Ashleigh McLarin, Exhibitions Curator
I am currently researching a display which will be installed in the main gallery in the coming week. I am looking at our collection from a pre-plastic perspective, in recognition of those partaking in Plastic Free July. We are familiar with the bright orange, yellow, pink, or white plastic floats that sit on our oceans and mark a netting site, but this glass fishing float may be unfamiliar as it is an earlier version, pre-plastic (1985/284/7).
The first synthetic plastic was invented in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland and its use soon burgeoned; however, we are now looking to drastically reduce our plastic use given the adverse impact plastic is having on our planet. We must develop a sustainable circular economy as we cannot continue our current patterns of use/abuse.
The circumference of this glass, turquoise fishing float is 950 mm, making it larger than a basketball. We know that the float is handblown because of the air bubbles visible on its surface. The orb has two lumped features which mark it. One is the ‘button’ which seals the orb after being broken off from the blowpipe. The second mark is known as a pie crust seal. Often floats have logos or characters embossed on them, to identify the maker; however, this one does not, which suggests it was made by a small producer rather than a large company.
The colour and the size of this float, indicates its purpose and origin. Floats range in size, from a small golf ball up to 1.3 metres in circumference. Large floats were used by deep sea commercial fisheries to support their long lines. This industry was biggest in Japan, and so it is likely that this float was made there. Experts note that the majority of handblown glass floats are of Japanese origin, due to the magnitude of their production. The turquoise colour indicates that this float was made by recycled glass - in Japan, sake bottles were used. The specks of carbon also indicate that it was made from recycled glass. These impurities were common as they were made as cheaply and quickly as possible.
Millions of fishing floats were made in the early 20th century. The Japanese glass float industry began in 1910 but only lasted 30 years, before other materials became preferred, including plastic. Breakaway glass floats are still out in the ocean, caught in currents that circulate the North Pacific. After severe storms, floats escape the currents and wash up on beaches. Many have been found along the beaches of the West Coast of America, but also here in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Beachcombers continue to look out for and treasure these industry escapees.
These days, glass fishing floats are largely collectors’ items, and are often used for interior decorating, adding a nautical vibe to many batches or seafront properties. Floats are still made today but as ornaments rather than as fishing equipment. Modern glass floats would not withstand hard use as their glass thickness is thinner than their predecessors. This fishing float was donated by the Thomas Family in 1985, it is unknown how they came to possess this rare, large, Japanese fishing float.