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There are several kinds of fishing floats including the bobbers that are sometimes attached to fishing lines. The ones you will learn about here are collector’s items made of glass. Antique collectibles and modern replicas of these types are quite lovely and often used for decorating.
A glass float would have been used to keep very long fishnets (sometimes 50 miles long) afloat. The glass ball or cylinder is closed and hollow. The air trapped inside of the ball kept the net afloat. The glass type is no longer used by fishermen. Modern fishnets are kept afloat using plastic, foam or aluminum floaters. But the glass type can still be found in the world’s oceans and occasionally wash up on our beaches.
Beachcombers can get very excited when they find one. Though they were used in many parts of the world, they are often referred to as Japanese. The Japanese did experiment with a number of designs and glass colors. Plus, they used a lot of them and lost a lot, too. Many of the ones that are found today were manufactured in Japan, but the fishermen of Norway were the first to use them around 1840.
Traditionally, wood or cork was used by fishermen throughout the world. There are several disadvantages that accompany the use of wood or cork. The materials do not last as long. They can become waterlogged and fail to float. Algae can grow on them, etc. Glass proved to be a more durable material.
Christopher Faye from Norway is said to be the inventor of glass fishing floats. Not a fisherman, but a merchant, Faye’s design became popular in a relatively short period of time, considering the limited communication of the time. They were mass produced as early as 1842. Norway fishermen began using them regularly in 1844 on gill nets used to catch Atlantic cod. By the 1940’s glass had practically replaced wood and cork.
It appears that Japanese fishermen began using them around 1910. The large deep sea fishing industry in the country accounts for the number that can still be found floating in the ocean. They were manufactured in Taiwan, Korea and China, as well as Japan.
The earliest glass types were handmade by a glassblower. In Japan, recycled glass was often used and the air bubbles that are a feature of the items were a result of fast recycling. Old sake bottles are some of the glass items that were quickly recycled to be used by the glassblowers.
After being shaped by the glassblower, the end would be sealed using a small amount of melted glass called a button and then the float would go in the cooling oven. If the glassblower was a larger manufacturer, the glass would be embossed with the company’s trademark while the material was still warm and soft. Often the trademark was placed on the sealing button. The trademarks are sometimes called “kanji” symbols, a reference to the characters used in Japanese writing.
Later glass was used for manufacturing using wooden moulds to make mass production possible. A large net could need dozens of them to stay afloat. Although they were durable, they were often lost when a net broke. The net could also separate at the point where the float was attached when it was full of fish or from the stress of being pulled in. So, a lot of them stayed in the water.
It is believed that one found washed up on the beach would have been floating around in the ocean for at least 10 years. The small ones used for some types of fishing might wash up sooner. When they do wash up, they often become etched by the sand. Other wear patterns may also be apparent and this adds to the appearance of the fishing floats, rather than detracting from it. Some of the modern replicas are treated to have the “old” look.
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