Tin Cans of the BC gold rush

old tin can with vent hole

old tin can with vent hole (creative commons)

One of the inventions that enabled gold seekers to travel overland to the gold fields in British Columbia, was the tin can.

Thomas Kennsett patented a process for making airtight tin cans in 1825, and at first the hand-soldered cans were too expensive for the mass market. Eventually, a machine was built which could mass produce tin cans and by 1855, thousands of pounds of cherries, strawberries, pears, tomatoes, and peaches were being processed.

By the time of the Fraser River gold rush in 1858, foods such as meat were put in tin cans, boiled and then the sides and top were soldered with lead. A drop of solder was inserted at the center of the cap to act as a vent. Gold miners could simply warm up the pre-cooked meat over a campfire without fear of the can bursting.

Tin cans weren’t sanitary as the ones that are made now though; they often had  irregular bands of lead solder along edges and around top, cap, and base of the can.

Interestingly enough, tin can openers were not invented at the same time. After 1866, tin can manufacturers attached a “key” to roll or tear away a metal strip from the top or side of the can. Most gold seekers pried open the tin cans with their knives.

Condensed milk was first canned in the US in 1856, while kerosene was first canned in 1865 in tall, rectangular cans with small caps.