In 2016 Extent Heritage were engaged by the Department of Parliamentary Services, Parliament of Victoria to undertake excavations within the grounds of Victoria’s Parliament House. This location includes the site of the former St Peter’s Diocesan Grammar School (H7822-2339), which was constructed in 1849. The excavations yielded a collection of 10,122 artefacts, among which were 18 pieces of at least two glass target balls. Unfortunately, these pieces were recovered from unstratified contexts that include materials deposited with nightsoil that was dumped across much of inner Melbourne in the late 19th century and therefore cannot be definitively tied to on-site activities. However, in and of themselves, they are interesting objects.
The target balls are made of cobalt-blue glass, are 65mm in diameter and have a grid pattern on the surface. The items are round, with the exception of a protruding opening (Plate 1 above). They have been created by blowing glass into a 2-piece mould with the rough lip on the opening formed when the glass was broken away from the blowpipe. The raised pattern on the surface of the balls was designed to prevent shot from ricocheting off the smooth ball (Kerr nd). Unlike the complete items illustrated in Plate 2 below, the Parliament House artefacts do not have a maker’s mark. The style of the Parliament House balls is the same as ‘an extremely rare ball’ that was made in Australia (targetballs.com, Plate 3 below). I have not been able to find any information on Australian glass target ball manufacturers, other than Frederick Bolton Hughes of the South Australian Glass Bottle Company. He made glass target balls between 1896 and 1913, but his items are embossed with his initials (pssatrap.org).
Glass target balls, in a range of bright colours that would be easily visible as they were launched into the sky, were manufactured from about the 1860s until the end of the 19th century, with their main period of use between 1875 and 1885 (antiquebottles.com; glassbottlemarks.com; peachridgeglass.com). At the height of their popularity, the Bohemian Glass Works in New York City produced 1.2 million glass target balls in a six-month period, each of which sold for just over a penny (Finch ndb).
The ‘invention’ of glass target ball shooting is credited to Charles Portlock of Boston, who organised the first competitive glass target shoots in in 1867 (Kerr nd). The glass balls were hailed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as an invention that ‘supersedes the necessity of inflicting pain and suffering to pigeons hitherto used by marksmen as a medium for obtaining accuracy of aim’ (Henry Berg letter dated 7/8/1876 in Finch nda) and one patent trap was named ‘The Pigeon’s Friend’. The early traps were of limited popularity as they simply threw the ball straight up into the air. However, in 1877 a trap was patented that cast the balls in a 60-foot-long arc and other patents soon followed (Kerr nd, plates 4 and 5 above). By the late 19th century glass target balls were rapidly replaced with clay targets that were considered safer as they did not lead to large amounts of broken glass falling from the sky and scattering across the ground.
However, glass target balls remained popular in shooting competitions, exhibitions, circuses and Wild West shows. The ‘Ira Paines’ Filled Ball’, popularised by shooter Ira Paines, was filled with feathers and powder so that when the ball broke apart it resembled a bird being shot (Kerr nd). Annie Oakley is said to have filled her glass balls with streamers that burst from the item when it broke apart (Meyer 2012). The balls were also used as a solid, curved surface for darning socks on and for teething babies (Finch ndb) and were sometimes repurposed as Christmas decorations (glassbottlemarks.com).
Christine Williamson Heritage Consultants
Finch, R. nda Who’s on First? Portlock, Paine, Moreson? www.targetballs.com
Finch, R. ndb. What are Target Balls? www.targetballs.com
Kerr, A. nd. For Fun, Sure as Shooting – Target Balls Hit the Mark. www.traphof.org
Meyer, F. 2012. Target Glass, Glass Made to Be Broken www.peachridgeglass.com