The widespread practice of packing food in tin cans and containers was a direct result of the public's acceptance of the Germ Theory of Disease. In the 19th century, many Americans were still willfully oblivious to the breakthrough research of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. People were more interested in the pitches of snake-oil salesman and their medicine shows, where cure-all elixirs and exotic balms in medicine bottles were sold. It never occurred to many of these good folk that the best way to be healthy might simply to be clean.

In the early 1800s, cleanliness was one way for the upper classes to distinguish themselves from the working and lower classes, as only the wealthy had access to water and soap. However, as germ theory became more prevalent during the Victorian Era, it became unacceptable for the working poor to be dirty. Most food was displayed and accessed at the local five-and-dimes in communal food barrels—grimy, germ-infested hands would not do.

These days, people of means tend to dismiss canned or “processed” food as something people without access to fresh food eat. But in the late 1800s, food in tins was highly desirable. It was considered much more sanitary, and therefore healthier, than food offered in bins or barrels. That’s when branding became particularly important; customers learned they could expect a certain level of quality from, say, Kellogg’s.

At first, tinplate containers were covered with paper labels, which had a product’s pertinent information and advertising stenciled or printed on them. Machines that could trim and stamp sheets of tin were introduced around 1875, and between 1869 and 1895, manufacturers developed a process that allowed them to use lithography to transfer images directly onto the tin boxes.

Today, lithographed advertising tins are a hugely popular collecting category. Examples of products that were sold in tins range from coffee and tobacco to beverages and snack foods. Companies even sold typewriter ribbons and condoms in specially designed tins.


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