Wednesday, April 13, 2011

BEACHCOMBING FOR SEA GLASS Nature's Vanishing Legacy

The years between 1890 and 1920 witnessed the “hayday” of commercial glass. The two beverage bottles were designed to be refilled, while cobalt blue was a favored color for patent medicine. The small, hand-blown perfume bottle is a rare collector’s item and a personal favorite.

Fifty years ago I made my first sea voyage, courtesy of Uncle Sam; a 17-day, typhoon-tossed crossing of the vast Pacific. For entertainment, I watched from the troop ship’s fantail each day as crew members tossed the day’s garbage overboard - a potpourri of what was left over from feeding and caring for 1100 reluctant and none-too-happy passengers. At the time, I gave little thought to the fact that I was seeing a reenactment of what had been going on for 2000 years of maritime history, and even less would I have pondered the unknowable system of digestion by which man’s detritus - mere morsels certainly - would be processed into food for the fish and algae of the deep.
Among the refuse committed to the depths on the world’s great sea routes, and especially along the busy coastal shipping lanes near our own shores, were such items as jars, jugs, bottles, crockery and glass containers of all kinds, colors, shapes and hues. For hundreds of years. Ships from Europe had been coming here for two centuries before the Mayflower, and glass manufacturing was itself the first industry established at Jamestown in 1608.
It should come as no surprise that at least some of those glass remnants should come ashore, after being shaped and polished, altered and refined by years, decades and even centuries of processing by the sea. Those who – like myself and my family – have become itinerant beachcombers have developed and nurtured a special love affair with what we think of as “gem stones of the deep”. Their unique history, voyage and place of discovery make each “find” a gift from antiquity whose exact genealogy is worth pondering and cataloging.
Glass manufacturing dates back 4000 years, to a time when it was discovered that a mixture of 75% silica sand, 15% sodium bicarbonate, and 10% lime would become a molten sheet when heated to 2400 degrees Fahrenheit. Around 250 BC glass blowing took the process into a whole new set of possibilities, and the transport of liquids changed commerce. A New Jersey factory began making glass bottles in moulds in 1739, although the process would not be automated until the early 1900s. Mould marks on old bottles help to tell their age, just as “waves” in window glass suggests early casting techniques.
The color and shade of glass is another key to age: the addition of cobalt oxide began in the 1890s producing glass ranging from aqua to light blue. The Phillips Company’s milk of magnesia bottles were marked by the dark blue of this chemical; Pre-1900 soda bottles were another example, as were some early milk and poison bottles. Coca Cola bottles were blue-green until 1920, when the demand for “clear” glass increased. Antique flasks, goblets and lantern globes were often red (chards of this color are the “holy grail” of sea glass collectors today, with the orange of “carnival” glass so rare, that one “find” in 10,000 is considered fair odds.)
The yellow of “Vaseline glass” and the turquoise or lavender of certain canning jars add color to anyone’s collection, while white “milk glass” shows up in the cap liners of old “Ball” preserving lids.
The color, shape and “frosting” of ocean glass fragments result from long exposure to such factors as hydration, leaching, de-vitrification, erosion, pitting and abrasion. Their surface may show “crazing” or “crizzling” (indenting), and they tend often to be triangular in shape from the rhythmic action of surf and tides.
Sea glass does not come ashore just anywhere, and collectors are apt to be people who study weather maps, tide charts, and the shore environment. Along a thousand miles of Maine shoreline, we have come to confine our search time to a very specific location on John’s Bay, and another near Marshall Point.
Now, in the age of plastic and its cousins, sea glass is a vanishing phenomenon, and every tiny glistening sliver of frosty crystal caught by a spring tide is a gift as valuable as a real gem stone.
NOTE: On Oct. 25, 1865, a side-wheel steamship, the S.S. Republic, en route from New York to New Orleans sank in a Hurricane off the coast of Georgia. In 2003 - 138 years later - divers found the wreck lying at a depth of nearly 1700 feet, 100 miles southeast of Savannah. Along with much silver and other artifacts, they found crates of glass perfume bottles bearing the mark of “Isaac Edrehi Co.” of New York City, many with the glass stoppers intact. One of those bottles would look good in my collection: Isaac Edrehi was my maternal great grandfather.

Assembled by color, these pieces of “sea glass” were collected over a period of years, each one with its own story. Pieces of blue or red glass have become extremely rare along the Maine coast.

The art of hand-blowing glass has changed little over the years. This modern-day artisan is preparing a glob of newly-molten glass to be blown and shaped into a goblet.

Factors as distant as the alignment of the earth, the moon and Jupiter have an impact on the tides which sweep ancient pieces of sea glass along the ocean bottom and onto a rocky beach. Receding storm tides are especially prized by beachcombers.

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