Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Glass, Room 131

Beads

19th century (made)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

These glass beads are of the kind known as ‘trade’, ‘aggry’ or, sometimes, ‘slave’ beads. They are usually associated with West Africa but were originally created in Europe, particularly Venice, Bohemia and the Netherlands. The history of trade beads dates to the 15th century when Portuguese trading ships arrived on the coast of West Africa to exploit its many resources, including gold, slaves, ivory and palm oil. At that time, beads were a major part of the currency exchanged for people and products. Over the following four centuries millions of beads were traded to Africa and by the 19th century European bead makers were producing a wide variety of designs specifically for the African trade.

These fancy beads were probably made by ‘lampworking’ (moulding glass over the heat of an oil lamp or torch), a technique which, unlike drawn glass, could be used in small cottage industries. The beads were then finished with gilding, thin trailings and dots of coloured glass.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Glass, gilded, with applied threads and dots of coloured glass
Brief Description
Glass 'trade' beads, made in Italy (Venice), 19th century, for European trade in Africa (part of set of 74 beads)
Physical Description
28 or 29 beads of white or coloured glass, decorated with gilding and with applied threads or dots of coloured glass
Dimensions
  • Individual bead; maximum length: 2.1cm
Gallery Label
Glass beads Europe, particularly Venice, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and the Netherlands 1830-1910 These glass beads are of the kind known as 'trade', 'aggry' or, sometimes, 'slave' beads. Made in Europe for use in trade in West Africa, they were given to the Museum by Moses Lewin Levin, a London bead merchant. The beads were produced according to demand, which could vary from region to region, resulting in many thousands of different designs. Glass Museum nos. 4551:1 to 3-1901, 4552:1-1901, 4553:1-1901, 4554:1 to 3-1901, 1051:2 to 4-1904, 1054-1904
Credit line
Transferred from the Museum of Practical Geology, Jermyn Street
Object history
These beads were given to the Museum of Practical Geology, located at Jermyn Street, London. The Museum was established in 1835 to illustrate 'the mineral wealth of the United Kingdom and [its] colonies' and contained examples of industrial and artistic products made from raw materials mined from the earth. Its displays included glass and ceramic ware. Some of the collections were transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1901.



The donor of the beads was Moses Lewin Levin, a London bead merchant whose import-export business operated from 1839 to 1913. Most of the beads he dealt in appear to be Venetian although in 1898 the Levin Company was listed as an importer of Venetian, Bohemian and German beads. The British Museum has an important collection of glass trade beads (including some on sample cards) acquired in 1865 from Lewin Levin. (See – The History of Beads, from 30,000 BC to the Present, Lois Sherr Dubin, London: Thames & Hudson, 1987, p10.)
Historical context
The accessions register notes that the beads were 'made for use in the African slave trade'.
Summary
These glass beads are of the kind known as ‘trade’, ‘aggry’ or, sometimes, ‘slave’ beads. They are usually associated with West Africa but were originally created in Europe, particularly Venice, Bohemia and the Netherlands. The history of trade beads dates to the 15th century when Portuguese trading ships arrived on the coast of West Africa to exploit its many resources, including gold, slaves, ivory and palm oil. At that time, beads were a major part of the currency exchanged for people and products. Over the following four centuries millions of beads were traded to Africa and by the 19th century European bead makers were producing a wide variety of designs specifically for the African trade.



These fancy beads were probably made by ‘lampworking’ (moulding glass over the heat of an oil lamp or torch), a technique which, unlike drawn glass, could be used in small cottage industries. The beads were then finished with gilding, thin trailings and dots of coloured glass.
Associated Objects
Collection
Accession Number
4553:1-1901

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record createdDecember 13, 1997
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