Collector’s Showcase: April 2016

Collector's Showcase: April 2016

The Gillinder Glass Man

Bill Thomas has been a glass man for decades, with interests as diverse as the many types of glass he collects. A noted glass authority and historian, an active glass club member and a show promoter, Bill’s glass collection includes over 2,000 pieces – some on display in his home, some out on exhibition, and the rest warehoused at an off-site storage facility.

When talking to Bill you get the sense that his love of glass comes from a love of history, which is what brought him around to collecting Gillinder Glass, of which he has assembled one of the largest private collections outside of William T. Gillinder’s descendants.

Coming around to collecting Gillinder glass was an evolutionary and educational process for Bill. “About 30 years ago I started a glass club in Baltimore in my apartment. One of the early members was a collector of historic glass which tied in with my love of history, so I started adding historic glass to my collection, which brought me to historic glass souvenirs, and then, naturally, to Gillinder glass.” Natural because Gillinder Glass is best known for producing glass souvenirs for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.


“The Gillinder Glass Exhibition was one of the top attractions at the World’s Fair that year. People could watch the glass being made, buy pieces to take home as souvenirs, and personalize their order with an engraving,” says Bill. According to the Gillinder Glass website, over 100,000 glass slippers were sold as souvenirs of the fair, launching the popular trend of acquiring and collecting Gillinder glass as both utilitarian pieces and works of art.

Gillinder pressed glass was first made by and named after William T. Gillinder. Born and raised in England, William T. relocated to the colonies where he opened his first glass factory in Philadelphia in 1861. Over the years, Gillinder produced pattern, cameo, and cut glass as well as millefiori paperweights, some with old cane, but nothing overshadowed the success of his Centennial glass souvenirs, still highly collectible today.

“As I matured as a collector I discovered Gillinder also made glass in a variety of different patterns, many of which people are still collecting today.”  Bill points to the company’s popular “Westward Ho” Centennial pattern with carvings of Indians, buffalo, deer, trees, log cabins, and other symbols and scenes of the early American West as one popular example. In all, Bill believes there are well over 20 different historic Gillinder patterns to be found, with many more historic pieces such as trays and busts of historic figures. Bill’s collection contains well over 250 pieces, including some unique items.

The ‘Holy Grail’ shares Bill is Gillinder Cameo Glass. “What’s not well known is that Gillinder was one of the only American companies in the 1800s that was making cameo glass. Other than in museums and private collections, you rarely see their cameo glass pieces on the market.” But he’s still looking with the help of the legions of glass fans he has made over the year that know of his interest in Gillinder glass.

Despite the thousands of Gillinder Centennial souvenirs that were sold during and after the World’s Fair (these Centennial pieces were so popular that the firm continued to produce many of them long after it was over), little is known or has been written about the company and its place on the history of the glass shelf. “There are no books on Gillinder to guide collectors. I learned it the hard way, piecemeal. I’ve been to their factory, spoke with Gillinder descendants, studied old catalogs..” When asked if writing “the” book on Gillinder glass could be a retirement project, Bill laughs, leaving his response open to interpretation. Yet anyone who knows Bill knows he’s not thinking about retirement … today!

Collector’s Showcase: April 2016