Is there anything more magical than a glistening glass fishing float – or “sea bubble” – bobbing in on a coming wave? One of the most coveted guaranteed to take your breath away, never-can-forget-where-you-found-it beach finds: glass fishing floats.
It is believed glass floats were first used in Norway, circa 1840, when fishermen began tying small, egg-sized floats to fishing lines and hooks. Norwegian merchant, Christopher Faye, capitalized on the idea as a means to make Norway’s cod fishing industry more efficient in the frigid Arctic, North Sea and North Atlantic waters. Laced with netting, and then woven into the rope line of fishing nets, the floats offered plenty of buoyancy, were easy to replicate and provided an economical method of supporting fishing nets, long lines and drop lines. As the use of nets increased, the technology began to be picked up elsewhere – especially by the Portuguese, the Russians and, by the early 1900’s, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Taiwanese, and the Japanese, who adopted the technology with great enthusiasm because of their large deep sea fishing industry.
The earliest floats were handmade by a glassblower. Recycled glass was often used, as in the case of saki bottles in Japan. After being blown, floats were removed from the blowpipe and sealed with a ‘button’ of melted glass before being placed in a cooling oven. This sealing button of melted glass, called a ‘blob seal,’ is sometimes mistakenly identified as a pontil mark. However, no pontil was used in the process of blowing glass floats. The ball inside some floats is referred to as a nubbin or blob button.
A later manufacturing method designed to speed up the production process was adopted by the Koreans and Russians, who used wooden molds to more easily achieve a uniform size and shape. Seams on the outside of floats are a result of this process.
‘Makers marks’ were often embossed on or near the sealing button to identify the users and manufacturers of the floats, or in the case of Korean and Russian floats, were stamped on the sides of the float. In Japan, makers marks sometimes included kanji symbols.
Authentic glass floats are heavy and usually have bubbles in them. They also come in a range of colors and sizes (from 3 inches to a jumbo basketball size) and shapes, including round and rolling pin.
Inevitably, the rough currents, high waves and strong storms ripped many floats from their mother nets, scattering them thousands of miles across the oceans. Today most of the glass floats remaining in the ocean are stuck in a circular pattern of ocean currents in the North Pacific. Although the number of glass floats is decreasing steadily because they were replaced by plastic and Styrofoam floats circa the 1960’s, some are still drifting on these ocean currents. Occasionally, storms or certain tidal conditions will break some floats from this circular pattern and bring them ashore. This most happens in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Hawai’i, Taiwan, Japan, Russia or Canada. Sometimes floats can still be found on Caribbean Islands or on some European shorelines, too.
Many beached glass floats show distinctive wear patterns from the corrosive forces of years in the salt water, sun and eventually rolling in the sand. Once a float lands on a beach, for instance, it may roll in the surf and become ‘sand-blasted.” If it has retained its netting, net marks become etched in the glass. When the old protective netting finally wears off, floats with the checkered pattern are often called ‘leopards’ because of their distinctive spots. Other floats may have barnacles attached to them or small amounts of water trapped inside. Sadly, some floats shatter when they land on a rocky coastline. But these shattered floats can yield some lovely sea glass or, more rare still, the coveted worn blob button/seal, combers call “Mermaid Nipples.”
If there are no signs of wear and tear, a float may have never actually been used, or was protected by a plastic sheathing (a technology adopted in the 1960’s) or is not an authentic fishing float but one produced for the tourist market.
Nowadays, some floats, especially the Norwegian ones, are in great demand by collectors and bring in high prices on the beach antiquities market. Also coveted are floats with specific stamps, Kanji marks or blob buttons; of particular shape or size; or that come in rare colors such as olive green, brown, amber, turquoise, pink, red and gray. But even the common Japanese floats, though not as costly, are well loved and pleasing to the eye.
Once you have experienced the romance of the glass float, you’ll find yourself wanting to beachcomb for them whenever you can.