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Early Tin Cans

Author: Marcia Ray

(Article orginally published October 1959)

It may be too late to collect many o f the heavy tin cans with thick soldered seams in use before 1900, but rescue can still be effected of some of the machines that turned out ... Early Tin Cans

The fertile flats of South Jersey have long supplied the markets of Philadelphia and New York with the choicest of tomatoes, asparagus, and other fancy garden truck, in season and out. In such towns adjacent to the Delaware Bay as Bridgeton, Salem, and Greenwich, where truck farming has, since Revolutionary days, been on a big scale, commercial canning developed early.

Today the canning industry in the locality is largely in the hands of such national concerns as Hunt's, Del Vale, Heinz, and Ritter. But from 1847, when Harrison Woodhull Crosby of Jamesburg, New Jersey, first successfully processed tomatoes in tin cans, to the turn of the century, small canning factories were the rule. Often individually owned, or family affairs, these canneries not only processed the vegetables-some of which were grown on their own acres-and marketed the finished product, but made up their own tin cans as well.

This home production of tin cans made fine off-season work for cannery employees, and even small operations might turn out as many as half a million or more cans during the slack season in preparation for the next season's crop.

Cans have been in commercial use in America since 1819, when Ezra Daggett and his son-in-law, Thomas Kensett, are known to have made and used them in New York City to pack salmon, lobsters, and oysters. (Peter Durand had taken out the first patent on a container made of tin plate in England, in 1810.) First known as canisters, they soon became "cans"; in England they are "tins".

Early cans were crude handmade affairs. The expert tinker, working only with shears and soldering iron, could turn out about 60 a day. The body of the can was measured and marked off on tin plate, then cut by hand; the edges were butted together and sealed with a heavy ridge of solder about 1/8 inch thick to make a "plumb joint". The ends of the can were marked off with a compass, cut with circular shears, and soldered to the bodies, also with plumb joints.

Later the tinker raised his output to 100 a day by cutting the ends larger and turning them up over the bodies with a mallet and an iron "heading stake", which facilitated soldering and made a better seal.

In 1823, Pierre Antoine Angilbert, a Frenchman, came up with an improvement whereby the disc tops were punctured. When the cap was soldered on, and the filled can given a preliminary heating to expel the air, this vent hole was closed with a top of solder.

By 1847, a foot-operated press was invented, possibly by Allen Taylor, to cut the bottoms and tops. Four can bodies could be cut from one 14 by 20 inch sheet of tin. Each body was then run through a roller, placed on a block and soldered. The ends were set in and dipped in solder, and the vent hole closed in the last step. By then rosin was used as the flux in the solder, replacing the earlier and unsatisfactory acids.

William Reeves, an expert can maker, who gained his early experience in the Watson Brothers' cannery at Greenwich, New Jersey, could turn out by this process some 10,000 cans a week--1800 cans a day, and 1,000 on half-day Saturdays.

Can-making machinery began to develop rapidly from 1875. Many of the presses and soldering machines used in home tin can manufacture were made by the Ferracute Machine Company of Bridgeton, a company still in operation making power presses, press brakes, and special machines. The story is told that when a local canner brought a machine for repair to Mr. Oberlin Smith, founder of the Ferracute Company, Mr. Smith said, "Repair it! I can build a better one." In any event, Oberlin Smith did, in 1885, take out two patents for can soldering machines, and in 1886, a patent on a press for cutting and drawing sheet metal--the machine on which the can tops and bottoms were stamped. While Ferracute machines were especially popular in their own locality, they were used in equal quantity in other canning sections of the country.

By 1900 the "Sanitary" can appeared-a double seamed can with the whole open top sealed by "a coating of rubber in solution". This put an end to the homemade solder-seamed cans.

In 1904, the newly established Sanitary Can Company put up a large manufacturing building in Fairport, New York, and two years later, a second plant in Bridgeton, New Jersey. This company was purchased by the American Can Company in 1908, which kept the Bridgeton factory in operation until 1931 when the equipment became outmoded. The building is now used as a storage warehouse for cans to supply New Jersey canneries.

Collectors of Americana have already begun to gather up examples of commercial preserve jars in glass, pottery, and tin when they can be found, to illustrate the steps in progress of one of today's gigantic industries. While the "home made" can with its thick tin and heavy solder may be completely of the past-examples are extremely hard to come by-the machines that helped make them are still of an age that not all have been discarded. These machines themselves are among cannery items which should be sought out now, and preserved while still available, by collectors of industrial Americana, by museums, and local historical societies in canning centers.

While this story has dealt with the early canning industry in New Jersey, similar developments and advancements were made in all canning centers throughout the country, presenting a wide field for search for these outmoded machines, and for the elusive early tin can.





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