Glass fishing floats

A beautiful chapter in Norwegian maritime history

Glass fishing floats

Photo: Tove Andersson
Hemp or sisal is used to create a skin aronnd a float.

TOVE ANDERSSON
Oslo

The glass fishing floats I saw in a magazine, also named “jewels of the sea,” looked familiar. Slowly I realized that they had something to do with my own history. 

In 2019, the book European Glass Fishing Floats, their Makers and Mark, written by author and collector Olaf Raabe from Norway in English, was published. The history of the glass fishing floats in Europe has probably never been told before. 

Used for 70 years as decorations, lamps, and cherished as collectors’ items, the history of the glass balls from the Norwegian west coast was nearly forgotten until Raabe’s book was published. Raabe probably has the biggest and most rare collection of not only the Scandinavian, but also European floats in the world. The foreword is written by editor Tom Rizzo from New Jersey, who visited Raabe in Norway three years ago. It took over two years to put the book together, which deepened the friendship between the two collectors.

Glass fishing floats

Photo: Tove Andersson
Glass fishing floats are called “jewels of the sea.”

“We spent a week together, with part of that time spent on a float-hunting expedition with two other men. What a time we had!” said Rizzo.

In his blog, Sea Hermit, Rizzo describes his first meeting with Raabe:

“He told me that he specialized in Norwegian (Scandinavian) floats, and that he liked the very old Norwegian letter floats. I wrote that my passion was European floats, but that I also enjoyed my collection of American, Scandinavian, and Asian floats. We began sharing photos of our favorite floats and described our passion for them. That led to our first trade, which led to sharing of our lives—and a great over-the-Atlantic friendship.”

Design and décor

Growing up, I remember these decorative glass balls out on my parents’ veranda. They were green or brown, with ropes knitted beautifully around them. They decorated the flowerbed and hung from the roof and walls. Today, glass fishing floats are sought-out items, both in Norway and the United States. They are a part of maritime history, with each mouthblown piece unique.

The Hadeland Glassworks 2021 lamp collection is clearly inspired by the glass fishing floats, and not surprisingly, Hadeland Glassworks was one of the first producers of them.

“My lamps are inspired by shape, color, and different techniques, put together in countless ways. Simple shapes, a sea of colors, and patterns taken from the fantastic archive at Hadeland Glassworks,” says Maud Gjeruldsen Bugge, design manager at the glassworks.

They were called “glasskavl” (glass float), “kafli” being the old Norse word for the floats that were attached to nets or lines by fishermen on skrei-fishing (gadus morhua) in places like Lofoten. At the fishing exhibition in Ålesund in 1864, most of the fishing nets from the area still had wooden floats.

Glass fishing float lights

Photo: Hadeland Glassworks
The floats are very popular in pendant glass fixtures.

The Norwegian inventor

The first production of the round glass floats began at the Hadeland Glassworks. A young man named Christopher Faye, born in 1814, the year Norway signed its constitution, invented them around 1840. He lived as a merchant in Bergen and understood the need for saving equipment like fishing nets, which were commonly lost at sea. 

A combination of cork and bottles were tested and produced by Biri Glassworks. Faye continued with his work, eventually introducing his idea of a rounded shape. On June 22, 1843, Christopher Berg at Christiania Glasmagasin in the capital (now Oslo) answered the first letter from Faye. Biri was about to merge with Hadeland Glassworks, and the floats were produced, first the egg-shaped ones, and later, the round ones. 

The following year, they were used in Lofoten. The glass fishing floats were produced for 100 years, from Hurdal in the south to Flesland in the west.

100 years of production

Picture men sitting in a steaming hot room with blowing pipes marking the glass with numbers and factory seals and sometimes initials. The reason was first and foremost to be able to keep a count of their production to make sure they got paid for the number of pieces of glass made by the end of the day. Several Norwegian glassworks, 16 in all, mass-produced glassware in the second half of the 19th century. 

Reading Raabe’s 320-page book with more than 800 photos takes you through the history of the production at all the glassworks in Norway and how it spread through Europe. The book also contains pictures of the 310 different European glass float brands found and registered in the world (half of them Norwegian), as well as old letters translated into English, statistics, and what not.

The application for a patent was not granted at first. But Faye received a gold medal for his invention of glass fishing floats in 1865 from the Fishing Exhibition in Bergen, a huge event. His invention revolutionized the industry and resulted in a production that lasted 100 years. Even a U.S. patent was awarded in Flesland, Bergen (no. 186,232 D.W & S.H Davis).

In spite of their breakable material, glass balls were strong, and it was not easy to attach something to them. Therefore, one had to make a net “kavelhud” (floats skin) of sisal or hemp. Newer versions are made of nylon.

glass fishing float lights

Photo: Hadeland Glassworks
The glass floats are perfect decor at seaide settings.

The flame dies out, the discovery goes on

The last flame died out as Flesland Glassworks closed in 1956. Norway had produced 30 million to 40 million glass fishing floats. 

European and Scandinavian float collectors are getting their collections measurably enlarged because of Raabe’s ability to find floats in his native country. Others will buy them from the Norwegian sales site Finn.no.

When I found “Petters Tvinnastål” on Facebook, I discovered a new use of the decorative glass floats. The owner, Petter Setter from Ogndal in Trøndelag County, combines glass and steel in his work. His lamps are sculptures, and his sculptures with glass floats are all combined with steel and suited for a life outdoors: a charming and wonderful retrofit for this century.

But back to my own family. Recently I discovered that my father’s maternal side originates from the tiny island Holsa, in Nesodden just a few minutes from Oslo. It is a one-house island where they—a few generations back—were fishermen. 

On the Nesøya mainland, Langodden, a wasteland in the early 1800s, the first inhabitant was named Olava, later called “Mother Langodden” and married to fisherman Peder Pedersen. Olava was my father’s great-grandmother, who rowed fish even after she was 90 years old. She died in 1927 at age 94.

Among many other things, Olava rowed to the mainland and sold the fish her husband pulled up out of the sea. It is said that in the crystal-clear water of the bay, it was only a matter of throwing out the “troll net” and bringing in a large catch. The beautiful green and brown glass fishing floats out on the veranda of my childhood home finally made sense.

Learn more:

  • Norwegian words for glass fishing floats: garnkavler, garnkuler, glasskavler, and fiskekavler
  • See: www.theglassmuseum.com/fishingfloats.htm

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Tove Andersson

Tove Andersson is a freelance journalist who writes about travel and culture. She conducts interviews for the street magazine =Oslo while writing poetry and fiction. Jeg heter Navnløs (My name is nameless) was published in 2002. Her website is www.frilanskatalogen.no/frilanstove, and she can be reached at tove.andersson@skrift.no.

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