What was the initial spark for my passion for finding and collecting glass fishing floats? Going back to the spring of 1977, my wife and I were in the midst of a 23,000 mile odyssey with our 7-month old baby daughter comfortably bundled up in her car seat with a tomcat on either side of her, in a fully packed '71 Volkswagen Beetle. We met and stayed a short while with a group of people near Shi Shi Beach on the Neah Bay Indian Reservation in Washington State. Three of them lived on the beach in rent free log cabins built by the forestry service, and managed to keep themselves in food through the sale of their art and by finding and selling glass fishing floats. Having always been a guy who loved to find things like old bottles and arrowheads, my spirit perked up excitedly when I heard of their tales about finding glass fishing floats on the beach after big onshore wind storms. The floats were gathered after the storms and then sold in Port Townsend to an antiques dealer. During the hike down the beach to visit these artists in their cabins, my wife and I found two floats hidden among the piles of huge beached logs, and one more glass ball floating in the sunlit water at the end of a rocky point. Holding the newly found floats up to the sky to see their colors, and talking excitedly about them, we felt a wonderful surge of happiness from the findings. A fire within me was ignited!
That was thirty years ago, and the excitement of finding and learning about glass fishing floats has not subsided. Those first three floats have morphed into a large collection. My wife and I still share the excitements of our first finds.
Glass fishing floats are hollow glass shapes that fishermen used to attach to their lines or their nets to hold the sides of the net, the headline, or the mouth of a trawl net up toward the surface of the water. They vary from small golf ball sizes (about 1.5" diameter) to massive sizes with diameters of 12" and more. The small ones were possibly used for hand-line or rod fishing, as well as for finer diameter mesh nets (used for herring, sprats, trout, sardines, shad, and larger fish such as salmon in bays, rivers and lakes). The 4.5 to 6" diameter floats were most often used for cod gillnets, trawl nets and to mark traps. The very large ones were used to mark net settings and to float and mark the long lines used especially by Japanese deep sea fishermen in the mid 20th Century.
Glass floats were encased in a protective netting of rope, string, wood and later, plastic or metal. Many of the fishing floats collected today still retain their original netting (see the example below).
There is considerable variety in the shapes of glass fishing floats, depending on the kind of fishing and the preferences of local fishermen. The donut hole fishing float shown below, was made by the Northwestern Glass Co. of Seattle, Washington, in the USA. It was an experimental shape, and is very rarely found in collections. The grooved egg shaped fishing float next to it, was easily tied onto the headline of a herring net; but these are also found encased in macrame netting. The egg shaped floats were used in Norway, mostly on smaller diameter herring and possibly salmon nets. They are mostly three to three and a half inches long, but have also been found much larger.
Another unusual shape of fishing float is shown below. This was made in China and consists of two globes joined together by a large gather of molten glass and encased in a sturdy net. These are known as "Chinese Binaries". The binaries were first beachcombed in the early 1980's on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. Until recently, they were rare. During 2007, on eBay auctions, many were placed up for bid during a short period of time, and many serious collectors purchased at least one for their collection. While attending an antique show that fall, I found more than 10 offered for sale from various sellers. Most were coming from an importer located in Florida.
Floats were often made from recycled glass, from incorrectly-mixed batches of molten glass or from glass left over from other jobs. They were made as cheaply and quickly as possible, which accounts for the floats with glass that is literally filled with bubbles, streaks of other colors, large bubbles of glass sucked into the float at the seal, spindles of glass that extend inside the floats from end to end or side to side, etc. These idiosyncrasies make them interesting and more valuable to collectors. I often think that floats were most likely considered during the times of their use, to be similar to today's throw-a-ways. Most were colored various shades of green, aqua, amber or clear. And most fascinating of all-they are often clearly marked with embossed initials or a logo, such as the British naval anchor shown below.
I believe the earliest fishing floats were those used by subsistence fishermen. There is speculation that glass fishing floats were used as early as the mid-1700s. Could they have been used much earlier? Egg-shaped floats are considered to be one of the oldest forms of floats. Note that the knobbed eggs (like the one below) and the small dog floats (round-bodied with an elongated neck) were made using a different and older technique to the traditional round or egg shaped float. They were formed using a blowing pipe, punty and pincers and are also much rarer. Their knobs or neck would have been perfect for tying to a hand-held fishing line or attaching to the line from a fishing pole.
More common than the knobbed egg floats are the plain egg shaped floats which were encased in a net so that they could be attached to a fishing line or net. The example below was found still attached to a fishing net.
It is widely believed that the first commercial fishing floats were made and used in the mid 19th Century. Christopher Faye from Bergen, Norway is usually credited with developing the first commercially produced glass fishing floats in approximately 1840 in collaboration with the Hadeland Glassverk. The production records for Hadeland Glassverk first mention their new product - glass fishing floats - in 1841.
However, it seems most likely that prior to their commercial production, glass floats were already being used on gill nets in Norway, and possibly Sweden and Denmark. When I look at the "Dog Neck Floats" used most often in Sweden and Denmark, I find myself comparing their shape to Demijohn bottles. It seems as if it would have been an easy conversion in thinking to adapt that bottle form for use with fishing nets or lines, by simply adding a glass seal to make it water tight.
Those first commercially produced 4.5" to 5" round floats were netted and attached to their cod gillnets by Norwegian fishermen in the Lofoton area. Glass floats were found to be far superior to solid round wood floats which often became, "drunken," because they would absorb too much water and not float. There have been heavy brown glass sealed balls dug up in the grounds of the Schimmelmans Glassverk, which was in existence from 1779 until 1832, indicating the probable production of glass fishing floats earlier than 1840. This information comes from Vebjorn Fiksdal (http://www.bestnorwegian.com) who, along with Pereinar123, has been finding and selling floats from Norway to collectors around the world, while compiling information on the history of Norwegian glassworks.
The float shown below is a wonderful example of a relatively rare float marked with an anchor and the letters BY. I obtained it from Pereinar123, who had found it in an old boathouse in Norway. It is a 5" diameter sphere blown into a 2-piece mold. I have seen this marking on green and clear glass floats, and a small number of them have appeared from France. So far we do not know what this mark signifies.
We know that glass fishing floats were heavily used all over Europe and North America by all of the fishing countries. We know the names of many of the companies who produced them. There are references to their use in books and photos, but at present there is hardly any information to explain the markings which are found on many floats and very little information about their manufacturers. There are some records of a few large glass companies in Norway having inventories of more than 100,000 floats. Pereinar123 kindly supplied me with a copy of a document from the Flesland Glassverk, shown below, which lists glass fishing floats sold by that company in the 1950s.
The picture below shows an amber glass fishing float credited to the Flesland Glassworks by Stu Farnsworth and Alan Rammer, in their book, Glass Fishing Floats of the World. It has grooves so that rope can be easily tied around it. These grooved 4.5" to 5.0" diameter floats are highly desirable among collectors. A number of them have appeared on U.K. and French eBay auctions, and have been found in Norway by Per Einar and by Vebjorn Fiksdal.
Recently found Norwegian fishing floats indicate that each of the Norwegian glassworks produced glass floats with their own markings. The marking shown below, FG surrounded by MADE IN NORWAY has been identified for the Flesland glassworks. This glassworks operated from 1937 to the early 1950s on the Western coast of Norway. Vebjorn Fiksdal speculates, in his on-line book "Norwegian Glass Fishing Floats", that this version was produced for export, and the version with just FG was for the Norwegian market.
Another example of a glass float made by the Flesland glassworks is shown below. This one is marked F6. The company made a series of these marked F1 to F8. Vebjorn Fiksdal reports that these numbers do not relate to size, as the F1 float has been found in sizes both smaller and larger than the F4 and F5. They are still a mystery. I bought my F6 from an American seller in an eBay auction.
Were markings embossed to represent the companies who made them? Possibly the glass blowers who blew them? The mold makers and engravers who built the molds and the seal stamping tools? The fishing companies who used them? Did individual fishermen order floats with their own special markings? I firmly believe the answers are yes. The meaning of the embossing on many of these marked floats is still one of the greatest mysteries. Some however, like the Swedish float below, clearly marked for the glass company Eneryda, are easy to identify. This float was produced as a contemporary fishing float to celebrate the company's glass art.
Identification marks can be found on different parts of the glass float. Most often they are found on the seal button itself. They are also found on the end opposite the seal (or "top" of the float), on the middle, upper or lower third of the ball, or along the side-seam of mold-formed floats; and on Japanese floats, they are often found embossed on a seal-like piece of glass anywhere on the float body. The float pictured below shows the contemporary maker's mark of back-to-back F's of the Hokuyo Glass company in Japan.
There are several different methods of making glass fishing floats. Those formed using a pontil rod, like the knobbed egg and dog floats discussed above, are the rarest type of formed float. The only examples of that type of production that I own, are a Swedish float with an applied seal, the knobbed egg, two dog floats, and one special commemorative Eneryda Glas float. The picture below shows my rare form of Swedish float and its pontil mark. This mark is made when a pontil rod or punty is attached to the newly-blown glass ball to hold it while the blowpipe is detached. The shape is then finished by hand using tools to complete the sphere or to shape a neck or knob or other change, as in this case to apply a seal. The pontil rod is then detached with a sharp knock on the iron, and a small rough patch of glass is left behind. This kind of hand work was only rarely applied to fishing floats.
All of the rest of the European and Japanese floats in my collection were finished off with a "seal button". They were blown on the end of a blowpipe and a gather of glass was applied to the hole after it was taken off the blowing rod. The example below shows a dark hand-blown European glass fishing float with a raised letter L on the seal button.
Older European floats were mostly freeblown using a wood or metal bowl to shape the round ball. There are no mold lines on these floats. Later glass floats were commonly shaped by being blown into an iron mold which was then opened up to release the ball. The mold would either be in two pieces hinged together, or sometimes three hinged sections. This method of production leaves a raised line along the joints between the mold sections. Most European floats made post 1920 were made using metal molds, and the 4 to 5 inch floats especially have mold lines indicating a 2-piece mold. There are also examples of 3-piece mold blown balls from Europe in this period.
Glass fishing floats were also made by machine, especially in America. Large glass bottle and glass food container companies such as Northwestern Glass Co. and Owens-Illinois Glass Co. produced machine-made floats after 1940. All of these machine made floats were sealed with a raised neck seal, and the American floats had a flattened base. The example below shows the neck seal on a float made by the Northwestern Glass Company.
There is a British made float with the initials "FGC" on it which was also machine made, and is shown below. FGC was a trademark used before 1940 by the Forsters Glass Company Ltd., bottle makers of St Helens in England. This float, which came from a seller living in Nova Scotia, Canada, may have been made by the Forsters Glass Company.
Another example of a British machine-made glass float is shown below. This one is 5" in diameter and I bought it from a UK eBay auction. It is embossed MADE IN ENGLAND and was possibly made by the Forster Glass Company during the late 1930s to mid 1940s.
The clear glass float shown below is an uncommon example of a 5" diameter glass fishing float made in a 2-piece mold from Britain. These were usually made in green glass, either dark green or amber green. I bought this one from a seller in England. The North Star with an 8 in the centre is a mark whose maker we have not identified so far.
The Pittsburgh Corning Corporation produced a two-piece machine-made float. The top and bottom halves were fused together in the middle of the float, and finished with a distinct band-like 11/8th. inch seal, shown below. They were made using a very high quality clear glass, and because of the cost to produce them, were made in limited quantities.
Most of the Japanese floats in my collection were formed by blowing and using a wooden or metal bowl to shape them. There are examples of Asian floats produced using two or three piece molds, especially the 3" diameter Korean floats (see below) the jumbo and regular rolling pins and 2-piece fused "sunburst" floats from Daiichi Glass Company.
The Japanese began, so far as we know, to use glass floats attached to their fishing nets and lines after the turn of the 20th century (about 1910). These floats often came lose from their fastenings and floated across the sea to wash up on the West Coast of the USA, Canada and Mexico. Amos Wood estimated that it takes an average of about ten years for a fishing float to travel from Japan to the U.S., Mexican or Canadian coast, but it can be as little as three years. Experiments with floating objects released into the sea in 1992 indicate that there is a huge circling current in the Pacific which traps items like glass fishing floats, and they may circle around for a decade before a storm or a tide releases them to wash up on the beaches of the Western USA and Canada (Wikipedia). This constantly circulating Pacific current is called the Kuroshio Japanese Current and is sometimes called "the Black Stream" or "Black Current" due to the dark color of its waters. It is a warm water current, and is detected on the beach by glass ball hunters when a beautiful small blue and purple jelly fish called "Velella" that lives in the current, is in the high tide driftline. When you see Velella on the beach, you know that glass floats are going to be found.
Collectors are intrigued by the incredible shapes, sizes, colors and embossing on Japanese glass floats. The Japanese used large glass floats when longline fishing for tuna and other pelagic fish. They also used millions of differently-sized and shaped floats for catching incredible numbers and types of fish, squid and octopus, using nets, traps and jigs.
The array of Japanese floats to be found is vast. There are a number of collectors who live in Japan or who travel to Japan just to beachcomb floats. And there are a number of collectors who scour the coastline for abandoned or destroyed fishermen's shacks where floats sometimes numbering in the thousands are to be found. The "shark roller" shown below is another shape of Japanese glass fishing float that is eagerly sought by collectors. If I were still beachcombing for floats on the coast of Washington State, my collection would be almost totally Japanese-made floats. Now I live on the East Coast of the U.S. and beachcombing for glass floats is almost 100% guaranteed to fail.
Relocating to the mid-Atlantic States, and no longer able to successfully beachcomb for glass balls, did not put an end to my collecting. I quickly became acquainted with the European-made glass fishing balls. I found my first European glass ball embossed "Made in Germany" on a lawn sale table; followed by an amber ball embossed "Made in Czechoslovakia" at a local glass and bottle show; then an embossed "FGC Made in England" ball at an antique sellers' fall festival. With those findings my collecting direction quickly changed and I began concentrating on building a collection of European and American-made floats.
Since finding those first Euros, I have learned that floats were made in countries all over the world for use on various types of fishing: drifters; set nets; traps for crab, fish, lobster octopus and turtle; draggers and long-lines. The example below was found in France.
European-made glass floats are found throughout the world. Online auctions are bringing out a vast array of floats that have been found in attics, sheds, basements, barns, abandoned boat houses, fishing huts, and from personal glass collections. Slowly, these differently-marked, colored and shaped glass floats are being offered for sale to the world's collectors. Hopefully there will also be documents with more information about the manufacturers, the users, and their marks. The fishing float shown below was made in Germany and the clover leaf mark was used extensively by the German manufacturer, Heye Glass.
The green "dog neck" float shown below is also marked with the clover leaf. This is a very rare style of float, measuring 5" diameter.
Another German made float is shown below. 5" diameter sphere it was obtained from a bottle collecting friend in Germany.
The Portugese fishing float shown below is the size of a soccer ball and came from an Australian seller. It is marked "Extra RG Portugal" and I have seen these floats in clear and in green glass. Most of the Portuguese floats this size seem to come from Australia, indicating fishing by the Portugese in those waters, likely for Tuna.
I would like to go out on a limb, a limb that I believe will support me, to talk about three floats that have been credited to Great Britain. These three floats are the ones embossed "Neversink GB5" and "Neversink GB8" and the clear glass Teardrop float embossed "Pat. Pending". I do not believe that any of these three floats are British or European-made. I believe them to be American-made, and I believe that one company located in one of the Northeast Atlantic States: Connecticut, Massachusetts, or New York made these floats. It is often stated that the letters "GB" stand for "Great Britain" but I believe this is incorrect. The letters GB could very well mean "Glass Ball". The numbers "5" and "8" stand for the diameters of the floats. For years, I have been tracing the origins of eBay float auctions to see if patterns develop that possibly indicate where floats originated from. During the years that I have been tracing these floats on eBay I have never seen any of them appear on a European auction. All have originated in the United States, and most of them have been offered from sellers located in one of the three states mentioned above.
Steel, aluminum, and later - plastic floats began to replace glass floats from about 1910 onwards. By the late 1940s mechanized winches were being used to haul in the fishing nets and these tended to destroy the glass floats. By the 1960s the fishing industry had changed. Fish populations were declining rapidly. Larger processing ships, new fishing methods, new technology to find the fish and the use of huge dragging nets with mechanized gear, were the most profitable way to fish commercially. These new fishing methods and cheaper materials virtually brought about the end of glass float use for commercial fishing. It did not end altogether, as glass floats are still being used today, on a very limited basis, mostly by individuals. And they are still being made as curios for collectors.
During the 1950's and 1960's a number of the companies who made glass fishing floats began making what are known as "contemporary floats". These floats are made with the same thickness of glass as the tough fishing float, and are normally embossed with the maker's marking. What sets them apart from the working glass float is the color of the glass used, beautiful shades of blue, red, yellow, orange and green. These floats are normally found in pristine shape, but because of the quality of the glass used, were sometimes used for fishing. I have examples of Japanese, British, Swedish and American-made contemporary floats. The one shown below was made by the Swedish company Torvald Stranne, and carries their makers mark.
Today, it is common to find what are known as curio floats. These floats are often not functional for fishing because the glass is thin and lightweight. They are made primarily for decoration, and are found in differently sized floats from small golf ball floats up to the large-diameter 10in.or 25cm. single floats, brightly coloured rolling pin floats, and roped and netted two to six ball hangers with cork floats added between the glass floats.
The Chinese glass producers have been making curio floats which are replicas of the old Asian fishing floats, using thick sturdy glass, netting them and marking them with an arrow, sea horse, etc.
Finally, there are glass artisans such as Dale Chihuly, who have been producing beautiful multi-colored floats for sale and for artistic installations around the world. Other artisans are producing floats to be found as beachcombing treasures during American West Coast glass ball and beachcombing festivals, and for decoration and design.
The prices paid for rare floats is sometimes amazing. Just recently an American-made Northwestern Glass Company float, made after WWII, sold for more than $4000.00. Rare shapes which sell for high prices include: the Japanese kanji rollers; the giant Tohoku; torpedo, dumbell, bullet, jumbo and double sausage rollers; European knobbed, large or grooved eggs; the huge Norwegian tear drop marker floats; dog floats; and from America the grooved gill net floats, grooved rollers, teardrop and doughnut floats. The numbers of collectors has also grown thanks to availability on the internet coupled with the increased awareness of collectors of glass.
Maybe you recognize the maker of the embossing in one of our pictures, or have information from a glassblowing company about the production, sales or advertisements of glass fishing floats? Old catalogues from commercial fishing supply companies who sold the gear to fishermen are helpful. Any information would be much appreciated. I am particularly interested in finding references to companies in Great Britain, Germany, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France and Italy who produced or sold glass fishing floats, as well as history of family members, acquaintances, and other users of the floats. And am always ready to add a new float to the collection. I can be reached at my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would like to thank Pereinar123, Vebjorn Fiksdal, Stu Farnsworth, Hans-Olaf Koch, David Neff, Juergen Boehrens, Peter Vermeulen, "Woody" Woodward, Ken Busse, Doborah Hillman and Walt Pich for information provided to me in numerous emails. To Angela Bowey for giving me the opportunity to introduce myself and my passion in this article. And to Chad Holliday, a glass artisan and our son-in-law, who has helped me to understand the techniques and tools used to make floats, taken me inside working hotshops and who has introduced me to many world famous glass artists and their craft. Also special thanks to the sellers, librarians, writers, museum curators, research specialists, glass artisans, and collectors of glass fishing floats, who have helped me build my collection through their auctions, replied to my emails with information, insight, humor and personal stories of their finds. And my wife, Nancy.
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