Aug 12 2016

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Rio History: Japanese Fishing Floats

Special to the PRESS

My longtime readers will remember Kay Lay’s and my Beachcomber’s Museum of local and natural history located in our bookstore-coffee pub on South Padre Island. Kay and I ran the museum quite successfully from around 2002 to 2009 when we to packed it away while we remodeled our building. About the same time, Rod Bates, Dennis Franke and I formed the South Padre Island Historical Foundation and set up a series of displays at the SPI Convention Center which is located on the north side of town. Just recently it became necessary for us to move the displays and to make a long story short we found a new home in the city’s visitor center located near the base of the causeway. It will be a year before the city vacates its offices but we have a nice series of displays in the main foyer.

In the meantime, Kay and I have reopened our store in the same location at 104 west Pompano Street and are in the process of establishing a series of displays featuring our Island’s local and natural history. Yesterday as we were unpacking our nautical artifacts a young man asked me to tell him more about our fishing floats…….

In the 1840’s, fishermen in Denmark used a 1 inch diameter glass float to keep their hook floating at a desired depth. These glass “bobbers’ caught on quickly being produced in large quantities throughout the Scandinavian countries. Wherever there were fleets of fishing boats, these floats were utilized.

To accommodate different fishing styles and nets, glass blowers in Japan experimented with many varieties and shapes of floats, from as small as 2 inches in diameter up to eighteen or 20 inches.

Color, quality of glass and style are important when trying to decide a floats age and origin. Most Japanese floats are shades of green because the glass used was primarily recycled sake or wine bottles. Clear, amber, aquamarine, amethyst, blue and other colors were also produced. Red or cranberry floats are the rarest. These were expensive to make because gold was used to produce the color. Emerald green, cobalt blue, purple, yellow and orange were primarily made in the 1920´s-30´s. The majority of the colored floats you will find for sale today are replicas. The difference between them and an original or vintage float is apparent when held side by side. The glass in an original float will have many air bubbles, ripples or other imperfections caused by impurities in the glass. Replicas weigh less and lack a certain patina that comes from the abrasive affect of floating in salt water for many years.

Cork and aluminum floats were first manufactured around 1920. These soon began to replace glass floats since they were more durable and could provide holes or eye features that made net attachment easier and more reliable.  As manufacturing techniques improved, plastic and Styrofoam floats soon followed.

Unfortunately for net fisherman but luckily for collectors, fish floats would often escape their nets. Many of them got caught up in currents that carried them far north into the Artic Circle where they became frozen in the ice. Recent unprecedented thaws have released millions of them into the oceans of the world.

Yes, glass fishing floats have been found on South Padre Island. A friend of mine who grew up near South Padre Island in the 1960s once told me glass floats were so plentiful on the beaches that it was a common occurrence for a friend and him to hold contests to see who could kick one of the balls the farthest without breaking it. In fact, you can view a nice display of vintage floats at Beachcomber’s Museum of Local and Natural History on the Island.

Oregon, Washington and Alaskan coastlines are the recipients of greater numbers of floats due to the tides and other weather conditions. It’s not unusual to find bunches of them drifting together in the same location. Often, these floats roll safely onto shore or may be tangled in seaweed or other flotsam. Sadly, they also can be shattered if the float should land on a rocky coastline. During high tides they can be carried hundreds of feet inland where they remain there until some lucky hunter discovers them.

Though uncommon today, you can still find them in gift shops, antique stores or for sale on the internet.

Want the whole story? Pick up a copy of the Port Isabel-South Padre Press, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.portisabelsouthpadre.com/2016/08/12/rio-history-japanese-fishing-floats/

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