Native American Beadwork – Determining Age

I’m often asked how to determine the age of Native American beadwork from the Great Plains. One clue we look for is the color shade of red and yellow beads. This photo is a close up from an 1880’s tobacco bag and serves as a good example of these early bead colors (as long as your computer monitor displays color accurately).

Native American Beadwork

Reds are one of the first things I check. Red glass trade beads from the mid to late 19th century are a deep red shade similar to claret, due to its purple undertone. They are often white-hearts, meaning the interior center of the bead is white. These small beads, known as seed beads, started to gain prominence over the larger pony beads during the 1860’s and came in a variety of colors. By contrast, red beads from the early decades of the 20th century tend to be a brighter, lighter shade of red with a slight orange tint. They’re sometimes referred to as a tomato red. They are a stark difference to the earlier deep red shade of the 19th century, such as those shown here. 

Yellow beads from the 19th century, as in this photo, are often a pale shade of yellow and referred to as greasy yellow. However, there were also yellow beads from the late 19th century that were a bit brighter and deeper in shade, similar to those from the very early 20th century. In that case it’s good to look at other factors as well. Very bright, shiny yellow beads indicate a 20th century date.

Of course, 19th century beads didn’t just disappear at the turn of the century. It’s certainly possible to have an item of Native American beadwork made in the first part of the 1900’s with recycled beads from the 1870’s on it, so other factors should always be be considered. On the other hand, if a piece has bright tomato red beads, you can be pretty certain that it’s a 20th century piece.