These hand-blown glass balls were used in many places across Britain for at least three hundred years before the Regency began. They were still being made and used in Britain during the Regency. Their purpose and intended use varied with the local culture and superstitions of the people who used them. By the early nineteenth century, there was one particular glass-blowing center in England which produced a wide array of lovely witch balls in vast quantities. Though most sophisticated members of the Beau Monde may not have hung a witch ball in their home, there were quite a number of people who did so, even during the Regency.
The origins, production and use of witch balls through the Regency . . .
These glass witch balls are believed to have had their origins in the early seventeenth century, when hollow glass buoys were attached to the edges of fishing nets to keep them afloat. Despite their weight, so long as they were intact, these hollow glass buoys would always float to the surface. Then, in the late seventeenth century, it became the practice to try a suspected witch by binding their arms and legs and throwing them into a body of water. If the suspect floated, it was believed the water had rejected the attempt at a second holy baptism and they were thereby confirmed to be a witch. Sailors, and others who worked on or near the sea were a remarkably suspicious lot and it was not long before "witches" who floated were associated with those glass buoys which also always floated. And yet, in the curiously contradictory way of superstitions, it was believed these glass balls had the power to offer protection from witchcraft and evil spirits.
Initially, it appears that many sailor’s wives hung a glass float in a window of their homes in the hope it would protect their husbands and ensure they returned from the sea unharmed. That was convenient for those living near a fishing port, less so for those living inland. But over time, a growing number of people wanted to take advantage of the perceived protection offered by these glass spheres and the concept spread inland. It was not long before glass-makers began making spherical bottles with a short neck. Their shape was inspired by glass floats, but these spherical bottles could be used to hold holy water, at least theoretically increasing their power of protection. As with glass floats, these spherical bottles filled with holy water were hung in a window of the main room of a house as protection against the malign influence of witches and evil spirits. Some of these spherical bottles were even inscribed with quotes from scripture, often in gold, to further increase their protective power.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, a number of English glass-makers were regularly making purpose-blown glass balls for all the people who wanted a protective witch ball for their homes. In fact, it was also the practice of nearly every glass-maker to make a witch ball as the very first object produced in any newly established glass-blowing shop. That first witch ball would be hung in the new shop to ensure its protection from evil spirits and bring the workers good luck and prosperity. Though some of the early witch balls were made of transparent glass, the majority were either blue or green, since those were the most common glass colors at the time. Witch balls were made in a variety of sizes though most tended to be between three to seven inches in diameter. They were hollow, with thin strands of glass running through the interior, like a web. Most were made with a loop of glass at the top by which they could be hung from a string or wire.
Curiously, two nearly contradictory traditions for these special glass witch balls emerged over time. In those communities which were sympathetic to practicing witches, the witches themselves enchanted the witch balls with special powers that enabled them to repel evil spirits from their vicinity. Therefore, it was the local witches who actually empowered the glass spheres to protect the residents of the homes or other buildings in which they were hung. In fact, it is believed that in such witch-friendly communities, these special, enchanted glass balls were actually known as watch balls, rather than witch balls, because they kept watch over the households in which they were hung.
However, in the larger number of communities which feared witches and their supposed negative power, glass witch balls served a different purpose. In those communities, it was believed that witches, and other malevolent spirits, were attracted and mesmerized by the bright colors of the glass. Unable to control the pull of their curiosity, the spirits would be drawn into the witch ball, where they would be ensnared by the web of glass strands inside. Once trapped, they could never escape and therefore, would be unable to cause harm to anyone else ever again. This superstition was so strong in some communities that each household in the community was expected to have at least one witch ball in their home in order to ensure that comprehensive protection was provided to the whole community.
Before the eighteenth century came to a close, witch balls had acquired another important power. As glass-making techniques improved, the surface of the finished pieces became more and more lustrous and gleaming. Many believed that the reflective properties of these witch balls would deflect any negative energy or spirits which sought to enter a home protected by one. Some groups believed that witches did not throw a reflection, and could not bear that knowledge, so they avoided reflective surfaces. Others thought that because witches were considered evil, they had to be so hideously ugly they would be terrified by the sight of their own reflection. Therefore, regardless of the view about reflections, it was believed that all evil creatures would avoid any house with a shiny, reflective witch ball. In the early eighteenth century, some glass-makers used an amalgam of mercury, lead and bismuth to silver the inside of some of their high-end witch balls in order to further enhance their reflective powers. This practice continued at some glass-works well into the nineteenth century.
There were certain rules with regard to the use of glass witch balls that their owners ignored at their peril. The witch ball should always be hung in the window of the largest room of the house which faced east. The power of the witch ball would be reduced, or even neutralized, if it was not hung in a window or was hung in one that faced any direction other than east. Witch balls were supposed to be wiped clean of any dust at least daily. The reason being that the dust would reduce the reflective power of the witch ball’s surface, thus allowing a witch or evil spirit to pass by it into the home. In addition, in those cases where an evil spirit was trapped inside the ball, dust on the exterior surface would weaken the hold the ball had over its captive, allowing the malevolent spirit to escape. However, an alternate theory was that the act of wiping away dust on the surface of a witch ball would permanently exorcise any spirit trapped within its glass web. It was also considered extremely bad luck to sell or even give away a witch ball. Once it was acquired, it must remain the property of that same owner for life, in order to ensure they were fully protected.
The Nailsea Glassworks, which was established near the city of Bristol, in 1788, became a major supplier of very attractive and popular witch balls, right through the Regency and well into the nineteenth century. Unique styles and patterns of glass were incorporated into many of the objects made at that glassworks, including witch balls. New colors, such as crimson and gold were added to the older colors of green and blue, as well as an opaque white. These new patterns and colors ensured that Nailsea witch balls were particularly alluring, and therefore, were also considered much more powerful than witch balls made at some of the other glassworks. Examples of Nailsea glass objects in a wide range of patterns and colors can be seen on this Google Image search page.
Though the Regency began after the Age of Enlightenment, and supposedly, people were less superstitious than they had been in the previous centuries, witch balls were still in use in many rural areas across Britain in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Cetainly, few sophisticated city dwellers hung a witch ball in a window of their home. However, many of those who dwelt in areas outside of major cities and towns tended to cling to their superstitions for several generations. One of the most powerful of those superstitions was the belief in witches and other malevolent spirits. And many of those homes had had a witch ball hanging in an east-facing window for generations. As the nineteenth century dawned, few residents of those rural homes saw any reason to remove that charming, pretty glass ball, which might well be protecting them from malign forces.
Now that you know something about witch balls, Dear Regency Authors, how might you make use of them in one of your stories? Shall an elderly, and very superstitious, member of an aristocratic family demand that a witch ball be hung in an east-facing window of the family’s new London townhouse? How will the other members of the family respond to this demand? Perhaps the heroine, a kind and considerate woman, will champion the older character, thus earning the respect and admiration of the hero? Then again, a spoiled young lady might purchase a Nailsea witch ball simply because she finds it a pretty little bauble, only to have her abigail, a superstitious country woman, rail at her for not hanging it in an east-facing window, accompanied by dire threats of danger to the household. How will her mistress react? On the other hand, an arrogant and high-handed landlord might smash the witch ball hung in the window of the farmhouse of one of his tenants. Will he find himself mired in very bad luck from that time forward? What will happen when a vicar takes up a new living in an isolated, rural village, filled with superstitious inhabitants. How will the villagers react when the heroine, the vicar’s daughter, who keeps house for him, refuses to hang a witch ball in the window of the rectory? Will she be subject to threats from the villagers, who believe she is endangering the community by her actions? There are any number of ways in which a witch ball might find its way into a Regency romance.