Drifting, floating

Speaking of things that have washed ashore:


These old glass fishermen’s floats were picked up on a family trip to the Maritimes in the early ’70s. Before plastic and styrofoam took over, these handmade glass bubbles were widely used to keep fishing nets afloat. They were often made of recycled glass. Many are bottle-green, but you’ll also find them in a rainbow of colours, like the ones above. From what I’ve read, glass floats originated in Norway in the 1840s and became popular world-wide, especially in Japan. The Japanese ones were made from sake bottles.

There are roughly three grades of floats if you’re a collector:
1) Authentic old ones that were used by fishermen.
2) Authentically made ones that were sold directly to gift shops. While they never saw action on the seas, they were made by the same glass makers who made the working ones, and they’re identical in form. Collectors call these “contemporaries”.
3) Reproductions. These are made from thinner glass that would likely shatter if used as floats. These started to appear in the early ’80s when the supply of the authentic and contemporary floats dwindled.

The bowl above is full of contemporaries. Back when we got them, they were a popular souvenir of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and were in every gift shop and lawn sale. When I returned to Nova Scotia several years later they were harder to find.

I have a few more hanging around picking up the light:


I have a few authentic ones that I picked up that are made from recycled bottles. You can see the circles of the bottle bottoms beneath their rotting rope. They’re not as pretty as the contemporaries, but they have character:


If you live near an ocean you may still come across the odd one that washes ashore after being adrift for many years. And supposedly there are large numbers of them somewhere in the North Pacific that have been stuck going around in circular currents for decades. I know all the man-made pollution in the oceans is a tragedy, but I can’t help thinking there’s something whimsical about all those pretty glass baubles spiralling around on the waves.

Ooh I just spotted another Nautically-themed item in one of these pictures that may get its own post eventually…


Home Sweet Home

This is a piece of 19th Century wallpaper, made in England, that I found in the most unlikely place.


It’s a bit of a long story.

When I was 18, my cousin Corry talked me into going out to British Columbia for the summer. She’d moved there from Toronto a few years previously and was working as a cook in a lumber camp in the B.C. Interior. She was house-sitting at a little place on a mountain outside of William’s Lake, for a family that was away working with a travelling circus (for real). They had a pony that they left behind, so we’d take care of the pony, and I could find a job in town. We didn’t have a car, and it was a long, hot walk down the mountain into town. As I was only 18, I wasn’t old enough to work in bars, and the only other jobs were at fast food restaurants. After two hideous weeks working at a Dairy Queen for a man who ripped off his employees, I quit my job, Corry quit hers, and we spent the rest of the summer exploring.

Corry had a friend named Mike who was a prospector. Not the fancy kind that works for mining companies—a genuine old-fashioned prospector who supported himself by panning for gold. Mike knew the locations of old mining sites from the Cariboo Gold Rush (1860s). They were remote, only accessible by foot, but still had lots of gold in their rivers. Some of these sites still had old buildings and sluices and such. After Corry and I quit our jobs, Mike said he was going to take us to some ghost towns.

I’d been to Barkerville, which is a touristed-up gold rush ghost town near Quesnel. An interesting place, especially if you’re interested in Canadian history, but a tourist attraction nonetheless. It had Can-Can girls, a fake pan-for-gold attraction, and the requisite Olde Tyme Candy Shoppe. Mike’s ghost towns were authentic, abandoned settlements in remote locations unlikely ever to attract tourists, or in some cases any humanity at all. We drove for miles and then got out and hiked a few more. No sign of civilization anywhere. We followed a river until we came upon an old abandoned mill. It was here that Mike taught me how to pan for gold, for real, and I actually found a few flakes. (It was also here that I dropped my camera in a river, which is why the quality of my pictures is terrible.)

Then we continued on to one of his “ghost towns.” Following the river, we eventually came to a clearing where there was a group of several log buildings in various states of decomposition.

Apparently the gold really was at the end of a rainbow…

Closer to the woods were several other tiny log cabins that were in better shape, being slightly less exposed to the elements.

These cabins dated from the 1860s Gold Rush. On the door post of one of these cabins was pinned a note—it was written in the early 1970s by a man who explained that he had squatted in this cabin during the Depression, and had come back to visit several decades later. He may in fact have been the last person to visit this place until Mike discovered it.

Nearby the squatter’s cabin was another cabin, no more than about 6′ x 8′. Dark, cramped, with a dirt floor…

…and imported, flowered, gilt wallpaper.

Some patches had peeled off, particularly near the absent door, although most of it was intact. A few scraps littered the floor, and I couldn’t help taking one. I wish I could have taken a picture inside the cabin, but I didn’t have a flash. It was the most inconguous thing I’d ever seen. This was the roughest hardscrabble home one could imagine, and someone had attempted to civilize it with gold and silver, likely expensive, imported wallpaper. It reminded me of the Journals of Susanna Moodie—the part where she describes rather hopelessly trying to preserve her fine English bone china in the wilderness.

Maybe this miner had a wife he was trying to make comfortable. Or maybe he was a British gentleman sent to the colonies to make his fortune, and homesick for his previous life, or in need of motivation to suffer the harsh northern winters. Or maybe he just had an ironic sense of humour. (I say “he” because the miners were invariably men, but there’s always the chance a woman lived here, perhaps as a cook, or maybe an industrious madame setting up a one-woman brothel. Having since visited other abandoned mining towns, I am aware this is a possibility.)

I have no idea where these cabins are now, or if they’re still standing. I hope so. I also hope Mike is still panning for gold.



Here’s a curious item I found on my balcony when I first moved into my current apartment.


It’s a crudely made iron (?) ashtray, and it was being used to weigh down a garbage-can lid. The previous tennants left a few things behind that they didn’t seem to think worth taking. So I inherited one of my favourite things, an antique mystery.

The enscription around the edge says “Gorgona Shops Smoker, May 17, 1913” and in the centre, “Panama Canal.”

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

As the Panama Canal was officially opened in 1914, this souvenir predates the opening. The Gorgona Shops were a large complex near the mid-point of the canal, where the engineers serviced the machinery used to build the canal. A “smoker” was a party deemed suitable for men only (likely because lots of smoking was going on).

So best guess: the men who worked in the Gorgona workshops held a party for some reason, maybe a construction milestone, and as they were handy types, they crafted their own souvenir ashtrays in their shop.

And then somehow one of these ashtrays made its way back to Little Portugal in Toronto. Maybe one of the gentlemen in this picture lived on my street, or even in this house.

Man of La Mancha

Found, in Fenelon Falls, Ontario (pop. 1,800), a 1797 Spanish edition of Don Quixote.


It’s not worth much, as antique books go, as it’s damaged, only one volume of a three-volume edition, and not a first edition. How it came to be in this small town (officially only a “village”) in the heart of United Empire Loyalist territory is beyond me. But I was meant to find it. I had just returned from a trip to western Spain, southwest of Madrid, where tributes to Cervantes abounded, and where, to my surprise, I’d serendipitously stumbled upon the hometown of my father’s Spanish-Jewish ancestors. That’s a whole other story…but needless to say when I found this book (printed in Madrid) I could practically hear it laughing, and daring me not to buy it.

No, I don’t read Spanish…yet.

I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby

There’s an old saying about poverty: “He’s so poor he doesn’t have two dimes to rub together.”

I thought about that when I found this tiny trinket in an antique store cabinet: two old Canadian dimes, hollowed out and nailed together:


And then turned into a locket:


I have no idea of the identity of this smiling gent with the slightly askew tie, but he looks like a charmer. The dimes are both George V, who ruled from 1911-1936; the coin dates would have been on the sides that were hollowed out. Love tokens from modified coins were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and sometimes given in place of an engagement ring. They were also given to girls from sailors as a promise they would return. Given the vintage of these coins, there’s a chance this man may have been a WW2 soldier. Either way, by that time, the love-token tradition would have been slightly archaic. Clearly this man was a romantic.

Dimes of this pre-war vintage would have been 80% silver, so a decent enough substitute for a store-bought silver locket. And fellas, while store-bought jewellry is always nice, there is nothing more romantic than a hand-hewn token of your love. Some lucky gal carried around her man in her pocket, perhaps even secretly, with the knowledge that he went to some effort to ensure a place in her heart.