With that brief introduction, lets move into the history of paperweights. We will discuss their origin in Europe in the mid 1800's, their flourishing in the Classic Period of 1845-1860, their migration across the Atlantic to America in the 1850's, followed by their decline into obscurity, their rediscovery by collectors in the 1920's, the re-emergence of their manufacture in the 1950-60's, and then conclude with the current state of the art.
In the mid 1800's, Europe was undergoing the Industrial Revolution, which caused major changes in the economy and society. There was a developing middle class, and a strong demand for colorful and showy decorative arts. It was also a time when World Trade Fairs were held every few years in the major cities such as Paris, London, or New York. The Trade Fairs played an important role in commerce by introducing new items and technology. It was also a time of vastly improved communication and the beginning of free trade between nations.
The greatest of the World Fairs was the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. It lasted 5 months, had 100,000 exhibits, and over six million visitors from around the world. Paperweights were exhibited there by the French Clichy glass factory, and they were awarded top honors.
Postal service had just begun, and, in England, the repeal of the Paper Tax made stationery and envelopes more affordable. Correspondence by letters to family and friends became very fashionable, and a strong market developed for desk sets of writing equipment, accessories, and associated novelties. This is where paperweights made their initial entry into the marketplace.
Paperweights were first shown by Venetian glassmakers at an Industrial Exhibition in Vienna in 1845, where their potential was quickly recognized by the French trade representatives. This paperweight, by Pietro Bigaglia was made with scrambled bits of millefiori canes, encased in a dome of glass, which gave it a magical quality. Millefiori (which translates from Italian as thousand flowers) was first developed about 100-200 BC, when the technique was used to decorate bowls and vases with colorful canes. Paperweights carried this technique a step further by encasing the canes in a magnifying glass dome. Artistically, the clear glass dome that surrounds a paperweight serves many of the same functions as the canvas painted on by an artist. This combination provided the breakthrough for paperweight techniques.
The French factories must have been experimenting with the concept and technology prior to 1845, because quality French weights were being made that year. Likewise, Bohemian glass workers, who bought glass canes from the Venetians, must have been equally advanced in paperweight techniques, because theirs also appeared quickly on the market.
Although several hundred glass factories operated in France in the mid 1800's, only four documented factories proceeded to produce the highest-quality paperweights. These included the Baccarat, Clichy, Pantin, and Saint Louis factories. At the time, France was undergoing a period of political and social agitation. The Revolution of 1848 greatly affected the financial climate. Expensive luxuries, such as large chandeliers, and decorated vases, were difficult to justify in those troubled times, but a market developed for paperweights, because they were high quality, small, and moderately priced. Amidst the decorative excess that typified Victorian times, paperweights provided a respite of exquisite craftsmanship and conservative artistry. They became a popular gift item to be given to family or loved ones. They were sold in stationery stores, and fine glass shops throughout Europe and Great Britain, and eventually in America. Quality weights were also being made at this time in Britain by George Bacchus and Sons, and Islington Glass Works in Birmingham. Many unnamed makers in Bohemia also created impressive paperweights. Curiously, the Venetian originators did not participate in the high-quality market.
Production peaked in Europe about 1851, and then sharply declined from 1855 to 1860. During the 15 years of the Classic Period (1845-60), it is estimated that about 50,000-100,000 fine paperweights were made. This is a difficult number to confirm, since production figures were not retained.