Warding Off Evil with Whimsy
Reconstructed witch balls measuring 1.25” — 7” diameter; colors include green, aqua, amber, cobalt, and amethyst. Click for enlargement.
These brightly colored glass artifacts were discovered during archaeological investigations performed for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's ongoing I-95/Girard Avenue Improvement Project. Known as witch balls, these simple glass spheres have a long history dating back to the 1600s. Originally called watch balls, the spheres were silver-lined on the inside and used as storage containers for salt. They were typically hung in the chimney to keep the salt dry. Because it would have been considered a misfortune to have one of these balls break (thereby losing the valuable salt), the hanging of watch balls over time became closely associated with warding off evil and bad luck. By the 18th century, it became popular to hang these glass spheres in house windows and display them on pedestals around the house. Eventually their primary purpose was to provide protection to household members against all things evil or malicious, and they became commonly known as witch balls.
English settlers brought the witch ball tradition with them to the American colonies, and witch balls were locally manufactured by glass works located in the New Jersey and Philadelphia areas as early as 1820. Originally lined with silver, witch balls were thought to work by frightening away evil spirits when they saw their own reflection. Others types of witch balls were made with clear, brightly colored glass, either in a single solid color or swirls of multiple hues. The positive energy associated with the attractive colors of this style was thought to attract negative energy and mesmerize evil spirits, draw the malicious force into the balls, and trap it inside. In the U.S., witch balls were commonly hung on strings in the sunniest rooms of homes or placed in prominent spaces on fireplace mantles. In some instances they also served more practical purposes, and were used as a sort of stopper or cover used to seal open pitchers or bowls, and thereby protect foods and drink from things like dust and insects.
At the height of their popularity, witch balls were sold by street vendors. At some glassworks, they were made as “end-of-day” items, or “whimsies”, after regular daily production quotas had been met. By the 20th century the popularity of witch balls faded in the US, but continued in England until World War II.
Submitted by Erin Broadhurst