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Indian Bead Ring Kit

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Continued from product description on Native American's Page One...

Historical Background: Beadwork is a hallmark of Native American cultures. Beads have been recovered from archeological sites throughout North and South America. The oldest discovered bead (so far) is made of bone and is 10,900 years old! The next oldest bead found (again, so far) is 10,100 years old and made of oil shale. Both beads are quite small (1.6 mm or smaller) and are so well made, they prove bead making was a sophisticated art well over 100 centuries ago! This is amazing if one thinks about the primitive tools they had at that time.

Beads and beadwork played an important part in Native American societies and their customs. Beads have been part of many tribal rituals and beliefs. One oral tradition mentions beads as a "supernatural being," or part of a deity's name. Beads and evidence of beadwork have been recovered from graves and other burial sites. Some burial sites had great quantities of beads, suggesting beads held considerable value for their owners.

A grave with lots of beads also suggests that it is the final resting place for an important tribal member. Such a grave was found at Cahokia (near St. Louis, Missouri), a 12th-century Mississippian site. Three royal Moche-period tombs (100-800 A.D.) discovered in the Lambayeque Valley of coastal Peru contained magnificent gold and silver beads. These beads were not just beads, either! They were highly crafted spiders, owls, human heads, cats, and even peanuts! Houghton Mifflin's "Encyclopedia of North American Indians" states that these beads are "some of the most beautiful and technically sophisticated beads in the Americas, and perhaps the world." Glass and brass beads have also been found at Saxon burial sites, in Egyptian tombs, and within ancient Roman catacombs.

Besides bone, oil shale, gold, and silver, beads have been fashioned from a variety of natural materials. Beads have been made from sea shells, stones (including precious and semiprecious gemstones), ivory, teeth, horn, copper, pearls, plant seeds, wood, fruit pits, vegetal fibers, clay, tree sap, and animal quills such as porcupine and bird feathers.

Egyptians were making glass beads by 1365 B.C. There is archeological evidence that China made and exported glass beads for centuries. Glass beads were introduced in Venice, Italy, around 1000 A.D. Venetians held a near monopoly on the glass bead industry for nearly 600 years, and Venice was regarded as the "Mother of Trade Beads." In 1291, the Venetian glass industry moved to the island Murano (north of Venice) because the city fathers feared a glass furnace accident could destroy the city.

For over two centuries, Murano glass beads were made by a process called "winding." This method involved drawing a molten glob of glass out of the furnace and winding it around an iron rod. The glass could be also be decorated with a design, or a different colored glass could be added. Coloring agents were sometimes added to the molten glass. Cobalt was used to make blue beads, tin gave the glass a milky white color, copper resulted in green, and gold produced red. Wound beads made by a master glassmaker were so perfect, it was difficult to find the seam where different molten glasses merged.

Another method was "blown glass" beads where the desired shape was obtained by blowing through a glass tube and into a glob of molten glass. By the way, this method is still used today to make glassware, such as plates and vases.

These two methods were used until the mid-to-late 1400s. Then the high demand for glass beads made the winding method impractical. Many European countries were now sending trade ships around the world with great quantites of glass beads. Ships' captains and their passengers would also take glass, porcelain, and metal beads for trading. And after the discovery of the New World, the demand for glass beads increased even more.

Glass beads were introduced to the natives of San Salvador Island on October 12, 1492, by Christopher Columbus on his first expedition to the New World. Columbus knew well that European-made glass beads were a successful trade item with natives in Africa and the Far East; so, he made sure glass beads were on the ships' manifests of the Niña, Piñta, and Santa Maria. These Caribbean natives were equally impressed with glass beads and eagerly traded their handmade goods for them. Some of these very same beads have been recovered from archeological sites in the Caribbean.

About the same time Columbus first sailed to the New World, the Venetians started making glass beads from tubes of drawn glass. This method had the master glassmaker take a glob of molten glass and blow it into a cylinder. He then would work the cylinder into the desired shape, and an assistant would attach an iron rod to the open end. The assistant would then grab the rod and run down a long hallway before the glass could cool and harden. This stretched glass tube could be over 100 meters long!

With this method, the size of the beads was determined by the length of the tube and the amount of glass used. After cooling, the glass tube was then cut into shorter lengths. These shortened tubes were then cut to make different sizes of "tube" beads. Tube beads were then smoothed by rolling them around in a large, turning metal drum that contained sand, carbonate, carbon, and water. As the drum was turned, it was also heated enough to cause the rough-cut edges to become smooth or rounded. When done, the smooth glass beads were cleaned and then polished by being placed in a sack of fermented bran and vigorously shaken.

After Columbus' first landing, glass beads were introduced to natives throughout the Americas. Along with steel tools, glass beads quickly became a popular trade item for traders and natives. Not only were glass beads desired by the natives and profitable for the traders, but they were extremely lightweight for their trading value. Weight was an important factor in the days of wilderness travel. By 1850, practically every tribe in the Americas had developed a cultural appetite and artistic need for colored glass beads.

When European traders introduced colored glass beads, American Indian tribes started to prefer certain colors -- and a shrewd trader would always know which colors were most desired by each and every tribe. Colored glass beads were gradually incorporated into the Indians' bead-making techniques and designs. Eventually, colored glass beads replaced most of the traditional beads made from natural materials and strongly influenced the technical development of beadwork into a new art form. Tribal beadwork designs and an overall sense for aesthetics also evolved over this period.

Beads were strung woven, sewn, nettedn and even used as inlay by Native Americans. Originally, vegetal fiber and mammal sinew were used to attach the beads. This practice, however, only lasted until manufactured thread was introduced to Native Americans.

Today, bead making is still a significant part of tribal cultures in North America and a popular craft enjoyed by the descendants of European settlers. Historical Folk Toys is pleased to be able to introduce adults and children alike to the ancient art of bead making with our Indian Bead Ring Kit (6001).

Fun Fact: Wampum were belts made with shell beads by the Algonquian and Iroquoian tribes to record important diplomatic and political events.

Fun Fact: The Hudson Bay Company used a standard bead value for "made beaver" (a pelt that was stretched, dried, and ready for shipment): six Hudson Bay beads, three light blue Padre (Crow) beads, and two larger transparent blue beads.

Fun Fact: The Hudson Bay Company still trades beads today to Native Americans! They currently stock twelve colors of tiny seed beads.

Not-So-Fun Fact: To protect their major export, the Venetians passed laws that if a skilled glassmaker defected, his closest relatives would be imprisoned. And if he refused to return to Venice, an emissary would be sent to kill him!

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Indian Bead Ring Kit
Indian Bead Ring Kit
Item Number 6001

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