Glass beads were manufactured long before being used as Christmas decorations. Typically made for the European jewelry and millinery industries, glass beads and tubes were used on fancy Victorian clothing and accessories. They were mouth blown from hollow tubes of glass, separated with leaving a pike at each end, and then “silvered” on the inside. Due to economic fluctuations in fashion and the growing popularity of Christmas trees in the last quarter of the 19th century, the industry began making beads for Yuletide decorative purposes.
Originally small, about 1/4″, round bead sizes grew to up to 2″ in diameter. They were sold in small strands, sometimes hung from the ends of branches like icicles, or individually, in the case of larger or more “fancy” beads. They were painted as solids, or with dots and stripes, and sometimes wire wrapped. Soon, paralleling the larger ornament industry, they were free blown into oblong tubular forms, or into ceramic molds as barrels, fancy shapes (twisted, indented, faceted, etc), berries, nuts, acorns, pinecones, and more. Eventually, the skill and creativity of the artists produced very detailed molded beads, including heads, flower baskets, and Santas, just to name a few. Beads for Christmas garlands continued to be produced throughout the 20th Century, and even today.
Beaded glass chains are an excellent Christmas decoration to collect because of their versatility and their ability to be collected in virtually any price range. The smaller beads and common shapes, of course, are easiest to find and in the lower price ranges, while the more intricate molded beads are rarest and most expensive. They also allow for personal creativity because, traditionally, they were made to be mixed and strung to individual taste. Happy hunting and beading!