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  • Place of origin:

    Venice (made)

  • Date:

    17th century - first half 18th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:


  • Credit Line:

    Transferred from the Museum of Practical Geology

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

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, glass beads were a major part of the currency exchanged for people and products. The beads traded were not of a set form, but were produced according to demand, which could vary from region to region, resulting in many thousands of different designs, as apparent here. The cost of producing the beads declined as glassmaking technologies developed and, for Europeans, the beads provided a cheap and efficient means of exploiting African resources.

The numbers of people involved in trading beads for goods, the diversity of bead design and the fact that European glassmakers – and their designs – moved around makes it difficult to link a bead to a specific time and place. Some beads can be given a more precise provenance through dated sample cards, sample books and bead catalogues produced by European bead trading houses in the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, now held in museum collections.

Physical description

31 'trade' beads of single-coloured, variegated, white and clear glass

Place of Origin

Venice (made)


17th century - first half 18th century (made)



Materials and Techniques


Object history note

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 note

Accessions register entry suggests the beads were 'exported from Bristol for the West African slave and gold trades'.

Descriptive line

31 glass 'trade' beads, made in Italy (Venice), 1600-1750, for European trade in Africa (part of set of 81 beads)

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Beads featured in V&A web theme 'Trade Beads' [http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/periods_styles/hiddenhistories/tradebeads/index.html]

Labels and date

Glass beads
Europe, particularly Venice, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and the Netherlands

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.


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 []




Black History; Glass; Slavery & Abolitionism


Ceramics Collection

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