Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

No aircraft carriers and missiles today, just beer & soda cans.

If canned food is the Steam Era child, canned beverages were introduced in the Diesel Era. Technicians at the American Can Company, even before prohibition, began toying with the idea of putting beer in a can. As early as 1929, Anheuser-Busch and Pabst experimented with the canning process. Schlitz even proposed a can design that looked like a small barrel. The major problem the early researchers were confronted with was the can's liner. Several years and most of the early research funds were spent to solve this perplexing problem. Beer has a strong affinity for metal, causing precipitated salts and a foul taste. The brewers called the condition "metal turbidity".

The American Can Company produced the flat or punch top can in 1934. The lining was made from a Union Carbide product called "Vinylite", a plastic product which was trademarked "keglined" on September 25, 1934. Continental hit upon a waxy compound which they sprayed on to form the can liner. Their early advertising stated that "the liner is applied after the can is made, further ensuring a complete seal between the metal and the beer".

Unlike the bottle, the can could be made in many shapes and designs, and the brewers liked the ability to use the whole can's surface to promote brand recognition.

Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company (1858 – 1961) out of Newark, NJ was the first to take the plunge and signed the first agreement with the ACCO to create the first beer cans to go into production. In June of 1934 four cans of Krueger’s Special Beer were delivered to 500 homes in the Richmond, Virginia area and delivered with a brochure on how to open the cans and a questionnaire. The results were amazing, with over 90% of the participants giving their approval. By January 1935 Krueger’s canned beer was being sold throughout the city and very soon after Krueger unveiled their cans the rest of the breweries fell into line. That first year of canned beer ended with over 200 million cans being sold.

Suddenly found a can like this in the basement?

Don't throw it in the waste even if it's rusty and ugly. Old Krueger red can is a can collector's dream that may bring you a princely sum.

By the way, erroneous labeling is also valuable!

It was evident that the consumer liked the can's no-deposit feature as well as their being stackable, non-breakable, and fast cooling. The consumers likes were certainly noted by the large breweries. During July of 1935, Pabst began distributing a striking blue and silver can carrying the "Export" label on a punch top can with opening instructions on the back of the label. The cans were first sold in Rockford, Illinois, and then spread southward.

While cans were cheaper than bottles they brought with them a big challenge, paticularly for smaller breweries, in that they required a significant packaging line overhaul. The problem, however, was solved with a “cone top” can in the shape of a bottle. Now the cans could be sealed with crown bottle caps just like bottles. Thus, the smaller breweries could run the can through their old bottling lines.

Schlitz, trying to make up its mind about canning beer, suddenly quit wondering and went into action. In September of 1935, they became the first and the only major brewery to use Continental's new spout top can. Schlitz stayed with the cone top can until the early 1950s.

Pro's and con's abounded in the battle of the bottle versus the can. The standard beer bottle would return to the brewer twenty five times for refilling, the can of course was a one shot, non-returnable container. With the cost of beer at a whopping $.10, the can proved to be an expensive proposition for the brewers and caused the move to cans by the industry as a whole to be fairly slow. The high cost was partially off-set by the ease of handling and delivery of cans. The cans weighed less than bottles, and a truck could carry 400 cases of cans compared to only 200 cases of bottles. Distribution range could also be increased from about a 30 mile radius of the brewery with returnable bottles, to as much as 400 miles with cans.

Developed by D F Sampson for the American Can Company, the "church key" was a 5 inch strip of stamped metal. Given to consumers with the purchase of each case, the instructions for using the church key were printed right on the can. Here are three from Washigton, D.C.:

Always at the center of the controversy was the lining whose sole function was to keep the beverage away from the can. The glass maker would contend that a reliable lining for beer cans had yet to be devised, and can maker would cite proof of the "glass hard" lining within the cans.

Advertisements of the period reflected the war going on between bottles and cans, and salvo's were fired from both sides as to the merits of their containers.

In the late 1930's cans were accounting for only about eight percent of the beverage container market, and by 1941 they had captured only a ten percent share of the business. The beginning of World War II accomplished a feat that the bottle makers could not... it stopped the production of cans to the domestic market, limiting them to stateside military bases and military units overseas.

In 1945 the Crowntainer became a registered trademark of the Crown Cork and Seal Company. Containing no seams, this new design could withstand the high heat and pressure of sterilization and pasteurization without can disfigurement. No seams meant that the cans could now be more decorative. Coated in aluminum, the shiny appearance helped sell the product. By the mid 1950s, flat top beer cans replaced Crowntainers. As industry moved forward pull tops replaced tab tops.

After opening up the market for beer in cans, attention was directed by the can companies to another area of great potential sales, the canning of soft drinks. The technical problems in canning soda was similar to those of canning beer. The product was, however, more acidic, and the pressures of the carbonation in soft drinks was somewhat greater. Continental Can Company was the first to break into the new market. In 1938, the Clicquot Club Company of Mills, Massachusetts agreed to fill 100,000 cases of Continental's low profile cone top can with ginger ale. Leakage, and flavor absorption problems of the wax applied over the liner halted active consideration of soda in cans for several years. After World War II ended, the can companies again focused their attentions on the use of cans for soda beverages. With an improved liner, and a stronger can, Continental Can received an approval from Pepsi-Cola in 1948 to test their cola in a cone top can.

In 1949, Cantrell & Cochrane Corp, teamed up with Continental to begin marketing a multi flavor line in a cone top can. Resistance to the use of the can for soft drinks began to crumble by the early 1950's, and in 1953 with the removal of Korean War price controls, the market was ready for the can. The cone top can as well as the punch top can both began a steady advance on the bottle market to win the pocketbooks of the soda drinking consumer.

Cone tops came into use in 1935 and the last one was used by Rice Lake Brewing in 1960. The exceptions are fake beer cans made for collectors during the 1970s (General Pulaski and Milwaukee Premium for example).

There are four types of cone tops:

Or probably even five:
Low Profile cones were generally used before World War II, high profiles were used after.

The original low profile cans had flat bottoms and inverted ribs on the top. These were used in 1935 and 1936 and were replaced by cans with a concave bottom and ribs that stuck out along the top in early 1937.

J-Spouts were used between 1937-1941.

Crowntainers were used between 1940 and about 1953-54.

High Profile conetops came into common use right before World War II and were used until 1960. They all should have concave bottoms. There is one exception. One company, American Can, made high profile cones with flat bottoms in the 1940s. There were used by only a handful of breweries, Esslinger, Schmidt's, Gunther, and American in Rochester, NY.

Size matters:

Krueger Brewing made the only 16 oz cone top in about 1940. The beer cone top is very scarce. The ale was a tough can until a couple hundred were found in a barn in Vermont.

7 and 8 oz cans came into use about the same time with one exception, there is an 8 oz Fox Delux beer from the late 1930s. All other 7 and 8 oz cans date from the early 1950s or later.

Other odd sizes started to meet local tax laws on alcohol. 10 and 11 oz cans were produced starting in the 1950s and 14 oz flat top cans began to be produced in the early 1960s.

Quart cans came into use in 1937. A few quarts made in the late 1930s were flat top quarts that required a church key to punch two holes in the top. In the 1950s Pabst and a handful of California breweries made quart cans with a very, very low spout that was capped with a very thin bottle cap. All other quarts should have a cone top. They went out of use by the late 1950s. They range from the very common to the very rare depending on brand and variation. For more on quart cans see the One Full Quart site.

And how about cone top anti-freeze?

Now, let us proceed to the album or enjoy the slideshow with more cone tops (hope now you can tell a High Profile from a Crowntainer):

Find more photos like this on Dieselpunks

Sources: Chis Bray @ Selectism.com, History of the Beverage Can, How Old is My Can?, Conetops.com, Beer Can Collectibles, Jim's Beer Cans, Crowntainer Central

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Comment by Myke DeArden on March 25, 2011 at 9:33pm
Everyone check your attics and crawlspaces. Workmen of the past were not above a nip on the job, and these were convenient out-of-the-way stashes for their metallic remains. You might just find one of these treasures.
Comment by lord_k on March 22, 2011 at 7:25pm
Stolen from Ottens' forum years ago.
Comment by Larry on March 22, 2011 at 7:24pm
Comrad Brewski! I love that Lord_K! :)
Comment by lord_k on March 22, 2011 at 11:14am
My pleasure, Stefan.
Comment by Stefan on March 22, 2011 at 11:12am
This post is SO inspiring to me, Lord K, because of my unconditional love of vintage fonts and letterings and out of my long time interest in American pop culture in its most "everyday" aspects, like packaging : what a goldmine these cans are in that regard ! Thank you very much.
Comment by lord_k on March 22, 2011 at 6:39am

To Jean-Luc deVere:

Here's one to you, my friend!

Comment by lord_k on March 22, 2011 at 6:38am

To Pilsner Panther:

Charming little piece.

Flaherty's Nanook of the North had tremendous commercial impact. Do you know that in Russia they still call the chocolate-coated vanilla ice-cream on a stick "an Eskimo"?

Comment by lord_k on March 22, 2011 at 5:59am
To Larry:
Brewski, you say?
Comment by Pilsner Panther on March 22, 2011 at 3:49am

Since you referenced the Cliquot Company, we need their official theme song:


I'm sorry to have to report that none of them were actual Eskimos... they were all New York jazz musicians.


Comment by Larry on March 21, 2011 at 11:00pm
As a beer aficionado I found this fascinating. Though, I still prefer my brewski either from a bottle or better yet on tap. :)

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