Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bead Chains of the 1830s

Woven bead chains were unknown to me until just a few months ago when Diane Fitzgerald came to teach a workshop at our Guild.



Not more than one week after her visit, I stumbled upon two bead chains available for sale.  One at an  antique store not far from my house and one on Etsy.

I couldn't believe my luck.  What is the likelihood that, after just hearing about these antique bits of needlework, I would find myself confronted with two real-life examples...?


All of this in the same month that I would buy my first bead loom and begin taking classes from bead looming expert, Erin Simonetti.  

I don't ever take serendipitous events lightly.  So I did what any good bloodhound would do when confronted with such a coincidence.  I followed the path, did some more research
 and I bought the two beaded ribbons.

So...what are these beauties and what were they used for?

All my knowledge comes from two articles written by Massacusetts Textile Curator, Lynn Zacek Bassett.

According to one article which appeared in the December 1995 publication of The Magazine Antiques, these finely woven chains were popular in America in the mid-1830s and they were woven on a loom similar to the one pictured above.

The chains were quite long, ranging in length from 40 to 60 inches.  The beads used were most likely from Murano, Italy and were much smaller than anything we have commercially available today.  

The bead chain pictured below is only 3/8" wide and contains about 12 beads per row or 28 beads per inch.  This makes for a very delicate and lovely ribbon of beading...


It is believed that the popularity for bead chains originated in young ladies' academies where beading was often part of the fancywork curriculum taught together with other domestic arts such as embroidery.

It was common to bead your name, age and place of residence into the chain similar to the practice incorporated into girlhood samplers.

One of my chains has the date "1834" and the name "H.W. Gilbert" woven into the strip which is completely consistent with the author's research...


The chains were often worn as necklaces and were finished with tassels or bits of silk ribbon at the end.  


Often there would be a watch or key tied onto one ribbon end and tucked into a belt while the other end would be pinned to a bodice. 



There are historical accounts of the chains being worn as adornment in the hair and also carried by men as watch chains. 

Bead chains frequently included memorials, sentiments of friendship, virtues or moralistic mottoes.  

Though neither one of my finds contains a written message, the dark blue version does contain many motifs representing religious faith, domesticity, and love.

 A few appear such as faith (cross), charity (heart) and birds (signifying the soul)...


And crowns which often represented immortality in heaven...


The fad was short-lived and seemed to be limited to the 1830s.  

I find them to be very lovely, reminding me of a beaded strap used for a chatelaine, though too delicate to actually be used for that purpose.  They are not well-known and are often misnamed by museums and collectors as either belts or necklaces.

Perhaps you have run into something similar and not known what it was called?  

I saw one on Ebay the other day that has since sold.  It only had a name woven into the ribbon..."Ruth".  No date.  Here's a link to the sold listing so you can see it.


Diane Fitzgerald has a group of beading pals that are all making a section with the intention of swapping sections with one another to form a chain.  Rather than using a loom, they are using the peyote stitch so that each section can be "zipped" together.

I imagine it as a friendship sampler of sorts...a chain of friends similar to something like the ribbon pictured below...

This one appeals to me most and I imagine it would be fun to do a journal ribbon of sorts.  Once again, the mind is a whirlwind of possibilities.

A few of my friends are beginning to play with the concept and we may end up doing a similar exchange.

Many thanks to Diane Fitzgerald for sharing these delightful bits of history so that I can share them with you.

I also found another great article written by Lynne Zacek Bassett in the May/June 2000 issue of Piecework Magazine titled Guard Thy Hours: Bead Watch Chains of the 1830s which included a pattern for the chain pictured on the cover to make yourself...


I'd be interested to know if any of you have ever encountered one of these chains or intend to make one  in the future.  Keep me posted.

18 comments:

yarngoddess said...

My daughter made a very long one for her handfasting ceremony about 12 years ago.

I don't understand how the loom in the magazine photo could work. There has to be a place to wind the unused warp strings and a place to wind the finished beading. Maybe they have wound the beading around the warp beam in error. Then the beader would have to hold the beaded end firmly with one hand while working. That might explain the little drawer, too. The finished end would be stored in there. Was there any more description of the loom in the article?

Susan Elliott said...

No, yarngoddess, there was no discussion of how the loom worked. Maybe I'll ask Erin the next time I see her. she may know.

gracie said...

I had read that when you need a long bead chain, you would simply wind the extra threads at the bottom several time to secure then unwrap them as needed. The picture I had seen showed it as rolling over the top bar. Now, this was many years ago and of course I do not have the article or where I did read it. I think they are lovely.

Judy S. said...

Lucky you to find two of them! I love the edging on the flowered one. This was an interesting and informative post, Susan. Thanks!

margaret said...

interesting reading about the beading Susan, I have not seen any of these before, I expect you are going to make some now, wonder if they will be up for discussion in 184 years time when someone comes across them

Createology said...

Serendipity indeed. I am totally in awe of all I learn from your interesting posts my dear. I have not seen these before but now will certainly look for them. How fun it would be to make and share sections of peyote stitching (of course another skill I have yet to learn). Beautiful Beading...

deb* said...

What an interesting post--I really enjoyed it!

Mosaic Magpie said...

I read the most fascinating things when I visit here! These are beautiful and of course now I want to make one, two, 100's! The beads so tiny and delicate...what would be a substitute? It is because of the size that makes these so beautiful.

Mosaic Magpie said...

Could you please do a post on beginning beading? Buying a loom, the threads needed for such a project...or maybe a link where that info could be found.
Thank you fearless leader!

Lisa at Greenbow said...

I have never seen such a thing but I will be on the look out for them from now on. I love the idea of the friendship chain.

Cotton Jenny said...

First, I LOVE your blog, everything about it. Thank you for sharing your insight and creativity with the rest of us. I think I have one or two beaded chains (I have to look for them) but I mistakenly thought they were from the 1920s. Do you know if they were popular then, too? thanks. Jenifer

Susan Elliott said...

Cotton Jenny, I have no way of emailing you so I hope you check back in the comments. If you should find the beaded chains that you have, I would love to see them. I do not know that they were popular in the 1920s. I know that I have seen beaded flapper belts which are slightly wider but I haven't handled them in person so I can't speak to their differences in fragility. I know that the one dark blue chain I bought from Etsy was described as being from the 1920s but when I questioned the seller, she was just making an assumption.

Susan Elliott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leanne Kirsch said...

Very interesting to read about...I really enjoy your blog....

Catherine said...

So beautiful and interesting history ~ thank you for sharing ~ and now, if I see one, I will know what I am looking at!

Rachel said...

I've tried beadweaving and found it rather harder than I had thought it would be, even with modern beads. The idea of working it with even smaller beads gives me cold shivers!

Thank you for all the research - truly fascinating!

Suztats said...

What great finds, and how serendipitous, indeed! The ribbons you have a beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I've made several chains to go with historically inspired outfits, and also taught a class on how to use the little beading loom to make them, referring to Lynn's research and other online resources such as Historic New England http://www.historicnewengland.org/collections-archives-exhibitions/collections-access/collection-object/capobject?gusn=GUSN-100733. You do indeed wind the warp threads around the rollers in the loom, and it allows you to work as long a "chain" as you'd like: mine are about 60 inches.
Jonatha

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