NASGA is a non-profit organization positively supporting sea glass collectors and the sea glass community with festivals, information, educational opportunities, commercial membership and more. The primary goal of NASGA is to establish a community of informed collectors and sellers of sea glass that are educated on the characteristics and significance of genuine sea glass.
Recently at the Santa Cruz Sea Glass and Ocean Art Festival, NASGA Education Chair Mary McCarthy was on hand doing sea glass identification. A woman brought her necklace that included a UV piece with a unique curve. The size of the interior curve provided a clue: it was once a hole!
The source for the piece is a depression era vaseline glass flower frog. Flower frogs, nicknamed because they “sit in water,” feature holes that were used to hold flower stems. Often a two-piece item with a removable lid though sometimes made as one piece, water is placed inside to nourish the flowers. The identified vaseline glass, probably from the 1920s-40s was made with uranium and therefore glows under blacklight.
Long, long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the skies were pierced with cries of enormous birds, something was happening geologically just below the water. Unusual formations in the silt and mud began to take shape that would, millions of years later, reveal themselves and wash up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. These “formations,” resembling hollow rock balls, tubes, ocarinas, and more avant-garde shapes, are created from sand, clay, and iron oxide.When my family and I first moved to the shores of the upper Chesapeake and roamed the beaches in search of beach glass, we also began to find peculiar, round, metal-like objects. We felt certain they were a type of ammunition for guns used during the Revolutionary War because George Washington had munitions created in the Principio Iron Works just a heron’s flight across the bay, near the port of Charlestown.
Being new to the area and excited to show our finds to our neighbors, our newly found friends chuckled and told us that the strange formations were called ‘pop rocks,” small hollow stones of which our neighbors would toss into beach fires and watch them explode. Another neighbor told us that the formations (are) derived from ‘Indian paint pots” and that Native American tribes used the iron oxide inside the stones to paint their faces. But it was not until we met another neighbor, and now long-time friend, Alice Lundgren, that the mystery was solved. The formations, in all their various shapes, are known as “concretions.”
Alice has a collection of well over a thousand concretions ranging in size from a quarter of an inch to about twelve inches, all of which she has gathered from the bay. Alice was a true inspiration to my family and me, and we soon joined forces to not only hunt for sea glass, but to eagerly search for concretions. These unusual rock formations date back to the late Cretaceous and Eocene eras. Even more fascinating than the “pop rocks” are tubular rocks. The tubular concretions are iron oxide formations that reflect a pipe-like structure.
When we go exploring along our nearby beach, Alice, a seasoned concretion seeker, has the ability to spot the stone tubes instantly, yet the rest of us are not so fortunate, as the finds appear camouflaged to the untrained eye. Some of the concretions boast unique shapes, such as small cups, snowmen, and acorns while the tubular concretions often resemble coral, branches, and even small musical pipes (although they do not carry a tune))! Similar to sea glass, each concretion seems to carry its own story and personality.
Having been formed millions of years ago from sedimentary rock, concretions have been significant and mystical to many cultures. Some cultures believe them to be holy stones while other cultures believe the stones bring luck, or perhaps represent the divine feminine. However, theories of modern science suggest the concretions are fossils or meteorites.
As beachcombers, we are treasure-hunters. We are always seeking the next great find. The Shard of the Year Contest, which is one of the highlights of the North American Sea Glass Association’s annual Festival, would be ideal opportunity to view both natural and manmade treasures (this year’s North American Sea Glass Festival will be held in Wildwood, New Jersey on October 27 – 28).
*Many thanks to Alice Lundgren for sharing her collection of concretions, and to Meredith Keating and Brandon Boas for their photography.
For sea glass enthusiasts, there are many reasons to celebrate the spring, one of which is the highly anticipated announcement of NASGA’s annual festival. Hence, as recently publicized, the association’s 13th annual North American Sea Glass Festival will take place on Oct. 27 – 28 at The Wildwoods Convention Center in Wildwood, New Jersey.
Although it can be difficult to capture the wonder of the festival in words, chairperson Roxann Williams paints a fairly accurate picture: “The North American Sea Glass Association is unique; it is a love of history, reclamation, recycling, and treasure -hunting, all wrapped into one. It’s extremely rewarding to see the excitement and joy of our attendees as they learn through our lectures and shard identification experts, and purchase unique and artistic pieces from the exhibitors to add to their home and jewelry collections.”
However, unlike annual events that are held in the same location, and on similar dates each year, the fact that the sea glass festival is a “traveling show” requires never ending planning and fails to lighten the workload from one year to the next. For instance, solely selecting a venue each year – one that can not only accommodate the specific needs of the festival, but is also affordable, conveniently located for the majority of exhibitors and attendees, and available on preferable dates – can be particularly challenging. Promoting and advertising the event can be trying too, especially since the members of the planning committee, who also vary from year to year, are often unfamiliar with the city chosen to host the event. Yet probably the most difficult task associated with a traveling festival is recruiting volunteers, and NASGA could not be more blessed in this area.
While enlisting help is vital to the success of a show, it requires a very special person to establish a group of loyal, devoted volunteers. Therefore, the association is indebted to our festival chairperson, who just happens to possess such talent. Williams, an ardent sea glass fan who has extensive experience in the non-profit sector, was asked to chair NASGA’s fifth annual festival in Hyannis Port, MA during 2010, and no one else has been given a chance to fill her shoes ever since. Her strong organizational skills and compassionate nature make Williams an ideal mentor and leader, and she has a knack for fostering meaningful friendships and camaraderie among the festival volunteers. As long-time NASGA volunteer Dr. Barbara Boyce states, “The people are the reason I volunteer my time for this event, and Roxann (Williams) and her husband, Steve, are great people and easy to work with. They deal extremely well with all of the challenges and stresses of putting on a fantastic festival.”
According to Williams, without the excitement and commitment of the volunteers, it would be difficult to handle all of the behind-the-scenes tasks that allow the festival to operate smoothly. Throughout the event, as avid hobbyists display their impressive sea glass collections, exhibitors offer their artwork and books, and speakers share their special knowledge, the volunteers oversee NASGA’s information table, distribute tickets and programs, answer questions, direct attendees, and provide coverage for exhibitor booths. And on Sunday, the second and final day of the show, the volunteers assist with the culminating event, the infamous SOTY (“Shard Of The Year”) Contest, which many consider the highlight of the festival. For the contest, attendees are encouraged to enter their most impressive sea glass finds, and cash prizes are awarded for the “winning shard” in each category (frosted bottle, art glass, buttons/beads, figural, most unusual, whimsical toys, pottery/ceramics, historical, marbles, and the grand prize, the “Overall Beauty”). The contest is comparable to a “traveling sea glass museum” and is an absolute treat for those interested in the pastime.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Boyce and her friend Sharon Brubaker were inspired to contribute to the event due to their mutual affection for sea glass. In September of 2014, the two friends embarked on a road trip to Cape May, New Jersey to volunteer at the association’s 9th annual festival, which proved to be a particularly memorable experience. For the first time in the show’s history, the number of attendees exceeded the maximum capacity of the ballroom, and the fire marshal had to step in to monitor the number of individuals exiting and entering the hall. As Boyce suggests, “The Cape May NASGA festival was my first experience. Every person who attended can likely recall a crazy, fun, and crowded time. I was hooked. I thought I was familiar with sea glass through reading, but I realized that I had much to learn. The folks at NASGA are the experts, and I drank in every word and could not wait until the next year to volunteer.” Today, both Boyce and Brubaker are extremely knowledgeable about sea glass, and it is a joy to observe them respond to questions from attendees and help educate the public about the tumbled treasures.
Each year, the allure of the hobby encourages seasoned and new volunteers alike to contribute to the festival. Among the group of devoted “regulars” are mother and daughter teams, husband and wife pairs, and close peers who share a passion for sea glass and enjoy working together. Some volunteers have been assisting at the festival for over six years, and as each show kicks off, it is especially rewarding to overhear shrieks of delight as friendships are reignited between returning exhibitors, volunteers, and attendees. Yet even though NASGA is blessed with loyal volunteers, further support at the show is always welcome, so the association reaches out by advertising on the festival’s Facebook page and contacting local sea glass groups and non-profits, as well as the hosting city’s Chamber of Commerce in an effort to recruit enthusiasts.
Particularly when an event is running smoothly, attendees are unlikely to give any thought to the source of organization and support behind the scenes. Therefore, it bodes well for the sea glass festival that those who are busy pulling the strings often go unnoticed. However, if it seems to defy logic that the individuals who do the most work also receive the least amount of credit, keep in mind that the explanation is all in a name: “volunteer” – a person who does something, especially for other people or for an organization, willingly and without being forced or paid to do it” (dictionary.cambridge.org). A statement made by volunteer Sharon Brubaker lends credence to the definition, “It has been a pleasure to interact with everyone at NASGA. Now that I am a repeat volunteer, I genuinely look forward to seeing sea glass kindred spirits each year.” Without a doubt, the NASGA volunteers are the hidden gems of the annual festival.
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.
Mary McCarthy will host a lecture “Sea Glass Marbles From Around the Globe” during the 11th Annual North American Sea Glass Festival in Ocean City, Maryland on Saturday, August 27th. Mary will share her knowledge and years of experience on sea glass collecting with you, particularly marbles along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Sea marbles wash up on beaches around the world. Why? Were they used as ballast for ships? Did they come from the insides of bottles at bars? Or were most simply used as children’s toys, ending up in the waves after many years on beaches at play? This lecture will explore the origins and history of the different types of marbles that wash up on shorelines, and include a display of sea marbles from over 20 countries and waterways from around the globe.
Mary McCarthy is a bestselling author and lifelong journalist. Currently Senior Editor forSpliceToday.com, her writing career includes Salon.com,Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, editorial positions at regional magazines and newspaper humor columns. She has blogged for Katie Couric and appeared on The Today Show. She is an Adjunct Instructor for American University and an instructor for The Writer’s Center in Washington, D.C.
Mary started sea glass hunting when she moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 2001. She often writes on sea glass related topics. She has spoken at the International Beachcombing Conference and Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center Sea Glass Conference, and joined NASGA this year as a commercial member. You can follow her sea glass finds in real time online at Instagram.com/marytmccarthy.
North American Sea Glass Festival, Ocean City, Maryland
Sea Glass Soiree Friday, August 26, 2016 5pm – 9pm
Sea Glass Festival Saturday, August 27, 2016 9am – 6pm