The History Of Antique Paperweights

It would be wise for beginners to devote time and study to old paperweights in order to know what the essential points of really fine weights are before going into collecting them on an extensive scale. There are many reproductions on the market, and they have been made not only in this country but also in China, Czechoslovakia, England and other countries.

A brief resume of the history of old paperweights may be of benefit to new collectors and perhaps even to some veterans.

To date, I have been unable to find reliable records of when and where the first paperweights were made. My guess would be that they became necessary only after paper came into general use for correspondence, superseding parchment. The first makers may well have worked in Italy. The word “Millefiori” has been associated with paperweights as far back as there are any records of them at all, and Millefiori is Italian for “thousand flowers.” The technique of using sections of canes for decorative purposes goes back to ancient Egypt. The Venetian glassmakers knew the art and they made glass for the mosaic workers who not only did floors and house interiors but fine jewelry. The finest type of Millefiori weights were made at St. Louis in Alsace-Lorraine while those provinces were still French, between 1840 and 1851. Certainly some beautiful designs are found bearing the tiny letters S L for St. Louis. At Clichy, also in France, other very fine weights were turned out, marked with a tiny C. From Clichy the art of making choice paperweights moved on to Baccarat, France. Weights from this town are sometimes marked “B-1847″ or “B-1848.”

three rare old paper weights

Plate 98

Three rare old paperweights. Those at end are dated Bacarrat.

Foreign workmen came to this country to introduce the art and to teach it to American glassworkers. The New England Glass Company at Cambridge, Mass., the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company at Cape Cod, and others, made many paperweights which are eagerly sought today. The earliest date found on any positively known tO have been made in this country is 1852. Occasionally a weight is discovered marked “1852″ in one place and, in another “1825,” the last two numbers having been transposed. I believe 1852 to be the correct date. These are attributed to Sandwich.

There is nothing more difficult for a writer on antiques to describe adequately than paperweights. Try and see if you can do justice with words to the glass, the design, the color and scintillating beauty of the whole!

For the benefit of new collectors, I am illustrating six antique paperweights, all of them desirable and some of the finest workmanship. On Plate 98 the one at each end is a signed and dated “Baccarat, B-1848.” In genuine weights the date is so small a magnifying glass is often necessary to find it. The one on the right has a small butterfly in the center and other tiny animals show in the pieces of cane. The Poinsettia in the center paperweight illustrates a good flower type. On Plate 99 another flower is shown with the highly desirable interlaced background. The one at the right is known as a “Crown weight.” Study the quality and workmanship as exhibited in these good paperweights and then look at the new ones and wonder how anyone can be fooled!

On Plate 100 are shown some genuinely old pieces of cane, flowers and leaves, such as were used in the making of the better paperweights. The large piece in the foreground is not a stick of Christmas candy but a large fragment of cane showing how such pieces looked before they were stretched out into the tiny rods used in making up the Millefiori weights. You will note in the picture other pieces in the same pattern, graduated in size. The rod or cane was made up with fancy designs in vivid colors running through it, all of which was fused together while it was still plastic. In that state, workmen holding each end on a punty rod, could stretch it out for as much as forty or fifty feet. The “stretch-out” system did not affect the design configuration, which merely grew smaller and smaller in diameter as it was drawn out. The rods, when ready, were then cut up into tiny slices, each showing the pattern as illustrated on Plate 100.

The little pieces were fitted together in all sorts of intricate designs. To accomplish this required a very skillful operator. In making a complete paper-weight, a gathering of glass was placed into a ring mold and while the molten metal was still hot the tiny cane “setup” was inserted. These setups could be in the intricate and lovely patterns that we see in the finer weights, or perhaps in a rather haphazard manner like those in the so-called “scattered cane,” which are fairly common. A gathering of glass or sometimes several gatherings were then rounded over the top of the entire weight. It then had to be annealed and later polished off to a final finish. The thick glass which covered the top magnified the design in the center, adding to its beauty.

three choice old paperweight

Plate 99

Three choice old paperweights

In Millville, N. J., there were three brothers by the name of Barber, all of whom were brought up in the glass trade. They were nearly of an age, and all three were trained at the same time in the art of glassmaking. One of them was particularly adept at making paperweights, while the other two were not so skillful in that branch, but cheerfully conceded the superiority of their brother Ralph as an artist and technician. So Ralph Barber made most of the famous Millville Rose paperweights. He did not discontinue making them until shortly before his death. All of the tools he used are now in the possession of Frank S. Schwartz, of Philadelphia, Pa., who purchased them from Mr. Barber’s widow. Mr. Barber passed away about sixteen years ago. His brothers, George and Harry, survive.

The Millville Rose was never a commercial product, but was made after hours. Mr. Barber found it impossible to use the ordinary run of color for his rose weights, so he imported both the rose and the red-colored culler from abroad. He made the roses in yellow, white, rose-pink and red, with and without bases and with or without the green leaves. One, owned by Mr. Frank S. Schwartz, shows in addition a bud. The mortality rate among these rose weights was high. Nearly half of them would crack in cooling. This was due to the fact that the rose was of a different metal. The dlfference in the coefficients of expansion and con traction developed strains which caused the cracks. It is not uncommon to find one of these damaged weights in antique shops or in private collections, for the Millville Roses have been in such great demand that they have become not only very scarce but when found at all, command a high price.

pieces used in genuine old paper weights

Plate 100

Pieces used in genuine old paperweights

On Plate 101 is the most interesting “horrible example” I have ever seen anywhere, of a copy of a paperweight. On the left is a beautiful and genuinely old example of the Millville Rose. On the right is one of the first attempts to copy it, which certainly looks like the last rose of Millville!

After the first edition of this book had been on the market for a few months, I learned that bigger and better new rose paperweights were appearing on Pine Street in Philadelphia. The price was $75.00 for three, but the buyer had to take them all. One of this type appears at the extreme right in the illustration on Plate 102. It will be noted that the foot is too small for the ball, though some of the new ones did have a more spreading foot. The rose itself is in a deep and ugly red, shading almost to black. The leaves are a dark green, almost black, and look more like spikes than leaves. The rose is too large, the petals are much too thick, and the whole thing is jammed down into the foot.

One will note also that in all the best of the old rose paperweights, the rose is floated well above the base. The choice old one illustrated at the left end on Plate 102, from the collection of W. Colston Leigh, shows exactly what I mean. Here the rose is a delicate pink, with fragile petals and three well-formed light-green leaves. It is an excellent example of a superlative Millville Rose paperweight.

genuine and copied millville rose

Plate 101

On the left, genuine Millville Rose. On the right, first attempt to copy it.

Later an improved model of the second reproduction rose paperweight appeared on the market. An example of it is shown in the center of Plate 102. It is an improvement over those which showed up first in Philadelphia, and the price also dropped to $15.00 for one. The rose is still red and the petals too thick, but it has four fairly well-shaped green leaves and it is floated a bit above the foot. The shape and proportions are better, but the color of the glass is wrong. In fact, with any of this series of new rose paperweights it is distinctly green instead of a clear, mellow white. This greenish tint appears to be a curious reflection from the coloring of the metal itself. All in all, while the copyists had not yet attained their goal, still both dealers and collectors had been deceived into paying prices ranging from $95.00 to $110.00 each for these counterfeits.

After World War II some better Millville Roses appeared.

Also, quite a series were made in a small size, unknown originally, in a wide variety of colors, including red, rose-pink, blue, white, yellow, and very likely other shades. These had beautifully formed flowers placed over four striped green leaves, the latter showing a credible amount of dew. The four leaves are placed directly against the base, instead of being floated well above it, in true Barber style. Perfume bottles were also put out, with one or two roses in the stoppers.

old millville rose with two copies

Plate 102

Old Millville Rose at left with two copies

The Barbers also produced a “mushroom” paperweight, as illustrated on Plate 103. On the left is a reproduction of the old one shown on the right. The great difference between them is not so noticeable in the picture as in the actual weights, but still one can note the lack of skillful workmanship. The one on the right is a finely fluted mushroom, decorated with a careful sprinkling of color. The new one is shallow, like an umbrella, and coarse and crude in every particular. The old Millville Mushrooms were made with or without bases, similar in shape to Millville Roses.

fake and old mushroom paper weight. modern paperweight in middle

Plate 103

Fake mushroom paperweight on the left. Old one on the right. 

Modern paperweight perfume bottle in center.

On the same illustration is shown a new paperweight perfume bottle. Larger ones were on the market a few years ago. They had a cane background and were dated 1848 in type one could not miss seeing from a distance. I once saw a collector purchase one of the latter at an antique show for $75.00, which he said he intended to present to a museum! New styles of these bottles have been on the market for years, though old ones are still to be found.

In my own collection is another paperweight made by Ralph Barber, which contains colorful bars of cane placed horizontally. In the center is the name KIZZIE PEPPER, MILVILLE, N. J. This was evidently intended as a gift to “Kizzie.”

attractive new weights\

Plate 104

These new paperweights are more attractive than a photograph can show.

Along about 1938 the Consolidated Lamp and Glass Company at Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, had in their employ a Mr. Emil Constantine, who was taught the art of making paperweights as a boy, in Alsace-Lorraine. He migrated to this country as a young man and worked at the Pennsylvania factory for nearly fifty years. At seventy-seven years of age, he was still making paperweights. A doorstop and a paperweight which he made in 1939, now in the author’s possession, are illustrated on Plate 104. Good paperweight-makers, like good cooks, seem to be born and not made. One man may be very good at blowing glass and yet lack completely the skill required to make fine paperweights.

modern chinese paperweights

Plate 105

Modern Chinese paperweights

With most of them it is really a sort of pastime occupation, for it entails much “puttery” and tedious work. In the type of weight Mr. Constantine made, the hot glass was gradually gathered, layer by layer. In between the gatherings the glass was worked and paddled to keep it in the proper shape. Also between the gatherings, the designs in colored glass were inserted. They, in turn, were well worked into the hot metal before the next gathering of crystal glass. After completion, twenty-four hours annealing is required in order to prevent fracture. After the reheating or annealing process, the items were passed to the cutting room where the entire ball was polished before shipping.

Mr. Constantine taught an apprentice the art of making these paperweights, but the president of the company told me it would not be surprising if it required another two years before the pupil could acquire his master’s skill.

On the same Plate 104, at the extreme left, is an imported weight believed to have come from Italy. It is really more attractive than it would appear from the picture. The petaled ornament in the center is a deep rose-pink. Were it not for the unfortunate background of the base it rests in, it might easily be taken for a true antique.

There was a time when collectors felt that a pontil mark was the only real evidence of age in a piece of glass. By pontil, I mean the rough scar left on many old pieces of glass where it was broken away from the punty rod when it was cooled and the sharp edges were not smoothed away or ground off. Pontil marks are seen on many fakes to impress novices. As a matter of fact, the bases of most of the finer paperweights are clearly polished or may have a star cut in them. It is best to avoid most paperweights which have a frostea base. Many new ones are frosted. The oldest with this type of base would not be over fifty or sixty-years old.

A void weights with some pieces of the colored candy protruding above the level of the others. The surface of the colored cane runs smoothly across the center on the old ones. To make this test, hold the paperweight up sideways and look through it. Many of the late Chinese imports are of this variety.

Be particularly careful in purchasing snowstorm paperweights.

These have been reproduced at intervals for many years. I have never seen but one such genuine old weight. About twenty years ago, a certain antique dealer bought a number of the fakes. Over each base he pasted a piece of very old calico on the theory that the cloth would date the glass. He took these weights into the country and traded them to housewives for any really old article that they were willing to part with. It is easy to imagine what any atticrummaging collector would believe if he came across one of these calicodated snowstorms! The family would not be likely to remember where it came from or when. Many a fake has been innocently passed along by the second generation. On rare pieces today it pays to consult someone known to be both experienced and reliable.

The Chinese weights all look quite different from any of those emigrating from other countries. They are in a class by themselves and it is not a high class! When the Japanese army moved in no Chinese paperweights moved out. Now the story has repeated itself.

To me the quality of the glass in the Chinese weights looks softer. Fine weights have a hard brilliance to which is added the excellence of the workmanship in the colored part. Possibly it is the somewhat blurred effect in the new ones combined with a certain haziness of detail clue to the poor quality of the glass which gives the whole weight a different look. It is extremely difficult for the written word to make plain what could be shown so easily on the object itself. A Chinese weight before me now has been carefully ground on the base to give an appearance of age. Natural wear would not be rough. The weights on Plate 105 are Chinese. The one with the four-petaled flower has an unattractive looseness of detail. The largest one is the most typical of their work and the smaller cane type shows the protruding pieces which I have mentioned before.

modern paperweights

Plate 108

Modern paperweights. The one at right has interlaced background.

In the genuine weight the date is in such tiny letters that it is difficult to find without a magnifying glass. This reproduction would be better if the oversized dare had been smaller. Ir would not deceive an expert who examined it with care. For fineness of derail, it is the best of the reproductions. Another, very similar, is dated 1815, at which period no dated paperweights are known to have been made. In any event, none has survived.

On the same plate at the left is an attractively colored weight of a type which was once largely circulated through Ohio. The background is a coarse yellow- and rose-colored cane. A small flower with stem and leaves floats above it. The base has been very delicately frosted and then scratched up to give it an appearance of years of wear. The third paperweight in this group is Chinese in the same blurred cane effect.

There is a crude attempt at copying a butterfly in one of the plates. It is practically impossible to photograph clearly those details which would show the striking differences between this new one and an old one. It behooves collectors and dealers to study both old and new specimens and even then collectors would be well advised to ask for a money-back guarantee when buying. The dealer could protect himself by agreeing to leave all disputes as to authenticity to the verdict of a recognized authority. Too many collectors have been led into believing a genuine article to be spurious by ocher disgruntled dealers or by those oversuspicious and ignorant friends who enjoy taking the joy out of a collector’s life.

The paperweights which are colorful and attractive enough to entrap the unwary. In these one must be guided by the workmanship. The cane is much larger than is ever seen in many old ones. Also, they are more shallow.

On Plate 108 at tbe right is an attempt to make a paperweight with an interlaced background. The result is sad. I am not certain where this was made but I suspect it was Czechoslovakia. It has colored cane and is faceted on the top and sides, but it is not at all convincing. Its powers of deception cannot extend beyond inexperienced buyers. But friends assure me that they have seen better ones.

Illustrated on Plate 109 is a paperweight in a fruit pattern, all of the design being executed in a silver coloring. As far as is known there are no similar types in really old ones. The same maker uses various other silvery centers in the shape of lizards, bees, flowers, birds, etc. An additional such weight, carrying a rooster, may be seen on other plates.

fancy modern paperweights

Plate 109

Modern paperweights.

Last and, I might say, least are two paperweights shown on Plate 110, which were made near Boston, Mass., during the 1930′s. The story told me by one who visited the house where these were being made at the time, was that an elderly but experienced workman from a New England glass factory produced them over a gas stove in the kitchen. The visitor claimed these new weights, which are strictly modern and in no sense reproductions of old ones, were ornamented with little white pigs or pink birds, which were broken from the top of ornamental glass pens which came in from Japan. He purchased some of the pens ornamented with the birds and pigs, which I still own. Varicolored flowers were interspersed among the pigs in the weights. Usually the weights containing the birds showed three, of an unclassified species, gazing into a nest in which three tiny eggs repose. Similar paperweights were sold having one white pig instead of three. Being the work of an individual workman, no two specimens are apt to be alike. Another style contains a simple background of flowers, much like those intended to enhance the attractiveness of the pig paperweights. The coloring of the flowers is mostly red and blue, and the appearance of dew on the petals is nicely achieved. The latter was once held to establish indisputably a ripe old age! All the paperweights of this type are large and weigh from three to four pounds. In the fall of 1937 these weights were being widely peddled.

three pigs and three birds paperweights

Plate 110

Modern “Three Pigs” and “Three Birds” Paperweights

At an antiques exhibit in New York that year one weight containing three pigs was sold at $30.00 and another with a single pig was disposed of at $35.00. I have seen them priced as high as $150.00 by reputable dealers who honestly believed them to be old. It is such “unique” pieces which trip veteran collectors who probably would easily spot copies of old and well-known designs.

Another paperweight, which is so similar in style to those illustrated as to appear to have come from the same glassworker, has a cluster of strawberries and flowers in the center. These strawberry weights are of the same size as the others and also weigh from three to three and one-half pounds each. One of them was on display at an antiques show in 1937. It had been sold to a dealer at $60.00, along with a tale of how the seller had been trying to buy it for years and had just succeeded. in prying it loose from the stubborn owner! One of the New England glass companies did produce strawberry weights but these exhibit finer workmanship and are not nearly as large as the copies.

During the late 1930′s, an attempt was made to reproduce the New England Pear paperweight. The result was a far cry from the genuine article, either in coloring or workmanship.

The Spanish proverb which advises suffering wives that it is better to put up with the devil you know than rake on the angel you don’t, may be applied to paperweights. Collectors would do well to realize that they cannot become connoisseurs of paperweights by reading articles or looking at photographs. They should learn to appreciate fine workmanship so as to tell the good from the poor at a glance. Learn to know glass by the quality of the metal and the design and coloring by their artistic excellence. Look out for dated pieces in which the year can be read too easily. As his education in antiques progresses, the amateur will be impressed by the number of collector’s “Don’ts!” that he must remember.


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