Old English Paperweights - 2 new groups - by Alan Thornton

The article below was first published in The Paperweight Collectors Circle Newsletter in 2005. Copyright Alan Thornton 2005 - 2007

The follow up article on Specific Gravity referred to in the text was presented as a talk at the PCA Convention in 2007, and appears as a major article in the PCA Bulletin 2007.

Old English Paperweights – some new classifications.

by Alan Thornton

Collectors of Old English paperweights face a considerable challenge when trying to attribute their pieces to specific factories.  In this article I propose two new groups of weights in addition to those already established, based on density measurement, cane design, and overall style.

Much of the credit for establishing the basis for identifying old English weights must go to Bob Hall, whose book ‘Old English Paperweights’ is the best guide that exists.  In his book he identifies four companies as known manufacturers of paperweights, and recognises that there were undoubtedly others as well.  The four are: Arculus (later taken over by Walsh Walsh); Bacchus; Richardsons; and Rice Harris (Islington Glass Works).

We can be confident about the identification of Arculus / Walsh Walsh paperweights, because Arculus family members have paperweights that stayed in the family from manufacture.  We can also be confident about certain Richardsons items, given that detailed design drawings of their paperweights exist.  It seems likely that the few paperweights with an ‘IGW’ cane are from the Islington Glass Works, although the propeller canes in these weights look Bohemian, and the complex star canes are not a common English design.  Bacchus undoubtedly made some very high quality paperweights, and it makes sense to attribute the classic ‘Bacchus’ paperweights to that factory, even though there is no absolute evidence to support the attribution : none were signed, none were donated to museums by the company, and no catalogues or family items exist.

Whilst many Old English paperweights can be attributed to these four manufacturers, there are many others that appear to be significantly different.  To try and shed some additional light on this matter I have measured the specific gravity (SG) of over 70 Old English paperweights.  The SG of glass varies with its composition, and the composition of glass used for paperweights varies: Bohemian glass is usually soda-lime glass, whereas classic period English and French weights are lead crystal.   But the exact glass composition varied from factory to factory, as each used their own jealously guarded recipes.  Furthermore, it would vary within a factory from day to day, as quality control would not be perfect, and a shovel of sand too few or too many might go into the batch in the furnace.  The glass composition would vary in the longer term too, as suppliers of materials and even recipes might change.  So we would expect to see some variation in the SG of weights from the same factory, as well as differences between factories.

I will be writing a detailed article upon the results of my specific gravity measurements.  But the three key points are first, that the great majority of Old English paperweights have an SG between 3.000 and 3.200.  This contrasts with Bohemian weights – as low as 2.450 – and classic antique Baccarat weights – as high as 3.350.  Second, weights attributable to known factories have similar SG, suggesting that the SG of a paperweight might help identify – or exclude – its manufacturer.  And third, amongst the weights that I have measured are two groups of weights, which I refer to as OE1 and OE2, which are close together in SG and bear strong design similarities.  I have not analysed the weight profiles at this stage, in part because weights are often repolished or facetted during their lives, sometimes on more than one occasion.

There are, as might be expected, a number of weights that fall outside the SG range of known factories, and a number of weights that have a similar SG to weights from known factories, but look distinctly different.  Most of these were probably made by some of the many smaller glass works that flourished in the middle of the 19th Century in the Birmingham area.  And of course, a few of these weights may not even be English in origin.

The OE1 Group

As well as having similar SG values (2.90 to 2.93), these weights ( Figures 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6) have other factors in common.  They are generally extremely well made pieces, with neat concentric layouts, and tidy bases.  Three have a distinct spherical surface to the cane cushion.  The overall design and individual canes show some unusual touches – there is a lot of clear glass used as a design element, rather than just as an outer coating to canes to keep them visually distinct.  These features do not appear in the same way in any other group of OE weights, so I believe that these were made by a presently unknown English factory.  Furthermore, it is possible to establish match canes between all five of these weights (Figure 7). 

The SG value is towards the low end for Old English weights, just below the low end of classic Bacchus weights that I have measured.  What is intriguing is that the large centre cane in two of them is an 18 cog cane, usually associated with Bacchus.  And one member of the group (Figure 3) has a very distinct rogue cane in the set up – again, a common Bacchus practice.  So if there really are such items as ‘later Bacchus’ weights, then these may be strong candidates.  But they may well be made by some other factory – we just do not know.

The OE2 Group

These weights (Figures 2, 8, 9 and 10) also have similar SG (3.01 to 3.03), and although within the classic Bacchus SG range, bear little or no visual similarity to weights attributed to Bacchus.  But the weights in this group do have common features, particularly cane design.  The canes are simple: most are either solid white 12 cog canes, often with thin colour coatings in a dull turquoise or dull red, less frequently a bright navy blue; or else thin white walled canes, with the same range of colours inside and outside.  The great majority of the weights are simple concentric designs, with consistent cane size throughout.  There are a number of known inkwells in this design, and they usually have a single large piece of red or green cane filling the stopper, as in Figure 10.  Again, I believe that these were made by a presently unknown English factory.  I am not persuaded that these weights may represent a ‘cheap end of the market’ line from Bacchus: whilst such weights may have existed, there would surely be some cross-over of canes between the two sets of weights.

So what next?  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of paperweights that have been given the attribution ‘Old English’, because they look as if they are Old English!  If we study these further, and measure the SG of more of them, that should help reinforce our present understanding, and maybe further groups of weights will emerge.  And it would be nice to get some measurements of the SG of pieces of glassware other than paperweights that can be attributed with confidence to manufacturers such as Walsh Walsh, Bacchus, and Rice Harris.