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Paperweights - A Brief History Of The Art

Author: J.P. Boore

( Article orginally published June 1961 )

Like Will Rogers, all I know is what I read. In this particular essay I am merely a "read actor." I simply say in my own words what I have found in the several books on the subject. They include: Old Glass Paperweights, by Evangeline H. Bergstrom; French Crystal Paperweights, (or, if you prefer, Les Presse-Papiers Francais De Crystal,) by R. Imbert and Y. Amic; Paperweights and Other Glass Curiosities, by E. M. Elville; and Antique French Paperweights, by Paul Jokelson.

Several years ago in these columns I decried the fact that some who have written about weights have spent too much time on the subject of their history and how they are made. Now I find myself falling into the same fault.

With a slight difference, however. I propose to get into some details of identification, as I promised so long ago to do, and feel that this is a desirable antecedent to that exposition. Also, since this is a series and not a single short article, time and space are of less importance.

Besides which, I've had some folks ask me to do it. Since it is quite possible that there will be readers of HOBBIES who do not have all of the above listed references in their libraries, this brief outline may be of interest to them.

While it has not been emphasized by other writers, it is of interest to me that the production of paperweights appears to have been, to some degree, influenced by history and economics; or, perhaps, it might more properly be said, by politics and business. At least events which could be so characterized appear to have triggered the development.

French glass factories, established late in the 18th century had perfected their processes, had consolidated their positions with respect to competition, and were hitting their stride in the production of fine crystal glass just in time to take advantage of the restoration of the monarchy at the close of the Napoleonic Wars.

They were kept quite busy supplying the needs of the nobility for crystal table-ware, chandeliers, candelabra, etc. In the 1840's France experienced a ground-swell of political unrest which finally erupted into the Second Revolution in 1848.

Business was bad, no doubt because of the unfavorable political atmosphere, but also because of crop failures. The glass-houses, geared to the production of expensive crystal luxury items, found their goods not moving and became idle. They were ripe for a new item.

Eugene Peligot was a Professor at the Conservatoire des Arts et M& tiers in Paris. He was sent by the Paris Chamber of Commerce to the Exhibition of Austrian Industry which opened in Vienna, May 15, 1845.

His report, in part, reads, "Amongst the principal exhibits is that of Mr. [Pierre] Bigaglia of Venice - one notices round-shaped millefiori paperweights of transparent glass in which are inserted quantities of small tubes of all colors and forms assembled so as to look like a multitude of florets."

Mr. Peligot, we are told, was too well informed on glass matters not to have been aware of this form had it previously existed. He describes the weight at length and as something new, while mentioning but briefly other glass products. From this we can be pretty well assured that millefiori weights were originated by Bigaglia in Venice, in 1845.

The St. Louis factory made its first weights later that same year, Baccarat the following year, and, presumably, Clichy very shortly thereafter. It is almost certain that the intense competition between these factories led to the wide variety of colors and designs which we find in weights produced in this period. Also, we might add, to the excellence of their workmanship.

And yet, between Baccarat and St. Louis there appears to have been a relationship of close co-operation. Whether this extended to an interfinancial arrangement is not clear but it is an historical fact that they worked closely together.

For example, the two plants made a joint effort to suppress the Creusot plant because of the annoyance of its competition and finally, in 1832, jointly bought it out and closed the factory. The liaison between the two seems to have begun about 1822.

They also concluded an arrangement for the sale of the product of both their factories with the firm of Launay, Hautin and Co., 50 rue Paradis Poissonniere, Paris. This was a most unusual arrangement for firms making items intended to be sold competitively.

Mention has been made in a previous HOBBIES article of the similarity of the metal used in their weights. The Clichy factory was not a party to this entente.

In the period with which we are dealing Baccarat was the leader of the French glass producers. As such Baccarat did not initiate. To quote, "Baccarat was not the forerunner of fashion, leaving that care to firms of lesser importance for whom it was vital to attract public attention, however, when an innovation proved to be a success, Baccarat began to produce it too; . . . "

It must be said, though, that when it went into the production of weights it didn't fool. In variety of color, design, and in excellence of workmanship, Baccarat products are without peer.

It probably was because of this basic policy difference that we find most of the correspondence regarding paperweights being directed to the St. Louis plant by their Paris agent.

Launay wrote to the director of the St. Louis factory frequently, sometimes praising, sometimes reproaching for slow deliveries, or poor design, or workmanship. Many suggestions for new designs were made. He suggested ink-stands, shot glasses, cigar holders, wafer stands, etc., set on millefiore bases. He also suggested, "try cutting these weights with punties."

He commented at times on competition; " . . . as you know everybody is making them new, even a German firm is producing weights imitated from ours but too cheap and of poor quality." About the competition from Clichy, however, he was concerned.

He reproached St. Louis for not having given all the attention to the paperweight line. He wrote, "The selling of weights is now gone mostly to Clichy which cannot fulfill all the orders received. This article has given a great importance to this factory. . ."

Right here is as good a place as any to dispel an erroneous concept. It has been suggested in some quarters that paperweights largely were made as end-of-day projects by individual workmen.

While it is almost certain that some weights were made in this manner, the fact is that the bulk of weights were made in factories as regular production items. They were hand-made by skilled workmen, so are individual works of art, but they were turned out on a production basis.

That there were other factories in France which made weights is an accepted fact. Some of them produced weights of exceptional merit, which are much sought after by collectors. Some day their identities may become known but at present they remain a mystery. Mrs. Bergstrom suggests two possible candidates - St. Gobain and E'scalier de Cristal. Also to be considered is Choisy-le-Roi. Weights have turned up which, in some quarters, have been attributed to this factory.

Certainly, Choisy-le-Roi may, after a fashion, be considered the precursor in France of the processes which later were extensively used in the making of weights. This factory had revived filigree and millefiore work in glass, examples of which were shown at the Paris Exhibition of French Industry in 1839 and again in 1844.

Note carefully the use of the word "revived" in the above account. Chaisy-le-Roi was not the originator of the idea. Excavations in Egypt have uncovered glass beads and vessels of the 14th and 15th centuries B.C. which are made up of mosaics of different colors and designs. When Rome conquered Egypt in 27 B.C. it learned how to make glass and by the first century A.D. was producing some artistic mosaic glass objects of its own. The term "millefiori" as applied to this type of work is not ancient but is an Italian word meaning "thousand flowers" and was first used by the Venetians when they re-introduced the technique during the Renaissance.

Marcantonio Sabellico, librarian of St. Marks and historian of Venice, in his book, De Situ Venetae Urbis, written in 1495, makes some reference to this form of glass, and it may be this is the first such written reference.

Paperweights must have been made by some of the English glass-houses as early as 1847 or 1848 for we find references in some of the 1848 publications to the weights being made in England. White Friars made weights bearing the date 1848 but whether they actually were made in that year is not known.

Weights also were made in Bohemia and Belgium, but, except for the Val St. Lambert factory in Belgium, none of the literature which I have seen lists the names of the factories. Generally speaking, the weights from these two countries are not too highly valued by collectors.

Just when the manufacture began in America is not clear but it must have been shortly before 1850 as we know that Gilliland had some of his weights on display at the 1851 Exposition in London. There are weights bearing the date 1852 which are attributed to Sandwich.

The great period for the production of quality weights artistically designed and artfully executed was of short duration. Generally the period is given as lasting from 1845 to 1860 but there is really some doubt if the great French factories made very many even in the latter part of this 15 year span.

Weights continued to be made and are still being made, many of them with little virtue artistically. Sporadic revivals have occurred in which weights of considerable merit have been produced. Examples are the Millville roses of Ralph Barber, the roses of Emil Larsen, and, concurrently, the works of Kaziun, and Ysart.

These last two are now making original weights of considerable merit. They work alone and their output is thus limited in each case to what one man can produce. There never will be a glut of their weights.

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