When glass trade beads made their appearance on the Great Plains, they were used for trade and became an important part of commerce. But not all beads were created equal and some were coveted over others. These beads came from overseas, far from the tepees of the Arapaho.
Glass beads were made in Amsterdam, Bohemia, China, Czechoslovakia, England, France, India, Italy and Spain. However, the majority of glass beads were made in Italy. They had a monopoly for 600 years and a secret society of glass makers who jealousy guarded all their trade secrets.
Beginning in the 1400’s in Murano, Italy, glass beads were made through a method called “winding. Making a wound bead is a very involved process. These beads were made individually by drawing a molten glob of glass out of the furnace and winding it around an iron rod.
A glass of another color could be added to a wound bead after the first layer cooled or the bead could be decorated with a design such as with the Lewis & Clark bead.
To create the color, coloring agents were added to the molten glass:
- Cobalt made blue
- Copper produced green
- Tin made a milky white
- Gold made red
Another bead making process produced the blown glass beads. In this process, a glob of molten glass was removed from the furnace and the desired shape was made by blowing through a glass tube.
A third, cheaper method was the cut bead. It was developed around 1490 by Venetians – or rediscovered since the Egyptians used this same process centuries before.
For a cut bead, a master glassmaker made a cylinder of molten glass and once it was in the desired shape, attached a rod to the cylinder. An assistant then took the end of the rod and ran down a long corridor before the glass cooled. This drawn glass tube could be 120 meters (394 feet) long and it was the length of this tube and the amount of glass used that determined the size of beads.
Once the tubes cooled, they were cut into meter long pieces and these pieces were cut into beads of various sizes. The cut beads were then placed in a large metal drum containing lime, carbonate, sand, carbon and water. While the metal drum turned, heat was applied to the outside, causing the rough cut edges to be smoothed. After the beads were smooth, they were cleaned and then placed in a sack of
fermented brand and vigorously shaken to polish them.
Czechoslovakian glass beads were also very popular, especially in later years. The Bohemian’s actually learned the art of bead making from Venetians when they worked in the Murano glass factories.
The Father of all Tradebeads (in Latin, the Paternoster Bead) was made in Murano, Italy. It was a large red, white or blue bead that had six to seven layer beads. “Our Father” Bead was probably the largest tradebead made from 6 layers of drawn glass.