Paperweights debuted in 1845, and became a successful fad because of the many changes that occurred in the economic and social conditions of the time. In the mid 1800s, Europe and America were undergoing the Industrial Revolution. It resulted in an emerging “middle-class”, along with a strong demand for colorful and showy decorative arts.
Developing industrial technology and the improved transportation network resulted in lower costs of manufacturing. One of the products to benefit was paper, which we consider insignificant today. However, prior to the 19th century, paper was very expensive, and affordable only to the affluent. In the early 19th century, manufacturing improvements resulted in a significant reduction in the production cost of paper, which in turn, fueled an expansion of printing newspapers and books.
Public literacy blossomed as education became more accepted for the emerging middle-class. Paper products such as envelope and stationery became affordable, and postal service had just begun in many countries. These factors combined to make writing to family, friends and loved ones a very fashionable pastime. A strong market developed for desk sets of writing equipment, accessories, and associated novelties, such as paperweights.
This was also a time of extreme sentimentality. Paperweights became a popular gift item to be given to loved ones as a symbol of affection. They were considered to be more charming than valuable, and were prized more for their sentimental symbolism than their cost.
Although many of the techniques for making paperweights were known by the Egyptians since about 100 B.C., no one had considered the placing of a millefiori design in heavy glass hemispheric dome until a paperweight was needed to help control the increasing volume of paper and letters. The first paperweights were made in Europe by Venetians in 1845, but the finest were by the famous French glass houses of Baccarat, Clichy and Saint Louis. Fine paperweights were also made in Bohemia, Britain and Belgium. Production of paperweights peaked in Europe about 1851, and then sharply declined from 1855 – 1860. During the 10 years of the so-called “Classic Period” (1845-55), it is estimated that only about 50,000 fine paperweights were made in Europe. This is a difficult number to confirm, since production figures were not retained.
America typically trailed Europe in commerce and consumer goods during the 19th century by at least a decade, and paperweights were no exception. Paperweights were made in America as early as 1852, but in 1853 they became better known because of the Clichy exhibit at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition that year.
Nevertheless, American paperweights became commonplace during the 1860’s when the American market for them was strong. Most of the American glassworkers were European immigrants already skilled in the art, which explains why early American weights are imitative of the European style. The better American weights were made from 1852 to 1890, primarily by the New England Glass Company and the Boston & Sandwich Company, with limited production by Gillinder & Sons and Mount Washington Glass Co. In the later years of the period, paperweights were made by Dorflinger Glass Works and the Whitall Tatum Company.