Tuesday, June 02, 2009

One of the Early Euro and Asian Glass Float Collectors

Charles Abernethy wrote:
"This very unusual grapefruit size, russet jem I espied in a far corner of the walled tropical garden patio of The Turk's Head Inn. It had to be mine at any cost! Knowing that all is fair in Collecting Floats and War, stealthily at midnight on a moonlight night I crept inch by inch over the sand to ensnare my prize. I placed my hand over its rough carunculated surface to scoop it into my net. It wouldn't budge. What was the matter? I tugged at it again-it moved sluggishly only an inch. With both hands I endeavored to lift it but in vain.

Then I realized what it was:


From the booklet: AMONG THE COCAINE SNIFFERS, ETC. 1984

by Charles Abernethy

About a week before reading that passage, Todd the Norsknailpounder, sent me an email of an expired Ebay auction that contained three glass float booklets written by Charles Abernethy.

The auction both amazed and frustrated me. I had never heard of the man or his writing, which was exciting and new knowledge; but I also had no chance to read the writing-the auction had already ended. How discouraging! The auction's photos of the books, floats, and a tantalizing bit of the author's writing titillated me. The detective in me sprang forth, and I was fast into checking everywhere I could for Abernethy auctions on Ebay. No luck.

Next-onto Google. No luck.

Then an idea hit me. Why not write the seller, and ask if there were other copies available? My email brought a swift reply. The previous owner of the auction trio did have another booklet, but had declined to offer it because there was some damage-a couple of the photos were stuck to the page next to them, and had been ruined when an attempt to unstick them pulled the photos apart. And there was the moral problem with the title which contained the words: "cocaine sniffers". Not being a cocaine sniffer or put off by the title, a few emails later, a deal had been struck, and the "Sniffers," was on its way to me. The above story from that booklet, was my introduction to a fellow-collector and his passion for floats.

While waiting for the book to arrive, I wrote Todd back, and found out that Ken Busse had clued him into the auction. An email to Ken brought some additional information about Abernethy. I continued to write other collectors to see what I could learn, and received one of the most considerate, and wonderful gestures of friendship-a gesture that I could not even imagine anyone extending to me. A wonderful friend and great float collector, wrote to tell me that Charles had sent him a copy of each booklet that he had written, on a yearly basis, as Christmas presents. My friend had to look for them, and was convinced they were buried in the garage inside a box. Once he found them, he would send them to me with the further consideration: "Copy them when you have time.' 'There's no rush.' 'I know that I can trust you."

I was humbled then, and remain so. A day or two later, my friend emailed me to say that he found the box right away, and that the writings were on their way to me. Oh Man!

Before the box came, the single booklet came from the Ebay seller, and as soon as I opened the package, I began to read the book. On the front page is a photo taken by Abernethy showing the cannon ball laying on top of the newly-raked sand. I can see why Charles mistook the ball for a float. What a great first read! Eagerly, I read on, knowing that a treasure was in my hands.

I want to share some of what is in these books with anyone interested. Charles was one of the greatly inspired float collectors that all of us see when we look into the mirror. Sadly, he passed away about 1992 or '93. His writing and passion live on. Charles Abernethy was one of those who were there in the beginning of modern float collecting, and one of the very first European glass float collectors.

He was truly an inspired collector, pre-Ebay auctions, who used novel methods to find and build his collection. He lived close to or in Pittsburgh, Pa., so he definitely needed to use his imagination to concoct ways to find floats. He did travel extensively, and haunted the Bahamas as well as the Turks and Caicos Islands looking for floats among the natives called "Belongers." His writing is filled with stories of his searching, and those he knew who tried to help him find floats. He had a wonderful wit, and his writing is fun to read.

I call his yearly writings "booklets," because they are mostly less than 20 pages long, and were written using a Brother, Model EM0100 typewriter, and were copied onto Mimeo Paper sold by Woolworth's. The photos were taken using a Canon 35mm., and were developed and pasted to each of his yearly works. His first glass float printing was titled:

FISHERMAN'S GLASS FLOATS, 1979, by: Charles Abernethy

He starts out by writing: "Though I live in western Pennsylvania, hundreds of miles from the seashore, my hobby is collecting fishermen's glass floats.

He continues by giving a very good description of floats, how they were used, and the conditions that caused them to brake free to land on distant shores, followed by a passage that I thought you might find interesting:

Alfred Russel Wallace, the famed naturalist, in his, The Malay Archipelago wrote in April 1858 that while en route by schooner to New Guinea, they were becalmed nearby in Campier's Straits for several days. Native canoes came out to their ship to sell palm leaf mats, shells, cocoa nuts and curios. Wallace wrote:

"My only purchases were a float carved to resemble a bird and a palm leaf box, for which articles I gave a copper ring and a yard of calico."

In generalizing on the customs of the Papuan natives of New Guinea Wallace remarked:

"They are great carvers and painters...The floats of their fishing lines, their tobacco boxes and other household articles are covered with carvings of tasteful and often elegant design."

Charles first findings are described:

"The fishing industry in the Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea and the Caribbean Sea is far less than in the Pacific, resulting in proportionately less floats showing up on their surrounding shores. By careful snooping they may be found occasionally in the waterfront shops bounded by those waters. Often you will go into a shop and see none, so you always ask the shop owner. "Oh, yes, I have a friend nearby who has some. I'll send out and have some brought over. Very few travellers ask for them."

To get just one float, even in a busy fishing village, you have to poke, ask, probe, cajole and even bribe. They are not in the shop windows just waiting for you.

The prettiest float I own, I found in a tottery harborfront shop on one of the remote Aegean Islands. Of grapefruit size it is light green in color and has more than its share of air bubbles. The amazing feature is that the bottom third surrounding the plug has a bumpy, pineappley finish, and when the late afternoon sun's rays shine through it, it gives a dazzling sunburst effect. I paid only 50 Grek (drachmas) for it.

I met a ship's officer on the Norwegian-American ship Pinsendam this fall, who proudly told me he had 100 gigantic 20" Japanese floats, each covered by beautiful, intricately woven nets. He said he was working on a ship that put in at Suva for a few days. On a nearby atoll he stopped at a fishing village, and bought them all for $1.00 each, loaded them on his ship, and brought them home. I said, "I'll visit you someday, and buy a dozen or so.' 'Where do you live?' 'Melbourne," he replies, reaching for the bottle of Dewars, and watching me out of the corner of his eye.

Some years ago while in the West Indies my interest in floats began to develop. I began to notice them in restaruants as decorations. In Grenada at the famous Nutmeg Bar, I saw both a light blue and a rose colored one. When I returned another time I was determined to buy them at any cost. Alas! The owner had sold the place. "What happened to the floats?' 'Where are they?" I inquired. "Oh, when he moved he took them with him...to Johannesburg," came the reply.

On another West Indian island, St Vincent, I visited a tiny village on the northern shore. Stopping at a little roadside store for a refreshment after walking the beach, I inquired if there were by chance, any floats about. Sometime later, a towering half-naked native brought me two glistening, dripping wet, matching green ones. "They pretty. I wash them before I bring them to thee," He said in his best English voice.

Charles goes on to write:

Floats are best displayed hanging in your picture window to get the best natural sunlight, and can also be suspended from the ceiling or out on your patio. When placed on a table or shelves, they should be grouped in several sizes for contrast. A ruler or pencil placed nearby gives the viewer a true sense of their size.

At a West Indian guest house I saw four large floats with their nets placed in the corners on their dining room floor. The plugs had been cut out and a light bulb suspended in each. Though effective for subdued illumination in the evening, when I looked at them by day, I was saddened, as they were but damaged lifeless things.

Two 12" green floats with heavy nets were washed up on the beach near Galveston, Texas. They found their way to a Philadelphia antique shop where they remained dust covered in a corner for several years. When I got them home, washed them and looked carefully at them, I noticed each had a Japanese trademark. How could Japanese floats find their way into the Gulf of Mexico? Certainly not through the Panama Canal nor around the Horn. Several Japanese-owned fishing companies have subsidiaries in South America, I learned, and they were shipped to them for use in their business in the western hemisphere.

He finishes the first booklet with this story:

I have yet to discover my first float on the beach. Perhaps that thrill encourages me to keep on looking during my beachcombing seashore vacations.

When I do, I hope I have more luck than one man I heard about who suddenly came upon two large ones at the sametime. To get them back to his car he carried one and rolled the other along the beach with his foot. Somehow he slipped, and dropped the one onto the other. Both broke.

Reading the 1979 writing whetted my appetite for more of this man's recollections and history. I immediately identified a part of myself which also existed within him. Here was a man who wrote about floats. Here was a man to be inspired by.


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