The Lure of Sea Glass: Man-Made and Refined by Nature and Time, Each Colorful Gem has a Story Awaiting Discovery
Jun 14, 2016 04:44PM ● Published by James Houck
A look back over the shoulder revealed a poppy field of colorful beach umbrellas, mine lost in the mix, and toward the right of the far horizon I could make out the rooftop of the family beach condo at 140th Street, Ocean City, Maryland. I must have walked a mile easily. And done so with my head down, feet frothed in seawater with every rolling wave upon the beach, while searching for seashells or, even better if found, shards of ocean-worn, “frosted” glass. Occasionally, a speck of green or blue protruded from the sand, was scooped up, dispensed in my pocket, and inspected at day’s end.
The beachcomber’s hunt for significant shells and sea glass is seemingly as old as the oceans. Or, at least, since ships have sailed them. For every piece of glass I found, I liked to think of the journey that piece of glass took to arrive, finally, in the cusp of my hand. Was it from a Black Beard’s bottle ’o rum? Cargo from a long lost sunken ship of the Queen’s? Sting’s message in a bottle? Perhaps the truth isn’t as fun as imagined…or is it?
In Richard LaMotte’s sequel to Pure Sea Glass, titled The Lure of Sea Glass, we learn of tall tales told true. Of dreams made real. And of journeys that pieces of sea glass have taken and how memories were made from their discovery. LaMotte’s prose, along with Annapolis-based photographer Celia Pearson’s stunning images, is a gem itself. When this book landed on my desk more than a year ago, it stayed. And stayed. And like a piece of glass awaiting discovery on the beach, this book was finally read through and decided upon…let’s share bits of the book with readers. And the photography to match.
So we present excerpts from The Lure of Sea Glass, a mix of alluring prose and historical information that will, hopefully, lend context to your next beach discovery.
From the Chapter “Treasure by Region”Along both coasts of the Continental United States, from the 42nd parallel north (covering roughly the top third of the nation), sea glass is often aggressively tumbled into smaller and more rounded shards than those found in central and southern coastal regions. Battered shards are also common along the southern shorelines of the Great Lakes, where beaches are exposed to strong northerly winds. Relentless waves rinse stone-laden beaches turning glass shards into small gems. The conditioning process is generously accelerated by robust wave action and winter ice on coarse and rocky shores. In stark contrast are the soft, welcoming coral sand beaches of Florida, which leave broken shards more in their original condition. Thus, a well-worn shard found in Florida has probably spent several more decades taking its shape than a similar shard found on a northern shore, the latter buffed smooth in maybe only 10 to 20 years.
The collections shown on the following pages represent a smattering of items from American sea-glass enthusiasts selected from the perimeter of our country. It was a great privilege to work with these individuals, and we deeply appreciate their cooperative spirit by sharing some of their finds for this book. Many provided samples of unique treasures, ones few of us will ever find in the days ahead as supplies of this great collectible continue to disappear.
Chesapeake Bay, Maryland Eastern ShoreBoth shores of the Chesapeake Bay, the world’s largest estuary, have provided collectors with historic remnants for centuries. Paleontologists collect ancient shells and teeth from 50-foot Megalodon sharks that lurked in the sea 15-million years ago. More recent relics are from our colonial settlers who discarded black glass gin, rum, and wine bottles along the Chesapeake shorelines. This continued into the first half of the 20th century, as early plantation owners and farmers hauled refuse to the edge of their properties—out of sight. Erosion has extracted glass from some rubbish sites but rising water levels have begun to cover many of the beaches, making sea glass collecting on the Bay less prolific.
This small sampling of shards from the upper half of Maryland’s Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake was collected between 1999 and 2010. Note that the Eastern Shore faces westward across the Bay and the Western Shore faces eastward. This gathering mostly displays bottle pieces from the first half of the 20th century, with a few earlier samples.
On the top left is a rare turquoise-blue, Milk-Glass shard from a creamer or sugar bowl. Next to it are aqua-colored collar shards from Ball Mason jars and, further right, a piece of pale green, Jadeite tableware. At the bottom right, there’s a soft pink piece of Depression glass. These were all popular during the 1930s to 1950s. The two rarest shards are in the center—a deep pink, Cranberry Opalescent piece of layered glass, possibly by Fenton Glass in the late 1940s or 1950s, and a bright yellow shard to its left. The yellow piece is layered glass with a snow-white inside liner and was likely a lamp shade cover or decorative vase. Just below it is the base of a wine goblet or tumbler with a starburst pattern.
Up top, there’s a vestige of a soft green bottle base with an open pontil scar in the center. While the scar places it prior to 1860, the bubbly glass core leads one to believe it’s older. Near it are several black glass shards. These are similar to thick sections of late-1800 beer bottles formed not long before the teal-green pieces, a popular bottle color in the 1880s and 1890s. The soft blue piece, right of center, has a unique pattern similar to a 1860s Cathedral-style pickle jar. The cobalt blues are likely from the nearby Bromo-Seltzer plant and cornflower blue from a Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia bottle.
This image presents colors uncommon today that were once extremely common in the late 1800s and early 1900s. An abundance of glass objects were cast off by staff at a thriving Chesapeake Bay amusement park during busy summer weekends. Thousands of soda and beer bottles were scrapped, as well as occasional stomach and headache remedies. From 1890 to 1910, the most prevalent colors for beverage containers were soft blue and soft green. Meanwhile, most food and other beverage containers made of clear glass at that time turned light purple with sunlight. After the turn of the century, mass-produced bottles for medicines and poisons were routinely formed in cobalt blue. The purpose of this image is to capture colors at the start of the industrial age—as our country outgrew mouth-blown vessels and entered automation. By 1920, producers had removed manganese from the production of clear glass allowing it to stay clear over time. Manufacturers began to focus on common green and brown glass for production bottles, with few variations for the next 90 years.
Chesapeake Bay, Maryland Western ShoreNot far downriver from the location where a captive Francis Scott Key drafted our national anthem are some small, uninviting beaches that retain glass remnants from Baltimore’s past. Several objects are rarely found elsewhere, especially on coastal waters. One shown in the first chapter included fragments of a unique, footed seltzer bottle in stunning turquoise blue. The Baltimore region represents a significant place in the history of our country, so finding shards from 1960 near shards from 1760 is not uncommon. The Port of Baltimore was formally established in 1706, although settlers already in Baltimore had been using the Patapsco River for trade at least 50 years earlier.
The two bulbous rings in the center are blob-top-style lip shards from soda and beer bottles popular in the 1860s to 1880s. The deep olive-green blob top is the rarer of the two and could have been produced at the nearby Baltimore Glass Works. The large black, glass-bottle base in the upper left is a piece of a thick Bitterquelle bottle from the same time period. The lip shard on the lower left and the neck shard on the upper right are both circa mid- to late-1700s. By contrast, at left is a cornflower-blue shard showing a strap-style sidewall, a common mold design on Milk of Magnesia bottles in the early 1900s. The decorative cobalt-blue shard in the center and one on the far right could be from early 20th-century poison bottles. The very thick cobalt blue piece at top is perhaps from the shoulder of a blob-top soda bottle of the 1860 to 1880 time period. On the bottom right is a cobalt-blue, light-bulb insulator, found with part of its aluminum thread still intact. Directly left is half of an older black amethyst version of the same insulator. Besides the insulators, the remainder of this gathering is from bottle glass.
The next collection of rare objects is highlighted by a stunning red-orange finial often on the top of an early 1900s candy jar lid. Beneath it is a soft pink base to a drinking glass probably from a Depression-glass set. The curious items at left include a rod-in-hand, pressed-glass piece perhaps from a serving tray handle. Above it is an odd, two-toned piece of art glass, possibly part of a molded souvenir cup or vase. The very small hole molded into the yellow-green shard is where a metal handle would have been mounted. Decorative miniature coal scuttles used as ashtrays or to hold matches from the 1930s to 1950s had this feature. Beneath them is a more common base to a milk-glass jar that would have held cold cream or toothpaste.
From the Chapter “Identifying Pieces of Our Past”Excellent resources for assisting bottle collectors or amateur archaeologists are evolving on the internet. Those websites can also help sea-glass collectors identify their shards. One specifically on bottle identification is operated by the Society for Historical Archaeology and has excellent educational content and images. But there is never a substitute for experience. A young bottle collector can only rarely outguess a seasoned veteran who has been hunting, digging, buying, and selling antique bottles for 30 years. Firsthand observation of actual vessels during a bottle show or at an antique store provides far more than just a glimpse into the details that separate 20th-century glass from earlier forms. A basic introduction to determining the history of a shard was presented in the Pure Sea Glass book and its identification card deck. This chapter is designed to help increase one’s knowledge by sharing insight on several of the unique pieces presented by collectors over the years. Most are uncommon and are shown to help other collectors learn how to look for clues, so they can search for history within their own collections.
Color, Form, Markings, and CoreWhen bending to lift a shard from the edge of the shore, the collector’s immediate first assessment is to determine its color. In some cases, they find out that one color appears different indoors than it did in the bright outdoor sun. For those who don’t suffer from color-blindness, this is also the initial appraisal of its value to us. A very rare color can excite a collector to a point where they make audible remarks and find creative ways to secure their find for the trip home. Identifying and dating the shard is a bit more complicated. The form is usually the next feature assessed. Sea-glass collectors, of course, want a well-worn shard, but that often makes identification even more challenging. Feel the shard and determine if it has any rounded features common with bottles. Flat pieces of pane glass or tableware can be laid down on a level surface, and if all the edges directly contact that surface, it is usually not from a bottle. However, if the shard is flat but has variable thickness, then it is still likely part of a bottle. There were a number of flat-sided bottles produced by 1900, but in comparison to bottle shards with rounded features, the numbers are small. A light blue shard, perfectly flat on both sides with a uniform thickness of roughly 1/4 inch, is often from a window, while a thinner one closer to 1/8 inch can be from picture frame glass. Flat bottle fragments normally have some contour and variable thickness. By studying bottles one can begin to get a feel for whether a shard is part of the shoulder, heel, neck, or collar. The collector who wants to broaden their identification skills should search for local bottle shows within their region. One of the premier annual bottle shows in the U.S. is the Baltimore Bottle Show held in early March, but most states have their own annual events.
After concluding a color and form examination, look closely at the piece for any sign of text. Bottle glass prior to the second half of the 19th century rarely had any embossed text or numbers. It was in the mid-1800s when molds began to include thick crude lettering on the bases and sides of bottles. That bold and rudimentary lettering is not nearly as refined as the text on 20th century bottles, when automated molds took over. A premier reference for identification of makers’ marks embossed on bottles of the late 19th to mid-20th century is Julian Toulouse’s Bottle Makers and Their Marks. If a bottle bottom shard displays a tread-like pattern along its perimeter or dotted (stippling) pattern on its base, it was likely produced in the second half of the 20th century. Those odd marks, still in use today, were to help optimize production as bottles moved down conveyor lines from the molds to the annealing ovens.
To get a feel for the age of the glass, examine the core clarity within the glass. To do this, hold a bright light behind the shard to inspect the glass for bubbles or internal cloudiness. In general, 18th-century bottle glass in olive-green or soft blue color tones will have a hazier core and routinely has excessive core bubbling commonly referred to as “seeds” in the glass. Some glass during that period, produced by more patient glassmakers, may show few bubbles. By the mid-19th century, bubbles within the glass were greatly reduced, but large bubbles could be seen sporadically. By the early 20th century, automated bottle machinery virtually eliminated the presence of bubbles in mass-produced bottles. Some common exceptions are hastily made Mason jars from the early 1900s, which are found with a few large bubbles.
Keep in mind that shards of the most common—and even some uncommon—colors are from bottles, while the extremely rare colors most likely derive from other sources. Learning to identify and date shards within your own collection can be quite rewarding. Sharing that talent, uncovering historical mysteries with family and friends can be even more gratifying.
The Lure of Sea Glass by Richard LaMotte highlights 14 unique collections from around the country, shard idenfication and history, and more than 115 images by Annapolis-based photographer Celia Pearson. It is available at fine bookstores and online purveyors. For more information, visit seaglasspublishing.com.