Call them classic—if overlooked—emblems of America’s industrial vernacular heritage. For the New York-based collector Harley Spiller, now-rare newsstand paperweights are precious tokens of a relationship with printed publications that is vanishing in a digital world.
Now 50 years young and an avid collector, since his childhood, of diverse kinds of ephemera and works of contemporary art, Harley Spiller is a longtime administrator at the Franklin Furnace Archive in New York. Now based in Brooklyn, this non-profit organization for many years presented pioneering performance-art events and exhibitions of avant-garde art at a venue in Manhattan’s TriBeCa district. Today, it operates an online research archive and programs to aid performance artists.
Spiller, who recently earned a master’s degree in liberal studies from New School University, focused his master’s thesis research in the field of material culture. He examined the history of one of the least attention-grabbing objects in the urban landscape—those heavy lead weights bearing the logos of best-selling newspapers and magazines that newsstand operators used to use to hold down stacks of publications so they will not blow away in strong winds. Spiller spoke with Fluence about his interest in these weights and their value as collectible design objects.
Fluence: What was your very personal connection to this material?
Spiller: My father owned and ran a company that manufactured various kinds of promotional items, including these weights. It was located in a small town near Buffalo, New York, where I grew up. He started producing these weights after World War II but later he began to sense that someday they would disappear as new ways of manufacturing them emerged. In fact, in the 1970s, these weights started to be produced in resin. Their look and feel was much different from those of the original lead objects.
Fluence: Compared to most other people, you grew up being much more aware of the presence, use and practical value of newsstand weights. Many people probably do not even know they exist or, if they do, probably pay little attention to them. Why did your father start making them?
Spiller: My father once told me that, during the World War II era, he noticed that many weights had disappeared from newsstands; he often saw newsagents chasing papers as they blew away. That’s because items like those weights had been offered up as scrap metal to be melted down and used in the war effort. My father figured that, after the war, there would again be a need for these weights. He also developed innovative ideas for using these weights for what is known today as merchandising—for calling attention to brands of products that were advertised in newspapers or magazines for which weights were manufactured. He sold his weights to publications. In turn, they handed them out to newsstand operators.
Fluence: How else was your father inventive in the making of these weights?
Spiller: One of his most important innovations was that he raised the type that spelled out a publication’s name; he raised the type above the surface of the weight’s face—the top side that you see of a flat, rectangular weight (but he also made triangularly shaped weights). He also made a raised ridge around the top edge of a weight. That way, the letters of a publication’s name would not disappear with wear and tear.
Fluence: About these newsstand weights: What are their basic stats?
Spiller: Their sizes vary. Often they are larger than the outstretched palm of your hand. Generally, each piece weighs between one pound and 1 1/4 pounds. Under one pound in weight—that’s not enough to effectively hold down a stack of newspapers!
Fluence: Are the weights you own all in good physical condition?
Spiller: Many are, yes, especially the ones I inherited from my father. There are others in my collection besides those that had been produced by his company. Today, I have 151 unique pieces in my collection, as well as some duplicates. I also have postcards, drawings, photographs and other material related to newsstand weights and their history.
Fluence: Was your father a self-aware collector or more of a pack rat? Did you learn about collecting from him?
Spiller: My father was a big influence on me. From him, I learned how to collect comprehensively, meaning not just to amass a group of similar objects but also different kinds of related materials—photos, publications and so on—that can help give a broader, more complete sense of the meaning and value of the collected objects. In his case, for example, my father saved samples of each of the newsstand weights he produced, along with preparatory sketches, the wooden forms from which the molds for the weights were made and other related items.
Fluence: Can someone take that same approach to collecting works of art?
Spiller: Yes, absolutely. Something else that instantly adds value to any collection is to gather items at a deeper level of specificity, even a slightly deeper level of specificity. For example, it’s one thing to collect bottle caps, but early on I began collecting only blue bottle caps. That particular aspect of my bottle-caps collection automatically makes it more special, more valuable—just more interesting.
Fluence: Is the aesthetic value of these weights finally being recognized?
Spiller: Yes, I think so, along with the aesthetic and historical value of other objects of this kind. Here in the U.S., a certain state history museum is interested in acquiring my collection. The New York-based cartoonist and story-teller Ben Katchor, who has long been interested in urban archaeology and urban history, calls objects like these newsstand weights “industrial folk art.” (He coined the term years ago.) I agree with Ben. It’s beautiful, valuable stuff!