These coloured glass balls first appeared in the mid 19th century at a time when the letter was the most important form of communication and numbers of them would be stacked on the comptoir or private secretaire. A heavy object in the form of a paperweight was used to prevent them from being scattered by sudden blasts of air.
But paperweights had existed since the Chinese discovered paper in 105 BC; naturally these weren’t made of glass, but of precious woods for example. The semi-circular paperweights filled with coloured glass first appeared in 1840.
The Egyptians and the Romans had the technical know-how to produce coloured glass, melt different coloured glasses together and draw patterned glass rods into glass fibre, spiral glass, or Millefiori canes.
But all this knowledge was lost and was only „re-invented,“ much later in Venice in around 1500 and 1836 and at the end of the 18th century in glass foundries north of the alps. At first, the foundries used the newly developed techniques for their established products such as plates, flacons, cutlery handles or buttons. But frugal glass makers came up with a new idea: they poured clear molten glass over the scrap pieces of Millefiori, fibres, or spiral rods remaining from the day’s production and shaped them into a ball. This meant they always had small and cheap presents at their fingertips that they could take home with them. Sprecher An Italian businessman called Pietro Bigaglia, made these „scrap glass balls,“ marketable as paperweights. Without a second thought, he took a couple of examples with him to the Industrial Exhibition in Vienna in 1845 and put them on sale as „paper presses.“ He caused such a sensation that leading crystal glass factories in France, Silesia and Bohemia began to produce glass paperweights more or less simultaneously. England joined the trend a little later and the first North American glass foundries also jumped on the business bandwagon from 1850 onwards.
What are described as „classic,“ paperweights today, were produced from between 1860/70 until around 1900 in part using very labour-intensive methods in the typical style of Biedermeier and early historicism. Traders sold them to businesses and souvenir shops in New York, Paris and London, where they were especially coveted as unusual birthday, or wedding presents. Everyone with a name and social status began to collect them; including very famous personalities such as Empress Eugenie of France, Queen Victoria, and some time later Queen Mary of England.