Beading takes an artistic eye, an engineering mind, nimble fingers, and steady patience. I understood these facts in the abstract, but it was not until my wife, Leah, began beading that I grasped more fully the artistry of the work. Beadwork is on my mind because I am annotating Wilder’s memory of traveling to an Osage camp with her sister Mary and her father Charles Ingalls. Scattered on the ground were beads that Wilder and Mary collected. Wilder recalled in the Bye revision of Pioneer Girl that they “found a great many pretty ones. . . . white beads and blue beads and yellow beads and very many red ones” (p. 5). From these discarded beads, the girls made a small necklace for the family’s new baby. But from where did these beads come?
Before the common use of European-manufactured beads, American Indians used a variety of materials and techniques to create beads. Wampum beads were made of special shells and used to make pictograph belts that recorded important events like treaties. To make wampum beads, a person trimmed the edges of a shell until only the columella, or central column, remained, which was then cut into sections for the desired bead length. The colors of the beads and the designs created often held (and continue to hold) significant spiritual values. Many Great Lakes tribes incorporate intricate floral patterns filled with blues and purples, while Osage beadworkers, along with many Plains tribes, often include symmetrical and geometric patterns.1
The beads the Ingalls girls found in the Osage camp were likely trade beads dropped during the beading process. Trade beads made their way through North American Indian trade networks starting in the sixteenth century. These were often Venetian glass beads made of molten glass wound around a wire. When the wire was removed, it left a hole just large enough for threading. The bead maker then cut the long glass tube to create different sizes of beads. They were often called “seed beads” because of their resemblance to tiny seeds. Later, the “drawn” technique increased the speed of this process. In this technique, a beadmaker pulled a rod through the molten glass, which created the threading hole.2 Following the decline of the Venetian glass monopoly in the eighteenth century, other nations developed glasswork exports, particularly the Czech Republic. Czech beads are shaped like donuts, wider than they are tall. In recent years, Japanese seed beads have expanded in popularity to take a share of the beading market. Japanese beads are often taller than they are wide, leading to more uniform results in some applications. Today, many beaders use beads of differing origin depending on the needs of the particular project they are creating.
I’d like to thank Hallie Winter and the Osage Nation Museum for generously providing answers to my questions and images of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century beads and beadwork. The images included in this post are a wonderful example of the variety and colors of beads the Osage used in the late nineteenth century. Thanks also to Leah, whose knowledge of beading sparked my own interest.
1. Lois Sherr Dubin, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999), pp. 170–71; Garrick Alan Bailey, Daniel C. Swan, John W. Nunley, and E. Sean Standing Bear, Art of the Osage (Seattle, Wash: Saint Louis Art Museum University of Washington Press, 2004), p. 9.
2. Dubin, North American Indian Jewelry, pp. 172–73, 589–90.