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Tin Types

While tin might be considered the antique of metals, remnants of its dominant presence in the world since its extraction and earliest use during the Bronze Age are evident today in everything from such everyday objects as soda cans and food containers to our modern vernacular (think: “Tin Pan Alley,” “Tin Cup,” Frank Baum’s “Tin Man” character). Although tin plays a more supportive and less dominant role today in the fabrication, use, design, and making of utilitarian products and decorative objects, it is 100 percent valued in all its forms for the collectible artifacts time has left behind, from toys to bakeware, spice cans, and even condom containers!

In this issue, we explore the evolution and collectibility of tin in all its forms and iterations. We start in the 17th century and the use and manufacture of tinplate in the making of everyday utilitarian objects across mainland Europe and especially Britain. This early rolled iron tinplate, considerably heavier than what we are used to today, was made by rolling slabs of charcoal iron into thin sheets and dipping them into molten tin. The advantage of tinware was that the tin coat prevented air and moisture from contacting the iron and so prevented rust.

Demand for tinware extended to the American Colonies but in the early 1700s, Britain banned production of tinplate and tinware in its Colonies to encourage dependence on imports. Because of this, tin had to be imported until after the American Revolution, and the ban on production was lifted. Soon, every town or early settlement had a tinsmith shop offering an endless array of everyday goods, from mugs, dinnerware, and coffee pots to cookware, lanterns, and chandeliers. Customers also brought in broken items, whether made of tin or another material, to have them repaired. We visited Old Sturbridge Village’s Tin Shop to take pictures and learn more about the craft of 18th- 19th-century tinners, which we share in this issue, as well.

To supplement their family’s income, the tinsmith often made more items than were needed to service their community and teamed up with itinerant peddlers to carry their goods to the frontiers beyond. We learn more about tin as an Early American commodity and the peddlers that built the market in Judy Gonyeau’s article.

To make their tin wares more appealing, tinsmiths turned to decorating their goods by japanning (coating with a resin to produce a dark, glossy finish), painting, or pierced designs. By the late 18th century, most tinware sold was also decorated and referred to as tôle or toleware. You can learn more about the history and art of Toleware in this issue.

In addition to tin’s dominance as the go-to metal for early American household goods, tin also found a place in the food chain.

In 1795, the French government, led by Napoleon, offered a 12,000-franc prize to anyone who could invent a method of preserving food for the army and navy. Feeding troops on the move and at the front had been a complicated undertaking for military supply chains for centuries. Tin was the answer! As it turned out, tinplated cans provided the perfect vessel for canning, preserving, and transporting food. Tin also prevented rusting, was food-safe, less prone to breakage, could be rapidly cooled by placing it in cold water directly after processing, and provided a long shelf life.

Tin cans became widely popular here in the U.S. in the 1820s when two New Yorkers were “awarded the U.S. patent for preserving food in ‘vessels of tin’ by President James Monroe in 1825,” according to the Can Manufacturers Institute. But it was the Civil War that paved the way for tin’s long-lasting association with food as soldiers received their food rations packaged in tin cans.

With the U.S. patent of the can opener in 1858, canned goods quickly went from the battlefield to a cupboard staple after the war in homes across the country.  By the end of the Civil War, tin can production was up from 5 million a year to 30 million, and tin, in all its forms, continued to dominate in the American marketplace through the end of the 19th century.

The use of tin in the design and manufacture of everyday household goods and decorative objects fell out of consumer favor in the early decades of the 20th century.

In the 1910s, the federal government strongly encouraged Americans to show their patriotism by canning their food to preserve limited resources such as tin for canning and delivering food to the troops during the War. The call for at-home canning led to widely reported cases of food poisoning and death and left the American public anxious about and distrustful of tin-canned food.

Tin was also being displaced in the making of consumer goods by such new materials as speckled graniteware (steel with a porcelain-enamel coating); Britannia (a combination of tin and antimony with small amounts of zinc, brass, and copper) for showier items such as teapots and coffeepots; silver plate (silver-coated iron); aluminum; and galvanized or stainless steel.

While no longer a dominant or decorative metal alloy, tin is still in active use today in glass production, bearing alloys, coatings for steel containers, solders for connecting pipes or electrical/electronic circuits, and other tin chemical uses.