Colorful antique advertising tins provide wonderful decorating opportunities. Small toiletry tins grouped in the bath or on a dressing table add charm, as do food-related tins in the kitchen.
Larger tins can serve as containers for all sorts of items and look great on top of cabinets or stacked in a corner.
Food Container History
Ancient civilizations used baskets and clay jars to store food, but neither method offered safe, long-term preservation. By and large people living in agrarian and hunting-gathering societies saved food by drying, smoking, and pickling.
Much later, people living in towns and cities had to make daily trips to local markets to purchase fresh ingredients for meal preparation.
Eventually, “general stores” opened offering a large variety of food and household goods. Products like coffee and rice, displayed in glass jars and wooden barrels, could be purchased by weight or size and placed in paper bags. Some items like oil and vinegar were available in individual glass bottles.
Early Tin Packaging
In 1667, a pair of Englishmen “discovered” a method of plating iron with tin that had been invented by the Bohemians.
Manufacturers would later use this tin material to create containers in a variety of shapes and sizes. The first recorded sale of these containers dates to 1725 from the port of Bristol Channel (England), History of Metal Packaging.
Tobacconists began using metal tins to contain their product in 1760. Ultimately, early in the 1800’s, a method was invented to preserve food for long periods in tin containers, and thus the tin can was born.
Unmarked Tin Containers
Early tin contains were mostly unmarked, like the black example you see here.
Very early in the 1800’s, you would find tins with embossing, like the DeWitt’s Carbolized Witch Hazel Salve seen above, Dating Your Tins & Cans. Value: $2-4
By the mid-1800’s, tins could be found with simple stenciled content indicators, as seen with this Tea canister. Value: $15-18
Tins With Paper Labels
During this same period (mid-1800’s), paper labels were also used to identify contents, as you see here with this antique McCormick’s (Bee Brand) English Mustard tin with a paper wrap.
Value: $4-6 (more if perfect)
By the late 1800’s manufacturers had developed a method of transfering lithographic images directly onto tin.
These colorful tins have been saved through the years because of their charming colors, images, and/or typography.
Types of Advertising Tins
Spice, coffee, and tobacco tins are among the most common but tins have been used to contain many other products. Let’s take a look at some of them.
The Tindeco container company (1914-35, Baltimore) produced this Apollo Hard Candy tin with gold graphics and hinged lid. Value: $15-20 (more if perfect)
You can also find candy containers by Barton’s, Mackintosh’s, Louis Sherry and many others.
Coffee tins of the sort you see above would have had a key attached, which you would use to roll away a metal strip near the top to release the lid. This process was developed in 1917.
Maxwell House Coffee tins like the one above date to the 1930’s-40’s.
Value: $10-12 (more if in better condion with lid)
Coffee brands to look for include: Hill Brothers, Sanka, Folgers, Chase & Sanborn, and multiple other lesser known brands.
I came across this delightful 5″, 8 oz. Droste Cocoa tin (made in Holland) with hinged lid in an antique shop priced at $22.
A newer looking tin with similar graphics but with flat corners (making it 8-sided) dates to 1984 and was made in England. Today, Droste sells its cocoa in cardboard boxes rather than tin.
Other foods that have come in tins over the years include candy (see above), coffee (see above) spices (see below), cookies, potato chips, nuts, ricotta cheese, pop corn, spam, ham, shortning, and more.
For lack of a better moniker, I’m calling this category “garage” because it includes items commonly found there, like oil, fuses, salves, waxes, tape, poisons, and cleaning compounds.
The style of font found on this 4″ Porter-Seal tin matches the 1939 date on the side. It was produced with a similar font until at least 1979, but came with a plastic rather than tin lid.
One recently sold on eBay for $21 + shipping.
Mentholatum salve, manufactured in both Buffalo (NY) and Wichita (KA), is still being produced today(!). This 1 1/2″ tin dates to the early 20th century. Value: $5-6
Other medicinal tins to watch out for include bandages/plasters, cough drops, smelling salts, and pills of various sorts.
Spice tins are one of the most highly collected of all tins. Collectors especially look for examples like this attractive (and rare) 4″ Sweet Life tin, dating to the 1940-50’s.
Value: $15-20 (more if perfect)
Spice tins that are easily found at garage sales and flea markets include McCormicks, Ann Page, Krogers, and Colman’s Mustard.
Tobacco tins, like the four common examples you see above (Sir Walter Raleigh, Union Leader, Half and Half, and Velvet) are another popular area of collecting. Hundreds of brands have been produced through the years.
Prince Albert brand introduceded the hinged lids you find on these smaller “pocket” tins in 1907, Dating Your Tins & Cans. Values: $5-10 each
Johnson’s baby powder hit the market in 1894. Johnson & Johnson designed the tin container as a rectangle rather than a circle to prevent the container from rolling off a baby’s changing table, Our Story.
I’d date the 7″ one you see above to the 1950-60’s. Value: $10-15 Other “toiletry” tins to look for: make up, face cream, deodorant, soap, and perfume.
This “Superba” typewriter ribbon container by Underwood sold several years ago for $8. Most ribbon tins sell in the $8-20 depending on the allure of the graphics.
Look for tins by other typewriter manufacturers like Royal, Remington, and Smith-Corona, along with a myriad of other lesser known ribbon makers.
Types of Closures (Lids)
Coffee cans like this Chase & Sanborn tin would have come with a key attached (usually on the bottom) and a metal strip around the top.
After removing the key you would insert the metal tab at the end of the strip into a slot in the key, and then turn it until the lid was fully released. This process dates to 1917.
Other tins that relied on key style mechanisms include sardines, corned beef, and Spam.
In the early 1900’s manufacturers developed the ability to create hinged lids. You commonly find them on pocket tobacco tins and some candy tins like the English Slade’s Caramel Toffee above. Value: $10-20
Pry-type lids are common on spices and baking powder, though it’s unclear when they first became popular. Value: $8-12 (Davis Baking Powder tin)
Slip lids that fit tightly onto their bases are among the most common, like the one you see above on the Velvet Tobacco tin. Value: $10-15
Are Vintage Tins Worth Anything?
If you’ve read this far in the article then you know that vintage and antique tins can be valuable. Some antique tins in excellent condition can be worth hundreds of dollars.
Even newer vintage tins typically sell well so don’t rule them out if they have a nice, antique look about them.
What to look for when shopping for tins:
- Colorful lithography
- Eye catching images and typography
- Very good to excellent condition (unless priced accordingly)
How to Date Antique Advertising Tins
Vintage and antique tins are notoriously difficult to date. Rarely will you find any sort of date and even then, relying on copyright and patent pending dates is not recommended.
Some important facts to keep in mind, however, when trying to date a tin:
- Pre-1875: You would find stenciled labels
- Lithographed tins date to 1890 at the earliest.
- 1907: First hinged pocket tobacco tins introduced
- 1917: Key-type closure invented
- 1954: © symbol in common use
- 1963: Zip codes introduced
- 1974: UCP codes introduced
- Typography and design can indicate date of manufacture, though some designs were used for decades
- A very glossy surface and unworn bottom are signs a tin is likely newer
Clean & Care for Antique Advertising Tins
Collectors and resellers must handle vintage and antique tins with care due to their tendency to rust, scratch, and fade.
To clean a dirty tin container, wash lightly with mild soap and and a non-scratching sponge or washcloth. Allow it to dry thoroughly. Better yet, dry it with a hair dryer to prevent rusting. Keep out of direct sunlight to prevent fading.
Apply a light coat of soft wax and buff it out to brighten the colors and to help resist future rust. My wood salve is perfect for this (recipe in post).
Decorating with Vintage & Antique Tins
Decorating with vintage and antique tins is the obvious way to use those in your collection. Creating delightful, seasonal vignettes with them, like I did with the orange and black tins you see above, results in unique statement decor that no one else has.
A couple of years ago, I used several old tins to create this farmhouse Christmas display. I’ve sold several in the $20-25 range at the annual Christmas show I participate in.
You can also use attractive old tins, like the above Tetley tea example, as substitutes for Easter baskets.
And lastly, I recently used this Beech-Nut Coffee tin to contain an assortment of sewing notions which sold on Etsy for $32(!).
If you’ve never tried selling tins before, I recommend giving them a try, whether from your antique booth or through your online business. A fair amount of buyers search for them regularly to add to their collections, as do farmhouse decorators.
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