The variety of beads introduced to North America is vast. Small glass beads are often known as Seed Beads. Italy was one of the most prolific manufacturers of these small glass beads. Most of these beads were made using the “drawn” method. A glass blower would blow a bubble in a molten blob of glass. Other workers, often young boys, would grasp the soft glass bubble and pull it into a long thin tube. The air bubble would create the hole going the length of the tube. Some references state that these tubes could be up to 150 feet long. The tube would be broken into small pieces after it cooled. Finally, the pieces were reheated, and tumbled to smooth the edges. Finished beads were sorted by size.
European Sources of Beads
Italian seed beads prevailed in popularity throughout the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. Bead manufacture was controlled by guilds of artists. Trade secrets were protected. Early bead manufacturers each had their own terminology for sizes and colors of beads. This is one reason there are discrepancies in historic documents pertaining to beads. These variations are evident in the original sample cards used to sell beads to merchants around the world.
In the early 1900’s, Czechoslovakia became the hub of seed bead manufacture. These beads are fairly uniform and well suited for Native craft. These beads are typically more rounded in shape. Today, bead workers rely on these beads for uniformity and quality. A few other countries have started to manufacture seed beads with a variety of techniques, qualities and results.
Glass Beads At The Wandering Bull
There is still no bead manufacturer in North America. Glass Beads continue to be imported. Plume Trading and Sales was a major distributor of beads starting in 1927. The Wandering Bull purchased Plume Trading and Sales in 1984. Our archives house original Italian bead sample cards, correspondence with Italian bead manufacturers and documentation concerning shipping and customs procedures.