Birth of the Beer Can, 1935

Ad for keglined cans, 1935.

In the week that Thornbridge announced it would begin canning beer after years of resistance we happened across an amusing article on the same subject in a 1935 edition of the New Yorker magazine.

It appeared with­out byline in the ‘Talk of the Town’ sec­tion in the issue for 30 Novem­ber and begins like this:

We resigned from the For­eign Legion last week and joined the war between the beer-bot­tle peo­ple and the beer-can peo­ple. It is a lot more fun. We spent the entire week teas­ing bot­tle men about cans, and can men about bot­tles. “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Hop­per, of the Con­ti­nen­tal Can Com­pa­ny, “that glass is a bet­ter insu­la­tor than tin?” “Is it a fact,” we asked Mr. Nor­ring­ton, of the Glass Con­tain­er Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can, “that beer in Con­ti­nen­tal Cans is how beer ought to taste?” “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Odquist, of the Amer­i­can Can Com­pa­ny, “that the use of the can is com­pli­cat­ed by the uncer­tain vicis­si­tudes of inter­na­tion­al trade and ami­ty?” We even called up Ruppert’s and asked them if it was a fact they were still put beer in fun­ny old-fash­ioned bot­tles, instead of in “keg-lined cans” that have that “fresh from the brew­ery” fla­vor. They got so excit­ed they made us come up to the brew­ery and take a blind­fold test to see if we could tell draught beer from bot­tled beer. We failed, time and time again, time and time again. Gol darn, we’ve had fun late­ly!

Continental Can Company ad, c.1935.
SOURCE: Pin­ter­est, unfor­tu­nate­ly; prob­a­bly from a mag­a­zine like Col­liers which we know ran ads with this copy in 1935.

The arti­cle goes on to describe attempts by the var­i­ous dif­fer­ent can man­u­fac­tur­ers to talk down each oth­ers prod­ucts as resem­bling toma­to tins or oil can­is­ters respec­tive­ly.

Bat­ten, Bar­ton, Durs­tine & Osborn joined on the side of the can, and pre­sent­ed us with twen­ty-three rea­sons it is bet­ter than the bot­tle, includ­ing Rea­son No. 13: “The house­wife is used to the can.”

It was dur­ing this peri­od of intense com­pe­ti­tion, the arti­cle sug­gests, that the ‘stub­by bot­tle’ was invent­ed as the glass answer to the can’s com­pact form, but there were dirty tricks, too:

The can peo­ple, hear­ing that glass men were open­ly brand­ing a can-open­er as a “dead­ly weapon,” devel­oped the “cap-sealed can,” which opens just like a bot­tle. The bot­tle peo­ple, a lit­tle bit sick of some of the extrav­a­gant claims of the tin folk, qui­et­ly placed chemists at work, with a view to show­ing that the can group is a bunch of liars.… It’s hard to know whom to believe. Cham­pi­ons of the can say that light hurts beer. The glass peo­ple say that’s non­sense – heat, not light, hurts beer.

An advert for Keglined cans.
1935 adver­tise­ment for Keg­lined cans. SOURCE: Archive.org.

There’s some sur­pris­ing­ly detailed tech­ni­cal talk about lin­ing for cans, too, designed to pre­vent the beer tast­ing metal­lic, with one man­u­fac­tur­er imply­ing that their lin­ing was sim­i­lar to the resin pitch used in beer kegs, which, as the New York­er glee­ful­ly points out, it real­ly wasn’t.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to read some­thing from a moment when the can had yet to prove itself:

At present, most canned beer is sold in the South; but Con­ti­nen­tal now has a con­tract with Schlitz, and Amer­i­can with Pab­st, so Mil­wau­kee is now begin­ning to can its brew. So far, no New York brew­ery has gone over. Piel’s and Rub­sam & Hor­rmann are blos­som­ing out with “stub­bies,” the new-day bot­tle. The steel indus­try is count­ing on 1,500,000,000 beer cans in 1936.

As we know, the can cer­tain­ly did take off, and after decades of asso­ci­a­tion with the most com­mod­i­fied of com­mod­i­ty beer, has had a strange resur­gence in pop­u­lar­i­ty and cred­i­bil­i­ty in just the past decade. And yet more or less the same crit­i­cisms are voiced and the same claims are made – “cools faster” says the 1935 ad above, and that’s still a major sell­ing point today. It’s a sign of the times, though, that dis­pos­abil­i­ty, a key ben­e­fit in 1935, has been replaced on the check­list with recy­cla­bil­i­ty in 2018.

For more infor­ma­tion the devel­op­ment of beer can­ning in the US check out Keg­lined, an entire web­site ded­i­cat­ed to that very sub­ject. Main image adapt­ed from this scan by ‘Bil­ly’ at Flickr.

One thought on “Birth of the Beer Can, 1935”

  1. What on earth is going on in that Old Tankard ad? Men in tights! It looks for all the world as if the artist mis­read the brief and drew a woman in ‘Prin­ci­pal Boy’ drag, then added the beard to com­pen­sate.

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