The Bead Goes On
On the enduring appeal of cheap, colorful little orbs used for cheap, colorful crafts.
I have become in recent years an aficionado of the “expo.” An expo presents a product in all its permutations and variations — a product lifted to the level of a lifestyle. The motorcycle expo featured bikes, jackets, helmets, and boots; also, flasks, decals, magazines, and T-shirts, all the accoutrements that designate and embroider the biking brotherhood. Likewise, the reptile expo exhibited every manner of lizard, snake, and toad, along with their cages, rocks and decorative elements for their cages, hooks and gloves for their handling, and packages of dead rabbits and rodents to allow them to subsist. Most important of all were the vendors at these expos, repositories of wisdom, both common and arcane, partakers of the product lifestyle, emblazoned with the insignia proper to their group. In the case of the motorcycle and the reptile expos, there existed a significant overlap in the way of tattoos.
I have to say that the bead expo appealed to my demographic, which is why I commandeered two friends to come with me and troll through the vast array of bead merchandise. What, you may ask, is the appeal of beads? After all, you can buy a necklace in the mall for hardly more than it costs to buy the components needed to make one. Let me explain a bit about beads, at least as I see them, for those of us drawn to this particular product lifestyle.
Beads come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. As such, they have enormous potential for filling the gaps in our decorative needs. Confronted with a display of beads, most women will stop in their tracks and examine the beads carefully in the hope that, finally, they will find the elusive bead combination to complement a dress that has not yet been properly accessorized. There is always a gap in one’s necklace or bracelet collection. Beads, like atoms in the universe, fill the space available. They promise, in short, to complete the self, insofar as the self is a surface capable of being infinitely elaborated.
Beads also awaken nostalgia. I know few women who were not, during some period of their tumultuous youth, diverted and soothed by beads. Mothers are particularly grateful to them. In my mind’s eye, I see my daughter sorting them on her little mat (which defined the parameters of her work space at her quasi-Montessori school) or maniacally stringing them, a child Madame Lafarge as she sat in the supermarket cart when she might otherwise have been throwing a tantrum in the candy aisle. I can also recall her leaving them all over the house for the dog to choke on, but I rationalize cleaning up after the dog by citing my daughter’s development of extraordinary fine motor skills that we still hope will result in a lucrative career as a micro-surgeon.
The third and most profound reason I like beads is that they summon up the kind of craft-oriented pursuits that women like me find irresistible, at least in the abstract. What is a craft? Truly, the answer would take many pages to fully unpack. Let me simply say that a craft is a domestic activity that fills the time on winter nights and can often be pursued in front of the TV. It can include such things as embroidery and quilting and extend to the fabrication of wreaths, swags, and, not least, jewelry. In short, crafts involve the making of mostly useless objects associated with the adornment of the home and the person.
There is something simple and bucolic about crafts. Even as we have embraced the urban idea of America forwarded by Alexander Hamilton, we maintain a soft spot for the rural America championed by Thomas Jefferson. We may not actually want to do these things, but we like to think that we might do them. In other words, I may wear spandex and watch reruns of Sex and the City, but I also have a nice collection of aprons, evocative of Little House on the Prairie, that I could wear if I chose to do something in the kitchen.
To elaborate on the allure of crafts: A craft promises a painless way to partake of creative expression. Art is dangerous and weird; but crafts are safe and domesticated. You can follow a pattern, make what has been made before, color inside the lines. In some cases, crafts segue into art, as in pottery and glass-blowing. Indeed, all crafts, pursued at the highest level, blur into art (so no hate mail from you high-end craftspeople, please). But of all crafts, beads strike me as among the gentlest and most benign. They skim the surface of art without high temperatures.
All these reasons propelled me and my friends to the bead expo, where we wandered about for two hours, gazing at the cornucopia of beads made of plastic, stone, and glass. Each vendor supplied sample ideas for necklaces and bracelets, earrings and pins; at some sites, we could construct our own jewelry on the spot. Even though I own expensive pieces bestowed upon me for birthdays and anniversaries, I was heady with making my own piece, which I liked better, for $7.
We would have stayed longer at the bead expo but had to rush to catch an exhibit of Jack Warner’s collection of American painting in its last day at a University of Pennsylvania gallery. (N.B. not Jack Warner, movie mogul; Jack Warner paper company mogul.) From the inside and the miniscule, we proceeded to the outside and the expansive. From the ridiculous, one might say, to the sublime. But both beading and landscape painting are forms of expressiveness that hearken back to a simpler time. It strikes me as significant that just as many of the great vistas represented in Warner’s collection have disappeared, so too has the kind of lifestyle that we associate with beads, superseded by a global economy. John Ruskin was already pointing in that direction 160 years ago when he decried the manufacture of glass beads in The Stones of Venice: “Glass beads,” he wrote,
are totally unnecessary, and there is no design or thought employed in their manufacture. They are formed by first drawing out the glass into rods; these rods are chopped into fragments of the size of beads by the human hand, and the fragments are then rounded in the furnace. The men who chop up the rods sit at their work all day, their hands vibrating with a perpetual and exquisitely time palsy, and the beads dropping from beneath their vibration like hail. Neither they, nor the men who draw out the rods and fuse the fragments, have the smallest occasion for the use of any single human faculty; and every young lady, therefore, who buys glass beads, therefore, is engaged in the slave trade.
Ruskin’s eloquence on the subject of manufactured beads fueled William Morris’s arts and crafts movement at the end of the 19th century. The movement attempted to promote a more integrated lifestyle, with things made by hand within a common community — glass blown and beads cast by fellow artisans rather than alienated industrial workers.
But here I was at a bead expo where hobbyists like myself could buy glass beads that had been manufactured in faraway factories. Which goes to show how far capitalism has progressed since Ruskin’s day. The factories he decried were in England, not China. Although I have to believe that some of the conditions which he so graphically described have been eliminated, the fact is that not only can’t we escape the factory nowadays, even if we are into arts and crafts, but if we did, we would put most of Asia into bankruptcy and precipitate a worldwide Depression (which, come to think of it, we are in the midst of, aren’t we?).
Perhaps the recent loss of electricity throughout the northeast, when we sat with our candles in front of our fireplaces, suggests that we are all destined soon to return to the hearth, to take up the crafts that we now pursue as hobbies under more dire and genuine circumstances. Then, we will have to make those beads ourselves. That is, if we still want them. • 17 November 2011
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University and host of The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 300 public television stations across the country. She is author of four nonfiction books and four bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Jack the Ripper and Henry James.
Photograph by fdecomite / CC BY 2.0