An ode to the tin can

© 2018-Brookings Register

The Best of Stubble Mulch

A great invention – the tin can.

In human growth, it ranks right up there with lard, sliced bread and socks with elastic.

It didn’t achieve notoriety instantly. It earned it the hard way.

Today, I respect the tin can for not only for its ability to keep my green beans and peas mold free, but because of what a can can become once it’s empty of its original cargo.

Being just a can full of beans or corn has to be purgatory for the can. The varieties of life for it really begin once the last bean has departed into that great, gaseous cloud in the living room.

Soldiers during the Civil War helped make the tin can famous. They ate pork and beans from a can, and it had a rather pious reputation until about 1900 when folks used “can” as a slang expression for our necessariums.

The tin can suffered another image attack in about 1930, when people began calling decrepit cars “tin cans.” Today, collectors pay thousands for those tin antiques.

During prohibition days, illegal hooch was often stored and transported in one-gallon, square tin cans. Square, because more squares of cans could be packed into “tin cans” transporting the booze, or hidden in a cave under the barn.

While writing about South Dakota’s prohibition days, I searched everywhere for one of those square tin cans, but they had all apparently rusted away.

My uncle delighted in telling me about the first time he ever saw a tin can. That was in 1912. He was on his way home from rural school and spotted something in the ditch winking at him in the bright afternoon sun.

It was a can, but he didn’t know that.

He took his find home and his mother told him what it was.

He said he played with that can all through the summer. It became his most cherished toy, along with a frayed shoestring and a broken lefse turner.

When fall of 1912 backed out for winter’s turn at the table, he craftily hid his toy in the barn. Next spring, he took it from its hiding place, but it had rusted badly.

He was heartbroken.

I have apparently inherited some of my uncle’s weird attachment to tin cans. I can’t throw one away without experiencing a quickness of breath and clammy hands. It seems such a waste. There are so many creative ways to put a can to work again. I have this constant fear of being caught without a tin can.

Think of what the tin can has meant to you in your life.

As a kid you scrunched them down and wore them for clanging elevated shoes. You used them for target practice. You launched them into space on the Fourth of July.

They were frog cages, marble carriers, penny banks, worm repositories and pencil holders. Your mom used them for flowerpots, flour canisters, cookie cutters and bacon grease holders.

During World War II, a donated tin can for the war effort would get you in to a free movie. A few pounds of them would earn you a nickel or dime from the scrap dealer.

Your dad used tin cans to paint the house or patch the roof. Cans held bent nails and spare nuts and bolts. They kept rain out of the tractor exhaust and a can was wired around the hole in the car muffler.

I’m surprised that some town out here on the flatlands hasn’t gotten off its can and developed a summer Tin Can Festival.   


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