By Jim Allen
On my favorite glassing beach here in Rhodes, Greece, the intrepid comber encounters the usual fare: glass of varying size, color, and quality, plus chunks of porcelain and ceramic.One can even find an occasional artifact, for example, oil lamps from the days predating electricity. All this delectable debris originates from the 50-foot cliff of a nearby landfill abutting the sea. In the winter months when the waves of the Aegean press past the rocky shore to the palisade of the landfill, it reluctantly yields its little treasures, which begin their decades-long circuit along the floor of Homer’s “wine dark sea.”
One type of glass which repeatedly turns up during my winter searches is a mint-green-colored glass. My initial curiosity was soon dismissed when I came upon a piece large enough to conclude that it was the same glassware that I recall seeing in my mom’s (and grandmother’s and aunt’s) kitchen. In those days—the 1950s and 60s—males of any age lived by one simple rule of the kitchen: Stay Out Of The Way. Thus, I needed to do a bit of research to finally get to know how this ubiquitous stuff, which somehow managed to make an encore appearance in my life, was now showing up as an object worthy of snatching from the shores of the Southern Dodecanese Islands. It was a long distance in time and space from the Holyoke, Massachusetts, of my youth.
A Little Product Background
Actually, this thick, Jade-ite glass has been around since the Depression, known for its practicality, durability, and affordability. But it was Anchor-Hocking’s Fire-King glassware, manufactured in the 1940s, that became a household name. A tough glass, it could stand up to high temperatures and it came in just about any shape for which a modern kitchen could find a use. One reason for its place in almost every household was that Fire-King was often used as the item in “Free gift inside!” promotions or as a giveaway with a fill-up at your local gas station. Its signature color was a Jade-ite green but it was available in a wide range of colors and finishes.
A few years ago, Martha Stewart’s followers were introduced to her collection of Jade-ite glassware. A resurgence of interest in the humble green glassware ensued. In fact, if you have a few pieces stashed away in the attic or garage, you may want to take a look on eBay for what they’re worth. You’ll likely be pleasantly surprised.
Vintage Pyrex, Fire-King, & Hazel Atlas bowls, AquaOwl. USCGC Courier WAGR-410, USCG. View from the thermal baths.
How Did It End Up Here?
So how, then, did these chunks of Americana wind up in the furthest southeastern islands of Greece? We beachcombers know that our sea glass findings are usually from nearby sources. How is it that this island, which had been under Italian control up until 1947—and really not a tourist mecca until the 1970s—accrue such an abundance of this glass?
My questioning of Greek friends who had lived here for generations gave me what I assume to be a viable explanation. While the U.S. never had a military base here in Rhodes, there was a Voice of America broadcast vessel, the USCGC Courier, anchored offshore in the 1950s and throughout the Cold War. Apparently, there were enough personnel onboard to warrant the establishment of a CGX—Coast Guard military exchange store—on the island. The military routinely used Fire-King on its bases, so it would follow that a store would carry a good supply. Moreover, Fire-King was successfully exported throughout the world.
Fire-King glass jewelry by Jim Allen. Jim Allen enjoying the Mediterranean lifestyle to its fullest.
Working With Fire-King
Fast forward to 2018 when, in retirement, my pastime of strolling along the beach morphed into a hobby that found me creating sea glass jewelry. I was presented with the immediate challenge of working with Fire-King. My past productive years were as a history professor and as the owner of an optical office, so I know something about glass. The same fundamental glass used to make your parents’ automatic darkening lenses (Photogray-Extra by Corning) was the glass used by Fire-King before the 1990s.
Jim's favorite beach
I knew that borosilicate glass is very hard, and, sure enough, my drilling bits aged quickly when I undertook to drill chunks of Fire-King for a piece of jewelry. The pictures below show some fairly extensive shaping of the perimeter of the glass. While I never would think to alter the as-found shape of normal sea glass by sculpting it, I have no defense other than to say that if Fire-King weren’t so hard and could achieve a smooth-edged, evenly surfaced appearance during its years of rolling about on the floor of the sea, I would treat it the same as other glass. (I’m seeing my purist friends shaking their heads in disagreement.) I always leave the front surfaces untouched.
The Sea Glass Story Is Our Story
Unlike mass-produced jewelry, the primary component of sea glass jewelry has a story. But the glass is mute. It makes collecting and working with sea glass so much more meaningful when, like the archaeologist, we understand that its story turns out to be our story. The shards of glass we covet aren’t simply colorful, aesthetically pleasing finds in the sea. In this instance, they reflected our story, too—the outcome of the response of a manufacturer to social needs, tastes of a certain period, trade, and geopolitical conditions, and the luck of being at your feet at the end of their journey.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2019 issue.