I've always seen these swirly glass balls around, but had no idea of their fascinating origins. They were believed to trap witches (who couldn't resist gazing into the swirls), but even more amazing is that they were made by hard-working glassworkers on their hard-earned breaks…
From the October 2010 issue of Martha Stewart Living:
"One thing we do know for sure: The glass-houses where they were made were as hot as Hades, thanks to open furnaces that ran to 2,000 degrees (the temperature required to transform silica into glass), and were dark and dangerous to boot. Yet workers often set aside time on their breaks and at day's end to create these playful, pretty witch balls."
That is one of the most beautiful and true things I've ever read. Isn't that what we're all working for? After survival is taken care of, when we've worked enough to stay warm, dry, and fed, it's the touch of beauty and fun that can make it all feel worthwhile, make it feel like ours. Listen to this: "In Glasshouse Whimsies, published in 1984, authors Joyce and Len Blake, who interviewed several men who'd worked as glassblowers back in the day, speculate why an exhausted man would bother to do this: 'Because of his need to accent a life of hard work with a splash of artistry.'" Isn't that wonderful, and humbling?
The article on collecting witch balls is not available online, unfortunately, so here are a few facts: they've been made and hung in homes since at least the 1700s, they were often made of leftover scraps of glass at the end of the day, and they have an opening where the ball was separated from the glassblowing pipe (and where the witch would enter the ball and become trapped). Though they're known for their intricate, highly-skilled designs, plain witch balls were made as well. I actually prefer the look of these plain balls, as seen above, from The Dutch Rose's fieldtrip to a South Jersey glass auction.
All quotes from "Wicked Cool" by Celia Barbour