Coffee Can Ingenuity

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for January 30, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            While plastic hasn’t replaced tin in many areas of general use today, it certainly has invaded the tin market. In the good old days, buckets and wash tubs were made of galvanized steel, that is, steel which was given a protective coating of zinc either by hot-dip galvanizing or by electroplate galvanizing; and “tin” cans were made by tin-plating steel, pure tin not being strong enough by itself. I remember how horrified my mother was when plastic buckets first showed up for sale in the Five and Dime stores (probably in the late Forties or early Fifties). My mother had good reasons for hating changes, like metal to plastic.

            There were two cans highly valued by folks like my mother, — the gallon molasses can and the pound coffee can. They were valued after the Great Depression, because of their many uses, which meant getting two things for the price of one. Empty molasses buckets were used by school children to carry their lunch to school, by housewives to store hog lard after hog-killing, and by everyone for dewberry picking.

            The empty coffee can was no doubt the more valuable of the two and offered many uses for men and women, though probably not before the early 1900’s. Since coffee was not sold in cans before 1878, most people were buying coffee packaged in various other kinds of materials until after 1901, when the American Can Company began manufacturing tin cans for coffee and other products. In the United States, Chase and Sanborn started selling coffee in cans before any other coffee company did. Once the lead-soldered seams process was eliminated, tin-plated cans were quite safe for holding products to eat and drink. Beer was not sold in cans until 1935, at which time the cans were ”tin,” that is, tin-plated steel, aluminum cans not used until 1958. However, there never seemed to be much use for empty beer cans, — a shame considering how many there were once cans became more popular than bottles.

            Empty coffee cans are a different story. Clever women like my mother used them for dusting the plants in their vegetable gardens with Green Light, which they considered safe to use on edibles. My mother would poke small holes in the plastic replacement lid on the coffee can, the amount of dust coming out determined by the size of the hole. She had another coffee can rigged up like this for dusting a mild ant killer on the kitchen countertops. My Wendish grandmother used her empty coffee cans as cylindrical baking pans in which to bake her raisin bread, baking two or three loaves at a time. In later years, I thought it was strange to buy raisin bread in the grocery store shaped like ordinary bread! She also planted her geraniums in coffee cans, and also placed them around baby plants in the garden to prevent wind or frost damage.

            My father and my Wendish grandfather found multifarious uses for these much-cherished cans (fortunately both of them drank more coffee than beer). After my father died, I went through his little tool shed and was not surprised to find how incredibly organized he was, — that was his nature. I was surprised about the number of old coffee cans lined up on a long shelf, each filled with a specific size nail, screw, etc.; there was even a can for bent used nails that had not been straightened yet. There were also coffee cans for his paint brushes, organized by brush size. That was so like my daddy!

            My grandfather paid his workers who picked cotton for him with silver dollars and silver fifty-cent pieces, both of which he kept under the bed in coffee cans. But more ingenious than that was his use of the coffee can for sharpening knives on his huge grindstone. Grandpa’s grindstone was a large stone about the size of an automobile tire, mounted on a handmade, stationary bicycle type contraption with pedals to pump and a cultivator seat to sit on. Above the round stone was a coffee can, open at the top with very small holes punched in the bottom. For large sharpening jobs, he filled the can with water, which would dribble on the stone as he sharpened his sickle and other cutting devices. For pocket-knives, he would use a small whetstone which he would spit on. My grandfather was an inventor, and I used to marvel at the many contraptions he would make using metal and wood scraps and old cans. The Great Depression taught my father and grandfather many lessons about making do with what you had and making something out of it! I call that “Coffee Can Ingenuity”!


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

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