Blog | Paperweights: Then and Now

Paper was a very expensive product. It spread throughout Europe having made its way from Asia via Egypt and North Africa to Italy. With the greater spread of paper for reading and writing and not just book production, greater organization of documents and other official messages became necessary. The European postal system developed and a regular exchange of mail, primarily of letters, was soon possible for everyone. The first official postage stamps in the present-day sense to be issued by a postal system appeared in Britain in 1840. Other countries such as Switzerland, France and Belgium quickly followed this example. Only in the middle of the 19th century did the railroads link several important places in Europe. Thus, letter writing ranked second only to laborious travel in mail coaches as the most important form of communication.

Letters organized on the desk at home or in the office could be blown about with a sudden breeze. Paperweights or “letter-weights” as they were called, were necessary to maintain order. In the 18th century such weights were made of wood, precious and other metals, rock such as marble, leather bags filled with sand, or hemispheres of glass or ceramic. Prior to then, these various types of weights had also been used to hold rolled documents open such as parchment rolls. It was in the 19th century that genuine, practical paperweights of a great variety of materials reached their pinnacle after being displayed at various expositions, particularly after the Great Exhibition of 1851 at London’s Crystal Palace.

In the 20th century, the glassmaking movement relocated from factories to studios, where artists turned the functional into art. Glasswork became more popular to the point it was being taught in schools and shown in galleries. While paperweight makers still hold on to classical design and technique, contemporary artists like Josh Simpson endeavor to elevate the craft by creating extraordinary miniature worlds and ecosystems with mesmerizing colors, forms and complexity.

Paperweights are highly collectable, and collectors’ clubs can be found throughout America. The condition and the size play a big factor for most collectors. Minor imperfections can be forgiven if there is enough glass in the dome to polish them out. To many collectors, a perfect centered composition is crucial. The bigger the dome, the more outstanding the magnification of the design is, revealing its technical skill and illusion of depth.