March 11, 2013

Vintage food tins functional, fascinating


---- — Who among us can remember playing in grandma’s old button box, the one with the lady on the front holding a fruitcake? 

Or how about reaching into the saltine-cracker tin for a snack, then using the container to hold crayons or toys? How about that pretty chocolate tin that held colored pencils after the candy was gone or the peanut-butter pail with a handle that made it just perfect for marbles? The fact remains: Many old food tins were just too functional and beautiful to be thrown away.

Tins offer a glimpse back to a time when food preservation went beyond practicality and became a medium for art and advertising. They fascinate us with colorful graphics and charm us with creative designs. They provoke a sense of nostalgia and link us to fond memories of the past. They were the very first recyclables, and today there is a resurgence of interest in them.

While tins dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s are difficult to find in excellent condition, vintage tins from the 1920s through the 1950s are plentiful. Collectors are snatching them up for bargain prices on eBay, at yard sales and in thrift stores. Most collections are built around a certain time period, design style, color or theme, while others are collected because of sentiment.


Katherine Mason, an accomplished chocolatier with a passion for antiques, began collecting vintage candy tins about a year ago when she opened her business, the Lake Placid Chocolatier, in Lake Placid. 

“I love vintage tins because they are so nostalgic,” Mason said. “I use them to decorate my shop because they relate to my product and add charm to my decorating theme. The customers notice them, too, and often mention them.” 

Mason, who admits to being fascinated by the endless variety of shapes, colors and decorations on old candy tins, also reflected on the social importance, historically, of the confectionery business. 

“They (vintage tins) point back to a time when candy was an important aspect of life,” she said. “Everyone enjoyed candy, and nearly every town had at least one candy shop. These were usually small, family-owned businesses, and they were an important part of the community. Vintage tins, whether they are from a small shop or a large business like Whitman’s Chocolates, link us to the craft of candy making in days gone by.”

Chocolate and candy tins are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to what was produced. Some of the most elegant tins are beautifully shaped 19th century English biscuit (cookie) tins that were decorated with flowers or romantic scenes. Holiday-themed tins held fruitcakes, crackers, cookies and other sweets; tin pails were used for peanut butter, lard and oysters; ornate canister-type tins were made for coffee, tea and cocoa; and the list goes on.


Spice tins are among the most collectible and appealing, as they offer a wide range of interesting themes, and they are plentiful, easy to display and affordable. 

Most people are familiar with the tricolored Durkee and McCormick spice tins of the late 20th century because they weren’t discontinued until the 1990s. A myriad of older and more interesting spice tins also merit attention, though. 

The graphics on these earlier tins are what makes them so desirable. Logos and trademarks relate to contents; for instance, on the vintage 1950s McCormick pumpkin-pie spice, a smiling jack-o’-lantern is displayed. Beautiful blue and purple flowers grace Iris brand spices. Then there were the companies that capitalized on familiar characters such as Jack Sprat, Buster Brown and Ben-Hur. From polar bears and owls to ships and caravans, the imagery is intriguing.


In this day and age, many people choose not to eat canned foods. But in the late 1800s, food preserved in tin was highly desirable, as it was more sanitary than food offered in barrels or bins. The tin can was patented in 1810, but because lead was used to seal the cans, people were poisoned. Public distrust became rampant, but by the 1850s, food was being safely preserved and offered for sale. 

It was during the 1860s that brand-name advertising began. Logos, trademarks and names were printed on paper labels and affixed to the cans, thereby assuring consumers of consistency and quality. 

By the 1890s, tin-container production was a thriving American industry. Machines could trim and stamp sheets of tin into shape and transfer images directly onto the boxes using lithography. 

By the turn of the 20th century, Baltimore was a thriving center for the manufacture of tin-food packaging. It was here that the American Can Company (CANCO), the National Can Company, the Metal Package Company and the Tin Decorating Company (TINDECO), turned out millions of food tins every day. By the 1940s, more than 127 tin-packaging firms were operating in the United States. It is no wonder there seems to be an endless supply for collectors to choose from. 

Julie Robinson Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her website