Exploring Glass Candy Containers With Category Expert Jim Olean

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on
Statue of Liberty, rare Cambridge squirrel, Westmoreland Valentine Christmas lamps, c. 1913. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.
Statue of Liberty, rare Cambridge squirrel, Westmoreland Valentine Christmas lamps, c. 1913. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.

Originally designed as treat-filled toys or souvenirs, glass candy containers still catch the eye of collectors nearly a century and a half after their debut. Given Valentine’s Day is right on the horizon, and sweet treats are top of mind, Auction Daily spoke with Jim Olean, an officer of the Candy Container Collectors of America, to learn more about them. 

Auction Daily: Please tell us a little about yourself and how you started your collection of glass candy containers. 

Jim Olean: In the fall of 1985, I went out into the woods by my home looking for some wild mushrooms. I couldn’t find any mushrooms but did come across an old dump. In that pile, I found a small glass candlestick telephone, a dog, and a Santa without a head. I took these items home, washed them, and put them on a shelf in the game room. 

One day, my uncle, who collected many old things, came over to visit. I showed him the glass items. He told me that they were made about 30 minutes away, that they held candy, and that they were glass candy containers. I thought: “How novel – candy and a toy in one!” Because they were found in the dump, all the parts that came with them were gone. My uncle told me that if I went to the local antique flea market, then I could find an all-original one. 

That next spring, when the flea markets opened, I went to the best one in town. That day, I found the same candlestick telephone that I found in the dump. But this one was 100% original like the day it was made, some thirty years earlier! I paid $15 for it and put it on the shelf next to the one from the dump. The telephone was complete, even with its original candy still intact, and looked so much better than the one from the dump. As a result, I committed to buying ones that were as complete as possible. Little did I know what this one little purchase had started!

1876 Croft Liberty Bell with original candy. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.
1876 Croft Liberty Bell with original candy. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.

AD: Please share the history of glass candy containers with us.

Olean: Where and when this industry started is a little vague. There is some evidence that glass toy candy containers were produced as early as the late 1860s. The first documented example was the 1876 Liberty Bell, produced by Croft, a confectioner from Philadelphia, PA. Croft produced candy on the grounds of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Fair and sold them in a glass souvenir Liberty Bell. Many must have been sold, as this 145-year-old container is not rare and can be found for under $100 today. 

The center of the glass toy candy container industry was Jeannette, PA, a small town outside of Pittsburgh, PA. It became home to many glass companies because of the clean-burning natural gas that was found there in the late 1880s. The candy container industry did not take off until George West, President of Westmoreland Glass, got involved. In 1906, his company started to patent glass toy candy containers for production. These early Westmoreland containers were simple in design and had a metal closure. Designs included trunks, suitcases, clocks, and horns made in milk glass. They were decorated with paint and sold as souvenirs, marking a year or place.

Early Westmoreland souvenir containers c. 1900-08. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.
Early Westmoreland souvenir containers c. 1900-08. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.

A few years later, the souvenir containers were replaced with more intricate, toy-like containers. Toy planes, trucks, and buses were produced using metal parts along with a glass body to hold the candy. These containers were labor-intensive to produce. Each glass body was hand blown in single molds. The metal had to be sheared, bent, painted, assembled, packed, and shipped… all for a 10-cent toy!  

Success breeds competition, and other glass companies jumped into candy container production. These included T. H. Stough, Victory Glass, L.E. Smith Glass, and Cambridge Glass. By 1940, J. H. Millstein developed the first fully-automatic blown molds producing glass candy containers. Containers became simple in design again, and millions were produced and sold. Sales softened, cost rose, and plastic began to overtake the glass industry. Around 1962, the last company closed its doors, marking the end of the American glass toy candy container industry. 

AD: It appears that some glass candy containers reflect popular American culture and happenings of their era.

Olean: Indeed! Many times, the companies producing the candy containers used current events, inventions, and cartoon characters as design themes in their production. For example, “new” inventions like phonographs and radios were produced as candy containers. Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis monoplane appeared as a glass candy container. And candy containers in the form of Felix the Cat, Barney Google, Jackie Coogan, and other “celebrities” were made to coincide with their popularity. 

Felix , Barney Google, Skookums, phonograph, c. 1920s. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.
Felix , Barney Google, Skookums, phonograph, c. 1920s. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.

AD: Can you quantify how many different glass candy container designs were produced over time? And how do they generally range in value?     

Olean: For about a hundred years, some 550 different glass candy containers were produced by no fewer than 13 companies. Some containers are very common, while others are exceptionally rare, with only one or two known examples. I’ve been collecting these for 35 years and have most, but not all, of them. No collector, past or present, has been able to acquire every example. It’s just too hard.

In the broadest sense, current prices can range from USD 5 to $5,000, with the condition of the container significantly influencing its value. Prices increased over the years and peaked around 2006. With the advent of internet buying and selling, and eBay in particular, prices came down.

AD: And finally, where are the best places to find interesting or collectible glass candy containers? And is there an annual event or meeting dedicated to collectors?

Bakery Truck, Black White Taxi, Spirit of St Louis and Liberty Planes c. 1913-27. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.
Bakery Truck, Black White Taxi, Spirit of St Louis and Liberty Planes c. 1913-27. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.

Olean: Prior to the internet, finding glass candy containers locally was hard. I would travel miles around the area to flea markets, auctions, and antique stores, and some days wouldn’t see one. Yet, I lived just 20 miles from where 95% of them were made! 

Today, online channels have made many containers available and, in some cases, have flooded the market. What was once scarce is now common, and what was rare is now scarce. The market for antiques and collectibles has readjusted to technology, with most transactions happening online now. Platforms like Liveauctioneers.com and eBay are good sources for tracking sales results. 

In 1981, a collector from Pennsylvania started a group devoted to collecting American glass toy candy containers, called Candy Container Collectors of America. Until recently, the group held an annual convention along with a swap meet. However, this has all been put on hold due to the COVID situation. I will never forget the first collectors’ event I attended. I was practically breathless as I walked into the room and saw thousands of candy containers for sale in one place.

Swan boat, Toonerville trolley, pumpkin head witch, tune-in radio c.1920. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.
Swan boat, Toonerville trolley, pumpkin head witch, tune-in radio c.1920. Photo courtesy of Jim Olean.

For more information on glass candy containers, visit the Candy Container Collectors of America website.

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