Glass Fishing Net Floats
Many glass collectors are not yet familiar with this type of glass collectible, unless they live along the Western coasts of the US, or have seen them for sale at antique shops or gift shops.
Every so often, especially after strong storms accompanied by long-continued onshore Westerly winds have passed through, beachcombers in Oregon, Washington and other areas have found these hollow glass balls cast up onto the beach along with driftwood and other flotsam and jetsam.
(Note: small fishing floats are sometimes confused with glass target balls, which were used in trap shooting during the late Victorian era. Please see this page on target balls. )
These hollow spheres were used on ocean waters to support large scale commercial fishing nets, (often with many individual fishing nets strung together, sometimes several miles in extent) and keep these nets from sinking. Floats range in size from a golf ball to a tennis ball or grapefruit, up to, in rarer instances, a soccer ball or basketball.
Origin & early manufacture
Norway is believed to have been the first country to start production and use of glass fishing floats. Christopher Faye, a Norwegian merchant from Bergen, is credited for their invention in the early 1840s.
The first time these glass fishing floats are mentioned is in the production records for the Hadelands Glassverk (Glassworks) of Jevnaker, Norway, in 1842. The earliest evidence of glass floats actually being used by fishermen comes from Norway in 1844 where glass floats were on gill nets in the great cod fisheries at Lofoten.
Japan apparently started using the glass floats as early as 1910. By the 1940s, glass had evidently replaced wood or cork floats for a good percentage of deep-sea or large-scale commercial fishing operations throughout much of Japan, Europe, Russia, and North America.
Several countries produced machine-made glass floats, including the United States. In the U.S., during the 1930s or 1940s the Owens-Illinois Glass Company; Northwestern Glass Company, Seattle, WA; and Crystallite Products, Glendale, California, manufactured machine-made floats, which are usually found in clear glass.
Glass floats have, over the last several decades, for the most part been replaced by floats made of aluminum, plastic, or Styrofoam. However, it is somewhat unclear whether glass float production for ocean fishing purposes is completely obsolete……….yet.
In the reference work Beachcombing the Pacific by Amos L. Wood (published as recently as 1987), Wood writes “Blown glass floats are still the mainstay of the oriental long line tuna fishery with it’s hand labor operation, while plastic floats are standard with the American salmon gill net fishery that employs hydraulic-driven winch blocks to do the net hauling. The handblown glass float has not been replaced by plastic in other kinds of oriental fishery, popular opinion to the contrary, for the glass float is still the least expensive.”
Today, the majority of glass fishing floats that are adrift on the Pacific Ocean originated in Japan because it had a large deep sea fishing industry which made extensive use of these floats; other very similar-looking floats are/were also made by glass companies located in Taiwan, Korea and China.
The great majority of authentic glass fishing floats (those actually made for the fishing industry, NOT for the gift shop trade or made intentionally just for sale to collectors), are made of glass in some shade of AQUA (blue-green or turquoise), or pale green. All other colors are MUCH rarer. Most authentic floats have many bubbles and impurities (specks of carbon, firebrick, etc) embedded inside the glass. They were typically made partly, or wholly, of recycled glass (waste glass, cullet) from old bottles, including used Japanese Saki wine bottles.
Colors that have occasionally been found in authentic floats include dark green, emerald green, olive green, cobalt blue, light to medium blue, shades of amber, purple, light amethyst, yellow, and the very rarest are believed to be in shades of red or orange.
Most floats that are in an unusual color such as cobalt blue, dark purple, amber, bright yellow, rich bright green, orange, or red, can be safely assumed to be a modern reproduction, made especially as a “tourist gift item” unless there is strong evidence to prove otherwise (meaning, the float was actually found washed up on a beach). Most colored floats sold on internet auction sites are modern production (repros) that never saw service “in the wild”.
The majority (although not all) of the reproduction / gift-shop floats (replicas, or “fakes”) tend to have thin, weak walls, and usually do not have many bubbles embedded in the glass. They are often covered with weak, thin, poorly made netting that would not stand up to actual hard use in the ocean environment.
The most commonly found floats range in size from about the size of an orange up to a grapefruit. Other floats, both smaller, and much larger, are found. The largest floats are very hard to find.
Although most fishing floats are round (spherical), there are several scarcer types of floats known as “rolling pins” or “rollers”.
In many cases, the larger floats are broken when they are cast up onto rocky shores (which is one reason why they are found so infrequently). Their chances of being found unbroken are much better when they are cast by the surf onto a smooth, sandy, relatively level beach.
Some percentage of floats are found with a dull “frosty” matte look, caused by the surf action, i.e. rolling around on a sandy beach.
Floats are often used as decorative accents in homes. Collectors sometimes arrange them on shelves, or in back-lit glass display cases, or displayed artistically in sunny windows along with other decorative or collectible items such as shells, rocks, bottles, crab pot markers, old bouys and other maritime/ nautical artifacts.
The earliest floats, including most Japanese glass fishing floats, were handmade (usually freeblown) one by one, by a professional glassblower. After being blown, floats were removed from the blowpipe and sealed with a “button”, “patch”‘ or “plug” of molten glass, before being placed in a lehr (cooling oven). Incidentally, this “button” is not the same thing as a ‘pontil mark’ as seen on bottles.
Some hand-made floats of Oriental origin were made by blowing the glass into a mold. Some of the molds that were used are reported to have been made out of wood, although it is likely that most were made of metal (cast iron).
Some percentage (perhaps 10 to 20 percent) of floats have some type of raised marking on them that presumably indicates the glassmaker. Many of the floats made in Japan or Korea have markings, although alot of these marks are not identified.
The book “Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Floats” by Amos L. Wood (mentioned at the bottom of this article) illustrates a wide variety of markings that have been documented on these floats, including examples from Japan, Korea, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Norway, and other countries.
Today most of the glass floats remaining in the ocean are stuck in a circular pattern of ocean currents in the North Pacific. Off the eastern coast of Taiwan, the Kuroshio Current starts as a northern branch of the western-flowing North Equatorial Current. That current flows past Japan and eventually meets the Arctic waters of the Oyashio Current. At this junction, the North Pacific Current (or Drift) is formed which travels east across the Pacific before gradually turning south to become the California Current. The California Current pushes the water into the North Equatorial Current once again, and the cycle continues indefinitely.
Although the number of glass floats can be assumed to be decreasing slowly and steadily, many floats ( probably millions of them) are still drifting along on these ocean currents.
Heavy storms, especially those with long-continued and strong westerly winds, occasionally push floats out of these large-scale current systems, and eventually send floats up onto the beaches of the West coast, most commonly those of Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. Floats are occasionally found along the Baja California coast. Port Heiden, in Alaska, has the distinction of being an area where many floats have been found, especially after intense storms have been through the area. At other locations around the Pacific Rim area, including Wake Island and Hawaii, floats are also found.
There are probably many lost glass floats that are now more or less “becalmed” in the center of the large Pacific Ocean circulation”gyre” (somewhat similar to the “Sargasso Sea” region of the Atlantic Ocean) drifting slowly along with large quantities of other debris that has washed into the ocean from rivers and streams that flow from land masses encircling the entire Pacific Rim area.
Glass floats are also occasionally found along Atlantic Ocean beaches, but much more rarely than on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
For much more information, I would heartily recommend the classic book on the subject: Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Floats, by Amos L. Wood. Some of the information on this webpage is taken from that reference work, and credit must be given to Wood for his extensive research on the subject. His followup book is called Beachcombing the Pacific, and in that book he discusses beachcombing for all kinds of interesting items, including those made of glass as well as other materials.