By Mary Beth Beuke
“Out there in the North Pacific right now, riding the waves of the great Kuroshio Current, are hundreds of thousands of desirable floats just waiting to be driven ashore somewhere…”
-Amos Wood, 1967
Those words were written over 50 years ago. Today, even the most serious beach combers have discovered that it is extremely unlikely they will ever find a genuine glass fishing float along most of the world’s shorelines. Even the glass loving collector may not be totally familiar with these ocean colored orbs. Today if one is found, it is likely on a Pacific Northwest coast shore or in an antique gift shop’s nautical section.
What is a glass fishing float?
In the most elemental sense, a glass fishing float is an air-filled, closed glass container used to create buoyancy for fishermen’s nets. Usually a glass fishing float is round in form but they were blown into various shapes and sizes, from as large as a standard beach ball size to as small as a kiwi fruit. The hollow spheres were used on ocean waters to support larger scale commercial fishing nets, (often with many individual fishing nets strung together, sometimes for several miles), and to keep the nets from sinking. The most common manner in which the floats were utilized was as a strung-together band along the tops of the fishing nets, keeping the net edge buoyant along the water’s surface.
True vintage glass fishing floats were made in glass factories or blown by hand, usually into a spherical shape, then sealed with a blob “button” of molten glass. There are other shapes of glass floats too; torpedo shape, rolling pin shape, bottle shaped, and double sphere style.
Where were glass floats made and who used them?
Most floats that have been found along the world’s shores show clear markings that can be traced back to Japan, Korea, Russia, Taiwan, China, North America and Norway. And many floats can show weathered away markings or a surface that doesn’t display any such maker markings at all. Some may still have tell-tale characteristics like seams, color, glass thickness and the personal nuances of the glass maker that help to define origin, the factory name or locale or even a specific maker.
For the sake of clarity, I define a glass fishing float as the historical, handblown or machine-made floats used for nautical buoyancy and fishing gear.
In contrast there are presently contemporary glass “balls” that are created as a curio, decorative piece to imitate the beauty and nostalgia of genuine, vintage glass floats. Even today, some glass artists set their modern pieces afloat for beachcombing contests and tourism purposes.
There is some terminology to watch for that will help especially as one looks for float information or to purchase. The words “tiki décor”, “nautical replica”, and my favorite “vintage style” are usually a clear sign that the piece is an imitation. I’m not exactly sure what the latter phrase means other than that the item is “similar to something old”.
Back to real history! A few years after I’d become immersed in the sea glass world and was often speaking at beachcombers’ conferences, a friend gifted a well-used book to me. It is a signed, first edition by author Amos Wood, “Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Floats” dated 1967! Many agree that this relic is the original, professional work on glass float info. It is serendipitously inscribed to the couple Mr. Wood initially gave it to one Saturday night soon after the book was freshly printed and published.
“With Best Wishes to Jean and Tom Curry!
On occasion of a delightful dinner and evening conversation.
Amos L. Wood
Mercer Island, Wash.
November 23, 1968”
The book is the treasure trove of rich history and photos coupled with personal visits with the beachcombers of extraordinary floats from the 1940s through the late ‘60s. Most of the specimens are finds from locations all up and down the Pacific Northwest coast; beaches that I’ve personally traversed myself over a lifetime of coastal trekking.
How Long have Glass Floats been around?
Though some historians believe glass floats were being used in Scandinavia long before the 1840s, there is only actual evidence pulled from references in Norwegian glassverks production records dating to as early as 1842. It was believed that cod fishermen found the floats useful to keeping their great gill nets buoyant. Japan apparently started using the glass floats as early as 1910 however, but within only a 30-year span, much of the glass made floats would be replaced by wood or cork, especially by the larger commercial fishing outfits. This does not mean that glass float production has ceased; in fact, ecologically speaking, glass is still one of the safest man-made products on our seas.
How can I find a real glass fishing float today?
That’s the question the collector in all of us tends to ask. Where do I go? When do I go? How much can I count on finding? It’s becoming evident that even though fishing floats have been manufactured and utilized in many countries around the globe, they are exponentially more difficult to find than they were in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. In fact, every time I show our floats and visit with attendees at an art fair or conference, I consistently hear statements like “Oh wow, I remember my grandfather found some of these when I was a kid. He had them stored in their garage/garden/attic/windowsill.” Unfortunately, they are not so easy to find any more.
Just like sea glass, the best time to look for anything washed up along a coastline is:
- After a strong storm and especially just after strong onshore winds have hit.
- It’s wisest to educate oneself on how to read a tide chart and check it before heading out.
- Venture out so that you reach your destination just as the earliest outgoing tide of the day is just beginning to retreat.
- Always search along the incoming wave line for newly landed floats.
- But also make a concentrated effort to negotiate the top/high tideline on the beach as the hollow glass balls can get cast up onto the beach in amongst the driftwood, other debris, and derelict fishing and boating gear.
- Make a note reference and log your find, especially with a date and location. What else should I watch for?
Floats with their original netting still tied to the piece are fascinating. Usually the rope netting, unlike glass, is quicker to biodegrade in the salty and constantly moving ocean. So, locating a float with netting still attached is highly valued to some. Pay attention to the netting. Sometimes sand, seaweed, seagull feathers and occasionally barnacles that have hitched a ride can be holding on to the roping. If the netting is gone, you may see a net “shadow” where it once crisscrossed the face of the orb thus slightly protecting it from the frosting and sanding of nature’s elements.
Floats with many bubbles are also a favorite. Bubbles suspended within the solid glass wall of the floats can be both beautiful and a clue to dating the age of the float. Bubbles occur in all glass but are more common in old glass. In machine made glass, the molten glass is mixed more uniformly and injected into float molds causing fewer bubbles to form.
Though my 50-year old vintage book causes me to hope that there are still “thousands” of glass floats to be found intact today, I must remind myself that it’s been 8 years since I’ve found a single float. However, I cannot possibly stop looking.
Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Floats, Amos L. Wood, 1967
Coxsackie Antique Center – Recognizing Old Glass.
The West Coast Sea Glass collection of floats
This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine November 2017 issue.