William C. Price Jr. has several thousand hand-blown antique glass paperweights, mostly one-of-a-kind portraits and advertising paperweights from 100 or more years ago. Using photos or drawings placed on milk glass and embedded inside, the globes advertise everything from an Ohio onion-seed dealer to Illinois-based Cuzco Embalming Fluid ("Use the Best"), as well as many Pittsburgh businesses. Price, a Swissvale attorney, writes about Pittsburgh's paperweight legacy for publications of the Paperweight Collectors Association. He is known in collecting circles as the Paperweight Potentate.
Many of these have wonderful Victorian photos.
These generally were of ordinary people. This one was made for a minister. This one is a post-mortem photo of a baby. It's the only one known. They had some paperweights that were people's portraits, custom-commissioned for people's desks.
How did you start collecting these?
I found a paperweight in 1978 at a flea market. It was of a local place, and I just got interested in the hobby. Then I discovered that a lot of early paperweights came from Pittsburgh. William Maxwell in 1882 came up with a way of putting people's portraits or advertising in paperweights and he was a Pittsburgher. If I turned [the paperweight] over, a lot of times it would be signed. Then another [Pittsburgh] guy came along named Albert Graeser and patented a different process. If you ask the average collector of antique paperweights, they don't even know Pittsburgh produced paperweights. They think of paperweights that came out of New England or New Jersey or, of course, France. The paperweights produced in Pittsburgh weren't millifleur-y. They were no-nonsense. Industrial. They advertised businesses.
Does that make you like them more?
Yeah. I couldn't collect something that was just the same pretty, flowery paperweight. I never know what's going to surface next.
Are there other specialties among paperweight collectors?
There are metal, figural advertising paperweights -- I have a whole collection of those too. There are hundreds and hundreds of flat-backed paperweights with advertising. That process caused these to be obsolete. Sometimes I'll have something that someone else wants that is more in their corner of the hobby. A few of these I've traded for over the years, like this one -- Otto R. Toudy, Notary Public, Pittsburgh, Pa.
I've heard -- I've never seen it -- that it was the practice in some parts of the country to take one of these portrait paperweights and impress it into the person's tombstone, cement it in. This particular glass, if it was exposed to sunlight for very long, would turn amethyst-colored. None of my paperweights are amethyst-colored. I would never buy one that had come from a tombstone.
Your office is filled with other antiques. What attracted you to paperweights?
They're very portable. I could spend all day at an antique show and have one little bag. It's a lot easier than collecting washing machines. And when I started collecting them 30 years ago, no one was paying attention to them. I used to go into antique stores and they'd be covered with dust. Back in the 1970s it was like picking mushrooms in a field. The objects that surface today in the flea markets are much newer. I have a couple I bought off a woman in the early 1980s in Edgewood. She was born in October 1893. She was one of the babies in one of the paperweights. I promised I would protect them and keep their history with them.
Do you have a favorite?
Yeah, this one [with a photo of the heads of three girls, dated 1888]. I just think that the photo is so contemporary that it could have been taken last week. It's not your typical staged Victorian picture. It's timeless. It was done so lovingly that I kind of suspect those were the glassmaker's children.
You have one of those costumed, old-timey sepia photos of what I assume is your family.
That was done at Idlewild. These are my kids.
So did you ever think of having a paperweight portrait done?
No one makes these, and the curator of the American Glass Museum told me they're trying to figure out exactly how it was done.
Do you use paperweights yourself?
We have air conditioning, and I think that these were practical back when you had to have the windows open during the summertime. I don't have a window in this office.