Collecting Tins

When Alan Carter appeared in a segment of The Morning Show (Channel 7) in early August 2009, host Larry Emdur asked him the question everyone always wants answered: What’s going up in value?

Fortunately Alan had an array of items he’d prepared earlier. He cited apprentice furniture, glamour girl collectables, Italian art glass and vintage tins, having taken into the studio with him a nice Mattawattee tea tin that had more than doubled in value over the last three years. And that was no fluke; tea, coffee, tobacco and biscuit tins have all become very collectable.
Ten years ago it was something of a different story. In the 1998 edition of Carter’s Price Guide, there are three pages of tins displayed. The prices range from $5 to $235, with the vast majority sitting under the $100 mark. Eleven years later, and the 2009 edition of the Alan Carter Price Guide has expanded to seven pages of tins ranging in price from $25 to $575. There are still a fair percentage of tins represented under $100, but now they’re more likely to be cheaper because of their condition or because they fall outside the more collectable categories.
The idea of printing and branding onto tins was first launched in 1868 by the UK biscuit company Huntley & Palmer, who introduced the Ben George tin (named after Benjamin George, who patented the new transfer-printing process). It was an idea that was to sweep the food manufacturing world; by the early 1880s brightly coloured tins abounded for tobacco, food, pharmaceutical and rival biscuit companies.

An intense competition soon developed amongst biscuit makers to produce the most original novelty tins, resulting in containers shaped like books, vases, tin toys, vehicles, handbags, furniture, globes and luggage, often with moulded features to make them look even more like the real thing. No wonder the French called them boite de fantastique (fantastic box). Sold in shops during the Christmas season, the novelty tins were designed to appeal to the middle-class market, although today they tend to be the domain of the wealthy; some examples sell for tens of thousands when they come onto the market. In the UK the biscuit companies didn’t usually display their names on their novelty tins, since this was considered tacky; instead they would glue a label or print their details on the base of the tin.

By 1900 Huntley & Palmer was offering 450 different types of biscuits, and most of them were sold in tins. A catalogue was produced to introduce around twelve new designs a year, and in 1907 the biscuit company recorded sales of more than 30,000 of a single design of tin shaped and finished like a medieval chest.

Tobacco companies tended to issue their products in the more traditional shapes, instead focussing their attention on the brightly coloured illustrations that were very masculine in their appeal, often taking their inspiration from the military or other ‘blokey’ pastimes. Tobacco-related tins are currently the most collected category, followed by coffee and tea tins. The popularity of these two categories could well be related to their availability; it’s estimated that around two thousand different examples of coffee tins have been produced over the years, with literally millions being released into circulation. Coffee tins also offer a great selection of sizes, having been manufactured in everything from one-ounce sample tins to large bins that could hold more than fifty pounds of product.

Condition, condition, condition.

Unless you’re swept off your feet by desire for a very special tin and don’t care about its appearance, you should try to buy examples that are in very good to excellent condition and are complete with lids and any catches or fastenings. Bad rust, denting, fading or scratching will devalue a tin often by as much as fifty percent; for example, a very rare, old tin in mint or near mint condition can sell for thousands of dollars, while the same tin in poor condition may only be worth a couple of hundred.

Tin care

Clean a tin by soaking in lukewarm soapy water, but DO NOT scrub or use anything abrasive to clean it. Bleach will destroy an old tin, and scrubbing can cause old paint to simply vanish. Once the tin has been washed, make sure it’s completely dry on the inside before you replace the lid or it could rust.

Using old tins

Tins were meant to store things, so it makes sense to use your display of vintage tins…unless you’re storing food, that is. Interior corrosion can leach into the contents, and you should only keep food in an old tin if you put it in a plastic bag first.

Making sure your tin is old

Although there’s a plethora of reproduction tins on the market, they’re usually quite easy to distinguish from the real thing. The paint will be too bright on a new tin, and the weight will be lighter. Vintage tins were made from heavier metal, and time will have dulled the inks and paints so that the colours are no longer intense. In short, if you come across a flawless tin at a price that’s too good to be true – it’s new.

This article is courtesy of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit magazine. A year’s subscription (that’s four issues: spring, summer, autumn and winter) is $48. To subscribe visit

This article is courtesy of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit magazine. A year’s subscription (that’s four issues: spring, summer, autumn and winter) is $48. To subscribe visit

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