Glass trade beads feature in the collections of museums all over the world. Yet considering the vast numbers that survive they are more likely to be packed away in storage than displayed on view. The reasoning behind this is clear: although their miniature size would not take up a huge amount of precious display surface area, they are certainly not the most visually impressive of artifacts, nor do their aesthetics reveal with ease their historical context. However, on closer inspection it is the design of these objects that is fundamental to their agency. In his work The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, anthropologist Ajun Appadurai cites Marcel Mauss who noted:
‘the contemporary tendency to think of things as inert and mute… set into motion, and animated, indeed knowable, only by persons and their words.’
In some ways it could be argued that for many years this has been the fate of trade beads in the hands of scholars – used as a means of illustrating a well-established historical and economic narrative.
Made in vast quantities in European glass producing centres such as Venice between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries, these beads were taken by explorers and traders, who exchanged them for goods such as furs in North America, and gold, ivory and slaves on the coast of West Africa. This is a period which has been traditionally portrayed by historians as the ‘rise of Europe’, an era when the world became simultaneously bigger and smaller as European traders and explorers spread across the world on voyages of discovery, charting new territories and establishing new trade links, bringing Europe to economic dominance and laying the foundations for the age of European empires which would follow. Indeed in many ways these glass beads can be seen to fit neatly into this narrative. Made in their millions, they were taken and either given as gifts to the indigenous populations or traded for goods which were regarded in Europe as being much more valuable, resulting in astronomically high profit margins for the traders.
Whether in a positive light as the reapers of economic success, or much more negatively as the brutal and inhumane traders of other human lives, the Europeans are almost always portrayed as the dominant party in their dealings on other continents. However, if we take a closer look at the design of these beads a different story is revealed, a story which demonstrates that when it came to trading these beads, the European traders were having to produce a product which was acceptable within diverse and discerning markets, whilst having to meet the demands of varied local tastes. In contrast to what is portrayed by Eurocentric histories, this suggests agency on both sides of the exchange.
Whilst made en masse, these beads were designed with specific markets in mind with different decorative types created to suit what European producers perceived to be the tastes of the societies into which these beads were being sold. In some instances rare snippets of textual evidence demonstrate this directly – Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Luca Molà, in their essay on the Global Renaissance, cite an example where a commission was made in Antwerp for the production of a glass bead of a bluey-yellow hue, in order that it might resemble a type of West African Marble which was popular on the coast of Angola. However, in other instances it would seem glass craftsmen would be acting on more general notions of what were perceived to be the tastes of the communities into which they were trading, with the vast range of colours and patterns used as a means of ensuring their product appealed to tastes and fashions which were in flux. In some cases more deliberate iconographic choices can be noted. This is demonstrated by the production in Venice of beads that feature the ‘evil eye’ decoration, a symbol which it was believed was valued for its apotropaic powers and had found success in West African markets by Islamic bead traders, who had previously dominated the trade. The decision by Venetian glassmakers to adopt the design themselves can be interpreted as a shrewd business decision based on at least some vague perception of the needs and tastes of their far distant customers.
Design choices such as these demonstrate that such early trade exchanges were dialogues between producer and consumer, and that the Economic ‘rise’ of Europe was more nuanced than history might have us believe. These beads act as an example of how taking into account the design of an object can upset the historical status quo, in this instance providing active agency where it was previously absent, whilst demonstrating how sometimes the most unassuming of artefacts can tell the most interesting of stories.
 Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Social Perspective, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge, 1986), p.4
 Marta Ajmar-Wollheim & Luca Molà, ‘The Global Renaissance: Cross-cultural objects in the early modern period’, in Eds. Glenn Adamson, Giorgio Riello and Sarah Teasley, Global Design History, Routledge (London & New York, 2011), p.13
Hannah Lee –
Hannah did her BA in History at Oxford University where she specialized in cultural history of the Renaissance. Her research interests include the material histories of trade and currency and gender. She is currently working on a dissertation which focuses on the material portrayal of Africans by Europeans in sculpture and jewellery.
© Hannah Lee, 2013. All Rights Reserved.