"Russian Blue" Trade Beads
Object ID: 1977.25.1799
For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, beads made from shell, pearl, bone, teeth, and stone were made and traded by Indigenous peoples across Canada. Once introduced, European-made glass beads quickly became popular among Indigenous groups, fuelling a system of trade and barter.
Due to the ease of use and brilliant colours offered by glass beads, they were highly sought after by Indigenous people. As Europeans moved west across Canada over time, the use of glass beads by Indigenous peoples did as well, and soon most groups were utilizing glass beads in some way. Beads became symbols of status, and were used to embellish personal items such as clothing, bags, and baby carriers, or were worn as jewellery.
In fact, the most commonly found items during archeological excavations of historic Hudson Bay Company trading posts are beads. Excavations at York Factory, one of the HBC’s oldest and most important ports, collected 28,598 individual beads, while another excavation at Fort Vancouver found well over 100,000.
While the HBC is well known to be intertwined with Canadian history, other companies such as the Russian American Company also conducted business in North American and were involved in trade with First Nations. This “Russian Blue” string of beads was the company’s colour of choice when trading with Indigenous people, and was among the first glass decorations acquired by coastal people in the late 1700s.
“Russian Blue” beads are characterized by their solid-blue colour and a faceted disk shape which is not truly round but has multiple sides and edges. Despite their name, the majority of these type of beads were actually manufactured in Venice, Italy.