterns.
Cheyenne fully beaded cradleboard.
Cheyenne cradleboard. The expansion of smaller seed beads allowed to create much finer and colorful motives.

Bead shapes

One of two main features distinguishing period beads from contemporary production is their shape. In the 18th and 19th century, beads were manually cut off long glass pipes with long iron wires in the center (bead hole). The results were somehow irregulary thick and sometimes not very even beads with quite sharp edges. Although the edges were somehow rounded in later manufacturing proccesses, they often kept their uneven, narrow and angular shapes.

Arapaho strike-a-light pouch.
Arapaho strike-a-light pouch. Notice the irregularity of bead shapes.
Old beads shapes schema.

If we observe the old beadwork from above, the beads form rectangles and trapezoids with slightly rounded edges (picture a) or resemble variously thick cylinders (picture b). A particulary irregular shape is very characteristic for period beads.

 As time moved on, the manufacturing was more sophisticated and the bead shapes became more even with rounded edges (picture c). Beads available today are usualy very even, uniform and rounded (picture d).

Period beads colours

The main difference among modern and period beads is in their colour. Modern shades are obtained synthetically, and are therefore showier, flashier, have a more “synthetic” look. The variety of bead colors available today is also much wider than it was during the 19th century. Thus it is very hard to find beads that are at least similar to those manufactured during the 19th century, both, regarding their shape and proper colour shade.

Let’s take a closer look at individual colour shades of beads, which appeared during the 19th century. All colour markings were only very rough. It is neccessary to realize that each colour could include many variants, shades and mutations, as various manufacturers used different technologies, which even differed over time.

List of most common bead colors from 19th century

White

Mostly chalk white, to a smaller extent like porcelain. Some tribes, especially the Lakota, used white as a background. White was a common colour in both pony and seed beads. They often had quite uneven shapes.

Strike-a-light-pouch.
Strike a light pouch. NMNH. White seed beads were used as backgournd.
Cheyenne pony beaded pipe bag.
Cheyenne pony beaded pipe bag. Nice example of chalk white pony beads.

Greasy yellow

The most prominent yellows were various shades of so called greasy yellow. Greasy yellow is colour of rancid butter.

Strike a light pouch. NMNH. Greasy yellow seed beads were used as backgournd.
Strike a light pouch. NMNH. Greasy yellow seed beads were used as backgournd.
Lakota toy knife sheath with some greasy yellow seed beads. Private collection.
Lakota toy knife sheath with some greasy yellow seed beads. Private collection.
Seed beaded bag with greasy yellow seed beads as background colour.
Seed beaded bag with greasy yellow seed beads as background colour.

Old yellow

Bright yellow. This colour seems to appear rather in later period, because it was quite difficult to manufacture it. I believe it did not exist in pony beads era and its extension within seed beads era was rather limited.

Transmontane (Crow or Plateau) strip rosette. Its background is covered with old yellow seed beads.
Crow womens leggings. Masco collection.
Crow womens leggings. Masco collection. Notice the yellow seed beads.

Corn

Colour of rippened corn. Could appear in various shades.

Side seam moccasin from NMNH collections. Very nice example of corn seed beads.
Side seam moccasin from NMNH collections. Very nice example of corn seed beads.
Strike-a-light-bag with some corn seed beads. NMNH.
Strike-a-light-bag with some corn seed beads. NMNH.

Old pink

A very important shade indispensable for some tribes (for example the Crows). Old rose tended to be rather more violet than orangish. Modern pink beads tend to have a rather orangish tinge. It existed in both sizes, seed and pony beads.

Two piece Crow moccasins from NMNH collections. Pink seed beads were used as background.
Two piece Crow moccasins from NMNH collections. Pink seed beads were used as background.
Belt pouch from NMNH.
Belt pouch from NMNH.

Red, white inside

Plain red beads did not exist in the 19th century. Only red with white centers and dark, transparent red were made. Red white inside beads are characterized by their red surface and white central parts. Sometimes they are called “white hearts”. They appeared both in pony and seed beads.

The red on originals are rather darker, with a brownish or violet tinge. Some shades of red white inside can tend to be a little bit pinkish. Even nowadays, white heart beads are produced, but the colour is much more bright, showy and flashy than we see on originals.

Strike a light pouch from NMNH. Its background is beaded with red white inside seed beads. At the upper part of picture, the white centers are revealed.
Strike a light pouch from NMNH. Its background is beaded with red white inside seed beads. At the upper part of picture, the white centers are revealed.
Lakota moccasins detail. White centers of some red white inside seed beads are clearly visible. Private collection.
Lakota moccasins detail. White centers of some red white inside seed beads are clearly visible. Private collection.

Transparent ruby red

Red white inside were by far the most typical red beads used during the 19th century. Marginally transparent red beads could be employed. They were usually very dark, but some shades can be lighter. They existed in both sizes, seed and pony.

Kiowa pony beaded strike-a-light-pouch with tranparent ruby red pony beads.
Kiowa pony beaded strike-a-light-pouch with tranparent ruby red pony beads.
Quill wrapped horse hair rosette with some transparent ruby red pony beads attched to a pendant.
Quill wrapped horse hair rosette with some transparent ruby red pony beads attched to a pendant.

Transparent rose/maroon/violet

There were also other transparent variations of red, reaching from rose, through maroon to violet. Those shades were rather marginal. 

Seed beaded bag with greasy yellow seed beads as background colour.
Belt pouch detail. Example of dark transparent rose seed beads.
Crow tipi bag.
Crow tipi bag. Some part of its lanes are beaded with transparent rose beads.

Sioux blue

The lightest shades of blue colored beads range from almost white with blueish tinge to darker shades. This color existed only in seed variants.

 

Crow pannel leggings strip detail. Nice example of very light shade of sioux blue seed beads.
Belt pouch detail. Example of dark transparent rose seed beads.
Crow tipi bag detail with darker variation of sioux blue seed beads.
Crow tipi bag detail with darker variation of sioux blue seed beads.

Light, middle blue

There were many light and middle blue shades; chalk blue, turquise blue, blue-greyish and the lightest shades of powder blue. They were very universaly employed, from usage as background colour up to part of transmontane style.

Lakota belt pouch with light blue seed beads used as background.
Belt pouch detail. Example of dark transparent rose seed beads.
Lakota seed beaded pouch. NMNH

Powder blue

A key colour, especially for older pony beads. It was one of the first colours ever made. It played a main role, along with white, when the first pony bead decorations were made. Made in both seed and pony beads, powder blue is a middle or darker blue, which is often semi-transparent.

Southern plains shooting bag. Masco collections. Its backgournd beadwork is done with powder blue pony beads.
Southern plains shooting bag. Masco collections. Its backgournd beadwork is done with powder blue pony beads.
Pipebag beaded with white and powder blue pony beads. NMNH
Pipebag beaded with white and powder blue pony beads. NMNH
Side seam moccasin from NMNH collections. Very nice example of corn seed beads.
Side seam moccasin from NMNH collections. Very nice example of powder blue pony beads.

Dark blue

Various shades of dark blue were obtainable. Some dark blue beads could be transparent

Lakota tipi bag with dark blue seed beads. NMNH.
Lakota tipi bag with dark blue seed beads. NMNH.
Crow beaded leggings strip detail with dark blue see beads.
Crow beaded leggings strip detail with dark blue see beads.
Lakota toy knife sheath with some greasy yellow seed beads. Private collection.
Lakota toy knife case with some nice examples of dark blue beads.

Night blue (Cheyenne blue), Arapaho blue

Night blue, sometimes also called “Cheyenne” blue looks like black at the first sight, but in reality it is extremely dark shade of blue. This colour can be spotted in both, seed and pony size. Arapaho blue is variation of Cheyenne blue. It is transparent and a little bit lighter.

Leggings from NMNH collections.
Leggings from NMNH collections. The triangles are beaded with Cheyenne blue seed beads.
Arapaho or Cheyenne pipebag from private collection. It is completely beaded with seed beads, night or Cheyenne blue and white. The blue beads look like black but in fact, it is extemely dark shade of blue.
Arapaho or Cheyenne pipebag from private collection. It is completely beaded with seed beads, night or Cheyenne blue and white. The blue beads look like black but in fact, it is extemely dark shade of blue.

Transparentnt green

Mostly occured in darker shades, only marginally lighter shades can be found.

Original cheyenne pipebag detail. Old seed beads.
Original cheyenne pipebag detail. Nice example of transparent green seed beads.
Lakota beaded pouch with some transparent green beads.
Lakota beaded pouch with some transparent green beads.

Middle green

A wide scale of shades, from pea green, through powder green to khaki.

Lakota moccasins detail. White centers of some red white inside seed beads are clearly visible. Private collection.
Lakota moccasins detail. Example of middle green seed beads. Private collection.
Central plains strike-a-light-pouch with middle green beads used as background colour.
Central plains strike-a-light-pouch with middle green beads used as background colour.