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Home » The Human Element » Maritime Collector: The history of old glass fishing floats

Maritime Collector: The history of old glass fishing floats

Old fishing nets with glass floats hanging at a boathouse wall in Norway. Photo credit: Ingrid Maasik / Shutterstock.com

PortandTerminal.com, April 13, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA –  Prior to the introduction of glass floats to the fishing industry, wood or cork fishing ones were used to keep nets strung across the surface of the water.

The problem though with wood and corks floats is that they get waterlogged and worm-eaten over time. A better solution was needed.

Cork fishing floats and old nets
Prior to the invention of glass fishing floats, cork was commonly used.

In 1840 a Norwegian merchant Christopher Faye in conjunction with the Hadeland Glassverk solved the problem by inventing glass fishing floats. So popular did they become in Norway that many of them can still be found in local boathouses to this day.

Glass floats along with fishing net recovered in Norway. Photo credit: glassfloats.blogspot.com
Glass floats along with fishing net recovered in Norway. Photo credit: glassfloats.blogspot.com
Cod fishing boats from Lofoten, Norway
Cod fishing boats from Lofoten, Norway back in the day

The earliest evidence of glass floats being used by fishermen comes from Norway in 1844 where glass floats were on gill nets in the great cod fisheries in Lofoten.

Glass beats cork

Glass is durable, light-weight, and unlike cork and wood, lasts almost forever in marine environments. The hand-blown Norwegian glass floats, wrapped in strong netting, quickly became the standard for the European fishing industry. By the 1940s, glass had replaced wood or cork throughout much of Europe, Russia, and North America.

Glass Float by Sara Caruso
Floats are sometimes found still covered in their original hand-knotted netting to this day. (PHOTO: Sara Caruso)

Glass floats also became an important trade item during the Victorian era which led to their introduction into Asia. So impressed were they in Asia by glass floats, they started making them. In Japan, the domestic manufacture of glass floats began as early as 1910 and continued until the 1970s, when plastic, aluminum, and Styrofoam floats largely replaced glass ones.

The earliest floats, including most Japanese glass fishing floats, were handmade by a glassblower. Recycled glass, especially old sake bottles in Japan, was typically used and air bubbles/imperfections in the glass are a result of the rapid recycling process.

Old, Japanese glass fishing float
Old, Japanese glass fishing float – note the characters in Japanese writing on it indicating the mark of the Asahi Glass Company

Collecting glass fishing floats

Small glass float located on the beach in Japan
Small glass float located on the beach in Japan

Today most of the glass floats remaining in the ocean are stuck in a circular pattern of ocean currents swirling in the North Pacific. They do still turn up on beaches from time-to-time and are prized by the lucky beachcombers who find them.

Like all maritime items that are collectable, there are lots of reproductions of glass fishing available floats to buy. If you’re a purist though and want the original then your best bet is eBay or antique shops that carry maritime collectables.

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