The Slowly Vanishing Gems

by Ellie Mercier

While beachcombing last week, I began to reminisce about the frequent “aha moments” associated with the thrill of the hunt. Less than two decades ago, a morning stroll along my usual stretch of the Chesapeake Bay would undoubtedly yield a pail full of treasures, including smoothly tumbled bottlenecks, colorful shards of historic pottery, and cobalt Bromo-Seltzer bottles, which were manufactured in Baltimore between the turn-of-the-century and the 1970s.

However, my fond memories of bountiful finds faded as I pondered the gradual decline of sea glass carried ashore with each passing year. Although a variety of circumstances have contributed to the slowly vanishing gems, legislation passed in the mid-to-late twentieth century to protect the environment is largely responsible. Without a doubt, the state of the environment takes precedence over a mere hobby, and regulations designed to cleanup the oceans have certainly benefited global ecology and marine life. Yet ever since the 1970s, when the centuries-long practice of discarding refuse into the world’s waterways came to a halt, discovering sea glass has become increasingly more challenging. Probably the most drastic threat to the hobby was the abrupt closing of popular dumpsites adjacent to rivers and beaches, which cutoff an endless supply of bottles and jars that would otherwise have been washed ashore decades later in the form of desirable, frosty finds.

Also responsible for the dwindling number of tumbled treasures, although to a much lesser degree than environmental regulations, was the widespread switch from glass to plastic. As Digger Odell, the notable bottle author and collector states, “Plastic was the undoing of the glass bottle” (bottlebooks.com). Some ecologists believe that Tupperware, introduced in 1946, paved the way for the plastic bottle. Yet manufacturing bottles from plastic was not affordable until the 1960s, when high-density Polyethylene (PET) became available, and soon thereafter, plastic became preferred over glass due to the lighter weight and lower cost. In fact, only ten years after switching to cans, Coca-Cola began to use plastic bottles in 1970.

According to Odell, “The invention of PET plastic forced both Owens of Illinois and Continental Can Company to join the movement to plastic.” Michael J. Owens, of the Owens Bottle Company founded in 1903, is credited with the invention of the automatic bottle machine (ABM), and avid collectors are likely to possess numerous remnants derived from Owens bottles and jars. Incidentally, the company, which was renamed the Owens Bottle Machine Corporation in 1907, became the Owens – Illinois Glass Company in 1929 due to a merger and continues to produce over half of the world’s glass containers.

Although advancements in bottle production have had little impact on the existing quantity of sea glass, the same cannot be said for the quality of found treasure. When the era of hand-blown bottles came to end during the late nineteenth century, bottles lost many of their charming qualities, characteristics that boast historical significance and often provide clues to effectively date and identify finds. To illustrate, bottle bases that possess a pontil mark – a brownish or reddish residue caused by the removal of a punty rod, a long tool that was used to hold the hot bottle while the lip was manually formed – date prior to 1858, while shards that feature hand-tooled lips are associated with bottles produced between 1870 and 1910. Other clues that enable collectors to identify found treasure include color, evidence of embossing, and bubbles present in the glass. Conversely, all bottles manufactured after the mid-1920s are machine-made and reflect little variation. Finds derived from such objects are limited to typical machine-produced shades of colorless, amber, and green, and possess thin even mold seams that rise all the way to the bottle’s lip.

A steady decline in shipwrecks has also played a small part in the dwindling quantity of treasure swirling through the waterways. Again, alike environmental regulations, the correlation between shipwrecks and the quantity of sea glass is not at all intended to minimize the vital importance of safer ship travel. Credit for the decline in shipwrecks largely belongs to advancements in navigational technology, improved ship design, and international maritime legislation.

Historically, more ships have wrecked due to running aground on rocks, sandbars, or coral reefs, so state-of-the-art improvements in navigation have particularly increased the safety of ships close to land. Yet these very developments have also had a small impact on the quantity of remnants that wash ashore. Because glass and pottery do not float, treasure that escapes into the sea during a wreck rarely travels far from the point of entry into the water. Thus, unless a shipwreck occurs near the coast, it is unlikely that any potential finds would be carried to shore. However, more relevant to the dwindling supply of sea glass is the fact that close to three million wrecks remain undiscovered on the ocean floor, many of which are trapped in the depths of the sea, so the challenge for beachcombers is not a lack of shipwrecked treasure, but the inability to access the treasure.

As my search along the bay came to an end, a glimpse into my not-quite-half-full pail proved to be a cruel reminder of the circumstances that plague collectors. Feeling defeated, I began to ascend the steep wooden stairway to the top of the cliffs, all the while striving to invent a silver lining. Suddenly, a second glance into my pail generated an unexpected epiphany: alike other pleasures enjoyed in moderation, such as the occasional indulgence in a banana split, perhaps the case of the slowly vanishing gems simply warrants further celebration of the “aha moments.” With a brighter outlook, I reached into the pail to inspect my finds. My fingers first encountered assorted seashells, followed by a few prized pieces of driftwood and a sprinkling of shark’s teeth, all of which I looked forward to incorporating into projects. Eventually, my sandy paws made their way to the bottom of the bucket and retrieved two handfuls of smoothly tumbled, frosty gems, and despite the ordinary colors, I relished in the moment.

North American Sea Glass Festival 2017 lectures announced

North American Sea Glass Festival Lectures to be held Saturday, September 23, 2017
Wilmington, Delaware, Chase Center on the Riverfront

Fake Versus Genuine Sea Glass Across the Globe
Richard LaMotte and Mary McCarthy
11:30 a.m.

Buyer beware! With all the fake sea glass for sale online, how can shoppers tell the difference between fake and genuine sea glass?  This lecture by NASGA founder Richard LaMotte and the current NASGA Education Chair Mary McCarthy will describe how consumers and collectors can distinguish the difference between genuine sea glass and fake sea glass, including an exhibit of sample fake sea glass.

Richard LaMotte is the author of the award-winning book Pure SEA GLASS and a recent sequel titled The Lure of Sea Glass. He was a co-founder and past-president of the North American Sea Glass Association.  Richard works in Chestertown, Maryland and lives in southeast Delaware. He and his wife Nancy started a Chesapeake Bay sea glass collection for her jewelry business in 1999. In 2002 he began researching glass history for a lecture which led to extensive research into glass colors, as well as the physics and chemistry behind the frosted glass forms found along the shoreline.

In 2006 Pure Sea Glass was awarded first place for non-fiction in Writer’s Digest 13th Annual Self-Published Book Competition.  Richard and his book have been featured in The Washington Post, on Martha Stewart Living TVCoastal LivingParade Magazine, Baltimore SunThe Boston Globe, Delaware Beach Life, on NPR and Maryland Public Television.

Bestselling author Mary McCarthy is a lifelong journalist whose career includes a number of national and regional newspapers, magazines and websites. She lectures at the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism and is an instructor at the Writer’s Center.  Mary serves on the Board of Directors of the North American Sea Glass Association where she is also Chair of the Education Committee, speaking regularly at beachcombing conferences around the country. Mary is a mother of four on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where she enjoys kayaking and beachcombing. She is the founder of SeaCrate, an ocean-themed monthly subscription box service and is currently working on a beachcombing memoir.

Amazing Journeys: Glass Fishing Floats, from the East and the West
Dr. Deacon Ritterbush (aka Dr. Beachcomb)
1:30 p.m.

A life-long beachcomber, Dr. Deacon Ritterbush (aka Dr. Beachcomb) is an award winning author (A Beachcomber’s Odyssey) and founder of the annual International Beachcombing Conferences. She lectures throughout North America on sea glass, pottery shards and the archaeology of beachcombing. To learn more about her or about beachcombing, visit Dr. Beachcomb on Facebook, Instagram and http://www.drbeachcomb.com.

Her lecture at the 2017 NASGA Sea Glass Festival will focus on fishing floats from the east and west, including their practical and spiritual aspects as well as the amazing sea glass shards resulting from their breakage.

 

What Makes Sea Pottery Regionally Distinct?
Connor O’Brien
3:30 p.m.

Lifelong beachcomber and avid collector Connor O’Brien will discuss his experiences beachcombing and investigating sea worn artifacts that were collected during his international travels and correspondence with beachcombers around the world. The topic will be sea pottery, with an emphasis on factors that make sea pottery regionally distinct. Attendees will enjoy one of the largest showcases of sea pottery to date, handle exotic shards from around the world, as well as learn the skills required to identify and date sea pottery. Viewers should expect to walk away with an increased appreciation for the aesthetics and history of sea pottery as well as an eagerness to take a closer look at their own pottery finds.

 

Beachcombing Stoneware Sea Pottery

by Connor O’Brien

The majority of sea glass originates from mass produced utilitarian vessels, while tableware and art glass are less common sources. The same can be said about sea pottery. Yet due to the immense variety of ceramics, identifying sea worn fragments can be particularly challenging. A good way to start is by classifying shards into one of three categories: earthenware, stoneware, or porcelain. Ceramics are grouped into these categories based on the density and firing temperature of the clay. The clay mixture and body of a ceramic is referred to as paste, whereas the surface coating is known as glaze. Grouping ceramics by paste type is the first step in identifying the origin of a shard, and learning to distinguish different pastes and glazes is crucial to making accurate identifications. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. A small representation of earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. All three types are variable in color, appearance, and texture, so the best way to identify them is to learn the feeling of the differences simply by handling them.
Top row: Red earthenware fragments, brick and terracotta. The color of earthenware can range from cream white to red, dark gray or tan, depending on minerals in the clay used. It is distinguished from stoneware and porcelain by its relatively low firing temperature, porous and less dense paste.
Middle row: stoneware jug fragments. Stoneware is nonporous, hard and compact, fine textured but not glassy like porcelain. It requires a medium to high firing temperature but does not need glaze to be watertight. However stoneware is often glazed with salt or decorative slip glazes. Slip glazes are glazes comprised of clay in water, applied by dipping or washing the ceramic vessel.
Bottom row: Porcelain fragments distinguishable by the very hard dense body, vitreous nature and white color. Porcelain can be glazed and decorated in a variety of ways.

Investigating traditional and regionally relevant ceramics is a great place to start when studying sea pottery. Understanding the history of production is also very helpful when it comes to identifying and dating shards. For beachcombers in North America, especially those on the shores of the Great Lakes and east coast, stoneware is a common source of sea pottery because it was once popular and locally produced. With basic knowledge of vessel shapes and glaze types it is possible to know the origins of these stoneware fragments, despite the fact that they are highly altered from their original form. An immense variety of products were available in stoneware, the most common being jugs and pots. Learning to recognize the characteristics of these forms is another important part of identifying sea pottery. (Figures 2-5)

Figure 2. Stoneware sea pottery with distinct features.
Top Row: Decorative cobalt glaze applied to an incised design. Decorative cobalt glaze applied with a sponge, known as spongeware. Decorative cobalt glaze applied to a sculpted pattern. Decorative dot band applied with a rolling tool.
Middle Row: Slip glazed shard exhibiting pop out, a defect formed during the firing process. Slip glazed shard from a jug neck, the curve of the neck influences how the glaze is weathered. Slip glazed shard with concentric lines, small surface ripples left by the potter influence the exposure of glaze to abrasive forces.
Bottom Row: Dark colored Albany type slip glaze, the use of this glaze can date shards as early as 1860. Boarder between Albany type and Bristol type glazes, use of both glaze types dates shards before 1915. Light colored Bristol type glaze, use on both the interior and exterior dates shards after 1915. Note that these dates are approximate generalizations not strict limits.

 

Figure 3. Stoneware jugs are arguably the most common source of stoneware sea pottery. These containers were made in many capacities and styles, and used for storing and selling liquids in bulk; they commonly held molasses, honey, syrup, vinegar, liquor, cooking wine, and chemicals. Similar to glass bottles, stoneware jugs have many features that can provide identifying information, such as the handle, shoulder, closure, and base. One jug may produce dozens or even hundreds of sea pottery shards, and a single shard can be used to make an accurate identification. Stoneware shards can also be confidently matched by paying close attention to paste and glaze. The shards pictured here undoubtedly originate from the same jug. Although found at different times, each occurred in the same area of the beach and have a distinct feel and appearance that suggests a shared origin.

 

Figure 4. The mark of a twisted wire pulled in a loop in order to cut the vessel from the wheel. Subtle markings such as this can be used as clues to gain information about the shards origins, as well as the processes used to create it.

 

Figure 5: Squeezed clay lines resulting from clay being compressed into a mold, an indication that the original vessel of this shard was made by mold.

Stoneware ceramics in North America began with immigrants from Germany, England, and France who brought the craft over seas in the 17th and 18th centuries. Colonists continued to import English and German stoneware well into the 19th century, yet over many generations of master and apprentice, ceramic artisans blended old world techniques and styles to develop a distinctively American variety of stoneware. The earliest American stoneware was made from scratch in small batches and distributed locally. These ceramics were often plainly salt glazed, crudely shaped, and occasionally decorated with cobalt motifs. The nature of ceramics allowed for artistic expression, stoneware creations were individually handmade and often intentionally embellished with a personal touch. For these reasons collectors regard 17th and 18th century American stoneware as a folk art. The uniqueness and relative scarcity of these vessels make them a rare source of sea pottery that is difficult to trace. (Figure 6)

Figure 6. The appearance of plain salt glazing is often compared to the texture of an orange peal. The color of salt glazing is variable but commonly brown or gray. Plain salt glazing typically dates shards prior to the 20th century. This shard originates from a salt glazed ceramic water pipe, which was a common form of plumbing and drainage throughout the 19th century.

Potters’ firms and their networks grew alongside the development and expansion of the United States. By the 19th century utilitarian stoneware was an essential part of everyday life and potteries were established all across the country. Potters were able to obtain better and more consistent materials, improve their shaping techniques, as well as distribute their wares beyond local communities. These advancements, paired with the increasing demand for American stoneware, lead to a transition from small family businesses to unified potters’ firms. Individuals who specialized in specific tasks of an assembly line began to replace the tradition of master and apprentice. By the turn of the 19th century, the demands for American stoneware were met by the mass production of simple and uniformly slip glazed vessels commonly known today as crocks or crockery. (Figure 7)

Figure 7. Stoneware vessels typical of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Markings such as words, stamps, and capacity numbers can be used to help make precise identifications. Drips from the slip glazing process are indicative of the dipping used to apply the glaze. The combination of Albany type interior and upper exterior with Bristol type on the bottom exterior was a fashionable design that declined in popularity after 1915.

The quantity and consistency of mass produced vessels is what makes them common and identifiable. Glaze type can be used to date stoneware to a relative era (Figure 2). The iconic two-toned stoneware with brown Albany type glaze on top and white Bristol type glaze on the bottom began to replace plain salt glazed stoneware during the mid 19th and early 20th century. By the 1920’s, stoneware glazed entirely in white Bristol glaze was favored for the sanitary appearance and easy to clean surface. The great depression effectively ended the era of American stoneware, though it has been continually produced, it can be assumed that most fragments of stoneware sea pottery are near or over a century old. With basic knowledge of these ceramics even ambiguous shards are relatively identifiable. When dating sea found shards, the context and history of the beach is equally important as the history of the fragment and may help provide a more accurate identification. A perfect way to display these beachcombed shards is to store them in a stoneware vessel, such as an open container. (Figure 8)

Figure 8. A perfect way to display stoneware sea pottery is to store it inside a stoneware container. Adding a false bottom using cardboard and covering it with a thin layer of shards is an easy way to make an attractive display. Stoneware pots come in many forms and sizes and also make a good depository for storing shards in bulk.

 

Works Cited: Greer, Georgeanna H., Chris Williams, and Tina Griesenbeck. American Stonewares: The Art and Craft of Utilitarian Potters. Exton: Schifftler, 1981. Print.

Connor O’Brien lives in Maine and is a college student and an avid sea glass and sea pottery collector.   http://www.seaglasssassociation.org