History revealed in old tin cans

We have a territorial bird, a territorial flower and a territorial tree. I would like to nominate a territorial artifact — the tin can.

We have a territorial bird, a territorial flower and a territorial tree.

I would like to nominate a territorial artifact — the tin can.

After scouring the landscape of the Yukon for several decades, I have learned one thing — old tin cans are everywhere.

You can find a single can, with its lid pried open, lying on a hilltop overlooking one of the Yukon’s countless magnificent vistas, or you can find them piled together by the hundreds at old living sites.

I once came across an abandoned, temporary sawmill site that dated to the construction of the Alaska Highway.

Piled behind it were so many rusting beer cans I wondered how they managed to cut a straight piece of wood, or lay out a straight line for the new road.

A pile of cast-away tins was a sure sign that somebody had lived nearby.

While conducting a survey of historical remains on Black Hills Creek near the Stewart River more than 25 years ago, I realized that while the numerous sites had been looted and stripped of their picks and shovels, lanterns and other saleable antiques, the rusty tins had been left behind.

The collectors had overlooked some of the greatest treasures of all.

During the gold rush, every immigrant was required to bring a ton of supplies along.

To preserve their food and make it easy to handle, it was packaged in tin cans — corned beef and stewed tomatoes, sardines, soup and most important of all, beans.

Many five-gallon fuel tins made their way into the north as well.

As a commodity, the tin can was the universal container — cast-off upon opening and never given a second glance, or so I thought.

In fact without the tin can, life in the North would have been much more inconvenient.

What makes the tin can so useful in this regard is its physical character.

Cans are malleable and can be bent or shaped easily.

They can be cut, bent, riveted, nailed and screwed through, soldered, cut, drilled, punched folded, rolled and scribed with ease.

Even in their abandoned thrown-away condition, these cans have not lost their utility.

As I came to learn, these containers were only just beginning to be useful.

They were in fact the object of the ultimate northern makeover.

The first re-used tin can that I recognized was resting on a shaky and weathered wooden table in the exposed interior of a long abandoned log cabin.

It was an old tobacco tin with the lid screwed tight. Inserted in the lid was the burnt-down remnant of a candle.

Recovered from the garbage heap, this tin can had taken on new life as a candleholder.

I began to look more closely at the tins I had for so long stepped over and ignored.

Everywhere, there were examples of cans re-used for one purpose or another.

I have found more than sixty different uses so far, and the list is still growing.

Cut out the top of a five-gallon kerosene can and attach some haywire across the opening, and you have an instant bucket. I have seen these depicted in numerous historical photographs from the Yukon Archives.

Take the same can, lay it on its side and open one of the long sides and you have a container for feeding dogs, or something to catch crankcase oil.

Another popular can adaptation was lighting devices.

Hanging in nearly every abandoned cabin I have found a variety of tin cans modified for candles.

My colleague Christine Hedgecock let me use one she’d fashioned from an empty can of olive oil recently on the Chilkoot Trail.

She’d cut open the top and one side, so the shiny interior effectively reflected candlelight and cast a respectable glow.

The oldtimers I have talked to know immediately what these candle lanterns are. They even have a name for them — bugs.

They were easy to fashion with the simplest of tools from readily available raw material.

I was told that they cast a good light and that the enclosed candle was protected from vagrant breezes and didn’t easily blow out.

Some of the other wonderful creations I have seen include: portable stoves, berry pickers, moose callers, ashtrays, a mailbox, a cribbage board and a lapidary set-up.

I have seen watering cans, honey buckets and a device that would keep toilet paper dry. And yes, they can even be fashioned as a mousetrap.

I doubt that half of the old cabins in the territory would have been livable without the ubiquitous kerosene can.

They were used as wall and roof coverings, chimney caps and stove pipe safeties. Placed on the wall behind or on the floor beneath a stove, they protected homes from catching fire.

And wrapped around the legs of the family cache, they helped keep rodents out.

These beautiful creations, in all their unique applications and individual designs tell us much about Yukon life in the first half of the twentieth century and beyond.

The Yukon is a big land with few people.

In the early days, trails and crude wagon roads facilitated travel.

The rivers were the main corridors for transportation.

Transportation was costly, and people didn’t move around as easily as they do now in the era of automobiles.

Many people lived isolated lives and seldom came to town.

They learned to make do.

So it isn’t a surprise that when they needed something they didn’t have, it was easier to turn to the pile of cast-off tin cans and fashion something, than it was to walk to town to buy it.

Out of interest, I have looked to other parts of the world to see if the same re-use is practised elsewhere.

I have seen examples from Third World countries where interesting curiosities were fabricated from other people’s cast-offs.

They are sold as curios to tourists.

In Cuba, where many material goods are denied people because of the American embargo, many things are recycled and made over.

In upstate New York, I saw many examples of obsolete farming equipment being converted into ornaments to decorate yards along rural roads.

But never have I seen so many examples of utilitarian reuse as in the North.

There seem to be three factors that influence the practice of re-use.

First there is means — the physical properties of the tin can, as I said above, lend themselves to altering and reshaping the form of the can.

Second, there is the opportunity. In the Yukon, the universal availability of the raw materials meant that in by-gone days, they were close at hand when the need arose to make something useful.

Third, there was the motive. Isolation breeds ingenuity, and in the North, especially 100 years ago without the automobile, it was not as convenient to move about the country.

When something was needed, the fabricator simply couldn’t wait for a trip to the hardware store in town.

This tradition of re-use hasn’t died out today, although it has changed form and material.

A visit to a modern-day home or camp reveals that the plastic container has to some extent replaced the metal ones.

Liquid bleach jugs are particularly useful for making open topped containers. Cut off the top with the handle and you have an instant funnel.

Yet the modern plastics don’t have the malleability or the beauty of the tin can when it comes to making something new.

Do any readers have your own examples of re-use, or stories you would like to share?

Write to me at the Yukon News.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.

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