Plants Our Grandmothers Wore
You certainly know someone (perhaps yourself) who has a necklace or bracelet made of plant material. You know that such beads were popular in the 1960s and 1970s. You know that so-called "primitive" (whatever that may mean) people wear plant beads for decoration and as charms.
But, were plant beads ever in style? Would Grandma have worn them?
In 1583 Dodoen published an "herbal" (a book about plants) in Latin, which Dr. Priest soon translated into English. It was published by John Gerard in 1597. In 1633 Thomas Johnson published a new edition, having greatly enlarged and revised it. It is The Herball or General History of Plants.
Many plants were used for human adornment in England and France in those days. Various flowers are recommend for garlands. The gums or resins of several plants were rolled into beads and worn around the neck. Their purpose was especially to keep foul odors away (pomanders).
The huge book is full of interesting tidbits (a spider in a walnut shell was a woman's amulet, but at least one of the editors scoffed at its efficacy). There are also some whopping errors: both sponges and corals were listed as "moss-like" plants.
Few seeds used for beads were noted in the Herball. Job's Tears are there. So were the seeds of Macaleb gesneri, known as "coral privet," though not a true privet. They are described thusly:
The fruit, or rather the kernall thereof, is as hard as a beade of corall, somewhat round, and of a shining blacke colour; which the cunning French Perfumers do bore thorow [through], making thereof bracelets, chaines, and such like trifling toys, which they send into England, smeared over with some odde sweet compound or other, and they are here sold vnto our curious Ladies and Gentlewomen for rare and strange Pomanders, for great summes of money.
(Gerard and Johnson 1975:1397)
Why, those sneaky French!
Flash forward a century or so. The Weekly Visitor or Ladies' Magazine, apparently published in New York City, ran the following "letter to the editor" in its issue of 30 April 1803:
But yet the ladies do sometimes adopt such whims as one cannot help criticizing on a little; and a fashion has just come to my knowledge, which seems singular enough. This is a species of necklace made of Jamaica peppers, or, as it is called in the language of the kitchen -- all-spice -- You may see them in every shop: the all-spice is first boiled, then strung with beads alternately, and when cold, the all-spice becomes hard as before. Necklaces of this composition at present adorn the fair necks, and are pendant from the fair bosoms, of our fair ladies... I am & Q.X.
I am not sure what it was that got "Q.X." into such a huff. Did he get the jitters when seeing "Jamaica peppers" hanging from the fair bosoms of fair ladies? Was it that the women had to make these necklaces themselves? This is doubtful. Did he (and it's obviously a man) not like the smell of allspice?
Of course, neither of these incidents affected our grandmothers. Not even my grandmothers were alive in 1803, let alone 1633. But, our grandmothers also used plants to make necklaces. Many turn-of-the-century publications such as The Modern Priscilla (thanks to Alice Scherer) discuss making beads at home.
Wallpaper and other papers, sealing wax, clay, scented gum, acacia and chinaberry seeds, beans, bread crumbs and above all, rose petals, were all endorsed as bead materials, either for an "elegant look" or as something to keep children occupied when it was raining. The craze for rose petal beads lead to the establishment of one of the few bead factories in America, in Long Beach, California in the 1910s.
So, wear your plant beads in good health, just as your ancestors did.
John Gerard and Thomas Johnson 1975 The Herball or General History of Plants Dover, New York.
Rita Susswein Gottesman 1965 The Arts and Crafts in New York 1800-1804 New York Historical Society, New York.
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