Saturday, November 5, 2011

Tin Cans and House Paint in the 19th Century

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Once in a while a seemingly simple invention or discovery ends up having significant and wide-ranging consequences.  One example is the tin can.  Today tin cans are so common that we give them little thought, but after the Civil War they were a novelty that truly revolutionized commerce, diet and help bring about a consumer society.  Among the many industries that cans changed was the production and marketing of  house paint, as they made it possible for the owners of Victorian homes and professionals alike to buy ready-mixed and colored paints.

At the beginning of the 19th century house paint had to be prepared by mixing ingredients such linseed oil, white lead, turpentine, driers and pigments.  Some of these ingredients were often only available in bulk containers such as wooden casks or barrels while the coloring pigments had to be ground by hand. This made it difficult for homeowners to mix small batches of paint for jobs around the house.  However, during the Victorian era tin cans not only made it possible for professional painters and homeowners to buy smaller amounts of paint, the pre-mixed paint was of better quality.  Since canned paints were mixed in factories in bulk, the quality was more consistent.  Whereas the color and consistency of hand mixed paints always varied slightly depending on the amounts and quality of the ingredients, commercial, ready-mixed paints were uniform.  Commercial manufacturers used  pigments that were finely ground by mills so the colors were even.  National brands such as Sherwin-Williams and John Lucas & Co. tested their different ingredients so they could avoid adulterated pigments and additives that were common on the consumer market.    

The John Lucas & Co. of Gibbsboro, NJ was one of the innovators during the last half of the 19th century and was among the first to package house paint in tin cans.  Founded in 1852 by the Englishman John Lucas, the company developed new pigments, improved the production process of white lead and was a pioneer in prepared and ready-mixed paints. 

This can of Indian red paint from around 1880 is an early example of John Lucas's ready-to-use paint.  The soldered lid was removed with a can opener and the contents poured into a bucket.  Additional boiled linseed oil could be added to thin the paint and the professional painter or homeowner could brush it on the walls, ceilings and millwork.  Since the top was soldered, the can could not be resealed (Henry Sherwin patented the first resealable can in 1877) and all the paint had either to be used or the remainder stored in an airtight container.
A ca. 1880 paint can (still full of paint).

Top of the paint can showing its soldered lid.
Although this little can might not look like much, it represents a revolution in the way house paint and hundreds of other products were marketed and used during the last half of the 19th century.  Small innovations certainly can have large and lasting consequences.