For centuries, open windows, later combined with electric fans (if you were lucky) were all that saved working America from the heat of summer. Before the relief of air conditioning, the humble paperweight is now mostly a curiosity and a decorative item, but it was once as important and common a desk accessory as staplers and post-it notes are now. The nature of the desk paperweight demanded it be displayed on the top of piled papers and files, so it made an ideal vehicle for advertising and keeping the name of a product or company prominently displayed in the foreground of the landscape of a desk.
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No doubt this is what the principals of the Old Dominion Building & Loan Association were thinking when they commissioned these bronze paperweights in the 1890s. Low and heavy and with a small knob on the top to easily grasp the paperweight, it has the name of the company and its location in Richmond deeply cast into the top as a prominent reminder of the Building & Loan Company’s services.
This particular paperweight has special significance for Richmond history, as an inscription on the bottom distinguishes this otherwise unremarkable desk accessory. It ties it to the creation of one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. Scars in the metal show that at one point it was used as a hammer, but the words on the bottom are still legible:
“Cast by the Henry Bonnard Bronze Co. N.Y. 1894 from metal used in the colossal statue for the Confederate Soldiers’ & Sailors’ Monument Richmond VA.”
Louise Gurkin Adamson described the creation of the elegant column and bronze statue that stands in Libby Hill in Richmond in a 1994 article in Virginia Cavalcade magazine. She recounted the debate over the design of the monument, which was finally settled by the domineering City Engineer, Wilfred Cutshaw. It was Cutshaw who argued that the only appropriate model for this monument was Pompey’s Column, built in 297 A.D. by the Romans and which still stands outside Alexandria, Egypt. A former Confederate named Anthony M. Keiley worked in Cairo, so he was contacted and provided measurements of the Egyptian prototype. The Richmond monument is an almost exact copy, just as Cutshaw demanded.
One of the City Engineer’s friends and admirers was CarltonMcCarthy, a Richmond businessman, politician and promoter. McCarthy, born in 1847, was too young to have served in the military, although he lost an older brother killed at the battle of Cold Harbor. McCarthy saw the ruins of the former Confederate capitol as rife with potential, and constantly promoted the city and such civic causes as public libraries, the battle against tuberculosis, an expanded police force, and underground utilities. His promotion of the interests of Richmonders extended to his professional life, also, as he was one of the principals of the Old Dominion Building & Loan Association, the business that produced the bronze paperweight. The company, described in an 1893 publication, “…is the well-tried building fund plan, pure and simple, without any of the questionable attachments of insurance, banking or speculation.” The company also enjoyed the added caché of the Mayor of Richmond, J. Taylor Ellyson, serving as President of Old Dominion Building & Loan. McCarthy himself would later serve as Richmond Mayor from 1904 to1908.
McCarthy’s interest in the public good extended to the memory and monuments of the Confederacy and how they could decorate the streetscape of Richmond. He served on the design committee for what would become known as the Confederate Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument, and helped raise money for it from, among other things, sales of his reminisces of wartime Richmond when he was a boy. After considerable delay, the commission for the bronze statue of a Confederate soldier on the top of the monument went to Richmond artist William Ludwell Sheppard.
There were several connections between McCarthy and Sheppard, whose drawings had been used to illustrate McCarthy’s popular account of what he termed a “boy soldier.” Sheppard also created the statue of A. P. Hill for the monument over the General’s grave on Laburnum Avenue. Indeed, McCarthy had only to look out the front door of his home at 206 North Harrison Street to see Sheppard’s statue of a cannoneer Sheppard sculpted for the 1892 Richmond Howitzers monument.
The bronze statue for the new monument at the southern terminus of 29th Street was cast in New York and reached Richmond on May 5, 1894. Presumably this is when the paperweights were also shipped to the Old Dominion Building & Loan Association. It isn’t known how many paperweights were cast from the same bronze, but it was certainly fitting that McCarthy’s company was able to promote themselves by association with this Richmond landmark.
The statue was unveiled on May 30, 1894, and it was estimated that a crowd of a hundred thousand people watched a parade two miles long in celebration of the unveiling. Among the dignitaries were Carlton McCarthy and Wilfred Cutshaw, who must have watched the uncovering of the large bronze of the Confederate soldier with quiet satisfaction. Perhaps members of the design committee who had worked on the project were given Old Dominion Savings & Loan paperweights to mark the occasion and completion of a task they had been working on for five years.
Carlton McCarthy no doubt owned one of these paperweights and probably had it on his desk at the office of the Old Dominion Building & Loan Association, located in the heart of Richmond’s business district at 1115 East Main Street. Perhaps during the business day he occasionally hefted it in his hand and recalled the long and tiresome process of bringing the monument to fruition. Emerging onto the sidewalk in front of his business, McCarthy could have looked up the street to his right and had the satisfaction of seeing the tall column with its statue of the watchful soldier at the top of the Confederate Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument silhouetted against the eastern sky. The northern face of the bottom of the monument is precisely aligned with the center of Main Street, an exactitude that is surly the work of Cutshaw, the meticulous City Engineer.
The paperweight created more than a hundred ten years ago still performs its single-minded design, but more importantly still records its association with one of Richmond’s most dramatic monuments. In its fabric the humble paperweight also uniquely recalls the cooperation between artist, engineer, businessmen and civic boosters that created the column at the lofty brink of Richmond’s Libby Hill.