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Stephen A. Frost & Son, Bead Merchants

photograph of Stephen A. Frost, circa 1910Founder of the Company
In 1848, Stephen Allen Frost, a 28-year old merchant, set out from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas with pack horses and perhaps a small wagon to peddle beads and broadcloth among the Plains Indians. Itinerant merchants were not new to the Plains; Spanish, German, and other Europeans, as well as Americans, had engaged in such small-scale commerce for more than a century. Stephen A. Frost and Son's enterprise, however, would last longer than most.

Daniel Frost, born in 1850, joined his father in business sometime shortly after the end of the Civil War. By age 20, Dan, as he was known, was an accomplished trader. Soon, Stephen A. Frost & Son expanded their business beyond the Plains to other parts of North America, and in the 1870s the company relocated its home office to New York City.

Traders and Collectors
Stephen A. Frost & Son grew and prospered. Dan now traveled throughout the United States and its territories, Canada, and Alaska. From the outset, Stephen Frost sold beads and cloth to the Indians for cash and accepted their craftwork as payment. In time, both he and Dan gained expertise at recognizing quality work and became connoisseurs of what we now call "American Indian art." Not only did they accept beadwork, baskets, weapons, horse gear, clothing, and other objects in payment for beads, they also traded or purchased large numbers of items for their personal collections. Some Indians made objects expressly for Dan Frost, whom they considered a friend and special patron. In addition to direct sales, the company sold beads wholesale to other bead merchants and to traders on the reservations. Beginning about 1880, Stephen Frost began to manufacture bone "hair pipes" and perfected the process.

Stephen A. Frost & Son Company beads were made in Venice, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, and it was in Europe that the Frosts found their major market for selling objects acquired in trade. European museums and private collectors were enamored of the American West and clamored for items made by "Red Indians." The same was true for items from the other culture areas of North America: objects from the Woodlands (beadwork), the Arctic (ivory carvings), the Southwest (Navajo blankets and jewelry and Pueblo pottery), the California - Great Basin - Plateau area (baskets), and the Northwest Coast (carvings and baskets), were eagerly sought after. The Frosts fed these interests and sold large numbers of objects in Europe, becoming moderately wealthy as a result.

Stephen Frost retired in 1900 at age 80, and Dan Frost became the sole proprietor. He expanded the business by selling beads to milliners and other non-Native American manufacturers of women's clothing and accessories, especially in the cities along the Eastern Seaboard. Beads were also exported to Africa, a rather roundabout trade route given that they were manufactured in Italy and eastern Europe and could have been shipped directly across the Mediterranean. However, the heart of the business, and Dan Frost's heart, remained with the Native American peoples, especially in the Plains and western United States.

Dan Frost Takes Over the Company
As Stephen A. Frost & Son grew and prospered, it also gained in reputation. The company was asked to exhibit its wares at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition - the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. All the bead cards with the dark green border and the SAF & S logo were exhibited there, and the other sample cards were probably displayed as well. The beads in the Frost Trade Bead Collection date from 1848-1903; the cards themselves date somewhat later, to about 1870, after the company had moved its base of operations to New York City.

Dan Frost retired in 1937 at age 87, ending 90 years of unbroken bead trading with American Indians and Alaskan native peoples. During his seven decades in business, he came to know Geronimo, Sitting Bull, some of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho who defeated Custer at Little Big Horn, Yellow Robe, Rain-in-the-Face, Yellow Tail, and other prominent Native Americans, as well as Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickock.

At Dan's retirement, Stephen A. Frost & Son ceased operations. Plume Trading & Sales Company, Inc., which had a store at 155 Lexington Avenue in New York City, purchased the remaining stock of beads. Odds and ends from this stock were still available as late as 1977 from their mail order outlet in Monroe, New York.

The Collection
Dan Frost, however, did not sell the bead sample cards. In 1941 he donated them to the Illinois State Museum. The present collection of 71 sample cards is not complete; the cards are numbered, and some numbers are missing, notably cards with Venetian red and black seed beads and some of the hand-numbered cards of beads made in Gablonz, Czechoslovakia (They were not part of the donated collection, and their whereabouts are unknown). Nevertheless, the Frost Trade Bead Collection is believed to be the largest collection of such cards in any museum.

The historical value Frost Trade Bead Collection is significant. The collection is important to our understanding of Decorative Arts, American Indian Art, and to the economic and social aspects of American Indian culture in the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth century. Beyond this, however, the Frost trade bead cards are an important reference collection in terms of the beaded Native American and African ethnographic objects in the Illinois State Museum's anthropology collections. The collection also adds continuity and extends forward toward the present day the time-depth of our holdings of Post-Contact beads from French, English, and other colonial trading activities beginning in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Dan Frost died in 1943, just short of his 93rd birthday. In July, 1943, his daughter, Mrs. Anna M. Stanley, auctioned her father's collection of American Indian art, books, and prints in New York City. More than 200 lots - about 500 items - were offered for sale. Most sold. In 1948, those that did not sell, along with two photographs of Dan Frost, a few documents, and objects that had not gone to auction - approximately 100 items - were donated by his daughter to the Illinois State Museum. Many of these objects are among the finest pieces in the ISM Ethnographic collections. They and the Frost Trade Bead Collection are the enduring legacy of Stephen A. Frost & Son, a business that helped to shape and contribute to American Indian art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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