One of the most highly regarded and sought after genres of breweriana are the captivating signs manufactured by Gill Glass and Fixture Company. Far more appreciated today than when produced in the late 1930s, these lights are yearned for and sought after by a huge proportion of breweriana collectors. No matter what their “standard” items are, hardly a collector in the hobby does not covet at least one form of a ‘GILLCO’ lighted advertising sign. Because GILLCO signs were generally produced in small batches and few survivors exist, these signs have become highly desired and valued by collectors, with prices at shows and auctions reflecting both their rarity and desirability.
GILLCO produced different models of illuminated glass signs, but here we’ll focus on the company and one of its most recognizable sign models: the “Cab Light.”
THE VERY HIGHEST QUALITY ATTAINABLE
Renowned for its elegant and ornate lighting fixtures, the Gill Glass and Fixture Company was established in 1876 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a skilled glassmaker, the company survived the Great Depression to become one of the “largest manufacturers of Illuminating Glassware and Lighting Fixtures” according to their catalogs of the 1930s. From the start, their high-quality glass fixtures were among the most expensive -- retailing for as much as $500 in 1938, a cost approximately equal to a staggering $8,752 in today’s dollars. But for a company that was recognized as one of the oldest and largest glass manufacturers of its type, surprisingly little is known about the Gill Glass Company beyond what can be gleaned from old gazetteers, directories and public records.
Capitalizing on innovative design and glass foundry techniques, Gill Glass began developing various forms of illuminated glass advertising signs in 1931 that were intended for display outdoors. It was around this time that the trade name ‘GILLCO’ – an abbreviated form of the full company name appeared with little to no fanfare, initially on gas pump globes. Soon thereafter, Gill Glass jumped on the burgeoning Post-prohibition market for lighted tavern, counter and window promotional advertising.
In 1936, the company filed design patents for some of its most elaborate of all signs. These came to be affectionately known as ‘Cab Lights’ because of their resemblance to the illuminated dome-like lights mounted on taxi cab roofs of that era. They were smaller in size to other signs made by GILLCO and were especially intended for the better type of Tavern, Rathskeller, Beer Parlor and Taproom.
Painstakingly handmade featuring expertly-composed art, porcelain fired-on-glass graphics, ornately glue chipped reflector lenses, and elaborately scalloped bases made from forged metals, GILLCO cab lights are among the most decorative and unique lighted advertising signs ever created. Their intricate designs were influenced by the popular Art Deco style of that era.
UNRIVALED MANUFACTURING PROCESSING
In addition to their beauty, these cab lights were among the most sturdy and well-constructed glass signs ever produced. They were designed to sit elegantly “behind the bar” to entice patrons with their backlit glass panels that no doubt inbued a warm glow to dimly-lit taverns of that era. Adorned with brilliant colors and artistically-composed graphics, GILLCO cab lights were unequaled by the comparatively less expensive and more generic-looking signs manufactured by competitors.
To begin, the glass was relatively durable. By using a process where porcelain enamel was fired onto glass, GILLCO signs departed radically from more commonly used and less expensive methods of printing inks onto glass.
A description of how these signs were created underscores the astonishing time and hand craftsmanship required in their manufacturing. First, artists employed by Gill Glass designed and painted illustrations for client approval.
After approved, the art was transferred to the rear surface of a flat, crystal glass disk through a screen printing process, where finely ground porcelain crystals (called 'frit'), colored with metallic oxide, were applied directly to the glass surface through a mesh stencil.
Next, the glass disk with applied artwork was placed in a kiln; basically an oven that operates at extremely high temperatures of between 1150 to 1260 degrees. The heat from the kiln melted the porcelain and fused it permanently to the glass. The firing process took several hours and after the glass was sufficiently cooled, this step was repeated for additional colors applied to the disk. So, if a sign contained artwork that featured five different colors, the glass may have been fired in the kiln as many as five separate times. Because porcelain is a combination of glass and metal it renders a most enduring sign that was far more permanent than any other form of illuminated glass advertising of that era.
THE "CAB LIGHT" CREATION
After the graphics were appropriately fired, the cab lights unique curved, shell-like shape was crafted by placing the glass disk on top of a convex mold. After being placed in the kiln, heat slowly softened the glass just enough for gravity to slump it over the mold to form this special curved shape.
GILLCO cab light signs were comprised of two pieces of glass. The front was made of a translucent or semi-transparent, in whole or in part, indicia-bearing (or advertising) panel and was secured in place by a metal strap to a similarly-shaped rear panel that was opaque by mirroring. This rear panel is called a “reflector lens” because it reflects light off its mirrored surface back through the front panel. In order to intensify the brilliance and depth of the advertising art in the foreground, the reflector lens served as an attractive and striking decorative backdrop featuring glue-chipped or wrinkled-finished glass that was silvered or gilded. On some signs, gold was even used on the inside surface.
Even the reflector lens was an elaborate creation! Its special effects were achieved by first sandblasting the glass to etch it and then applying an animal hide glue composition to the glass surface. After the glass was placed in a drying oven the glue chipped away shards of glass to form random patterns on the surface of the glass. Gilding the glass after it was glue-chipped gave the reflector lens the brilliancy of a fractured precious metal.
After all of this meticulous and painstaking attention to detail with the glass, Gill Glass was not about to skimp of the design of the metal bases for its cab lights. Highly ornate and beautifully cast, four different styles of bases featuring Art Deco details were offered to customers. To make the decorative bases, a pattern board was carved out of wood in the shape of the base form and given to a foundry to make a mold. The molten metal, primarily aluminum, was poured into a sand cast, then after cooling, was separated from the sand and ready for further finishing.
BUILT TO LAST
GILLCO cab lights were not only elaborately and artistically constructed, they were also built to last. Although it is possible to scratch or chip the ad panel of a GILLCO cab light with excessive abuse, the fired-in indicia finish is quite tough. Before the days when they became highly collectable, cab lights may have spent years or even decades languishing in inhospitable environments, exposed to heat, cold, moisture or all three of these detriments to breweriana preservation. Not to mention barkeeps who were busy slinging drinks to patrons that no doubt damaged many a sign that got caught in the way. The fact that many surviving examples remain and most or all in their unvarnished original beauty is a testament to their durability.
By contrast, other more common forms of reverse-on-glass processes that apply silk-screened paints or inks that were not “baked” onto the surface were subject to deterioration by weathering of their pigments. While this weathering may take place slowly, many reverse on glass (ROG) painted signs found today suffer from graphics that have lost their brilliance, or have peeled, crazed or fallen off. With proper care, GILLCO signs were intended to last a business lifetime, which is why even though they are now more than 80 years old, many survivors retain original artwork that is clear and readable but also continue to display brilliant colors that are remarkably unaffected by age.
A SHORT-LIVED ART FORM
Unfortunately, the cost of materials and labor required to make these signs is likely the reason why they were produced for only a handful of years before the company discontinued them around 1940. The 1941 entry into World War II no doubt factored further to their demise as the use of many raw materials – like the metal bases for the glass cab lights was rationed for war efforts.
Although cab lights were only made for a few years, Gill Glass continued producing other beautiful products until 1959, when its assets were acquired by other companies. At the time of their closing, Gill Glass occupied an entire city block and were one of the oldest glass companies of their kind. Little is known about the factors that contributed to the company’s end. But today, the GILLCO name resonates strongly among breweriana collectors. The company’s dedication to the art of making captivating forms of beer advertising resulted in an heirloom quality. It is this superiority that differentiates GILLCO signs and, specially, the captivating cab light, from all others.
BUYING GILLCO SIGNS
The Small Batch Sign Company is always buying signs made with the brand name GILLCO, manufactured by Gill Glass of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As the proud owner of the GILLCO trademark we take tremendous great pride in being stewards of preserving the rich history of these remarkably made products. If you have a GILLCO sign that is for sale please reach out and contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.
Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
A passionate collector of lighted signs from GILLCO, Price Bros and Crystal Manufacturing, Lackner, Neon Products and bubblers from Biolite, National Association Breweriana Advertising (NABA) member Chad Haas has been collecting breweriana for 30+ years, ever since buying his first Leinenkugel beer can. His passion for GILLCO branded products runs so deep that he has faithfully revived these beautiful signs and is the proud owner and steward of the GILLCO brand trademark. In addition to lighted reverse-on-glass (ROG) signs, Chad specializes in collecting and researching the history of advertising from the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Chad now lives in State of Oregon.
Chad would like to express his enormous gratitude to John Bain and Ken Quaas for their very generous assistance in contributing to making this article a reality, which appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of the outstanding quarterly journal ‘The Breweriana Collector Magazine’ published by the National Association Breweriana Advertising. If you have a passion for collecting brewery advertising you need to become a member of NABA (https://www.nababrew.com).
Photos courtesy of Morphy Auctions of Denver, Pennsylvania.
To view the full article that appeared in the 'The Breweriana Collector Magazine' Summer 2018 issue click here: View GILLCO Article by Chad Haas