Food cans are widely overlooked as a good indicator of when a historical site was inhabited. And often they are the only things left. What follows below is a basic guide.
The earliest cans have solder on all of their seams and are of the so-called “hole-and-cap” design. Food was put in through the hole and a cap was added and sealed with solder. These first cans were modified in 1825 to the “hole-in-cap” style, where a center vent hole was added to the cap. (The terms “hole-and-cap” and “hole-in-cap” are often confused with each other and used interchangeably. The difference being the center vent hole.) After the food was added to the can, the cap put on and the can was heated. It vented through the hole which was then sealed with a dab of solder. At the time, bacteria was unknown and the air itself was thought to cause food to spoil.
Canned food in America became widespread with the 1849 Gold Rush to California. Miners came west and increasingly needed to rely on canned food as they prospected deeper into the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada and beyond. In the 1850s, Louis Pasteur discovered that bacteria caused food spoilage. This insight reduced the amount of spoiled food in the can designs to come. Gail Borden first patented condensed milk in 1856. In that same year, Henry Bessmer of England, and William Kelley in the United States, both discovered the process to convert cast iron into steel. This allowed less expensive cans to be produced. And in 1859, a locking side seam for cans was invented, which further helped against spoilage.
The food demands of the Civil War (1861 to 1865), greatly spurred technological innovations in machinery which increased can production. The U.S. Government was purchasing large amounts of Borden’s condensed milk for the Union army. And in 1866, the first key-wind opened sardine cans were produced. 1883 saw the first machines capable of soldering the side seams of the cans, increasing can production. Evaporated milk was first canned in the U.S. in 1885 by the Helvetia Milk Condensing Company using a new “hole-in-top” design. This can was filled and vented through a small vent hole in the top of the can and lacked a “cap”. These cans are short and opened by punching two distinctive holes on opposite sides of the lid. Max Ams developed a double side seam for cans in 1888 helping to make the cans air-tight (but they were still soldered).
1904 brought an important series of innovations to canning; the Sanitary Can Company was founded. Their cans had “open top” lids that were crimped on the can without the need for the “hole-in-cap” style top. For the first time, no solder is visible anywhere on the can and they are made completely by machines. The “open top” cans also have the advantage of being fully open for filling at the factory and air-tight after heated and sealed. The name “Sanitary” is embossed on the lids but the name only lasts until 1908 when the company was absorbed by the American Can Company; the new “open top” style remains, however. The modern cans we have today are close variants of this style.
Another type of can you might see at an old mine camp is a tobacco can. Chewing tobacco began to fall out of favor in the 1910s as “unsanitary” and helped give rise to cigarettes. The deadly 1918 flu pandemic brought the practice of spitting to the forefront of society and hastened the removal of spittoons from all public places, including saloons. Spitting on floors or sidewalks was now frowned upon. Because of this, chewing tobacco cans are more likely to date from before the 1920s.
Simplified food can style guide
(Years are as close as possible and are approximate, there was overlap)
** From 1819 to 1847 cans are made completely by hand **
- Hole-and-cap cans, all handmade 1819 to 1825
- Hole-in-cap cans 1825 to 1904
- Machine stamped embossed can ends begin in 1847
- Crimped seams, hand solder 1869 to 1888
- Hole-in-top (vent hole) can 1885 to 1990
- Double crimped seams, no side solder 1888 to 1904
- Sanitary Can (“Sanitary” embossed) 1904 to 1908
- Open top, no solder cans 1904 to present
- Prince Albert tobacco cans 1907 to present
- Friction type lid, loose pin hinge 1907 to 1947
- Airtight lid, doubled over U-shaped lip 1947 to present
- Key-wind opened cans 1866
- Log Cabin shaped can 1897 to 1955
- Hills Brothers first vacuum seals coffee 1903
- Tuna first canned in California 1909
- Key-opening collar can for coffee 1917
- Citrus juice canned from Florida 1921
- Canned ham 1926
- Canned beer (enamel interior) 1935
- Cone-top cans 1935 to 1959
- Aerosol cans 1945
- All aluminum beer can 1959
- Soft drink cans 1960
- Pull-tab can 1962
- Modern “Stay-Tab” can 1977
An in-depth guide to bottle dating is far beyond our scope here. It is an extensive topic with many exceptions and complexities! What follows is only a very simple guide to bottles in the American West.
Bottle Mold Seams
- Seam goes to top and ring stem around the base: Automatic bottle machine 1905 to present
- Seams to within ¼” of the top: Semi-automatic bottle machine 1880 to 1913
- Seams only up sides of the body: Two-piece mold 1848 to 1913
- Seams up body and laterally around shoulder: Three-piece mold 1810 to 1890
- No seams with horizontal striations on the body: Turn/Paste mold 1880 to 1915
- Free Blown, irregular shape to 1880s
- Embossing on panels 1850 to 1915
- Embossed “Other Than Federal Law…” 1860 to 1915
- Embossed “Federal Law Forbids…” 1933 to 1960s
- “Black”, deep olive green or “opaque” 1810s to 1880s
- Amethyst or “purple” 1880s to 1920s
- Aqua 1800s to 1930s
- Cobalt blue 1840s to present
- Green 1860s to present
- Amber or brown 1860s to present
- White 1870s to present
- Colorless or clear 1880s to present
Perhaps surprisingly, nails can also be useful for dating historic sites. The earliest nails are hand wrought nails which were hand-made one at a time by a blacksmith from square iron rods. He would cut the nail to size, heat it in a forge and work one end to a taper and point. They taper to a point on all sides. The head was created by pounding the other end in a “nail header”, which flattened out the end. These nails are rough and irregular and will show their handcraftsmanship.
As early as the 1790s, simple machines came into use to increase the production of nails. Cutting machines made square nails out of a rectangular iron bar. These nails have straight edges on all sides and taper on two sides to an end but without a point. Early square cut nails often have heads that are irregular from creation by hammer strike. After around 1830, these nail heads are machine made and become more uniform. Square cut nails are still made today but only for specialty uses and in low quantities.
In the 1890s, steel came into mass production using the Bessemer process. The steel wire nails that are common today quickly came into dominance. By 1895, more than 75% of nails produced in the U.S. were wire nails.
Here is a basic summary of the chronology of nails:
- Hand wrought nail before 1800
- Square cut nail 1790s to 1900s
- Wire (round) nail 1890s to present