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and the extent of our care of them marks the
extent of our civilization." Arthur Doughty.

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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

07 August 2013

❖ Japanese Glass Fishing Floats ❖

Vintage hand blown glass fishing floats
Saltwater People Historical Society collection.
Kindly donated by islanders 
Susan Bauer, J. C. Boyer, Irmgard Conley and M.L. Clark.

"Japanese fishing floats, like solidified bubbles of the sea itself, drift from Asia to America, where they are swept ashore onto the beaches of the Pacific Northwest. Beachcombers, picnickers, collectors, and children seek them or happen upon them unawares, and the fragile, air-filled glass balls that arrive intact end up in a roadside store, an antiques shop, a showcase, or somebody's attic––their mission fulfilled, their journey ended.
      The history and origin of these amazing little travel-minded spheres make possession more interesting to their finders and keepers. Nearly everyone living along the West Coast is familiar with the wood and cork floats used by local fishermen. But Japan, having little of either of these buoyant materials, yet abounding in a plentiful supply of cheap labor, has developed a fishing float unusual among its kind.
      To begin with, the balls are crudely made of glass that is blown by hand, easily recognized by the sea-green color, the imperfect shape, and the presence of air bubbles. Many of the balls have a Japanese character impressed into the thick 'blossom' end. These characters are the identifying marks of the fishermen, similar to a cattle brand.
      Handwoven net mesh is the only means used to confine the balls and fasten them onto the nets. This expendable cover rots away in time, allowing the float to slip out into the freedom of the wide open sea.
      Then begins the long journey to America. For the balls bob about like bubbles of foam, tossed by the winds as they ride the ceaseless current on a broad path that sweeps from Japan past the string of Aleutian Islands, down the coast of Southwestern Alaska and BC, to the coast of WA and OR––where they finally are skimmed onto shore by the prevailing westerly winds.
      These balls vary greatly in size. Some are but little larger than tennis balls, others graduate upwards through the sizes of indoor handballs, basketballs; a few jumbos have been found even larger. A second type, elongated instead of round with grooves for securing by rope on each end, also has been developed. The predominating color is the bluish-green aquamarine of sea water, but some have amber tints and a few are purple. The purple balls are the "ultra" of a collector's dream, for these were permitted to be used only by those fishing for the royal household.
      So practical and efficient have the Japanese fishing balls proven themselves that they now have been adapted by American enterprise and are replacing large numbers of our old-style floats. The American product, however, is different distinctly from the Japanese. The balls are machine made, uniformly spherical in shape and only in medium size. The glass is either the clear transparent of a milk bottle or the dark brown of a beer bottle.
      Fishing floats are not too difficult to find. There are seasons and areas for good float finding. The best season is winter or early spring, after a storm, and the best areas are the sandy ocean beaches. Rocky beaches mean sure destruction to glass objects.
      Our own beachcombing expeditions have met with varied success. The best luck we ever experienced was one winter at Tokeland. The sand beneath our toes was soft and yielding on the high dry spit and warmed by an unseasonal sun, but cool and firm as we walked the wave-tossed shoreline.
      Curiosity is a wonderful thing! Imagine the thrill of holding in your cupped hand a fragile ball with such history behind it!
      And the thrill was repeated sevenfold––for my husband picked up three Japanese fish floats in the space of the next few hours, I found two, and our two small boys, less than kindergarten age, found one each!
      So reluctant were we to leave the fascination of the uninhabited island, the tide slowly ebbed away then hesitated and turned, pouring the ocean back across the wet sands of the channel. Our return trip was made with the two boys riding on their father's shoulders while I carried the balls held high in my skirt as we half waded, half swam, back to the mainland!
      Beachcombing, like fishing, has other possibilities if one is bent more upon results than methods. Just as a fisherman may resort to a market and enjoy a fish actually caught by somebody else, so these souvenirs may be acquired in small towns along the ocean beaches from beachcombing natives.
      The biggest ball in our collection, and incidentally the largest one we ever have seen, was purchased from the attendant of a crab cart parked along the highway, and as we drove away his partner remarked: 'congratulations, George! So you finally unloaded the old white elephant!' 
      Such is the origin and romance of the Japanese fishing floats found in the Pacific Northwest––fragile, air-filled bubbles of glass, traveling thousands of miles on a sweeping path from Asia to America, before finally being washed ashore by the restless sea."
Above text by Charlotte Widrig
Published by The Seattle Times, 1951.
Tokeland, WA,  inscribed in upper left of map.
Detail of a postcard from the archives of S.P.H.S.
Click to enlarge.

Glass fishing floats found in Washington State.
Color photo by O'Neill of Long Beach, WA.
Other two photos by Ellis, all undated from
the archives of the S. P. H. S. 


  1. I've always been curious about the glass floats that my mother said she found as a young girl on the beach at the family's summer cabin at Tokeland. I started searching Google today and I ended up with this...another person whose best haul was at Tokeland! I don't want to sell my mother's collection but I would like it to be properly valued. Where could I get this done?

    1. Jason,
      Thanks for the visit to our site. We don't do appraising but I"m sure you could get help from one of the antique dealers in Ilwaco. There are publications to help in that field, as well.
      Best regards, web admin.


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