The seaweed is slippery, so I avoid it as much as I can, sticking to the gravelly parts of the beach. There’s a small tropical storm passing well off the coast which has driven stronger currents up the bay than usual. I’m hoping all that churning may have washed in something wonderful. Take a shard of glass or china, add saltwater, sunlight, and wave action, and you have a recipe for turning a piece of a canning jar into a frosted aqua gem, or a fragment of a tea cup into an intriguing mystery. Those are the treasures I’m hunting today.
For thousands of years, people have been making glass with different combinations of sand, soda, and lime. Impurities in the minerals of any of these materials results in glass of different colors. The most common colors of sea glass that I find are light aqua, amethyst, a range of greens, amber, and sapphire. Typically, blues and greens are produced by traces of iron, while amber comes from carbon or nickel, and shades of red including cranberry and ruby come from the addition of gold. My own favorite, amethyst, is produced when glassmakers added manganese to their formula in an effort to produce clear glass. The manganese masks the blues and greens from the iron impurities by adding the opposite colors, yellow and purple, effectively canceling out the blue-green range of the spectrum. Voilá! Clear glass. Until that glass is exposed to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight. Over time, the glass turns purple. Generally speaking, the darker the shade of amethyst, the longer that piece of once-clear glass has been in the water.
The piece at the right may be one of the older items in my collection. This solid half-dome shape once anchored the kick-up, or indentation, in the base of a glassblown wine or rum bottle. Mine doesn’t have the rounded bottom of an eighteenth century kick-up, but it does have fine bubbles in the glass and no mold or press marks such as were used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which leads me to believe it most probably dates to between 1825 and 1850 or so.
As much as I love the beauty of sea glass, though, I’m even more partial to sea china because of the irresistible possibilities for sleuthing that it offers. I’ve mounted part of my collection on a plate for display purposes. You’ll probably have to enlarge this picture on your device to see the details I’ll be talking about.
Most of the sea china I find is transferware like many of the patterned shards pictured here. Before 1760, china pieces were individually painted by hand, which was one reason only the upper class could afford them. Around 1760, however, pottery makers in the county of Staffordshire, England discovered the technique of “printing” on clay. An engraved and inked copper plate was pressed to a sheet of paper which was in turn pressed onto an unfired clay piece. The clay absorbed the blue ink from the paper, “transferring” the pattern to the pottery. After the paper was very carefully peeled away, the clay was glazed and fired. Transferware permitted potteries to produce a far greater volume of decorated china goods than the old hand-painting had allowed, which made dinnerware and tea sets affordable for England’s growing middle class. Wedgewood and Spode quickly capitalized on the new technique and the new market. At first, blue was the only color available, but in the 1830s other colors of transferware became popular in America. Makers in England responded by exporting patterns in red, pink, purple, cranberry, green, brown, and black. If you have china that’s been passed down in your family, it’s likely to be Staffordshire transferware.
Because transferware has such a well-documented history, it’s sometimes possible to do some detective work on sea china shards. Take, for example, the green piece with the rope on it (it’s on the rim of the plate at about 11 o’clock). For a long time I thought the rope was a motif in the design of the china pattern, but I couldn’t track it down, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the element above and to the left of the rope was supposed to be. And was that some fanciful bird’s beak there on the right? Finally I found the answer. The rope isn’t part of a china pattern at all–it’s part of a backmark, the trademark on the bottom of a piece of pottery. In this case, the backmark belonged to the New Wharf Pottery of Staffordshire, which operated from 1878 to 1894. The doohickey to the left above the rope is part of a crown, and the ‘bird’s beak’ is part of the ribbon where the name of the pattern would have been printed.
Finally, I’ll close with the observation that sometimes beachcombing, like life, yields a treasure you never expected. One day while searching for glass and shards on the cobbled beaches of the island that sits across the harbor from me, I nearly stepped on this clay pipe, which was caught down between two stones. The markings on the stem reveal it was made by the McDougall company in Glasgow, Scotland, one of the leading clay pipe manufacturers of the time. It’s one of their TD cutty models, meaning it has the short stem favored by workmen so they could keep it clamped between their teeth as they worked without it getting in the way. Apparently this one was made after 1891, because prior to that time, US law didn’t require foreign goods to be labelled or stamped with their country of origin, but before 1910, because McDougall ceased production then. So sometime around 1900, some working fellow lost his smoke for me to find more than a hundred years later. I’ll bet he’s still cussing.
But I’m sure smiling.