Monday, January 21, 2013

18th Century Trade Beads

This is my third strand of 18th century beads. I learned about them at a French and Indian War rendezvous several years ago.

These beads were first produced during the 1600's and 1700's for trade with the Native Americans. European glass makers produced huge numbers of them, which were traded for furs, food or even, sadly, land. The beads had certain characteristics. They tended to come in strands of about 14 inches, and were generally not of good or consistent quality. Most notably, they were usually strung on twisted grass. The type of grass and knots used to secure them are consistent.

How are these things still being traded today? Well, the Natives did not use the beads for decoration. They kept them as an "investment" or traded the strands among themselves, keeping the strands intact. Over the years, the "value" of the beads declined to almost nothing, but families still kept the beads.

Then, in the 1800's and 1900's, trade between the US and Africa became more active. White settlers bought back the Native American trade beads, and sent them to Africa. Once again, the strands of beads were kept intact, and used as money.

Now, with a more sophisticated African population and an American interest in "primitive' style jewelry, the beads have come back home again. I have found them in flea markets and high end bead shops. Depending on the style of beads, they can be had for as little as $12 a strand. Here's my latest find. I'll feel a little guilty cutting the old grass strand and re-stringing the beads to make a pirate necklace, but I'll be thrilled to wear a little piece of history.

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