By Susan Spicer-McGarry
Photography above by Sara Caruso
Pacific Northwest beach combers have the thrill of finding a particular treasure not found on the East Coast – glass fishing floats. Lost at sea decades ago by Pacific fishing fleets, swept by currents across the Pacific Ocean, these beautiful glass gems wash ashore. Sought by collectors on every continent, they are a unique treasure.
Originally used to provide buoyancy, glass fishing floats were encased in netting and tied or woven onto fishing nets. Despite decades at sea, floats frequently are found still covered in their original hand knotted netting. Others lose their netting, sometimes leaving behind their silhouette on the surface.
Hundreds of thousands of glass fishing floats, tangled in acres of lost fishing nets are believed to be trapped in circular currents of Pacific Ocean. Storms and changes in currents limits the numbers of those floats to wash up along the coasts of Oregon, Washington, Northern California and Alaska. At times, after a storm hundreds of glass fishing floats have washed ashore en masse along the coast of Alaska’s Aleutian Island, and along the Pacific Northwest.
Though generally associated with Japanese fishing, the glass fishing float was invented in 1840 by Norwegian merchant Christopher Faye in conjunction with the Hadeland Glassverk. The glass floats were manufactured in Norway by several coastal glass factories. By the early 1900s, glass fishing floats were manufactured throughout the world – including the United State for a short period of time. Glass fishing floats were made in a range of sizes, from 1.5-inches to 30-inches in diameter, and a variety of shapes, including round, rolling pin and donut. Smaller floats were generally used for hand nets, delicate mesh nets, hand fishing lines and octopus nets. More plentiful, mid-size glass floats were used for gill nets, trap markers and trawl nets. Large floats were used to float and mark long-lines, and to mark net settings.
There are three categories of glass fishing floats: authentic, contemporary and curio. Whether part of a serious collection or a colorful display each category has a place. Authentic glass fishing floats were manufactured for the fishing industry between 1910 and 1970. Made of heavy glass, they frequently show signs of use and surface frosting from surf and sand. Silhouette net marks are sometimes visible. Less than 35% are embossed with a manufacture’s mark. Generally, made from recycled glass, authentic floats are found in shades of green, amber, aquamarine, aqua, and clear – the colors of old bottles. Colors such as cobalt and amethyst are uncommon.
Occasionally, faint streaks of a second color are present. Authentic fishing floats were rarely manufactured in bright colors. Only a few extremely rare floats in yellow, red, and orange have been authenticated. Made from recycled Sake` bottles, many vintage Japanese fishing floats are green. Air bubbles trapped within the glass are very common and indicative of the recycling process. Very early floats may be hand blown. Many authentic glass fishing floats were made in molds.
Contemporary glass floats may also be made of thick glass and were manufactured during the same time period as authentic floats. Created for collectors, few bear maker’s marks and were manufactured in a variety of beautiful colors, including red, yellow and orange. The surface of contemporary floats may show slight nicks and dings sustained over time. Air bubbles trapped within the glass are common.
Curio glass floats or replica floats are made of thin glass and are intended for gift shops and home décor. Manufacturing began in the early 1980s and continues today. Curio glass floats are created in beautiful colors and are usually blemish free. More recently, surface frosting and net marks are frequently replicated by sandblasting or chemical application.