American-Made Glass Floats
By Kirsti Scott
All photos courtesy of float collector John Herreria.
Many beachcombers are familiar with the beautiful glass fishing floats made in Scandinavia and Asia as far back as 1940. These thick-walled, hollow glass balls have been made by the millions and are used to support large-size fishing nets in deep seas. What may surprise you, however, is that for a period of time in the 20th century, American companies manufactured glass fishing floats, which still wash up on beaches today.
The first record of glass fishing float use is in Norway in 1844, but glass fishing floats may have been made even earlier than that.
Early glass fishing floats were hand blown and shipped throughout the world. Over time, glass floats replaced less-durable wood and cork floats in fishing operations throughout Japan, Europe, Russia, and North America.
By the early 20th century, several countries were producing glass floats. Fishing companies around the world used handmade floats from Germany, Norway, Japan, and Korea. In the 1930s, several American companies began producing glass fishing floats to meet the growing demand. The Northwestern Glass Company, established in 1932 in Seattle, Washington, made hand-blown floats for the fishing industry. These floats were sold to fishing companies in North America, Russia, and around the world.
The Russian Far East crab fishing company Krabotrest, founded in 1930, purchased glass floats from Northwestern Glass Company in the early to mid-1930s. These floats, marked with “C.C.C.P.” along with Krabotrest and Vladivostok (above), have been found on beaches stretching from Russia to the Pacific Northwest, having made the journey from Seattle to Russia and then back, again.
During World War II, Americans and Russians could no longer purchase fishing floats from Japan and Germany, though the commercial fishing industry was continuing to grow. American glass companies developed machinery to create fishing floats to fill this demand. They manufactured floats in huge quantities required by the growth in large-scale fishing operations and deep-sea fishing industries. Floats were machine-manufactured by Owens-Illinois Glass Company, Northwestern Glass Company, Corning Glass Works, and Crystallite Products. Northwestern Glass Company was by far the largest of these manufacturers.
John Herreria began collecting glass floats in the early 2000s and now has a collection of floats from Europe, Asia, and America. In 2005, John grabbed a copy of the second edition of Glass Fishing Floats of the World by Stu Farnsworth and Alan D. Rammer and set out to learn as much as he could about American-made floats. In 2017, John fulfilled a dream of seeing the collection of glass fishing floats in the North Lincoln County Historical Museum.
“In October 2017, I conquered the 363 miles of Oregon’s coast. It’s been my dream to visit this must-see Museum in Lincoln City, Oregon,” John says. “This museum only displays Japanese and American made floats. Most of the floats displayed are either donations or loaned by collectors. Thanks to my friend Nick Simpson, who encouraged me to visit this ever-growing place.”
The museum also has a collection of floats made by glassblower Ro Purser, who worked in the fishing industry in Washington in 1967, then became a glass artist, building his own glass shop in 1970 in McKinleyville, California. In addition to beautiful glass marbles, he made floats for the fishing industry throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. He created his own molds for fishing floats, which featured creative designs on the maker’s marks, called “Ropasa” marks, a Japanese pronunciation of “Ro Purser.”
“In 2013, while on a cruise, I spotted a glass float in a candle store in Sitka, Alaska,” says John. “The owner of the store smiled and said she beachcombed it years ago with her daughter and that it wasn’t for sale. Unbeknownst to her, that float is one of the rarest floats in Sitka, bearing one of the 11 Ropasa marks.”
“In the summer of 2019, Ro Purser decided to make another batch of glass fishing floats with new molds (above), including a humpback whale, a black cod, and the name of the shop Lanola in different colors,” John explains. “Ro made few batches of these new limited-edition marks, an addition to the history of American glass fishing floats.”
The floats were made with thick glass and heavy-duty construction to withstand the pressures at 500 fathoms, but they will likely never see the depths of the ocean. “I have collected four of the Ropasa marks,” John says. “In our community of collectors, Ro Purser is a legend.”
Learn more about the float collection at the North Lincoln County Historical Museum at northlincolncountyhistoricalmuseum.org. Every year, float collectors gather for the Beachcombers and Glass Float Expo in Ocean Shores, Washington. Learn more at bit.ly/floatexpo.
Learn more about Glass Fishing Floats
- Riding the Waves: Glass Floats From Around the World
- Beachcomber Interview: Alan Rammer
- Washington: All in a Day's Work: Japanese Glass Fishing Floats
- Boat & Float Day
- Beachcombing Adventures in Japan and the Pacific
- Japanese Fishing Float Factory Tour (video)
- Floats of the Pacific (video)
- Japanese Sea Glass (video)
- The Eclectic Beachcombing Collection of Tina Terry (video)
- The Mystery of Sea Glass Strength
- The Glass Floats
- Beachcombers and Glass Float Expo
- Finders Keepers
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2022 issue.