December 17, 2017
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Sea glass hunting uncovers bits of Maine’s past

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

“Red is rare!” Leslie Gordon Curtis said excitedly as she crouched down and plucked from the sand a tiny piece of red glass.

The vibrant shard was no bigger than the nail of her pinky finger, but in the past year Curtis has been searching for sea glass on beaches of midcoast Maine she has developed a knack for spotting glass and pottery.

“It’s meditative. It’s relaxing. It’s peaceful,” Curtis said.

It’s also addictive, she said. A resident of Lincolnville, Curtis searches the shore for sea glass and pottery usually three to five times per week, year-round, hopping from beach to beach, usually in the midcoast area. Working for a small marketing firm, she has a flexible schedule, which allows her to fit in her hobby — or “obsession,” as she would call it — in the morning or afternoon, depending on the ocean tides.

Walking an empty beach in Searsport on Tuesday, Nov. 14, she spoke of the many lovely and old treasures she’s found in just the one year that she’s been engaged in the activity.

“In midcoast Maine there isn’t much [glass] that’s rounded or frosted or anything like that,” Curtis said. “Here I go more for the artsy sort of look. When I come up here, I call it ‘going for an art walk,’ because that’s what it is. It’s amazing what you might find.”

It’s no surprise that antique treasures are churned up by the ocean and tossed ashore in midcoast Maine. The area has a rich shipping history. In fact, Searsport was once home to 10 percent of the deepwater ship captains in the American Merchant Marine, and those captains traveled the globe, transporting wares from overseas and bringing home souvenirs and gifts from places such as China and Japan, according to Searsport’s Penobscot Marine Museum, which features full exhibits of these items.

For a long time, it was common practice for ships and coastal residents to dump trash and broken wares in the ocean, right off the coast. That’s likely where Curtis’s oldest, most treasured bits of glass and pottery originate.

“I have all these pipe stems that are over 100 years old,” Curtis said.

She was able to determine this because many of the clay tobacco pipes she’s found on the beach are stamped with the word Glasgow — for Glasgow, Scotland — and through research she has learned that these pipes were only stamped with their port of origin up to the year of 1898.

“All the sudden, I’m finding them all over the place. I don’t know why that’s happening,” Curtis said.

Curtis also found a smoothed piece of a glass bottle of Cabot’s Sylpho-Nathol, a coal tar-based disinfectant used as defense against infantile paralysis in the early 1900s.

Another recent ocean-tossed treasure she found is small, light blue glass bottle of Anodyne Liniment, a pain killer formulated and bottled in the early 1800s by Abner Johnson, a physician from Waterford, Maine. The two main ingredients were morphine and alcohol, and throughout the 1800s this formula was used by people of all ages to treat a wide variety of ailments, from bronchitis to bruises, according to the information that Curtis dug up about the bottle online, including excerpts from Maine newspapers about the drug.

Other old pieces Curtis has been able to identify include a shoe polish bottle, an ink bottle and a fruit extract bottle that dates back to Maine’s prohibition era in the 1850s.

Then there’s just the pretty stuff, the colorful, “artsy” pieces of glass and pottery Curtis may never know the history of but loves all the same.

“Glass — it’s whatever appeals to the individual,” she said. “You know, some people will collect anything. Other people are very snotty, and if it hasn’t been cooked by the sea, really rolled, tumbled and frosted, they won’t be bothered.”

Curtis has found sea glass of many colors — deep blues, pale purples and rich greens. She picks up plenty of brown “beer glass,” but she usually tosses it aside. Then there are the rarer colors — the yellows, peaches and reds — that excite Curtis into her “happy dance.”

Unique pieces of pottery also make her dance. Her most treasures shards display intricately painted designs of castles and sailboats, gryphons and unicorns, flowers and songbirds. Some pieces are as big as her hand, while others are so small that most people overlook them.

“This is a piece of pottery,” Curtis said, pointing at a tiny off-white shard in the sand on Nov. 14. “So I just flip it over to see if there’s any image on there.”

To save her back and knees, Curtis usually carries a stick of driftwood, which she uses to flip over the pottery and glass while standing. She also often wears muck boots to easily navigate the mud flats and shallows and a “sea-glassing hat” with a wide brim to protect her face from the sun. She collects treasures in a simple ziplock bag, then takes them home and washes the pieces thoroughly, scrubbing off the algae and salt. And while she’s looked up plenty of crafts people have created out of sea glass and pottery, she’s yet to decide upon any one project for herself. Besides, many of the pieces in her collection are best enjoyed as they are, as a violet glass perfume topper or a crimson sea-scarred marble. She imagines some day she’ll purchase a case to display her favorite finds.

A big part of Curtis’s sea-glassing experience is sharing her discoveries on social media, namely Facebook, where she belongs to several groups of seaglass enthusiasts, such as “Sea Glass Lovers of Maine.” She uses her iPod to photograph her finds, then posts the photos on these online groups, often provoking reactions of awe and admiration from people around the world.

These groups have also helped her learn more about certain treasures, and they’ve educated her about the ethical guidelines of the activity.

“They get really bent on people who do something called ‘seeding,’” Curtis said. “You’d actually take fresh glass and take it out there and dump it in the water and let the ocean do its thing.”

To most sea-glassers, that’s considered cheating, as is tumbling glass in a rock tumbler machine and presenting it as genuine sea glass in jewelry and other art.

“They get banned from [web]sites,” Curtis said of people who use tumblers to make fake sea glass. “Once it’s determined that they are frauds, they get banned.”

Another big no-no in the sea-glasser community is trespassing on private property to access a beach. In Maine, only about 12 percent of the coastline is in public ownership; the rest is privately owned, all the way down to the low-water mark. So if you aren’t walking on a public beach, it’s important you gain permission from the private landowner. Perhaps that contributes to the fact that, like good fishing holes, good sea-glassing beaches are generally kept hush-hush. Though each tide washes up new, it only takes one other sea-glasser to clear a beach of the day’s treasures.

“I know there are some people who just won’t go [sea-glassing] in the summertime because they don’t want to be in competition, especially if it’s a really favorite beach,” Curtis said. “It’s just too overwhelming and it’s more often a bust if somebody has been there before you.”

Curtis enjoys the activity to much to stop, so she collects sea glass year-round. She’s noticed patterns of materials washing up on certain beaches. While one sandbar will tend to collect blue glass, another strands old bottles on a frequent basis. But at the end of the day, sea-glassing is full of surprises, she said.

“I was here two days after the big wind storm [in October] and it was high tide, it was just up right where the watermark is, and I found some really neat stuff,” Curtis said. “And I came back four days later, and it’s been a bust ever since. So, you just never know. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth the time to come out here, because gosh I love it here. This is right on a migration route, and in the springtime these bushes are just full of birds.”

While she enjoy sharing photographs of her treasures with others, she prefers to sea-glass alone. It’s her time to unwind, to listen to the waves lapping the shore and breathe fresh air. Often she makes up her own songs as she walks back and forth, dragging her stick along the sand to mark where she’s been. And when she finds something special — a piece of red glass, for instance — she takes the time to hold it to the sun, snap a photo and do a little happy dance.

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