Inside the Collections Care Project: paperweights to brighten your desk

Apr 6, 2015

In the first phase of Historic New England’s Collections Care Project, staff moved and inventoried more than 21,000 objects so that construction of new storage spaces could begin. Now, while new compact storage cabinets and upgraded HVAC systems are being installed, we are working to make more of our collections available to the public on Historic New England’s Collections Access portal. Every day you will see new photographs of dinner sets, tea sets, redware, and stoneware objects as well as art glass and decanters.

The New England Glass Company was established in 1818 by four wealthy investors. Located in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, it specialized and produced molded and cut glass. By the mid-nineteenth century glass companies in New England were at their peak. They were among the top employers in the region and began to attract artisans from Europe. Unfortunately, their success was not long lasting. The glass industry in Massachusetts began to decline after the Civil War and was formally dissolved in 1890.

Within this short window of production, Massachusetts glass companies produced excellent pieces, including colorful glass paperweights. First produced in the mid-nineteenth century, among the more impressive models were the millefiori paperweights preserved in Historic New England’s collection.

Creating these paperweights required a great amount of care by glass artisans, who enclosed vertical straws of multi-colored glass within a large dome of clear glass. Each straw is made up of many colored-glass “canes” or “murrines,” which are bundled together and cut across the center like a roll of cookie dough to expose a flower-like design. Each cut bundle was then placed on its end in a metal dish to keep it from jumping around when the clear glass was blown over it.

After fitting a domed lid on the dish to form a mold, the glass worker filled the mold with large gathers of clear glass. When they opened the mold, the top of the paperweight formed a smooth dome, with the cut canes standing up like blossoms. Artisans had unlimited potential to create unique designs, which resulted in an impressive and vibrant variety of these popular paperweights.

Support the preservation of historic objects such as these with a gift to the Collections and Conservation Fund.