Posted by & filed under Cultural Resource Management.

Tin Can Identification and Analysis Archaeology GuideDownload the Tin Can Identification Guide.

Margo Memmott conducted a tin can identification workshop open to all Nevada Archaeological Association (NAA) members on March 27, 2015. This information is from her presentation. Margo Memmott is with Broadbent, one of the top archaeology companies serving the Western United States.

ABSTRACT:
Cans are a common component in archaeological sites in the Great Basin. The task of recording discarded tin cans on archaeological sites may often seem daunting, but archaeologists armed with basic knowledge about tin can morphology are able to record more meaningful data in less time. This workshop is intended to offer a practical approach to recording and analyzing tin cans. The workshop will focus on how to recognize the most common tin can types and how to identify their chronologically diagnostic characteristics. The workshop will also cover how to use data gathered from the analysis of tin cans to interpret a site. Participants will be given tin can identification handouts with bibliographic references. The workshop format will be hands-on and informal.

Can Type & Can Function are Not the Same Thing

Type is describing the can form and how the can was manufactured. Function is describing what the original contents of the can were. However, function often dictates can type. For example, it’s not a good idea to store evaporated milk in an upright pocket tin.

Can Type (examples)

  • Hole-in-Cap
  • Vent Hole
  • Sanitary
  • Flat-top
  • Cone-top
  • Upright Pocket
  • Flat Fifties
  • Pail
  • Cylindrical
  • Oblong

Can Function (examples)

      • Fruit/vegetable
      • Milk
      • Beer
      • Tobacco
      • Lard
      • Cooking Oil
      • Spice
      • Fuel
      • Tablets
      • Fish

Can Characteristics: Side Seams

Plumb Side Seam & Layered Side SeamLocked Side Seams on Tin CansDouble Side Seams
Side seams on tin cans function to hold the can together much like the seam on an article of clothing. The earliest cans had plumb side seams which were lead soldered. These cans tended to be very unstable. Lapped side seams have been around since the 1840s. These were also soldered with lead. Locked and double side seams followed in 1859, but lapped seams remained common until the introduction of the Sanitary can in 1904 (Rock 1989b:37-42 and 65).

      • Plumb seams are rare in the U.S.
      • Lapped seams are common on hole-in-cap cans.
      • Locked seams are common on early specialty cans containing dry goods.
      • Double seams are part of the sanitary can, but are also found on vent hole, hole-in-cap, and specialty cans.

Note: you can refer to locked and double side seams as crimped because it is difficult to tell the difference between the two.

Can Characteristics: Hand Soldering

Seams were soldered to reinforce early hole-in-cap cans and other cans. Solder was applied by hand to the side seam and ends of the can. Hand soldering tends to be sloppy and extends from the top edge to the bottom edge of the can and is often visible around the ends of the can (Rock 1987:7). Hand-soldered cans were replaced by machine-soldered cans during the 1880s.
Click pictures for larger example images.
Image of a Hand Soldered CanHand Solder can modelA Guide to identifying Hand Solder Cans

Can Characteristics: Side Seam Machine Soldering

Machine soldered can Illustration
Side seams were soldered to reinforce early hole-in-cap cans and other cans. Machine soldering, introduced in the 1880s, is usually uniform and stops short from the top and bottom edges of the can (Rock 1987:8).
Click pictures for larger example images.

Machine soldered can pictureMachine soldered can picture 2Machine soldered can seam

Can Characteristics: Hole-In-Cap vs. Vent Hole

Note: Depending on the author, these cans are referred to with conflicting names (i.e. hole-and-cap, hole-in-cap, and hole-in-top). The names used here are based on Jim Rock’s work (1984, 1987, 1989a, 1989b).

Hole-in-Cap

hole-in-cap hole-in-cap3 hole-in-cap2

Description: Cylindrical can with stamped ends and a double or lapped side seam. Lead soldered cap covering a filler hole in one end with a small soldered vent hole. Opened with knife or a can opener. Also known as hole-and-cap. That term is best used for cans with a filler hole and no vent hole in the cap.
Function: Milk or Fruits/Vegetables
How to record: Don’t measure unless it is a milk can; instead note single serve if 5 inches in diameter. Describe side seam.
Date Range: mid 1800s-1920s
Resources for dating:

  • Reno 2012
  • Rock 1987:7-8, 12, 19-20
  • Simonis 1997

Vent Hole

vent-hole-tin-can-archaeology vent-hole-tin-can-archaeology-2 vent-hole-tin-can-archaeology-3

Description: Cylindrical can with stamped ends and a double side seam. Small lead soldered vent hole in one end. Typically two small punched holes opening method. Also known as matchstick filler and hole-in-top cans.
Function: Milk
How to record: Measure: to 1/16th of an inch (d x h)
Note: side seam and soldering if any
Note: embossing (i.e. PUNCH HERE)
Date Range: 1900-1980s
Resources for dating:

  • Kimball 2014:28
  • Reno 2012
  • Rock 1987:18, 20-21
  • Simonis 1997

Sanitary Cans

Description: Cylindrical can with double rolled end seams and side seams. No soldering. Typically opened with knife or sometimes various can openers.
Function: Fruit/vegetable
How to record: No need to measure instead note that the can is single serve if less than 5 inches in diameter or multi-serve if more than 5 inches in diameter. Note embossing.
Date Range: 1904-present
Resources for dating:

  • Kimball 2014
  • Reno 2012
  • Rock 1987
  • Simonis 1997

Click pictures for larger example images.
Sanitary-Can-image-1Sanitary-Can-image2Sanitary-Can-image

Steel Beverage Cans: Flat Top

Description: Cylindrical can with double rolled end seams and an double or interlocking side seam. Typically opened with church key opener.
Note: Aluminum top or soft top beverage cans are not the same.
Function: beer, juice, soda
How to record: Measurements aren’t known to help date or type these cans. Photograph lithography. Describe/photograph side seam.
Date Range: 1935-1970s
Resources for dating:

  • Kimball 2014
  • Martells 1976
  • Maxwell 1993

Click pictures for larger example images.
Steel-Beverage-Cans-4Steel-Beverage-Cans-3Steel-Beverage-Cans-1Steel-Beverage-Cans-2

Specialty Cans: Beverage Cone Top

Description: Cylindrical can with double rolled end seams and an internally rolled side seam. These cans have a distinctive cone top that was topped with a crown cap.
Note: Brake fluid was sold in similar cans with a screw cap.
Function: beer, soda
How to record: Measurements aren’t known to help to date or type these cans. Recording data on the way the can was made and lithography is more important for dating and typing.
Date Range: 1935-1970s
Resources for dating:

  • Kimball 2014
  • Martells 1976
  • Maxwell 1993
  • Rock 1987:9
  • Rock 1989:77

Click pictures for larger example images.
Beverage Cone Top Can ExampleBeverage Cone Top Can ExampleBeverage Cone Top Can Example

Specialty Cans: Baking Powder

Description: Cylindrical cans with crimped side seam. Some have embossed lids
Function: Baking Powder
How to record: Photograph embossing Measure (d x h)
Resources for dating:

  • Kimball 2014:7
  • Rock 1987:25-28

Click pictures for larger example images.
Specialty Cans Baking Powder 1920-1934Specialty Cans Baking Powder Example ImageSpecialty Cans Baking Powder Dated to 1925-1950

Specialty Cans: Upright Pocket Tobacco Tins (UPTT)

Description: Upright oval can with a hinged friction lid. Some UPTT are kidney-shaped.
Function: Tobacco
How to record: Photograph lithography and tax stamps if present. Note embossing or strike plate typically on base. Measurements not required, but if you do measure (l x w x h)
Date Range: 1901-1988
Resources for dating:

  • Kimball 2014:8, 36-37
  • Rock 1987:61-66
  • Rock 1989:149-152

Click pictures for larger example images.
Specialty Cans: Upright Pocket Tobacco Tins (UPTT)Specialty Cans: Upright Pocket Tobacco Tins (UPTT)Specialty Cans: Upright Pocket Tobacco Tins (UPTT)

Specialty Cans: Flat Pocket Tobacco Cans

Description: Curved slim square can with rounded corners and a hinged lid.
Function: Tobacco
How to record: Photograph lithography and tax stamp if present. Measure (l x w x h)
Resources for dating:

  • Kimball 2014:7
  • Rock 1987:61-66

Click pictures for larger example images.
Specialty Cans: Flat Pocket Tobacco CansSpecialty Cans: Flat Pocket Tobacco CansSpecialty Cans: Flat Pocket Tobacco CansSpecialty Cans: Flat Pocket Tobacco Cans

Specialty Cans: Key-Wind Open Vacuum Packed Coffee

Description: Cylindrical cans with crimped side seam, key strip opened. Most with reclosable external friction lid.
Function: Ground Coffee
How to record: Photograph lithography. Note embossing. Measure (d x h).
Date Range: 1903-1960s
Resources for dating:

  • Kimball 2014:7, 34
  • Lanford and Mills 2006
  • Rock 1987:31-41
  • Rock 1989:81-91

Click pictures for larger example images.
Specialty Cans: Key-Wind Open Vacuum Packed CoffeeSpecialty Cans: Key-Wind Open Vacuum Packed Coffee CanSpecialty Cans: Key-Wind Open Vacuum Packed Coffee Can

Broadbent and Associates Example Tin Can Form

Broadbent Example Tin Cans Forms

Tin Can Annotated Bibliography

Busch, Jane
1981 An Introduction to the Tin Can. Historical Archaeology 15(1):95-104

This article appears to be the first article in Historical Archaeology that discusses tin cans as artifacts worthy of study. As an early article on tin cans there are some details that are inaccurate. However, the article is useful for furthering our understanding of the history of tin cans as an artifact.

IMACS
1992 User’s Guide: Instructions and Computer Codes for Use with the IMACS Site Form. University of Utah, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service.

The IMACS guide contains can anatomy drawings, tin can chronologies from a variety of sources, and drawings of tin can openings. There is an old version of Simonis, but the 1997 version is more accurate. A chart with can contents and sizes is included, but be warned that such charts are of little use because there was so much variability in the use of can sizes through time that it is difficult to confidently link can sizes with a particular food. This guide can be found online.

Kimball, Monique E.
2014 Guide to Historic Artifacts. Electronic copy provided by the author.

This guide is very detailed and includes research from the author on all manner of historical artifacts including tin cans. Besides date ranges for a wide array of can types Kimball also includes a time line for Log Cabin Syrup cans, a compilation of data on tobacco tins, an updated milk can guide based on Simonis, and a peppering of data on patents related to tin cans.

Lanford, Steve and Robin Mills
2006 Hills Bros. Coffee Can Chronology Field Guide. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Fairbanks District Office. Fairbanks, Alaska. BLM – Alaska Open File Report 109

This is a very detailed and helpful guide for dating and identifying Hills Bros. Coffee cans, but you will need at least some lithography to be able to use it. This guide can be found online.

Markley, Richard
1992 An Archaeological Evaluation of Two Chinese Mining Camps on the North Yuba River, Sierra County, California. Tahoe National Forest, Nevada City, CA.

I am not personally familiar with this resource. It is one recommended to me by Rob McQueen for background on Chinese cans.

Martells, Jack
1976 The Beer Can Collector’s Bible. Ballentine Books, New York, New York.

This out-of-print book contains details about the history of beer cans and how they were made. It also contains pages of color thumbnail images of beer can lithography organized alphabetically by brand. Each beer can image is accompanied by brand name, type of beverage, brewery name, city and state of brewery, date of can, type of can, and construction. This book is most useful when the beer can has legible lithography, but Martells also includes information for dating beer cans by the morphology of their side seam and pull tab.

Maxwell, D. B. S.
1993 Beer Cans: A Guide for the Archaeologist. Historical Archaeology 27(1):95-113

This article offers information on how to date beer cans based on their morphology. Maxwell presents data on beer cans dating from 1935 through the 1980s. This means the article includes information on aluminum cans. This article also contains numerous photos of beer cans and a beer can stylistic timeline.

Mills, Robin O.
2015 A Chronological Guide to Embossed Lipton Tea Tins. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Fairbanks District Office. Fairbanks, Alaska.

This two-page guide is pretty much what you would expect based on the title. Mills has assigned date ranges to four separate embossed Lipton Tea tin types based on her research of historical advertisements and tins which retain their lithography.

Reno, Ronald
2012 Revised Simonis Can Dating Key. In-Situ 16(1):6-8. Nevada Archaeology Association.

The title pretty much says it all. Reno has assembled data from Simonis and other sources and placed them into a handy table with references. You can find this source online.

Rock, Jim
1984 Cans in the Countryside. Historical Archaeology 18(2):97-111

Rock demonstrates that the study of tin cans is useful for gaining an understanding the behavior of Anglo settlers in the American West. He also offers some useful history on how tin cans were made.

Rock, Jim
1987 A Brief Commentary on Cans. Facsimile by Coyote Press, Salinas, California.

This is the most commonly distributed work from Rock because it has been published as a facsimile by Coyote Press. The guide is filled with details about the history of cans and how to date cans based on their morphological attributes. Sometimes you will need to sift through a lot of detail to get the date range you are seeking.

Rock, Jim
1989a Tin Canisters: Their Identification. Manuscript on file at the U.S. Forest Service, Klamath National Forest, Yreka, California.

Rock, Jim
1989b Tin Canisters: Their Identification. Rev. ed. Manuscript on file at the U.S. Forest Service, Klamath National Forest, Yreka, California.

These two manuscripts are mostly the same. They offer a great deal of information on cans and are arguably the most complete information available about tin cans and how to identify them in archaeological contexts. You can get a PDF of what appears to be the 1989b revised edition.

Rock, Jim
1993 Can Chronology. Facsimile by Coyote Press, Salinas, California

This can chronology is 40 pages long. I’ve found it to be less useful for dating cans from sites than Rock’s more detailed works, but it includes some terrific drawing of cans. Can Chronology has been published as a facsimile by Coyote Press.

Rogers, C. Lynn
1997 Making Camp Chinese Style: The Archaeology of a V&T Railroad Graders’ Camp, Carson City, Nevada. Archaeological Research Services, Virginia City, NV.

I am not personally familiar with this resource. It is one recommended to me by Rob McQueen for background on Chinese cans.

Sagstetter, Beth and Bill
1998 The Mining Camps Speak: A New Way to Explore the Ghost Towns of the American West. Benchmark Publishing of Colorado, Denver.

This is a fun book that covers all aspects of the archaeology of mining towns. There numerous photographs and clear description. The authors have also included a section on tin cans (pgs 226-240). Keep in mind that the authors use “Hole-and-cap” where I use “hole-in-cap.”

Simonis, Don
1997 Condensed/Evaporated Milk Cans: Chronology for Dating Historical Sites. Bureau of Land Management, Kingman, Arizona.

This source offers a way to date milk cans based solely on their size. The date ranges offered are generally accurate, but a number of archaeologists from regions outside of Arizona have been able to better refine Simonis’ with other can types and updated the date ranges for some of Simonis’ types (Reno 2012 and Kimball 2014).

Online Sources:
Asian American Comparative Collection (AACC)
2013 Artifact Illustrations. Priscilla Wegars (volunteer curator), Asian American Comparative Collection, Laboratory of Anthropology, University of Idaho. Electronic document,
http://webpages.uidaho.edu/aacc/illus.htm

This is a useful website for artifacts of Asian origin. There are pictures of opium tins and a tea can.

Jim Rock Can Collection
in the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology and made available by Southern Oregon University Hannon Library. Webpage Address: http://cdm16085.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16085coll5

This web page includes a series of photographs of cataloged tin cans that had been collected by Jim Rock. The photos are clear and detailed. There are also some handy links to many of Jim Rock’s publications.

Can Central: Everything You Need to Know About Cans
. Can Manufacturers Institute. Webpage Address: http://www.cancentral.com/

This web page is not an archaeology-based source of information. Rather it is from the perspective of modern can manufacturers. It includes a tin can history timeline with images.

Note: Cultural Resource Management Companies, Federal Agency offices and districts, and archaeology groups regularly have useful and detailed unpublished guides for recording, identifying, and dating tin cans. The best guides include references.

Comments are closed.