Period Embroidery Beads (Old Color Beads)

Beads manufactured nowadays differ from those made one or two hundred years ago, particularly 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.

Detail of a Cheyenne pipe bag from the 1860s. A beautiful example of old beads, in this case seed beads. Note the irregular shape of the white beads.
Detail of a Cheyenne pipe bag from the 1860s. A beautiful example of old beads, in this case seed beads. Note the irregular shape of the white beads.

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 italian 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 bag, old seed beads detail.
Lakota Strike a light bag, old seed beads detail.
A Kiowa strike a light bag. An example of old beads. NMNH.
A Kiowa strike a light bag. An example of old beads. NMNH.

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, or that they came to the Indians around the same time as horses.

Pony beads reached the Great plains area during the second half of the 18th century,mainly thanks to French merchants. However, they did not become widespread until the first half of the 19th century. They were not sold in small bags as today, but threaded onto linen strings. Each thread or string measured about 30-40 cm, was folded at half, tied at the ends, creating a loop, and several such loops were made into one sheaf.

A detail of a Cheyenne pipe bag (probably). It is embroidered with pony beads, white and powder blue. It certainly dates from before 1840. British Museum, London.
A detail of a Cheyenne pipe bag (probably). It is embroidered with pony beads, white and powder blue. It certainly dates from before 1840. British Museum, London.
A Crow war shirt strip. It is embroidered with porcupine quills and pony beads. British Museum London.
A Crow war shirt strip. It is embroidered with porcupine quills and pony beads. 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 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.

A moccasin detail from the original George Catlin collection. Now owned by NMNH. The beads are old powder blue pony beads.
A moccasin detail from the original George Catlin collection. Now owned by NMNH. The beads are old powder blue pony beads.

Pony beads size

The diameter of pony beads can vary from about 2,5 mm to 3,7 mm. That corresponds with contemporary marking from 6/0 to 9/0 (the number states, how many bead rows fit to the width of one inch). 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“.

Cheyenne or Lakota side seam moccasins heel detail. NMNH. Notice the different sizes of beads: pony beads, seed beads and some, that are rather somewhere "in between".
Cheyenne or Lakota side seam moccasins heel detail. NMNH. Notice the different sizes of beads: pony beads, seed beads and some, that are rather somewhere "in between".
A comparison of pony beads and seed beads sizes. Seed beads (right) are about half the size of pony beads.
A comparison of pony beads and seed beads sizes. Seed beads (right) are about half the size of pony beads.

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, about 2mm in diameter, which correspond to present markings from 11/0 to 13/0. 

Seed beads have gradually started to displace and replace the larger and more sluggish pony beads. However, the mass spread of seed beads did not occur immediately, but only a few decades later, sometime during the 1860s.

Seed beads appeared in wider color ranges than pony beads (some studies mention up to 80 shades). Seed bead embroideries are finer, more colourfull, and it is possible to experiment more with patterns. Various distinctive tribal styles and beadwork techniques developed with the arrival of seed beads. 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, particularly during the 80’s, Bohemian beads prevailed. They were of brighter colours and more even shapes than Italian beads.

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

Beads 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 processes, they often kept their uneven, narrow and angular shapes.

An Arapaho strike a light bag. Note the irregular shape of the white beads
An Arapaho strike a light bag. Note the irregular shape of the white beads
The shapes of old beads, a view from above.
The shapes of old beads, a view from above.

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

As time moved on, the manufacturing was more sophisticated and the bead shapes became more round and even (fig. c) until it reached its present form (fig 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.

White

Mostly chalk white, to a smaller extent like porcelain. Some tribes, especially the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapahoes used white as a background. White was a common colour in both pony and seed beads. They often had quite uneven shapes.
A strike a light bag. NMNH. The white seed beads were used as a background.
A strike a light bag. NMNH. The white seed beads were used as a background.
A detail of a Cheyenne pipe bag (probably). It is embroidered with pony beads, white and powder blue. It certainly dates from before 1840. British Museum, London.
A Cheyenne pony beaded pipe bag detail. A 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. The greasy yellow could vary from very soft and pale shades to quite bright yellow.

A strike a light bag. The background is beaded with greasy yellow seed beads.
A strike a light bag. The background is beaded with greasy yellow seed beads.
A Lakota toy knife sheath. A nice example of greasy yellow seed beads.
A Lakota toy knife sheath. A nice example of greasy yellow seed beads.
A seed beaded bag with greasy yellow seed beads used as a background.
A seed beaded bag with greasy yellow seed beads used as a background.

Old yellow

A distinctive yellow color, sometimes it can be very similar to a greasy yellow, or a shade that is somewhere on the spectrum between the two. Size-wise it appears only as seed beads. Rarely used in embroidery for larger areas.

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

Orange

Colour of rippened corn. Could appear in various shades. It came in pony and seed size.

A side seam moccasin from NMNH collections. A very nice example of corn seed beads.
A side seam moccasin from NMNH collections. A very nice example of corn seed beads.
A small bag with some corn seed beads. NMNH.
A small bag with some corn seed beads. NMNH.

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 appeared mainly as seed beads, less as pony beads. It is again very difficult to get good quality reproductions of pink seed beads.

A pair of two piece Crow moccasins from NMNH collections. Pink seed beads were used as a background.
A pair of two piece Crow moccasins from NMNH collections. Pink seed beads were used as a background.
A belt pouch from NMNH. Old pink seed beads are used as a background.
A belt pouch from NMNH. Old pink seed beads are used as a background.

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 beads 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 can see on originals.

A strike a light bag from NMNH. Its background is beaded with red white inside seed beads. At the upper part of the picture, the white centers are revealed.
A strike a light bag from NMNH. Its background is beaded with red white inside seed beads. At the upper part of the picture, the white centers are revealed.
A Lakota moccasins detail. The white centers of some red white inside seed beads are clearly visible. A private collection.
A Lakota moccasins detail. The white centers of some red white inside seed beads are clearly visible. A private collection.
A detail of an Arapahoe bag. The red beads certainly have the white centres, although they are not visible.
A detail of an Arapahoe bag. The red beads certainly have the white centres, although they are not visible.

Transparent red

The 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. 

A Kiowa pony beaded strike-a-light-bag with tranparent ruby red pony beads.
A Kiowa pony beaded strike-a-light-bag with tranparent ruby red pony beads.
A small Lakota bag with dark transparent red seed beads.
A small Lakota bag with dark transparent red seed beads.

Transparent pink

A transparent color, similar to the transparent red but it is lighter with a strong hint of pink-purple. It was relatively uncommon and occurred only in a smaller variant (seed beads).

A seed beaded bag with greasy yellow seed beads used as a background.
A beaded bag. The beads in the middle of the dark rectangles are transparent pink.
A Crow tipi bag. Some part of its lanes are beaded with transparent pink beads.
A Crow tipi bag. Some part of its lanes are beaded with transparent pink beads.

Pale 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. Sometimes those beads are called “Sioux blue”.

A very light variant of Sioux blue color. Leggings strips, Crows.
A very light variant of Sioux blue color. Leggings strips, Crows.
A Crow tipi bag detail with a darker variation of sioux blue seed beads.
A Crow tipi bag detail with a darker variation of sioux blue seed beads.

Sky blue

There were many sky blue shades. They were very universaly employed, from usage as background colour up to part of transmontane style.

A Lakota bag. The light blue seed beads are used as a background.
A Lakota bag. The light blue seed beads are used as a background.
A bag embroidered with the light blue beads.
A bag embroidered with the light blue beads.

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. Sometimes this color is also called “Bodmer blue”

A southern plains shooting bag. Masco collections. Its background is beaded with the powder blue pony beads.
A southern plains shooting bag. Masco collections. Its background is beaded with the powder blue pony beads.
A pipe bag, circa 1840. The combination of the powder blue and white pony beads is typical for the first half of the 19th century. Other colours were only available in limited quantities.
A pipe bag, circa 1840. The combination of the powder blue and white pony beads is typical for the first half of the 19th century. Other colours were only available in limited quantities.
A side seam moccasin from NMNH collections. A very nice example of corn seed beads.
A side seam moccasin from NMNH collections. Very nice example of a powder blue pony beads.

Navy blue

The navy blue colour was mainly found in seed beads. It appeared in a range of shades. Some variants could be also transparent, fully or partially.

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

Dark blue

The dark blue looks like black at first glance, but it is not black, it is an extremely dark shade of blue. This blue tint is often only visible in good light, otherwise it appears black. It is also sometimes called “Cheyenne blue”, “night blue”or “midnight blue”. This color has appeared among both pony beads and seed beads.

“Arapahoe blue” is a particular color variation of dark blue. It is transparent and slightly lighter. Both colours can only be distinguished in good light, otherwise they both appear black.

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

Transparent green

Mostly occured in darker shades, only marginally lighter shades can be found. It occurred mostly in smaller size (seed beads).

Detail of a Cheyenne pipe bag from the 1860s. A beautiful example of old beads, in this case seed beads. Note the irregular shape of the white beads.
An Cheyenne pipebag detail. A nice example of the transparent green seed beads.
A Lakota beaded pouch with some transparent green seed beads.
A Lakota beaded pouch with some transparent green seed beads.

Middle green

A wide scale of shades, from powder green to khaki. It occurred rather marginally.

A central plains strike-a-light-bag with the middle green beads used as a background colour.
A central plains strike-a-light-bag with the middle green beads used as a background colour.
A beaded pouch. Its background colour is medium green.
A beaded pouch. Its background colour is medium green.

Acquisition options

There are limited options for acquiring beads that are really old (19th century), or that are newly made and at least look old. The more the beads resemble the old ones, the more expensive they are. The most expensive are the originals, which are also hard to come by. They are usually sold by the gram or ounce.

The price of original beads ranges from about 200 to 1250 USD per kilo. The price for high quality reproductions ranges from about 50 to 250 USD per kilo.

The Beadmatch is one of the largest suppliers of original Italian beads. However, warehouses are limited and the beads are extremely expensive; they are usually purchased only by restorers of period originals, for whom such an investment is worthwhile.

Pravý sloupec