Sunday, July 23, 2017  


Trash to Treasure

Sea Glass, frosty bits of colored shards

Tossed and tumbled by the waves.

Discards of mankind thrown back upon the shore

Now trash to treasure in my hands.

— Deb Weissler 2008


When the winter doldrums descend and the only bit of color in the yard are a few winter berries and the winter Daphne has yet to put forth its fragrant blooms, I look to my dining room window for a brilliant pop of color that brings forth memories of long days, warm breezes and soft sand. A glass jar filled with jewel-like colors sparkle in the sun: emerald, sapphire, topaz, diamond and ruby. Sea glass, polished and frosted like only nature can create.

The beaches of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries contain a treasure trove that to the uninitiated may appear as so much worthless trash. Discarded by man, caressed and scoured by sand and sea, and tossed by storm tides upon the beach, sea glass is a beachcomber’s delight.

If the storm has been generous the beach is littered with new and old glass alike. A recent late October nor’easter yielded a mother lode that clattered and tinkled over shells and pebbles as the retreating tide reclaimed its treasure. A frosted aqua bottle top, a glass bottle stopper, and an emerald chunk of bonfire glass were scattered among the other detritus left behind at the high watermark.

A molten mix of sand, soda and lime, the glass is completing its evolutionary journey full circle. Tossed into the sea
or upon the shore, the glass is broken, tumbled smooth, and frosted by tide and sand, etched by brine, and recycled. If overlooked by beachcombers, it will eventually be turned back into sand.

So where did all this glass come
from, what was it, and how long was it underwater before surfacing? It’s a bit of archaeology in a bottle. For generations, glass has been toss overboard from boats, buried in coastal landfills, thrown into bonfires, or sunk in shipwrecks. Whiskey, soda, wine and beer bottles, snuff jars, patent medicine and bitters bottles, inkwells, insulators, marbles, porcelain doll parts, and ceramics by the ton have found its way into the Bay.

With the advent of recycling and widespread use of plastic containers, sea glass is becoming scarcer, and glass produced today lacks the rainbow of colors and the variations that were produced a century or more ago. Today’s commercial glass is predominantly clear, brown or green and uniformly produced. Spotting a shard of cobalt blue, red or yellow glass is a true find!

Colors provide enormous clues as to its origin. The cobalt blue of medicine bottles; the rare and coveted red of lanterns and depression glass; and rarer still is black glass that when held up to the light is really a deep olive green and filled with bubbles. Turquoise may once have been a flask or piece of art glass; rarer yet the orange of old tableware and carnival glass. Yellow, teal, gray, pink and amethyst all provide hints, not only to their age and origin but to the chemical formulations that created them.

Those of us old enough to remember glass alka seltzer bottles have no trouble recognizing the potential source of cobalt glass that comes from adding cobalt oxide to a molten glass mix. Traces of copper, oxide of iron and, occasionally, gold chloride in powder form produced rare red glass so coveted by sea glass collectors. Old Schlitz beer bottles yield beautiful ruby red nuggets.

Copper and tin added to cobalt create wonderful shades of turquoise and aqua. Some yellow hues began as clear glass containing selenium that sunlight has tinted to soft pastels.

A variation of yellow glass, known as Vaseline, was originally called uranium glass due to the presence of uranium dioxide which fluoresces under ultraviolet light. Pink from selenium, purple from manganese oxide, teal from cobalt and iron, with perhaps a tad of chromium or aluminum oxide added in; all of them chemical cocktails that have created a palette of colors coveted by collectors worldwide.

Occasionally a bottle will survive its journey ashore intact. Perhaps buried in muck in an offshore trash dump, a storm will uncover and deposit it gently on the beach. Most often chipped, frosty, perhaps covered with barnacles or oyster spat, a rare one washes up as pristine as the day it was made. The bottle’s color, shape, and embossed logos provide fascinating clues as to their original purpose.

Davis O K Baking Powder came packaged in glass bottles with glass stoppers and I’ve found several on a beach in Mathews County. Copper oxide in the glass creates a lovely pale aqua and bubbles within the glass indicate the bottle was made in the early 1900s prior to the advent of automated manufacturing.

Chief Wahoo Electric Tonic, a gimmicky tourist bitters bottle packaged in the 1970s was often packaged in a variety
of garish colors but mine, found near Tappahannock, is a lovely straw yellow bottle that reflects sunlight beautifully.

Aqua in color and five inches tall, this bottle has embossed wording: Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup The Anglo American Drug Company. This infamous bottle once contained morphine-based syrup that resulted in several infant deaths. In 1848 brothers Curtis and Benjamin Perkins began bottling the concoction as soothing teething syrup that had a powerful narcotic effect when administered to the very young. I found this one washed up on the Eastern Shore.

An embossed iron cross on a lovely teal bottle is the logo of a defunct Danish mineral water supplier from the early 1900s and was likely tossed overboard by a passing cargo vessel enroute to the port of Baltimore. Each bottle has a story.

As sea glass has gained popularity, many collectors have placed their finds in jars. Set upon a window sill, they sparkle like rainbows in the sun. In recent years photographers have captured their images on film that sell for hefty prices; fascinating reference books with glorious photographs have been published; jewelry makers have crafted lovely custom sea glass pieces; and artists turn out a variety of decorative items for the home.

As sea levels rise, community sand replenishment covers over old beaches, and jetties and seawalls change the flow of littoral currents that starve beaches downstream of sand, sea glass is buried or diverted elsewhere. In recent years, as genuine sea glass becomes increasingly scarce, prices on online auction sites have soared. Here you can buy glass from continents away, gathered from some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

Now as I walk along some of my favorite beaches, I no longer frown at the pieces of broken glass littering the shore. Instead I turn their sharp edges downward into the sand, grinding it beneath my feet. This winter a storm tide will rake the beach clean, perhaps taking this shard seaward to be tumbled, polished, frosted and tossed upon
a future shore for another to find and treasure.