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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
The most prominent yellows were various shades of so called greasy yellow. Greasy yellow is colour of rancid butter.
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.
Colour of rippened corn. Could appear in various shades.
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.
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.
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.
There were also other transparent variations of red, reaching from rose, through maroon to violet. Those shades were rather marginal.
The lightest shades of blue colored beads range from almost white with blueish tinge to darker shades. This color existed only in seed variants.
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.
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.
Various shades of dark blue were obtainable. Some dark blue beads could be transparent.
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.
Mostly occured in darker shades, only marginally lighter shades can be found.
A wide scale of shades, from pea green, through powder green to khaki.