Souvenir paperweights made to your liking
Most of the photos seemed to have turned a slight sepia brown with age, but they easily could have been shot that way. They were all encased in clear crystal, and both them and it had seen many years go by.
There were more than two dozen of the glass paperweights on a table in a far corner of the auction house, all laid out flat so we auction-goers could get a better look at them. I’d seen paperweights at auction before, even been to a few where beautiful and colorful ones had their own special sale.
But these were different. They didn’t include the Baccarat milleflori mushrooms or the St. Louis crowns. These held portraits of churches, ministers, historical buildings. There were George Washington and his Mount Vernon, VA, home, and another that looked like Niagara Falls. These obviously had been someone’s collection, because there were so many of them.
I hadn’t seen these types of paperweights before, so I was immediately curious.
I learned that they were souvenir paperweights, first patented in 1882 by a Pittsburgh, PA, factory owner named William H. Maxwell, who was said to have even made some for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in a glass furnace built on-site by the Libbey Glass Co. Others, including Libbey, also sold paperweights at the fair.
Maxwell was making glass labels and photo covers in glass in his factory in the 1880s, but was also experimenting with glass and paperweights. His patent called for printing a name, photograph or other design on a plate of glass and placing it in a mold so the softened glass would cover the image.
He made one-of-a-kind paperweights with photos of people, others advertising businesses and others made specifically for a person’s desk with name, occupation or employer.
While Maxwell’s paperweights were decorative, the earliest of them were necessary. They held down papers on desks during the Industrial Revolution when there was so much of it. The French – taking a cue from the Murano glass of the Italians – made them into objets d’art.
Maxwell’s paperweights fall into the category of folk art, made from the late 19th century until World War II for souvenirs and advertising, as specified by the Paperweight Collectors Association. They are largely photographs or illustrations in glass. Politicians and leaders were said to be the most popular subjects, such as the Washington paperweight at the auction, and an Abe Lincoln, politician William Jennings Bryan and Buffalo Bill I found on the web.
Classic paperweights include crystal glassware from the premium producers of the mid-19th century – France’s Baccarat, Clichy and St. Louis; England’s Bacchus, and in this country, the New England Glass Company. Paperweights are still being made, and those are considered contemporary.
Folk-art paperweights were very popular, and were sold by companies and also by itinerant salesmen and photographers traveling this country in the late 1800s and early 1900s.The glassware came in all shapes and sizes, and were being made by such companies as Wilfred Smith of New York, whose name was on the back of one of the pieces at the auction, and on several for sale on the web and eBay.
A few of those at auction included church buildings, along with a photo of the minister. An article in the 1902 Western Christian Advocate newspaper urged AME churches to consider buying souvenir paperweights from the Smith company to raise funds.
The company was selling the paperweights with pictures of the church building or pastor or both “for 12 ½ cents each in gross lots.” The newspaper suggested that they be resold for 25 cents each, “leaving the sum of $18 profit to help pay expenses or the interest on your mortgage. It furnishes the members with a most acceptable souvenir of their church and pastor. Business men readily contribute to your work in this way, by buying a dozen or more of the weights as it gives them a souvenir that is both attractive and useful.”
Churches were not the only featured subjects on the paperweights. I found souvenir paperweights for several world fairs, where sellers ostensibly had a ready-made market: 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
I was curious about whether there were ones made of African Americans or their churches. I found one on the site of the new Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian. It bore an image of the Mt. Zion M.E. Church of Magnolia, Camden County, NJ, founded in 1903, along with a photo of its minister.
Here’s a sampling of the souvenir paperweights at auction: