My mind’s been in the gutter lately. How else do you explain the conversation I had the other day with acclaimed author and inveterate collector Mike Bruner. As the keyboardist for Rare Earth (remember “Get Ready” and “I Just Want To Celebrate”?) and an authority on porcelain signs, glass insulators, and petroliana collectibles, to name but a few of his areas of expertise, Bruner is a true Renaissance man, as comfortable talking about history and technology as aesthetics and the arts.
So naturally, when we were speaking recently, I spent the whole time asking him about toilets.
“I love to collect things that were never meant to be collected.”
Actually, not the toilets themselves, but the floats that bobbed in the tanks behind them. Turns out, Bruner knows a fair amount about these curious footnotes to home-plumbing history. We’re not talking about your standard copper or plastic floats here, the ones you can still buy at Home Depot or Lowe’s. No, we’re talking about the glass toilet floats that were hand blown from the late 1800s until some time after World War I.
“That’s a really beautiful float,” he practically gushes when I ask him about a plain, innocuous-looking float with the words “Patent applied for” embossed on its side. “The glass on that, I just love. It’s very crude, but it’s probably the nicest appearing glass I have.”
I look again. It doesn’t seem all that remarkable to me, but Bruner’s vision is keener than mine. Where I see a boring oblong form, he sees history, and even art. “It’s obviously handmade, and I’d be willing to bet it could date to the 1800s,” he says. “It’s not symmetrical in its shape. It’s just what people who collect glassware want. They want something that tells a story. There’s no doubt that a human being made this thing. It went into a three-piece mold, so it’s definitely a production piece, but a human being blew the glass and snapped off the rod at the end. This thing is full of charisma.”
Like bottles from the same period, glass toilet floats can be dated by their pontil scars (or lack of) and mold marks, as well as the embossed legends on them, ascribing their production or distribution to long-since defunct businesses.
“They are kind of an obscure collectible,” says Bruner, who is apparently also a master of the understatement. “There are not a whole lot of these things around.” In fact, toilet floats are such oddball outliers in the collectibles world, there aren’t even established prices for them, although you can expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $200 for a good one. Which means, alas, that you won’t become suddenly rich if you check your old toilet’s tank and find a glass float back there. Don’t quit that day job just yet.
One of the least common names found on toilet floats is C.D. Argent & Co. of New York, which was based in Brooklyn. “They were one of the earliest manufacturers,” Bruner says. ”Their floats were not dated, but you can tell roughly how old they are by looking at the glass. My Argent actually has a pontil scar on the bottom of it, which means they were still hand-blowing these things.”
Other floats are easier to date. “I have one from William Heap & Sons of Grand Haven, Michigan, with a 1907 patent date on it, and an O.H. Jones of Hartford, Connecticut, from 1902. Glassmaking was quite common at the turn of the century,” Bruner adds. “Manufacturers made bottles, kitchen items, and utilitarian pieces used by industry.” A toilet float was just another product that could be cheaply and efficiently produced in glass rather than metal.
Which is not to say Bruner is convinced his floats labeled Argent, Heap, and Jones were actually manufactured by those companies. “As with other collectibles, the embossed names on these pieces of glassware do not necessarily reflect the actual manufacturer,” he says. “They could designate the parent company, the jobber, or the supply house. Who knows who made some of this glassware?”
Bruner has his theories. “Argent was possibly the agent that had things produced for the market and sold them to the trades but didn’t actually manufacture anything. A search on the Internet turns up no C.D. Argent glass manufacturer in Brooklyn, although there were glassmakers in the borough at that time.”
Though he doesn’t have the evidence to prove it, Bruner thinks he knows who might have made some of his toilet floats. “One company that comes to mind is Rodefer Brothers, which was in the Ohio River Valley area.” Many glass houses, from Fenton to Fostoria to Anchor Hocking, were established there in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if some of these floats came from that region,” Bruner says.
In fact, most of Bruner’s floats date to the first decade of the 20th century. And while floats were still being produced in the decade that followed, and also after World War I, the industry changed quickly. “Metal was introduced somewhere between the turn of the century and the 1920s,” he says. “I believe Kimble, Owens-Corning, and others made glass floats all the way up until the 1950s, but metal and plastic eventually took over. Kimble was about the last glass holdout.”
Here’s the kicker though: Turns out some of Bruner’s toilet floats may not have been designed for, or used in, toilets at all. “I’m not 100-percent sure that all these floats were destined to wind up in toilets,” Bruner sighs. “There were many industrial applications for floats, so there’s no guarantee that these things were originally sold for use in a toilet. Take that O.H. Jones float, for example. That might have been an industrial float. There were numerous applications in factories in which some kind of liquid in a tank needed to refill itself. You could use a float for that.”
Bruner thinks a clue to this non-household use could be the band around the middle of the float. “Most floats had a little brass fitting molded into the glass. It was threaded so you could screw a rod into it. That’s your 100-percent giveaway that the piece of glass had something that had to do with the level of water or some other liquid, and fittings were common to floats used in toilet tanks. The O.H. Jones float has no metal fitting, but it does have a band, kind of a ‘saddle groove’, if you will, approximately four inches in diameter that went around the float, kind of like a belt around the waist. That’s how this float was held in position. So it’s definitely a float, likely used for an industrial purpose, possibly a toilet float.”
For a second time, I look again. Clearly Bruner can see more in these humble objects than I can. In fact, most of the people Bruner shows his floats to don’t know what they’re looking at at all. “When I show people my little collection of floats,” he says, “it’s amazing how many cannot guess what these things are. They’ll stare and stare, but they can’t identify them. And that is my gold standard. I love to collect things that were never meant to be collected. That’s my number-one priority in a collectible.”
(Photos courtesy Mike Bruner)